When Bill Clinton's felonies got him into hot water, the smart money began shorting innocent civilians around the globe. First came the Starr report attack in September: U.S. cruise missiles took out a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Then, with impeachment going to the House floor in December, massive air strikes against Iraq had to be launched to avoid the holiday rush (Muslim holy days were just around the corner). And soon after beating the rap and "getting back to the business of the American people," the president celebrated his Easter with a rain of terror on the imperial Serbian menace.
We've heard much of the ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic, and objective character references strongly suggest that Slobo will not be welcomed to a cool, crisp hereafter. How his eternal damnation can be moved up in real time is, for we mortals, quite a difficult question–one whose complexity seems not to interest our American commander in chief. Clinton now clasps the war machine joystick as maniacally as a suburban high school sophomore addicted to Doom, and he finds the Yugo socialist a convenient pop-up target in his own ultra-violent video game.
It is becoming more and more apparent that impeachment was, for Clinton, a truly liberating experience. Having for an instant flatlined politically, he has confounded his friends and foes alike by the mere act of surviving. He has, in his amoral view of things, achieved superhuman status. He is no longer subject to the constraints of lesser men–which is to say, anyone with a conscience.
This, needless to say, is a dangerous state of affairs for America. But as the chart shows, it is far riskier for those foreign civilians whom Clinton is liberating from the dictator Milosevic.
Add to that total, of course, the 1.5 million refugees and displaced persons who in the wake of Bill's excellent adventure elected to leave their homes and worldly possessions to camp out elsewhere. "Cheer up, you lucky bastards," NATO spokesmen chirp, "Slobodan Milosevic would have gotten around to this sooner or later, anyway."
In Clinton's world, all of this makes eminent sense. He has taken dramatic, headline-grabbing action. Republicans are afraid to criticize him too openly, except for the likes of John McCain and Liddy Dole, who flacked for military escalation including ground troops. And there is a story: Clinton, a man who is rapidly destroying irony by fantastic storytelling, waxes eloquent about our moral obligation to stop "ethnic cleansing."
There is such a duty. But do not for a moment think that Clinton is moved by it. More important, there is simply no doubt that in this very brutal world, moral obligation is not the only–or even the primary–justification for killing people we do not know. Self-defense trumps all else, and the merry ballistic escapades of the late Clinton months are high-risk gambits actively undermining America's actual security interests vis-à-vis real world powers with real nuclear weapons.
Beyond self-interest there is the morally important matter of human impact. In general, the United States has elected not to stop ethnic cleansing in Biafra, or Ethiopia, or Cambodia, or Rwanda. The Persian Gulf War was successful precisely because it pursued a limited and clear objective–eliminating the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait–and did so with massive force involving widespread domestic and international support.
War needs more than righteousness–the bright line of international aggression, for instance, allows a military objective to be seized and a military exit to be staged. Conversely, where one rides into a civil war, the moral obligation to end strife instantly morphs–under the best-case scenario–into a more powerful obligation to preserve the peace. Indefinitely.
Years ago, the Chinese were slaughtered wholesale in Mao's Cultural Revolution; just a decade ago they were murdered retail at Tiananmen. But not only is our military response nil, our morally obligated president today touts a "strategic alliance" with China. Is this right? Sadly, on the whole, yes. What could be gained by military intervention? The loss of much innocent life is the only dependable outcome; all other bets are off. We are properly slow to report for duty that entails mass civilian deaths, or that raises the probability of nuclear holocaust even a small fraction. Discretion is the better part of valor, said Shakespeare. Good consciences themselves constrain.
Those who have them, that is. Back at the White House, meanwhile, scribblers script tales of the atrocities of enemies and the heroism of allies. Polls surge, history salutes, civilians die. And you thought they didn't have a plan.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an economist at the University of California at Davis and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.