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Jewish World Review April 21, 1999 /5 Iyar 5759

David Corn

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No Controlling Authority

(JWR) ---- (
AT THE START OF LAST WEEK, Al Gore, the understudy to the Bomber-in-Chief, defended the U.S. role in the air strikes against Yugoslavia by proclaiming, “We have the moral authority to provide the leadership.” Roughly at the same time, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright was releasing her decision holding Bill Clinton in civil contempt for lying during the Paula Jones lawsuit about his one-way sexual encounters with a workplace subordinate.

“It simply is not acceptable to employ deceptions and falsehoods in an attempt to obstruct the judicial process,” Wright reasonably huffed. She slammed the President for his “contumacious conduct.” And she whacked him for undermining the “integrity of the judicial system.” Here was a real censure, with a yet-to-be-announced fine. The amount of $300,000—what Newt Gingrich had to pay after he was caught misleading the House ethics committee—would carry a certain poetic symmetry.

It was hard to figure what Gore had in mind when he referenced “moral authority.” The bombing violates the UN Charter which does not allow for nondefensive military action without UN approval. It contravenes the NATO charter, which defines the alliance as a collective defense against armed attacks. The United States has not derived a surfeit of “moral authority” by engaging the Chinese, who have practiced a version of ethnic cleansing in Tibet, by being cozy with Turkey, which treats its Kurdish minority in ways similar to Slobodan Milosevic’s treatment of the Kosovars, or by its actions—that is, the utter lack of action—during the maniacal genocide in Rwanda.

Regarding the latter, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger put on a fine display during a press conference last week when a reporter asked why the Clintonites had not been gung-ho to prevent mass slaughter in central Africa. Berger stammered and stuttered a reply: “The genocide in Rwanda was a horrible... uh...despicable... We—this happened, as you know, very swiftly. This happened in a two-week period. And the President has reflected, when he was in Kigali and since...on whether the international community could have done more, more quickly... Part of it is capacity. I mean, one of the reasons why we can act in Kosovo is because we have NATO there.”

Now, one does not build moral authority by dissembling about the past. I recall the dark days of the Rwanda holocaust well. The entire human rights brigade in Washington was beseeching the Clinton Administration to intervene. Try to jam the radios used to broadcast the killing orders, they pleaded. Try to place pressure on the French, who have influence in the area. Announce that war criminals would be pursued. Use the word “genocide” in describing the tragedy. The human rights activists were met with worse than silence. They received a shrug conveying the message, we know it sucks but we don’t feel politically we can do much.

Moral authority? After a NATO pilot bombed a civilian convoy, General Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, said he had evidence that it had been the Serbs who had shot up these dozens of refugees. Within hours of Clark’s statement, NATO acknowledged it was responsible for this killing. Mistakes do happen in wartime. But why was Clark trying to Clinton his way through this rough patch? Why believe him on other matters? NATO’s moral authority was not enhanced by this in-panic prevarication. And where was the apology and the punishment that should have followed such a bold act of disinformation?

To keep the public in support of this (at the moment) little war, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, at a congressional hearing on Thursday, cited the “goodness of American power.” If she had tapped into that goodness prior to the present crisis, she might have paid attention to Kosovo and the nonviolent opposition that was active there.

For almost 10 years, Kosovars had peacefully protested and resisted Milosevic. Through that time, Washington and the world community showed little interest in their plight and their challenge to Milosevic. It was not until the shadowy Kosovo Liberation Army emerged about a year ago—as Serbian repression increased—and supplanted the nonviolent opposition that the Clinton gang decided to focus on Milosevic’s misdeeds there. And then Albright thought a dose of American bullying—aimed at forcing the KLA and Milosevic to sign a peace accord founded on premises that neither side truly accepted—could set matters right. If the Clintonites believe that moral authority is what they bring to this fight, then it is no wonder things are not going according to plan.

Milosevic is an evil SOB. But that does not render any action taken against him good. “Milosevic carries the blame for the disaster in the Balkans,” an anonymous human rights activist from Yugoslavia wrote recently on the website for the British-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting. “But the lack of a coherent Western strategy for the region and a clear plan for the use of NATO force contributed to the tragedy in Kosovo.”

Al Gore’s proclamation of “moral authority” rings as hollow as the choruses of “Happy Birthday” being sung for NATO this week in Washington. As 40 heads of state gather here to mark the 50th anniversary of the alliance, the festivities will be clouded by Kosovo.

When all the poohbahs blow out the candles, the wish will be obvious: Milosevic dies of a heart attack and reasonable, democratic Serbs assume control, surrender and remake the entire political culture of their republic. But unless the bombing campaign miraculously produces a turnaround in Kosovo, the United States and NATO will have left themselves with few choices: ground troops (which would contradict Clinton’s previous assurances they would not be needed), a diplomatic deal with the devil (which would leave in place a murderous brute portrayed by the hawks as a fin-de-siecle Hitler), or a declare-victory-and-run retreat (which would amount to betrayal of the Kosovars).

None of these steps would demonstrate great moral authority.

JWR contributor David Corn is the "Loyal Opposition" columnist at New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, NY Press