Clinton’s Private War

President Bill Clinton’s war in Kosovo divided liberals, conservatives, and Christians. It was an oddly difficult war to get a fix on, partly because Clinton himself avoided calling it a war, even as NATO bombers pummeled Yugoslavia. Liberals have recently opposed U.S. military intervention abroad, but many of them felt that this war was justified on humanitarian grounds. By contrast, many conservatives who usually support intervention felt that this war was misguided at best and criminal at worst.

There was no united Christian view of the war in Kosovo, but Pope John Paul II criticized it, as he had criticized the Gulf War in 1991. “In response to violence,” he told European parliamentarians in a March 29 message, “further violence is never a promising way to exit from a crisis.” But he confined himself to generalizations, offering no alternative solution except “negotiations.” As the war progressed, the pope continued to offer pointed but diplomatically phrased criticisms.

Was the war justified? It is hard to see how it could have been. The traditional Catholic guidelines for a just war include exhausting all alternatives before commencing hostilities (which Clinton claimed to have done), sparing the innocent (as the war progressed, civilians were more frequently killed, if not targeted), a reasonable chance of success (a prudential judgment), and proportionality of means to ends (always a difficult calculation). By these criteria, only a weak case can be made for Clinton’s war, especially given how vaguely he defined what “success” he hoped for. Even by the most cynical realpolitik standards, it is hard to see what the United States stood to gain by bombing Yugoslavia.

Since World War II, the Vatican has consistently expressed horror at modern warfare’s “indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.” The NATO forces inflicted heavy damage on Serbia, even using cluster bombs, a particularly nasty “anti-personnel” weapon. The first two NATO fatalities in Kosovo occurred after the war had ceased, during an attempt to defuse one of these bombs—in a schoolyard. Since NATO had, presumably by accident, struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three, it is possible that the schoolyard bombing was also unintended. But these are the kinds of things that happen in war and those who wage it must be held responsible for them.

Sifting the Ashes

The immediate result of the war was the intensification of the “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovar Albanians that Clinton had promised the bombing would halt. The ultimate results of the war are harder to foresee. Even if the war and follow-up diplomacy achieve lasting peace in the Balkans, the United States—alias NATO—has set a dangerous precedent by violating the national sovereignty of Yugoslavia. The war marks a clear departure from NATO’s own charter, which authorizes only defensive war against an aggressor. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has decided to redefine its mission. The Gulf War, at least, was fought against an aggressor who had violated another country’s borders; this time, NATO was the party violating the established borders of a foreign state.

Other sovereign states drew their own conclusions. Russia, China, and many others, unimpressed by Clinton’s humanitarian rhetoric, saw the war as imperialist, an assertion of the right of the United States to attack any country with internal policies of which it disapproves, provided, of course, that such country lacks the means of retaliating—as Yugoslavia did. The war would not have happened if Slobodan Milosevic had had the ability to bomb a NATO capital or two. The brutal treatment of Chechnya and Tibet might offer the U.S. moral grounds for attacking Russia and China, but of course, they are nuclear powers, and such action, however “moral,” is unthinkable.

The lesson for smaller countries is that they had better acquire arsenals against the day when they too may incur American disapproval. We can look forward to a new international arms race. The war’s break with international law has made the world even more unpredictable than it already was. As for the Chinese regime, it maintained a posture of rage (no doubt exaggerated for effect) at the bombing of its embassy and used the incident for anti-American propaganda even after Clinton had offered obsequious apologies.

Blind Eye

Clinton’s allies in the war included the U.S. news media, which for months flooded the American public with sickening images of atrocities in Kosovo. That this was selective journalism goes without saying; we have seen no comparable images of the far worse persecution of Christians in the Sudan, for example. For that matter, the media have never, as far as I know, shown the American public what an abortion looks like; though the issue has remained a fiery one since the Supreme Court imposed legal abortion on all 50 states in 1973, the media have imposed an iron censorship on their coverage, avoiding graphic pictures or even vivid words. If they reported on abortion as they reported on the Balkans, the practice might soon be banned again (albeit against the resistance of our humanitarian president). News is not so much what actually happens as what the media, with all the latest communications techniques and technology at their command, choose to dramatize.

Together, Clinton and the media portrayed the Yugoslav tragedy as a simple melodrama in which it was incumbent on the United States to play the role of the good guy and rush to the rescue. Clinton supplied his standard, flat, moralistic rhetoric, likening Yugoslavia’s ethnic strife to American racial and religious conflicts, with homiletic references to “the differences that divide us,” etc. (“Our diversity is our greatest strength,” as he likes to say— a sentiment hard to sell in the Balkans.) The usual “lessons of history” were trotted out, with Milosevic cast as this year’s Hitler. It is one of Clinton’s many incongruities that though he is extremely glib, he is never eloquent. His words always sound vaguely appropriate to the occasion, sometimes in well-crafted tropes, but they are hard to remember afterward. They are meant for instant effect; never do they sound as if Clinton were revealing some-thing from his own heart. He always seems to be playing back what he heard from some focus group, and he is unlikely to crowd Lincoln and Churchill out of Bartlett’s.

Cracks in the Cornerstone

The Kosovo war also marked a new step in the constant erosion of constitutional law. It was not fought in “the common defense of the United States,” as the Constitution specifies, nor was it declared by Congress, though Congress, after some grumbling, funded it anyway. This was strictly a presidential war, with Clinton usurping one of the chief congressional prerogatives, but Congress has no excuse for letting him do so.

One of the chief anxieties of the framers of the Constitution was to prevent monarchy, by which they meant not just hereditary kingship, but one-man rule. They cited as an evil of the British system that the monarch could plunge his whole country into war, a power they insisted no one man should possess. A British king was a quasi-sacred figure, head of both church and state, who could be removed only at risk of revolution. It was the pride of early Americans that their chief executive was a mere servant of the people who could be peacefully removed for misconduct. That was why they provided for impeachment and usurping Congress’s power to declare war would certainly have been, in their eyes, among the highest of “high crimes.” (Alexander Hamilton develops an elaborate contrast between the British sovereign and the American president in The Federalist Papers. See especially Nos. 65 and 69.)

Unfortunately, the Republicans who dominate both houses of Congress had already tried to remove Clinton for his crimes in the Lewinsky affair. Having suffered ignominious defeat in that effort, they were in no frame of mind to impeach him again, especially over a war some of them supported. It is a mark of how little the Constitution has come to mean that nobody in Congress even suggested that Clinton deserved a second impeachment for his undeclared war.

But the Kosovo war exemplified what James Madison meant when he wrote: “Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.” From the petty and sporadic debate about the war, you would never gather that Clinton had taken a step no other president had dared to take. Even Franklin Roosevelt showed more restraint; after the shock of Pearl Harbor, he had immediately sought a declaration of war by Congress. He also told his adviser Harry Hopkins that his secret aid to Britain, if discovered, might get him impeached.

Legacy of Scandal

Clinton, as we are often reminded, is eager to leave a “legacy” besides the legacy of scandal he has already established. He would naturally prefer not to be remembered chiefly for the humiliating stories of his obscene conduct in the Oval Office. And since he is unlikely to move any substantial legislation through the Republican Congress in his final year, a presidential war, with congressional acquiescence, may have seemed just the thing. For most of his presidency, after all, he was restrained in his use of military force, despite the prodding of hawkish neoconservative critics who accused him of lacking “will.” It was generally assumed that he had never quite gotten over his youthful “loathing for the military” and remained a peacenik at heart.

That changed in 1998, when the Lewinsky scandal erupted. First he resorted to bombing Iraq again, but the public, ignoring the hectoring of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, failed to get excited about Saddam Hussein’s latest infractions. Then, in August, after the terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and with impeachment looming, he launched reprisals against alleged terrorist targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan (both of which turned out to be unrelated to the embassy bombings.) Finally, in the fall, just as formal impeachment proceedings were about to begin, he threatened Iraq again, but canceled the scheduled air attacks at the eleventh hour. It was suspicious timing, some thought.

Nobody can really know what Clinton’s motives were, but they seem fairly transparent. Bill Clinton is not one to act against Bill Clinton’s interests. He is still living down the terrible disgrace of his own personal conduct and his impeachment; that will obsess him for the rest of his life, though he pretends not to think about it. At the very least, it is dangerous to have a man in Clinton’s position able to make war at will. The temptation to use such power for personal reasons must be intense, and Clinton is not noted for resisting temptation.

Yet the Republicans, by and large, felt that it was inappropriate, disrespectful, and possibly unpatriotic to ask what Clinton’s real motives were. By assuming the pose of Commander-in-Chief, and then some, he actually immunized himself against the criticism he deserved. Just as liberals are disarmed by claims of victimhood, conservatives are disarmed by exertions of military force. It was not so much that Clinton’s crimes were forgiven as that he was forgiven because of his crimes.

The Kosovo war did very effectively upstage Clinton’s scandals, a thought that must have crossed his mind occasionally. He was so conscious of his own vulnerability that early in the war he omitted one item from his recitations of Serbian atrocities: rape. Just after his acquittal by the Senate, he had been accused of raping Juanita Broaddrick, an Arkansas woman, while he was the state’s attorney general. Asked about the charge at a press conference, he dodged it by saying he had nothing to add to his lawyer’s statement on the matter. All in all, Clinton has severely tested the public relations adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

During the impeachment debate a few voices warned that Clinton’s character itself was no “private” matter, but a danger that would remain as long as he was in office. Some presciently envisioned him becoming trigger-happy in order to save his own skin. There could be no confidence that so debauched a man would ever be sincerely acting in the national interest. He had gone far beyond simple lying and perjury; he had betrayed and shamed his family, his friends, and his staff, as well as the public. Yet despite his shows of public contrition, he was reportedly angry with Vice President Gore for telling interviewers that he was disgusted by Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

As a president, Clinton has one trait in common with Franklin Roosevelt: Everything he does or proposes is designed to increase the centralization of power, and especially executive power. His regard for the Constitution is nil. He never moves in the direction of greater freedom for the individual or greater autonomy for the states; his constant drive is to increase the number of dependents on the federal government, with the aim of converting them into Democratic votes. The only “rights” he recognizes are those involving more redistribution of wealth or more federal control of the private sector (as in his “patient’s Bill of Rights”). He has used executive orders to virtually enact laws that would never have passed Congress and recess appointments to circumvent the confirmation process.

At the same time, in good Machiavellian fashion, Clinton avoids using language that might alert us to the novelty of the changes he undertakes. To hear him agitating for war, you would never guess that he meant to do something his predecessors had never done. He shunned George Bush’s talk of a “new world order,” though a world order in which one nation claims the right to police all the others is certainly new He never formally asked for an increase in executive authority; he merely acted as if he already had it.

Power Broker

Functionally, if not theoretically, Clinton has a superb understanding of power. For him, as for Don Corleone in The Godfather, life is a series of negotiations of power, in which favors are exchanged but obligations, as far as possible, are avoided. Clinton is quite at home with the modern democratic politics of mass bribery. He has no sense that anything important has been lost or compromised by using government and its taxing power to buy some men’s votes with other men’s money. On the contrary he loves the game, in which he is a proven winner. He treats the resources of government as his own property to be disposed of for his own advantage. He is a genius at getting others to pick up the tab.

Roosevelt once boasted privately that “no damn politician” would ever be able to undo “my Social Security system,” because its popularity would overwhelm any principled objections to it. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society re-enacted Roosevelt’s success with the New Deal, creating huge new constituencies for unconstitutional federal redistribution programs. (Medicare is now as safe as Social Security) Clinton is an operator in the same tradition. His 1993 attempt to emulate these masters with a national health care plan flopped, even with both houses of Congress controlled by the Democrats. Once the Republicans captured Congress in 1994 (and narrowly kept their edge in 1998), there was no hope of enacting an ambitious socialist program of his own to serve as his historical monument, his “legacy.”

All that was left to Clinton was war. There was no public demand that America assume a new imperial role in the world; after the Gulf War, Americans assumed that the United States could wage war, if necessary, without serious casualties, but the Somalian debacle—in which U.S. soldiers were killed and their bodies desecrated— also showed them the risks of misconceived intervention. So if Clinton meant to wage war, he would have to be very careful. Given his past as a draft evader, he also had to be careful to avoid the bitter jeering he would be in for if he sent others to die.

Cost of War

Clinton was indeed careful. He confined the fighting to low-risk aerial strikes from a height that saved pilots’ lives, but made the bombing all the more hazardous to innocent people below. It was a transparently political strategy, requiring no American sacrifice but allowing Clinton to posture as a wartime leader.

He won. Milosevic finally yielded to NATO bombing, but did achieve his goal of retaining Yugoslavia’s sovereignty. Clinton, for his part, could preen as the victor, claiming credit for saving the Kosovar Albanians from “genocide” and enjoying respectful treatment in the media. It must have been satisfying: He had managed to make headlines without Monica Lewinsky.

As for the unintended consequences of the Kosovo war, they will become more visible in time, though we may never know precisely how much future acts of aggression owe to the precedent set by this “humanitarian” intervention. Clinton, in waging this war, extended to foreign policy the sort of unprincipled, ad hoc governance we have gotten used to in domestic affairs. He did not even try to justify it in terms of American interests, let alone “defense” (which has become a lazy synonym for all military action anywhere on earth). He merely called it “a moral imperative” and “the right thing to do.”

And since he won, he did not have to face hard questions. He had defeated not only Milosevic, but the U.S. Constitution he is sworn to defend.


Michael Joseph Sobran, Jr. (1946 - 2010) was an American journalist and writer, formerly with National Review and a syndicated columnist, known as Joe Sobran. Pundit Pat Buchanan called Sobran "perhaps the finest columnist of our generation".

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