Presidential History

Temporary Doves

Why are the architects of Kosovo so down on Gulf War II?

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Madam Secretary: A Memoir, by Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward, New York: Miramax Books, 562 pages

The Bubble of American Supremacy: Correcting the Misuse of American Power, by George Soros, New York: Public Affairs, 207 pages

Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire, by Wesley K. Clark, New York: Public Affairs, 218 pages

Of all the historical precedents that paved the way for President George W. Bush's war against Iraq, the most directly relevant was Bill Clinton's 1999 bombing of the rump Yugoslavia.

Like Gulf War II, the 78-day NATO air campaign in Kosovo was waged without the explicit authorization of the United Nations. (Of the two, the Iraq war had much more of a U.N. mandate, through Resolution 1441, which gave Iraq a "final opportunity"—one it did not take—to comply fully with all previous Security Council resolutions or else face "serious consequences.") Like Iraq, Yugoslavia was a sovereign country that was bombed into submission for essentially internal infractions. Both wars were expressions of American exasperation at European impotence in the face of dictatorial slaughter. Slobodan Milosevic, like Saddam Hussein, was described as a modern-day Adolf Hitler, eager to practice genocide against minority tribes while scrambling for horrible weapons to menace peaceful neighbors. Supporters of both wars frequently invoked the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which the West appeased Hitler rather than defend allied Czechoslovakia. Opponents of both wars warned that the target countries were colonially conceived multi-ethnic basket cases not conducive to postwar democratization. And the United States led the fight against both dictators despite urgent warnings from antiwar activists and multilateralism enthusiasts that each new bomb would lower the threshold for waging modern war. Kosovo made Iraq possible.

So it is of pressing interest to see what the architects of Kosovo, and its predecessor campaign in Bosnia, have to say about Bush's controversial war. As luck would have it, there are recent books from three key Yugoslavia warriors: Madeleine Albright, the Munich-haunted Czechoslovak émigré who was the most influential anti-Milosevic hawk in Clinton's cabinet; George Soros, the Munich-haunted Hungarian émigré and billionaire philanthropist who was among the earliest and most influential nongovernmental voices to urge military action against Serb nationalists; and Wesley Clark, the retired supreme allied commander of NATO who directed the Kosovo War. Since Clark was one of the top four Democratic candidates for president, and Soros has redirected his considerable energy and at least $15 million to effect "regime change" in the United States, their distinction between Kosovo and Iraq arguably looms as the defining foreign policy difference between Democrats and Republicans in 2004. And for those of us who supported Clinton's Wilsonianism but not Bush's, these books should help answer two questions we really ought to be asking ourselves: Is our support for America's activist role dependent on high moral principle, or is it tethered to partisan politics? And did we lower the bar for military intervention?

Albright's Madam Secretary, a surprisingly intimate and detail-rich memoir, does the best job of laying out the philosophical groundwork for why Clinton suddenly reversed three years of muddling policy by getting violent with Milosevic in 1995. After four years of watching horrendous, evocative images of civilian slaughter and concentration camps on the European continent, Clinton was, she says, finally persuaded by the insistent voices around him whose lives had been directly mangled by Munich.

"When I was still a little girl," Albright writes in the preface, "my family was driven from its home twice, first by Fascists, then by Communists. While in office I was able to fight against ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, a country where I had lived as a child."

That kind of jarring juxtaposition of the personal and political runs throughout the book, making the story of Albright's U.S. government service look like a Czech wish fulfillment fantasy. It also illustrates how the administration's tilt toward Central Europe—the White House was influenced also by Polish-born Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili and by the president's close relationship with Vaclav Havel—focused attention on that part of the world, rather than on more genocidal hot spots such as Rwanda.

"In one of his books," Albright writes, her diplomat father Josef Korbel "quoted the Czechoslovak patriarch, Tomas Masaryk: 'Love of one's neighbor, of the nation, and of humanity imposes upon everyone the obligation to defend oneself and to resist evil constantly, at all times, and in all things.' For me that obligation was triggered by the campaigns of brutality launched by Serb President Slobodan Milosevic."

Albright, who was U.N. ambassador in Clinton's first term and secretary of state in the second, has spent a lifetime focused on the former East Bloc. She wrote her undergraduate honors thesis on Czechoslovakia's postwar period, enrolled in graduate Soviet studies under Polish émigré Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote her dissertation on the Prague Spring, won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to document the Solidarity uprising in Poland, and was hired for her first government job by son-of-Polish-immigrants Ed Muskie. She describes her relationship with Havel as "one of the most precious friendships of my life" (the two have vacationed together in Bermuda) and confesses "mixed feelings" at turning down his suggestion to succeed him as Czech president. Famously, she discovered soon after being sworn in as secretary of state that she was Jewish, and that three of her Czech grandparents had been killed in concentration camps. As she was fond of telling State Department reporters, "Munich is my mindset."

Problem is, Munich has been the mind-set of just about every other administration in recent history, from Bush II back to Harry Truman, regardless of analogical accuracy. The ghost of Neville Chamberlain has been exhumed to justify American interventions in Korea, Iraq (twice), a ragbag of Third World hellholes, and Vietnam. Albright's contemporaneous reaction to the Vietnam War neatly illustrates the limitations of letting Munich do the thinking for you: "For a long time it didn't occur to me to question [it]," she says.

Evil is never in short supply, regrettably, and choosing which Hitler to confront is a complicated business, especially when you have the most powerful military in the history of the planet and the rest of the world obsesses about your strength. Albright's approach to this dilemma was embodied in her famous comment to then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell in 1995: "What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?" She consistently lobbied for the use of force—threatening invasion of Haiti, bombing Milosevic to the negotiating table, levying and tightening sanctions all around the globe. When military adventures went awry, as in Somalia, the "firepower was insufficient." The failure to intervene in Rwanda? "My deepest regret." Did Albright worry much that an ever-more-activist America might encourage unhealthy dependency, sow global resentment, and create unholy temptation in the White House? Something close to the opposite: "For all the power of the United States," she laments at one point, "we were not able to dictate events."

A person so committed to combating dictators with American might—without U.N. approval, if need be—could be expected to support the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and so she does, albeit with caveats. In a book that takes pains to avoid criticizing any current or former secretaries of state, Albright admits to "many doubts about the Bush administration's diplomatic timing, tactics, rationales, and postwar plans in the months before and after the 2003 war."

So the great Albright/neocon split comes down to Bush's style more than his substance. This is largely the message communicated by George Soros, the wealthy hedge fund operator and philanthropist, who has in recent years become a surprisingly harsh critic of the same global capitalism and American-led democratization he had long championed (and profited from). "One of the reasons I was so opposed to the invasion of Iraq," Soros writes in his brisk little polemic, The Bubble of American Supremacy, "was that the action was liable to give nation building a bad name."

Soros is arguably the world's greatest private-sector nation builder. His charities, centered mostly in the former communist world, have disbursed nearly $5 billion during the last two decades, on initiatives ranging from keeping 35,000 top Russian scientists financially solvent during the 1990s, to founding a Central European University in Budapest, to providing fresh drinking water to besieged Sarajevo. His cosmopolitan organizations are openly opposed to most things authoritarian, including several of their host governments. "My foundations contributed to democratic regime change in Slovakia in 1998, Croatia in 1999, and Yugoslavia in 2000, mobilizing civil society to get rid of Vladimir Meciar, Franko Tudjman, and Slobodan Milosevic, respectively," he brags. Just before the book's publication, he could have added Georgia and Eduard Shevardnadze to that list.

So what's wrong with regime change in Iraq, whose dictator made the democratically elected (and defeated) Vladimir Meciar look like Thomas Jefferson? Soros' explanation is almost laughably tortured: "When the weapons of mass destruction could not be found, President Bush fell back on the justification of liberating Iraq from a heinous dictator and introducing democracy. That is indeed a noble cause, which could have justified the invasion if the president had made a case for it. But that was not the case that President Bush had presented to Congress, and presumably, Congress would not have endorsed it."

Later, "noble cause" notwithstanding, Soros compares Iraq unfavorably to Vietnam, rues that "it could have been avoided," and then announces that "admittedly, Saddam was a heinous tyrant and it was a good thing to get rid of him"—and that's just on a single page. A page later, he laments that the United States, because of overextension in Iraq, "has been reluctant to get engaged in Liberia, causing unnecessary suffering." To be only slightly unfair, Soros seems to oppose toppling tyrants only when it is Bush's White House doing the dirty work.

Why? Because the president has embraced the doctrine of military pre-emption, allowed some members of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century to have positions of influence on foreign policy, and noisily mocked multilateralism in favor of case-by-case bilateral arrangements, thereby making the rest of the world, including longtime allies, nervous and surly.

The criticism is valid enough, and Albright shares it, though to a less vitriolic degree. (Soros decries "Bush's rabid unilateralism," while Albright worries diplomatically that "the great institutions forged by the trans-Atlantic partnership that saved freedom in the twentieth century are in jeopardy" and "must be rescued and revitalized if that blessing is to survive the twenty-first.")

But both fail to acknowledge that the democratizing idealism of Bush administration officials such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is in fact suspiciously similar to their own nosy Wilsonianism. They do not ponder whether aggressive Democratic interventionism made Bush's Republican (and therefore less palatable) version more possible. To the contrary: Soros even writes an entire chapter on how to overcome that annoying obstacle of "sovereignty" when meddling in the affairs of tyrants. He and Albright both skate over the fact that, in Kosovo especially, their pro-war and anti-U.N. arguments could be cut and pasted into Dick Cheney's talking points on Iraq.

"I believe we were justified in intervening in Kosovo without U.N. authorization, and we would have done better if we had relied on NATO and not the United Nations in Bosnia," Soros writes. "But unilateral action that goes against international public opinion cannot be justified, and it can endanger our national security by turning the world against us." Unfortunately, Soros does not explain how we might quantify this "international public opinion," or come up with a Plan B when the world is acting particularly daft. If European public opinion had won the day in March 1999, Soros' Kosovo war never would have been fought.

The most coherent argument against Bush's Iraq policy comes from a perhaps surprising source, given his much-publicized campaign flip-flops on the issue: Wesley Clark. Winning Modern Wars, though a clumsily written and awkwardly structured book (one part crisp military description of the Kosovo war, one part foreign policy argument, then an unconvincing tacked-on chapter about domestic policy issues), nonetheless drives home and supports a few simple, pragmatic points. "The Bush administration's focus on Iraq had thus far weakened our counterterrorist efforts, diverting attention, resources, and leadership, alienating allied supporters, and serving as a rallying point for anyone wishing harm to the United States and Americans," Clark writes.

Bilateralism costs much more in time, money, and lives than multilateralism; terrorism's "root cause" (which Clark laudably defines as "the extreme Wahhabist ideology and funding from Saudi Arabia") has been unaddressed; intelligence has been recklessly warped for political purposes; the military is stretched perilously thin. "U.S. foreign policy had become dangerously dependent on its military," Clark writes. (Much of the book is written in this annoying past tense.) "The armed forces were practically the only effective play in the U.S. repertoire."

Clark looks back fondly on the "new strain of idealism in U.S. foreign policy" during the Clinton era, when the interventions and peacekeeping operations were aligned, he contends, with the noblest of American values. "But 2001 marked a profound departure," he warns. "The Bush administration acted unambiguously to put a more unilateralist, balance-of-power stamp on U.S. foreign policy."

Like Soros, Clark is alarmed, not heartened, that a Wolfowitz-flavored Wilsonianism was grafted onto the Kissinger-style balance-of-power approach after September 11. "Overnight, U.S. foreign policy became not only unilateralist but moralistic, intensely patriotic, and assertive…intimating the New American Empire."

Somewhere within these ominous warnings, a small but tangible Democratic foreign policy distinction begins to emerge. Munich is the mind-set, but not if it prevents us from confronting still more little Hitlers. It's not the invasion, it's the motivation. Selective use of unilateralism and even pre-emptive military action is OK; just don't be rude about it.

This characterization may sound flippant, but the divisions are real. There is genuine concern over in the Democratic aisle that America's plummeting reputation abroad is a source of danger in and of itself, and will continue to drive military costs skyward while perhaps encouraging more terrorism, not less. Bush's irritable, realpolitik, man-to-man bilateralism, in which Saudi princes he's known for years get treated with more respect than the less intimate but nonetheless elected leaders of Europe, is the kind of hubris that suggests impending collapse—in Soros' theory, a burst "bubble" of American prominence. As Clark darkly muses, "Somewhere in the rising U.S. budget deficits, the balance-of-payments current accounts deficits, and the growing resentment of the United States abroad, there may be a 'tipping point.'"

Unless the more sober Democrats come to the rescue, of course. But what, really, would they do differently? Most recent American presidents, regardless of party, have campaigned on domestic issues and a more "humble" foreign policy, then governed much like the global cop they replaced. The loyal opposition (Republicans in the late '90s, Democrats now) has to be dragged into supporting a war or major troop deployment, while the commander-in-chief can be counted on to invoke Munich and warn against isolationism. The difference? One party talks up the virtues of multilateralism, while the other talks it down.

That distinction may be enough to earn my vote in November, but as tangible philosophical differences go it ranks somewhere not far above splitting a hair. If the most vexing foreign policy issue we face is that American supremacy is indeed a bubble inflated by military assertiveness—and that's the big if—then playing nice with international institutions is about as structurally significant as applying a new shade of lipstick on a very old pig.