In the Post-Cold-War World, Every Blunder Resonates

The accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade seals the fate of the Kosovo war. Before the rubble cooled, angry brass in Beijing were asking each other why they had funneled millions of dollars into Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign, if he can’t even keep his bombs away from the property of his patrons. They were also no doubt wondering why they had spent 15 years stealing the military secrets of a country that can’t shoot straight, but that is another matter.

Two roads diverge in a yellow-bellied wood. Which one will Mr. Clinton choose? One road leads to continued sorties against embassies, buses, cigarette factories, apartment buildings in Bulgaria and the odd military target, accompanied by declarations of imminent victory even as the Russians and Jesse Jackson labor to undermine their paltry effects. The other road leads to a climb-down, a partition of Kosovo, and a United Nations force to protect however many brutalized refugees are credulous enough to return. The first solution will involve us in military, the second in diplomatic humiliation; but since military humiliation will accompany the second solution, and will be all the worse the longer it is deferred, it is probably better to choose the second now. Plans do not exist in a vacuum, but depend on the skill and character of the agents who are to execute them. Abraham Lincoln discovered this, as he went through general after inadequate general before finding Ulysses Grant. In the American system, the President cannot be replaced between elections unless he commits impeachable offenses, and sometimes not even then, so supporters of the Kosovo war must draw the appropriate conclusion from the feckless incompetence of Bill Clinton and his crowd.

The Cold War set basic strategic conditions for military action. In post-Cold-War wars, every fundamental question has to be asked and answered afresh. Since the early 80′s, America has engaged in four significant non-Cold-War operations: Lebanon (which occurred during the Cold War, but fell outside its limits); Panama; the Gulf War; now Kosovo. Only the Gulf War met the test of national self-interest; we blundered into the others through a variety of miscalculations.

In the instant expertise conferred by crisis, there has been a lot of nonsense from opponents of the Kosovo war about Balkan history and character, as if hatred is the inevitable condition of life there, and all parties are equally culpable. Don’t trust those Albanians; if they had tanks, they would be doing the same things. Well, they haven’t had tanks, and in this round the bad things have been instigated by Slobodan Milosevic, going back to 1989 when he switched from Communism to flag-waving as a way to acquire power. He will kill as many Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovars as it takes to keep the game going; he only regrets that he has so few lives to take for his career. Yet, in the absence of dangerous patrons behind him, dangerous agents of his own abroad in the world, or vital territory or resources in the lands he rules, the United States is not obliged to lead the posse to stop him. There is no reason to be ashamed of American power. To the contrary: American power, and the prestige that magnifies it even as it radiates from it, are precious: necessary to us, and ultimately of benefit to the world. That means they should be held in careful trust, and expended only when necessary.

I was recently in a store on Park Avenue when the street was choked by some Moslem parade. The women wore black chadors, their husbands and sons wore black shirts and pants. They accompanied a tall green float with golden Arabic script. They might have been feeling pro-American because we were defending Moslems in Kosovo, or anti-American because we had been bombing them in Afghanistan and the Sudan. But their main focus of attention was on their own ritual. As I left the store, however, I passed a pair of boys ducking away from the crush. I overheard two words of their conversation: “… Star Wars …”

People envy America for its prosperity, and they consume its popular culture (even when it is witless or base). They are impressed by our victories. They are not impressed by our police actions.

Bill Clinton’s lucky star continues to shine on him, for the Kosovo war, however humiliating, distracts attention from China’s theft of our nuclear secrets. The Clinton Administration’s slow response is one of the most irresponsible acts in the history of American security.

How bad are the losses? The data allegedly stolen by the Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, currently under investigation, makes China the master of all the specs on our nuclear arsenal. (Mr. Lee’s lawyer denies wrongdoing.) For 50 years, in other words, America has in effect been conducting a research program in nuclear weaponry for the benefit of China, and whoever else Beijing chooses to share the information with.

How bad is the irresponsibility? Mr. Lee seems to have downloaded most of his secrets in 1994 and 1995, and was flagged as a possible leak in 1996. But thanks to Justice Department foot-dragging on a search warrant, he was not fired until this spring.

We have not yet begun to learn how much was lost. If Mr. Lee acted alone, he would be the first solitary agent in the history of espionage. Who knows how many spies Beijing had, and what they took?

We do know what Washington was doing at the same time. Bill Clinton pursued a China policy based on money-for American corporations doing business, and for his own re-election campaign. It would be too lurid to say that the Chinese bought his blindness; not lurid at all to say that irresponsibility he showed in trade and campaign fund-raising is related to the irresponsibility he showed in national security. In every case, the short-range came first; American interest came, if anywhere, second.

Conservatives have been squabbling over China policy themselves, some wanting to launch a second Opium War, some endorsing engagement in theory. But the engagers always wanted to deal from strength. Realpolitik means taking offense at real offenses. We can only hope that the bad realities Bill Clinton is sowing do not bear fruit until some adult has taken his place.