Explaining his decision to begin bombing Yugoslavia on March 23, President Clinton compared his Yugoslav counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic, to Adolf Hitler, and himself to Winston Churchill. If the semi-appropriate first comparison supplies a reason to support the bombing, the grossly inappropriate second comparison gives us cause to regret it.
Milosevic doesn’t measure up to Hitler in terms of either his lust for conquest or the military might he commands. But he is a bad man, his soldiers are perpetrating atrocities against Albanian-Serb civilians, and he has ignored NATO demands to cease and desist.
Understanding the systematic slaughter and dislocation of a portion of its own people by a sovereign government to be on a malevolent par with the invasion of another sovereign country, the U.S. is justified in intervening. That is, given the “ethnic cleansing” of Albanian Serbs, we have a right to bomb Yugoslav military targets. But this is not to say that we are obligated to do so, or that it is right for us to do so in current circumstances. Addressing this prudential question is a matter of strategic thinking — not a strong suit of the Clinton administration, which distinguishes it dramatically from Churchill.
There are both short-term and long-term problems with bombing Yugoslavia. Chief among the former is that the force being applied is inadequate to achieve our primary stated goal, namely, ending the atrocities against Kosovar Albanian civilians. We are bombing hard targets such as buildings, airplanes and tanks. But the killing of civilians is being accomplished by small units of troops using rifles and pistols. Indeed, Milosevic’s soldiers have stepped up the pace of their killing since bombing commenced. And the only method that holds the promise of stopping them — inserting NATO ground troops — has been ruled out by President Clinton.
Churchill would have deplored this disjunction between force applied and force needed to win, just as in 1916-17 he deplored the sending of hundreds of thousands of fine and brave young men into battles that yielded nothing. It is the responsibility of the politicians who send young men to war to make sure they have a good plan for winning. Britain and France lacked such a plan in the trenches of World War I. America lacked such a plan in Vietnam. And we lack such a plan today in Yugoslavia.
Consider three huge strategic failures of the Clinton administration, each of them relevant to Kosovo:
(1) The failure to prevent military-related technology transfers to China, a functioning despotism and an open enemy of America’s allies on the Pacific Rim. These transfers occurred not only surreptitiously, as at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but also openly, having been approved by the Clinton Commerce Department for economic and/or political reasons.
(2) The failure to cultivate closer relations with Russia, a functioning democracy which is threatened with chaos and a backslide into despotism–and which possesses an immense nuclear arsenal. Russia is increasingly distrustful of the U.S. due to such policies as the recent expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. The bombing of Yugoslavia further alienates Russia, and strengthens the hand of Russians who might advocate an anti-U.S. alliance with China.
(3) The failure to maintain proper defense funding levels and to build a national missile defense system. After balancing the budget largely with inordinate defense spending cuts and adamantly opposing the idea of missile defense for six years, the Clinton administration pulled an about-face in January–when the public began to become aware of the developing missile threat from countries like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, in addition to Russia and China.
But the administration’s heart is not really in defense, as shown by its 7-10 year timetable for research and development of a missile defense system. (If we put into this effort the energy we now put into bombing Yugoslavia, missile defense could be a reality by 2001.)
An instructive historical parallel to this lackadaisical attitude toward defense is the British government of the 1930s, whose official policy was disarmament despite Churchill’s constant warnings of a gathering storm in Europe. With elections looming in 1935, the government declared its intention to strengthen defenses. But it delayed, time was wasted, and when the storm arrived in 1939, Britain was ill-prepared and barely survived.
U.S. pilots are engaged in Yugoslavia, our intervention is justified, our goal is decent, and we should see the mission through to victory if that is possible. But in the future, we must weigh the propriety of such actions against our long-term interests: cultivating Russia, standing strong toward China, and utilizing our limited resources to build our defenses — most urgently, a national missile defense.
It’s strategy, stupid!