So, What Do We Do Now?

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Eliot A. Cohen is responding to Owen Harries’ essay “Faking It: Do we really care about Kosovo?” published in the May 3 issue of National Review. To read this essay, click.

Owen Harries and I share a similarly dim view of the Clinton administration, and are, I suspect, equally appalled at its handling of the Yugoslav crisis–from its overblown rhetoric in its earliest months to the Rambouillet farce, in which we had to plead with the Kosovo Albanians to allow us to rescue them from Serbian bullying. He is right to say that we have overplayed the magnitude of the political and moral stakes in the Balkans, although they are not trivial. I do not know that I would have favored getting into this mess, and certainly not in the way we did, by threatening force but massing too little of it, waging war but refusing to call it by its name, and perhaps worst of all, lying brazenly and persistently about what has been accomplished. Still, today we are at war in the Balkans, and the question is what to do next. And here Harries and I disagree in a number of respects.

Harries’ reference to Lawrence Eagleburger is ill-considered. He and Brent Scowcroft were, in fact, some of the worst judges of Yugoslav politics in the Bush administration, and bear some considerable responsibility for an ill-judged and immoral decision to deny aid to Bosnia’s Muslims in the hopes of maintaining a unitary Yugoslav state. His argument (echoed in other quarters–the Persian Gulf, notably) that “the next guy will be as bad”–is beside the point. The next guy will know that his predecessor fell because he fell afoul of American power, assuming, that is, that we believe that Milosevic can be toppled. Harries’ point that the larger problem here is aggressive Serb nationalism is right–but for some reason he refuses to admit that it has been just that, a real problem for stability in the Balkans.

There is something mischievous, I think, in the allusions to Vietnam, references almost as out of place as President Clinton’s to the World Wars. Serbia is in an altogether more vulnerable situation than Vietnam was, surrounded as it is by hostile or at least neutral states, left as it is without any neighboring superpowers. Its military prowess is far less than commonly supposed: Its army was defeated by the militia of Slovenia and the Croatian army, once the latter had brought itself up to something approaching Western standards. This is, one should remember, a country whose economy is perhaps a twelfth the size of the American defense budget.

To some extent (but not entirely), it is indeed credibility that is now at stake in the Balkans. If the United States were to slink away from the appalling mess it has helped create, it would send a message to friend and enemy alike that we are too soft or inept to use force, if it entails the mere possibility of taking casualties. Such a failure would leave us in a geopolitical bog no less deep or treacherous than that described by Milton, and would, I think, meet with no approval from Rudyard Kipling, the poet who grimly described the need for “savage wars of peace.”