As NATO was beginning its fourth week of not-yet-successful persuasion bombing, several progressive members of the House gathered privately to hash out their views of President Clinton’s still-under-construction Kosovo policy. Major Owens, a Democrat from Brooklyn, struck a hawkish stance, arguing that Milosevic is a Hitler who warrants removal. Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat from Georgia, challenged the premises of the NATO intervention and criticized the Administration for having provided no support for the nonviolent opposition in Kosovo or the democratic opposition in Serbia. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat whose Cleveland district includes constituents of Serbian, Croatian and Albanian ancestry, spoke against sending ground troops into Kosovo, arguing that such a step would make an awful situation worse. Kucinich urged enlisting the United Nations and Russia in a search for a diplomatic settlement.
There was no agreement on a Progressive Caucus position, and it’s unlikely there will be. How can the caucus reach consensus when Kucinich has called for a cease-fire and his fellow caucus participant, Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, has demanded the immediate deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo? “People are grappling, trying to figure out what the progressive position should be,” one participant in the meeting says. “The question is, how do we reconcile the fact that people are suffering with our healthy skepticism of intervention? Still, the liberals critical of the intervention are hemming and hawing more than they need to.”
Once the bombs began to fall, Republicans and conservatives initiated a high-volume intra-party squabble. On the presidential campaign trail, Senator John McCain and pundit Pat Buchanan squared off, with the former pushing a let-‘er-rip policy and the latter pressing an isolationist, get-out-of-Kosovo line. William Kristol, the GOP strategist/journalist, called on Republican comrades to back the crusade against Milosevic. Senator James Inhofe, a far-right conservative, and Representative John Kasich, another GOP presidential contender, have been soundbiting loudly against US/NATO military intervention in the Balkans.
On the left, there’s been a parallel debate among liberals and Democrats, although less testy, more tentative and more muted. Of those Democrats who have taken a prominent stand on Kosovo, most are advocates of more aggressive action. “We cannot let NATO lose,” Representative Louise Slaughter proclaimed. Senator Pat Leahy declared he was “disappointed” by how Clinton and NATO have carried out the air campaign and by the lack of US and NATO preparation for “the debacle that has unfolded.” He then endorsed the potential use of ground troops. House Democratic whip David Bonior also argued that Clinton’s bombs-alone policy has not succeeded and proposed sending in ground troops. In a quiet counterpoint, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt voiced support for Clinton and counseled frustrated Democrats to be patient.
Few Democrats have been openly critical of Clinton from a dubious-about-intervention perspective. In an April 9 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Kucinich became the first Congressional Democrat to label the Clinton bombing policy an outright and dangerous mistake. He asserted that the bombing campaign had failed to achieve its stated objectives, and he called for rethinking “the manner in which we manage conflict.” He was reluctant, however, to blast the White House. “There will be plenty of time for Monday-morning quarterbacking when the conflict is over,” he told The Nation. “I don’t want to create a war about the war.”
Other than Kucinich, no Democratic lawmaker has criticized the bombing in a high-profile manner as unwise (rather than insufficient) or challenged the option of war. The day the airstrikes began, Representative Pete DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Progressive Caucus, submitted legislation to force the President to seek advance Congressional approval for foreign military offensives. Three weeks later, Representative John Conyers, another caucus Democrat, asked for a return to negotiations. Senator Byron Dorgan, who supported the airstrikes, warned that introducing US troops into the Balkans “could be a very, very significant mistake.” He did not oppose an invasion force; instead, he wanted the Europeans to bear the brunt. Senator Paul Wellstone, the government’s most prominent progressive, has backed targeted airstrikes while cautioning against bombing Belgrade and proposing more active diplomacy. Wellstone confesses to mixed feelings: “It is difficult for me to know what the right thing is. This summer I thought we should’ve had a debate [over what to do in Kosovo]. I said I would support military action. The left-right category doesn’t work. There are different frameworks today. I thought the airstrikes had to do with one question: Did you or did you not believe Milosevic would move forward with expulsion and ethnic cleansing?… Now, the airstrikes did not stop this, and I worry about the win-at-all-cost mentality out there.” As of mid-April, he preferred a two-track approach of bombing Milosevic’s military and reviving negotiations–a position strangely similar to that of Dan Quayle.
Beyond Capitol Hill, no Democrat of national stature has publicly questioned the value of military intervention. Bill Bradley, the only Democratic opponent Al Gore faces, tossed out a four-sentence statement on March 24 noting that he had “serious questions about our policy.” But Bradley has not fully addressed the dilemmas of Kosovo. Recently, he reaffirmed that he “had some questions about objectives,” yet he wouldn’t reveal whether he approved of Clinton’s handling of the crisis. Jesse Jackson’s position on Kosovo has been uneven. In an April 2 statement, he implicitly endorsed the bombing. Days later in an Op-Ed, Jackson slammed the bombing as a “monumental miscalculation” and urged confronting “violence without partaking of it.” A week after that, while Jackson was busy with an economic conference and an antipoverty trip to Mississippi, his press aides offered conflicting depictions of his position. Jerry Thomas, his media director, said Jackson was in favor of ground troops and believed “that you shouldn’t fight a battle with one hand tied behind your back.” Another aide noted that he “wants the bombing to stop.”
The do-more Democrats have been noisy without attacking their leader and his second–who may end up as their presidential nominee–and the not-too-sure Democrats have not been eager to cause a fuss. This conflict divides left and right, Democrats and Republicans, into interventionists and noninterventionists. On the right, the line is sharp between those who believe the United States should act as globocop to thwart genocidal rogues (or at least rogues who commit their misdeeds in NATO’s backyard) and those who argue that Kosovo does not present a vital national security interest worth US money or blood. On the left, the division is less clear, as people who are instinctively both anti-interventionists and humanitarian globalists seek a way to counter the horrors of Milosevic. Sharing goals, some chose war, others prefer diplomacy. That split is somewhat reflected within the Democratic Party. And the policy perplexities are compounded by politics. It is difficult to oppose one’s own President, particularly when a situation is complex and good choices are few or nonexistent (even if that situation is partially the fault of the President). Also, it is not surprising that bomb-and-invade Democrats should speak out more so than Democrats who question these options. Milosevic is a perfect enemy. Taking harsh action against him, at this stage of the conflict, is satisfying and not politically risky. Democrats inclined to call for nonwar alternatives risk being soft on evil, disloyal to the President (or, more to the point, of assistance to his Republican foes), and, possibly, wrong. Kosovo is cloudy, odd terrain, where spend-more, fight-less Republican hawks-turned-doves cry louder than what-to-do Democratic doves-turned-ducks. Many of the latter, perhaps in good conscience, wrestle with the ambiguities. Still, they remain missing in action.