So, What Do We Do Now?

Click here for Slate’s complete Kosovo coverage.

Dear Eliot,

I’ve read your response to my National Review piece with interest. As always, you express yourself trenchantly, and I’ll try to do the same.

You start off by recognizing that we share a dim view of the Clinton administration in general and of the appalling way it has handled the Kosovo issue in particular. True enough. But behind the agreement lies an important disagreement. For in the rest of what you write concerning what is to be done from here on, the gross incompetence of the Clinton administration is not factored in at all. You simply ignore it. But for me it is extremely important. Circumstances alter cases, and what might be sound policy in some hands could be disastrous in others.

If, say, Harry Truman and Dean Acheson were calling the shots, and George Patton was standing by to lead the troops, I might see things as you do. But they aren’t and therefore I don’t. Clinton, Albright, Berger, and Cohen (I’m not sure about the military people) are not suitable company to go shooting tiger with. In my judgment, they are unserious people who do not really believe in what they are doing, and at a critical moment there is every chance that they will cut and run. One therefore has to consider how much worse it will be, how much more damage will be done, if we proceed farther down the path that has led to what you rightly call an “appalling mess,” only to quit at an even later stage. I don’t necessarily mean at a later stage of any fighting that is to come. We also have to think of the aftermath of that fighting. Unless the United States is prepared to take responsibility for peace and order in the region in perpetuity (in itself a frightening thought), there will come a time when its patience will wear out and its attention will turn elsewhere. But the Serbs and the Kosovars will still be there.

Which, I suppose, brings us to my Vietnam reference. The trouble with analogies is that they are both dangerous and indispensable. Acknowledging the many and obvious differences between the two cases, the point that I was concerned to make–the only point–was that in 1965, as now, we faced a choice as to whether to go on or to extricate ourselves; that then, as now, the “our credibility is at stake” argument was very strong, and that it actually prevailed; and that the outcome was not a happy one.

In my article, I acknowledge that, given where we are, there is a steep downside to whatever we do from here on. I also acknowledge the strength and validity of the case for pressing on. I ask only that those who take your view–and you are clearly in a majority in the Washington foreign-policy Establishment–should acknowledge the strength and validity of the case for finding a quick way out.

Much turns on the question of credibility or prestige. That is something that is clearly very important. But it seems to me that what is now being advocated reverses the proper order of things. The whole point of prestige is that, having it, you can generally achieve your aim without actually having to use your strength. But your argument is that we must use our strength in order to preserve our prestige.

Actually, of course, the whole thing has been so botched that our credibility is already severely damaged, and whatever happens from here on–even if we end up giving a third-rate power a good hiding–our prestige will be significantly diminished. Who will believe that we shall be prepared to commit ourselves seriously to a trouble spot of anything but critical strategic importance again, any time soon, however awful its human-rights dimension may be?

You are uncharacteristically harsh toward Lawrence Eagleburger. In so far as the United States was interested at all, it does not seem to me that attempting to maintain a unitary Yugoslavian state was an unworthy aim at the beginning of this decade. (Indeed, in retrospect, Tito’s success in holding the show together for so long seems almost miraculous.) But your main point is that the argument that “the next guy will be just as bad” is a weak one, because, in your view, that next guy will be properly intimidated by American power–assuming, as you say, that Milosevic can actually be toppled. Leaving aside that rather large assumption, do you really believe that a likely successor–and a hyper-nationalist like Seselj would be most likely–would be demoralized and cowed by any NATO action we are likely to see from here on? That, it seems to me, would be plausible only if we were to blow the place to pieces–a rather strange thing to do in the name of human rights.

You will notice that I’ve just mentioned NATO, something you have so far neglected to do. Perhaps we should move on to talk about it in our next exchange. I’d also be very interested if you would draw on your military expertise and explain how you think we should proceed to impose our will from here on. Ground troops? If so, in Kosovo or Serbia proper? From Hungary, Albania, or Greece? Apart from the Serbian armed forces, should we be concerned about the prospect of a “people’s war”? Should we arm the Kosovo Liberation Army, and if so how heavily and generously? And, of course, there is the crucial question: What do we do when we’ve won?

Have a good weekend.