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Surprising things are happening in the world right now. And not all of them are bad. The 19-nation NATO alliance is holding together in support of the first massive bombing operation in Europe in 50 years. What’s holding it together is a threat to the members’ common moral and humanitarian sensibilities. The West is united in outrage. Imagine that.
If there’s a war, there’s got to be an anti-war, right? That’s another surprise. What’s missing from the Kosovo story is anti-war protest, at least on the left. Sure, there have been some demonstrations against the NATO air strikes, in the United States and around the world. But mostly from ethnic Serbians and their orthodox Christian and Slavic sympathizers. What happened to the peace movement?
The Cold War is over, for one thing. The Cold War put the United States on the right, internationally–the enemy of Third World liberation movements. For many on the left–from the “Ban the Bomb” movement of the 1950s, through the anti-Vietnam War movement of the `60s and `70s, to the opposition to U.S. policy in Central America in the `80s–the United States was on the wrong side of history. But liberals were hardly in sympathy with Saddam Hussein in 1991, or with Slobodan Milosevic today. They’re the bad guys.
You can find criticism of President Clinton on the left, not for what he’s trying to do, but for the way he’s doing it. “Did it have to come to bombing?” liberal intellectuals ask. But there’s been no action in the streets or on campuses. No marches. No demonstrations. No teach-ins.
There’s no question the Right is divided over Kosovo, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., leading the interventionists and Pat Buchanan speaking for the isolationists. As it turns out, the Left is split, too. “You have advocates on both sides of this,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. “You can see it as two different images. One is the image of the Holocaust, of refugees and trains. . . . On the other hand, there’s the image of Vietnam–the bombing, the intervention in a civil war.”
All major political figures on the Left seem to be supporting the air strikes. For instance, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D- Minn., a genuine 1960s anti-Vietnam War activist, said on the Senate floor last fall that if the brutal slaughter in Kosovo doesn’t end, “the West must have the resolve to do what is necessary to bring it to an end.” He added, “If necessary, … I think there should be air strikes.”
Even the Persian Gulf War brought some liberal protests. Remember the signs that said, “No Blood for Oil”? Liberals don’t like to fight wars for strategic or economic interests. But a war for human rights? That’s something liberals can rally behind.
And it’s not just the Left. Public opinion throughout the Western world is taking a surprising turn. The public–here and in Europe–is beginning to endorse the idea of sending ground troops to Kosovo if that’s what it will take to stop the brutality. In the United States, opposition to the use of ground forces has been declining rather sharply, about 10 points a week. Three weeks ago, two out of three Americans opposed sending U.S. ground troops if the air strikes are not effective. Now, according to the Gallup Poll, the public is split. On this issue, the public may be leading, and the leaders, perhaps, following.
What’s shaping people’s opinion if it isn’t their elected leaders? The answer is, the pictures. Horrifying pictures of brutal and inhuman massacres. Of refugees being shoved into trains. Pictures that bring to mind the most appalling event of modern history. Young people who didn’t live through World War II know those pictures. They’ve seen them in the most moving and powerful films of their own time, such as Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful.
Liberal activists are now divided between the human rights advocates, who support the air strikes, and the peace community, which opposes them. The peace community is on the defensive. Why? Because of the pictures. “The people who were originally opposed to the bombing were silenced by the refugees’ devastation,” Borosage said.
Look at who’s leading the NATO alliance: Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain, and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany. All from the Sixties generation. All with ties to the anti-Vietnam War movement. “It’s as if everything that had been learned in Vietnam has been forgotten by the generation that opposed it,” David Corn, columnist for The Nation, observed.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is a former anti- war activist who now heads the Green Party. Fischer told The Washington Post recently that Germans of his generation learned two lessons from World War II. One was “Never again war.” The other was “Never again Auschwitz.” The second lesson has trumped the first.
In America, polls show rank-and-file Republicans are split. According to the Gallup Poll, 48 percent of Republicans support the air strikes and 47 percent oppose them. But Democrats support the air strikes by almost 3-to-1. The party difference shows up even more dramatically on the issue of ground troops. A majority of Republicans opposes ground troops. But Democrats are out in front of the President on this: Most Democrats support sending troops. It looks like we’re not in Vietnam any more.
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