The Good Bomber Clinton
by Gwydion M. Williams
George W. Bush is widely despised by Labour Party activists. Bill Clinton, with a nice style but not much substance, is seen as the positive alternative. But not by this magazine—our protests are not at the failings of one particular US administration that may well be voted out in 2004. With or without ‘Little-Man Bush’, the US as a whole is seeking hegemony over the rest of the world. And Clinton continued Bush Senior’s line that the USA has an authority superior to that of the United Nations, with both a right and a duty to act when the United Nations fails to do what the current US president thinks it should be doing:
“The United Nations is not what I hope it will be in five, 10 or 20 years. There are still people who vote in the United Nations based on the sort of old fashioned national self-interest views they held in the cold war or even long before, so that not every vote reflects the clear and present interests of the world and the direction we are going.
“I take it almost everybody in this room supports what Prime Minister Blair and I did in Kosovo. It was a clear and present emergency, you had a million people being driven from their homes, but in the end, even though we had all the Muslim world for it and most of the developing nations for it, all of Nato for it, we could not get a UN resolution because of the historic ties of the Serbs to the Russians. So we went in anyway and as soon as the conflict was over the Russians came in and did a very responsible job participating with the United States in an international UN sanction peacekeeping environment. Why? Why did that happen? Because the UN is still becoming.” (Speech by Bill Clinton, former US President, to the Labour Party conference, 3 October 2002.)
Sentiments like that make me glad that this magazine opposed Clinton’s policies on Kosovo. It wasn’t that we were pre-disposed to support the Serbs, I had actually raise the issue of the Serb take-over in this mainly-Albanian region long before it became major news, and kept reminding people about it in my Newsnotes over the years. Yet it was clear that the Serbs were being treated unjustly in the division of Yugoslavia, with legality invoked to cut the Bosnian Serbs and Croatian Serbs off from Serbia, and then ethnicity invoked to cut Kosovo off from the rest of Serbia, and then legality yet again to stop a partition of Kosovo on ethnic lines.
Clinton condemns as ‘old fashioned national self-interest’, anything which gets in the way of the USA’s new-fashioned global-hegemonic self-interest. The pretext for breaking up Yugoslavia and letting Bosnia and Croatia retain their Serb minorities was that these were sovereign states with a legal right to secede and a legal right to stop their own minorities from seceding. But Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, and Serbia refused to dismantle what it had built under Tito and surrender to foreign investment. So some other pretext was needed.
The reassertion of Serbian authority in Kosovo after peace was made in Bosnia involved nothing unusual, no different from what any government anywhere would have done in the face of armed rebels. Milder than some of the things that US governments had done in the past and will undoubtedly do again—and what they did to their own seceding states in the American Civil War. (And the Confederacy was probably right from a legal and customary point of view, however bad their reasons for wanting to leave a union that had been seen as an association of sovereign states.)
Before NATO and Clinton stepped in, there was no Serbian intent to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo. But the Rambouillet Agreement was intentionally designed to provoke, using NATO rather than the UN and insisting on NATO access to the whole of Serbia. The Serbians under Milosevic fell into the trap and began expelling Albanians, making US actions appear to be justified by events that would never have happened had the US behaved more reasonably. Despite which, the Serbian military were holding their own, so the US switched to softer targets, managing numerous ‘accidental’ strikes on civilian targets until the Serbs gave in.
The main aim was to break Serbia, which insisted on hanging on to Tito’s socialist system while other parts of Yugoslavia were keen to open up to foreign investment and be absorbed by the European Union. It was the conquest of a former ally that was no longer needed with the Cold War over. And it was done through NATO, because it is out of the question that the UN could have been used that way.
Everything that ‘Little-Man Bush’ is attempting in Iraq was pioneered by Clinton. Bush Senior threatened to act along in the 1991 Gulf War if he could not get a suitable UN resolution, but in fact got the agreement he wanted. Kosovo was a new departure, a demonstration that the USA can simply ignore the UN and ignore existing norms on International Law when the current US President decided that these mechanisms will produce the wrong answer. As Robert Fisk notes:
“It’s the same old trap. Nato used exactly the same trick to ensure that it could have a war with Slobodan Milosevic. Now the Americans are demanding the same of Saddam Hussein – buried well down in their list of demands, of course. Tell your enemy that you’re going to need his roads and airspace – with your troops on the highways – and you destroy his sovereignty. That’s what Nato demanded of Serbia in 1999. That’s what the new UN resolution touted by Messrs Bush and Blair demands of Saddam Hussein. It’s a declaration of war.
“It worked in 1999. The Serbs accepted most of Nato’s Interim Agreement for Peace and Self-government in Kosovo, but not Appendix 8, which insisted that “Nato personnel shall enjoy … free and unimpeded passage and unimpeded access throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”
“It was a demand that Mr Milosevic could never accept. US troops driving through Serbia would have meant, in these circumstances, the end of Yugoslav sovereignty.
“But now we have the draft UN resolution which Presidents Bush and Blair insist the UN must pass. Arms inspection teams, it says, “shall have the right to declare for the purposes of this resolution … ground and air-transit corridors which shall be enforced by UN security forces or by members of the UN [Security] Council”.
“In other words, Washington can order forces of the US (a Security Council member) to “enforce” these “corridors” through Iraq – on the ground – when it wants. US troops would thus be in Iraq. It would be invasion without war; the end of Saddam, “regime change”, the whole shebang.” (Robert Fisk: Nato used the same old trick when it made Milosevic an offer he could only refuse. 04 October 2002.)
The big difference between Kosovo and Iraq is that Little-Man Bush does not have Slick Willy’s gift for glossing over bad behaviour. No one has accused Bush Junior of being slick. But he was the clear choice of about half the voters, out of a wide range of possible candidates. One has to recall Forrest Gump, and decide that it’s a case of life imitating art.
Forrest Gump itself was clever and entertaining, but should have been given a special award for Extreme Moral Cowardice about every issue that the USA badly needs to face up to. The dead microphone that allowed the film’s hero to avoid taking a distinct position on the Vietnam War is just the most blatant example. Everything from racial segregation to the sexual revolution is simply evaded.
Forrest Gump is closer to the heart of the culture than the stuff that appeals to mainstream Britons. And Clinton had his 8 years in office by showing difference faces to different audiences, a trick that Al Gore wasn’t wily to repeat.
Direct democracy on topics outside of the experience of most of the voters produces poor results, government by sound-bite, and with business interests exerting an undue influence. And it’s worth noting that the US Constitution was designed to prevent such choices, with an Electoral College that would be elected by the people and then make its own informed choice of who was fit to be President and Vice-President. The people you trust to run your own locality are the ones who can best decide which of their number is fittest for the top job. This was the way the Electoral College was supposed to work, a sound idea but rather poor design. Unlike most democracies, it was not the main legislature that chose the leader, it was an Electoral College that had nothing else to do. And so a work-round was found to allow popular elections via candidates for the Electoral College who were pledged to a particular candidate.
Direct democracy has produced leaders who succeed by catering to as many bad habits as can be plausibly combined on a single political platform. US culture has never had much of a sense of grandeur. It makes up for it with pettiness on a gigantic scale. Which is why we are now heading towards a live-action thriller starring Little-Man Bush, with Saddam Hussein as a suitably swarthy, sinister but charismatic villain. Millions of unwilling Iraqis will be drafted in as extras, see them blown to bits on CNN (self-glorification every hour on the hour).
The ‘thriller’ is a specifically US variant on the ancient tradition of adventure stories. Thrillers in the Anglo tradition mostly match the Puritan notion of individual enthusiasts acting on the assumption that they have a direct line to God. The Upholder of Righteousness engages in semi-random acts of violence in defence of Saintliness, the spirit that has helped make the USA one of the most violent and crime-ridden countries in the world. (Britain has been catching up as we become more Americanised in our world outlook.)
The power of US leaders derives from the inherent power of US society. And the power of that society does not derive from any particular virtue, but from having got hold of much the best block of territory suitable for European settlement. It was virtually a second Europe, with a mix of temperate and Mediterranean-type climates, and held only by fragmented tribal peoples who were easily pushed aside and slaughtered. Given the additional boost of a vast existing European market for raw materials—mostly slave-grown up until the 1860s—North America was bound to produce a strong society.
Without slavery, the USA would have developed much more slowly—it might even have ended up the nation of self-sufficient farmers that a lot of the Founding Fathers wanted. Slavery and its consequent racism were embedded in the nature of the USA as it actually developed.
US racism is underground rather than dead. The Republican Party gets the votes of racists because they know that Republicans will always find some excuse to stop effective anti-racist measures. Racial separation remains acute. The military, under political pressure, enforced racial integration and thus is the one area of success. Britain failed to do this—its history of military racism was much older and deeper. But in other areas, housing and love/marriage, the USA stays segregated, and Britain is becoming unexpectedly integrated despite a lot of racism and unofficial discrimination.
The USA is indeed an impressively strong industrial power. Mostly not innovatory—ironclads and automobiles and aircraft and radar were all European ideas, as were space-rockets, computers and atomic weapons. Most of these found their best or strongest expression in the USA, which is strongest when it comes to realising ideas that came from outside. And a lot of the actualisation of that success was based on an extreme conformism combined with rootlessness, the perfect mix for an industrial or commercial workforce plus a large stratum of entrepreneurs.
The USA had no justification for seeing its own ways as inherently better—whoever got control of North America was bound to be strong. It could easily have been the Dutch or the French, and Britain might have kept its colonies loyal by granting Benjamin Franklin’s request for representation at Westminster. Middle America is heavily dependant on ideas that began elsewhere, creativity that would be snuffed out if Middle America were to succeed in turning the rest of the world into a weaker copy of itself.
The USA aims at hegemony—not an empire that gives them direct power and full responsibility, but a right to interfere at will. Anyone ‘doing the wrong thing’ can be stopped, but if the result is chaos and misery, that is the fault of local politicians.
During the Cold War, the USA was heavily reliant on traditionalist Islamic states, countries that were much less willing than leftist nationalists like Nasser to adapt to the US way of doing things. With US power now unchecked, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are logically on the list of former allies to be disrupted and force to adapt to American norms.
But to do that needs bases outside of the territories of the existing allies who are scheduled to be ‘phased out’. Besides, there was trouble when it came to the conquest of Afghanistan. Iraq conquered by the US and run by a puppet regime is just the place to put a really big base outside of any outside control.
[I was wrong on this last. Or rather, the USA failed to create a docile puppet in Iraq and is now increasingly dependent on the Saudis and the Gulf State. But I did more or less anticipate a US failure – see Iraq: The First Nine Days]