Molly Ivins

Lessons from Kosovo


Oh, what an unlovely little war. The bombing campaign over Kosovo has definitively proved two things: that “surgical strike” is the most ludicrous oxymoron in the language and that “collateral damage” is the most repulsive euphemism. Nothing else about the bombing campaign over Kosovo is clear cut, except that now, as at the beginning, those who suffer from certitude about any of this are morons. And I was in favor of the whole thing.

I think we come out of this with honor and not much else. But that’s more than can be said for either Vietnam or Grenada. There has to be a better way. Let’s concentrate on finding it. Bombing for peace is not the answer.

We did not get involved in this because we wanted oil or land or gold. We did not even get involved to help some ally to whom we had a commitment. We got involved to stop Slobodan Milosevic and his troops from committing a mass atrocity against their own people. We failed.

We get brownie points for purity of intention but nothing else. We already knew from our misadventure in Somalia that purity of intention is neither justification nor consolation for a miscalculation of war.

As Jimmy Carter, among many others, concluded, the entire war in Vietnam was “a mistake.” One of the great understatements of our age. Robert McNamara, whose name we used to put on that war, said more starkly, “We were wrong.” I don’t think we were mistaken or wrong in our understanding and purpose in Kosovo, as we were in Vietnam. But in the end, it didn’t make much difference, did it? That the murder, rape, pillage, and mass deportation of Kosovars would have happened had we bombed or not is no consolation to either them or us.

Our consolation is that we tried. Our shame is that our means failed.

From the beginning, I think the one thing that was clear was that this was a situation so complex it was neither morally nor militarily clear. Throughout this campaign, there has been a relentless, baying chorus of critics insisting that President Clinton should have done this, that, or the other; or that Clinton should not have done this, that, or the other. I would have more respect for these critics were it not so painfully obvious that their only interest was in bashing Clinton — and any pretext at all would do. Principled opposition to this venture came from both right and left, and deserves respect; Tom DeLay and his fellow fools in Congress do not.

As we are now apparently in the endgame of this tragic episode, there are a few lessons we can draw from it, and as usual, I find myself in disagreement with the conventional wisdom.

I think there is one clear lesson here, and it involves our military: Those who have been arguing for the development of rapid deployment and rapid response capability have been in the right all along. Those of you who have followed this debate or read William Greider’s excellent book on the subject, Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace, know that we have been trying to follow two strategies simultaneously and not doing either very well. The defense industry is, as always, pushing us to spend incredible amounts on advanced military hardware, which often doesn’t work terribly well: witness, the famous Apache helicopter fiasco.Time for President Clinton and Defense Secretary William Cohen to weigh in heavily on the side of the brighter brains in the Pentagon who have been arguing for reshaping the military so that it is more flexible rather than more muscle-bound.On the endgame, as regards not letting Milosevic negotiate or niggle his way toward his original purpose, fine, let’s be as tough on the terms as we need to be. But for heaven’s sake, why would anyone suggest doing something so mean-spirited and counterproductive as having the Turks, the Serbs’ ancient enemies, serve as an occupying force? We don’t need to humiliate or further alienate the Serbs. Surely our experiences with Japan and Germany after World War II show that some magnanimity in victory — or even this semi-, hollow, non-victory — is not only right but shrewd policy as well.Finally, let me suggest that perhaps the single most significant lesson of this sad chapter is to emphasize the importance of whom we select as our leaders. Slobodan Milosevic was elected three times in legitimate contests by people who are not murderous, genocidal villains. They just voted for one. It behooves us to pay close attention to whom we vote for. And I remind you that those who do not vote make just as much difference in the selection of our leaders as those who do.

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected].