Politics & Policy

When Appearing to Do Good Just Ain’t Enough


This should have been a pretty good week for Western civilization. Here in Washington, everything from the Department of Motor Vehicles to the local thumbsuck factories is closed. It is the 50th anniversary of the military alliance that saved humanity from the Dark Ages, and we deserve a party. If NATO had not succeeded, democracy would have been an interesting historical anecdote to discuss over lunch between politburo meetings.

Instead of everyone joining a giant conga line stretching around the Mall, things couldn’t be more dour. A cheap Yugoslav knock-off of Stalin is doing what Stalin couldn’t.

The problem with this war is simple: Our heart isn’t it. (I highly recommend Charles Krauthammer’s column in today’s Washington Post. NATO won’t mine Milosevic’s harbors because that would be a provocative “act of war.” Yet, somehow, dropping thousands of bombs on downtown Belgrade isn’t an act of war.)

The General Secretary of NATO says that the bombing at least shows “we have shown the will to try.” What the hell is that? This is the equivalent of saying you deserve an “A” for showing up to class. If you are going to leverage the credibility of NATO and fling phrases like “Holocaust,” “genocide,” “mass-murder,” and “a new Hitler” around, then in the words of Yoda, there is no try, there is do or do not. There is no try.

This “c’mon we’re trying” crap is the sort of historical featherbedding that the current crop of Western leaders love. Now, some day in the future some historian can’t say “why didn’t anybody do anything?” when Kosovo went to Hell. Ah, NATO did do something: It expressed its moral outrage at Serbian night-janitors 500 miles north of where the murder was happening.

As Krauthammer points out this morning, the problem with humanitarian missions like this is that they can’t withstand casualties. If we get hurt, we bug out, like in Beirut and Somalia. Well, we can’t really do much good if we’re afraid to get hurt. Any cop will tell you, the surest way to get yourself or others hurt or killed on the street is to show fear or a lack of confidence. There is nothing about this adventure in the absurd that suggests NATO has even the slightest confidence in what it is doing. We are “playing cop.” What holds true for a guy on the beat, holds true for the world’s policeman too.

I may not be able to beat Mike Tyson with a two-by-four, but it would certainly be a hell of a lot easier if his definition of defeat was, literally, me laying a finger on him. Right now NATO is Mike Tyson and it is terrified of even getting punched by a guy with the upper-body strength of a twelve-year-old girl.

So if we’re not even going to take this seriously, why even have the other arguments? I intended to write about the problem with anti-war conservatives this week. There are problems. I’m hearing my comrades-in-arms use the language of the peacenik Left more and more. Here’s a tip: If you find yourself channeling Noam Chomsky, take a deep breath and start over.

Some conservatives are embracing the honorable nationalism of pre-WWII America. Others are becoming sober-eyed realists, when they were Wilsonians not even a month ago. And others are for a serious war with Serbia. I know this because I have embraced all three positions — and heard from the other two each time. (I should say that another problem with many of the new conservative sit-in types is their bad-faith — they refuse to accept that someone who is in favor of the war is morally honest).

But the real problem with the war in Yugoslavia is that it isn’t a fair test case. President Clinton has always believed (paraphrasing Yogi Berra), that when you come to a fork in the road — take it. All of Clinton’s life, his intellectual and political promiscuity, along with his amoral, all-sanitizing “compartmentalization,” have allowed him to split differences, alloy lies with truths, and maintain that one could do right and wrong simultaneously.

The result of this has been to degrade the capability of institutions and individuals around him to see the truth of things and to do good. He made a swamp of the statehouse in Arkansas. Webb Hubbell, the McDougals, Vince Foster, his wife, his lawyers, his allies in Congress, his supporters in the academy, and, of course, the Oval Office, were all dirtied by his reverse Midas touch.

Now that his domestic agenda is over, he is doing the same thing to NATO. He is applying the central lesson of his own life story — the appearance of doing good is more important than doing good. The ability to claim that one’s motives are kind — “Ah’ve been workin’ so hard… [bite lip]” — is a higher priority than ensuring that one is willing to accept the means and the ends which those motives require.

He is making a game of this. It is a farce. We bomb where the murder isn’t and claim that is progress. The fact pattern (as the lawyers say) that he is offering is insufficient for a grown-up conversation. It’s like arguing about who the best athlete in the world is but you can only cite members of the high school chess team. How can you have a serious argument about America’s role in the world, when the president uses the most awesome arsenal in world history as a mere prop for his own twisted morality play?


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