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Jewish World Review April 13, 1999 /27 Nissan 5759

Mort Zuckerman

The Evil of two lessers

(JWR) ---- (
THE PARADOX, MADE VIVID BY KOSOVO, is that America's victory in the cold war has intensified, not diminished, our sense of international responsibility. Terrorism? Drug trafficking? Peacekeeping? Famine? Civil wars? Iraq? Send for Globo Cop, U.S.A.

We went to war in the gulf with the stated goal of protecting a sovereign state. Now we are at war disputing the right of a sovereign state to rule its people, and we even contemplate partitioning that sovereign state. The justification can hardly be that tiny Yugoslavia is any direct threat to our security. It is true, as Robert Kaplan, the author of Balkan Ghosts, has pointed out, that ethnic unraveling in the Balkans could produce turmoil in Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece. It is also true that military failure could damage the credibility of NATO. But our motive in the Balkans is primarily humanitarian. That is moral and inspiring, but how far are we prepared to go to defend the well-being of others?

We are instinctively cautious about putting American boots in harm's way and usually do so only as a last resort. By the time we call in the military, conditions on the ground often have deteriorated, making intervention far more difficult and expensive. Machiavelli had it right: "In the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time . . . it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure."

Back burner. We could have made Slobodan Milosevic think twice about Kosovo, for instance, if we had put an armored division "on exercises" in Macedonia. But would American opinion have supported an early show of muscle? Peacekeeping is one thing; peacemaking is another. Quicker action would have required more candid and forceful presidential leadership.

Mort Zuckerman
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This administration was happy to keep the Balkans on a back burner, as far as public attention goes, partly because it was not eager to draw attention to the fact that our troops, sent "temporarily" to Bosnia in 1995, are still there. The president failed to articulate our interests, so when the crunch came it was too late to educate the public. Only the searing images of the refugees rallied public opinion.

The trouble with international decisions taken too late is that they tend not to be between a good option and a bad option but between a bad option and a worse option–what I would describe as the evil of two lessers. In Kosovo, President Clinton had to choose between doing nothing while watching terror used slowly and doing something while risking the acceleration of the awful progress of ethnic cleansing.

Clinton is not at ease with the big stick of U.S. power. As he said recently: "Now I think if the American people don't know anything else about me, they know that I don't like to use military force and I do everything I can to avoid it. But if we have to do it, then that's part of the job and I will do it." The fact is, a credible threat of military action is a crucial component of effective diplomacy. That's why Nixon fostered the notion that "the crazy Nixon" had to be appeased because no one knew what he might do.

The Clinton-NATO military effort has been altogether too tentative. We are "cheap hawks" using a low-risk, high-tech approach, with limited sorties and even more limited targets. Now the president is in the awkward position of trying to convince the American people that the air campaign, which he believed would be a quick solution, needs many weeks to work its way.

America's internationalism is the "show me" kind. We may be coming to recognize that our freedom ultimately depends on the survival and spread of freedom and democracy elsewhere; that aggression anywhere raises the danger of aggression everywhere; that we are the only country with the military and intelligence capacities to project power all over the world; and that we are inspired by an ideology of democratic capitalism that retains both moral credibility and economic vitality. But if we are to accept the high obligation to make the world safe for law-abiding people, we will need leadership that is both clear and courageous, canny as well as enlightened, and certainly possessing more foresight than the Clinton administration has shown over Kosovo.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©1999, Mortimer Zuckerman