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Jewish World Review April 5, 1999 /19 Nissan 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Lessons of Vietnam, and Serbia

( WHAT FOLLOWS IS NOT MERELY "GOTCHA," although I am tempted.

I was a speechwriter for President Johnson during the Vietnam War, a card-carrying hawk. At that time Bill Clinton and most of his current foreign policy subalterns were dovish anti-war activists or polemicists. Now, 30 years later, the doves -- especially Clinton -- have appropriated the hawk's language and ideas and abandoned their own, in order to sell American military involvement in Serbia.

There may be value in this.

Back then, the Vietnam doves kept saying that we should not intervene in Vietnam because it was "a civil war." Now we intervene in a civil war and it's OK. The doves went ballistic when LBJ said that one reason to draw a line in Vietnam was to maintain America's "credibility."

Now that's a big reason we have to act in Serbia.

Back then doves said we had no exit strategy and Vietnam wasn't in our vital interests. Now they say let's see what comes next, and vital interests extend beyond Harlingen or San Diego.

The doves said the "domino theory" in Vietnam was for kooks. Now we are told that if we don't act in Serbia, then dominoes like Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey may topple. (Is Guatemala next?) But, we are told, there is a massacre going on.

And what exactly were Uncle Ho's boys doing in South Vietnamese villages to keep them under control? Back then doves said "America's not the world's policeman." Now they say we need some order in the world, which is what hawks said during Vietnam.

Back then hawks used the World War II "Munich analogy" because the North Vietnamese forces were backed by the U.S.S.R. and China, and hawks believed appeasement could again lead to global trouble. Doves thought that was bizarre. Now Clinton uses the same rhetoric about Slobodan Milosevic, which is a bizarre overstatement of an essential truth.

I do not bring this up to be churlish. I support what President Clinton is, belatedly, doing. But now that doves and hawks have proclaimed similar thoughts --- albeit at different times --- it would be useful to set down for future reference a few simple precepts. Perhaps we can agree on some "lessons of Serbia," as we never did about "lessons of Vietnam."

Bellicose nations endanger their neighbors first; that's "dominoes."

Massacres can happen in civil wars, and a humanitarian response is not a foolish motive for action. American credibility is a very important part of any scenario for future global stability. Exit strategies are militarily desirable but not always available. Vital interests are not always easy to discern. Relative stability requires some kind of policing power, however inconsistent. Without some sort of a brake on turmoil and slaughter, the prospects for a 21st century world that is friendly to American views and values are much diminished.

There is at least one huge difference between Vietnam and the Serbian situation: cost. Back then, fearful of communist expansion and influence, America spent about 10 percent of its gross national product on defense. Today that number is closer to 3 percent. Far more important, 50,000 Americans lives were lost in Vietnam. That was a dreadful toll, and by far the best argument the doves had. (Used by young Bill Clinton, then working for the segregationist dove, Sen. William Fulbright, lionized by liberals.)

As this column is filed (Tuesday morning), no Americans have died in the Serbian conflict. And, unlike the Vietnam era, there are no draftees in the American armed forces. Our combatants are young men and women who volunteered for the military, known to be a very dangerous occupation. So too with the soldiers of our 19 NATO allies, finally acting in concert.

Moreover, the nature of modern air power has changed much of the calculus of combat. As a well-indoctrinated Air Force veteran (Airman Second Class, Information Specialist, sports writer), I would urge readers not to buy whole cloth the notion that air power can't prevail in a war.

Norman Schwartzkopf's right-hook left-hook ground-war strategy occurred only after the Iraqi military was pulverized by American B-52s that moved the earth.

Saddam's troops were ready to run. The Israelis had the Six Day War in hand within a couple of hours when they pre-emptively knocked out Arab air forces. Milosevic may retain popularity when only his military is being targeted. But what happens when power grids in Belgrade go dark?

It is not popular to say it, but this is the use of force on the cheap. In Vietnam the costs were high, but the threat, generated by a global Cold War, was grave. By comparison, this one is much easier, with low cost and low threat.

Only the potential benefit is great: a better chance for a more stable century.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."


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©1999, Creators Syndicate