Six Kosovo mistakes

Serial skepticism is no way to build foreign policy

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

Kosovo is a sticky wicket. Especially now, there are few easy answers. But that's not to say it has always been as hard as it's now become. And if this far into the game it's gotten too late for the Clinton administration to back out of its silly blunders, it's not too late for our nation at large-and particularly those who will set future policy and even those who will choose future leaders-to identify the essence of the Clinton gaffes and then to highlight their profile well enough that we can all avoid repeating them in the future.

  • Mistake No. 1 was to do things that would require so many of the nation's energies for the last year to be devoted to deciding whether the leader of the world's most powerful nation was morally fit for his job. No, that's not a cheap shot; and it doesn't work to complain that it was just an overzealous Kenneth Starr or a gaggle of partisan Republicans who strung out the process so prominently and so long. Remember that within the last year more than 70 newspapers across the country were calling for Mr. Clinton's resignation. It was a very serious question, a close call, even according to the Democratic senators who ultimately voted to preserve the Clinton presidency. But even if it could be proved the Clinton critics were wrong, the cost to the nation of having a severely distracted presidency may take a long time to calculate. Kosovo is only the first of what will surely be other instances that will show how real and how great the cost really was.
  • Mistake No. 2 was to allow the word of the world's most powerful leader to come to mean so little at home. How quickly and how ironically we were transported: A year ago he wagged his finger in denial of unseemly personal behavior; last week, he wagged the same finger to persuade us again that, yes, this cause is so noble and valid that it may even deserve the blood of our sons and our daughters. But a man with a serious conscience would long ago have passed so weighty a decision on to someone else. He would know he must be believable. He would also know that he is not.
  • Mistake No. 3 was to allow the word of the nation's most powerful president to come to mean so little abroad. The picture is one of serial skepticism. First, a year ago, we see his secretary of state come out dutifully to the microphones to say that, yes, of course, her boss was a truth-teller. Then she dutifully traipses around the world, repeatedly issuing ultimatums to Saddam Hussein and then to Slobodan Milosevic that are never followed up on. Madeleine Albright is like the beleaguered mama who keeps threatening that "Daddy's going to get you kids!" and then flits around the kitchen in embarrassment when the ineffective papa, who never did know anything about discipline, finally flies into a rage and beats up on his unruly children. No wonder the incorrigible Mr. Milosevic thought he could get away with his terrible deeds.
  • Mistake No. 4 was to signal so unambiguously to the enemy, even as a war got underway, that we had no intentions of fighting it to our capacity. Before NATO forces dropped the first bomb, Mr. Clinton said bluntly that there would be no ground forces. "Never fear, Mr. Milosevic," he said in effect, "you can rush your troops into Kosovo with impunity." While on the one hand he argued that the goal of the whole operation was to protect the Kosovars, he virtually guaranteed on the other hand their destruction and/or dispersal. Even without intentions of using the ground troops, the president should at least have kept his enemy guessing.
  • Mistake No. 5 was never to explain to the American people how complex the issues really are in the Balkans. TV images of pitiful refugees by the hundreds of thousands may have galvanized public support for the cause, and that is properly part of a president's task. But if he is interested in true justice, it is also his job to teach that same public something of the history and the nuances of the region. It may have served Mr. Clinton's (and NATO's) purposes in the short run to oversimplify issues, and to paint the conflict more in black and white than in shades of gray. But to picture the Kosovars almost altogether as victims, as Mr. Clinton regularly has done, is only to set the stage for a severe unraveling of matters in southeast Europe in the months ahead. An honest telling of things along the way could have prevented that simplistic understanding on the part of so many.
  • Mistake No. 6 has been to keep pretending things were going well in the war effort when in fact at least the campaign's first two weeks fell far short of its goals. When one official claims "Things are going according to plan" while another admits "No one could have been more surprised ... ," you know things aren't going quite according to plan. And your confidence in the next official spokesman is appropriately diminished. None of this, mind you, has anything ultimately to do with the rightness or the wrongness of the war in Kosovo. It has only to do with the telling of the truth by those conducting the war. If we haven't learned by now how important that is, we don't have much by way of morality for export to other countries.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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