Every time the United States goes into battle, anti-war activists blame the causes and casualties of the conflict on the U.S. government. They excuse the enemy regime’s aggression and insist that it can be trusted to negotiate and honor a fair resolution. While doing everything they can to hamstring the American administration’s ability to wage the war, they argue that the war can never be won, that the administration’s claims to the contrary are lies, and that the United States should trim its absurd demands and bug out with whatever face-saving deal it can get. In past wars, Republicans accused these domestic opponents of sabotaging American morale and aiding the enemy. But in this war, Republicans aren’t bashing the anti-war movement. They’re leading it.
Last weekend, three of the top five Republicans in Congress–Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas–went on television to discuss the war. Here’s what they said.
1.The atrocities are America’s fault. “Once the bombing commenced, I think then [Slobodan] Milosevic unleashed his forces, and then that’s when the slaughtering and the massive ethnic cleansing really started,” Nickles said at a news conference after appearing on Meet the Press. “The administration’s campaign has been a disaster. … [It] escalated a guerrilla warfare into a real war, and the real losers are the Kosovars and innocent civilians.” On Fox News Sunday, DeLay blamed the ethnic cleansing on U.S. intervention. “Clinton’s bombing campaign has caused all of these problems to explode,” DeLay charged in a House floor speech replayed on Late Edition.
2. The failure of diplomacy to avert the war is America’s fault. “I had doubts about the bombing campaign from the beginning,” Lott offered on Late Edition. “I didn’t think we had done enough in the diplomatic area.” Nickles called NATO’s prewar peace proposal to the Serbs “a very arrogant agreement” that “really caused this thing to escalate.”
3.Congress should not support the war. When asked whether they would authorize Clinton “to use all necessary force to win this war, including ground troops,” Lott and Nickles –who had voted a month ago, along with 70 percent of the Senate GOP, not to support the NATO air campaign–said they wouldn’t. Nickles questioned the propriety of “NATO’s objectives,” calling its goal of “access to all of Serbia … ludicrous.” DeLay, meanwhile, voted not only against last week’s House resolution authorizing Clinton to conduct the air war–which failed on a tie vote–but also in favor of legislation “directing the president … to remove U.S. Armed Forces from their positions in connection with the present operations against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” When asked whether he had lobbied his colleagues to defeat the resolution authorizing the air war, as had been reported, DeLay conceded that he had “talked to a couple of members during the vote” but claimed not to have swayed anyone since it was “a vote of conscience.”
4. We can’t win. “I don’t know that Milosevic will ever raise a white flag,” warned Nickles. DeLay agreed: “He’s stronger in Kosovo now than he was before the bombing. … The Serbian people are rallying around him like never before. He’s much stronger with his allies, Russians and others.” Clinton “has no plan for the end” and “recognizes that Milosevic will still be in power,” added DeLay. “The bombing was a mistake. … And this president ought to show some leadership and admit it, and come to some sort of negotiated end.”
5.Don’t believe U.S. propaganda. On Meet the Press, Defense Secretary William Cohen argued that Yugoslavia had underestimated NATO’s resolve more than NATO had underestimated Yugoslavia’s, and Joint Chiefs vice chairman Gen. Joseph Ralston asserted that Milosevic “had already started his campaign of killing” before NATO intervened. Nickles dismissed both arguments. “This war is not going well,” he declared. “I heard Secretary Cohen say, ‘Well, Milosevic miscalculated how, you know, steadfast we would be in the bombing campaign.’ But frankly … we grossly miscalculated what Milosevic’s response would be.” Later, Nickles volunteered, “I would take a little issue with [what] Gen. Ralston said. … The number of killings prior to the bombing, I think, has been exaggerated.” Moreover, given NATO’s desperate need to “bring Milosevic to the table,” DeLay cautioned, “It is not helpful for the president’s spin machine to be out there right now saying that Milosevic is weakening.” The truth, said DeLay, is that “nothing has changed.”
6. Give peace a chance. Cohen said it was “highly unlikely” that Clinton would meet with Milosevic in response to Yugoslavia’s release of the three captured American soldiers over the weekend, since the Serbs were continuing their atrocities and weren’t offering to meet NATO’s conditions. DeLay called this refusal “really disappointing” and a failure of “leadership. … The president ought to open up negotiations and come to some sort of diplomatic end.” Lott implored Clinton to “give peace a chance” and, comparing the war with the recent Colorado high-school shootings, urged him to resolve the Kosovo conflict with “words, not weapons.”
7.We have no choice but to compromise. Unless Clinton finds “a way to get the bombing stopped” and to “get Milosevic to pull back his troops” voluntarily, NATO faces “a quagmire … a long, protracted, bloody war,” warned Lott. Clinton “only has two choices,” said DeLay–to “occupy Yugoslavia and take Milosevic out” or “to negotiate some sort of diplomatic end, diplomatic agreement in order to end this failed policy.”
8. We’re eager to compromise. NATO has insisted all along that Milosevic must allow a well-armed international force in Kosovo to protect the ethnic Albanians. When asked whether “the administration ought to insist” that these requirements “be met” as a condition of negotiation, DeLay twice ducked the question. Nickles advocated “a compromise,” and Lott expressed interest in Yugoslavia’s proposal for a “lightly armed” U.N. peacekeeping force in Kosovo rather than a fully equipped NATO force. “Surely there’s wiggle room,” said Lott. “Obviously, [the Serbs] don’t want them heavily armed, but they’ve got to be armed sufficiently to protect themselves. … So, I think something can be worked out.”
9.We’ll back off first. Nickles discounted the administration’s demand that Yugoslavia halt its ethnic cleansing in order to halt NATO’s bombardment: “Secretary Cohen says, ‘Well, Mr. Milosevic has to do all these things, then we’ll stop the bombing.’ Tim, I strongly believe we need a simultaneous withdrawal of the Serbian aggressive forces, have a stopping of the bombing, and an insertion of international police-keeping force.” Lott’s formulation put NATO’s withdrawal first: “Let’s see if we can’t find a way to get the bombing stopped, get Milosevic to pull back his troops, find a way to get the Kosovars [to] go back in.” And DeLay suggested that the United States should pull out unilaterally: “When Ronald Reagan saw that he had made a mistake putting our soldiers in Lebanon … he admitted the mistake, and he withdrew from Lebanon.”
Some Democrats call Republicans who make these arguments unpatriotic. Republicans reply that they’re serving their country by debunking and thwarting a bad policy administered by a bad president. You can be sure of only two things: Each party is arguing exactly the opposite of what it argued the last time a Republican president led the nation into war, and exactly the opposite of what it will argue next time.