When Democrats Were Humanitarian Hawks (#KosovoDems)

(hat tip to @lovelyladypa on Twitter for finding the votes.)

It passed the Senate by a 58-41 vote, and failed in the House in a 213-213 tie. 93% of Democrats in the Senate voted for it, as did 86% of House Democrats - that made for 42 Democratic senators and 180 Democratic House members. It was the Congressional resolution to allow the United States to intervene militarily, unilaterally if needed, to end a humanitarian catastrophe - under a Democratic president. It was the humanitarian catastrophe of death and displacements in Kosovo. President Clinton lead an airstrike despite the failure of the vote in Congress, under the NATO umbrella.

Kosovo's civil war was a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, but in the perspective of Syria, it is in danger of looking miniscule. In Kosovo, between 1,500 and 2,000 combatants and civilians died and a quarter million displaced. In Syria, hundreds of thousands have already died, including nearly 1500 civilians in the latest gas attacks alone. And the UN reported this week that the number displaced reached 2 million.

Yet, Congressional Democrats remain largely skeptical of an intervention in Syria while roughly 90% of Democrats in Congress in 1999 voted to allow Bill Clinton to intervene in Kosovo. I am left wondering why this is, with the notable exception of principled opponents of war like Barbara Lee and others in the anti-war caucus who voted against Kosovo and are now against a Syria intervention as well. But other than them, why do the Democrats in Congress seem so hesitant to back a Democratic president - who has ended two wars on his own no less while Congress dithered - who has called for Congress to authorize air strikes in Syria?

One reason certainly can be - and probably is - Iraq fatigue. After the debacle caused in Iraq by the previous administration's warmongering, the country, and Congress may be explicably jaded. But as Secretary Kerry said, simply having war fatigue is not a good enough argument to stand aside as the world's most abhorrent weapons are used on the world's most vulnerable people. Nor should one reasonably compare the Bush administration's war footing and planned invasion of Iraq looking for an excuse to the Obama administration's legitimate cause for action in Syria.

The public sentiment against getting involved in Syria is in significant part based on the fear of us getting involved in their broader civil conflict with American soldiers in the middle of it, a scenario that the administration has consistently ruled out but the pollsters have not taken specific heed of. The polling picture, it should be noted, during Kosovo wasn't much better when it accounted for the possibility of ground troops, with just 33% favoring it in a May 1999 poll, around the time the votes in Congress were taken.

And yet. And yet. 90% of Democrats in Congress voted to authorize the president to act unilaterally to conduct air strikes in Kosovo if needed (the Congressional resolution itself did not mandate NATO participation). That resolution, as opposed to the current one, did not even bother to outline any American interest in the region at all. It read, in its entirety:
Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), That the President of the United States is authorized to conduct military air operations and missile strikes in cooperation with our NATO allies against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).
That's it. No language outlining American interest, nothing about American security, not a word about even tightening the president's authority to a limited period of time.

And yet and still. 90% of Democrats in Congress supported the Democratic president. But not today. Why not? What is it about Barack Obama - the most progressive Democrat to hold the Oval Office since FDR - that today's Congressional Democrats find so hard to rally behind?

I am not saying that votes as serious as authorization to use military force should always reflect party loyalty. But is it only party loyalty that caused 90% of Democrats to vote in favor of a humanitarian intervention in the 1999? You will forgive me for thinking that there was more to it - perhaps naively. But the judgments that went into that vote - that the United States could not stand by while innocent is slaughtered mercilessly by a government - did any of it survive Iraq fatigue?

What is the justification for this turnabout? Besides for principled war opponents, what is the excuse for everyone else? What is it for someone like Charlie Rangel, who was a Yea vote on Kosovo but seems to be a firm No on Syria? What is it for someone like Ed Markey who voted Yea on Kosovo but abstained from voting in Senate committee on Syria? Why is it that the second term Democratic president in 1999 could be trusted to use force with zero justification based on US interests but the second term Democratic president in 2013 faces harsh skepticism even with far tighter language now, especially since precious few elected Democrats can be found to admit that Kosovo - or their votes thereof - was wrong?

Why was Bill Clinton, who despite being a good president, ended no significant military conflicts, to be more trusted than Barack Obama, after he has successfully ended two wars and took out America's public enemy number one after the two presidents preceding him - one Republican and the other a Democrat - failed?

This is something we should think about. This is something Democrats in Congress should think about. If they are taking out their anger against Bush on the current president's policies, they need to stop and think. If they do not believe that Barack Obama deserves the same deference and respect on national security issues as Bill Clinton (despite being a categorically more successful national security president), they should explain why.

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