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When Wars Fail, So Do Democrats

May 23, 1999|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His new book is "The Cousins' War: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — That rumble out of the Balkans is "four straight": a possible four Democratic presidents in a row leaving office after failed military involvement or a botched airstrike. Can peace negotiations be far behind?

This may sound like partisanship and naysaying, but it's hard politics, public opinion and history. Cold, icy hard. Presidents Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter all rode military weakness to ignominy, and President Bill Clinton's nervous political antennae may be responsible for his recent public doubts about Vice President Al Gore.

The political history of U.S. wars since 1950 has made Democratic presidential nominations into a game of jeopardy played with aircraft and howitzer. What old hand can forget--and what young White House hawk can remember--how, during the Korean War, Truman's 1952 primary defeat and sudden retirement threw the political race into chaos; or the snarl of the Vietnam-threaded 1968 primaries; or Carter in the winter of 1979-80, claiming he was too busy trying to save the U.S. hostages in Iran to go to New Hampshire to campaign? Glum Democratic situations all.

But more than Clinton's legacy and Gore's year-2000 success could be at stake in a prolonged overseas fight. The nation's very future could be--seriously. One failed or costly war too many toppled the last three preeminent global economic powers: Spain in the 17th century, Holland in the early 18th century and Britain after this century's two world wars.

The public is ahead of the politicians and the generals on this. The most recent polls show almost 50% of voters regard the bombing as a failure and a majority believe the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should negotiate a settlement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end the fighting.

That's in the United States. Most of the world is even less supportive. The American people, and even the White House, have long since come to terms with the air war's most obvious unexpected consequences: the disastrous refugee crisis and the resulting destabilization of the Balkans, especially Montenegro and Macedonia.

But the most dangerous unexpected consequences are overseas, among major nations and religious blocs. Anti-Americanism and disgust with the war are taking off. People are talking about the United States as a superpower run amok.

NATO's bombs are falling mostly on Serbs, who are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Each week, more civilians and refugees seem to die in villages, railroad trains and TV stations. Hostility toward the United States has soared in Europe's Eastern Orthodox nations, not just Russia but also Macedonia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and even Greece. Bulgarians rioted last week over a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a strong war advocate. Even many Islamic nations decline to applaud NATO's strikes in the name of Muslim Kosovars because of an awareness that most U.S. airstrikes in the last 15 years have been against Islamic targets.

With Russia already a mess, increasingly bitter anti-U.S. sentiment there could be a real threat now that President Boris N. Yeltsin and his Cabinet are locked in open political combat after Yeltsin's firing of Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov. Civil war is at least an outside possibility.

Then there's China, bloody-minded after its embassy in Belgrade was accidentally blown up by a NATO missile attack. Future relations with the world's most populous country are at risk. Not only are the Chinese outraged, but disgust is being expressed by the 2 million Chinese Americans in this country.

In Japan, the bombing seems to be confirming sentiment that Washington is an international bully. In mid-April, the Tokyo region elected a new governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who blames the U.S. Treasury Department for Japan's financial and economic woes and wants to restrict U.S. use of military bases in Japan. Two weeks ago, anger at the war almost brought down the German government when the Greens, a junior coalition partner, passed a party conference resolution that could have ended the coalition.

The last time I looked, Russia, China, Japan and Germany were four of the world's leading eight nations. For a U.S. president to pursue a policy, lacking any real U.S. strategic interest, that simultaneously angers or threatens the governmental stability of all four is foolish.

Worse still, this is a perverse flirtation with historical disaster. The United States, having been defeated, stymied or denied victory in its last three wars (Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf), fits the classic definition of an aging great power beginning to weaken. Think Rome. Spanish, Dutch and British historians have filled book after book with explanations of what comes next.

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