With the onset of war in the Balkans, President Clinton has taken to wrapping himself in the cloak of Winston Churchill. Defending his own decision to face up to Slobodan Milosevic and bomb Serbia, he asked an audience on March 23: Wouldn’t everyone be better off if people had listened to Churchill and stood up to Hitler?
The implicit comparison does not merit comment, but it prompts a different, more plausible historical reference. For there was once another British leader and statesman. Like Bill Clinton, he came to office with a long record of experience in local government and built his political coalition upon a claim to competence in domestic management. Like Bill Clinton, he found himself faced with an unexpected crisis in Eastern Europe. He too calculated that public opinion was not interested in overseas military ventures, and he accordingly went to great lengths to negotiate and compromise with a foreign dictator, assuring his fellow citizens that he had no intention of dragging them into a ground war over a faraway country of which “we know nothing.”
When the foreign dictator finally went too far and undertook the systematic bloody destruction of an Eastern European state, the British statesman reluctantly declared war—a war that he pursued with such lassitude and incompetence that he was finally replaced by Winston Churchill himself. That British statesman, of course, was Neville Chamberlain—and his mantle fits all too snugly upon the shoulders of our present commander-in-chief.
I invoke this comparison as a reminder that we can indeed learn from History—but only if we choose the right examples. The war in the Balkans has been the occasion for all manner of claims about the things the past does and doesn’t teach. We have been told that it is an “age-old” conflict dating at least to 1389, and that our intervention would change nothing: a half-truth invoked to support a self-serving falsehood. We have been told by leftists nostalgic for cold war certainties that the US’s own past misdealings overseas make us no better than those we are attacking and that we thus have no business judging the behavior of others: a sophistic assertion of moral equivalence that cuts the ground from under the very universal principles upon which the left itself purports to stand.
We have been told by isolationists of the right that we have no reason to care or react to overseas events that don’t touch our “vital interests”: as though, since 1941, America’s interests—however amorally calculated—have not been intimately dependent upon developments around the globe. And we have been reminded by realists of all stripes that we failed to stop mass murder in Rwanda, Cambodia, or Kurdistan, and thus look rather odd taking a stand in Kosovo: as though our past irresponsibility in the face of genocide were a warrant and justification for repeating the mistake. Today, it seems, it is those who remember the (recent) past who are doomed to repeat …