Give war a chance

American leftists could learn something from their European counterparts -- war is the only way to stop Milosevic.

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

While most of the world credits -- or blames -- President Clinton for NATO's strike against Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, the real force behind the decision to put a stop to ethnic cleansing has been the social-democratic leadership of Western Europe. Europe's shift to the left has been overlooked as an explanation for the decision to stand up to Milosevic.

Earlier this decade, as Vukovar, Sarajevo and Srebrenica were suffering, most of the major powers in Europe -- Britain, France, Germany and Italy -- were controlled by conservative governments not always noted for their internationalism or human rights concern. They dithered over what to do about the Balkans, as did their American counterpart, President Bush.

Now all those countries have elected social-democratic or Labor governments, and the world is finally taking steps to stop Milosevic. If not for the leftward move in Europe, Madeleine Albright would stamp her feet, the U.S. would act scary, the Serbs would act scared, the Kosovars would be sold down the river and Clinton would declare diplomatic victory.

Leftists in Europe and the U.S. are opposed to Clinton's handling of the conflict but for different reasons. Many Europeans, particularly Britains, think the prolonged NATO bombing is a Clintonian evasion of the need for ground troops to finish the job. Meanwhile the American left wrings its hands about Kosovar Albanians, but opposes all armed intervention to help them. In Thursday's New York Times, a coalition of peace groups led by the California Peace Action Education Fund took out a full-page ad decrying the bombing of Belgrade.

While a small minority of reflexively anti-American European liberals and leftists still see the New World Order looming in the dust of the NATO bombing, others see that Clinton has been dragged into this by allies who actually meant it when they said that the Serbs had gone too far this time.

Since NATO runs on consensus, the new European leftist governments were instrumental in dragging stragglers toward a military response once diplomacy failed. Their socialism may be attenuated in this era of global capital, but they have enough of an ideological core left to do the right thing, without waiting for focus groups to digest the latest CNN clips of refugees. And they have made it clear that their idea of doing the right thing means getting Milosevic out of Kosovo, if not out of office.

One can see the contrast between the right and left in the United Kingdom when looking at the positions of Douglas Hurd, the British Tory and former Foreign Secretary and Robin Cook, his Labor successor. Hurd famously dismissed ending the arms embargo for the Bosnians because it would "simply level the killing fields." Hurd cared about level cricket fields, of course, but as long as it was only Balkan people on the killing fields, why bother? In contrast to their conservative predecessors -- and indeed in stark contrast to President Clinton -- shortly after taking office the British Labor government ensured that its troops involved in NATO peacekeeping forces in Bosnia actively pursued indicted war criminals, even at the risk of sustaining British casualties.

It does help that European leaders generally have more popular support for military action than their American counterpart. That includes a greater acceptance that military involvement may lead to casualties. Europeans did not have to wait for "Saving Private Ryan" to restore a collective memory of World War II. Many of them remember that pandering to bloodthirsty dictators only postpones and prolongs the time of reckoning. Blair evoked those memories last week when he said that the Kosovar Albanians "are the victims of the most appalling acts of barbarism and cruelty Europe has seen since World War II. We teach our children never to forget what happened in that war. We must not allow ourselves to become desensitized to accept what is happening in Kosovo today."

In that vein, many Europeans calculate how much blood would have been saved if NATO had acted resolutely against Milosevic when the genocide against the Bosnians began in the early 1990s. And despite the best efforts of British conservatives, it is difficult to be isolationist in Europe. Britain and France declared war in 1939 on behalf of Poland, and most British and French still remember with some gratitude the belated arrival of American forces after 1941.

The Rambouillet talks, people forget, were about Milosevic's cynical breach of the pledges he had made last October, which were the result of negotiations, of course, and which had been enshrined in a binding Security Council resolution -- the latest of more than 50 against him. After promising to move troops out, he moved in some 20,000 more and killed more than 2,000 people, making hundreds of thousands of others homeless, and incidentally, chased unarmed Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors away when they tried to investigate the massacres. Only after its bluff was called did NATO take action. If NATO had been serious about its threats, ground forces would already have been introduced.

At the recent NATO summit in Washington, Tony Blair put pressure on fellow NATO allies to toughen up the response and move toward ground troops. (Blair once denounced me to a meeting of Labor Party parliamentary candidates as a "wild man from Liverpool, badmouthing President Clinton," after I had told him in 1992 that Clinton would sell his grandmother on the streets to gain office. I feel doubly vindicated, since Blair is now implying that he thinks his chum Bill is too wobbly for words.)

The handwringers on both sides of the Atlantic call for NATO to stop the bombing and, almost as an afterthought, for Milosevic to cease and desist from his campaign against the Kosovars. They overlook the fact that the bombing began precisely because the Serbs wouldn't stop killing, even as the OSCE monitors looked on.

Laughably, the harder left on both sides regard Serbia as some form of beleaguered workers' state facing off against global imperialism. Some are outright apologists for Serb atrocities. At the New York Socialist Scholars Conference this year, one or two referred approvingly to Milosevic's socialist credentials. Others have suddenly become big fans of the United Nations, insisting that NATO should have waited for U.N. endorsement of action against Yugoslavia, even though most of them opposed the United Nations when the Security Council endorsed the Gulf War.

In the New York Times ad taken out by the CPAEF, the group listed a possible violation of the U.N. Charter as one of their top ten reasons to stop the bombing of Yugoslavia. They also pointed to the "double standard" the bombing represents, pointing out the "brutal war" NATO member Turkey has been waging against its Kurdish population.

Of course, loony-left voices are much stronger within the American left, which has been pushed to the margins of American political discourse because of its failure to develop a successful mass electoral movement. Its members occupy their time with bizarre and quixotic causes: Mumia Abu Jamal -- his trial may have been a travesty, but his icon status within the American left makes no sense -- and support of Milosevic.

In Europe there is a genuine mass democratic left, with solid achievements in securing universal access to health care, education and social benefits. It has had power and responsibility, and so avoids the twin perils of what passes for the American left: Clinton's covert Republicanism vs. half-witted impotent sloganeering.

The European left is far from perfect. Tony Blair has learned too much from his American "Third Way" cousin when it comes to domestic politics. The British government's arms deals with Indonesia show it is not above reproach. But in comparison to the current American left, even New Labor looks radical and refreshing. And there is no doubt for whom the Kosovars would vote at the moment.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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