May 22, 2000
In the midst of one of those periodic, and short-lived, revivals of interest in history - in this case Roman - occasioned as they generally are by a blockbuster movie, it's hard not to view the U.S. Senate's vote on the deployment of troops in Kosovo in the light of imperial Rome. Or, more accurately, in Rome rapidly heading toward its imperium.
The full U.S. Senate voted on April 18 on an amendment that would have obligated President Clinton to set a deadline on the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Kosovo, contingent upon the U.S.'s NATO allies assuming a larger share of the financial and troop commitment there. A day earlier the House had voted 264-153 to add on a similar, if somewhat diluted, measure to a pending bill appropriating $8.6 billion for military construction and $4.7 billion for imperial adventures abroad; to wit, assault forces for our Colombian suzerainty and occupation forces for Kosovo.
In an unexpected but perhaps long-simmering act of challenge to our self-appointed Imperator, Senators Robert Byrd, a Democrat, and John Warner, a Republican, proposed an amendment that would have compelled the President to adhere to a protocol mandated by the Constitution and the War Powers Act alike: To appear before Congress and present his case for further deployment of U.S. soldiers "equipped for combat" (War Powers Act), and to continue to "consult regularly with Congress until U.S. Armed Forces are no longer" so deployed.
This provision had a retroactive component also, as Clinton had never bothered to consult with Congress about the stationing of U.S. troops in Kosovo in the first place, last June, treating his address to Congress on March 23, 1999 as all that was required to wage war, construct a massive - and no doubt permament - stately martial dome to house 5,900 G.I.s with all the amenities of home, including fast food restaurants and health clubs, and to provide the opportunity to squire his daughter on a taxpayer-subsidized tour of the provinces to be ogled at by homesick soldiers.
But with Senators Byrd and Warner suddenly playing the unlikely roles of Brutus and Cassius in this modern drama, Clinton's grand schemes were, if not seriously impeded, called into question. It was time for him, like Julius Caesar twenty centuries earlier, to defy the Senate. Imperial pique is not to be taken lightly, and the recalcitrant senators were to be laid siege to in proper fashion.
The customary way to influence legislators' votes is to either employ the services of sympathetic colleagues to prevail upon them or, failing that, to summon key leaders to the White House for a little arm-twisting. That's how these matters are dealt with traditionally in the American, that is to say republican, system. But not so in this case. Instead, the Clinton Administration unleashed its 'diplomatic' commando forces: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Secretary of the Treasury (and former World Bank official) Lawrence Summers, and, as its trump card, NATO General Secretary George Robertson.
Their statements, implied diktat and open threats, often read like the classical crude, and intentionally mistranslated, bluster attributed to foreign heads of state and their foreign ministers when our government is building a case for bombing them. Albright accused the Senate (full of incendiary firebrands as we know) of "playing with fire" in attempting to introduce some semblance of discussion into matters military and geo-political. They were leaving poor Kosovo, and by implication the entire Pax Americana, a prey to "vultures," as our country's chief diplomat so delicately phrased it. No stranger to matters vulturine, Albright has militarily supported and personally befriended the likes of the KLA's Hashim Thaci, than whom no greater vulture exists. But the latter and his cohorts are our vultures, so the reference was not to them.
The cosmopolite Secretary, for whom, as Chicago journalist Steve Chapman wrote last year, foreign affairs is a quiz program and the answer is always "bombs," also delivered herself of these choice pronouncements: "We are the richest nation in the world. Now is the time to advance and not retreat." And, "We are leaders and our fundamental objective in Eastern Europe is not to leave - it is to win." All this in response to two senators simply asking the president to please talk to them.
Not to be outdone in bellicose thunderings, Defense Secretary Cohen, who can work himself into a lather of near-apoplectic sanctimony with the best of them, advocated the president veto the proposed bill - proposed on the initiative of Clinton himself - if it contained the offensive concession to Congressional oversight. It's never been the established rule to have defense secretaries advise Congress how to vote and presidents when to veto, but, as mentioned earlier, the imperial eagles - rather than, say, vultures -are now descending on the American body politic.
Next to appear on the podium of remonstrance and admonition was the sub-imperator himself, Al Gore. According to an Associated Press/Washington Post release," In a show of how seriously the administration took the vote, Vice President Al Gore made a rare appearance in his capacity of president of the Senate to cast a tie-breaking vote if necessary." It was not necessary - but barely.
The White House Budget Director, Jacob Lew, who, like Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, is not generally acknowledged as a specialist in either foreign affairs or constitutional law, denounced the Senate's alleged adherence to "rigid, mechanical burden sharing tests." The truth of the Clinton administration's concern about this revolt of the patrician obstructionists was more closely revealed, though, by an unnamed White House source that warned that this timid attempt to assert some modicum of Congressional input "could damage the strength and durability of the NATO alliance." That is, a largely procedural quest by Byrd and Warner to have the president pay a symbolic obeisance to the elected representatives of the people posed a potential threat to a higher law and a more formidable power: NATO.
To make sure the point was not lost on any legislators over-fond of legal niceties or too protective of their own prerogatives, the adminstration solicited the intervention of NATO's Secretary General George Robertson. If the president wouldn't condescend to sway senators' votes, Robertson had no such scruples. In private letters to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Minority Leader Tom Daschle and several key committee heads, Robertson tried the NATO equivalent of the emotional approach. "The prospect of any NATO ally deciding not to take part in a NATO operation causes me deep concern." That message seems clear enough: When a nation joins, or extends membership in, the newly reconfigured North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it cedes its rights - and its people's rights - to any independent policy or course of action. And though a formal precondition for NATO membership is fidelity to democratic principles, as defined by the NATO leaders themselves, in practice a member's constitution, parliament and popular opinion are overridden and effectively rendered nugatory. A particularly disturbing example of this dynamic was the House's 213-213 vote on April 28th of last year denying Clinton formal authorization for his attacks against Yugoslavia. In any well-functioning democracy this unprecedented action would have at least forced a serious re-thinking of, and probable pause in, the ongoing bombing campaign. However, only a couple hours after the vote National Security Council Spokesman David Leavy was on the TV evening news announcing, with almost spiteful bravado, that the attacks would be intensified.
The above demonstrates two important matters. First, the executive branch of NATO nations will brook no meddling with its imperial polity, which is decided upon by supra-national planning bodies and implemented by economic and military treaty alliances. The U.S. Congress, and parliaments in the other NATO countries, are relegated to the role of rubberstamp bodies, much as with appointed parliaments under military juntas and constitutional monarchies. Their role is strictly to provide popular legitimacy to actions already decided upon by unelected, unaccountable, and frequently anonymous organizations in Brussels and elsewhere, and to allocate funds for the same in such a manner as to placate the major domestic power groupings. (And, of course, to act as a forum to groom and showcase prospective new executives.)
The second lesson to be learned from the Senate vote on Kosovo, a more encouraging one, is that the recognition of the first is dawning on the legislators themselves. Listen to this, from the main sponsor of the House's comparable amendment, John Kasich (R-Ohio):"[Passage] sends a strong message that NATO is not a one-way street. And that's a message that will have an impact beyond our presence in the Balkans." And this, from Robert Byrd of the Senate: "The administration would much prefer Congress to keep quiet, to roll over and play dead, while the administration continues to do whatever it wants to do in Kosovo." This is not a belated recognition by Byrd and the forty-six of his colleagues who also voted against the Clinton administration that the latter's Kosovo policy was wrong from the start - if it was, it would also be a self-indictment in most instances - but that their own positions are being undermined by subservience to an imperial presidency run amok and the subordination of national interests to that of an aggressive military bloc.
It's this moment, when the self-interest of senators and congressmen happens to coincide with that of the citizenry - for peace, for democratic control of the nation's agenda - that the slide toward imperial war abroad and disenfranchisement at home can be halted and reversed. Again, with all the heavy artillery - the metaphor is intentional - arrayed against it, the Senate vote to support the amendment only lost by six votes. If three members had been prevailed upon to change their votes the result would have been a tie, thereby placing presidential candidate Al Gore in a tight spot and the entire Kosovo debacle in the spotlight.
If one additional mind had been changed the vote would have failed and attention been brought to all the buried reservations, unspoken suspicions and inchoate opposition related to the war against Yugoslavia. Had a more concerted and focused effort been made by all opponents of the government's Kosovo policy - and by anyone invested in preserving democratic control over federal actions abroad - this vote could have been defeated. What also would have been defeated is Caesar's assault against a defiant senate and the crossing of a river that friends of peace and democracy can never permit to be crossed. It's not too late, though. The emperor and his legionaries are doubtlessly gloating over their perceived victory. But the victor's laurel crown can be snatched away as quickly as it was conferred. The responsibility to stop this usurpation and descent into global militarism lies, as always, in ourselves.
The contact with and pressure on senators and congresspersons has just begun. We've got their phone numbers, e-mail addresses, aides' names and a score card on all of them. To update the references, we've lost a close inning, but the game's just begun.
This Week's Other Article
The Media and their Atrocities - by Michael Parenti
Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath