Bill Clinton, perhaps the greatest political escape artist of the century, may have run out of tricks, this time in the Balkans, where the fate of far tougher men than he has been sealed by age-old ethnic and religious rivalries. The NATO bombing campaign will inflict considerable damage on Serbian military forces and Yugoslavian infrastructure generally, but it is less certain that it will achieve our announced political goals.
The President, whose rambling rhetorical overkill sometimes borders on the incoherent, has justified our intervention by citing economic reasons, the principles of the Rambouillet Agreement, the aspirations of ethnic Albanians for political independence, and the prevention of genocide. The first of these causi belli is palpably false. The second has been rendered, shall we say, hors de combat. The third invokes high- minded sentiments, but if acted upon aggressively could prove far more damaging to world peace than what is now going on in Kosovo. The fourth, which powerfully stirs the emotions of all civilized people, is at odds with the military campaign ostensibly designed to prevent it.
As for the economic argument, the simple fact is that during ten years of bloody altercations in the Balkans, both the European and American economies have been in the throes of a sustained and remarkable boom. You won’t find a banker on either continent who stays up late worrying about the impact of Slobodan Milosevic on his projected rates of return. The Rambouillet Agreement, which sought to guarantee a quasi-independent Kosovo (policed in part by Serbian forces) is no longer viable, thanks to Milosevic’s intensified “cleansing” since the bombing began.
The argument regarding ethnic Albanian independence is, to put it mildly, a slippery proposition. Some ten to 15 percent of the population living between Russia and Germany are ethnic “minorities.” Is each of these peoples entitled to independence? No one would defend such a proposition, which is why we will not see in any conceivable lifetime the establishment of an “independent” Kosovo. Say what you want about the brutality of Milosevic, the Serbs have rightful claims to parts of Kosovo at least as compelling as the ethnic Albanians whose unfortunate lot it is to live there.
The argument against genocide, despite its strong emotional appeal, is less than compelling once you examine the military strategy now being deployed in its behalf. If your goal is to stop “ethnic cleansing,” dropping bombs from 50,000 feet and hurling cruise missiles over many hundreds of miles are odd ways to do it. Milosevic’s thugs are going door-to-door in Kosovo, carrying shoulder arms and supported by tanks. Strategic bombing can’t do much to halt such atrocities. Since the bombing began, some 300,000 to 500,000 ethnic Albanians have been ousted from their homes. Whatever collateral damage a sustained bombing campaign inflicts, it will do far more to entrench Serbian hatred of NATO than it will to stop the savagery against the Albanians.
Although the official line from the Administration still insists that we have no plans to commit ground forces in Yugoslavia, that option seems increasingly probable. Military planners estimate that 200,000 troops will be necessary to stop Milosevic. If that is what it takes, so be it, as Senator John McCain and others have argued. But Mr. Clinton, who lacks McCain’s candor (among other things), seems unlikely to come at that decision straight on. But if he’s serious about stopping the ethnic cleansing, he doesn’t have much choice.
Should it come to that, Mr. Clinton will have to exercise a kind of leadership he is not used to. He will first have to convince Congress and the American people, and then do the same within the 19-nation NATO alliance. No small order, that, and one fraught with risks that will stir the ghost of Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Clinton, who began his public life by avoiding the draft and by voicing contempt for the military, may now find that his reputation, such as it is, cannot be sustained without reliance on the military virtues he once despised. While we ponder that delicious irony, let us pray that he can prove himself worthy of the role that has been thrust upon him.