Posted on March 29, 1999 in Washington Watch

With the launching of a U.S.-led NATO air war against Serbia, the United States has become engaged, for the first time since World War II, in military hostilities on two separate fronts.

There are profound differences between the confrontations with Iraq and Serbia–but there are some similarities as well.

On the surface, for example, both are “made for TV” wars. From the first day of the air strikes the television treatment has included all the familiar components.

The 24-hour news networks adjusted their programming accordingly. These new media creations thrive on such crises. The coverage has been endless. Throughout the first night of the air raids the television screen was divided between somber voiced reporters and the now-familiar eerie green flashes of bombings as seen through a night vision lens.

This on-site coverage has been suspended since the Serbians ejected reporters from the country. But the all-news channels were not to be deterred. Even with no reporters in Serbia, coverage has continued with news updates, reports from the White House and a stream of commentators–some former government officials, so-called “experts” and military analysts. The latter two groups are distinguished by the fact that although they actually know very little about what is going on, they nevertheless feel compelled to offer their “expert” views.

As in the Iraq war, these “experts” have no more knowledge than the newsreaders. Often times, they’ve never been to the country that they are analyzing. They are a “cottage industry” of former government or military personnel or academics which has been instantly created to fill the need of television to have articulate talking heads to fill 24 hours of discussion.

When these commentators are finished, the networks switch to a variety of human interest interviews–which usually consist of the families of U.S. military personnel involved in the conflict and, in the recent case, joyous Albanian Americans and grieving or angry Serbian Americans.

Welcome to the TV war! It is the new war of smart bombs, computer simulated graphics and endless talking.

What is both fascinating and disturbing about this new type of war–in both Serbia and Iraq–is the fact that despite the saturation of television and print media coverage, in the end, we know so very little about what is actually happening on the ground.

In the cases of both Iraq and Serbia, the Administration has made similar arguments to win public support. Last week, President Clinton made a compelling personal appeal in advance of the bombing campaign. He offered a rather simplified crash course in recent Balkan history and spelled out the humanitarian considerations and the threat of wider conflict if nothing was done to stop Serbian violence in Kosovo. U.S. interests in the region the President stated were clear: “our values” were at risk if nothing was done to stop the pending humanitarian crisis, and “our interests” would be jeopardized if the conflict spread and destabilized southern Europe. NATO would bomb, he said, to deter aggression and degrade the ability of the Serbian Military to commit further atrocities. Finally, the President said, the U.S goal was to bring about Serbian agreement with the proposed peace plan.

Much of this campaign had a familiar ring to it and supporters of the Administration’s policy and many in the media have been quick to point out the parallels.

At least one prominent U.S. political leader sought to complete the parallels between Serbia and Iraq. On the first day of the bombing, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation’s Committee announced that he was fed up with the Serbian strong man. Senator Jesse Helms stated that Slobodan Milosevic had to be removed from office and, therefore, he would introduce “The Serbian Democratization Act” (modeled after “The Iraq Liberation Act”). This act, like its predecessor, would authorize $100 million to overthrow Milosevic and impose tough economic and political sanctions to isolate the Serbian regime.

One significant difference between the Serbian and Iraqi fronts is the number of influential voices that have been raised, from the outset, in opposition to the air attacks on Serbia.

One-half of the Republican presidential candidates and a number of important U.S. Senators have criticized the Administration’s rationale for the attacks, the scope of the hostilities, their legitimacy or their underlying strategy.

Some have warned of the dangers to U.S. interests and prestige resulting from the “unilateral use of force”. Others have questioned the goals of the bombing and have questioned what would be the Administration’s fallback position if the bombing failed to produce results. There have been dire warnings that the very catastrophes the attacks have been designed to forestall (i.e. the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo and regional instability in the Balkans) might even be aggravated by the bombings. On the other hand, some have criticized the Administration for responding too slowly to the crisis and acting too cautiously–without indicating what they would propose as a more aggressive strategy.

Similar concerns have been raised by the continuing confrontation with Iraq, but by only marginal political figures or groups. In the case of Serbia, the issue is even being touted as a possible presidential campaign issue for 2000.

If the hostilities drag on with no end in sight, and if tensions emerge within NATO or are further aggravated with Russia and China, it will be interesting to see if those current critics of the Clinton Administration’s Serbia policy extend their criticism to include the Iraq situation.

While there are some parallel concerns (i.e. questions about unilateralism, regional impact, strategy, etc.), it will probably be difficult for politicians to question the Iraq policy for at least one important reason.

The political campaign against Slobodan Milosevic has been vigorous, but it has been uneven. In the case of Iraq, the demonization of the Iraqi leader has been systematic and complete. The Serbian President, like Saddam, has been compared to Hitler and has been routinely condemned for ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity. At the same time, however the Milosevic’s government was a partner to the Dayton Peace Accords and a party to the negotiations at Rambouillet.

No such talks have taken place with Iraq nor are they politically possible given the manner in which the regime has been vilified during the past decade.

So at week’s end, the U.S. public is following two wars on two fronts, with similar arguments being made to justify them both. There are connections that ought to be made and questions that ought to be asked and answered. It is doubtful, however, that they will receive any thoughtful consideration, any time soon.

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