Among the early casualties of war in Kosovo may be the Republican reputation for steadiness, resolve and realism in international affairs. Symptomatic of this decline is Republicans' anointed front-runner for the presidency in 2000, George W. Bush -- who hid from reporters when the NATO bombing campaign began, emerging only briefly to mouth a few platitudes before disappearing once again.
Indeed, Bush's nervous failure to take a stand on the most pressing question of the moment recalls Margaret Thatcher's admonition to his dad, George Sr., when hostilities started in the Persian Gulf: "Don't go all wobbly on me now."
Now the son may see his middle initial transformed into an unfortunate new nickname -- as in George "Wobbly" Bush.
Bush's wobbling on Kosovo is the inevitable product of his urge to please all factions in his divided party. Hostage to the old isolationist faction on their own far right and hesitant to support a president they hate, the Republicans have -- with some honorable exceptions -- attempted to hide from the threat to European security and human rights posed by the Milosevic regime.
So while a few brave GOP senators like John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have stepped forward to support the NATO bombing campaign, neither the Senate majority leader nor the House speaker have had much to say. And at the other extreme, Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire has gone so far as to call for the United States to withdraw from NATO, echoing the ancient right-wing clichi about getting "the U.S. out of the U.N."
Although few conservatives in Congress are that crazy, the current crisis has exposed neo-isolationism as the dominant theme in their movement, and encouraged some weird alliances. Were the situation not so grave, it would be amusing to watch the leading activists, commentators and organizations on the right lining up with pacifists and other fringe elements on the left. That notorious peacenik Oliver North has joined up with the Green Party, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee -- and so have Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Arianna Huffington, Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, the Cato Institute, the Manchester Union Leader and, yes, the John Birch Society (which first coined that hoary old slogan about the United Nations).
This strange convergence of political forces is no doubt alarming to more sophisticated figures like William Kristol, who has reluctantly signed onto the NATO campaign while grousing about how badly Clinton has botched the job. For what it demonstrates is that the right-wing approach to the post-Cold War world has no more coherence than that of the left, and that conservatives can no longer sneer quite so confidently about the perils of liberal naiveti in a dangerous world. Instead it is right-wingers who sound naive, as they wave away the specter of a wider war and insist that the continuing atrocities in Kosovo are none of America's business.
Even the arguments posed by rightist critics sound sophomoric: If the bombing campaign doesn't stop the Serbian forces within a week or 10 days, then it's already a failure. If the Kosovo Liberation Army has committed acts of terrorism or profited from drug smuggling, then the ethnic Albanians deserve no protection from the international community. If the NATO nations aren't prepared to send in ground troops, then they should do nothing at all. And if the United States didn't try to prevent genocide in Rwanda or East Timor -- if, in fact, the United States has abetted mass murders in the past -- then we should ignore catastrophic violence now.
Again, there are prominent conservatives who reject these flimsy arguments, breaking away from the isolationist trend in their own ranks. William Kristol is one; Brit Hume of Fox News is another; and they aren't the only ones. The conservative supporters of the NATO effort are among the most passionately outspoken in support of the bombing, and in fact are among the strongest advocates of a ground campaign to oust and even overthrow Milosevic.
Considering how deeply Republicans already disagree among themselves about the Kosovo crisis, the pressures of a drawn-out war could result in a serious political schism. presidential primary competition also will intensify the divisions between neo-conservatives and paleo-conservatives, which last erupted during the Gulf War (and were then papered over during their common crusade against Clinton). By contrast, the Democrats in Congress and the White House, along with their ideological allies in the capitals of Europe, appear united and resolute. There is, of course, much to criticize in the way that the president and his advisors have dealt with Milosevic, starting with the failure to act more swiftly and firmly in Bosnia years ago. Contingencies such as the enormous movement of refugees and the need for huge quantities of food, shelter and medicine might have been anticipated. The early message from the White House that no ground force would be dispatched was a major strategic error, dictated by domestic politics and perhaps costly in human lives.
But in an unpredictable situation with few desirable choices, the president sought a diplomatic solution. When that failed, he drew together a powerful coalition to preserve NATO and oppose a murderous tyranny. Whether he possesses the skill and tenacity to finish what he has started is uncertain, although it must be hoped that he does. But in the meantime, the whining vacillation of his political adversaries has done him the unlikely favor of making him look tough.