Limp Willy?

As the Clinton administration escalates NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia to a level not seen in the Balkans since World War II, the worst humanitarian disaster in Europe since that war is likewise emerging, as Yugoslavia’s Serbian troops attack ethnic Albanians in the southern province of Kosovo.

Clinton himself has referred to “genocide” in defending his decision to bomb Yugoslavia. “The world did not act early enough to stop” abuses in Bosnia back in 1995, even though “this was genocide in the heart of Europe,” Clinton said last week. This week State Department spokesman James Rubin went even further. “There are indications that genocide is unfolding in Kosovo,” Rubin said Monday. “We can clearly say that crimes against humanity are being committed.”

But even as the State Department calls the Kosovo situation “genocide,” the administration and its NATO allies are resisting what seems to be the only option to stop the slaughter: The use of ground troops to protect the remaining Kosovar Albanians.

Human rights advocates are frantic over the escalation of the carnage in Kosovo, but they are divided over whether to openly call for ground troops. Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian forces “have decapitated the community leaders” and “destroyed civil society” in Kosovo, says an anguished Holly Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights in Washington. Burkhalter and others observe that scenes from Kosovo are disturbingly reminiscent of the 1995 massacres at Srebrenica, when at least 8,000 men and boys were marched out by Serbian forces in long lines. Only to be killed and dumped into mass graves. The initial refugees fleeing Kosovo were “mostly elderly [people along with] women and children,” says Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. “That makes us wonder what happened to the men.” Lines of men and boys, he adds, have been seen marching out of Kosovo in some places.

A self-described “humanitarian interventionist,” Burkhalter insists Clinton “can’t wait” to act to save Kosovo’s people. She says the Clinton administration is obligated to resolve the Kosovo crisis by sending ground troops, pointing out that the United States signed (in 1988) the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. “You don’t have to kill everybody for it to be a genocide,” says Burkhalter. The language of the convention she mentions includes “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” — including “killing members of the group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Physicians for Human Rights “is calling this one genocide,” Burkhalter adds.

“A year ago, I was in favor of early intervention with a lot of force to stop abuses” in Kosovo, including “ground forces,” she says. But she points out that she speaks only for herself; neither Physicians for Human Rights nor Human Rights Watch has officially endorsed sending ground troops. “I’m still in favor of [ground troops],” she says. Besides deploying ground forces, Burkhalter thinks the United States and other NATO member states should indict Yugoslavia’s Milosevic himself as a war criminal.

But Fareed Zakaria, author of “From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role” and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, favors humanitarian intervention only in far more limited cases. “I don’t rule out all humanitarian assistance or intervention,” says Zakaria. But he sees the Kosovo crisis as a messy secessionist issue, as the province’s relatively new and weak guerrilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army, along with many of the province’s civilians, is seeking Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

Zakaria is in favor of the Clinton administration cutting its losses now and pulling out of Kosovo. Most observers believe that further intervention to defend Kosovo could make it a NATO protectorate for years to come. “It is a thorny political problem to get involved in backing a secessionist province [of any country],” Zakaria says. “Is this political objective in our strategic interest?” President Clinton “says it is strategic [for us to intervene] because it is in the heart of Europe,” but “to say the fate of Kosovo is vital to our national interest seems to be a stretch,” he continues.

Many human rights advocates maintain that the time is long overdue for the United States to adopt clear guidelines for humanitarian intervention. So far, President Clinton has actually remained fairly consistent, in that he has consistently drifted into one foreign policy crisis after another, rather than steering a clear course. The Clinton administration never took the time to present a strategic argument to justify the current need for humanitarian intervention, or outline how this intervention would achieve its goals. And those looking for a “Clinton Doctrine” will be disappointed. The administration has certainly never articulated a set of guidelines on when to intervene and when not to.

Genocide has not been a reason to intervene before. The Clinton administration has stood by while genocide occurred at least twice. In 1994, by Clinton’s own belated admission last year, the administration watched by satellite as at least 500,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda’s genocide. And in 1995, as he acknowledged last week, the United States and other NATO member states did nothing to stop the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica.

One place the Clinton administration did intervene to stop a mass tragedy was in Somalia, and that 1993 experience is one reason the president resists deploying ground troops anywhere. The Somalia intervention began under President Bush, who in 1992 ordered U.S. military forces to the clan-split African country, trying to provide order for a besieged relief effort. Bush even visited U.S. forces there near Christmas as one of his last official acts. But Clinton paid the price months later when Somalia clansmen killed 29 U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces “Green Berets.” The tragic loss still limits the Clinton administration’s options.

Surprisingly, Zakaria, the de facto dean of the contemporary realist school of thought about the use of U.S. power, says that Somalia should stand as a model for future intervention. “It was in and out,” he says, with the modest objective of trying to help distribute food to starving people, rather than intervention in an internal crisis.

But even among Clinton’s fractious critics, who disagree with each other about what to do next in Kosovo, there’s consensus that the current policy is failing fast. Bombing alone is “too little, too late,” says Bianca Jagger — who has long advocated for intervention to stop Serbian aggression in the Balkans — by telephone from London. Zakaria says the current policy is “futile.” And Burkhalter worries that ground troops might be too late, as Milosevic “may have already accomplished his goal” of driving out most of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Letter from Havana: Gays, Catholics, and Transvestites in the New Cuba

Che Guevara would have been puzzled by the joy of this past Christmas in Cuba, the first time this traditionally Catholic island has officially celebrated the holiday since the revolution. But Christmas isn’t the only thing that might confuse Che as 1999 begins, marking the 40th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Imagine him walking into, say, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) No. 12, a Communist Party meeting hall in central Havana. Back in the old days — meaning anytime while Cuba’s economy was still being subsidized by the Soviet Union — he might have found party loyalists gathered beneath its stucco arches discussing what it would take for an aspiring individual to become a truly selfless communist or what Che called “The New Man.”

There was certainly a new man down at CDR No. 12 one sweaty Friday night last year. Calling herself “Dianna,” she wore a retrograde, psychedelic multicolored dress with gold glitter while waving a plastic fan by her face to keep her blue mascara from running. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun with a gaudy plastic ornament, at the center of which was a rose. Dianna, one of 12 contestants waiting to perform in a transvestite lip-syncing competition — now held at CDR No. 12 twice a year — fretted back stage behind a curtain made of plastic sheets painted black.

Facing the stage, wooden benches were filled with people of all ages and genders. Behind the curtain and backstage area, families with children perched atop what remained of the CDR’s crumbling rear wall and nearby falling buildings. Everyone waved whenever a BBC camerawoman panned them. Organizers of the event tested the sound system, briefly playing a song by Pat Benatar in Spanish. The festive mood was intensified by warm rum sold in plastic cups.

“This doesn’t have any political significance,” explained “El Rey” (The King), the master of ceremonies. A big, bearded man wearing a long-sleeve, ultramarine shirt, he declined to further identify himself. “This is a natural development that has finally come,” he went on. “Everything has its moment.”

But it wasn’t long ago — certainly within the last five years — that Cuban Communist Party officials harassed, arrested and even imprisoned transvestites and homosexuals, whom they considered “social deviants” who do society no good. Not any more. With nearly all Cubans fuming about their declining standard of living, the party needs to release lots of steam. Today nonconformists from cross-dressers to Catholics are embraced by party officials — the first ruling Communists anywhere to celebrate Christmas. Catholics and gays are even allowed to evangelize, as long as they do not allow themselves to become platforms for dissent.

What constitutes dissent in a country still under the strict control of the Communist Party is far from clear. But it is obvious that Cuba is changing dramatically. On any given day, La Epoca, the largest dollar store in Havana, is packed with people perusing everything from American brand-name hair coloring to disposable diapers. Everyone on the island either has dollars or wants them. Not unlike the wild market forces that were unleashed in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union, supply and demand in Cuba are already rushing to meet.

They don’t always do so respectably. Stimulated by rising demand, mainly from foreigners, prostitution has become commonplace. Cuba is now second only to Southeast Asia as a sex tourism destination. To advertise their services, some professionals wear huge platform heels, even on the beach. More than a few there and elsewhere look like teenagers. In Old Havana, near the Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard, I saw one girl, maybe 14, sporting bright green Spandex; she stood wantonly near two uniformed Cuban police.

The island is reaching a new equilibrium as it metamorphoses into a service economy while the productive capacity of the state steadily wanes. Take the island’s brain drain. Though the government makes available no relevant statistics, many of the country’s top professionals have left in recent years, while others have stayed but found other livelihoods. I met a Cuban nuclear physicist and his wife, a doctor, in Bogotá. In Cuba, I rented rooms from families led by a former mechanical engineer and a chemistry professor.

Many students, too, are leaving school as the steady exodus from traditional employment continues. People who can leave the island usually go. Anyone who wants to fly must first collect enough bribe money to negotiate an exit visa. Far more Cubans have paddled out on makeshift wooden rafts. Nearly every Cuban one meets has a relative in Florida, New Jersey or elsewhere in the United States. Most Cubans at least know of someone, too, who died at sea.

Among those who make it, many send back remittances to family members left behind. In 1997, a United Nations study estimated that they totaled around $800 million a year. Most of the dollars that reach the island eventually wind up in state stores like La Epoca. So far the government has maintained its monopoly on foreign consumer goods, and their sales to Cubans earn more for the state now than even foreign sales of the island’s main commodity, sugar.

Lots of state goods, materials and other resources, however, are also flowing away from Cuba. Shadowy street hustlers sell boxes of quality Cohiba cigars (or sometimes only harsh imitations) for far less than they would cost in government stores. Diesel fuel, which costs 35 cents a liter in a legal transaction with a government supplier, can be bought on the black market for as little as five cents a liter.

Across the island, Cubans are pilfering government stockpiles like never before. “They know what’s going on,” said one source who has dealt with party officials. “How could anyone not see it?”

But Fidel Castro’s regime is one that, in the past, did not tolerate corruption. Back in the 1980s, Castro even privately lambasted the Nicaraguan Sandinistas for taking with their own hands from what became widely know as their ” piñata.” Today in Cuba, though Castro still discourages Communist Party members from conspicuous consumption, an unknown number of officials have their own hands inside Cuba’s piñata, which is anything on the island owned by the state. Every day Cubans steal more such candy, while all such theft is only the system’s loss. As long as most of the dollars, however, still eventually find their way to stores like La Epoca, party officials don’t seem to care.

It would be foolish to flag this trend as a sign of Castro’s imminent fall. Now 72, he looks more and more like a stubborn old commander in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel who outlasts everyone. Castro’s old enemy, voluble Miami expatriate Jorge Mas Canosa, died last year.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how the new equilibrium could be self-sustaining over time. The rank corruption that allows it to take place is steadily eroding the social gains of the revolution along with the legitimacy of the state. Despite whatever other criticism one might have of the revolution, Cuba under Castro did succeed like few other developing countries in promoting health services, raising literacy rates and educating its population. Castro also, for better or worse, nationalized private property and produced a society without anyone who was either extremely rich or poor.

Today, however, the quality of all basic services provided by the state, except for those catering to tourists, is declining. At the same time, the underground spread of market forces is only watering criminal syndicates of all kinds that are just beginning to sprout. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has been slow to respond to new challenges like taxation as well as free-market regulation and law enforcement control. New kinds of transactions now occur daily, like the sale of cocaine. Once unheard of on the street in Cuba, it is now available on the Malecon like nearly everything else.

Beneath the veneer of a communist system, the basest kind of capitalist decadence is spreading like mold. Everyone in Cuba, of course, can see it, and the Communist Party youth, especially, has even begun denouncing the fungus out loud. Young Communists often invoke Che, whose memory and example are still widely admired, while promoting a particularly Communist kind of moral revival. They decry the rising rate of prostitution, which they blame on individuals making poor moral choices. Apparently few of these youthful idealists have been to Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, which blames the prostitution that flourished before Castro’s takeover on capitalist decadence and the harsh choices it forced upon young Cuban women.

Che’s New Man was not expected to go for prostitution. But he wasn’t expected to look like Dianna, either. Though she won the last two lip-syncing contests back to back, some of her detractors claim that she had an unfair advantage. At both competitions, Dianna’s supporters, many of whom she knows from the hospital where she is being treated for AIDS, dominated the audience. The detractors say that their raucous applause may have unduly influenced the judges. Nonsense, says Dianna, CDR No. 12’s reigning queen.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

Toppling Saddam: Clinton Wants a New Government in Baghdad, but He and the Iraqi Opposition Are Unlikely to Be Up to the Task

WASHINGTON — President Clinton is committed to backing Iraqi opposition forces toward eventually forming a new government in Baghdad, say Clinton administration officials. But they acknowledge that risky strategy could take years to bear fruit.

“You can’t work this precipitously,” says one White House official. “What we don’t want is an ill-conceived, poorly prepared effort that will only cost innocent people their lives.” Instead, he adds, the administration’s long-term objective is “to build the opposition into a viable alternative to the current regime.”

President Clinton on Sunday modified his own Iraq policy and moved closer to a Republican-led plan. Late last week, critics like Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., along with former Bush administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz, had urged the Clinton administration to adopt a long-run strategy toward ousting Saddam Hussein. On Sunday Clinton said that while the United States will continue its policy of containing Saddam by working to eliminate his weapons of mass destruction, “over the long-term the best way to address that threat is through a government in Baghdad — a new government — that is committed to represent and respect its people, not repress them; that is committed to peace in the region.”

The last time any U.S. president talked like that was shortly after the Gulf War, when President George Bush called upon Iraqis to “force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside” and bring Iraq “back into the family of peace-loving nations.” Though Bush’s call quickly inspired mass insurrection in northern as well as in southern Iraq, the Bush administration merely stood by as Saddam crushed the insurrectionists with superior firepower that he had ingeniously saved from harm during the Gulf War.

“They were slaughtered,” says Wolfowitz, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who, during the Bush administration, was a senior Pentagon planner. “I got chewed out by [Gen. Colin] Powell for fighting the decision [not to back them] even after it had been made,” he adds. “It was wrong morally and we’re paying for it now.”

Clinton administration officials say they have no intention of repeating past mistakes. Instead, their policy is designed “so the next time this set of circumstances present themselves the results will be different,” says the White House official.

For nearly six years, the Clinton administration followed Bush’s lead of not getting too close to the Iraqi opposition. Last February, during the last dramatic showdown with Saddam, Clinton snubbed Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, when he came to Washington to solicit the administration’s backing on behalf of a loose coalition of opposition groups that make the INC.

Critics both within and outside the administration have long argued that the Iraqi opposition is too spent a force to play any effective role. In March, Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration national security advisor, told the Senate Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs that the Iraqi opposition was “weak and divided.” He added: “Building a strong, united opposition is an uncertain proposition that at a minimum would take years.”

But that didn’t stop the Republican-led Congress from authorizing Clinton to provide the Iraqi opposition with $97 million in U.S. assistance. Though the president signed the bill two weeks ago, he did not encourage the legislation. “The administration has opposed any serious effort to help the Iraqi opposition in recent years,” says Zalmay Khalizad, a Rand Corporation analyst who, during the Bush administration, was also a Defense Department planner. “The question now is, does he have a plan, a strategy, a will for moving forward?”

The Clinton administration began to rethink its Iraq policy back in February, U.S. officials say, when it became clear that Saddam’s constant thwarting of the U.N. inspection team might render it an ineffective way to curb his ability to produce weapons of mass destruction. “If it hasn’t worked for eight to 10 months,” says another White House official, “then why would it work now?” So officials at the National Security Council and the State Department began reconsidering their options. “But you only have so many tools in your toolbox,” says a State Department official.

The administration’s three main tools have been U.N. inspections to monitor Saddam’s ability to make weapons of mass destruction, unilateral bombing to enforce his compliance with the U.N. inspection team and multilateral economic and trade sanctions to maintain pressure on Saddam and his regime. Newsweek reported last week that in the face of Saddam’s constant thwarting this year of the U.N. inspections, the administration had decided that sanctions, backed up by bombing, would be the best way to contain Saddam in the long term.

“We were not getting anything with the inspections,” explains Andrew C. Winner, a former State Department political/military planner who is now with the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “So sanctions were seen as the best lever.”

Until Sunday, there was little indication that the administration was even considering another tool: the option of seriously backing the Iraqi opposition to eventually replace Saddam in power. Now, however, Clinton has flagged that goal as a stated objective of U.S. policy, though critics still complain that he fails to move toward it. “I see [Clinton’s statement] as inching in the right direction,” says ex-Bush planner Wolfowitz. “But what I think is needed is a very clear statement that we are committed to [Saddam’s] removal.”

Instead, the Clinton administration has said exactly the opposite. After Clinton stepped off the White House podium on Sunday, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Secretary of Defense William Cohen fielded questions from the press. In response to one journalist’s query about whether the president’s unusually strong language suggested that he was seeking to oust Saddam, Cohen said: “He was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. What he was saying is that we are prepared and will work with opposition forces or groups to try and bring about, at some future time, a more democratic type of regime.”

Clinton administration officials deny that there is any inconsistency between longing for a new Iraqi government in the future and stopping short of calling for Saddam’s overthrow now. “We are intensifying our efforts” in the support of the opposition, says the White House official. “There will be an effort to work with them more in earnest,” he adds, choosing language that seems like an admission of the administration’s failure to earnestly support the opposition before. Earlier this year, many State Department diplomats and other U.S. officials had privately dismissed the idea of backing the Iraqi opposition because, they said, it was ineffective. This week a few of the same officials who were reached for comment declined to discuss the matter. Others failed to return a reporter’s calls.

Most of America’s allies have yet to formally respond to the president’s new words of encouragement for the Iraqi opposition. But during the standoff with Saddam last February, Saudi Arabia refused to allow American bombers to launch from its soil, fearing that the attacks might be perceived as taking a heavier toll on Iraq’s civilians than its leaders. Now Arab diplomats say they are cautious about the administration’s plan to back the Iraqi opposition.

Many of the front-line states around Iraq, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have long opposed any plan for Iraq that could potentially divide the country. U.S. officials have also long feared the same result. Though about one in five Iraqis are Sunni Arabs like Saddam Hussein, three out of five Iraqis are Shi’a Arabs who share their religion with the vast majority of Persian people along with the government in neighboring Iran. Nearly one more out of five Iraqis are Sunni Kurds who, to some degree, share an ethnic identity with Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Says one Arab diplomat, “We [have long] opposed any plan that could lead to the break-up of Iraq.”

The Clinton administration now seeks to bring America’s regional allies on board with the opposition. “We know we don’t have it yet,” says the White House official. “But we want to work with a broad range of [Iraqi] groups and build a base of support for them with countries in the region.” But first the administration must convince its Arab allies, along with others, that the Iraqi opposition could be resurrected into a viable force. “After years of repression by Saddam Hussein, there is no recognizable Iraqi opposition out there yet,” says the Arab official.

There was once. Back after the Gulf War, on March 1, 1991, the very day that Bush made his call for Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, Shi’a clerics in southern Iraq called for insurrection, and within days, rebel forces had taken the Iraqi town of Basra near the Saudi border, while fighting had broken out as well in nearly every city in southern Iraq. On March 14, Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq followed suit by launching their own offensive. In less than a week, they liberated every town with a Kurdish-speaking population in northern Iraq. Journalists in northern Iraq at the time interviewed Iraqi army prisoners-of-war who expressed only contempt for Saddam, and they saw Kurds holding hands and singing and dancing in the streets.

This was the moment that the Bush administration chose to ignore. “We should have at least taken out [Saddam’s] gunships,” says Wolfowitz, adding that without the protection of helicopters his tanks would have found it riskier to advance. Instead, Bush officials did nothing as first Shi’a rebels in the south and then Kurdish guerrillas in the north were decimated. In As-Samawah in southern Iraq, fleeing witnesses reported that Iraqi troops shot Shi’a men on sight as they advanced behind a shield of captured Shia women. Outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq, journalists saw Iraqi forces drop a blanket of fire on fleeing guerrillas and civilians. Tanks only overran Kirkuk after multiple rocket launchers had softened the ground and rocket-firing gunships, along with smaller choppers, had destroyed most fixed targets.

There has been only weak and sporadic armed opposition to Saddam and his regime since. Most of it has been concentrated in northern Iraq, where the CIA, in the mid-’90s, provided at least $15 million in covert aid to the Iraqi National Congress. The INC’s main goal was to unite two feuding Kurdish factions that have long differed over clan-based identification as well as ideology. But the effort collapsed in August 1996, when one of the Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani, invited Saddam to join forces with him against Iraq’s other main Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabini. Saddam’s forces moved in to destroy the CIA-backed operation, reportedly killing many detainees after capture.

Baghdad is the only other place where any significant military action against the Iraqi regime has occurred since the spring of 1991. In December 1996, a group identifying itself as Al-Nahdad, or the Awakening, attacked Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, who was notorious for torturing suspected dissidents, leaving him a paraplegic. Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, though some fighting has occurred among its remote marshlands, no known urban confrontations have taken place since the 1991 revolt, known throughout Iraq as the intifada.

The impact of its demise — throughout Iraq and the region — is something that the Clinton administration now seeks to overcome. To be successful, says Wolfowitz, Clinton “would have to finish George Bush’s war.” But he and other observers doubt whether Clinton is any more committed to the task. “We would have to show people that we were serious about this, and reassure them,” says Winner of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. “And that is a tall order.”

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.