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One Small Step Toward Disaster

The High Political Risk of 'Moral' Wars

April 04, 1999|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His new book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

JUPITER, FLA. — American embroilment in the Balkans, especially if it grows to involve ground troops, should test the dominant conventional wisdom in U.S. political and foreign policy for the last two decades: Low-risk, low-mortality gunboat and cruise-missile diplomacy, from Grenada to the Middle East, yields a solid political payoff.

Instead, we could see the humbling lesson taught 30 years ago in Southeast Asian jungles and rice paddies continue today in mountain passes with unpronounceable Slavic names; and perhaps recall the sorry fate of the early ground-troop commitments in Vietnam that only Americans older than 50 actually remember.

In domestic terms, Democrats ought to be nervous that mixing moral insistence with overseas warfare could renew their biggest political weakness of this century. Economically, there may be a new dilemma: a war that could undercut, not invigorate, the U.S. business cycle. Oil supplies could shrink and financial markets tremble. The Republicans, in turn, have to worry that most of the circumstances in which they profited from Democratic war policies and failures no longer apply.

For the moment, at least, the roar of airstrikes and the smell of aviation gasoline on the evening news is still a winner. Since spring 1980, when failure dogged President Jimmy Carter's military mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, his successors have gained politically from two decades of seaborne invasions (Grenada and Haiti) and airstrikes (from Libya to Baghdad). This has been accompanied by an equally relentless pattern of U.S.-led financial rescues, involving Latin American nations, U.S. banks and Mexican and other currencies, augmented by International Monetary Fund oxygen tents for South Korea, Indonesia and Brazil. Americans now turning 40 have seen this duality of bombs and bailouts succeed throughout their adult lives.

The new peril, though, is that the Balkans again expose the Achilles' heel of past Democratic administrations: war-related naivete and foreign policy as a morality play. Warfare, instead of being a last-stage tool of national self-interest, gets interwoven with morality or democracy. Then the war--or subsequent peace--is mishandled.

Doubters can recall how President Woodrow Wilson's moral claims for fighting World War I drew mockery as Europe in the 1920s and '30s became a laboratory of spoilsmanship, revolution and cynicism. World War II brought more naivete, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's hopes for cooperation with the Soviet Union led, through meetings like Yalta and Potsdam, to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. Nazi concentration camps were replaced by Soviet gulags. Then President Harry S. Truman misjudged the effectiveness of U.S. power in the Korean War, Lyndon B. Johnson botched U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Carter failed in the Iranian hostage crisis. Each time, many voters soured.

The early stages of mid-1960s U.S. involvement in Vietnam also emphasized morality and Uncle Sam's helping hand. Johnson even promised to repeat the rural electrification achieved in the U.S. in the 1930s, this time along the Mekong River. These misjudgments chiseled Johnson's political epitaph, and President Bill Clinton could be similarly vulnerable if he decides to send U.S. troops to the Balkans. Several of Johnson's announcements about committing soldiers to Vietnam seem chilling when compared to recent news.

Not that Vietnam is the best parallel. Today's Balkans, centered on Yugoslavia, are almost as unstable at this century's end as at its beginning, and for a similar reason. Instead of the ethnic crazy quilt left by the unraveling Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, we now have the debris of a disintegrated communist empire. Similar ancestral hates are front and center, not least the recurring six-century-old hostility between Orthodox Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians and Kosovars.

As usual, the moral difference is minimal. The United States, Britain and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization denounce the Serbs because the allies have embraced the Albanians and Kosovars. The Kosovo Liberation Army, hitherto a terrorist group committed to Kosovo's independence from Serbia, escalated tensions a year ago by killing Serbian policemen. When the Serbs brutally cracked down, the allies increased their pro-Kosovo tilt. Ivo Daalder, an expert at the Brookings Institution, says the U.S. and NATO have their "head in the sand" about the KLA and have been maneuvered into becoming "the air force of the KLA." The Serbs, even more ruthless, have stepped up their retaliation and killing to force a partition of Kosovo or to draw the U.S. and NATO into a ground war that Western voters won't support.

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