Frame Game

Kosovo Con Games

How Clinton’s critics rig the debate over the war.

Slate’s Complete Kosovo Coverage

For weeks, critics of the war in Yugoslavia have pronounced it unwinnable. The atrocities continue unabated, they say. Air power alone will never get the job done. It’s another Vietnam. President Clinton has blown it. Everything we do makes the situation worse. Whether Clinton and his allies can win the war remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: They can’t win the debate over the war as long as critics are allowed to rig it with the following hidden premises:

A. Selective Scrutiny

1. Policies. Critics observe that many things have gone badly since the air war began: Ethnic Albanians have been killed and expelled from Kosovo and anti-American nationalism has grown in Russia. It’s easy to associate bad outcomes with the current policy. But critics seldom apply the same kind of scrutiny to alternative policies. If NATO had forsworn the use of force against the Serbs, what would the Serbs ultimately have done to the Kosovar Albanians? If NATO had launched a ground war, what would Russia be doing now? If, as critics observe, the Serbs have managed to cleanse Kosovo in less than four weeks, what difference could NATO have made by beginning a ground force buildup (which takes considerable time) a month ago?

2. Policy-makers. American reporters think their job is to examine U.S. policy-makers not foreign policy-makers. So they discount Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s behavior as an objective consequence of Clinton’s subjective decisions. When Serbian ethnic cleansing follows NATO bombing, reporters treat the Serbian action not as the product of free will but as a reaction determined by NATO’s action. So while journalists on the ground report on Serbian atrocities, journalists in the studios and the newsrooms in effect pass the blame to NATO and Clinton.

This bias has produced a bizarre blame-America-first spin on the right. “We have ignited the very human rights catastrophe the war was started to avoid,” declared Pat Buchanan on Face the Nation. Columnist Arianna Huffington compared Kosovo to Waco, arguing that just as Clinton’s actions six years ago “precipitated” the murder-suicides by the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, his intervention in Kosovo “has unwittingly produced one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of the 20th century.” While some conservatives allege that Clinton’s unnecessary belligerence provoked the Serbs to ethnic cleansing, others say his timidity about using ground troops “emboldened” the Serbs to the same effect. Clinton even gets the blame for Russian hostility. On Meet the Press, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., accused Clinton of “pushing Russia into a corner and putting them in a position where they’re no longer able to do anything but to react in an aggressive way towards our action.”

3. Moral actors. When the Serbs butcher another 50 Kosovar Albanians or drive another 100,000 out of Kosovo, it’s a dog-bites-man story. When NATO bombs what it thought was a military convoy and instead hits a caravan of civilian refugees, killing scores, it’s a man-bites-dog story. For several days, the media treated the casualties caused by NATO as the lead story from Kosovo, overshadowing far greater casualties caused during that time by the Serbs. “This may have cost NATO the moral high ground,” declared John McLaughlin, invoking the moral-equivalence formula usually despised by conservatives. Meanwhile, the Serbs’ role in pushing the refugees onto the road in the middle of a war zone was scarcely mentioned.

B. Sleight-of-Hand Inferences

4. Unachieved to unachievable. Today’s media report news instantaneously and expect it to be made instantaneously as well. In less than two weeks, their verdict on the bombing of Yugoslavia leapt from unfulfilled objectives to failure to impossibility. Since air power hasn’t brought the Serbs to their knees in four weeks, the media conclude that it never will. Congressional Republicans have decided it’s “doomed to failure,” according to Fred Barnes. Never mind that under NATO’s plan, the bombing will become more severe each week.

5. Vietnam to Kosovo. Critics constantly compare Kosovo to Vietnam. They infer two lessons from Vietnam: that “gradual escalation” never works and that “bombing” can’t break an enemy’s will. The trick in invoking such analogies is to ignore the differences: that the war in Kosovo is being waged by 19 countries against one; that no superpower is willing to prop up the targeted country; and that today’s air power and surveillance are vastly more precise than the “bombing” technology used in Vietnam.

6. Sinner to sin. Critics on the right argue that because Clinton is untrustworthy, so is the war. As George Will put it last week, the contempt of court citation against Clinton for falsely denying his affair with Monica Lewinsky is “a timely reminder of the mendacity that drenches his presidency, including his Balkan policy.” Meanwhile, critics on the left argue that because the United States failed to intervene in Rwanda, its intervention in Kosovo is morally suspect and probably racist.

C. Hidden Dichotomies

7. Empirical/moral. Centuries ago, scientific philosophers invented a strict separation between talking about the way the world is and talking about the way it ought to be. Today’s media, following this premise, separate “editorial” from “news” judgments. The only standard by which “news” organizations feel comfortable evaluating a policy is success or failure, not right or wrong. So the media’s consensus about Kosovo is that NATO’s policy is “not working.” As Tim Russert put it to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on Meet the Press, “The atrocities continue. What success can you point to that any of your strategy has worked?” The alternative perspective goes overlooked: that the question is what NATO must do, that atrocities are a challenge rather than a verdict, and that NATO should persevere precisely because they continue.

8. Political/military. Critics say Clinton should have destroyed Serbian TV networks by now and never should have sworn off ground troops. They deride these as “political decisions” and mock NATO for refusing to bomb Milosevic’s palace because it contains cultural treasures, including a Rembrandt. “The idea that Italy and Greece object to ground troops and therefore we shouldn’t do what is necessary to win this war, is, in my view, ridiculous,” protested Bill Kristol on This Week. But what’s the definition of winning? Clinton and other NATO leaders say they’re not just seeking a one-time victory over Milosevic. They’re trying to develop what is essentially an international policing consortium. This is a political as well as military project. It entails compromising with allies who are more cautious about applying force and authorizing targets. Otherwise, the United States would have to police the world alone, which is unsustainable politically (thanks in part to vociferous opposition from many of these same critics), not to mention militarily.

9. Harm/help. Skeptics maintain that the bombing isn’t helping the Kosovars. “I don’t care about dropping any more bridges into the Danube River,” Buchanan fumed on Face the Nation. “I don’t know how that helps those people” in Kosovo. The question, he argued, should be “What is the best way to help these people and save these lives? Not how we can bomb another oil plant or oil refinery.” Minutes later, host Bob Schieffer ended the show by noting that the Kosovars were still being purged and asking “whether what we are doing is doing any good.”

This dichotomy rules out the fallback strategy that NATO and U.S. officials have articulated from the outset: to make the cost of Milosevic’s “victory” outweigh the rewards. Conservatives used to defend this concept (which they called “deterrence”) when it was preached and practiced by President Reagan. If the punishment you administer to the current troublemaker fails to stop him, the theory goes, at least it will make the next troublemaker think twice.

D. Self-Fulfilling Doubts

10. Practical futility. The pundits’ verdict is in: The war is “doomed” and “already lost.” On Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer observed that Milosevic “doesn’t give, after a month of this, any impression that he is backing down.” Quoting a report that U.S. military leaders see no sign “that Milosevic is changing his strategy or about to break,” Russert asked Talbott, “Are we losing this war?” Other talking heads asserted that NATO is “not united” and won’t be able to “stand up” as the conflict wears on. “Time is not on our side,” warned former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on Late Edition. “It is going to be very difficult to keep the alliance together.”

Of course, the best way to assure that Milosevic doesn’t break, that NATO comes apart, and that the United States loses the war is to predict that Milosevic won’t break, that NATO will come apart, and that the United States will lose the war. These predictions bolster the Serbs’ morale while undermining NATO’s. As Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., observed on Face the Nation, “Patience and resolve are as important a weapon today as actually the airstrikes are.”

11. Moral authority. Rather than call Clinton a liar, many pundits pass this off as a widespread perception by others. They call it a “moral authority” and “public relations” problem, asking how it will “impact” his “ability to lead” Americans and NATO in war. “There is a common drum beat on the airwaves,” a reporter asked Clinton on April 15, “that you, personally, lack the moral authority to be commander in chief.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd warned that Clinton “does not inspire” great “loyalty,” adding, “He may have a conflict of interest if he sends in ground troops. It would be hard to save his skin and their skin at the same time.” By questioning Clinton’s moral authority in this pseudo-objective way, journalists destroy what’s left of his moral authority.

12. NATO credibility. Self-styled hawks fret that NATO will lose the war and thereby expose its impotence. This “lumbering and clumsy” alliance, incapable of “managing such brush fires as Kosovo,” could “lose the Kosovo war in a month against the ruin of a rump state,” warned columnist Charles Krauthammer. “If the perception is that for 26 days tiny little Yugoslavia … has withstood NATO and the United States,” asked Russert, will NATO and the United States be exposed as “a paper tiger”? Russert’s guest, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., grimly intoned, “Many are predicting that this will be the funeral of NATO.” And all because, in Krauthammer’s words, Clinton “staked the survival of the most successful alliance in history on bright new academic ideas cooked up far from the battlefields on which they now flounder.”

Having defined anything less than the total recapture of Kosovo and the restoration of its refugees as a failure, Clinton’s critics are ensuring that such failure will be interpreted as catastrophically as possible. As for their suggestion that NATO’s credibility is too precious to be risked in war, you can understand their reluctance. Even tough guys have their Rembrandt.