Moral War?

by Scott Brown | 4/16/99 5:00am

War is rarely, if ever, a moral method for resolving a conflict, but the situation in Kosovo troubles even the most peaceable among us. Recent polls indicate that 60 percent of the American public support the air strikes against Serbia, up from 46 percent just before the bombing began. Nearly 50 percent favor sending ground troops, up from 31 percent at the beginning of the conflict. Support for U.S. action in the conflict is now driven, say the poll analysts, by those who believe we have a moral and humanitarian responsibility to intervene. What are the arguments and what are our moral obligations?

Opponents of intervention say, primarily, that the U.S. has no critical national interest at stake. Kosovo straddles no trade routes, holds no oil, and threatens no strategic interests. As Vietnam and Afghanistan should have taught us, a war against nationalism is not winable, and will distract us from more important national interests, such as our relationship with Russia. We have claimed for years that NATO is a defensive alliance, and have persuaded the Russians to accept the enlargement of NATO on that basis. Can we blame them if they are upset over NATO's first intervention in an internal conflict, only twelve days after NATO officially adopted three former Soviet bloc countries?

On moral ground, opponents of intervention argue that the NATO bombing has exacerbated the humanitarian situation, provoking more extensive atrocities and population movement. And although Milosevic may be a bad guy, NATO is inflicting great physical and economic harm on innocent Serbian civilians. Furthermore, the Kosovar Albanians are hardly angels. They have committed their own atrocities, and would be likely, once in power, to implement policies to oppress Kosovar Serbs. Can we stake a moral case on them?

And what about moral equity? How can we justify intervention in Kosovo when we have failed to intervene in Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Cambodia, Liberia, Algeria, and Sierra Leone -- countries that have suffered far more killing and ethnic violence during the past twenty five years than Kosovo? Collectively, four million people have died in these conflicts while the West has done nothing. By most estimates, fewer than 20,000 have died in Kosovo, although the current stories are deeply disturbing.

On a more philosophical note, opponents of intervention wonder whether we have a right to impose our moral standards on others. As one friend said recently, "We don't have any place at the table in Kosovo. Let them take care of their own problems. We have enough of our own."

Those who favor intervention stake out their own geopolitical and moral territory. Kosovo could be a flashpoint for wider war in Europe, they point out, just as the conflict in Bosnia was the flashpoint for World War I. A war could draw in Albania and ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, igniting a conflict in Macedonia that could trigger intervention by Turkey and Greece who support their Muslim and Eastern Orthodox brethren. Such a conflict could draw in Russia and Bulgaria, etc. Early intervention, supporters say, is necessary to prevent more extensive war in Europe and the stability of our European trading partners. Even if the chance of a larger war in the Balkans is remote, don't we have a broad national interest in deterring aggression throughout the world and sending a clear message that repression and atrocities are intolerable? Backing down on our promises to support the Kosovar Albanians would undermine our ability to pursue strong diplomatic measures without military mean

s in other regions of the world.

On moral ground, supporters of intervention argue that the United States and other civilized countries cannot stand by while Serbs inflict atrocities on innocent people. Jews rightly point with horror to the refusal of Allied commanders in WWII to bomb the civilian railroads that transported European Jews to death camps. Our moral sense requires us to intervene on behalf of the helpless. Sure, the Kosovar Albanians have killed innocent civilians, too, but the Serbs have systematically oppressed the Kosovars and withdrawn their legal rights throughout the past decade. Kosovar Albanian leaders worked peacefully for eight years to assert their rights, while the Serbs continued to close their schools and discriminate against their people.

Supporters of intervention point out that although international law and the UN Charter forbid intervention in civil conflicts, the United Nations Convention on Genocide, signed by all NATO countries and Yugoslavia, requires signatories to prevent efforts to destroy "in whole or in part" an ethnic population. Most legal scholars, they point out, consider the deportation of an ethnic population as an act of genocide. Our treaty obligations morally and legally bind us to intervene. True, we have failed to intervene in more violent conflicts elsewhere, but is that a reason to fail once again?

So, where do we come out of this geopolitical and moral thicket? The "blue bloods" and the rationalists argue, as James Schlesinger did last week, that "moral indignation is rarely a sound guide to policy." But why not? Moral indignation sparked change in this country's civil rights laws, not the arguments of policy wonks. Moral indignation changed our environmental policies, not a rational balance of interests. Sometimes our moral indignation tells us when it is time to ignore the established order and create a new basis for national policy. Maybe it is time to reexamine the foundations of our foreign policy: inviolability of national borders, non-intervention in civil affairs, and the supremacy of national sovereignty. As national boundaries become increasingly permeable to economic and cultural forces, why allow them to remain as fixed barriers to moral and humanitarian standards?

If you agree with me that moral considerations are appropriate factors in determining our military and foreign policy, where does this lead you in Kosovo? Once you decide morals matter, you can't sit on the fence and let someone else decide. You know more about your moral standards than anyone in Washington. If you aren't sure what you think, come join others at a community dinner in Tindle Lounge on Friday night at 6:00. Talk with others, and maybe your own conscience, about the moral implications of the war in Kosovo.