Dropping bombs, winning votes

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THE AMERICAN media this week are even richer than usual in examples of confused thinking, over Bosnia and Russia. The most ominous example appeared in the New York Times: 'On the diplomatic front, the United States is eager to seize upon Russia's deep humiliation over winning Serbian ceasefire pledges only to be double-crossed.'

How shallow can you get in the discussion of great matters? 'Russia's deep humiliation' is real, but it is not something that can be 'seized upon' as an American asset. It is the most dangerous single force now beginning to exert its influence in international affairs. It was not 'Russia' that was humiliated by the refractory responses of the Bosnian Serbs. It was, specifically, Boris Yeltsin, whom the Americans want to help. They are finding very odd ways of helping him. It is Mr Yeltsin, more than anyone else, who is in danger of destruction at the hands of 'Russia's deep humiliation'. And Bill Clinton is pushing him to the brink, by inducing him to put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs. The more pressure he puts on, the more Russians cheer for the Serbs, and the more unpopular Mr Yeltsin gets. If Nato's air strikes start to hurt the Serbs, that could topple Mr Yeltsin.

The State Department is showing no awareness of foreign policy as globally interconnected. The line it is taking on Bosnia could wreck relations with Russia. Foreign policy is being improvised from day to day, through reaction to the flow of the news and to the responses from the American television audience. Bosnia is on that screen, day after day. Russia is not, for the moment. So let's do something about Bosnia and forget about Russia. Let's not do anything with US ground troops in it, though, because that would remind people of Vietnam.

That's how it has been, and I fear it is going to get worse as we get closer to the November mid-term congressional elections. One issue that the Republicans are exploiting is the idea that the President is wimpish in the conduct of foreign policy, with the successes of the Serbs adduced as the major case in point. The only adjunct to that, which would not involve even worse political dangers, is air strikes.

This is not the first time that US air power has been used for a domestic political effect, though it is the first time that Nato has been used for such a purpose. President Nixon, on the eve of his election for a second term, in 1972, made massive use of air power, exceeding anything that Mr Clinton at present contemplates. But there is another difference: Mr Nixon knew exactly what he was about. Mr Clinton doesn't. As well as a domestic political objective, Mr Nixon had also a strategic foreign policy objective in mind. Mr Clinton wouldn't know such a thing if it came up and bit him.

Mr Nixon's foreign policy objective, which he attained, was to extricate the United States from Vietnam. He had been withdrawing US troops from Vietnam fast and in large numbers, finally reducing the US military presence there to almost nothing. This was sold to the American public in terms of 'Vietnamisation': the theory that the South Vietnamese forces would now be able to stand on their own feet and beat the 'Viet Cong' on their own. The theory - extremely attractive to the American public, which needed to believe it - was that the South Vietnamese, backed by US air power, and only air power, could beat the Communists.

Mr Nixon was far too clever to believe anything of the kind, but he was also clever enough to see how the air strikes would help him to be re-elected. The air strikes attracted the vehement denunciations of those Americans who had led the opposition to the Vietnam war, and that was exactly the kind of noise Mr Nixon needed to provoke while he withdrew from the war, by pretending that his policies were winning it. With the inadvertent help of the left he held the support of the right, and the centre believed him because it wanted to. He won re-election easily. His subsequent misfortunes had nothing to do with foreign policy.

The means by which Mr Nixon extricated America from Vietnam were Machiavellian in the extreme. They involved systematic and deliberate deception on a scale never before practised by any president, except possibly Abraham Lincoln. Yet no president who was not so unscrupulous and ruthless as Richard Nixon could have got America out of Vietnam with the speed and thoroughness that the situation demanded. Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had all got America deeper and deeper into Vietnam. Richard Nixon alone got America out. Without him, without his great reserves of purposeful duplicity, America's war in Vietnam would have gone on indefinitely, with heavier and heavier casualties and ever more bitter internal divisions in America itself. Mr Nixon averted that.

This week, as Richard Nixon lies critically ill in a New York hospital, it seems appropriate to recall the immensity of the services, in the area of foreign policy (over China and Russia, as well as Vietnam), rendered by that flawed personality. Without the flaws, the services could not have been rendered.

A look at the military (as distinct from political) effectiveness of the Nixon air strikes is also relevant this week, with the pressure on more and more air strikes in Bosnia. In a typical congressional utterance, the House Democratic whip, David E Bonior, said: 'It's time to pound the Bosnian Serbs into submission.' That's exactly the sort of thing which the stupider aficionados used to say about the Nixonian bombardments of the Vietnamese. Yet the Vietnamese won handily, although bombed on a scale Nato is quite unlikely to emulate in Bosnia.

The people who know most about the military situation on the ground are those who are least enthusiastic about air strikes. The Pentagon's deep misgivings are evident, and the Nato allies seem to be going along with air strikes only out of a need to say 'me too' to the President of the United States. This is deeply regrettable. Malcolm Rifkind was right to warn against the danger which the present drift of policy poses to the 3,000 British troops in Bosnia. But John Major himself appears to be ignoring that warning. According to reports in the American media, the British ambassador to Nato has assured the Americans of full support.

That Nato should take a lead from Washington is sensible. But it would make more sense, in a military alliance, to listen more to the Pentagon, which is actually thinking about military matters - including impact on Russia - than to a president who is thinking about the November elections.