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The War at Home

Eric Draper, AP/Wide World

Of all the U.S. military interventions since Vietnam, Kosovo is clearly the one that most divides and conflicts American progressive opinion. Support for universal human rights and a loathing of regimes committed to ethnic purity collide smack against a long-standing antipathy to U.S. military action and, more generally, its foreign policy perspective. A few days ago, the Weekly’s Ben Ehrenreich took soundings in the local progressive community; what follows are excerpts from those interviews.

Xavier Becerra

Congressman, 30th District in California

To some degree, the U.S. had no choice but to be involved, as a member of NATO and as a participant in the efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Having seen Milosevic withdraw from the diplomatic process and break some of his own commitments, it forced the hand of NATO and the U.S. If we were going to be an organization that lived up to its obligations, we had to do something. At that point, I think the president had very little choice but to see us go through with what NATO had committed itself to do. I also believe that the air campaign has been the proper course of action. You’re never going to respond quickly enough to a guy who’s mad enough to slaughter people in cold blood.

I think it is premature to say that the air campaign has not worked as well as it should have. Bombing can only do so much. It’s not a massive assault, but if it’s strategic and targeted, then it will have a degrading effect over time. Should we get to the point where we need to have a large presence on the ground, what we will have done, we hope, is debilitated, if not totally degraded, Milosevic’s military capacity to inflict significant casualties.

Sarah Cooper

Director, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

This is the first time in my life I can remember that I wasn’t just immediately opposed to any form of military intervention. I feel very torn about it.

I’m now opposed to [the bombing], but I’m troubled because I think things have shifted. Even though I agree that the U.S. often has imperialist interests, I think there are other interests going on here. I’ve been very affected by the European response to Kosovo. There seems to be a fairly large interventionist sentiment among Europeans.

As the bombings go on, and things get worse and worse, I feel something else needs to be done, some kind of diplomatic route. I don’t believe that demonizing Milosevic as we did with Saddam Hussein gets us very far, but I also think that there’s a kind of force of personality and nationalism that he represents that’s very destructive. I don’t trust all the motives of Clinton, but at the same time, I share with a lot of people around the world a horror at the displacement of people in Kosovo.

Mike Davis

Author, City of Quartz and Ecology
of Fear

Like many people on the left, I’m opposed to the bombings. I don’t think they’ve done anything to stay Milosevic’s hand. I think the real issue is NATO’s credibility. I despise Milosevic, but this has turned into one of the greatest catastrophes imaginable. The first step is to stop the bombing of Serbia, although I’m not necessarily against the use of tactical bombing against Serbian troops involved in ethnic cleansing [in Kosovo].

The second step is to offer a conference that actually holds out the possibility of real economic reconstruction throughout the Balkans and guarantees human rights enforced by international peacekeepers.

It’s obvious that Milosevic can’t be overthrown by bombing his people. Yugoslavia was blown up in the first place by the debt crisis. What really needs to emerge here is a platform of reconstruction and peacemaking by the European left. One of the factors paralyzing the situation has been the way that the European mainstream left and the Greens have supported the bombing. You would think that the example of Iraq would have produced some learning curve among military and political authorities, but it appears not to have.

Mike Farrell

Actor, human-rights activist

I have some ambivalence about it. Were it up to me it would have been done differently, but the bottom line is that I think it’s appropriate for the international community in situations like this to intervene. I am in favor of an intervention. I’m not strong on techno war, however, and I think we have to remember that what they dismiss euphemistically as "collateral damage" is real human beings who are themselves not the perpetrators of either the ethnic cleansing or the slaughters that have been going on in Kosovo. I find myself in the peculiar position of being in favor of an intervention and yet unclear that what we are doing is the appropriate thing to do. On some level you have to say that at least somebody is doing something.

 

I was in Rwanda shortly after the slaughter there. I was infuriated then — and am now — that the international community did not step in. Had it done so, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved. I’m in support of action through the United Nations. The realist in me says that action through the United Nations probably would not have been able to be generated given the capacity for the Russians and the Chinese to have a veto, but I think we ought to have an international strike force made up in the United Nations for just this kind of event, and it ought to be used at the behest of the secretary general when these kinds of humanitarian emergencies develop. I think the use of NATO in this instance was probably the expeditious thing to do, but the wrong thing to do because it further alienates the Russians.

From my association with Human Rights Watch, I know that the escalation of violence and violations of human rights in Kosovo have been going on for some time, and if there had been the political courage to name Milosevic as a war criminal early on, we probably would not be in the position we are in today. Having said that, I reluctantly find myself supporting the notion that something needed to be done and that it is appropriate for us to act, and if this is the only way, then so be it.

Gail Ruderman Feuer

Senior attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council

I’m supportive of our country’s efforts to protect the people in Kosovo who are being cleansed, so to speak, by the government. Whether or not we should be conducting an air war or a ground war I don’t have an opinion on, but in my view this looks a lot like the Holocaust, where a lot of countries, including ours, sat on their hands while a government caused great harm. We should generally stay out of the business of other countries, but when the human-rights abuses get this great, it’s time for us to step in for humanitarian reasons and help the people of that country.

Clearly our government has a checkered history. There have been a lot of instances where we have not stepped in where we should have, or where we supported an oppressive government where similar abuses were happening. So I join those who criticize our government for not intervening in other instances, but in this one I think we should.

We’ve had the luxury of a war with few casualties from the United States. It gets tougher for our government as more American troops are at risk. But my view is that if there is a moral imperative to take action to prevent the killing of the people, then that same moral imperative justifies the use of our troops, and we need to accept our own casualties. To me, it cannot be the case that it’s only the morally right thing to do if we don’t face any risks ourselves.

Laura Geller

Rabbi, Temple Emanuel

The one thing that seems clear about the situation is that we have to be doing everything we can for these refugees: taking care of them while they are in refugee camps, and resettling them wherever they want to be resettled. It’s clearly a humanitarian disaster that we have a responsibility to respond to. The images are just so evocative to anyone connected to Jewish history, there is not a question that this situation calls out for active involvement on the part of all of us.

I just saw in today’s paper that the U.N. said it’s not going to be able to take care of this newest wave of refugees, and that’s just completely unacceptable. Between public and private sources, it has to be done.

It’s not clear what our military response ought to be. I’ve heard arguments that are compelling on both sides, but there’s only one compelling side in terms of refugee resettlement. We must do it.

Joe R. Hicks

Executive Director, Human Relations Commission, City of Los Angeles

I think the bombing is horrible, but that’s war. I do support some attempt to intervene in what has obviously been a form of ethnic cleansing, and I think something should have been done years ago to stop Milosevic. We’re probably a dollar short and several days too late.

 

I’m not a military expert, but I think that simply waging an air campaign is doomed to failure. It probably will require some kind of ground intervention to save the lives of ethnic Albanians still inside Kosovo. NATO’s strategy was a flawed one going in. There wasn’t a proper entrance strategy, nor is there any kind of adequate exit strategy. The promise that this is simply going to be an air campaign clearly fed into the hands of Milosevic, who was then able to work his will on the ground in terms of cleansing that province. Once that’s completed he’ll probably then say he’s ready to negotiate. That doesn’t help these poor hapless people who are being forced out of their homes and brutalized in the process.

Morris Kight

Convenor, Gay and Lesbian Peace Concerns

I approach all wars conducted by anybody under any conditions in any country as unnecessary and an abomination. And I am horrified at the undeclared war that we’re carrying on in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. We don’t know what we’re doing. We have no rational plan. We have no end plan, no plan of what it is that we want. We want to stop the ethnic cleansing, and ethnic cleansing is a bad thing. This country did very badly with ethnic cleansing. We killed off the Native Americans, killed off the African-Americans who came here, and we picked up a pretty bad reputation for ethnic cleansing ourselves.

We created the United Nations in conference in San Francisco in 1945. Why the hell are we ignoring it? It’s meant to be a peacekeeping force. Instead, we’re using a military organization that we also created as a foil against the Soviet Union.

Connie Rice

Civil rights attorney

There seems to be an inconsistency in the goal: If our military strategy unleashed a much higher level of havoc for — and increased the harm to — the Kosovars, then I have a question about the humanitarian goals. We should be in the business of stopping genocide. But where were we in Rwanda? Is there a consistent principle that we’re applying? I can’t figure out if the mission is genocide prevention, or whether we have a strategic and military and global-economic goal here. The mission must involve something else, and I’m not sure what it is . . .

How do you determine which genocide you stop? I’m glad that we’re focused on stopping genocide anywhere. That’s a principle that’s a legitimate interest of the entire world. But that said, why did we do nothing in Rwanda?

Ramona Ripston

Executive director, ACLU of Southern California

I am not speaking for the ACLU, which has not taken a position at all, but my personal opinion is that to date the NATO action has been a failure.

I think that I oppose intervention. Obviously we don’t have all the information we needed to have to make a really informed decision, but it is my feeling that it was wrongheaded from the start. We’ve all read about the other places where the United States did not intervene — in Rwanda, Croatia. Why here? And then what’s happened since the bombing began really is ethnic cleansing and really has been disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people.

I don’t think we should send in ground troops, but we do have a dilemma now with so many thousands of people displaced. They are in camps where the conditions are abysmal. It seems to me that NATO and the United States owe them something.

I would oppose the sending in of ground troops, but I don’t know what we do at this point. It’s one thing to oppose an aggressive attack by one state against the other, but it seems we have decided we can use military force to alter another state’s internal political arrangements. This is a civil war. But, now that we’re there, now that we have uprooted all these people, now that we have destroyed people’s lives, what do we do? I don’t know the answer to that.

One of the things that upsets me also is that at least a third of our ground troops are young men of color, and these are the kids that we will be sending to war, kids that we didn’t give opportunities to in this country, and their way out was to join the armed services. It’s just a mess. It makes me angry.

Stanley K. Sheinbaum

 

Publisher, New Perspectives Quarterly

There has been a remarkable development in the history of humankind in the last 50 years that we should not fluff off too readily. Only recently has it become accepted that human rights and humanitarian concerns should be a criterion of foreign policy.

As to the war, we should follow exactly what we’re doing now and force Milosevic to be responsive. While the bombing hasn’t accomplished that so far, there are signs that the Russians may be open to using their influence to make him more responsive. Exactly why some in Washington resist the involvement of the Russians is a mystery going back to the Cold War. That’s a tired mentality.

Some people ask, what are U.S. interests in this? — as if there were an economic interest. That’s not the question here. The question is, can the advanced countries of the world learn to function on humanitarian principles? This intervention suggests that they can — but not easily. But it took millennia for the human-rights issue even to come into the dialogue.


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