One Last Look, Before We Leap

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

First, let’s eavesdrop on a commander-in-chief, broodingon the great themes of war and death: “‘We’re not inflicting pain onthese fuckers’ [The President] said softly at first. ‘When people kill us,they should be killed in greater numbers.’ Then, with his face reddening,his voice rising and his fist pounding his thigh ‘I believe in killing peoplewho try to hurt you, and I can’t believe we’re being pushed around by thesetwo-bit pricks.'”

LBJ at the time of the Tonkin Gulf resolution? Nixon duringthe Christmas bombing of Haiphong? No. This was Bill Clinton, as recalledby George Stephanopoulos in his recent memoir, privately ranting at thetime US “humanitarian” intervention in Somalia was falling apart,back in 1993. In other words, the first post cold war president’s instinctivereaction to challenge from a foreign adversary, however diminutive, is exactlythe same as those of commanders-in-chief in the years of the cold war, whowalked noisily and flourished big sticks.

And alas, one can imagine Clinton ranting this week inthe Oval Office to his national security advisor Sandy Berger just as hedid back then to Stephanopoulos and to Berger’s predecessor, Tony Lake.Is the “two bit prick,” President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia,still defiant? Then bombard Serbia’s cities ever more heavily with highexplosive! He still won’t succumb and acknowledge NATO’s writ? Send in theinfantry!

There is a rhythm to these imperial forays, and we shouldunderstand clearly the stage to which we are now arriving, for Clinton warpolicy is in the process of congealing into a long-term military strategyof truly appalling contours. As always, the initial predictions were optimistic,the rhetoric ebullient and the public reaction firmly adverse. The NATObombing was to be of Serbian military units, and brief in duration. Milosevicwould soon come to his senses. The committal of ground forces was out ofthe question. Public opinion was hesitant even on the bombing, and deadset against any ground war.

So, the bombs and missiles have been falling steadily.There are even more refugees heading into Belgrade than out of Kosovo intoMacedonia. Belgrade itself is going the way of Baghdad, on exactly the sameUS targeting strategy: bridges gone, power plants gone, sewage treatmentdestroyed. Missiles will go on killing civilians as they did the other dayin Novi Sad. The limitations of air power are once again being exposed.

Surveying the infinite worsening of the misery and flightof the Albanians of Kosovo, the NATO generals and some of the Joint Chiefsare saying that they knew this would happen. There are increasing rumblesabout the need for a ground invasion by NATO to finish the job. Meanwhile,American public opinion is massaged by State Department propaganda bulletinsand unending footage about the plight of the Albanian refugees. Sure enough,under this barrage, American public opinion is beginning to shift. Maybea ground war is the only way.

Then everything congeals. Policies get set in stone, sometimesfor years, because now American “resolve” is under duress. It’snot difficult now to look down the tunnel and see a NATO troop build upin Macedonia, Albania and other more distant NATO allies: a land onslaught;a bloody war; a devastated region; 100,000 NATO occupiers in Kosovo; andSerbia in rubble. Contrary to some predictions, American public opinionwould endure body bags and would rally to the flag. Any peace movement herewould take a long time to get off the ground. Most of the crucial organizers,seemingly unable to think of more than one thing at a time, are presentlypreoccupied with the campaign for Death Row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal. Manyliberals and so-called progressives favor the bombing.

Or maybe, for logistical reasons, the recalcitrance ofallies, fear of too many casualties, there won’t be a land war, but justcontinued bombing of Serbia, along with such economic and trade sanctionsas can be imposed. Serbia will be shoved back into the living conditionsof a very poor third world country, as was Iraq after the 1991 war. Publicopinion will tolerate this, just as it has the dreadful toll, particularlyon Iraq’s children, caused by the sanctions against Iraq.

So now, as Clinton’s policy starts to congeal, let us retaina sense of realism and proportion. The lot of the Kosovars, of the refugees,awful though it may be, was no reason to go to war. The US didn’t bomb Croatiain the mid-1990s when President Tudjman sent in Croat troops to ethnicallycleanse Serbs in the Krajina. To the contrary, US military advisers helpedhim target Serb towns, thus prompting even more Serb refugees moving east(about 800,000) than Albanians out of Kosovo. The US’s humanitarian credentialsare not robust.

The bloody Vietnamese quagmire owed much to the insistenceof US presidents Johnson and Nixon that there was no viable “exit strategy.”Of course there were many, but those available were withheld from publicdiscussion here. It’s the same now. Milosevic’s recent suggestion of a ceasefirewas brushed aside as somehow unthinkable. The efforts of Russian premierPrimakov and of the Vatican have been scorned.

We’re already hearing derision about the “fainthearts”in NATO. Maybe some corner of Clinton’s brain reckons that bombs on Serbiawill extinguish Monica Lewinsky from popular memory. But what man of maturejudgment and compassion would not prefer to be remembered by the Starr reportthan by bomb craters? Many people thought Clinton was the first presidentwho somehow would prefer Starr’s volume as his epitaph, however embarrassing.But no. Like all the others, he wants bomb craters as his requiem. CP

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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