The day before NATO started bombing what's left of Yugoslavia, President Clinton gave a speech in which he tried to justify U.S. participation in the attack. "Look all over the world," he told a convention of the AFSCME labor union. "People are still killing each other out of primitive urges because they think what is different about them is more important than what they have in common."
Clinton means to set them straight. "I want us to live in a world where we get along with each other, with all of our differences," he said, "where we don't have to worry about seeing scenes every night for the next 40 years of ethnic cleansing in some part of the world." Instead of changing the channel, he suggested, we need to change the world.
Clinton took issue with the hardhearted skeptics who say, "There's nothing you can do about it, Mr. President. That's the way those people are. They've been fighting for hundreds of years." He urged "every one of you who ever raised a child that misbehaved" to "think about if you just said, 'Well, they're just that way.' "
Here, then, is Clinton's foreign policy vision: the United States as parent to the world, dashing from playground to playground, intervening between squabbling children and forcing them to make up. The global disciplinarian is so busy knocking heads together that he never pauses to consider exactly how he acquired this awesome responsibility.
In his AFSCME speech, Clinton likened Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic to Adolf Hitler, and in his address to the nation the following night he raised the specter of World War III, calling the Balkans "a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice in this century with catastrophic results."
To historians, Clinton's parallels were puzzling rather than ominous. Milosevic is a small-time dictator struggling to hold on to his own territory, not a potential hegemon bent on world domination. It was foreign involvement in the Balkans, not an unmediated civil war, that triggered World War I, and the region had nothing to do with the start of World War II.
Still, Clinton told his AFSCME audience, "if our country is going to be prosperous and secure, we need a Europe that is safe, secure, free, united, a good partner with us for trading." But surely Europeans have an interest in being safe, secure, free, and united at least as strong as our interest in selling them stuff.
World War II ended more than half a century ago, the Soviet Union is gone, and several of its former satellites have joined NATO, which is now an alliance in search of an enemy. The nations of Europe are fully capable of defending themselves against tyrants like Milosevic, should the need arise.
Stripped of the "national interest" boilerplate, the rationale for the war against Yugoslavia is the understandable desire to save Kosovo's Albanian majority from Milosevic's murderous repression and mass expulsions. "We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive," the president said in his national address.
This is not going very well. In the two weeks since NATO's assault began, Milosevic's campaign against the Kosovars has intensified, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing into Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia. NATO and Pentagon officials now concede that stopping this "ethnic cleansing," let alone reversing it, will require ground troops, which the president has ruled out.
Meanwhile, NATO is raining terror not just on Serbian soldiers (including conscripts who do not necessarily support Milosevic) but on civilians, a fine way to make the point that aggression against innocent noncombatants will not be tolerated. Within Yugoslavia, the bombing has made criticism of Milosevic seem treasonous, undermining the pro-democracy movement and strengthening Serbian ultranationalists.
"The sins of the Government have been visited upon the people," writes independent Serbian broadcaster Veran Matic in The New York Times. "NATO's bombs have blasted the germinating seeds of democracy out of the soil of Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro and insured that they will not sprout again for a long time."
The chance that Milosevic will suddenly surrender Kosovo seems increasingly remote. Yet the fiasco in Yugoslavia is self-perpetuating, with NATO desperate to salvage its "credibility" and reluctant to abandon the Kosovars who depended on its promises and are worse off as a result.
Such are the unintended consequences of Clinton's desire to avoid troubling images on TV.