Editor's Note
The last wars we won.
By Paul Glastris
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When I was a kid during Vietnam, I remember hearing some of my father’s friends—like him, World War II vets who voted Republican—scornfully declare that they had served during “the last war we won.” It was a not-too-subtle swipe at the Democrats for failing to achieve victory in a war they had started.

These days, as we watch the United States stumble through another slow-motion defeat, I find myself incredulous that the Democrats don’t regularly invoke the last wars America did, in fact, win: Bosnia and Kosovo.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Most Americans probably don’t remember the precise outcomes of—much less the circumstances leading up to—those small Balkan conflicts. But I can’t forget them. I covered the end of the war in Bosnia as a reporter and was a speechwriter in the Clinton White House during Kosovo. In both cases it was clear, at least to me and my Balkan-obsessed friends, that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was engineering ethnic slaughter for his own political ends; that both conflicts, happening in the same country that sparked World War I, could spill over into neighboring states; and that Europe, by itself, was incapable of ending the violence.

America, in my opinion, had no option but to get involved militarily. But much of the national security establishment wasn’t so sure, because the prospects for success seemed so grim. Religious and ethnic enmities in Yugoslavia were, if anything, worse than those in Iraq (at least until recently). At home, Clinton faced a far tougher political environment than Bush later would on the eve of the Iraq War: a hostile Congress controlled by the opposite party; a military that deeply distrusted him; and a pre-9/11 voting public that did not feel that the security of the nation was threatened in any direct way. The administration compounded these problems with a series of mistakes—from its initial half-hearted effort to sell the Europeans on a military strategy for Bosnia to underestimating Milosevic’s resolve to hold on to Kosovo.

And yet both conflicts ended with impressive military victories. In Bosnia in the summer of 1995, Croat and Muslim ground troops, armed (and, in the case of the Croats, trained) with tacit U.S. government support, routed the Serbs in southern Croatia and eastern Bosnia, while U.S.-led NATO air and naval forces pounded Bosnian Serb military positions with smart bombs and Tomahawk missiles. That one-two punch forced Milosevic to sue for peace at the Dayton Accords. Then, in March 1999, after 300,000 Kosovar Albanians had been driven from their homes by Serb troops fighting Kosovo Liberation Army guerillas, NATO launched another air war, this time hitting Kosovo and Serbia proper. Seventy-eight days later, Milosevic pulled his forces out of Kosovo.

We achieved these victories—whether by luck, skill, planning, or some combination—without the loss of a single American soldier’s life in combat. Most important of all, we won the peace, deploying multinational occupation forces sizable and robust enough to keep a tense but reasonably democratic order—an order that holds to this day. As for Milosevic: he was forced from power the next year by a nonviolent democratic mass movement and sent to The Hague, where he died in 2006.

To put this achievement in perspective: no Democratic president since FDR has launched and won a war. Clinton won two. That’s a hell of a record, and one you’d expect would be embraced by a party that has struggled to convince voters of its capacity to lead on national security. Yet while Democrats will occasionally invoke the Bosnian and Kosovo peacekeeping operations as a way of criticizing the botched Iraq occupation, you almost never hear them talk about Bosnia and Kosovo as military victories per se.

In some sense, this is understandable: these victories did not really feel very triumphal at the time (except perhaps to the men and women in uniform who carried out the missions). They were wars almost nobody was psyched for, that were fought—on our end anyway—from 30,000 feet in the air, over stakes that were not—again, for us—existential in nature. Even the White House had trouble finding the right words to express what we had achieved. The day Milosevic started pulling his troops out of Kosovo, the NSC produced a draft of the speech the president would deliver that evening in prime time. It included, if memory serves, about a dozen mentions of Europe but not one use of the word “victory.” The political side of the White House pushed back, and with the president’s approval the speech was punched up—on the teleprompter, about ten minutes before he went live before the nation.

But if the Balkan victories lacked a certain political frisson, can you imagine today’s Republicans being blasé about them had they occurred during a GOP presidency? Of course not. They’d talk them up incessantly.

So should Democrats. After all, there’s a reason these victories happened on a Democrat’s watch. They were the result of a strategy based on liberal principles: that you go to war with profound reluctance, only after all other options have been exhausted, all points of view heard, all evidence weighed, and all necessary allies brought on board.

Democrats often talk about these principles, but mostly in the abstract or as part of their critique of Bush and the neocons, and so they tend to sound either airy or carping. The problem, I think, is that Democrats fail to connect, even in their own minds, the principles they believe in with the only actual recent evidence for their soundness: our victories in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Would talking more about these victories stir the passions of average voters, most of whom barely remember the Balkan wars? Probably not. But there’s another audience that I think might be more receptive: the military.

The uniformed services were, for the most part, skeptical at best about the missions they were given in the Balkans. There was much grumbling, especially among the officer corps, which by then had become almost tribally Republican, that postconflict occupations were undermining readiness and keeping soldiers from training for their “real” mission, which is to fight big wars against serious enemies. The thinking was that Bosnia and Kosovo were the kind of candy-ass humanitarian assignments you get when there’s a liberal in the White House. The Bush campaign in 2000 deftly exploited that resentment. As Condoleezza Rice put it: “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.”

Now, after four tough years in Iraq, and five and a half in Afghanistan, nobody in uniform thinks peacekeeping and nation-building missions are something only Democrats order up. They know that whether they like it or not, such operations are likely to come their way again (say, to stop a genocide in oil-rich Nigeria, or stabilize North Korea if the current regime collapses) no matter who’s president.

Given this awareness, Democrats need to offer men and women in uniform a simple proposition: If you want your next war to end up like Iraq, vote Republican, but if you want it to turn out more like Kosovo, vote for us.

That’s my advice, anyway. But I’m not a soldier. If you want to know what members of the military are really thinking about war, politics, and the next election, you have to ask them. And so we did. In this month’s cover package, seven recent war veterans respond to the question “What can a Democrat say to get my vote?” I think you’ll find their answers fascinating.

   

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly  
 
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