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Jewish World Review April 5, 1999 /19 Nissan 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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A Righteous but Confused Cause: Kosovo war shines a light on our principles and our hypocrisy

(JWR) ---- (
HISTORY TEACHES US THAT CONFUSION is, more often than not, the natural state of democracies. Unlike dictatorships, the give-and-take of debate in a free country often creates a consensus for uncertainty rather than decisive action.

But if there is one topic a democracy ought not to be confused about, it is human rights. Yet as I listen to the discussion about our country's decision to militarily intervene in the latest civil war in the Balkans, I find myself confused.

After following this story closely for weeks, I can't help but wonder how we arrived at a point where serious people are actually talking about sending in ground troops to fight the Serbs in Kosovo.

Is that our duty? And, if so, what is our duty in other cases of human-rights violations around the globe?

American Jews have a particularly important stake in this question. Drawing from our own history and the lessons of the Holocaust, we have spoken out time and again on human-rights issues. In the case of the recent war in Bosnia, it was the organized American Jewish community - as much as anyone else --- that struggled to build a consensus that America had a duty to stop Serbian atrocities.

This year, as we celebrate Passover, American warplanes and missiles -- along with those of our NATO allies -- are attacking the forces of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Nevertheless, the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo are being exiled from their homes by a Serbian campaign to rid the province of its non-Serb population.

Milosevic is a loathsome creature. It is easy to despise him and to sympathize with the pathetic refugees streaming out of the war zone. That's the part that is easy to understand. He's a bad guy doing bad things, and we Americans want to stop him.

But we also need to consider the process - if any - by which we decide which human-rights causes are worth fighting about and which we will ignore.

Are we bombing the Serbs because they are violating the human rights of the Albanians in Kosovo? Because Milosevic is another Hitler and the lessons of the Holocaust must not be forgotten? Or does it have something to do with the economy and stability of Europe?

The president has trotted out all of these explanations. Taken together, they present a puzzling picture of American intentions as we fumble to do something about the horrifying spectacle of slaughter and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

No one can seriously believe the European stability excuse. The Swiss banks and the German economy will thrive no matter how many people Milosevic or his armed Albanian enemies murder.

If the goal of our campaign in Kosovo is to stop the violation of human rights, I support it. But that forces me to ask why we are less interested in human-rights violations elsewhere.

In the past few years, many have advocated using American trade policy to punish those countries that persecute religious believers and repress democracy dissidents. In particular, China, which routinely commits genocide in Tibet and continues to operate its own Gulag Archipelago (called the laogai) where Chinese religious and political dissidents are sent to suffer, has been singled out.

But to the Clinton administration -- following the path of its Republican predecessors -- thinks the use of even the mildest trade sanctions on China is too radical a solution. There, they prefer "engagement" with the bad guys.

In recent weeks, Cuba, the remaining Marxist dictatorship in this hemisphere, has cracked down hard on those who oppose Fidel Castro's regime. But in a reversal of previous policy, we are now "engaging" Cuba, too, sending them baseball teams to play, not bombers.

Not far from the killing fields of Kosovo, our NATO ally Turkey continues its own repression of ethnic Kurds in the eastern part of that country. Though it is painful to say anything bad about Israel's only regional ally and a country that has been hostile to rogue countries like Syria and Iraq, Turkey's anti-Kurd campaign is also worthy of condemnation. But on that score, the United States -- and American Jews -- are largely silent for reasons that are all too obvious.

In addition, the Kurdish precedent raises the question of why we are getting into bed with the unsavory Kosovo Liberation Army, whose anti-Serb terrorism helped bring this conflict to a boil. The KLA bears a strange resemblance to Kurdish terrorists whose suppression we have applauded. And they are getting aid from some of the same Islamic fundamentalists whom we rightly despise and fear.

Nor have we done a thing to save the victims of a score of bloody ethnic conflicts all over Africa and Asia.

In each case, I believe the United States is wrong to soft-peddle human rights. My question is, how do they square that cynical attitude with the crusade to topple Milosevic?

Nor has anyone explained to me why Iraq's territorial integrity was so important that it required sparing Saddam Hussein at the end of the Persian Gulf War, but Yugoslavia's is so unimportant that American lives must be risked to continue its breakup.

Instead, all we hear is more Tom Clancy-like idolatry of military technology and talk about how NATO's credibility must be saved (after the air war inevitably fails), even if it means all-out ground warfare.

If President Clinton's war is about an American doctrine of active intervention on behalf of human-rights victims and punishment of persecutors wherever they may be, then count me as one of his greatest supporters. But does anybody really believe that to be the case?

The lessons of the Shoah are not political toys to be picked up and played with whenever a leader is feeling morally indignant about a situation. They must be applied consistently throughout our foreign policy, or they are revealed as hypocrisy.

I am cautiously in favor of American intervention that will help save lives in the Balkans, though I doubt the NATO offensive will work. The lack of foresight and grasp of strategy by the Clinton administration has brought about the worst of all possible outcomes: the toll of human suffering in Kosovo has increased exponentially while the understrength armed forces of the United States are about to be drawn into a bloody land war whose outcome is by no means certain.

That this is being done to end a massive human rights violation does not justify the Holocaust-tinged rhetoric of the president or excuse the impending disaster. A compelling case has not been made to show that escalating the conflict will save lives. Good intentions are not enough. What we need is leadership. In its place, all we get is spin. I remain puzzled as to where it will end. The problem is, the president is even more confused than I am.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin