If the Bosnian Muslims had been bottle-nosed dolphins, would the world have allowed Croats and Serbs to slaughter them by the tens of thousands? If Sarajevo had been an Amazonian rainforest or merely an American wood containing spotted owls, would the Serbs have been allowed to blast it and burn it with their artillery fire?
The answers are too obvious, the questions merely rhetorical. And therein lies a very great irony. At long last a genuine spirit of transnational benevolence has arisen, fulfilling the highest hopes of the rare pioneering globalists of the 19th century and before. No longer does this disinterested benevolence abruptly stop at the boundaries of state, nation, or culture. Instead it now encompasses all of life both animal and vegetal across the entire globe, with only one exception: Homo sapiens.
When tigers are allowed to kill villagers, but villagers are not allowed to kill tigers, the World Wildlife Fund and much of the world with it applauds India’s “Project Tiger.” When the Bolivian government protects Amazonian lowlands by stopping the influx of starving colonists from the overpopulated Andean high plateau, even cold-hearted bankers are so filled with transnational gratitude that they forgive billions of dollars of Bolivia’s debt. But the world was harsh with Brazil when it allowed its own hungry colonists from the arid Northeast to set up subsistence farms in the Amazon.
The young people brimming with eco-awareness, the academics and popular singers who guide them, their parents who most generously fund the eco-lobbies and eco-funds, have so far overcome any narrow-minded provincialism that they succeed in caring very deeply for an Amazon basin they are unlikely ever to visit. Ideally, they would like to see all the colonists expelled, all dams slighted, all mines shut in, all ranches abandoned. In their place, they advocate “sustainable-use” eco-plans for the Amazon, whereby only the native tribes and a few thousand acculturated nut gatherers and rubber tappers would be allowed to earn a living within that considerable portion of the earth. But neither the eco-aware enthusiasts nor the eco-professionals have any alternative plans for the destitute peasants now converging on the Amazon, the sort of people who must regularly choose between feeding all their children or buying medicine for just one.
There is, of course, the eagerly-believed futility argument: thin, acid rainforest soils cannot feed the hungry anyway. Yet deeply conservative peasants would not be abandoning their ancestral villages to attempt the perilous journey if those who went before them were already streaming back in failure. Bolivian, Ecuadoran, Peruvian, and Brazilian peasants who burn the forest to clear their own patch of land know very well what they are doing: they can see with their own eyes how well-fed are the settlers who return from the Amazon to visit the old village now and then. Keeping the Amazon intact and keeping the hungry hungry are therefore one and the same. Yet for the cognizant outside world there is no dilemma: the trees of the Amazon win hands down.
It would be superfluous to consider further examples (Rwanda peasants vs. gorillas; Malagache peasants vs. lemurs; Javanese peasants vs. rhinos). For the prevailing view of today’s enlightened—a.k.a. the “environmentally sensitive”—is obvious enough: humanity is the planet’s skin disease, now disastrously spreading into what remains of the wilderness, threatening the survival of all wild animals and many rare plants too.
Only the logical conclusion is resisted. The eco-enlightened still remain unwilling to applaud nature’s own remedy for the planetary skin disease: a vigorous rate of infant mortality. Because the new nature worship must still coexist with residues of monotheism, including the notion that each human life matters in itself, mutually contradictory purposes are inevitable. Thus, many of the eco-enlightened send money both to save unspoiled nature in the third world and also to assist third-world children, though it is precisely the latter who will destroy the former.
Still, the nearly universal acquiescence in China’s “one-child policy” shows that infanticide is definitely becoming more acceptable. For it is no secret that the virtually compulsory abortions are routinely performed even at very, very late stages of pregnancy, when it is unambiguously babies that are being killed, and not fetuses by anyone’s definition.
In the present state of ethical confusion, even the otherwise discriminating are apt to follow whatever plausible moral lead is given to them, whether by environmental activists, the likes of Mother Teresa, or even Presidents of the United States of America. True, the last American President viewed the pursuit of any moral purpose in U.S. foreign policy with extreme distaste, as a deviation from what he fondly imagined to be a “tough-minded” Realpolitik. As for the current President, he seems to reserve his solicitude for the victim-categories officially recognized by the Democratic party, which do not include Bosnian Muslims.
Nevertheless, the ethical confusion of our times does greatly expand the potential scope of the moral leadership that the President of the United States could exercise, for example by persuading the American public that Bosnian Muslims should be actively protected, just as if they were spotted owls or bottle-nosed dolphins.
We have already seen what the state of affairs is in the absence of such presidential leadership, i.e., that there is not enough political support in the United States and beyond for global action to stop even the sort of aggression against human beings that features armed killers on the one side and unarmed victims on the other. Of that Bosnia is more than sufficient proof, in a way that previous horrors were not.
When—to cite the worst of recent cases—the Khmer Rouge murdered a million or more of their fellow Cambodians, the world’s inaction until the belated Vietnamese invasion had not just one but three separate excuses.
First, ignorance could be pleaded, because no journalists were allowed into Cambodia to report the killings, and no television cameras to show them. Second, a Cambodian regime was murdering Cambodians within its own borders, so that any forceful intervention to stop the killings would have amounted to aggression according to the international rule book. Finally, the United States—the only possible intervenor aside from Hanoi—had just withdrawn in ignominy and strategic defeat from the shipwreck of South Vietnam, making a new intervention in Indochina almost unimaginable.
None of the three reasons applies to the events in Bosnia. Every form of attack on unarmed civilians, from sniping to artillery barrages and starve-them-out road blockades, has been shown over and over again on television, and also the aftermath of mass murders and mass rapes, as well as of cruel prison-camp starvation. In place of a barrier of ignorance, there has been the “real-time” transmission of every species of horror; only Treblinka-type death factories have been absent, no doubt because in Bosnia the killers have a pre-industrial mentality.
Second, Bosnian Muslims are not killing Bosnian Muslims, as Cambodians had killed Cambodians. They have been attacked, and are being attacked, by Serb and Croat militias that could hardly have operated for long without ample support from the states of Serbia-Montenegro and Croatia, as well as by Serb-Montenegrin and Croat state forces themselves. Both states have therefore been international aggressors by any definition.
Third, none of the plausible outside intervenors could plead exhaustion, as the United States was exhausted on the eve of the Cambodian horrors. Far from it, Western Europe was and is replete with idle troops, dressing up to play war each day while the real war that they might have stopped goes relentlessly on.
Two new things can therefore be learned from the Bosnian experience in particular. To begin with the smaller lesson, the claim that the “global media revolution” has changed the nature of world affairs by exposing public evildoing as never before has now been exposed as self-congratulatory rubbish. Media coverage only inhibits reasonably law-abiding and passably humane governments that are otherwise inhibited anyway; indeed, in some cases they may be overinhibited from doing what should be done to maintain law and order.
The second lesson of Bosnia is more important, but much harder to accept in its hideous amplitude. We now know, as we could not know before, that the Holocaust itself, surviving Holocaust installations, Holocaust relics, Holocaust documents, the historiography of the Holocaust, Holocaust memoirs, Holocaust fiction, Holocaust-inspired works of art, Holocaust documentaries, Holocaust feature films, Holocaust television serials, and certainly the proliferating Holocaust museums, Holocaust exhibits, and Holocaust multimedia shows have taught and will teach nothing of relevant significance—except to explode the myth that the world was indifferent to the Nazi persecution and mass-murder of Jews only because the way had been prepared by widespread and deeply-rooted anti-Semitic feelings. I for one never saw any signs of a widespread and deeply-rooted anti-Bosnianism before the killings started and continued, and continued, and continue unimpeded at every stage.
The truth is much simpler and requires no prior history of anti-isms: the only way to stop determined killers is to kill the killers, and there is no general willingness to kill killers because killers can kill right back. Just ask the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, whom nobody has ever accused of anti-Bosnianism, but who steadfastly opposed any use of U.S. force whatsoever to protect the Bosnians. The Serbians, he explained over and over again to both the Bush and Clinton administrations, would shoot back. Nazi Germany could of course shoot back a hundred times more powerfully, so that the same objection was a hundred times more valid for Nazi Germany. That is why nobody fought the Nazis until the Nazis—or in the American case, the Japanese—attacked them.1
This therefore is the unvarnished face of the world in which we live, the world in which the Holocaust is as compelling a historical fact as the War of the Roses, the world in which the government of the United States of America must decide if, when, where, and how to intervene against aggressors and killers. That is not a choice that can be made without agonizing among contradictory responsibilities and it never was. But it has now been greatly complicated both by a severe bureaucratic deformation within the U.S. armed forces, and by a colossal overestimation of the capacities of that lowest common denominator of governments that is the United Nations.
Little need be said about the military deformation, by now perfectly evident to all. For various reasons—ranging from the delayed recognition that the military professionals were abused by their political masters during the Vietnam war, and shabbily treated by Americans at large in the aftermath, to the unintended consequences of the 1987 Defense Reorganization Act,2 from former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s deliberate downgrading of civilian control over military planning in the interests of his constant maneuvering against the Haig-Shultz State Department, to the unique role of that politically most astute of generals, Colin Powell—the proper equilibrium between the civilian and military leadership of the United States has been badly skewed, in two separate ways.
On the one hand, there has been an erosion of civilian authority, manifest in the effective veto power acquired by the military leadership over intervention decisions. Constitutionally, it is the civilian authorities alone who should decide whether, when, where, and how to intervene, albeit with such military advice as they care to solicit. There has been no coup d’état, and the Constitution has not been rewritten to place the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff above the President and his Secretary of Defense, but in real-life American politics a situation has been created in which those two civilians feel that they must defer to military preferences, because of the very real risk that they would otherwise be undermined politically by their nominal military servants. There has been so much practice of the Art of the Leak in place of the Art of War that, if Desert Storm had been a disaster, a complete dossier would have been ready to be rushed into print to place all the blame on President Bush—for purely military decisions as well.
Within the Pentagon’s day-to-day administration, the erosion of civilian authority is palpable at all levels. Most notably, the Undersecretariat for Policy, once the key instrument of civilian supervision over military planning and military operations, and once occupied by the likes of Robert “Blowtorch” Komer who ate admirals and generals for breakfast, has been sadly reduced as compared to an imperious Joint Staff. Thus in smaller decisions as in the largest ones, military preferences prevail over civilian ones, contrary to both constitutional theory and the past practice of government.
And what are those military preferences? No doubt there are still one or two hopelessly outdated peaceniks around who imagine that the Pentagon is full of bellicose generals and admirals nervously juggling steel balls while eagerly searching world maps for possible wars to fight. The rest of us know that our senior military commanders have enthusiastically embraced the so-called Weinberger “doctrine.”
This doctrine, authorized by no legislation and endorsed by no President, presumes nevertheless to rule out any U.S. military combat action whatsoever unless a long list of conditions is met. They include a victory fully guaranteed in advance by overwhelming force, irrevocable public support for whatever operations are undertaken skillfully or otherwise, and a precisely defined objective that may not, repeat not, be changed in accordance with shifting circumstances.
Under parallel conditions, hospital emergency rooms would refuse to accept any patients whose recovery was not certain, who would not agree to renounce a malpractice suit in advance, and who might develop other ailments while under treatment; and teachers would similarly refuse to admit children in their classrooms unless all their previous grades were straight A’s, and all their previous conduct was exemplary.
Certainly the guarantees now routinely demanded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff before sanctioning U.S. military action are not of this world. Victory can never be guaranteed in advance; even a nation most patriotic by current Western standards is apt to criticize glaring military errors; and objectives alone cannot remain reliably fixed in a world in flux. The result—fully intended—is in practice to rule out military operations almost always and almost everywhere against enemies who might shoot back (the Somalia intervention, Restore Hope, was positively offered by the Joint Chiefs, precisely because they wrongly believed that there would be no shooting).
So established and so widely accepted is this doctrine of inaction that civilian State Department and White House officials who would want to interpose formidable and supremely well-protected U.S. military forces between cruel aggressors and unarmed victims are branded as irresponsible warmongers who would “toy with American lives,” and are very effectively silenced. Instead of a proper equilibrium between diplomats who should professionally favor diplomatic solutions and military leaders who should professionally offer military options, we suffer from a paralyzing reversal of roles, in which the military simply refuses to offer military options when asked for them and is not disciplined to do so. Abnormally enough, nowadays the normal responses of the Joint Staff to civilian requests for usable military options are long, political-sciencey memos explaining all the political, cultural, and psychological reasons why nothing can be done by force.
Interservice bureaucratic calculations play their nefarious part as well. Today’s precision airpower would be the instrument of choice in most cases, the one least likely to result in U.S. casualties. Yet in order to sustain a log-rolling policy that allocates budget cuts equally among the services, replicating the cold-war structure of forces on a smaller scale (as if today’s world were identical to that of the cold war), any independent use of airpower is vehemently resisted.
Not least has this been the case with Bosnia. Reporters looking for answers to the common-sense question of why U.S. airpower could not be used in Bosnia have found the Joint Staff replete with officers eager to lecture them about the general futility of airpower and its particular uselessness against elusive militias, while ignoring the abundance of stable, well-defined (“high-contrast”) targets such as main battle tanks and the field artillery pieces used to shell Sarajevo.
The same voices have eagerly endorsed the disingenuous Anglo-French claim that airpower could not be used anyway, because it would endanger UN troops on the ground. Instead of breaking village sieges, the British battalion has pathetically begged Serb militiamen to let through a few food trucks now and then; instead of silencing Serb fire, the French battalion even allowed Serb militiamen to shoot a top Muslim leader riding in its own convoy—without firing back. And so it is that the highly effective instrument of U.S. airpower was renounced for the sake of symbolic troop contingents that spent much of their time performing for the TV cameras, while doing almost nothing actually to protect the Muslims left defenseless by the UN’s own arms embargo.
The ultimate implication of the Weinberger doctrine is that U.S. military forces should be reserved for self-defense alone, on the lines of the Swiss armed forces. If that strategy is indeed to be adopted, then surely we should drastically reduce U.S. military forces (and their higher command even more) to the dimensions of a militia writ large, because there are no plausible aggressors against U.S. territory. But, of course, our military leadership has wanted both superpower resources at its command and a small-power strategy that would exclude the use of force to protect American values in the larger scheme of things, including the defense of the defenseless against mass murder.
Entrenched institutional attitudes count for much more than personalities, yet the selection of General John M. Shalikashvili as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provides grounds for optimism. As a less political general than Colin Powell, he is less likely to resist civilian authority, if indeed it should be effectively asserted. And Shalikashvili’s current position as Supreme Allied Commander-Europe has no doubt impressed on him that nonintervention too carries a high price.
There are, however, no such grounds for optimism regarding the other great complication that now attends the always agonizingly difficult decision of whether, when, where, and how to intervene against today’s aggressors and killers—the “multilateralist” delusion.
Of the resolve of our traditional European allies, nothing at all need be said after their shameful failure in Yugoslavia, except to note parenthetically the supreme innocence of leaders who fondly imagine themselves to be hard-bitten cynics: they truly believe—they really do—that their countries will evade the foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences, that the bill for their inexcusable inaction will not be tendered, with penalties, with compound interest.
No delusions persist on that score in the United States. What does persist, especially within the ranks of the Clinton administration, is a gross overestimation of the capacities and potential of the United Nations as an instrument of peace. That in turn is shaped by a well-established, indeed conventional, view about the past and possible future of the UN that still lingers, even though the Bosnian events should already have exposed it as exactly wrong.
The tale begins amid the bright hopes of 1945, when the United Nations was established by the victorious allies to keep the peace thereafter. Upon being notified of a war, imminent or already under way, the Great Powers, meeting as the UN Security Council, were to investigate and deliberate, and then variously to warn, demand, threaten, or fight conjointly as the case might be, so as to prevent or stop the war, secure a prompt withdrawal of the invaders if any, and/or obtain compensation for any damage inflicted by the aggressors.
In other words, “collective security” through the UN was to replace both unilateral Great Power interventions (which often ended up by starting wider wars) and self-defense by the lesser fry themselves (normally hard to distinguish from aggression). And, of course, the Great Powers themselves would not fight one another—they were still the “Allies” after all—but instead resolve their differences diplomatically in the Security Council chamber.
Because Great Power wars were ruled out, while any fighting among lesser powers would be stopped before it had properly begun, the UN and the workings of its Security Council would make warfare itself virtually useless as an instrument of state power. It followed that the accumulation of the means of war would be eventually recognized as equally useless. The UN’s collective security would therefore ensure both peace now, and disarmament in due course.
But then, the conventional version continues, the gears of the splendid machine of collective security were fatally blocked by the advent of the cold war. Because each of the Great Powers could veto any action by the UN Security Council at any time, the emergence of globally hostile rival camps meant that the Council could not confront threats to peace which originated in either camp—where most of them in fact did originate.
As it happens, the United States did succeed in securing the endorsement of the UN Security Council for military action in Korea, but that resulted from what was essentially a mere technicality: because Stalin miscalculated, the Soviet Union simply failed to exercise its veto.
Nothing of substance ensued anyway: the North Korean and later the Chinese invasions were not stopped and then reversed by the mechanism of collective security, but had to be fought step-by-step by the forces of the United States and its own strategic allies, exactly as in the bad old days before the UN. The only difference was that the U.S. commander-in-chief was labeled the UN commander, the U.S. and allied forces were called UN forces, and UN flags were flown in place of U.S. or other national flags.
After Korea, there were no more fortuitous exceptions: each time the Security Council convened, the Soviet Union would veto U.S.-sponsored actions, and vice versa. During the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, and into the 1980’s, everyone therefore knew better than to expect the UN to assure peace through collective security. It was very clear then that whatever international outrages the United States would not challenge, with or without its own allies, would remain unchallenged.
Then came the gradual abandonment of Soviet grand strategy by Gorbachev, the crisis in the Gulf, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the final end of the cold war. Repeated in a hundred editorials and after-dinner speeches, the conventional wisdom now held that the UN could and would at long last fulfill the hopes that had attended its birth. No longer mechanically blocked by reciprocal superpower hostility, the machine of collective security would henceforth function as intended, to confront threats and defeat them if matters reached that extremity.
The successful conduct of the Gulf crisis and Gulf war within a UN framework, with Security Council authorizations at each step of the way, was presented as firm evidence of the dawn of a new age, in which aggressors would be dissuaded first of all, and if need be confronted by the Security Council, and if need be defeated by a broad array of UN-sponsored coalition forces.
The role of the United States could not exactly be ignored in this rendition of the Gulf crisis and Gulf war, but neither was it fully admitted that what had happened was no more than a U.S. action in UN garb, in effect a Korea II, rather than a UN action with the United States acting as its chief executive agent. Certainly, if the United States had accepted the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, it would have been accepted all around. And if the United States had not engaged Iraq, nobody would have engaged Iraq. Because that is the crucial point, the willingness to engage.
We do not live in a pre-1914 world of rival Great Powers eager to get involved in any crisis that comes along, governed by ambitious elites who see every local conflict as full of promising opportunities, and in command of military forces that can freely be sent into action whenever and wherever combat could pay off in added territory, added diplomatic influence, or both.
In today’s world, the ruling elites of developed states have no interest whatsoever in territorial aggrandizement or diplomatic influence gained by force; they regard crises and local conflicts not as opportunities but as traps to be avoided at all costs; and only a very few developed states are still capable of war under any circumstances except, perhaps, for self-defense strictly defined. Given the general unwillingness to engage, it is not surprising that if we subtract whatever the U.S. did in the Gulf conflict from all that was done within the framework of the UN, the result we obtain is zero.
The implication is not that the UN Security Council was useless as a venue during the Gulf crisis—actually it was exceedingly useful for the pseudo-multilateral diplomacy of the Bush administration. But it does mean that the chamber, furniture, fittings, and procedures of the UN Security Council should not be construed as a sentient being itself capable of acting in place of the United States, able to assume responsibilities that the United States refuses to accept. In theory, nobody with any sense could possibly believe otherwise. In practice, “Let us leave it to the UN Security Council” is the commonplace slogan of the new post-cold-war isolationism.
Matters would stand quite otherwise if, in the political life of the world’s developed states at least, there were a widespread moral compulsion to protect Homo sapiens, as bottle-nosed dolphins and many other species are now protected. Such a moral compulsion to protect Homo sapiens would be reflected in necessarily activist policies in the face of unambiguous international aggressions, featuring, for example, mass expulsions and killings of unarmed civilians. Such activist policies would in turn be most effectively implemented not by single states, but through collective security. And such collective security would best be organized within the framework of the UN.
But, of course, there is no such moral compulsion; hence there is no obligatory activism in the face of aggression; hence there is no national political basis for international collective security. It hardly matters therefore if the gears of the UN machine are blocked or not: the essential fuel—the willingness to engage aggression—is missing in any case.
The agony of Bosnia—only made worse by the diplomacy of UN officials, by ineffectual forces under the UN flag, and by the UN arms embargo imposed on the Bosnian Muslims that was the extortionate price for both—has now fully contradicted the conventional view of the UN’s past, and thus of its future potential. We may now look back to recognize that the cold war did not in fact incapacitate the UN, for what has no capacity cannot be incapacitated.
On the contrary, the cold war actually inflated the UN’s apparent importance, because when the superpowers did choose to settle local conflicts, it was usually convenient for both to have their bilateral arrangements rubber-stamped in the UN Security Council, and sometimes to have UN-flagged units on the scene to observe the resulting cease-fire or armistice lines, monitor troop and weapon movements if constrained, and try to intercept third-party infiltrators if possible.3 But in Bosnia, as in other locales of aggression, there are no Great Powers eagerly intervening by proxy, which might eventually reach an impasse that UN-stamped arrangements could then conveniently freeze.
The upshot is that in today’s post-cold-war world, the UN can offer only its endless procedural delays, its always very costly and often corrupt administration of subordinate agencies, and the lowest-common-denominator diplomacy of its Secretary General. It should not be invoked also to offer an alibi for American inaction in the face of barbarous aggression.
The world’s only Great Power, infinitely more powerful militarily than Croats, or Serbs, or both, has stood by passively to watch horrors not seen on European soil since the Holocaust. Let us at least confront what we have not done, and what we have become: a nation supremely well-armed that has allowed the marginally armed to terrorize and kill the unarmed.
Is that what Americans would have wanted to do, if properly led? And is that what Americans want to be? If the answer is yes, our children are destined to live in a nightmare world of unresisted aggressions. If the answer is no, we should cure our military deformation forthwith, and liberate ourselves from the delusion that our leftover cold-war allies, or the mere abstraction that is the UN, will somehow act without strongly expressed American leadership, and an effective use of American power.
1 Britain and France did not attack Germany even after declaring war in 1939; there was no real war until the German offensive of May 1940.
2 Mea culpa: in writing my The Pentagon and the Art of War, and in testimony in support of that legislation before the U.S. Congress, I disregarded the negative repercussions fully anticipated by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, among others.
3 Because of China's role as the sometime protector of the Khmer Rouge, the UN operation in Cambodia has assumed cold-war lineaments, and has functioned accordingly—i.e., sufficiently well, so far. Nevertheless, the huge monetary cost, characteristic of all UN activities but magnified by notoriously lax management in Cambodia, virtually rules out a repetition; indeed, the feeble UN monitoring of the Angolan elections contributed to that country's regression into civil war.