Progressive leaders' `third way' faces test

April 27, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

WASHINGTON -- When war in the former Yugoslavia first erupted in 1991, most of the core NATO powers were led by conservatives such as then-U.S. President Bush, British Prime Minister John Major and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

But when NATO leaders gathered in Washington last weekend to celebrate the organization's 50th anniversary -- and considered the unsteady state of its war in Kosovo -- almost all of them represented left-of-center governments. Apart from conservative French President Jacques Chirac, all the other seats at the head table are now held by baby boomers who consider themselves progressives: President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Kosovo has rightly been called a test of NATO's future. But it is equally a test of what Mr. Blair has rather grandly christened this "new generation of leaders . . . who hail from the progressive side of politics."

At home, most of this generation has been committed to defining a new progressive agenda on domestic issues -- a "third way" that threads a path through traditional conservative and liberal approaches. Now, in the crucible of Kosovo, they are trying to do the same in foreign policy.

Despite all the frustrations of the past month, in some ways they are succeeding. By intervening in Kosovo at all, they are leading the left away from the reflexive resistance to the use of force that infused their parties from the 1960s through the 1990s -- a hostility evident even in their own younger anti-war activities.

But the third-way leaders have not yet demonstrated that they can use force effectively enough to meet their objectives -- and efficiently enough to hold public support.

"The good news is that we are seeing the emergence of a third-way approach to foreign policy that accepts responsibility for maintaining order and for redefining NATO's mission," says Will Marshall, executive director of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "The execution of this interventionism is another question."

A matter of character

The questions raised by the failure of the military campaign to prevent Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic's forced depopulation in Kosovo rise beyond issues of operational competence. They amount to a measure of character and conviction.

In domestic policy, the great (though exaggerated) knock against third-way politicians is that they triangulate to the squishy center of public opinion, sacrificing leadership to minimize risk. In Kosovo, critics on the right are already leveling the same indictment. Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire crystallized this critique when he derided NATO's course of airstrikes-only warfare as a strategy "neither to stop nor to ignore the aggressor, but to punish evildoing in a low-risk manner."

Political risks

That judgment is in one obvious respect unfair: The third-way leaders have already risked more -- in both political and military terms -- to prevent atrocity in the Balkans than their conservative predecessors did.

It's true that just before he left office, Mr. Bush threatened Milosevic with military force if he cracked down in Kosovo. But given Mr. Bush's unwavering refusal to intervene in the bloody wars that erupted in Croatia and Bosnia -- and the equally staunch resistance from Mr. Major, Mr. Kohl and then-French President Francois Mitterrand, the most prominent left figure in NATO at the time -- it is difficult to imagine that the threat would have translated into a war of the magnitude now under way.

Mr. Bush's aversion to intervention in the Balkans was rooted in his conviction that the great lesson of Vietnam was that the United States should not initiate any use of force unless it was willing to escalate all the way to a full-scale ground war.

With an eye on the 1995 NATO bombing campaign that helped push Milosevic to the bargaining table in Bosnia, today's crop of NATO leaders rejected the imprisoning assumption that their only choices in Kosovo were all or nothing; in that sense, Mr. Clinton's generation probably has been less bound by the Vietnam precedent than Mr. Bush's.

Cutting risks

Yet the past month has shown that the third-way leaders have not exorcised all their ghosts. They have given enormous, even inordinate, priority to minimizing allied casualties and their attendant political risks. In that sense, Vietnam still seems to haunt their thinking.

NATO is inching its way out of that box with preliminary planning for a possible ground assault. That's overdue (and still too leisurely). No one should complain when a president or prime minister exhausts every alternative before sending in ground troops.

But no one should cheer when leaders stubbornly ignore mounting evidence that their course isn't working.

Ronald Brownstein is a Los Angeles Times columnist based in Washington.

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