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When white Europeans are dying, the Clinton administration acts. When black Africans are dying, Washington talks. Such is the hypocritical cynicism that passes for U.S. foreign policy today.

So shameless is U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s ritualistic incantation of the “international community” that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan recently chided the U.S. “Washington will not put an American officer on the ground” in Sierra Leone, he complained.

The administration’s reluctance to act is extraordinary, given Clinton’s promise, offered barely a year ago when he visited the Balkans, to stop ethnic cleansing anywhere in the world. But residents of East Timor soon learned what frightened civilians in Sierra Leone are realizing today: Clinton was only kidding.

What he meant was that if white Europeans were dying, their deaths were being covered on CNN, and their killers were adversaries of America, then Washington might — MIGHT — act. Otherwise, millions could die and administration officials wouldn’t bother to mention the slaughter, let alone attempt to stop it.

Clinton’s hypocrisy is daunting. But the real problem is Washington’s willingness to get involved in hopeless European conflicts, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, not its refusal to jump into even worse wars in Africa and Asia.

Of course, Annan wants Washington to put U.S. troops on the ground. It’s easy to be generous with other people’s lives. However, the U.S. should not be the world’s 911 number.

U.N. peacekeeping can work only if there is peace to be kept. For instance, despite persistent animosities in Cyprus, neither ethnic Greeks nor Turks have any desire to go to war again; the United Nations may help reduce potential incidents by separating the two sides. In Sierra Leone, in contrast, the U.N. was “enforcing” at best a temporary ceasefire, with no military disarmanent or political solution.

Moreover, only a dozen or so countries, the usual industrialized states, have militaries capable of serious action. To rely on anyone else is foolish.

In Sierra Leone, Zambian “peacekeepers” surrendered in droves, providing the rebels with hostages, armored personnel carriers and uniforms. What American (or British or Japanese citizen) would want his country’s soldiers to serve with such a force?

Especially in a world so full of tragedy. Unless 18-year-old Americans are going to be drafted to patrol a new global empire, there is little that Washington can do.

After all, Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting — again. The Angolan civil war has erupted — again. Conflict pervades the Democratic Republic of the Congo — again.

Killing and slavery continue in Sudan. Rwanda and Uganda are threatening each other. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has unleashed thugs on the white minority and black opposition in an attempt to maintain his hold on power.

There’s Sri Lanka, where fighting between Tamils and Sinhalese is intensifying. Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have verged on war. Indonesia, wracked by sectarian violence and ethnic separatism. Chechnya, under Russian military assault. And more.

If Washington wants to intervene in some, but not all, humanitarian crises, then it needs a standard — other than the victims being white Europeans dying on TV at the hands of an American foe.

One proposal is to use force when the death rate in another society exceeds the murder rate in the U.S. A creative idea, yes, but a bizarre guide for putting U.S. soldiers at risk.

Another option would be to act where the most lives are at stake. But none of Washington’s recent interventions — Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti — would make such a list.

Indeed, Kosovo was a trivial conflict compared to a score of others around the globe. Whether the number of deaths or the degree of social catastrophe, the U.S. has consistently refused to address the worst, and usually most insoluble, cases.

In the end, nonintervention is the right option. Not because other people’s lives are without value. But because the highest duty of the American government is to its own citizens, including those in uniform.

Of course, Albright undoubtedly feels a sanctimonious glow as she wanders the globe making her demands in the name of the “international community.” U.S. policymakers, no less than the U.N. secretary general, are often generous with the lives of U.S. soldiers.

But Americans’ lives should be put at risk only when their own political community has something at stake. That’s not the case in Sierra Leone. Nor was it the case in Kosovo.

There’s no reason to expect anything other than unprincipled hypocrisy from the Clinton administration. Ironically, in the case of Sierra Leone, that’s the best we can hope for. It is appalling that Clinton seems more interested in saving white Europeans than black Africans, but it would be even more appalling for him to risk American lives in attempting to put yet another failed state back together.

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