We’ve Surrendered Moral High Ground

The American Embassy in Dublin, like American embassies elsewhere, looks like something that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would order up if he were building City Hall from scratch. The place is surrounded by a sturdy wrought-iron fence, and security cameras monitor the movement of anybody or anything within the complex or even in the streets outside. The gates to the grounds are forever closed and locked–American travelers overseas are encouraged to check in with the local U.S. Embassy, but in countless strolls past the embassy in Dublin over the years, I’ve yet to see anybody actually admitted into the place.

For a few minutes in mid-April, as the European media continued its relentless coverage of the Balkan war, the gates of the American Embassy in Dublin were decorated, mockingly, with a homemade bull’s-eye. It was removed quickly, but the image for a visiting American was chilling. An incoherent foreign policy that resorts to cruise missiles and, worse, cluster bombs when all else fails is making enemies of people with long memories. We are, in fact, wearing a collective bull’s-eye, and it will not be removed as quickly as the homemade version in Dublin.

Like many other naïve Americans, I believed that the United States and its allies could not stand idly by while Serbian death squads rampaged through Kosovo. I thought an air campaign directed at Serbian military targets would soon result in something approaching a negotiated peace. And perhaps it will, eventually. But, two months later, each night’s raid creates unforgiving enemies in Belgrade and elsewhere, and history tells us that we should make such enemies only after the sort of careful consideration that seems so noticeably absent from our ad hoc deliberations.

Of course, it didn’t start with Slobodan Milosevic. We have been flinging our quickly disappearing ordnance hither and yon beginning in 1989, when we launched the world’s biggest buy-and-bust operation in Panama. We’ll probably never quite figure out the exact number of civilian deaths and injuries incurred during the arrest of Manuel Noriega. But you can be sure the Panamanians haven’t forgotten the loved ones they lost because America wanted to get hold of their head of state.

The Gulf War at least saw opposing armies in action on a battlefield, and even if the slaughter was appalling–so easy was the killing that the assault on a retreating Iraqi column was described as a “turkey shoot”–at least it could be said that it was something resembling a traditional war. We risked, and lost, our own troops in pursuit of killing theirs. Civilian women, the elderly and children were far removed from the main ground action. Perhaps one day, when we are more civilized, all wars will be fought between contending parties on a desert, just as 19th-century armies chose vacant fields to settle their quarrels. (One of the greatest battles fought on North American soil, Gettysburg, resulted in just a single civilian casualty.)

The NATO bombing campaign, however, has devolved into something devoid of the morality we sought to claim when the first cruise missiles descended upon Belgrade. We are not simply knocking out command-and-control centers. We aren’t even strafing Serbian ground forces. We are killing civilians, and the more we search for new targets to bomb, the more likely we will kill more civilians. And, as colleague Nicholas von Hoffman points out on page 4, as we deplete our

supply of “smart” bombs

and start chucking “dumb” bombs, like the awful cluster bombs that already have caused hundreds of civilian casualties, we become not the avenging agent of outraged civilization, but overarmed, brutish international police officers, torturing the innocent in pursuit of the guilty. We have seen the resentment that muscle-bound policing creates in inner-city neighborhoods–places that, in theory, anyway, benefit most when the bad guys are caught and locked up. Imagine, then, the hatred we are inspiring with each new civilian corpse.

The Mayor can point to his sterling crime statistics, and can even say that thanks to historic reductions in crime, thousands of lives have been spared. But that does not excuse the strutting, loutish behavior of a small number of cops. And those statistics look very different if you are a black male, a deputy mayor even, treated like a perp simply because of your skin color. Similarly, the American-led

NATO forces can go on about their attempts to restore civilization to the Balkans, but such sentiments will ring hollow to the civilians who find themselves, as they already have, on the wrong end of a cluster bomb. And as long as America makes war on civilian populations in the form of economic sanctions, it betrays the best intentions and highest ideals of its well-intentioned citizenry.

The bombings in the Balkans will stop one day soon. So will the economic embargo of Iraq and Cuba. But the ease with which America resorted to almost risk-free (for us) war making in the last 10 years won’t be forgotten elsewhere. It is terrible to think of where this all may lead.