The "progressives' war"

Nothing shows how outdated our concepts of "left" and "right" are more than the confusing politics behind NATO's war in Yugoslavia.

Published April 20, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

For those of us who grew up during the Vietnam war and its ideological aftermath, the idea that what's happening over Kosovo is a "progressives' war" sounds like an Orwellian oxymoron. Opponents of NATO's action in Yugoslavia point out the obvious irony of former anti-war activists Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder joining forces to drop bombs on a backward country in the name of peace and humanitarianism.

Yet that phrase -- "progressives' war" -- is precisely the one lately used by Tony Blair to describe NATO operations against the Milosevic regime. As the most outspoken leader of the center-left coalition that now runs the most powerful nations in the Western alliance, the British prime minister clearly intends to send the message that military force can indeed serve humane purposes. At the same time, Blair is explicitly challenging the long-standing anti-war assumptions of the modern left.

Opposition to war as well as outright pacifism have been powerful themes among left-wing movements for more than a century. Although leftist ideology deemed revolutionary violence to be honorable, organized violence by the capitalist state was assumed to conceal darker motives like imperialism, profiteering and genocide. Armies conscripted from the ranks of the working class were viewed as tools of these hidden schemes, dispatched abroad to kill and die in causes that served the interests of the ruling class. The great American socialist Eugene Debs, to cite one example, went to prison because he openly agitated against the World War I draft.

A similar impulse propelled Norman Thomas, who during the 1930s headed the remnant of the party once led by Debs, into a strange coalition known as the America First movement organized mainly by right-wingers opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II. Besides Thomas, who later changed his mind, many leftists in that era insisted that there was no principled choice between the totalitarian Axis and the capitalist-imperialist Allies, right up until 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland.

Echoes of the old America First rallies can be heard today in the motley domestic movement against NATO, which draws together the likes of Patrick Buchanan and Noam Chomsky. From the right, Buchanan is, in fact, the proper heir of the fascist sympathizers whose isolationism defined itself as America First, a term he proudly uses in his current presidential campaign.

From the left, Chomsky, of course, represents a different ideological perspective, developed during the Cold War when the horrific conflict in Vietnam and other Third World countries depleted the legitimacy of the struggle against communism. Under the strain of those bloodbaths, the Western alliance cracked but never quite split apart. And the young activists who took to the streets here and in Europe during that era learned to be deeply suspicious of military force as an instrument of foreign policy.

So it is strange today to find many of those same people -- now middle-aged and no longer radical -- leading Western political parties and governments into war. In their new roles, Clinton, Blair and Schroeder bear responsibilities for defense and national security they could not have imagined in their youth. At the same time, they have inherited a politically chaotic, multipolar world of increasing regional violence, where the failure to intervene militarily can be just as morally questionable as the decision to fight once seemed. It is a world in which the outdated preconceptions of both right and left are dangerously irrelevant.

That is why, inevitably, the ancient question of what constitutes a "just war" has reappeared in modern paraphrase, as what makes a war "progressive." Blair tells us that he and the other NATO leaders -- a "new generation" who "hail from the progressive side of politics" -- are "fighting not for territory but for values," for a "new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated."

Those are fine objectives I happen to share, although I believe the utopian rhetoric should be tempered with a stronger dose of pragmatism. I also agree that much of the carping about NATO policy toward Yugoslavia has been wrong. If there is such a thing as progressive war-making, it must be preceded by every possible diplomatic approach to the avoidance of war. It must be accompanied by the informed consent of the nations whose children and resources may be lost. It must be conducted with the maximum feasible regard for sparing innocent lives, including those of soldiers in the field.

All these preconditions tend to place at an initial disadvantage any democracy fighting against a dictatorship, but in the long run they make the democracies stronger. When those preconditions are absent, as in Vietnam, defeat will be more likely, and more likely deserved.

Action against Milosevic was necessary for reasons that go well beyond humanitarian interest in the fate of Kosovo. The Western allies needed to draw a line against a destablizing force in Central Europe and to demonstrate to tyrants and demagogues elsewhere that their ambitions may too encounter fierce resistance.

For Blair's more laudable ambitions to succeed, his new generation will have to develop a military and diplomatic competence that matches the level of its political skills. Meanwhile let's hope the progressive war-makers have learned the real lessons of Vietnam -- because Kosovo is certainly not the last place where they will have to deploy force to defend humanity.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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