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Clinton’s Quagmire


“The man of system … seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon a chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.”

Adam Smith’s spot-on words from The Theory of Moral Sentiments ring in my ears as I read about President Clinton’s rationalization and conduct of his war against Yugoslavia. I was particularly reminded of them when I read that Clinton had said, “In the long run our goal for Kosovo should not be independence but interdependence…. The last thing we need in the Balkans is greater balkanization.”

Perhaps he should tell it to the Kosovar Albanians, for whom he ostensibly committed the American people to war. The Marxist-led Kosovo Liberation Army also does not favor independence. But it opposes interdependence too. Judging by the maps it displays, it apparently wants to join with Albania on the path to a Greater Albania, which would gather up the parts of Macedonia, Montenegro, and Greece that are inhabited by their fellow ethnics. Clinton’s war, therefore, is giving a boost to the separatist movement. One has the feeling that the president has not thought things through. There are many separatist movements in the world.

Even though the bombing has ended, the intrigue surrounding Kosovo’s future is still fascinating. At Rambouillet Castle, the Clinton administration and its allies in Europe came up with a plan for the disposition of Kosovo that included three years of autonomy and perhaps some kind of independence later. The Russians took part in the formulation of the plan. But the Clinton program ran into a problem: the Serbs and the Kosovars both rejected it. This would not do. How can you play peacemaker if the principal parties object to the solution? More to the point: how can you hammer Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic — our age’s Hitler and Stalin rolled into one — for rejecting the plan if his counterpart rejected it too?

So the administration went to work on the Kosovars and finally pressured them into accepting the plan that they did not like. That cleared the way for the ultimatum to Milosevic: accept or be bombed. There’s a little detail that gets overlooked. After the Russians signed off on what was represented as the final peace package, the allies inserted one more clause before submitting it to Milosevic. The clause would require the positioning of NATO troops in Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. Seeing as how Kosovo has been part of Serbia for centuries and is the site of sacred shrines as well as the fateful battlefield on which the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks in the 14th century, Milosevic had to say no. Did Clinton, Albright, Cohen, et al. count on that?

It is hard to conclude other than that Milosevic was set up from the start so that NATO would have a role one way or the other. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Colin Powell a few years ago, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” This is not to say that the Serb strongman deserves sympathy. He’s one of many ruthless political thugs running amuck around the world. We know him only because Christiane Amanpour and CNN bring his face into our living rooms every day. For some reason, they haven’t yet decided that we need to know the names and faces responsible for the slaughters going on in Rwanda or Ethiopia or Indonesia or Sudan or Sierra Leone, which are several times more horrific than the one in Kosovo. In any of the various Asian and African venues, more people can be killed in a day than were killed in Kosovo all last year. But that’s all right; we can get to the other charnel houses later. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the video of the Turkish slaughter and oppression of the Kurds. Turkey is a NATO ally!

The demonization of Milosevic and the Serbs requires that some details of recent history be forgotten. While it is permissible — nay, mandatory — to remind Americans that the Orthodox Serbs were not nice to Bosnia’s Muslims, it must not be pointed out that the Croat Catholics did their own ethnic-cleansing number on the Serbs in Croatia and that the Kosovar Albanian Muslims killed and oppressed the Serbs in Kosovo when it was autonomous a decade ago. (Autonomy was ended for that reason.)

As all this shows, the Balkans are a cauldron of ethnic and religious animosity. Clinton demonstrates his Rhodes Scholar’s hubris by thinking he can have everyone make nice — using bombers at 15,000 feet yet! Our resident historian in the White House — who thought World War II started in the Balkans (news to the Poles) — doesn’t seem to realize that it wasn’t the region that produced the clash of big powers, but rather the big-power meddling in the region. I don’t know what to say of a man who reasons along these lines: We must bring the United States, Canada, and all of western Europe into the Balkan conflict to keep it from becoming a larger war. That would be crazy even if the Russians were not the long-time ally of Serbia.

The humorist Dave Barry once said that it might be a good idea to skip the baby-boom generation when selecting a president. He must have been thinking of Bill Clinton. Is this the war of a hotshot, know-it-all, boomer wonk or what? I can imagine what Bill Clinton uttered under his breath when he realized that his bombers were spurring Milosevic to empty Kosovo of living Albanians: “Oops.” The administration’s public reaction was ludicrous. First, it said that no one could have predicted Milosevic’s savage response. Then, when intelligence officials leaked the fact that they had predicted it, the administration changed its tune: “We knew he was going to do that.” And their point is?

Faced with an ill-advised war prosecuted in a futile and destructive manner, what do you do? According to most members of Congress, reporters, and pundits, you have only one choice: Win! With ground forces if necessary. Why? The answer was succinctly put by Henry Kissinger: to maintain America’s and NATO’s credibility. If we admit error, so the argument goes, it’s the end for NATO. Considering that NATO was a defensive alliance set up to deter the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, neither of which exists today, what would be wrong with that?

But respectable people don’t ask questions like that. NATO is a blessed institution. There’s nothing wrong with NATO; it just needs a new mission. How about bringing peace to the manipulated, multi-ethnic Balkans? Sounds good. So it takes in some former Warsaw Pact nations as members (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic), widening its perimeter right up to the Russian border, and then attacks a Russian ally while imploring Boris Yeltzin not to feel threatened by the alliance. We can forgive the Russians for wondering whether Marx’s theory of polylogism was right after all.

Let’s not underestimate the significance of the United States’s unprovoked attack on a sovereign country. The consequences could reverberate for a long time. If U.S.-led NATO can invade a nation to protect an ethnic minority, why can’t other countries do it? There is no shortage of candidates. It’s not that sovereignty is sacred. (Only individual sovereignty really counts.) But the principle of sovereignty is necessary to keep nation-states from clashing and killing innocent people. Given the constant danger that government poses, the least we can do is make sure they are confined to their borders.

While the United States and NATO cut off their noses to save face, the American people sink into a long-term commitment that will cost billions of dollars and maybe many lives, as war becomes “peacekeeping.” The bombs aren’t falling, but the peril has not passed.

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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.