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Port Huron Piffle | The Nation

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Port Huron Piffle

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Tom Hayden's editorial essay ["The Liberals' Folly," May 24] was an offense to reason and an offense to principle. Why don't I begin with the principle? Nobody would now trouble to read Hayden on anything if it were not for his record as an opponent of imperialist war in Indochina thirty years ago. But nobody who remembers that war, and the motives of the opposition to it, can fail to be nauseated by the shallowness of his evocations and analogies. "Quagmire" (twice); "knee-deep in the Big Muddy"--these are colloquial expressions designed to exculpate the United States from its crimes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They suggest, rather than an aggressor, a self-pitying superpower becoming "bogged down" by its own clumsiness. Also, they implicitly if not explicitly compare the valiant population of the Mekong Delta to the drunken, robotic militias who--on behalf of Milosevic and Seselj and Arkan--are not brave civilians but brave only against civilians. How dare Hayden insult the memory of the NLF in this way? There are free-fire zones and strategic hamlets in Kosovo: They are the work not of NATO but of Serbian death squads.

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It is certainly true, as Hayden says, that Vietnam was in many ways "a liberals' war," if one takes the word "liberal" to mean the Democratic Party establishment. (He doesn't notice that, unlike Vietnam, the Kosovo operation is opposed by most of the American right.) But now it seems that the prospects of that establishment are Hayden's chief, if not indeed sole, concern. "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 the Kosovo quagmire. Whatever edge the Democratic Party gained from the impeachment trial is in mortal danger of being squandered in the Balkans." Excuse me if I don't care as much about Gore as I do about the "quagmire" of misery and exile and repression into which the Kosovars are being thrust. The comparison between the two plights may be naïve--but it is Hayden who makes it, and also Hayden who feels sorriest for poor Al.

Then we come to the obligatory "double standards" passage. "If we are opposing ethnic cleansing, why only in Kosovo and not in Tibet, Turkey, Rwanda or, for that matter, Northern Ireland?" This wouldn't be much of a question even if it were being asked in good faith. (And you can tell that it isn't, because the British conversion to power-sharing in Northern Ireland arises partly from the fact that the Catholic nationalist minority is about to achieve population parity with the Protestant unionists.) Did Hayden oppose Clinton's veto of a UN force to oppose genocide in Rwanda? If he did, I missed hearing from him. Did he protest the gradual abandonment of Operation Provide Comfort and other interventionist measures to protect the Kurds? Did he not notice the denial of Turkish membership in the European Union because of Kurdistan and Cyprus and human rights for Turks, or would he have said that NATO members had no moral right to take such decisions, given their silence on (let's say) Tibet? This is casuistry. Other columnists in The Nation have been guilty of the same tactic of subject-changing, sometimes mentioning the Administration's silence on the maltreatment of the Palestinians. At least Hayden doesn't drag them into his mix: I for one recall how he and his then-wife went to entertain Gen. Ariel Sharon's forces, as they were reducing Beirut to rubble in 1982.

In the same wheedling tone as the one he uses to try to get elected in California, Hayden also argues that this all costs too much. "Money for school lunches and seniors' prescriptions will be spent instead on weapons and a bureaucracy of spin doctors." This Administration (lazily identified by him as at one with "the domestic agendas of liberals and Clinton Democrats") is already committed to an infinity of waste on the Star Wars fantasy. And during the anti-impeachment struggle of which he is so proud, it rocketed Sudan and Afghanistan and Iraq at reckless expense in order to boost the same poll numbers that he now worriedly notices are in decline. His conclusion--why squander valuable money on keeping a promise to a powerless and evicted minority? Let him say this if he likes, but not in the name of the moral credit of the antiwar movement.

Hayden rightly mentions cluster bombs and civilian casualties, but the force of his point is lost on him. Indeed, any irony here is at his own expense. The cluster bombs are being used to save money--because costly smart missiles aren't to be hurled around like confetti to help people little better than Gypsies--and the civilian casualties occur because the military is too nervous about fighting, not because it is too gung-ho. Once you decide to bomb from above a ceiling of 15,000 feet, in order to bring the expensive planes and popular pilots home in safety, then indeed you do accept that civilian losses are more likely. But in what concept of combat is this innate? In the Hayden-Clinton concept, where budgetary and polling considerations are uppermost, and where people really worry about Al, and where a strike on the Chinese Embassy (of all buildings belonging to all allies and all donors at all times) cannot possibly have been as "intentional" as Hayden asserts.

The saddest thing about his critique is the way that it pushes at an open door. The "peaceful alternative" that he demands--leaving Slobodan Milosevic in peace, in other words--was the very one pursued by Bill Clinton at Dayton and followed until recently, when the sheer exorbitance of the crimes in Kosovo became impossible to ignore. Hayden will in all likelihood get his wish. He won't need to fill the streets in order to convince Clinton to sell out the Kosovars. But if there had been a genuine international attempt, starting with Bosnia in 1992, to oppose Slavo-fascism and to resist ethnic cleansing, he is still anxious to assure us that unless it had done everything right and done it for everybody in the world, he would have been opposed to that, too.

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