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Jewish World Review / Oct. 19, 1998 /29 Tishrei, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Another retreat: weakness invites aggression


North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

Cambodia's Hun Sen.

And now it's Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic.

One after the other, the world's aggressors have caught on to this administration's foreign policy of huff-and-puff. They've broken agreements, subjugated their own people or those of another nation, and gotten away with it.

When the West finally loses patience and mobilizes its forces, the aggressor may promise to keep the peace, or even sign a worthless agreement. But he may be only biding his time. The first descriptions of the latest agreement with Serbia indicate that it's happening again: A dictator is promising to take one step back so he can take two forward later.

Serbia has agreed to withdraw its forces from Kosovo, where tens of thousands of Albanians have fled across the nearest border after the usual massacres. It's a pattern familiar from the vivisection of Bosnia, which went on for years before the West finally acted.

Once again the West has decided on a show of force in lieu of force. In place of a clear policy, it's sending people into harm's way. Whether in Cambodia or Iraq, Bosnia or Kosovo, aggression still pays. That seems to be the lesson that Washington's wafflers have taught the world's dictators. Again.

Until it becomes clear that our own national security is jeopardized when aggression goes undeterred, Washington may continue to paper over the danger with these worthless agreements. Which is just fine with American public opinion. It's still asleep.

Isolationism may go by some other name in this decade, like multilateralism, but it has regained its popularity. A semblance of peace may be all that's necessary to keep Washington and other Western capitals from realizing that they must impose peace in Europe, or Europe will impose war on them. That continent has been the cradle of world wars since the 18th Century, and there's no telling what monsters Europe will yet birth unless Washington wakes up and leads.

Despite all its tough talk and internationalist rhetoric, this administration continues to retreat whenever and wherever confronted by aggression abroad. And in the Nineties, aggression has many faces: One day it's Kim Jong Il developing a nuclear capacity in North Korea, despite his earlier pledge to forswear such weapons. The next, it's Iraq's Saddam Hussein acquiring toxic weapons and the missiles to deliver them anywhere in the Middle East. And now Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic is lighting another Balkan powderkeg in Kosovo, Belgrade's restive and mainly Albanian province.

It could be the 1930s again. It's as if Americans have forgotten how aggressors think, and how useless their promises are. They all seem to follow Molotov's dictum: "Our ideology stands for offensive operations when possible, and if not, we wait.'' And when the West turns its back, as it has for so long in Kosovo, peace will be the first casualty.

Unless the West sends a clear signal that offensive operations will not pay, then the aggressors will not wait long to resume the offensive. And the world will grow even more dangerous. A few isolated air strikes will no longer do the trick; a consistent, committed policy in the Balkans will be necessary. And there's no sign of one in Washington or any other Western capital. It's all ad-hoc expedients, redesigned from crisis to crisis.

The atmosphere grows pre-war, and still Washington remains in a state of suspended animation, just going through the motions while a paralyzed president performs mainly ceremonial functions. Whatever Congress decides to do, Bill Clinton has already impeached himself. The loss of moral authority in Washington grows palpable, and the world is not safer for it. The world needs a strong America, and America needs a strong presidency. Instead, American foreign policy has been going wobbly for years, and the presidency will emerge from the Clinton Years considerably weakened and definitely besmirched.

This is no way to keep the peace; it's a sure way to invite uncertainty, then instability, then war. See the steady collapse of peace and security in Kosovo over the past several years. Richard Holbrooke is one heckuva trouble-shooter, but he's no substitute for a foreign policy. Only if it were no longer necessary to send him to a different foreign capital every few months could the agreements he negotiates really be proclaimed a success.

Can anyone now recall the euphoria of 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and the Soviet Union began to implode? The hope, the exuberance, the sense of a second chance opening for the world .... all that seems but a dim memory a decade later. And still Washington sleeps, awakening now and then only to posture.

One reason the West will not and perhaps cannot project its power is that it no longer has that much power to project. Consider the neglect that this administration has lavished on the armed forces of the United States, which are now stretched dangerously thin. Year after year, deep cuts in military strength have been made to achieve the semblance of a balanced budget. But if the peace is lost, any savings will prove illusory.

The watchword of American foreign policy used to be Peace Through Strength. Now not all the administration's claims of success can mask its weakness, its indecision, and its willingness to settle for promises instead of deeds. Washington now tends to declare victory, not achieve it. And around the globe, instability thrives on America's weakness.

Aggressors can smell it.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate