COMMENT/Marty Jezer

Clinton at the Crossroads

I wrote this headline six days ago, the day after NATO bombs fell on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, a Serbian hospital, and a Bulgarian village. It's now clear that President Clinton has turned right at that crossroad and is speeding pell-mell through a swamp towards the town of Deja Vu, the site of the Hubert Humphrey 1968 Presidential Election Campaign Memorial. The road is rutted and dirty. It's hard to turn around without getting stuck in the quagmire.

Before we follow Mr. Clinton to Deja Vu, let's briefly consider the road not taken. It begins with a declaration of a bombing halt and ends in the city of Negotiations. It's not an easy trip to Negotiations, a destination famous for its dead-end streets and potholes. But along the way, Mr. Clinton is welcomed in Moscow and Beijing by civic leaders who pledge support for the journey. Europeans, lining the route, especially those living in proximity to the Balkans, cheer him through. Once in Negotiations, Serbian democrats, though wary at first, are delighted to receive him.

A bombing halt, had it started last week when the negotiation process was ripe, would have set in motion forces that could have forced Milosevic to accept a just settlement. The Russians were pushing him for concessions. The Chinese were cooperative. Given a bombing halt and a little encouragement, the democratic forces inside Serbia -- which had almost toppled Milosevic a few years ago and which are necessary for the success of any future healing process -- might have reasserted themselves.

Like an extended metaphor, an extended bombing campaign has its limitations. Once it makes its point (usually early on), it loses its meaning and becomes a pointless exercise; military or political leaders keep it going for the sake of keeping it going. Arrogance, a refusal to change course, becomes its only justification.

Years ago, during the Vietnam debacle, Senator William Fulbright described American war policy as "the arrogance of power." The continued bombing of Belgrade and other cities in Serbia, after diplomacy had started up in earnest, similarly reflects arrogance of power.

Continuing the bombing is a recipe for disaster. It aggravates an unsettled political situation in Russia, drives pro-Western (and potential) allies in Serbia (and Montenegro) further underground, raises tensions all over Europe, and, at this point, does nothing to help the Kosovars return to their country.

War, for Clinton and NATO, is being fought as if it was a sporting event; it's only the score -- measured in sorties and hits -- that matter. War aims at a clear decision, a loser for every winner. Negotiations, on the other hand, require a win-win resolution. All parties have to gain something from the process (even if only a face-saving illusion). That's too ambiguous for sports-minded politicians. Instead of encouraging negotiations we continue to bomb Serb cities, miss targets, and hit civilians.

There's nothing more dangerous than the combination of arrogance and ignorance. Apologists for the CIA blame the bombing of the Chinese Embassy on a lack of funding. But how much does an up-to-date Belgrade street map cost, or a change of address memo to the military planners? Money won't raise the intelligence level of the CIA. Recall: this is the same organization that assured President Kennedy that the Bay of Pigs invasion would inspire the Cuban people to rise-up against Castro. It's the same organization that advised President Johnson that victory in Vietnam was just around the corner (censoring the reports of many of their agents in the field who wrote that we were, in fact, losing). And it is the same organization that consistently supported murderers, drug-dealers, and thugs in Central America and armed the fundamentalist "freedom fighters" of Afghanistan who then became the cadre for anti-American terrorist organizations.

Stop the bombing, Mr. Clinton; the policy has failed. Negotiations will not easily bring justice to the Kosovars, a binding guarantee that would allow them safety at home. But at this point the bombing is nothing more than an arrogant show of power that inflames an already explosive situation. The road you've embarked on is morally reckless and political disastrous. You've nothing to gain by further bombing. Liberals, who supported the war for humanitarian purposes, no longer trust your motives -- or the competence of your advisors. Lyndon Johnson's refusal to negotiate a settlement in Vietnam led liberals to turn against the war and abandon their party. Al Gore, your would-be successor in 2000, is in the position that Humphrey was in 1968. Vietnam defeated Humphrey and the Balkans will bring down Gore.

Marty Jezer of Brattleboro, Vt., was a founding editor of the pacifist magazine WIN (Peace and Freedom Through Nonviolent Action) during the Vietnam Era. Comments appreciated at

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