The End of the Absolute No

The American left’s reflexive opposition to U.S. military intervention broke down over Kosovo. A veteran activist says it’s about time.

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Traveling around the country last spring, after NATO’s bombardment of Serbia began, I kept walking into the same conversation. I’d be catching up with one or another old friend from the ’60s, comrades with whom I shared obsessions and convictions for the better part of a decade, and no conviction more passionate than our common hatred for the Vietnam War. In subsequent years we had kept opposing American military involvement hither and yon, whether in Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Grenada, El Salvador, or Panama. Most of us had deplored the Persian Gulf War, too. Now, in 1999, we would gingerly feel each other out: So, what do you think about this war?

With relief, pleasure, some awkwardness, even surprise, we discovered that we still agreed. Some felt unequivocal, others agonized and bewildered, but most of us supported the NATO war over Kosovo. We supported it in fear and trembling–because what NATO was doing was, after all, war. But still we supported the war, if not its every tactic. We were certain it started not too soon but much too late, and then was botched. We were worried about consequences in Russia and China. A few of my old friends even opposed this particular war, the air war, because they wanted a ground war instead.

And a few wanted no war at all. Like veterans of the Vietnam War, they flashed back to old terrors. But what one thought 30 years ago has lost its predictive value. Like it or not, the American left’s near-automatic No to military force, a staple of conviction, even “identity,” for three decades, is finished. Just as well.

Until recently, most of the new left tended to think of Washington’s foreign policy as all of a piece, the product of original imperialist sin. These were the fundamentals: The future was preordained by a history of gunboat diplomacy, coups, alliances with dictatorships–all signs of arrogant Manifest Destiny on a global scale. The Vietnam War was but one in a long line of aggressions back to the Spanish-American and Mexican wars, which in turn were continuous with slavery and the genocide of the Indians, the whole (yes) shooting match. Cold War belligerency, unwarranted by any Soviet threat, threatened to blow up the planet. Throwing its military and corporate weight around the world, America made the impoverished more impoverished, the desperate more desperate. America was lusty for power, as ingenious with its deceits as it was untrustworthy. Democracy, self-determination, human rights–such rationales of the hour were ruses, all. This complex of half-truths seemed to make sense of many events that otherwise appeared wholly mysterious.

For a few years after the breakdown of communism in 1989, the left stumbled around trying to find traction. Still, for all the muddle, anti-interventionism remained in place, a kind of Cheshire politics–a unifying No in the absence of a compelling Yes. Some division emerged over the Gulf War, but most of us on the American left looked at Desert Storm and saw bluster and oil, the corpses of Iraqi civilians and visions of American body bags to come. Others, especially in Europe, were more impressed by the risk of appeasing a military conqueror, even though they, too, were not enamored of fighting a war for oil. Myself, I marched and spoke against the war, despite the U.N. approval; despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was the nearest thing to a fascist in the contemporary world; despite the unlikelihood that sanctions, the form of coercion that most on the left preferred to war, would succeed in dislodging Saddam from Kuwait. On balance, however justified the end it was supposed to serve, the war seemed unwise, a disproportionately brutal means.

Still, it was already clear that positions were becoming matters of degree, not absolutes. One friend and I, after a long back-and-forth, decided that we were six inches apart, I coming out against the war and he in favor of it–perhaps a matter of temperament, in the end. Had I known then what I learned five years later, knowledge would have in my case trumped temperament cleanly. For in 1995, I heard the unimpeachable U.N. Special Commission chief Rolf Ekeus report that during his missions in Iraq he had confirmed some of the U.N.’s most fearful projections: When the Gulf War began, Saddam had 25 missile warheads loaded with anthrax, intended for a surprise attack, and was a few months short of having a usable nuclear missile. His compunctions about using such weapons were nil, of course. Sanctions, in hindsight, wouldn’t have worked, Ekeus thought, and so the war had been a just war after all. Another blow against my own automatic No.

By that time, I had already relinquished it on another issue: the fate of ex-Yugoslavia. In fact, the anti-interventionist consensus on the left visibly and irrevocably cracked over the Serb assault on multi-ethnic Bosnia in the early 1990s. At a birthday party in early 1993, I sat with a half-dozen friends with whom I had shared a hundred positions for what already seemed like a hundred years, and encountered views ranging from “Bomb Now!” to “None of Our Business!” Apart from the intensity of our interest, we who had once been fiercely opposed to the mainstream were probably not so different from a tableful of Americans picked at random.

What followed were years more of Europe, America, and the United Nations all standing by, making threats and then reneging on them, while Milosevic savaged Bosnia–until, finally, American bombing helped drive him to a partitioned peace. Whereupon, as predicted, Milosevic went to work on the Albanians in Kosovo. In the meantime, Hutus slaughtered Tutsis in Rwanda while no one lifted a finger, even as Clinton’s intervention in Haiti plainly saved lives. The price of nonintervention was rising steeply in the eyes of many: It was beginning to seem that a careful Yes could do good, while a reflexive No was being discredited by events.

If all armies gird to fight the last war, all anti-war movements are tempted to fight the previous peace campaign. For strict pacifists, it’s no wonder: All wars are the same, equally indefensible. But in 1999, even some on the nonpacifist left thought they had been jolted back to Vietnam. These Rejectionists, as I shall call them, looked at the NATO war and saw “evil” and a “new imperialism,” Milosevic as America’s “latest demon,” the United States acting as “policeman of the world”–these phrases from Tom Hayden, with like words emanating from Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Howard Zinn, and the editors of, and most contributors to, The Nation.

I read the Rejectionists, trying to make out what they proposed instead of war. Diplomacy, I heard. Yet diplomacy with Milosevic had proceeded for eight years, as tens of thousands of Bosnians and thousands of Kosovars died at his hands, and he reneged on deal after deal with aplomb. Some proposed supporting the opposition to Milosevic. Yes, surely the West should have tendered more help to anti-Milosevic forces during the weak opposition campaign of 1997, and perhaps, if all else failed, the Kosovo Liberation Army should have been armed. But had the United States done more of this sort of thing, and Milosevic still pursued his barbarous designs, what then? The Rejectionists did not seem to be asking that question, let alone answering it. They were rightly indignant about the loose rhetorical Hitlerization of Milosevic–a comparison that automatically (and disgracefully) prettified not only Hitler but the Khmer Rouge, the Hutus, and other mass murderers–but they seemed more exercised by extravagant rhetoric than by years of Serb atrocities.

Rejectionists charged inconsistency, asking rhetorically, “Why Kosovo but not Rwanda or East Timor?” As if, having failed to stop one gang of killers, we should have tried to stop none. Worse, having failed to do what needed to be done to stop the awful atrocities in Rwanda, were we bound to stand by as the Kosovars were massacred, dispossessed, and deported? Because they were European, was it a sort of global affirmative action to look the other way?

I was disturbed, too, by what struck me as a rather cavalier approach to–or avoidance of–Milosevic’s victims, at least until the bombing started. Some Rejectionists took a moment to declare Milosevic beastly, but some thought him not so bad considering his neighborhood. Hadn’t Kosovar Albanians been nasty to Serbs, too? Weren’t the KLA terrorists themselves? Surely NATO would emerge from the 1999 war in some sort of de facto coalition with the KLA–not the kind of people with whom we want to get into entangling alliances.

And clearly, Rejectionists added once the bombing began, the NATO attacks produced a disaster for the Kosovar Albanians. Well, NATO’s miscalculation was plain, Milosevic having brutalized the Kosovars tenfold or a hundredfold once the air campaign began. Still, I thought, if NATO did miscalculate, that was grievous but not a crime. The crime was Milosevic’s. NATO didn’t choose its dismal options. Consider that, in occupied France during World War II, French partisans killed German soliders in full knowledge, not guesswork, that the Germans would retaliate against French civilians 10-to-1. They judged that reprisals had to be risked, because, in the all-too-real world, no hands are clean.

As for the KLA, since when can one always choose one’s allies? Stalin was our ally against Hitler–and the United States damn well needed him. People on every side of the war over Kosovo found themselves matched up with strange bedfellows.

This sort of bitter knowledge had come to me awkwardly at first. For some years, I wondered whether it amounted to middle-age accommodation, a kind of ideological crow’s-feet. But rethinking the 1960s for a book, revisiting what had gone well and what had gone disastrously then, helped me appreciate the tarnished beauty of realism. Reckless idealism doesn’t care about results. Refusing to contemplate practical results is childishly easy–seductive and self-betraying.

Those who condemned the NATO war categorically never posed a serious answer to the key questions: What else was to be done for the human rights of a systematically persecuted population? If not by NATO, then by whom? The United Nations, which stood by and did nothing as Milosevic violated Security Council resolutions with impunity dozens of times? “I hate this war,” a friend said to me. “I hate it, too,” I replied, “but what would you rather do about the Kosovars?” “I don’t know,” she said. Long pause. I asked her again after peace broke out. She still had no answer. “I’m glad I don’t have to think about that,” another said.

Such, I had come to think, was a luxury of life in parochial America. Only the heartless could pretend away the Kosovo predicaments, the product of many crimes and missed chances over the years. Even a victory in this war was going to usher in ugly results–as did America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, for that matter. Kosovar earth was scorched; the Kosovar Serbs would be dispossessed in turn. But winning pretty was not an option. The absolute No was an outsider’s luxury, an excuse not to reason. “I’m glad I don’t have to think about that” means “I insist on guarantees in a world without guarantees. I want my choices and consequences simple. I’ll hold on to my absolutes, and if the world doesn’t go as it ought, too bad for it and its lousy choices. I check out.”

That the use of force was legitimate did not ease my mind, nor should it have. I did not want to disregard the Serbian dead, and reports of bomb damage shook me. The means were hideous, the just end not in sight, even as the bombing intensified. All the more people died because they were targeted and mistargeted from three miles up, the better to protect NATO aviators. A month into the war, I looked at my own hands and was not pleased. At times I was tempted to backslide. Most of my old crowd felt such twinges and qualms–agonies, even. But not for long. Backing down, it felt to me, would be succumbing to yet another purity fetish. So never mind that, over our shoulders, we could hear–I could hear–Rejectionists shrieking that we had become the warmongers our younger selves had despised.

Once we accepted the principle that the use of force was legitimate to protect human rights, there was plenty to debate about strategy and tactics. But the Rejectionists were not seriously entering into that debate. They seemed to start from the presumption that the United States and its allies have no business intervening anywhere for any purpose, that the U.S. is condemned by history to do no good abroad–except, perhaps, when pressing Israel. Their absolute No seemed less a practical argument about likely consequences than a prejudice.

On the other hand, start from a different presumption and the predicament changes. Start from the presumption that human rights trump national boundaries; that when a minority is systematically persecuted, someone who is able to do so should intervene; that when ideal institutions do not exist for that purpose, the nonideal institutions that do exist are obliged to do their best–then, in the case of Kosovo, it was NATO or nobody. Only a just use of force stood a fighting chance of accomplishing a just end: the Kosovars’ safe resettlement.

The fact that, in this case, the results were less bad than they might have been does not flash a green light to intervene everywhere, casually, or often. The postwar world being nasty and brutish, long on local slaughter and weapons of mass destruction, we–people of good will, not only the left, not only Americans–will face such dreadful choices again. What then? To specify necessary conditions for just intervention in the abstract is not difficult: The consequences of inaction need to be unbearable, the aims achievable, the means proportional, the costs sustainable. It will not be easy to convert principles to rules, let alone establish reliable institutions for averting catastrophes. Machines cannot be programmed to decide about intervention; human beings will have to decide, each time freshly. But one thing is certain: In the quandaries to come, the absolute No will be useless.


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