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In War, Ignorance Can Be Bliss

The urge to "do something," noble as it may sound, is a pernicious guidepost to our foreign policy.

April 06, 1999|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor

The guy next to me in the coffee shop was typical: "I'm not even sure where Kosovo is, or what's caused all this, but it's terrible, look at the pictures, we must do something." Yeah, blow up another bridge, it can't hurt.

That dreary paean to self-righteous ignorance has inspired much of the Western public to go along with the bombing of Yugoslavia in an effort that clearly has made matters worse. It's a vote of confidence President Clinton knew he could count on as long as the war tested our weapons but not our souls.

The horrors of war are politically acceptable when viewed from a safe distance but never as reluctant participants in a bloody fratricidal conflict that involves a family far removed from one's own. Once on the ground, or "in country," the eerie accuracy of satellite-guided missiles, so satisfying as a special effect on television, will give way to the bumbling of mere mortals as they vainly seek to separate friend from foe.

Am I influenced by what some dismiss as "the Vietnam syndrome?" You bet. I was reporting in Vietnam on the eve of the American buildup, and nothing I saw then or later convinced me that we did anything but exacerbate the problems of ordinary folk. And the ethnic and religious divisions of Indochina were simple compared to those of the Balkans.

Once again, those who favor bombing insist it will enhance human rights. Clearly, that is not the case with Kosovo. The previous plight of the province's Albanian population pales in comparison to the Serbian onslaught rationalized by the NATO invasion. Before, there was serious opposition within Serbian ranks to Milosovic; now there is none.

Where lies victory in this military equation? Is it in placing NATO troops on the ground in alliance with the Kosovo Liberation Army, a band of fanatics that spans the ideological divide from its Marxist-Leninist founders to the Islamic holy warriors freshly arrived from training in Afghanistan?

After a drawn-out battle in which many more innocents will die, including those drafted into the Serb military, what will Kosovo look like? Will the population be better off in the future than it was a month ago? Not likely, if one judges by the "liberation" of Afghanistan, where we trained and armed the current Taliban rulers and left a population to be terrorized by brutes of their own.

But bombs have fallen, and it's too late to recall a policy that has resulted in so much death and flight. What's to be done now? To begin, there is a desperate need for some humility on the part of policymakers and those who cheer them on.

The patterns of ethnic nationalism in the Balkans are too intractable for a dozen foreign nations acting in concert under the umbrella of NATO to sort out easily. Nor are they well-positioned as white knights; some NATO member nations have a sordid history of their own ethnic cleansing, and others are currently at war with insurgent ethnic nationalities of their own. At this moment, Great Britain is threatening to shut down the world's only Kurdish language radio station to appease Turkey, which is threatened by 30 million Kurds who also want their own nation.

Yes, the refugees fleeing Kosovo need international protection. If we're truly concerned about their fate, why has the Clinton administration agreed to accept only 20,000 refugees with the proviso that they be relocated to Guam or Guantanamo and not the U.S.

If the goal is the return of the refugees in peace to a multiethnic homeland, that cannot be accomplished by the demonization of the Serbs or by inflaming their national passions through NATO bombing. The Serbs have their own issues or these formerly pro-Western people would not now be captive to nationalist fervor. They, too, need a friend in court, and the biggest mistake in all this was the imperious Western exclusion of the Russians.

It's inexcusable that Clinton ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia while Russia's highly knowledgeable prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was in flight to Washington, and that Clinton rejected Russia President Boris N. Yeltsin's request for a meeting of the G8 nations. And why bypass the United Nations?

If this is truly an international effort, it must involve the Russians as well as the Germans, and we must heed the caution of the Orthodox Greeks as well as the concerns of the Muslim Turks. Experience is not the enemy here; naivete is. The urge to "do something" whenever the flag of human rights is waved, noble as it may sound, is one of the more pernicious guideposts to foreign policy.

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