Jewish World Review May 18, 1999 /3 Sivan 5759
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I once heard a British historian in a radio discussion say that what saved Britain from defeat in 1940 was the personal physical courage of Winston Churchill. I've remembered it for 25 years because it seemed so remarkably trivial. But now I can understand what he meant. Churchill is one of Clinton's heroes, and in the first years of his administration, he was fond of saying that he lamented having no great world-historical challenge to meet.
Should it be a surprise that, having created a challenge worthy of Churchill by his own ineptitude and inattention, Clinton should funk it? Churchill's bravery was public: he fought and reported from the Boer wars; he constantly demanded to go to the front in World War I; he repeatedly took stands in various governments he served in that risked-and sometimes resulted in-consignment to political oblivion; he took responsibility for his mistakes.
Clinton's physical cowardice is more subtle. I've thought for years that he had a Machiavellian desire to disguise his conscientious opposition to the war in Vietnam so as not to make political waves-but I've concluded that I have probably been wrong. Recent books about Clinton have shown his tepid and unimpassioned opposition to the war. I am corrected: It's far more likely that Clinton was simply afraid that being drafted would put him in physical danger.
Other evidence? The only violence he has ever personally committed has been against at least one woman of a lower social class than his wife. It's a cliché that such men axiomatically must be cowards-but unfortunately not true. Still, much of Clinton's success with women came with the full trappings of office: how would he done without the uniformed and armed men who accompanied him when he paid court to ladies in Arkansas?
But it's the way he wages war that clinches it. European critics like to call NATO strategy cowardly. It is. Our pilots take off from bases in Missouri, fly for 15 hours to drop bombs on targets they cannot see, and get back in time to see their kids play sports. By appealing to soccer moms Mr. Clinton hung on to office in 1996; now he's staked the outcome of his Yugoslavian misadventure on soccer bombs. He's not afraid of failure; he's not afraid of the collapse of NATO, of a renascent Russia gathering-in its former slavic client states; he's not afraid completely to undermine and embarrass his NATO allies. These are merely dishonorable outcomes-I think he fears something more serious.
Why should he worry about committing ground troops to the conflict? No one expects a President to lead an army into battle. And the deaths of American soldiers would not place his job at risk-thanks to the 24?th Amendment, our President must leave office in 2001 in any case. I think that what has created President Clinton's unwonted resoluteness in the face of overwhelming opposition to his policy of non-invasion is fear. The only policy which might win the war he started would place him in danger of violence he would prefer not to face: assassination.
Imagine the file cabinets at the Secret Service bulging with threats from Vietnam-era veterans against a man they regard as a draft dodger, a traitor, a coward, and worse. Like most threats, most-even all of them-are probably empty. But I think the only explanation for Clinton's stubborn willingness to oversee the complete collapse of his Yugoslavian adventure must be that, should he commit ground troops to dangers that he himself was unwilling to face, and should there be casualties, he believes a yet-unknown Rambo out there will lock and load. Once again, Mr. Clinton is electioneering rather than leading. Now he has targeted the nation's smallest electoral segment: crazed, violent, armed veterans. He's sacrificing his war aims to get them to sit on their hands.
Mr. Clinton is a clinger. He clings to office despite dishonor, to marriage despite humiliation. Such a man will cling to life with the same tenacity, allowing the utter humiliation of NATO and the collapse of the security system of the west in order not to have to risk an unpleasant death. No wonder he was so upset at Rabin's funeral. "Never again," he must have whispered to himself.
Heroism is a bit out of date. We have had a mysterious spate of physical
cowards in public life. Colin Powell decided not to run for President because
he wanted to die with his boots off (bravely blaming his wife). Our
President's curious willingness utterly to wreck a relatively favorable world
balance of power, a situation which took decades of sacrifice to build-is a
reminder that choosing heroes for leaders may not be such a quaint or
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.