Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, March 8, 1999
Last week's debacle at Rambouillet, the French chateau where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright failed to win agreement from both Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, was more than just a humiliation for the Clinton administration. In the coming days and weeks the awful consequences of that failure will be felt by thousands of innocent civilians in Kosovo. As this magazine went to press, Serb forces under the control of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic appeared poised to begin a massive new offensive against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo. Milosevic clearly would like to use the next two weeks to decimate Kosovar guerrilla forces and, short of that, to inflict so much suffering on the civilian population that when talks resume on March 15, Kosovar delegates will be prepared to sue for peace on Milosevic's terms. We can expect atrocities and homeless refugees, because these tactics of terror and genocide are Milosevic's weapons of choice. They have served him well in the past, and Clinton's feckless response has surely convinced him that he may use them again with impunity.
Perhaps the administration and our NATO allies will be so horrified by the carnage, and so ashamed for their role in unleashing it, that they will finally do what they should have done last April, last October, and last week: launch a massive air attack on the Serb military and military infrastructure -- the pillars on which Milosevic's rule in Belgrade rests. But don't hold your breath. What little consensus may have existed among the NATO allies for airstrikes last week has now all but evaporated. The Clinton administration had its chance to lead the alliance effectively against Milosevic, and blew it. It may not have another chance for some time.
As if that isn't bad enough, many Republicans in Congress seem bent on voting soon to oppose any deployment of U.S. troops to Kosovo -- even if a decent agreement were to be reached offering Kosovars a chance at real autonomy. This would not only be a catastrophe for the many innocent civilians who are likely to die over the coming weeks and months. It would also be a catastrophe for NATO. If the alliance decides to deploy and the United States refuses to participate, it will cause the biggest rupture in the alliance's long and honorable history. It might, indeed, mean the end of NATO as an American-led alliance.
Republican senators who voted last year to expand NATO, and House members who in 1994 made its expansion a plank in the Contract with America, may want to reflect for a moment on the effect a stand against ground troops would have on our new allies in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. If the United States balks at sending 4,000 more troops to the Balkans, what confidence can these new allies have that America would send tens of thousands of troops to defend their soil against attack? If this country proves unwilling to take on Milosevic now, what are the chances it will be willing to take on potentially more dangerous foes in the years ahead? A vote against deployment would strike a blow at two planks in foreign policy that Republicans have claimed to stand for: a strong NATO alliance and vigorous U.S. leadership. These principles are, obviously, intimately related.
So what should Republicans do? They should follow the example set by Senator John McCain. Senator McCain has been a harsh critic of the Clinton administration's inept foreign policy, and he is no fan of reckless deployments of American troops overseas. As a leading member of the armed services committee, McCain knows better than anyone how severely stretched U.S. forces are, thanks to six years of defense cuts under President Clinton. As a decorated Vietnam veteran and a former prisoner of war, McCain knows something about quagmires. But he also knows, as he said last week, that "Slobodan Milosevic represents the personification of a kind of tyranny we had hoped we had seen the last of with the death of Stalin," and that therefore "he must be curtailed through forceful persuasion." And McCain is right when he argues that "the risks to U.S. national interests should the fighting in Kosovo spread beyond its confines could be substantial."
Instead of opposing deployment, McCain is insisting that the Clinton administration demonstrate that it is serious about any use of military force and that it knows what it is doing before it dispatches troops to Kosovo: that it has a coherent strategy, clear rules of engagement, a plan to pay for the operation without depleting already meager Pentagon funds, and a commitment to insure that NATO alone calls the shots. "If these commitments are met up front," McCain declared last week, he will support the deployment.
Republicans ought to do the same. A major intraparty battle is now shaping up over the issue of Kosovo. On one side are Pat Buchanan and the neo-isolationist wing of the party, strangely allied this time with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Lamar Alexander. On the other side is a resurgent Reaganite wing, led by McCain in Congress, and Reaganites like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Vin Weber, Richard Perle, and Caspar Weinberger -- all of whom signed a letter at the end of January in support of NATO ground troops if needed.
The outcome of this intra-GOP battle may shape the course of Republican foreign policy for years to come, and it will certainly shape the contest in 2000. If the Republicans want to run against Al Gore as the party of responsible leadership in foreign policy, the time to start is now.