The Magazine


Dec 11, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 13 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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TO MY OWN SURPRISE -- maybe amazement would be a better word -- I find myself siding with Bill Clinton on the issue of sending American troops to Bosnia, and hoping against all odds that my fellow conservatives in general and the Republican party in particular will wind up doing the same. For it is hard to imagine how the United States can now renege on the admittedly flawed deal the Clinton administration brokered in Dayton without doing grave damage to its power and to its honor. And the same can be said of the Republican party if it persists in the kind of peevish obstructionism that (with the major exception of Bob Dole) has so far largely marked its response to the Dayton accords.

These are words, God knows, I never expected I would write. Ever since the war in Bosnia broke out, I have opposed the introduction of American ground forces as unnecessary and undesirable, supporting instead the kind of intervention advocated at the outset most clearly and forcefully by Margaret Thatcher.

The Thatcher position called for a lifting of the arms embargo against Bosnia and the use of American air power to make sure that the military supplies the Bosnians needed would get through. The main point was to give the Bosnians what they were pleading for: a fighting chance to defend themselves against a Serbian aggression involving atrocities that bordered on outright genocide. To this day I have yet to hear a convincing argument against the Thatcher position.

Those who expressed concern that it would lead us into a "quagmire" struck me as at best silly and at worst dishonest. After all, if our policy had been to g ive the Bosnians a chance to defend themselves, we would have been under no mor al obligation to take over the fighting on the ground if they turned out to be incapable of doing the job on their'own even when properly armed. Nor was there any good reason to suppose that our credibility would have suffered from the failure of an honorable policy whose limits had been clearly demarcated in advance.

Another argument against the Thatcher position was that it would only prolong the war. But if the Bosnians had the will and the courage to fight, and were asking only that their hands be untied, by what right did anyone else decide that they were better off giving in? In addition to being morally presumptuous, this craven counsel was accompanied by the intellectually presumptuous assumption that the Bosnians faced inevitable defeat no matter what.

The third argument against the Thatcher position-that our NATO allies opposed it and that it would put the peacekeeping troops they had already sent into Bosnia at risk -- was more serious. But if the United States had been determined to follow the Thatcher line, arrangements could surely have been worked out to make its implementation possible.

Be all that as it may, the Thatcher position in its original form has now been rendered academic by the Dayton accords, and like many who supported it, I am sorely tempted to turn away in disgust. But I resist the temptation by telling myself that perhaps these accords are better than they look. Perhaps they do not quite represent the triumph of those who all along wanted the Bosnians to surrender. Perhaps, if properly implemented, they can even form the basis of a new balance of power and therefore of a settlement that will last.

I am also tempted to turn away in disgust from the decision to send 20,000 American soldiers into Bosnia as part of a peacekeeping force. Unhappy as I was about the idea of using America ground troops to fight in Bosnia, ! am equally if not more unhappy about using them, in Bosnia or anywhere else, to do anything other than fight. Nevertheless, in politics -- as the old adage has it -- one begins from where one is; and I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that from where we are now, the right course is to support Clinton on this issue.

Obviously this is not how many (most?) of my fellow conservatives see it. Commentators like Frank Gaffney and Thomas Sowell are strongly against sending American troops; of the nine Republicans running for president, seven have come out in no uncertain terms against the president; and the young conservatives in Congress seem to be almost unanimous in their opposition. By contrast, some two-thirds of the Democrats in Congress, and many liberal columnists and editorialists, are lining up behind the president.

Bosnia, then, continues to have a weird effect on political alignments here in America. First the Thatcher position made strange bedfellows of old Cold War hawks like myself and old liberal doves like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. And now the Dayton accords are becoming the occasion for a wholly unexpected reversal of roles between Democrats and Republicans on the use of American power.

It is not exactly that the Democrats have become the interventionist hawks and that the Republicans are replacing them as the isolationist doves. Things are more complicated than that. Thus, the only justification that leading congressional Democrats like Lee Hamilton and David Bonior can offer for backing the president on Bosnia is that (as Adam Clymer puts it in the New York Times) "this would be peacemaking, not warmaking." Conversely, many Republicans oppose the president on exactly the same ground: Influenced by the peacekeeping fiascoes in Lebanon and Somalia, they are convinced that American troops should, precisely, be deployed for warmaking alone.

Such wrinkles cast an interesting light on the current state of our political culture. But they do not alter the fact that it is the Democrats of all parties and Bill Clinton of all presidents who are calling for an American intervention backed by military force, while the Republicans, and especially of all people the Reaganities among them, are sounding less like Reagan than like the young Clinton when he was trying to avoid getting caught by the draft during the Vietnam war.

Nor do the complexities of the situation alter the fact that the Republicans, who have for the past 30 years resisted congressional "micromanagement" of foreign affairs, are suddenly forgetting the passionate arguments they used to make in favor of presidential primacy and prerogatives in this area. Yet if those arguments were right when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, they must still be right now that Bill Clinton is there.

I yield to no one in my lack of confidence in Bill Clinton, but he is the President of the United States, and as such he all but dragged the Serbs, the C roats, and the Muslims to the very heartland of this country and pressured them into a deal entailing the deployment of American troops as part of a larger NAT O force. The presence of those troops on the scene is therefore not only a cruc ial element of the agreement among the warring parties themselves; it is also essential to the maintenance of the NATO alliance and of American leadership within it.

None of this means that the conservative community and the Republican party need remain entirely passive in the face of the president's policy. On the contrary, they have a significant part to play in trying to ensure that our troops are given the right job to do. In the process they can also help repair some of the flaws in the Dayton accords.

Here an important start has been made by Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, they insist that the mission of the peace-keepingforce should be to act not as a neutral buffer between the parties but as a shield behind which we can arm and train the Bosnian Muslims to the point where they are finally able to defend themselves. This, say Wolfowitz and Feith, satisfies the demands of justice; it is entirely consistent with a peacemaking role; and it is also the only "exit strategy" that can get us out of Bosnia after a year or so "without triggering a catastrophe."

What Wolfowitz and Feith have accomplished is to reconcile the objectives of the Thatcher position with the methods of the Dayton accords. They have thereby shown how conservative advocates of the Thatcher position can still salvage the principle behind it and simultaneously remain true to the Reaganite legacy that the Republican party is now in grave danger of abandoning to Bill Clinton.

If the Republican party should end up renouncing its Reaganite commitments to presidential prerogatives in foreign affairs, to NATO, and to American leadership in the world, it would be doing doing exactly what the Democrats did in the post-Vietnam period, when they threw their Trumanite banner into the dust. They then had to watch helplessly as Ronald Reagan came along to pick it up and carry it to victory in the political battles ahead.

The lesson for the Republicans is obvious, but for the moment most of them seem as persuaded as the Democrats were in the 1970s that they are both right and (given what the polls are currently saying) on the winning political side of this issue. Right they are not. About the politics, polls or no polls, we shall see soon enough.

Norman Podhoretz, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, was, for 35 years, the editor in chief of Commentary. Among his six books/s Why We Were in Vietnam.