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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the December 17, 2008 Providence Journal.
When it comes to foreign affairs, Barack Obama seems like a serious person with an authentic liberal’s concern about the health of the world beyond our borders. After all, he campaigned for president in Berlin and his blurb appears on the back of a book by Reinhold Neibuhr, the great liberal theologian and internationalist.
But so far, the president-elect’s Cabinet choices make a joke of the liberals who backed him in the hope that something fundamental might change in America’s belligerent behavior abroad. As the neo-conservative Max Boot approvingly observed, the appointment of Gen. James Jones as National Security Adviser and the retention of Robert Gates as defense secretary “could just as easily have come from a President McCain.”
So too, in principle, could that of hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, which makes Obama’s rhetoric of restraint in foreign affairs begin to sound as empty as President Bush’s professed skepticism about “nation building” eight years ago during his race against Al Gore.
It’s worth recalling that in the second debate with Gore, Bush even smirked at the concept: “I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. . . . I mean, we’re going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win wars. . . . And when it gets overextended, morale drops.”
He had that right. Indeed, you wouldn’t recognize the pre-emptive war fanatic of post 9/11 if it weren’t for Bush’s earlier statement during the debate in support of the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia/Serbia during the Kosovo crisis of 1999. It was then that the Clinton administration initiated its own pre-emptive war — in response to Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic’s alleged “genocide” against the Kosovar Albanians. The three-month bombing campaign was conducted under the auspices of NATO, not the United Nations, and thus was every bit as illegal under international law as the American invasion of Iraq, in 2003. At the time, Kosovo was formally part of a sovereign Yugoslavia and NATO could not argue that the Milosevic regime had threatened or attacked a NATO member.
Hillary Clinton favored both pre-emptive wars, and was particularly aggressive in the case of Serbia, according to Gail Sheehy’s book, Hillary’s Choice. Sheehy quotes Hillary’s recollection of a talk with her husband: “I urged him to bomb.” Challenged by the president on the possible consequences — for example, more executions of ethnic Albanians and damaging the NATO alliance — Hillary replied, “You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?”
At the very least, this was a gross exaggeration. Serb repression of Kosovo’s national aspirations, while often brutal, was nothing resembling a “holocaust,” and the Kosovo Liberation Army’s provocation, including the assassination of Serb policemen, helped worsen the conflict. No doubt Milosevic was a very bad man, but that didn’t stop U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard from calling the KLA, in 1998, a terrorist organization. Civilian casualties on the two sides are impossible to pin down accurately, but they appear to have been comparable, perhaps 2,000 Albanians killed by Serb forces and 1,500 Serbs killed by NATO warplanes in Belgrade and elsewhere.
This all may be blood under the bridge, but it gives us an insight into the shoot-first temperament of the future secretary of state. According to former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, “Hillary has a Manichean view of issues, splitting the political world into dueling forces of good and evil. . . . She sees herself as idealistic, moral, and righteous, and can only conclude that those with opposing views must have opposite motives.”
After Bush offered his solidarity with the Clintons over bombing Belgrade, Hillary was happy to return the favor over bombing Baghdad. In her Oct. 10, 2002, Senate speech explaining her vote for war authorization, she declared that “perhaps my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our nation.” Like little Serbia’s oppression of its Albanian minority and its alleged threat to the American “way of life”?
Politician to the core, Hillary couldn’t resist the following hypocrisy: While she wanted “to ensure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and support for the president’s efforts to wage America’s war against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction,” she insisted that her vote was not “a vote for any new doctrine of pre-emption, or of unilateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose.”
Well, they say you can’t have it both ways. And trying to may well have cost Hillary the presidency, since Obama’s early stance against the war is what gave him a leg up in the primaries.
But it’s not Hillary’s bellicose positions that are surprising. As a long-standing member of the Washington policy establishment and a “humanitarian interventionist,” it’s easy to see why she went along with the received political wisdom on Kosovo and Iraq.
What’s harder to understand is why Obama — elected on a platform of greater prudence — chose a trigger-happy hypocrite, who once mocked his “lack of experience” in foreign affairs, to be his diplomat-in-chief. I suspect it’s because the next president has no intention of genuinely getting out of Iraq — that he will make symbolic withdrawals of combat brigades, but plans to make permanent most of the 14 military bases constructed since the invasion.
Furthermore, I think that his foolish commitment to troop escalations in Afghanistan — much of which will come from troops transferred from Iraq — represents continuity with the Bush Doctrine more than it does rupture.
In the end, maybe Hillary and Barack don’t make such an odd couple. We won’t know for sure, however, until a Democratic Party-sponsored cluster bomb — dropped in the name of women’s rights and democracy — kills a lot of women and children in a village near Kandahar.
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