The Mess They Made

by Patrick J. Buchanan – April 13, 1999
THE WASHINGTON POST

Three weeks into Bill Clinton’s Balkan adventure and America risks a debacle. The human rights crisis in Kosovo has exploded into a catastrophe. Slobodan Milosevic is being rallied around like some Serbian Churchill. Montenegro and Macedonia are destabilized; Russia is being swept by anti-American jingoism; and U.S. troops may have to go marching into the Big Muddy.

Such are the fruits of Utopian crusades for global democracy.

The great lesson of Vietnam was: Before you commit the army, commit the nation. Clinton and Madeleine Albright launched a war against Yugoslavia with the support of neither.

Yet this debacle is not their doing alone. It is a product of the hubris of a foreign policy elite that has for too long imbibed of its own moonshine about America being the “world’s last superpower” and “indispensable nation.” Even as we slashed our defenses to the smallest fraction of GDP since before Pearl Harbor, the rhetoric has remained triumphalist, and the commitments have kept on coming.

Responsibility must be shared by Congress, for Clinton’s intent to launch this Balkan war was long apparent. Yet Congress failed either to authorize war or deny the president the right to attack.

With Milosevic still defying NATO, we are admonished that “failure is not an option,” the United States must do “whatever is necessary to win.” Otherwise, NATO’s credibility will be destroyed.

But this is mindlessness. If the war was a folly to begin with, surely, the answer is to cut our losses and let the idiot-adventurers who urged the attack resign to write their memoirs, rather than send 100,000 U.S. troops crashing into the Balkans to save the faces and careers of our blundering strategists. Only a fanatic redoubles his energy when he has lost sight of his goal.

After the Gallipolli disaster, Churchill went; after Suez, Eden went; after the Bay of Pigs, Allen Dulles departed the CIA. Surely, this is a wiser, more honorable, course than a ground war in Kosovo.

Moreover, Americans will not support “whatever is necessary to win.” We are not going to turn Belgrade into Hamburg. As one recalls the horror at Nixon’s “Christmas Bombing” that freed our POWs at a cost of 1,400 dead in Hanoi, all but surgical bombing is out.

And if we send in the troops, what do we “win”? The right to say that NATO defeated Serbia? The right to occupy Kosovo?

If, after we take Kosovo, the Serbs conduct a guerrilla war against our troops, and the KLA begins a war of liberation to kick NATO out, annex western Macedonia and unite with Tirana, our “victory” will have produced the very disaster we wish to avoid.

“It is unworthy of a great state to dispute over something that does not concern its own interests,” said Bismarck, who called the entire Balkans “not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” When did that peninsula become so critical to the United States that we would go to war over whose flag flew over Pristina?

“Arm the Kosovars!” urge other armchair strategists. But do we really want another Afghanistan — in the underbelly of Europe?

What a mess the interventionists have made of it. Because the NATO expansionists could not keep their hands off the alliance, they have shattered the myth of its invincibility and may have called into being a Moscow-Minsk-Beijing-Belgrade-Baghdad axis.

But maybe the foreign policy establishment needed a second Cold War, as anything is preferable to irrelevance.

Out of this disaster, what lessons may be learned?

First, America cannot police the planet on a defense budget of 3 percent of GDP. Our dearth of air-launched cruise missiles, the need to shift carriers from the gulf, the delay in deploying the Apaches, the calling up of the reserves — all point to a military that is dangerously inadequate to the global tasks we have added since the Cold War.

Unless America is prepared to restore Ronald Reagan’s Army, Navy and Air Force, we cannot stop a rearmed Russia in East Europe, police the Balkans, roll back a second Iraqi attack on Kuwait, contain North Korea and prevent another of Beijing’s bullying assaults on Taipei. Should one or two of these emergencies occur at once, we will be suddenly face to face with foreign policy bankruptcy.

America must retrench and rearm.

What the United States needs today in the Balkans is a least-bad peace, patrolled by Europeans, where Serbs rule Serbs, Croats Croats and Albanians Albanians. And if, in the negotiations to end this tragedy, Belgrade cries, “No American troops in Kosovo!” let us insist upon it, and bring our soldiers home from Europe, as Ike told JFK to do nearly 40 years ago.