An Englishwoman in Washington: Anti-Vietnam vets go to war
A couple of weeks before the bombing of Kosovo, Republicans took heart from an opinion poll indicating that, while they lagged behind the Democrats on domestic issues in the wake of the Clinton impeachment debacle, on foreign policy matters the party had a clear lead. Republican Party managers immediately instructed all congressmen to lead on foreign policy, predicting that they could turn their advantage on these issues into an overall electoral lead within weeks.
You might expect then that when Kosovo became the number one news story in Washington, Republican politicians would be jostling to get on all the talk shows and in the papers. Surely here at last was an issue to sweep aside the disaster of the impeachment proceedings and allow the Grand Old Party to return to its former glory. But when the bombs started exploding over Serbia, the Republican Party's guns fell strangely silent in Washington.
With Congress on holiday as NATO's war intensified, most steered clear of making any statements at all. Those who did venture out to speak from the Republican camp came across as confused and incoherent. House of Representatives member Phil English of Pennsylvania was less than inspiring when he told the Washington Post his view on the war: 'Wavering is probably the right way of putting it right now. I think something should be done... I just don't know what.'
Prospective Republican presidential candidates were no more forthcoming. Leading contender for the Republican nomination, Texas governor George W Bush, could only mumble something about not having access to all the information, the importance of clear missions, exit strategies and the good of America - formulations that were, as the Wall Street Journal put it, 'so vague and tepid as to be almost Clintonian'.
Even the old Republican stalwarts appeared to be at a loss for what to say. The veteran Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state who carpet-bombed south-east Asia and is never normally short of a few words about the global virtues of US military action, simply stated that for him 'the war on Yugoslavia inspires profound ambivalence'.
The Republicans have had a problem making political capital out of the war against Serbia because they have had trouble understanding what it is all about. Of course no serious Republican wants to be labelled a dove in the midst of a war, so few actually condemned the action outright. Yet it has been hard for Republicans to be positive about a war which makes little sense in the traditional political or military terms in which they think.
Many Washington commentators have noted that the USA has no real strategic or economic interest in Kosovo or indeed in the whole of the Balkans. The military objectives of this war also appear less than clear. What began as a mission to bring Milosevic back to the negotiating table rapidly became a mission to end an apparent 'Holocaust'. And for the old hawks in the Republican Party, what kind of war is it where one of the primary military tactics seems to be pursuing the objective of no US casualties?
The contrast with the Democrats could not be more stark. While yesterday's hawks are perplexed by world events, the old anti-Vietnam War generation are in their element. President Clinton knows a winner when he sees it. In 1992 he successfully used the war in Bosnia to put the then president George Bush (the elder) on the defensive in his presidential campaign. This time the old Vietnam draft dodger was again quick to seize the opportunity. For months before and during the impeachment proceedings, Clinton refused one - on-one TV interviews. But within days of launching his war against the Serbs, he volunteered for an unscheduled 60 Minutes appearance in order to tell the nation why he had to do it.
Clinton has not been the only anti-Vietnam veteran to speak out in favour of aggressive military action. In USA Today Walter Shapiro readily admitted that 'far more than even Bill Clinton, my own political belief structure was forged by the passions of the anti-war movement....I remain steadfast in my belief that the Vietnam War was a tragic error arising out of American body-count arrogance and the self-destructive refusal of our leaders to fold a losing hand'. Then he went on to explain how things are different now: 'Schooled as I was in the limits of American military power, I now find myself in the awkward position of trying to justify my support for NATO air strikes.' Suddenly American military might has its attractions: 'As years of dithering over Bosnia tragically proved, America is the only nation with the resources and the will to take a firm stand against the barbarians and the terrorists at the gates of civilised society.'
The anti-Vietnam protestors embraced the war against Serbia because it is a conflict in which the warmongers themselves appear to have the moral high ground. They call it a humanitarian war, or as Shapiro says, a war of the civilised against the barbarians. In their eyes US military might really has become a force for good across the globe. The lack of any obvious US political or strategic interest in the war is what makes it so appealing to today's liberal interventionists. The erstwhile anti-war lobby feels far more comfortable with a war that is not about capturing a traditional military objective, but rather about capturing the moral high ground.
Clinton has grasped the opportunity presented by Kosovo for a little self-aggrandisement. With breathtaking gall, given what has happened in the past few months, he used his 60 Minutes interview to compare himself to Franklin D Roosevelt and, by association, to equate President Milosevic with Hitler. But then modesty was never one of Clinton's failings.
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999