Jumping to Confusions

By Garfinkle, Adam | The National Interest, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Jumping to Confusions


Garfinkle, Adam, The National Interest


IT IS A RARE moment for those who contemplate international politics when a dramatic event suddenly clarifies seemingly insoluble arguments over basic principles and policies. Such moments are of two basic types: those that repudiate a course of action and those that confirm it.

When a seminal event confounds a reigning consensus, it can condense fragmented thoughts on the margins of debate into powerful new metaphors and motivations, and generate a new vocabulary to discuss new realities. Thus Hitler's perfidy in Czechoslovakia not only turned the 1938 Munich agreement into a powerful symbolic repudiation of appeasement, but revealed unmistakably the strategic intentions of the Nazi regime.

When an event reaffirms widely held convictions, on the other hand, even strong dissent may be silenced by the trumpets of official vindication. Confirmation can lead to the commitment of more resources to achieve a more complete success, and to "lessons learned" applied to seemingly analogous problems. Thus the 1948 Berlin blockade solidified U.S. elite consensus around a Cold War model of American foreign policy, and the June 1950 invasion of South Korea spread that consensus to the country at large. Both resources and lessons followed.

What a lucky bunch are we, then, to have recently witnessed two such clarifying dramas in near simultaneity. The fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade not only vindicates Clinton administration policy in the Balkans, but shows the broader wisdom of worldwide U.S. engagement in armed humanitarian interventions. The collapse of the Oslo process is a prooftext written in rocks, flaming bottles and rubber bullets that Oslo was a mistake from the start, not just by Israel, which negotiated and signed it, but by the United States, which endorsed and supported it at times with greater energy than the Israeli government of the day. And how useful for pedagogy that one event vindicates and the other condemns a policy of the selfsame U.S. administration.

There is only one problem with all this: it isn't true. Those who have jumped to such conclusions are mainly those who have been waiting impatiently at the chalk line for evidence to confirm their own views. The temptation to see "clearer than the truth", to twist Acheson's memorable phrase just a bit, owes as much to ego maintenance as to the wish to influence others. It is a natural impulse, and nearly all of us succumb to it now and again. But sometimes it leads us to jump not to conclusions but to confusions.

"THE TRIUMPH of democracy in Serbia last week may well rank as the most important international event of the post-Cold War era", Robert Kagan and William Kristol told us on October 8. It constitutes for the United States "a strategic triumph of the first order", for it is now "irrefutable that U.S. intervention in Kosovo, as well as our earlier intervention in Bosnia and the continued presence of U.S. peacekeeping forces were essential factors in the defeat of Milosevic." [1]

If the Belgrade revolution is really such an epochal event, then it follows that U.S. interventions in the Balkans were epochal, too. But as the premise strains credulity, the conclusion suffers in consequence.

It is aesthetically pleasing that Slobodan Milosevic is fallen, but it is still far from clear that the problem he represented ever threatened any significant U.S. strategic interest. The Balkans are not, and never were, at the heart of Europe; anyone who thinks otherwise either cannot read history or a map. The worry that Balkan wars would spread to Central Europe or the Aegean was always exaggerated, and the argument that NATO would have collapsed had it remained passive before Serbian depredations became true only after Western leaders foolishly spoke and acted in ways that made it so.

Most likely, if the United States had let the Serbian dog lie it would be lying still--an ugly, decrepit and slightly rabid dog, true, but not an especially dangerous one for those able to keep their distance. …

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