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The Liberals' Folly | The Nation

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The Liberals' Folly

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Liberals in the Democratic Party should withdraw their support for the Kosovo war. So should the Democratic Party. Their dream of a war for human rights is descending into a nightmare of human despair. Their confident expectation of an early military victory is sinking in a Vietnam-style quagmire. Their political fortunes in 2000 are fast becoming collateral damage.

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Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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With Senator Foreign Relations chairman and Cuba hawk Robert Menendez mired in scandal, the embargo could finally be lifted.

The same mentality that promotes secret schemes aimed at regime change abroad will be applied at home.

Vietnam was also a liberals' war at the beginning. The liberal Democrats painted it with a coat of international altruism that blinded them to folly. It was not until the Tet Offensive and the Democratic primaries of 1968 that most Democratic liberals reconsidered their position. By then a million people were dead.

Now liberal war fever is back: 181 House Democrats voted for the air war, and only twenty-six opposed it. Fully 164 Democrats even voted to forfeit their most important political gain of the Vietnam era--the War Powers Act, which requires that Congress approve a US ground war. Only forty-five Democrats were willing to insist on being consulted.

There is no disagreement on the liberals' assertion that the Kosovar Albanians are victims of a ruthless ethnic cleansing. But the meaning of and remedies for this horror must be filtered through two key questions: (1) If we are opposing ethnic cleansing, why only in Kosovo and not in Tibet, Turkey, Rwanda or, for that matter, Northern Ireland? (2) Are bombing and ground troops an effective and proportionate response to the crisis?

The answer to the first question is that this war is being conducted for reasons of state and not primarily for human rights. The White House has cultivated and toasted the Chinese oppressors of Tibet as it was bombing Belgrade, and NATO has ignored the ethnic cleansing of Kurds by NATO member Turkey. The reason of state appears to be the consolidation of Europeans and Americans for a global police role outside the United Nations. As a German political scientist crowed, the Balkan war can be a "military euro," a unifying blood equivalent of the single European currency.

That the former colonial and imperial powers are consolidating an economic and military alliance is not necessarily welcome news to the wretched of the earth. Clinton has spent more on the Balkans this month than on the entire budget for Central American victims of Hurricane Mitch. In Africa alone, millions of people have been cleansed, killed, starved and uprooted in the former Western colonies of Rwanda, Sudan, Angola and Sierra Leone, without NATO or US intervention. The war in Kosovo widens the gap between the United States and all the nonwhite countries where dying is a way of life. Liberals should be speaking for the voiceless of Latin America, Asia and Africa and insisting on the UN as a multinational, multiracial vehicle for conflict resolution. But pro-war liberalism is reinforcing the very North-South global gap it should be healing.

As for the "effectiveness" of the war in promoting human rights, the bombing campaign has helped empty Kosovo of Albanian Kosovars, strengthened the morale of the Serbian Army, rallied Milosevic's former opposition behind him and left America, and NATO, knee-deep in the Big Muddy once again.

By defending Clinton's "degrading" of Serbia's military capability, pro-war liberals are degrading their own moral capability to serve as critical watchdogs. As a result, avoidable civilian suffering is on the rise, and military doubletalk is fostering a credibility gap that goes unquestioned. Saying you are sorry for killing cleaning ladies is little consolation when the Administration already acknowledges it to be inevitable. Even worse, the Clinton Administration is intentionally targeting the civilian infrastructure of Serbia to weaken Milosevic and, if possible, avoid a US troop commitment. The moral balance between means and ends disintegrates where there is no liberal dissent from policies like these. War may be hell, but there is no justification for the United States to refuse to admit it is carpeting Kosovo with antipersonnel bombs to save it. These cluster bombs are spilled from the sky and explode from vibrations on the ground, sending twisted chunks of shrapnel in all directions.

It is morally meaningless for liberals to send charitable contributions to refugee aid organizations (themselves dependent on the United States and NATO for funding) while silently supporting the use of these antipersonnel bombs. How can the liberal memory forget the hidden use of these fragmentation bombs and the slow, painful deaths they caused in Vietnam?

If the war proceeds, the domestic agendas of liberals and Clinton Democrats will be paralyzed. Despite Clinton's famous ability to compartmentalize, the war will become his preoccupation. He could argue legitimately that the impeachment proceeding was diverting attention from our needs at home, but how can he argue that Kosovo will not? Already Clinton has accommodated the Republican demand for $13 billion as a down payment for the war's costs through September alone. Money for school lunches and seniors' prescriptions will be spent instead on weapons and a bureaucracy of spin doctors. As in the sixties, a prolonged war will undermine any lingering focus of the Clinton presidency on poverty, racism or violence at home.

Al Gore and the Democratic Congress are also becoming collateral damage of Clinton's war. Already 40 percent of Americans are opposed to a ground war, and 47 percent believe that the NATO airstrikes against Serbia have been a failure, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. Clinton's popularity is slipping by the week. Gore's unswerving loyalty to the Clinton line may have been defensible when the issue was Monica Lewinsky, but it will be a disadvantage when he tries to explain this Kosovo quagmire. Whatever edge the Democratic Party gained from the impeachment trial is in mortal danger of being squandered in the Balkans.

Liberals should play the role they eventually did in Vietnam by abandoning their support for this blunder and insisting that our leaders pursue a peaceful alternative.

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