Frame Game

The Unhappy Warrior

Idealists say we can save the world. Realists say war is hell. Clinton says both.

Last Thursday, in a speech at the National Defense University, President Clinton passionately disavowed the theory that ethnic slaughter is an incurable Balkan disease. “If people make decisions to do these kinds of things, other people can make decisions to stop them,” he asserted. “If the resources are properly arrayed, it can be done.” But five days later, when asked why the United States was refusing to send Apache helicopters and ground troops into Kosovo, Clinton cited prudence, objective difficulties, and the “risk” to American soldiers. “The military leaders will make their decisions about when and under what circumstances to use the Apaches,” said Clinton. “It is not a political decision in any way.”

These two statements–one ambitious and imperative, the other cautious and detached–underscore a paradox in the war over Kosovo. In foreign policy, there are two rival schools of thought–realism and idealism–and Clinton, as usual, is trying to have it both ways. Each school has its values, virtues, and spins. Idealists emphasize free will; realists emphasize determinism. Idealists believe in subjective resolve; realists believe in objective constraints. Idealists preach responsibility and courage, which realists dismiss as hubris and folly. Realists preach humility and prudence, which idealists dismiss as complacency and selfishness. Idealists tell us what we can do; realists tell us what we can’t do. Idealists tend to be liberal; realists tend to be conservative.

On the fundamental question of whether to intervene in the Balkans, Clinton is an idealist. Thursday, in what many deemed a slap at–and arguably an oversimplification of–the theories of Balkans scholar Robert D. Kaplan and Holocaust scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Clinton repudiated those who “justify looking away from this kind of slaughter … by saying that these people are simply incapable of civilized behavior.” The president asked, “Do you think the Germans would have perpetrated the Holocaust on their own without Hitler? Was there something in the history of the German race that made them do this? No. … This is something political leaders do.” Yugoslavia’s Balkan neighbors, Clinton argued, show that “there is another path … that discord is not inevitable, that there is not some Balkan disease. … Serbs simply must free themselves of the notion that their neighbors must be their enemies.”

Realists regard Serbian resistance to NATO as a fact of life, an immovable constraint on American ambitions in the Balkans. “The bombing has not made much difference” and has “strengthened the resolve of the Serbian people,” House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, alleged Sunday on Meet the Press. Likewise, realists view American lack of resolve as an objective limit on the war’s prosecution. As long as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is willing to withstand airstrikes, “there is no real end in sight,” former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger cautioned this weekend. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell agreed: “It is up to Mr. Milosevic … to decide when he has had enough. And that makes it difficult for us.” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., concluded, “I’m not sure we have the will to win.”

Idealists regard such helplessness as self-delusion. In their view, our “will to win” is something to be mustered, not dispassionately assessed. While it may be “difficult” to outlast Milosevic, they posit that we can and must do so. “It’s because he’s determined that we have to be determined as well,” NATO spokesman Jamie Shea argued on Late Edition. On Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer skeptically asked Defense Secretary William Cohen, “How long are you prepared to do this?” “As long as it takes,” Cohen replied. Crystallizing the idealists’ credo, Clinton declared Friday, “We cannot fundamentally alter human nature, but we can alter the rules by which all of us let our nature play out, and we can call forth our better selves.”

On this view, just as we are free to persist in the war, the Serbs are free to back down. Here idealists divide into two camps. Moderate idealists claim merely that we don’t have to accept the way things are–that we can fight on, and the Serbs might not prevail. Radical idealists posit that we can dictate the way things are–that we will fight on, and Milosevic cannot prevail. Clinton and his allies are taking, or at least mouthing, the radical position. Milosevic faces “an unwinnable conflict,” Clinton asserted Thursday. “NATO actions will not stop until the conditions I have described for peace are met.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her British counterpart, Robin Cook, took the same hard line in a Sunday Washington Post op-ed: “We will carry on attacking Milosevic’s military machine until he yields. … His people are ignoring his call to fight in a conflict they do not want and know they cannot win.”

All this sounds stirring until you hear Clinton’s less-than-idealistic excuses for the war’s shortcomings. When asked this weekend why the United States was withholding helicopters, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton and NATO spokesman Shea answered with mumbo jumbo about “training,” “operational matters,” “procedural matters,” and the “moving parts” of a “complex operation.” Clinton, like Shelton, mentioned the “risk” to American pilots, depicting this as a military “judgment” rather than a “political decision.” But from an idealist’s perspective, the decision to let Kosovars die rather than risk American lives is indeed political–and the purpose of Clinton’s allusions to “judgment,” “strategy,” and “circumstances” is, as with all such realist language, to obscure our indifference and cowardice.

Pressed about their cautious conduct of the war, Clinton’s putative idealists invoke the classic realist alibi: impossibility. Why haven’t we halted Serbian atrocities? “You cannot, through air power, stop individual soldiers oppressing, murdering, and burning the homes of individual Albanians,” Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering pleaded Sunday. Then why haven’t we sent in ground troops? “When you start with a coalition, you have to hold that coalition together,” said Cohen. “There is no consensus within the alliance for a ground force.” A true idealist would lobby the coalition hard for ground troops, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has done, or would jettison the coalition and send in his own ground troops anyway. Instead, the Clinton team accepts the coalition’s reluctance and tells us this is just the way things are.

And what about the hundreds of civilians killed by errant NATO bombs? “It is simply not possible to avoid casualties of noncombatants in this sort of encounter,” Clinton pleaded Thursday. Albright and Cook agreed. “Some people argue as if Milosevic can be opposed militarily through a campaign of ‘immaculate coercion,’ in which no mistakes are made and no innocent casualties occur. But that is not the nature of conflict,” they wrote in the Post, borrowing every realist buzzword in the book. “Perfection is unattainable,” they counseled, and “it is impossible to eliminate such casualties.”

On other questions as well, U.S. officials use fatalism and objective language to minimize American responsibility and rule out options. Have we antagonized Russia and China? Yes, conceded Pickering, but only “because nationalism is endemic in both of those countries.” Are we backing the Kosovo Liberation Army? No, said Cohen, but “Milosevic is going to find that his military forces are systematically being diminished at a time when the KLA will come back,” since it is “getting money and support and some arms from other countries, no doubt.” Could we curb Milosevic’s aggression through diplomacy rather than bombing? Impossible, argued Albright and Cook: “He will not stop until he is forced to do so.”

Behind these explanations lies a coldly realistic assessment of America’s character: If our soldiers are killed, the public will turn against the war; and if the public turns against the war, Clinton will have to withdraw our forces. This assessment rules out idealistic scenarios: that the public might accept the sacrifice and continue to support the war, or that Clinton might persist and try to win back public confidence rather than bail out. Based on this assessment, NATO has kept ground forces out of Kosovo, allowing atrocities to continue, and has kept its planes high above Serbian anti-aircraft batteries, limiting our pilots’ ability to distinguish refugees from Serb forces on the ground.

None of this proves that realism is corrupt. Realism tempers the romanticism of idealists with a sense of tragedy. It’s not our job to police the whole world, says the realist. Even if it were, we couldn’t afford it. Even if we could afford it, we don’t have the will to do it. Even if we had the will to do it, we couldn’t stop killings everywhere. Even if we stopped killings everywhere, we couldn’t do so without killing people ourselves. Even if we avoided killing people, we couldn’t repair every war-torn region. Nor is Clinton’s blend of realism and idealism necessarily corrupt. Perhaps we should be idealistic about intervention in general but realistic in how we go about it.

But the realist/idealist distinction does clarify two puzzles about the war. One is why almost nobody wholly supports it. Idealists don’t like the way it’s being fought; realists think we shouldn’t have started it in the first place. The other puzzle is the incoherence of Clinton’s critics, punctuated by DeLay’s bizarre complaint that Clinton has 1) “hollowed out our forces while he’s running around having these adventures all over the world”; and 2) fallen short of “victory” in Kosovo by using “excessive rhetoric supported by underwhelming force” in a conflict involving “no strategic interest of the United States.” You can fault Clinton’s piety and recklessness from a realistic standpoint. You can fault his cowardice and cynicism from an idealistic standpoint. But the only way to combine piety, cowardice, cynicism, and recklessness is to hit him from both sides.

Photograph of Bill Clinton on the Slate Table of Contents by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.