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Orwellian Spin Masking Clinton's Failures

Author: Robert A. Manning, Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council
June 6, 1999
San Jose Mercury News


All governments seek to portray events in the most favorable light, and of course, truth is the first casualty of war. But the Clinton Administration has raised spin to a new art form of latter-day surrealism. Particularly in regard to foreign policy, we have witnessed a debasing of language so insidiously Orwellian that in many instances it prevents any meaningful discourse. This destruction of language is hardly an academic matter: It masks profoundly flawed assumptions. And it obscures the administration’s failure to conceive and shape a viable post-Cold War order.

That shortcoming is underscored by the deal agreed to Thursday by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The entire conflict—um, hostilities—uh, dare we say it, WAR—over Kosovo has been rich in evidence of the parallel universe the administration inhabits.

Failure equals success. The goals NATO stated at the outset of its military campaign over Kosovo were the return of ethnic Albanians, autonomy for the province, the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force.

Until now, the exact opposite has occurred. Milosevic may yet win his war of "ethnic cleansing," having destroyed Kosovo and emptied it of 70 percent of its ethnic Albanian citizens. Under the best conceivable outcome it is difficult to envision more than a portion of exiles returning home.

As diplomacy finally yields a settlement, it appears to be not the Rambouillet accord, but something a bit different. Though the administration said it was not negotiating with Milosevic, in effect, it did through Russia. One can only speculate as to whether a similar agreement might have emerged without the bombing campaign, had the United States and NATO negotiated first rather than imposed their plan in Paris.

As an added bonus, surrounding states have been destabilized by the large infusion of refugees. And it remain unclear how much of a presence NATO will actually have in the peacekeeping force.

In the end, the only real achievement of the bombing campaign may be several hundred dead civilians and the daily lives of 10 million Serbs turned to rubble for Clinton’s "just cause." No doubt, none of this will stop Clinton from proclaiming "success."

Civilization vs. the forces of darkness. There is a grotesque gap between the lofty Churchillian rhetoric and a bizarre, tepid military campaign whose top priority has been to avoid a single casualty.

It was, said Clinton, "a great battle between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration; the forces of globalism vs. tribalism."

With stakes so enormous and evil so intolerable, why, pray tell, were bombing runs done at 15,000 feet? And why did Clinton pledge no ground troops from Day One—a tactical move akin to wearing a "Kick Me" sign?

Conflict is not war. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said his troops engaged in hostilities, indeed, in armed conflict. But he said he was "not qualified to say if this fits the traditional definition of war."

Oh. And just who is? Secretary of State Madeleine Albright refused to answer the question in Senate testimony; the three-letter word might have raised questions about the War Powers Act.

My personal favorite combat term is "permissive environment" as the condition for deploying ground troops, or lately, the even odder "semi-permissive environment."

Humanitarian interests are vital interests. The term "vital interests" traditionally has a precise meaning: an imminent threat to national security so grave that we are prepared to go to war. Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Persian Gulf in 1990, when we faced the possibility of Saddam acquiring control over half the world’s oil while building nuclear weapons.

By declaring the Balkan intervention "vital," not only has the administration dumbed down the term, it has put at risk our true vital interests. It suggests to potential adversaries that the United States (and NATO) will never risk casualties, even when the future of civilization is supposedly at stake. And it tells allies and friends that they may not be able to reply on the United States if a contingency arises where ground troops may be necessary.

Engagement. The administration’s debasing of language has been around since 1993, when Clinton unveiled "engagement and enlargement" as his national security strategy. On close inspection, this phrase dissolves the Clintonista world view into mush.

"Engagement" is just a fancy word for diplomacy. That’s what the State Department does. But admirable as conducting the nation’s business may be, it is not a strategy, or even a policy. It is a tactic.

Take our "engagement" with China. Woody Allen said, "Ninety percent of life is just showing up." Having engagement as the goal means that, by definition, a meeting is a success if you simply show up.

Instead of results, then, we have a delusionary "strategic partnership" with China, which is supposed to be somehow different from our mere alliances with Asian democracies such as Japan and South Korea.

The loose term "partner" even applies to Russia, our buddy Boris, though we are at odds on most major global issues—including Kosovo.

Enlargement. The other half of Clinton’s so-called strategy is "enlargement," which refers to the goal of expanding democracy. This, at least, has substance.

The underlying idea goes back two centuries to German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of "perpetual peace." As democracies and civil societies grow and as commerce flourishes, Kant argued, war will become obsolete.

Clearly, it didn’t. but the administration has taken this as a mantra, believing that if it converts nations to democracy, it can prevent wars. That, of course ignores history—India vs. Pakistan, Greece vs. Turkey, not to mention 19 democracies demolishing much of Serbia.

Still, aiding nations trying to democratize is an admirable foreign-policy goal—but not a strategy. It offers little guidance when national interests among democracies don’t coincide, and no framework for dealing with non-democratic states.

The list goes on. but there is a larger point to all this. First, with language so grossly distorted, the possibility of intelligent discussion is greatly diminished. That is bad enough.

But even worse is the camouflage that Clinton’s semantic hall of mirrors provides for an intellectually bankrupt foreign policy. In the administration’s preoccupation with tragic yet peripheral affairs— -Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, etc.—we have witnessed foreign policy, and now perhaps even an air war, as a form of social therapy.

It has been the case at the end of historic eras, most often caused by war and/or revolution, that new institutions, new rules of the game among the major powers are created to manage international relations: the Congress of Vienna in 1815; the Treaty of Versailles after World War I; the United Nations and the Bretton Woods agreement after World War II.

But the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War yielded neither new institutions nor new arrangements among major powers.

This administration cannot be accused of either vision or exercise of political imagination. Clinton could have become the president who forged a new post-Cold War strategy for national security and reshaped America’s relationship with the world. Instead, on Jan. 21, 2001, we will look back at Clinton’s tenure as one where American leadership and credibility was scarred, despite the enormous weight of the United States as an unrivaled single superpower in all dimensions—economic, military, technological.

Indeed, in retrospect it will appear to be eight wasted years in regard to the creation of a 21st-centry system of relations. it will be for the next administration to undo the damage and provide coherent purpose to American power. And given the mess that will be Clinton’s legacy in Yugoslavia, it is likely that future presidents will still be dealing with the ramifications of the "success."