Clinton’s War Marks the End of Alliance

Has there ever been such a bizarre two weeks in the Clinton Administration? In any Administration? Here we are, fighting a war against a man our President compares to Hitler. Every other day, The New York Times runs a banner headline appropriate to a market crash or the Second Coming, reporting only that we have bombed one building. Sometimes the rocket’s red glare lights up the night sky of Belgrade (and of CNN). Then we learn, the next morning, that the target had been evacuated for two weeks. But why should any of this be surprising? We didn’t know what we were doing when we got into this war. Why should we know how to fight it?

The rope of war is wound from two strands: the problem of Kosovo, and the problem of our involvement. The decision to intervene or not was a toss-up. It is bad to have massacres occurring in Europe, but America has no more specific or direct interest in the deaths of Kosovars than that. Once we are involved in a war, there should be a presumption in favor of following through. But that presumption surely does not extend to any mission, however badly conceived and executed.

So why not just sit back and carp? This is Mr. Clinton’s show. The leadership comes from his team: from Sandy Berger, who at last reveals what he was doing when he wasn’t paying attention to Chinese atom spies-he was planning for Kosovo; from Madeleine Albright, making up for her decades-long denial of her Jewish heritage by invoking Holocaust imagery now; and from the President himself, whose idea of force is biting women’s lips. The principles guiding the war are their principles. When they use force, it is for any reason other than national interest. National interest bedazzles dull old Republicans: the Gulf War, fought for oil; Panama, invaded to sustain the war on drugs (I thought the first justification was real, while the second was fanciful; but both took the same form). Clintonians go to war to be behavior cops. If smokers lived in a foreign country, they would bomb them. Finally, the objects of their sympathy are typical of the causes they uphold: Somali nation-building; Haitian democracy. Now it is peace and freedom for European Moslems. Always go for the most remote people in the room. Can anyone doubt that if Moslems were cleansing Christians, there would be less outrage at the White House? Carping is such an unattractive mode: so waspish, so crabbed, so like Henry Adams. So appropriate. Mr. Clinton has made his bed, let him thrash in it.

Like chess players, let us try to think this position through, not in terms of what should happen, but in terms of what will.

1. The Clinton Administration will not “defeat” Serbia. I suspect that would not be as hard as everyone is saying. The gallant Serbs, we read everywhere, kept umpteen Nazi divisions tied up in World War II. But that was 50 years ago. Has the softening of manners affected every European nation but theirs? Clearly old hatreds remain, which a demagogue like Slobodan Milosevic can play upon. But are the Serbs themselves tough? So far they have shown only the toughness of bullies, winning victories against helpless villagers or lightly armed rebels and enemy militia. One reads that for even these activities, Serb soldiers had to be loaded up with drugs. They weren’t so tough in Bosnia and Croatia when they finally encountered opponents who were equally well armed.

We will never know, because this Administration has ruled out American ground troops. With the New Hampshire primary only 10 months away, Vice President Gore will be lobbying against any policy whose fruits will include body bags. Therefore, we will punish Serbia’s armor and infrastructure from the air; Mr. Milosevic will offer a Bosnia-like partition; and we, with 100,000 refugees on our hands, will accept it.

2. NATO is heading into the sunset. Germany and France have been straining at the traces for years. Their new vehicle is the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, and fortified with its own currency. The Germans support the union as an expression of their power; the French support it as a way to hedge the Germans with restraints, as well as for that traditional French policy, spiting the Anglo-Saxon. The debacle in Kosovo will hasten NATO’s demise. The Europeans will ask what we were all doing there in the first place; and who will be able to say that they ask amiss? It will not matter that, left to themselves, they would have generated their own confusions and cross-purposes. American leadership is supposed to be better than theirs-more effective, more purposeful, tougher. Since it hasn’t been any of these things, they will have all the more to shrug it off.

NATO had a noble purpose-to keep Communism penned into eastern Europe-and it accomplished its mission. But now Communism and the purpose are gone. One could think of other missions, but it doesn’t look as if the structure will last until its new assignment. Poor Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic-in the club at last, just as the founders decide to shut it down.

3. Republicans, foreign-policy types and other adults should start planning the next structure. Step one would be to detach Britain from Europe, and admit it to Nafta. The Atlantic Ocean has always been narrower than the English Channel; it is time to give this geographical fact an institutional expression.

The historian Paul Johnson has proposed something grander-a worldwide Anglo alliance, made up initially of us and Britain, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand signing on. This vision and the questions it raises (surely, we would have to include Ireland, the Irish being the best English-speakers on the planet) take us into the realm of fantasy. But we are already in the fantasy-land of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy. It is laughable, but vicious-Albanians and alliances are being killed by it. It is time to think of a different, and better, world.