Crunch time is near at hand in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. Time is running out on a man who likes to be thought of as a leader. But the issue isn't nearly so much a fellow named Milosevic as it is a man named Clinton. You can pretend you're in charge of things for only so long-but sooner or later, your moral skinniness shows through.
In the end, there's really only one good argument for our being in Kosovo. That's the old argument that the world is such an unruly place that someone has to serve as a policeman to take care of the worst bullies in any particular neighborhood.
Certainly the good cop argument makes more sense than the tawdry economic argument that President Clinton first suggested the day before the bombs began to fall-the contention that Mr. Milosevic, unrestrained in the Balkans, might weaken Europe economically, and that our own economy might stagger if Europe falters financially. America, Mr. Clinton said in so many words, will prosper only so long as Europe is "wealthy enough to buy our products." But the picture of our sending in our best bombers to bolster our economy was so baldly blatant that even Mr. Clinton seemed to back off that silly rationale a few hours later.
The good cop argument also makes more sense than the humanitarian argument. Yes, the Kosovars are a suffering people; the atrocities against them have sometimes been unspeakable-even though the record shows it's been less than a decade since they were giving much of the same thing they're now getting. But news photos of orphaned children, and the one of the young man pushing his grandmother to safety in a wheelbarrow, tug understandably at heartstrings. Still, it hasn't been that long since far greater numbers of people were being even more viciously destroyed in central Africa. No American bombers flew in their defense. No missiles screamed in to protect them. The Rwandan devastation was much more severe than what's happened in Kosovo-and our response was tiny by comparison. So how do we make the humanitarian argument now, without seeming terribly capricious and probably even racist to boot?
Finally, the good cop argument is more persuasive than any attempt to pretend that the defense of the Kosovars is somehow strategic to our (or even Europe's) future. Again and again, in other theaters (most notably including Vietnam), we've heard the refrain from the liberal skeptics: "It's just a civil war. Why should we get involved?" Sometimes, perhaps, we should have listened to such restraint when we didn't. But certainly such caution is called for in Yugoslavia, where the Kosovo province has been part of that country's boundaries since 1918. How can 42 Democratic Senators who wouldn't support military response to Iraq's 1990 attack on Kuwait now with any consistency put our country's weight behind either side in Yugoslavia's internal conflict?
So if the economic argument doesn't work, the humanitarian argument falls short, and the strategic argument is shown to be inconsistent, do we have any right to be in Yugoslavia?
Under some circumstances, the answer is yes. Under some circumstances, we should issue no apology at all for taking on the good cop role. Since the fall, the human race has tended to need an order keeper-and in the current scheme of things, no country on earth is better equipped in terms of economic, military, and perhaps even political clout to fill that role.
The problem is that the role takes more than economic, military, and political clout. Being a policeman-especially the world's policeman-also demands moral clout. And by anybody's standard, that's a commodity hardly in abundant supply among America's leaders these days.
Ironically, as President Clinton sought to justify his administration's policies concerning Kosovo, he called our involvement there a "moral imperative." But the shamelessness with which this grossly immoral man throws around such big ideas as "moral imperatives" will of necessity soon come back to haunt us all.
The ironies were piling up, even as folks walked by pretending they didn't notice. During the same week the president ordered the implementation of his "moral imperatives," two top military men-one in the Army, one in the Navy-were disciplined for adultery. A president who won't respond to a credible charge that he once raped a woman claims outrage at Serbian war crimes that probably include rape. The U.S. president denigrates Mr. Milosevic for being a man whose word cannot be trusted.
Hurrying into the conflict (was it still another diversion from other unpleasant topics-this time the China security problems?), Mr. Clinton was almost overly quick to assure questioners that, of course, there will be no ground troops in Kosovo. "That's a guarantee," he said. Even CBS's Bob Schieffer gagged a bit. "What does this president's word mean?" he asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on last week's Face the Nation.
So if a newsman is worried, what about the men and women in uniform?