Politics & Policy

Orwell, The Gulf War, & Kosovo; The Riddle of Slobo


“Ha-ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia’, but only slightly less famous is this: ‘Never go in against a Sicilian, when death is on the line!’ Hahahahahah!”

— William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Now, when that was written, we were still in the midst of a Cold War which many seemed to think not merely froze, but froze to death, the old spirits. If Goldman had been writing in the 1930s, or the 1830s, or even the 1730s, he would probably have been quick to write “Never get involved in a land war in the Balkans.” Bill Clinton, no doubt in part because he would like to get his legacy out of his pants, has decided to heed both lessons. Instead, he is having a delightful air war in the Balkans, while Milosevic has his own land war in Kosovo. Clinton, apparently agrees with Bismarck that the Balkans are not worth the life of one Pomeranian Grenadier, or in his case, one corn-fed American pilot. So, he’s dropping bombs precisely where his aims cannot be achieved. Milosevic is sending more troops where they should not be going to do things we have staked our blood and treasure against that he not do.

How quickly things change. One of the wonderful things about the Gulf War was that it revealed Americans emerged from the Cold War as sober-eyed grown-ups. Our interests were at stake and we acted on them. And we acted on them like pros. George Bush told his generals what he wanted to see done and then gave his generals the widest possible latitude to get it done. George’s desk was not covered with aerial maps of Baghdad cross-referenced with polls and political constituencies. General Colin Powell actually used plain language. In this “war,” he said, we are going to “cut off” and then “kill” Hussein’s army. He actually used those words. I know what those words mean. With the Cold War over, there was no need to use clever euphemisms to explain ourselves or to deaden our intent.

What exactly is our intent in Yugoslavia? Prime Minister Tony Blair said that we must “carry on until he [Milosevic] does step down.” Madeleine Albright, mistaking the sausage in Mr. Blair’s spine as steel, said no, no, “It’s not ‘step down,’ but ‘back down.’ ” Now I know Churchill said we were two peoples separated by a common language, but come on.

This administration’s language betrays its immaturity more than anything else. First of all, whatever happened to the word “war”? When the State Department’s Jamie Rubin or the White House’s Joe Lockhart are asked whether this is a war, their response is like a kid telling his dad he didn’t actually “wreck” the car. “War has certain meanings,” said Rubin, explaining why he won’t use it. Precisely! We can’t have any words with meanings flying out of this place. If that happened, we might actually have to mean them. Serbians have few doubts that this is a war. Their national rallying symbol is a target for Pete’s sake. A target.

But no, Clinton says “degrade.” He uses this word the way teenagers use the word “improve” when they get a D+ instead of a D-. C’mon Dad, let me have the car tonight, my grades have improved. Degrading Milosevic’s military infrastructure is the only war, er, I mean degradation, aim that can be achieved — precisely because it doesn’t mean anything. We could have rained a hundred thousand copies of Richard Simmons’s “Sweating to the Oldies” tapes on Belgrade and degraded their ability to wage war or eat moon pies.

But the administration is willing to use really strong words when they are disconnected with policy. Thus we can call Milosevic Hitler and this engagement the moral equivalent of World War II, but we won’t say “war” and we can’t bring ourselves to say we want Milosevic “removed,” let alone something really meaningful, like “killed.” Again it is teenager thinking. Exaggerate the stakes involved but diminish one’s responsibility to do the concomitant work. “Dad, if you don’t pay for me to go to Vegas for the weekend, you will be guilty of child abuse.”

Back during the Gulf War, moralizing occasionally got out of hand, but usually it was kept to a minimum. The level of moralizing coming out of this administration is a stark reminder of the gobbledeygook we got from the Left in years past. For them, intentions are far more important than outcomes, so they must lie about both.

George Orwell’s majestic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” should be required reading for the entire press corps, if not the nation. “In our time,” Orwell wrote in 1946, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges…can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face….” Thus, Orwell contends, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside…this is called pacification.”

Well, we call it degradation, but pacification works, too.

He offers this example: “Consider, for instance, some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ “ Instead, Orwell supposes, this professor will say, “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore…”

Euphemisms betray a lack of conviction. There is no question that there are arguments, brutal arguments, for doing what needs to be done in Yugoslavia. “We should kill Milosevic.” “We need to win this war.” “Total victory is the only option.” But this administration is unwilling to make these arguments. They just don’t have the words in their vocabulary.


And speaking of words, why has it been lost on this administration that Milosevic is, well, a Communist. All of these comparisons to Hitler are fun, but why not Stalin? Hitler moved populations into camps to kill them. Stalin moved populations like I play Risk on my computer. Milosevic is not obsessed with killing all Albanians. He has a classic Communist’s attitude about people — they’re props. I know it would be awkward for this administration to point it out, but this is precisely the kind of person Communist regimes produce.

Coming tomorrow: The problem with anti-war conservatives and what to make out of the tragedy in Colorado.


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