White Man's Burden

by Paul Krugman
September 24, 2002.

We should listen to Karl Rove when he lauds former presidents. For example, Mr. Rove has lately taken to saying that George W. Bush is another Andrew Jackson. As Congress considers Mr. Bush's demand that the Homeland Security Department be exempt from civil service rules, it should recall that those rules were introduced out of revulsion over the "spoils system," under which federal appointments were reserved for political loyalists a practice begun under Jackson.

But Mr. Rove's original model was William McKinley. Until Sept. 11, we thought that Mr. Rove admired McKinley's domestic political strategy. But McKinley was also the president who acquired an overseas empire. And there's a definite whiff of imperial ambition in the air once again.

Of course the new Bush doctrine, in which the United States will seek "regime change" in nations that we judge might be future threats, is driven by high moral purpose. But McKinley-era imperialists also thought they were morally justified. The war with Spain -- which ruled its colonies with great brutality, but posed no threat to us -- was justified by an apparent act of terror, the sinking of the battleship Maine, even though no evidence ever linked that attack to Spain. And the purpose of our conquest of the Philippines was, McKinley declared, "to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

Moral clarity aside, the parallel between America's pursuit of manifest destiny a century ago and its new global sense of mission has a lot to teach us.

First, the experience of the Spanish-American War should remind us that quick conventional military victory is not necessarily the end of the story. Thanks to American technological superiority, Adm. George Dewey destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay without losing a single man. But a clean, high-tech war against Spain somehow turned into an extremely dirty war against the Filipino resistance, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died.

Second, America's imperial venture should serve as an object warning against taking grand strategic theories too seriously. The doctrines of the day saw colonies as strategic assets. In the end, it's very doubtful whether our control of the Philippines made us stronger. Now we're assured that military action against rogue states will protect us from terrorism. But the rogue state now in our sights doesn't seem to have been involved in Sept. 11; what determines whose regime gets changed?

Finally, we should remember that the economic doctrines that were used to justify Western empire-building during the late 19th century -- that colonies would provide valuable markets and sources of raw materials -- turned out to be nonsense. Almost without exception, the cost of acquiring and defending a colonial empire greatly exceeded even a generous accounting of its benefits. These days, pundits tell us that a war with Iraq will drive down oil prices, and maybe even yield a financial windfall. But the effect on oil prices is anything but certain, while the heavy costs of war, occupation and rebuilding -- for we won't bomb Iraq, then wash our hands of responsibility, will we? -- are not in doubt. And no, the United States cannot defray the costs of war out of Iraqi oil revenue -- not unless we are willing to confirm to the world that we're just old-fashioned imperialists, after all.

In the end, 19th-century imperialism was a diversion. It's hard not to suspect that the Bush doctrine is also a diversion -- a diversion from the real issues of dysfunctional security agencies, a sinking economy, a devastated budget and a tattered relationship with our allies.

Halliburton has objected to my use of the word "confiscate" in summarizing changes in pension benefits to employees whose divisions were sold, changes described in a Sept. 10 New York Times article. Although Halliburton's actions were legal -- I did not suggest otherwise -- they had the effect of depriving workers of benefits they had been led to expect. In particular, workers who planned to take early retirement were informed that they had "severed" their employment relationship -- even though they had no choice in the matter -- and that as a result, if they retired early they would not receive the level of benefits suggested by their retirement plan statements. However much Halliburton may try to put a spin on its actions, its behavior remains, as one pension expert quoted in the original article put it, "scandalous." 

What are U.S. goals in Kosovo?

by Tony Snow, The Detroit News, March 25, 1999

It is difficult to identify a reason for America's newborn war against Serbia, unless it be the right of global elites to impose their tastes on lessers through the force of arms.

Never in our history has a call to combat seemed as perplexing and hollow as this one. President Bill Clinton and his aides have tried repeatedly to persuade themselves and Congress of the need to enter a far-off civil conflict in Kosovo (a province of Serbian-controlled Yugoslavia), but no single reason seems satisfactory. The White House thus has offered a shifting menu of justifications:

Reason No. 1: We must act to stop the slaughter of innocents. This is an admirable goal. Yet, we could achieve the same aim far more grandly, with much less risk to American blood and treasure, if we decided to invade Rwanda or the Congo. Kosovo doesn't rank among the top dozen bloody civil wars raging on our planet today.

Reason No. 2: Administration officials warn that the fight could widen into a global conflict unless we act quickly to put out the fire. They point to the first world war, which began after a peasant named Princip put a bullet into the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on St. Vitus' Day, which commemorates Serbia's loss in the Battle of Kosovo - in 1389.

But the current situation differs from 1914 in critical respects, the chief of which is that no major power has a defensive alliance with the feuding parties. If anything, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could ignite a wider conflict. The best way to duplicate the casus belli of the first world war would be to plunk an international force into Kosovo and stir resentment among Turks, Albanians, Macedonians, Greeks, Germans, Russians, Romanians - and heaven knows who else.

Reason No. 3: We feel an obligation to get NATO out of a mess. This is the honest explanation. This is not a war to save children, snuff out genocide or starve warlike appetites. It is a fight to save face.

Now comes the really odd part. NATO wants to whack Serbia, but it doesn't want the other side in the war - ethnic Albanians - to win.

The civil war in Kosovo features several traits that one finds in only the most intractable disputes. There is a fight over historically disputed land (Serbian claims go back as much as a millennium; Albanians can point to several hundred years' tenancy of Kosovo). Ethnic groups are straining to rewrite borders imposed on them by outside forces. Serbians want a piece of Bosnia. Albanians lust to create a Greater Albania by snatching territory in Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro. And there are visceral religious disputes, in this case between Orthodox Christians (Serbs) and Muslims (Albanians).

Western powers have had the good sense not to commit troops to places with similar problems - such as Palestine and Kurdistan. Few students of the region contend that anybody can spread good manners merely through the use of well-aimed ordnance. At best, we can subdue the warring factions for a while.

That being the case, this enterprise seems breathtakingly high-handed. A bunch of outsiders, lounging in well-appointed conference rooms, have studied a far-off civil war and forced their way into the conflict without a clear invitation from either side. If that isn't imperialism, nothing is - and the ultimate result of this fight could be a fatal weakening of the notion of national sovereignty.

If we're lucky, America and its allies will bomb and back off. That way, the president will have avoided looking like a complete idiot by withdrawing a third ultimatum to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and the United States won't get sucked into a ground conflict that could sunder our nation.

Here's the best reason not to send ground forces: The Serbs have something at stake in this rumble; we don't. They think of Kosovo as we might think of Bunker Hill or Valley Forge - only their passions and memories run far longer and deeper. Serbs see Kosovo not just as the heart of their republic, but as a place that has been wrested repeatedly from them.

The Battle of Kosovo is a Serbian Alamo, a defeat that led to a short- lived span of independence followed, Serbs say, by nearly 500 years of occupation. I say this not to condone the murder of ethnic Albanians, but to explain: Serbs are fighting for what they consider hallowed ground.

We do not have enough available troops to win a Kosovar ground war (or to handle predictable flare-ups in such places as Bosnia and Macedonia), and one doubts European powers have the will to send hundreds of thousands of their finest into harm's way. After all, we're not fighting a territorially ambitious ideology, such as Nazism or communism. Furthermore, as far as the vaunted International Community is concerned, there is no Plan B if Milosevic shrugs off the bombing and continues terrorizing Albanians.

This may explain why, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert invited the president to explain the war to a joint session of Congress - as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did at the outset of America's entry into World War II - the White House demurred. The administration seems almost embarrassed by its military plans. As a result, the president has refused to consult with Congress, thereby producing astonishing levels of skepticism among Democrats and Republicans.

If this is a war to save face, we ought to get in and out quickly. This is not a satisfactory way to resolve the ongoing horror of Kosovo, but it's a much better option than throwing our young men and women into a battle we don't know how to fight or intend to win.

The Road To Hell; Clinton, Kosovo and good intentions

by Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, April 02, 1999

On Monday, as "genocide" was going on in Kosovo (so said the State Department), Bill Clinton played golf. The stresses of war, no doubt. But perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he needed to retreat to shaded fairways to contemplate the consequences of his little Kosovo war. Perhaps between mulligans -- alas, none are allowed in the Balkans -- he was pondering what has become of the objectives for which he unleashed, for the first time in its 50-year history, the might of NATO.

Objective 1: "We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive" (televised address, March 24). It is not just that the opposite has happened: savage ethnic cleansing, executions of Kosovar Albanian leaders, the forced expulsion of more than 100,000 Kosovars. That would merely imply gross presidential miscalculation. But the supreme allied commander of NATO, Gen. Wesley Clark, asserts that from the beginning "we never thought that through air power we could stop these killings on the ground." Question: "Did you tell President Clinton . . . there is no way we can stop that kind of thing with a bombing campaign alone?" Gen. Clark: "That's been said many times, and everybody understands that."

And yet Clinton publicly ruled out ground troops, thus declaring that there would be nothing but an air campaign. So he starts a campaign to protect Kosovar civilians knowing all along, says NATO's top general, that "you can't stop paramilitaries going house to house with supersonic aircraft flying overhead and dropping bombs." Has there ever been a clearer case of foreign policy means and ends so mismatched, a condition Walter Lippman once called the very definition of "insolvency"?

Objective 2: To keep the Kosovo conflict from blowing up and destabilizing the neighboring countries. "All around Kosovo, there are other small . . . countries that could be overwhelmed by a large new wave of refugees from Kosovo" (March 24 address, again). He meant Albania, Macedonia, and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro -- every one of which is now overwhelmed by a large new wave of Kosovar refugees created since the start of Clinton's Balkan adventure.

NATO's bombing of Montenegrin territory and the influx of the refugees have left the West-leaning, anti-Milosovic government of Montenegro teetering. In Macedonia, long fearful of its own Albanian minority, violent anti-NATO anti-American riots have broken out. And Albania, already a wreckage, is overwhelmed by the huge numbers of Kosovars streaming into its territory. Every one of Kosovo's neighbors that Clinton was claiming to stabilize is being destabilized.

Objective 3: "We act to prevent a wider war; to defuse a powder keg in the heart of Europe that exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results." Goodness. Where does this man get his history? World War II was not remotely caused by the Balkans. And World War I was caused not by clashing ethnics in the Balkans, but by the catastrophic decision of the Great Powers to intervene and choose sides among the contestants for Balkan power.

Sound familiar? Clinton has taken a Balkan conflict that by world standards was relatively minor -- three times as many people were killed in the civil war in Sierra Leone in January alone as had died in the entire Kosovo war at the time we intervened -- and turned it into a world event. The NATO 19 are attacking Serbia; Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are supporting Serbia; China is denouncing from afar. Russia has kicked NATO representatives out of Moscow and is sending a warship into the Mediterranean.

Clinton isn't preventing a World War I scenario; he is recapitulating it. Of course, this time there is no danger of general war breaking out because, apart from the presence of nuclear weapons, the United States is overwhelmingly superior to all rival powers. But the fact remains that Clinton, intending to contain a minor civil war, has overnight internationalized it.

Objective 4: To preserve NATO. Well, NATO did rather well, thank you, for 50 years without launching any wars against sovereign states. The greatest threat to NATO right now is that the Serbia campaign will fail. The Clinton administration, ever seeking to do good, has staked NATO unity and credibility on its ability to pacify the Balkans, a task never accomplished in the century except by Marshal Tito. And he needed all the delicate machinery of a police state to do it.

After Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, Kosovo marks the outer limits of this administration's foreign policy of good intentions. In war, good intentions are no excuse. They are instead the road to hell, as many Kosovars and Serbs can testify. Something for the president to contemplate while he putts.