hen 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.
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
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