Kosovo Con Games

How you look at things.
April 22 1999 3:30 AM

Kosovo Con Games

How Clinton's critics rig the debate over the war.

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For weeks, critics of the war in Yugoslavia have pronounced it unwinnable. The atrocities continue unabated, they say. Air power alone will never get the job done. It's another Vietnam. President Clinton has blown it. Everything we do makes the situation worse. Whether Clinton and his allies can win the war remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: They can't win the debate over the war as long as critics are allowed to rig it with the following hidden premises:

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A. Selective Scrutiny

1. Policies. Critics observe that many things have gone badly since the air war began: Ethnic Albanians have been killed and expelled from Kosovo and anti-American nationalism has grown in Russia. It's easy to associate bad outcomes with the current policy. But critics seldom apply the same kind of scrutiny to alternative policies. If NATO had forsworn the use of force against the Serbs, what would the Serbs ultimately have done to the Kosovar Albanians? If NATO had launched a ground war, what would Russia be doing now? If, as critics observe, the Serbs have managed to cleanse Kosovo in less than four weeks, what difference could NATO have made by beginning a ground force buildup (which takes considerable time) a month ago?

2. Policy-makers. American reporters think their job is to examine U.S. policy-makers not foreign policy-makers. So they discount Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's behavior as an objective consequence of Clinton's subjective decisions. When Serbian ethnic cleansing follows NATO bombing, reporters treat the Serbian action not as the product of free will but as a reaction determined by NATO's action. So while journalists on the ground report on Serbian atrocities, journalists in the studios and the newsrooms in effect pass the blame to NATO and Clinton.

This bias has produced a bizarre blame-America-first spin on the right. "We have ignited the very human rights catastrophe the war was started to avoid," declared Pat Buchanan on Face the Nation. Columnist Arianna Huffington compared Kosovo to Waco, arguing that just as Clinton's actions six years ago "precipitated" the murder-suicides by the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, his intervention in Kosovo "has unwittingly produced one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of the 20th century." While some conservatives allege that Clinton's unnecessary belligerence provoked the Serbs to ethnic cleansing, others say his timidity about using ground troops "emboldened" the Serbs to the same effect. Clinton even gets the blame for Russian hostility. On Meet the Press, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., accused Clinton of "pushing Russia into a corner and putting them in a position where they're no longer able to do anything but to react in an aggressive way towards our action."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

3. Moral actors. When the Serbs butcher another 50 Kosovar Albanians or drive another 100,000 out of Kosovo, it's a dog-bites-man story. When NATO bombs what it thought was a military convoy and instead hits a caravan of civilian refugees, killing scores, it's a man-bites-dog story. For several days, the media treated the casualties caused by NATO as the lead story from Kosovo, overshadowing far greater casualties caused during that time by the Serbs. "This may have cost NATO the moral high ground," declared John McLaughlin, invoking the moral-equivalence formula usually despised by conservatives. Meanwhile, the Serbs' role in pushing the refugees onto the road in the middle of a war zone was scarcely mentioned.

B. Sleight-of-Hand Inferences

4. Unachieved to unachievable. Today's media report news instantaneously and expect it to be made instantaneously as well. In less than two weeks, their verdict on the bombing of Yugoslavia leapt from unfulfilled objectives to failure to impossibility. Since air power hasn't brought the Serbs to their knees in four weeks, the media conclude that it never will. Congressional Republicans have decided it's "doomed to failure," according to Fred Barnes. Never mind that under NATO's plan, the bombing will become more severe each week.

5. Vietnam to Kosovo. Critics constantly compare Kosovo to Vietnam. They infer two lessons from Vietnam: that "gradual escalation" never works and that "bombing" can't break an enemy's will. The trick in invoking such analogies is to ignore the differences: that the war in Kosovo is being waged by 19 countries against one; that no superpower is willing to prop up the targeted country; and that today's air power and surveillance are vastly more precise than the "bombing" technology used in Vietnam.

6. Sinner to sin. Critics on the right argue that because Clinton is untrustworthy, so is the war. As George Will put it last week, the contempt of court citation against Clinton for falsely denying his affair with Monica Lewinsky is "a timely reminder of the mendacity that drenches his presidency, including his Balkan policy." Meanwhile, critics on the left argue that because the United States failed to intervene in Rwanda, its intervention in Kosovo is morally suspect and probably racist.

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