From Southeast Asia to Southeast Europe

May 31, 1999|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- King Abdullah of Jordan, a professional soldier by trade, made his first official visit to the capital this month and was, of course, asked his thoughts on NATO's involvement in Kosovo. The former general in the kingdom's army got right to the point, talking about the United States rather than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization:

"An air campaign is not going to do it; sooner or later you are going to have to get into a ground campaign," he said. "The United States' integrity and moral fortitude internationally is at stake. There is a lot riding on this . . . the whole world is watching."

That seems to be the consensus of almost everybody, foreign and domestic, around here. There is great disagreement, at least privately, about whether or not we were right or smart about going into the Balkans and about how effective the bombing is. But most people of power are arguing that once committed, "We must win!"

I would argue against it all. "We must win!" is the new domino theory.

We were ignorant or stupid to believe that we could saber-rattle Serbia into submission. When threats failed, we were ignorant or stupid to believe that bombs could do whatever it was we have been trying to do.

Bombing runs

There is a list circulating these days, compiled by William Blum, an author whose specialty is skewering the CIA, of 20 countries the United States has bombed openly or covertly since the end of World War II. The list:

China, 1945-46, 1950-53; Korea, 1950-53; Guatemala, 1954, 1960, 1967-69; Indonesia, 1958; Cuba, 1959-61; Congo, 1964; Peru, 1965; Laos, 1964-73; Vietnam, 1961-73; Cambodia, 1969-70; Grenada, 1983; Libya, 1986; El Salvador, 1980s; Nicaragua, 1980s; Panama, 1989; Iraq, 1991-99; Sudan, 1998; Afghanistan, 1998; Serbia and Montenegro, 1999.

Looking at those countries today, if the idea was to promote democracy and human rights, the results of all those explosions have been pretty dismal.

Looking back to the last place we had to win, Vietnam, did it actually matter that we lost? Within 15 years of the Americans being chased out of Vietnam, it was not the other countries of Southeast Asia that fell one after another; it was the Berlin Wall and communist governments across Europe that fell.

And I would suggest that communism would have collapsed earlier -- because of its internal contradictions, and the economic and military power of the West -- if the United States had not weakened itself and its allies by shedding blood and moral authority in Southeast Asia.

Speaking of the Southeast, one of the eerier things happening right now is the White House's attempts to eliminate the use of the word "Balkans" by saying we have a stake in "Southeast Europe," after having our way in Western, Central and Eastern Europe.

I'm repeating myself, but it seems that President Clinton understood more about Vietnam when he was a student than he does now.


Those were the days when National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger -- who expressed doubts about the Southeast Europe affair before it began, but then shifted to "We must win" -- said of Southeast Asia: "I can't believe that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn't have a breaking point."

Well, what we learned or should have learned in Vietnam is that first-rate powers are the ones likely to break or to run because they have more options than fourth-raters. The Soviets, a second-rate or first-and-a-half-rate power, learned the same thing against fifth-raters in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately for us, the overall lesson is that you cannot defeat people who are willing to die for the land if you are not.

The people of the Balkans -- they do not yet realize they are Southeastern Europeans -- do not have such choices. They have been there for centuries or more, and they are going to be there long, long after we stop flying over them.

So what the whole world is watching once more is a country so powerful it does not have to be smart enough to learn from history.

Richard Reeves writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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