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The American Empire Strikes Back


Has President’s Clinton’s renowned luck run out? It may well have. The president, who as a student protested the Vietnam quagmire, now appears to have found a quagmire of his own. His decision to lead NATO into combat against Serbia did two things that formerly looked nearly impossible: it lowered his job-approval rating with the American people and it united disparate Serb elements around the country’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic. That was no easy task. One opponent said that had Milosevic not shut down his newspaper, he’d publish an apology supporting the defiance of NATO.

Clinton’s problem is that if he doesn’t send Americans into a meat grinder, he looks like a fool. He’s shedding blood for the sake of his and NATO’s credibility. The self-assured Rhodes scholar must have thought a few bombs would accomplish his objective (whatever that is). But it’s not to be. Wars are not won in the air. If he doesn’t want Milosevic to be the Saddam of the Balkans, he will have to commit ground troops. The cost will be horrendous. It won’t be enough to defeat Milosevic. American troops will have to be stationed indefinitely in Kosovo (as they are in Bosnia) to prevent Serbia’s reassertion of sovereignty.

So far, Mr. Clinton’s been lucky in Bosnia and Haiti. That kind of luck, however, doesn’t last forever.

This operation is objectionable on so many levels. To begin with, NATO was designed as a defensive alliance. When the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War ended, the alliance lost its stated reason for being. But instead of quietly closing up shop, it expanded, taking in new members who used to be on the opposing side. And who was this newly enlarged defensive alliance defending against? The United States went to great pains assure the Russians that NATO was no threat. So as it approaches its 50th anniversary, what does NATO do? It attacks a sovereign country, Yugoslavia, that had not attacked another country, much less a NATO member. Moreover, the country it attacked was Russia’s traditional ally!

It can’t be repeated too often: Kosovo has long been part of Serbia. It is sacred to the Serbs. As the Washington Post wrote recently, “Given Serbian nationalism about Kosovo, Milosevic probably runs a smaller political risk from NATO bombardment than from accepting a NATO peace plan seen in Yugoslavia as the first step in surrendering Kosovo to the ethnic Albanians.” The alleged peace plan pushed by President Clinton would have been rejected by any national leader, since it would have required the placement of NATO, that is, foreign, troops on sovereign soil.

Milosevic’s treatment of the Albanian Kosovars is brutal, but internal conflicts often are. A decade ago, the majority ethnic Albanians were killing Serbs. Besides, there are several bloodier civil wars going on around the world. America’s own war between the states brought more casualties than any of its foreign wars. Milosevic’s attempt to hold on to Kosovo differs little from Lincoln’s effort to keep the Union intact. (Remember Sherman’s march?) Right or wrong, it isn’t the business of the United States.

Another consideration is the destabilizing effect the NATO operation will have on southeastern Europe. No action has only one consequence. If the United States weakens Serbia and facilitates Kosovo’s secession (the ethnic Albanians don’t want autonomy), it will strengthen irredentist Albania, which has ambitions of uniting the Albanian parts of Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Montenegro. The Albanian Kosovars display maps of this Greater Albania. Is there some compelling reason for preferring Albanian over Serbian ambitions? Mr. Clinton has yet to spell them out.

Albanians are not the only ethnic group living under a foreign power. The Kurds might wonder why the United States supports their Turkish oppressors. Other groups will have similar thoughts.

But the overriding reason to oppose Mr. Clinton’s adventure is that the United States was supposed to be a republic. It has acted like an empire for most of this century. By doing so, it has compromised its constitutional system because an activist foreign policy is inconsistent with strictly limited government, personal liberty, and low taxes.

We can have liberty or we can have “global responsibilities.” We can’t have both.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.