Policy made plain.
March 28 1999 3:30 AM

Easy Answers


It is often said that there are no easy answers, but in fact there are. In a former life I used to interrogate politicians on television, and in six years there was never a subject on which they were unable to come up with an easy answer. Not necessarily a correct answer--or honest or heartfelt or logically coherent--but easy.

What is an easy answer? An easy answer, for a politician, is one that assures you will never be proved wrong. Or at least that if you seem to have been wrong, another easy answer will be available to explain why you weren't. "There are no easy answers" is itself an easy answer--if you can get away with it. Often, you not only can get away with it, but you can also enhance your reputation for being "thoughtful" (high praise that in the culture of politics means indecisive in a classy way, rather than kindly or considerate of others or anything like that). Sometimes, though, you have to do better, and this is when easy answers become hard work.

War and peace issues are the worst. A famous joke among academics is that scholarly disputes are especially passionate because the stakes are so low. By contrast, when the stakes are as high as they can get, there is a special need for elected officials to avoid having a forthright opinion. Easy answers to the rescue!

The current issue of American military involvement in Kosovo, for example, seems to be a yes-or-no question to which either conventional answer--call them "yes" and "no"--is decidedly uneasy. "Yes" means risking American lives in a faraway land that has no apparent connection to the only thing that really matters, which is the Dow Jones industrial average. "No" means doing nothing, as the world's only superpower, while a thug government commits daily televised atrocities against white people in Europe (not just some unmediated Africans). Unless you're extraordinarily lucky, the outcome of making either choice will leave you morally implicated in some dead bodies (with larger raw numbers making up for lack of American citizenship in the case of a "no").


Fortunately, even for Kosovo there are answers available besides yes and no. They will be familiar from intervention disputes dating back at least to Vietnam, but they are especially useful for the summer-squall-style military actions of today, in which we all agree to be frenzied about the occupation of Kuwait or a drug-smuggling dictator in Panama or warlords in Somalia or genocide in Bosnia on the strict understanding that we will be allowed to forget all about these matters and places in six months, max. Here are half a dozen consumer-tested easy answers on issues like Kosovo:

1."Well, Cokie, my concern is that if we go into [INSERT LOCATION], we should do so with the resources necessary to get the job done. Airstrikes alone [or 'only 200,000 troops' or 'a mere half a dozen hydrogen bombs' or whatever is on the menu] just aren't enough. It is immoral to put American soldiers at risk without a guarantee of overwhelming superiority for a certain and speedy victory."

This is perhaps the most prestigious dodge: the Powell Doctrine, named for Gen. Colin Powell (who is responsible for the doctrine but not its use as a dodge). The Powell Doctrine holds that the lesson of Vietnam is do it right or not at all. Go in full force from the beginning rather than escalate yourself into a quagmire. Or don't go in at all. Finish quickly before the public loses patience (or ideally, as in the case of Grenada, before the public has even heard of the place). Or, of course, don't start at all. As to which of these alternatives--all or nothing at all--is the right one in any situation, the Powell Doctrine does not say. So this is a great way to sound tough and sophisticated without actually committing yourself. Since any actual military engagement is not going to involve every last wing nut in the Pentagon's "miscellaneous screws" jar, you are well positioned to say "I told you so" if things go badly. Yet you never actually opposed the action, so you're OK if things go well. And no one can accuse you of wimping out if the military action doesn't take place: Hey, you wanted to go in with more force!

2."Where is our exit strategy, Ted? That is what I'd like to know."


"Exit strategy" became a fashionable term during the Gulf War. It really sounds like you know what you're talking about. And what does it mean? As I understand it, an exit strategy is a sort of poor man's Powell Doctrine. It does not demand certain and prompt victory. It merely demands a certain and prompt conclusion to the exercise that is acceptable to the United States. When invoking this concern, it is not necessary to specify--and indeed it is hard to imagine--what conclusion short of victory a guy like you, who flings around terms like "exit strategy," would find minimally satisfactory. And no military action (except for actual movies) can be fully scripted in advance. So you're golden. If things go wrong: "Ted, I pleaded with the president to make sure we had an exit strategy." And if the action goes well or disaster occurs because we didn't intervene: "Ted, I was behind this all the way. I've always said that victory is the best exit strategy."

3."Tim, I support the president. American credibility is at stake. The commander in chief has made a commitment on behalf of the United States, and the United States must honor that commitment."

This is the sneakiest dodge and probably the most popular--especially among Republicans. You get to be patriotic and hawkish. And if things go well, you were behind the commander in chief all the way. But if things go badly, it is the president's fault for making the commitment. Tragically, you had no choice but to support him once the commitment was made, but of course making it was irresponsible folly. Please note that, like a reheated stew, this dodge works even better after a military action has begun. "Tim, we never should have got into this quagmire, but now we have no choice but to ..."

4."I'm not persuaded this is so important, so vital to the nation's interests that we ought to intervene."


That's an almost exact quote from a real senator, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and illustrates a nifty linguistic evasion. You don't say you're against it, you say you're "not persuaded" to be for it. Not only do you evade the tough choice, you also evade responsibility for your decision. It's the president's fault, even if he's right, because he didn't persuade you.

You can also say (like Sen. Max Baucus of Montana) that there are "unanswered questions." Being undecided and wanting ever more information is another great way to be designated as "thoughtful." And with a bit of skill and a bit of luck, you can keep taking your own temperature until it doesn't matter any more. Meanwhile, you're OK no matter what happens. "Not persuaded" can be spun as a yes or a no. A nice variant is to say, "The American people must be persuaded this is the right thing, and the president hasn't made the case." Not only is whatever happens not your fault (unless it's good), it's not even the public's fault. It's the president's fault, either because we did what he wanted or--if we didn't--because he didn't convince us to do so.

5."I don't think we should begin bombing unless and until the Serbs really begin a very significant massacre against the people in Kosovo."

That is Don Nickles of Oklahoma in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal (where most of these quotes come from). In a way, this is not a dodge. It is a sort of madcap Solomonic approach. Sen. Nickles is saying: "Why must we guess whether Milosevic is going to kill a lot more people? Let's wait and see if he does it! And why must we choose between saving a lot of Kosovars and saving none? Let's split the difference and save half of them." As a bonus, Nickles retains a valuable fudge factor in the question of what qualifies as "a very significant massacre." Depending on what happens, Nickles is in a position to accuse the president of failing to defend American interests and values, or of recklessly endangering American lives on the basis of a massacre that was merely "significant" but not "very significant."


6."What's happening in [WHEREVER] is a tragedy and an outrage, Wolf. Intervention to stop the bloodshed is absolutely essential. But it's a job for [INSERT NAME OF CLOSER COUNTRY AND/OR REGIONAL GROUP], not for the United States."

This final dodge is slightly different. You're claiming credit for sharing whatever humanitarian or geostrategic concern dictates military action, while opposing the use of the only military power you yourself bear responsibility for. I once interviewed an especially moronic senator, since defeated, who declared that some worthy military action was "a job for the United Nations." I asked him why other countries should risk their soldiers' lives if the United States wouldn't, and he replied, "I didn't say 'other nations,' I said the United Nations." When it was pointed out to him that U.N. troops don't come from Mars, he was stymied. That point had never occurred to him.

But exposing the logical flaw here does not depend on any huffing and puffing about America's leadership role. An American pol going on American television to say that the Europeans should tidy up the former Yugoslavia without our help is like the Economist running (as has been known to happen) a stuffy editorial saying that a corrupt dictator in some Third World country should resign. Of course he should. And the sun should shine in London every day. But even the Economist's opinion cannot affect these matters. When an answer moves beyond difficult to completely impossible, it becomes easy once again.

Watch for these easy answers on the TV talk shows and in the newspaper. Practice on your own. Soon you too can be ducking responsibility like a real-life member of Congress.

For more Kosovo coverage, click here.