Global Peacekeeping Is Never Cheap

DIMITRI SIMES

August 17, 1993|By DIMITRI SIMES

It is curious that Bill Clinton -- still unapologetic for his youthful opposition to the Vietnam War, in which an American client was the clear-cut target of foreign communist aggression -- seems so tempted to involve the United States in other peoples' civil wars where no major U.S. interests are at stake.

At least Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole is being consistent when he calls for an American military role in Bosnia. Senator Dole has a record of supporting the use of force to achieve U.S. objectives. But when the Clinton national-security team (many of whom have opposed just about every American military engagement in the last quarter of a century, from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf) does so, some troubling questions about its logic are in order.

Liberal Democrats traditionally have had a predisposition for causes that appeal to the heart more than the mind. But when it becomes the driving force for foreign-policy conduct, the do-gooder impulse is a sin. Those who arrogantly believe that they sufficiently understand developments thousands of miles away, in unfamiliar circumstances and alien cultures, can damage U.S. interests and lead to the loss of innocent lives -- including those of the very people they would like to help.

During the Cold War, the presence of another superpower powerfully constrained what the United States could do without the risk of an apocalyptic confrontation. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the impression has been gaining momentum in this country that Washington will now be able to promote global morality on the cheap. This encourages yesterday's peaceniks to turn into today's hawks.

Unfortunately, the impression is false. The world remains a dangerous place, and those who would bravely jump into its troubled waters should be prepared to spill a lot of blood -- their own and that of others. Without such commitment, grave consequences can result when the bluff is called. The fiasco in Lebanon in 1983-84 should have been instructive. But the Clinton administration seems unable to learn from history.

Neither the administration nor the public at large has the stomach for spending a lot of money or losing American lives to perform international police functions. However, instead of confronting squarely the limits of the American will to act in situations that do not involve important U.S. security and economic interests, Mr. Clinton prefers to keep the American superpower half-pregnant.

It is fashionable to argue that the administration has no choice but to do something in response to the strong sense of disgust that Americans have as they helplessly watch famine in Somalia and slaughter in Bosnia. To a large extent, media coverage does shape any administration's options, but it does not do so entirely.

People die of starvation in Sudan in enormous numbers. Civil war in Afghanistan is no less bloody than it is in Bosnia. And more attacks on UN peacekeepers take place in Cambodia than in Bosnia. Yet Americans do not hear much about these tragedies -- and that is not a result of CNN's playing God and deciding which outrages to cover and which to ignore. For if Candidate Clinton had not made Bosnia a campaign issue, and if President Clinton had not treated Bosnia as if it were a principal challenge to American national security, the media would have lost interest quite quickly.

There is an interaction between the politicians and the media. It was Candidate Clinton who blasted President Bush for not doing enough to right the wrongs taking place in Somalia and Bosnia. And it is President Clinton who has put together a team that is incapable of establishing post-Cold War national security priorities and articulating them to the American people.

In this climate of confusion and public agonizing, the events in Bosnia and Somalia have somehow grown into tests of U.S. power and righteousness. Bill Clinton has allowed this dangerous obsession to happen on his watch and has even contributed to it.

Some commander in chief!

Dimitri Simes is chairman of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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