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Culture Wars

For Left, It's Finally Post-Vietnam

May 30, 1999|Michael Kazin | Michael Kazin is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the coauthor of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s," due out this fall

WASHINGTON — Is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's undeclared war against Yugoslavia a moral cause? For erstwhile activists against the Vietnam War, the question has a particular poignancy. Three decades ago, they were demanding that the United States stop its assault against Vietnamese radical nationalists determined to unify their country. The antiwar movement helped force the U.S. out of Indochina, and, in the process, achieved a longer-term victory. In the quarter-century since the last Marines left Saigon, the U.S. public has remained wary about sending troops to intervene in any foreign land where they are likely to encounter serious resistance. Left-liberals of every age have been the most consistent foes of overseas adventures.

But it is hard to portray Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as a heroic guerrilla, and NATO's clumsy attempt to stop his aggression in Kosovo has split the ranks of the once solidly antiwar left. At the center of the dispute is the urgent question of how to protect and further human rights.

Thirty years ago, the answer seemed self-evident. Opponents of the war could recite a litany of outrages--rigged elections, massacred peasants, forced urbanization through terror bombing--that made U.S. policy seem grossly immoral, the stated purpose of U.S. presidents a model of deceit.

The current conflict in the Balkans, however, does not allow so stark a choice. Hardly anyone on the left doubts that the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo are victims. The argument is about the ethical consistency of U.S. and NATO war-makers--and whether they are really trying to aid the Kosovars or to show the rest of the world who's boss.

For some former anti-Vietnam activists, Kosovo is clearly another quagmire in the making. "Bombs couldn't bring peace in Vietnam," wrote Tom Hayden, the California state senator and former leader of the New Left, in an open letter to President Bill Clinton last month. Once again, charges Hayden, an administration, "driven by false assumptions of superiority and entitlement to police the world," is contemplating waging a ground war without the consent of Congress or the public. Once again, an American president's stated concern for "human rights" is revealed as blatant hypocrisy. Why, asks Hayden, didn't we intervene to support the students who protested in Tiananmen Square? Or the Zapatistas in Chiapas? Or the Kurds in Turkey?

For many other former antiwar activists, such questions evade the obvious. Michael Walzer, the liberal political theorist who once rallied fellow academics against the war in Vietnam, compares Milosevic to an arsonist who can only be halted if the U.S. takes the lead. "That doesn't make us the world's firefighters," he cautions in the next issue of Dissent, of which he is co-editor. Vietnamese brought down the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, and Tanzanians helped topple the brutal Idi Amin. But only NATO is in a position to help the Kosovars now. "What is most important for the future of the left," writes Walzer, "is that . . . our activists and supporters around the world see the fires for what they are: deliberately set, . . . aimed to kill, terribly dangerous." And he doesn't shirk from suggesting that U.S. ground troops will sooner or later have to help douse the flames.

The conflict between Hayden's position and Walzer's--echoed in the columns of left magazines, on Web sites and at campus teach-ins--is at odds with the concerns that traditionally drive policy-makers. Neither man talks about the national interest or national security. Each would agree that the only good reason to fight a war or abstain from one is to aid people oppressed and in danger, wherever they may live. This is a remarkable premise in a world where the making of foreign policy has often been the province of opportunists, fanatics and cynics.

But radical ideals are no assurance of a humanitarian outcome. Leftist critics of the NATO offensive assume Washington remains essentially the same arrogant, imperialist behemoth that ravaged Indochina and financed Central American dictatorships. To preserve economic hegemony and cultural self-confidence, U.S. officials must demonize Milosevic and build sympathy for the Kosovar refugees. They don't really care about human rights, argue Hayden and his fellow anti-warriors, they simply want the powerful to continue to have their way. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright inherits the soul of Dean Rusk, secretary of state for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

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