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Jewish World Review July 26, 1999 /13 Av, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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The Balkan bookends --
ALMOST AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT, Bill Clinton made an apology the other day that deserved more notice than it got. I know, an apology from Bill Clinton isn't exactly a novelty. Our president has spent much of the past year apologizing. But this one sounded different: natural, uncalculated, a kind of aside. Maybe that's why it had the ring of the genuine about it.

But that's not the only reason attention should be paid. Because the American president was apologizing for, he was recognizing, an attitude that was not his alone as the Balkan bloodletting went on year after year. Indeed, it's not so much an attitude as a basic American instinct in foreign policy.

The instinct is our natural isolationism -- our reflexive aversion to becoming involved in others' affairs. Which figures. This is a nation of immigrants, and we didn't leave the old world behind to stay involved with its blood feuds. That's just what many of us came here to escape.

No matter how many entangling alliances our diplomats make, and they've been making them ever since there was a United States of America, there is something in the national character that would just as soon not be part of the rest of the world, thank you. It goes with being a frontier society, no matter how well settled it becomes.

How were we to know that foreign entanglements would prove inescapable? Wendell Willkie called it One World, and today we speak of the global economy. Yet the happy delusion persists that somehow America can avoid Europe's quarrels. The result: Twice this century we've been unable to keep European brushfires from growing into worldwide conflagrations, and being drawn in.

Talking to a group of veterans earlier this year, a president who awoke only tragically late to the dangers of a dismissive attitude toward the Balkans spoke openly about his misjudgment:

There are those who say Europe and its North American allies have no business intervening in the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans. They are the inevitable results, these conflicts, according to some, of centuries-old animosities, which were unleashed by the end of the Cold War restraints in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. I myself have been guilty of saying that on an occasion or two, and I regret it now, more than I can say....

We do no favors to ourselves or the rest of the world when we justify looking away from this kind of slaughter by oversimplifying and conveniently in our own way demonizing the whole Balkans by saying that these people are incapable of civilized behavior with one another.

If this president minimized how long he managed to dismiss the carnage in the Balkans ("an occasion or two''), he now has recognized the disastrous consequences since Bosnia erupted in 1992 -- not just for the millions displaced, the hundreds of thousands killed, the innumerable victims of brutalities great and small, but for countries far away -- who turn out to be not be so far away once the flames spread.

Slowly, only slowly, do we learn. And so Kosovo in 1999 did not turn out to be Sarajevo in 1914, or Danzig in 1939: flashpoints for a wider explosion. It didn't happen this time for a variety of reasons, not least of them overwhelming American power and the willingness, finally, to use it in concert with our allies.

As Roger Cohen, the New York Times' man in the Balkans, said of Bill Clinton's latest and too little noted confession: "The president's words will not bring back the dead who perished in Bosnia as the West waved away the slaughter with that long pervasive and dismally dismissive phrase, `This is the Balkans, you know.' The Balkans ... have paid a high price for Bill Clinton's learning curve. Still, his recent words were important.''

Because he has learned. Much remains to be learned -- because the road to peace there will doubtless be as long and twisting as the road to war has been.

But this much becomes clear: Europe is much too important, much too volatile, to be left to the Europeans. We've made that mistake before. More than once. Yet we were again slow to learn it in this decade.

Did we really think that Slobodan Milosevic would not activate his grand plan to terrorize Kosovo as soon as he could? Did we really think, in the absence of forces on the ground, that we could prevent it? Did we think at all? Leaders who have lived all their lives in the 20th century were still underestimating a tyrant's capacity for sheer brutality. And man's.

The lesson may not have been learned yet; the increasingly desperate dictator could still turn on Montenegro even as his people rally against him. Those ground forces are still needed. And not just because of instability in the Balkans. Russia falls deeper into its Weimar Period, wobbling ever more erratically, making threats abroad as it crumbles at home.

But there are encouraging signs, too. This time the West has held. And it was joined by countries on Russia's border who would like their future to be a Western one -- Poland, Hungary, Romania. ... The century that fell apart in the Balkans is ending with a show of unity and determination right where the whole, century-long disaster began: in the Balkans.

Not without reason, Sidney Hook used to refer to the First World War as "the Second Fall of Man.'' And when its natural sequels, the Second World War and the Cold War, finally ended, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said the world could finally tackle the questions the First War had left unresolved. In Kosovo, we may now have begun, however late, however haltingly, to do just that. The bloody abyss that has been the 20th century may yet be bridged.

That's why this presidential aside was so important and encouraging. Each time this century has delivered another horror, we have vowed: Never again. Maybe this time, we'll mean it.


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05/18/99: Free our kids: revive the land of opportunity
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05/11/99: South Sider comes through
05/07/99: There is no substitute for victory
05/05/99: A Tale of two colonels
05/03/99: It's the culture, stupid
04/30/99: Bumpers' 'B.S.'
04/27/99: An American tragedy: the fall of Kenneth Starr
04/23/99: Presidents and the press
04/14/99: A revealing moment
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04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
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7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate