So, What Do We Do Now?

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Dear Owen–

You raise multiple points: I am not sure that I can address all of them in the space allotted, but then, that’s why we are having this kind of exchange!

Your first charge, as I understand it, is that although we share a similarly dismal view of the Clinton administration’s qualities, I am inconsistent in being willing to endorse an active policy that the administration is bound to botch even worse than it would botch a policy of retreat. It’s a fair point: As you know, I have had qualms about our friends who have urged upon the administration a policy of supporting the Iraqi resistance, on the grounds that at the critical moment the administration would crump, and the human and political mess would be even worse than before.

The logic of this situation seems different to me, however, for the following reasons:

1. Although a ground operation could be a mess, it would be nothing like the Vietnam War, which is why I object so strenuously to the use of that metaphor. This is a smaller state, with a far less formidable army, at a far greater technological disadvantage, against (one would think) the finest fighting units in the world–not just American paratroopers, Marines, Rangers, and special forces, but everything from the Gurkhas to the Foreign Legion. And although the politicians are blunderers (and in at least one case a coward), the military leaders, though not necessarily Robert E. Lee reincarnated, are basically competent to do the job.

2. Unlike Vietnam, we are doing this with allies who, for a change, seem more committed than we are to seeing this through–at least the ones who count. Note that it is the British and the French who seem to be leading the charge on ground forces.

3. I do think the stakes are remarkably high here. As you say, all of the outcomes are bad–I agree. Remember, though, that our commitment to Kosovo began with George Bush, not with Bill Clinton: It’s not Clinton’s mess only, but our country’s mess. Remember, too, that it is not merely our credibility at issue: It is a concept of international political order. Already, some of our so-called realist colleagues–John Mearsheimer comes to mind–have begun advocating acceptance of a greater Serbia and, more important, the principle of ethnic homogeneity as a sound organizing principle for states. That leads, and not by a long road either, to saying that Hitler had a point about the Sudetenland.

4. Whether we invade or slink, the outcome is equally wretched: a long-term commitment to the Balkans. The job there is to make quite certain that the Europeans do most of it.

Regarding Lawrence Eagleburger, who has always struck me as a decent public servant who in this case made a huge mistake, I want to make three points. The first is that the “experts” in such cases are often dead wrong. Ambassador April Glaspie, after all, was a noted Iraq expert reporting from Baghdad in 1990. Second, and more important, the decision to try to keep Yugoslavia together was adhered to long after it failed to match the realities. It led to enormous bloodshed and misery for the peoples of that country, and as we now see, it only delayed our participation in a mess that we could not in the end avoid. Finally, I particularly object to the “next thug will be worse” argument, not only because it was trotted out in dealing with Hitler and Stalin but also because it underrates the importance of intimidating thugs in general. At the moment, the Aideeds, Saddams, and now the Milosevics have good reason to think that they can defy our most bloodcurdling threats and live to kill again. While getting rid of Milosevic should not be a war aim, I would like to see a counterexample made.