Some Ketchup With Those Cruise Missiles, Bill?

At this point, the war Republicans love to hate is likely to advance the party's agenda more than anything else.
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(Editor's note: This weekend we thought we'd try something different -- a little political-economic commentary from Washington. We invited Jonah Goldberg, a D.C.-based commentator, to weigh in on the goings-on in our capital. As always, we'd like to know what you think.)

Washington is testing

Bertrand Russell's

contention that "Nobody minds a war once in a while if it doesn't last too long, and isn't in your neighborhood." Well, nobody in Washington is willing to admit they like this one.

Washington had been gearing up for the biggest international birthday party of the century. Instead everyone's milling about like guests at the 1988 Dukakis for President "Victory Party" after the returns came in. For 49 years and 300-odd days

NATO

was considered the 800 pound gorilla of military and political alliances. Now, on its 50th birthday, it's been reduced to the

Village People

of martial organizations -- a diverse bunch of guys who wear great outfits and can put on one hell of a show but who aren't exactly raring for battle.

The surest sign this war is a farce is that the Administration refuses to call it a "war."

State Department

spokesman Jamie Rubin says "war" has too many "connotations" and "meanings." In non-diplospeak, that means it has only one meaning -- the blowing things up and shooting people meaning. Instead, the administration prefers flexible phrases like "conflict with Yugoslavia" or "capacity degradation" to describe what we are doing.

And, truth to tell, not much is getting done. The conventional wisdom is that Kosovo is holding up the "domestic agenda." The reality is there is no domestic agenda to hold up and it appears to be in everyone's interest to keep it that way.

President Clinton's

only domestic priority is to hand the keys to Air Force One to

Al Gore

in 2000. Democrats in the House are trotting to the next election like a donkey toward a carrot strapped to its head. Leading Democrats all but joke out loud that nothing would make them happier than to see Republicans get nothing done during this Congress. If an ambitious Republican or even a centrist Democrat pops up with a serious proposal, Congressional Democrats start playing whack-a-mole. This is what happened to Rep.

Bill Thomas

, R-Calif., and Sen.

John Breaux

, D-La., when their

Medicare

-reform proposal was scrapped. Republicans retreat quickly; they are terrified of Democratic or media disapproval. It's like they're suffering from the Stockholm syndrome.

Republicans know that the public blames them for the bickering which distracted Dow ticker addicts in 1998. So, with George W. Bush way ahead in the polls, they see no reason to bother the public. They equate partisanship with incivility. And "because they can't tell the difference they've decided to do nothing" says a prominent conservative lobbyist. "From everything I hear from the leadership, confrontation is off the table," says a major Committee staffer. "As long as George Bush is 20 points ahead don't expect anything dramatic" from House Republicans.

Ironically, it's the war Republicans love to hate that's likely to advance the Republican agenda more than anything else at this point. Until now, the President and his allies have had the almost magical ability to make GOP initiatives disappear simply by saying "save social security first!" Give back some of the surplus as tax cuts? Savesocialsecurityfirst! Implement a missile defense systems? Savesocialsecurityfirst! Hey mister, you're head is on fire, would you like me to put it out? Savesocialsecurityfirst!

Paying Up, and Up, and Up

But now, the President needs to pay for the conflict in Yugoslavia. And pay he will. Just a week ago he wanted an additional $3 billion. Now, it's $6 billion. Even though they hate the war, many, if not most, Republicans would gladly double that. In fact, no number can scare them since they've been trying to get "emergency relief" to the armed forces for years. Some Republicans, like Rep.

Jim Talent

, R-Mo., are actively considering an emergency appropriations bill for Kosovo that would also go to general military upkeep. As of this writing, Hill staffers are frantically rummaging through the dusty paper piles from the old Gingrich days trying to find their fraying wish lists.

It's about time, say the hawks. First of all, the military is about a third smaller today than it was during the Persian Gulf War. Second, such things as President Clinton's yen for expressing his rage at Iraqi night janitors and African pill-makers by going through cruise missiles like an order of super-sized fries has degraded our ability to make war.

Last Fall, the Joint Chiefs told Congress that the "long-term health of the total force is in jeopardy." Training, quality recruits, spare parts and morale are in short supply. A quarter of Air Force weapons systems are rated "not mission capable." Warnings that the

Pentagon

can't fight two wars at once - the standard for preparedness - are growing in number and urgency. For example, currently there is no aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean.

Whether it comes in the form of an emergency appropriations bill for Yugoslavia or not, military spending is bound to go up. Normally, Clinton and House Democrats would meet Republican attempts to splurge on "toys" with a casual, savesocialsecurityfirst. But Bill Clinton very much wants to be able to compare himself to FDR without making people laugh their milk through their noses. This is his -- and now Al Gore's -- conflict in Yugoslavia.

The Republicans are gleefully making the President an offer he can't refuse. So maybe Bertrand Russell was right after all.

Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor and a daily online columnist for the

National Review

. He can be reached at jonahemail@aol.com.