President Clinton is invoking morality to justify military action to stop Serbia from attacking Kosovo. But the only appropriate moral principle is the one that says Clinton has no right to send American troops on a mission that cannot succeed — and that will result only in risking U.S. lives for a campaign that cannot advance any rational American interests.

Bombing Serbia will not end the conflict with Kosovo, because it is irrelevant to the fundamental cause of the conflict: the tribalist mentality of the Serbs, of the Kosovar Albanians and of every other ethnic group in the Balkans.

The dispute over Kosovo is not about liberty. This is not a case of a dictator bullying a small band of freedom-fighters. This is a clash over blood and soil, fueled by centuries of tribal enmity. The horrific “ethnic cleansing” campaigns there are launched, periodically, by whichever side happens to have the power to do so. No amount of NATO bombing can dissolve such unremitting tribalism.

The Serbs’ hostility towards the Albanians is ethnically motivated — and so is the Kosovars’ demand for secession. The Kosovars are not fighting for the value of individual liberty, but for the sanctity of their ethnicity. They hate Milosevic, not because he is a dictator — but because he is a non-Albanian. When Serbs and Albanians stage demonstrations in various cities, they proclaim loyalty not to any ideas or principles, but to a mindless ethnic solidarity.

Armed force might be used morally and effectively to defend a pro-freedom country against a hostile, statist aggressor — such as Israel against its Arab neighbors, or Taiwan against China. But it is pointless in a battle between two authoritarian tribes who share the belief that a person is nothing more than his collective, ethnic identity. What rational morality could ever justify America’s self-sacrificial involvement in such a conflict?

In the American War of Independence, immigrants from many countries fought together for each individual’s inalienable rights, regardless of his nationality. When freedom was won, America became a peaceful “melting pot,” because each man’s character was deemed more important than his ancestry.

The Balkan tribes, however, hold the opposite philosophy. This is why Clinton’s fears about the threat posed by Kosovar refugees to neighboring countries are well-founded. If the refugees genuinely valued freedom, they would create no danger to other free countries. However, the refugees — along with all the ethnic groups in that region — are laden with a collectivist ideology that can set off long-simmering antagonisms at any time. That is why Yugoslavia has collapsed into a multitude of ethnic entities, why the Balkans have never known peace, and why it is impossible for NATO to impose peace via stealth bombers. One cannot change a tribal mind-set by a clubbing over the head. In fact, as events are already indicating, NATO’s actions may well generate a wider, bloodier war — the very thing Clinton claims he wants to prevent.

Americans are being sacrificed once again to a senseless cause. We have no more business in Kosovo than in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti or Vietnam. Even if NATO forces can bludgeon Milosevic back to the bargaining table, American troops will then become part of the permanent “peace-keeping” force necessary to uphold and enforce any diplomatic solution — a solution which will doubtless satisfy neither the Serbs nor the Kosovars. Clinton will be sacrificing our troops for a cause that achieves nothing, except the momentary enhancement of his “prestige.”

If it is morality that concerns anyone in this Administration, where is the moral outrage at the genuine threats to America’s interests — at the Chinese, who are stealing our nuclear secrets; at Saddam Hussein, who is a danger to our oil supplies and who remains unobstructed in his efforts at producing weapons of mass destruction; at the Iranians and Syrians, who continue to sponsor terrorism — which Clinton chooses to ignore?

True, the situation in Kosovo is tragic — as it is in Congo, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and countless areas of ethnic fighting around the world. But the only legitimate purpose of the American military is the defense of the interests of American citizens, not futile intervention in tribal warfare. If Clinton really wants to do something practical to help end this conflict, let him bombard that region, not with cruise missiles but with copies of the Declaration of Independence. But to sacrifice American lives in a senseless attempt to force a “peace” upon two clashing tribes, is both practically and morally wrong.

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Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.