What next, after Kosovo?

April 23, 1999|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- The Kosovo down payment is only $6 billion. Or so the White House told Congress this week.

Of course, to be fair, there is no way yet to calculate the cost of rebuilding what we are now destroying. We don't even know how long we will be destroying from on high -- or even if our troops will hit the ground in a parody of D-Day.

Why not? All the other World War II words and names we are using to explain Kosovo are parody, beginning with Hitler and Holocaust. To rationalize this turkey shoot, we trivialize the big one.

The most striking use of war-movie language these grim days is "passes" -- as in our fighters making several passes over Kosovo roads to spot the bad guys.

The word brings images of P-47s and P-51s roaring 50 feet above hedgerow-lined roads in Nazi-occupied France. Now F-16s, with magnificent men in those magnificent flying machines, fly at twice the speed of sound making passes three miles in the air over the clouds and clogged roads.

Many victims never see what hits them. "Baby boomer warfare . . . with almost no risk of retaliation against those firing the weapons," wrote R.W. Apple Jr., in an amazing piece about the morality of high-tech warfare last Sunday in the initially pro-war New York Times. "The essential nature of combat is the fear that you may die before you can kill your enemy. Isn't that what gives scale and meaning to an essentially savage act?"

There are great questions beyond the essential nobility of hating the evil represented by a Slobodan Milosevic. One of them is this: Have we now raised the Vietnam insanity of destroying a village to save it to destroying a country, or two or three, to save it?

Who will clean up the mess? And I do not just mean the blood, the crumbled buildings and crumpled bridges. Leaving aside the question of whether there would have been such carnage and wreckage if we and our magical weaponry had stayed home, what will we and everyone else do after the war?

A Canadian historian, Michael Bliss of the University of Toronto, writing in the National Post, asked that question this way: "Who can imagine the co-existence of Serbs and Kosovars? . . . Who would bet that foreign troops will be out of the Balkans in our lifetime?"

Then he added these consequences of the Americans and their allies, including the Canadians, crusading into hell on Earth: "The end of NATO." Who, he asks, will follow NATO again after "one of the most striking military and public relations blunders in recent history?"

"Collapse of the `human security agenda.' Human rights and the rule of international law were the first casualties."

"The United Nations will be close to non-functional because of the implications of the marginalization of the Security Council. The community of nations will almost certainly close ranks against the view that human rights activism trumps national sovereignty."

"American unilateralism." He sees the possibility of Americans withdrawing first from the Balkans and then from Europe to concentrate only on our own national interests.

I don't agree with all of that. I think the United Nations may emerge stronger, precisely because we ignored the Security Council -- to avoid Russian or Chinese vetoes -- and I think the United States will remain engaged in Europe.

But I agree overall that the worst is yet to come. Even if we are very lucky, the only thing we'll get for this first $6 billion are the most painful refugee pictures off of television for a while.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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