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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: U.S. Accepts Need to Kill Innocents

In a December 1994 radio interview, U.S. President Bill Clinton urged the Russians waging war in Chechnya to wrap things up with "the least possible violence." That comment was translated into Russian as with "a minimum of bloodshed" or "little bloodshed" - a phrase that Chechens and Russian liberals saw as unfortunate. After all, at the time Russia was carpetbombing civilian neighborhoods in Grozny. Why not urge the Russians to stop killing civilians altogether?

Now here we are five years later, and Washington is in some ways more prepared than ever to take a sharp tone with Moscow over Chechnya. Criticism of the war is also in many ways more justifiable than ever. Yet we have U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott weakly echoing Clinton's notorious "minimal bloodshed" call from the first war.

Why? Because Talbott & Co. are trapped by the logic of Kosovo - which holds that destroying civilian infrastructure and killing civilians can be acceptable means for a government's ends.

In fact, Talbott's remarks in 1999 are far more troubling than Clinton's in 1994. Clinton had accepted Moscow's position that it was battling secessionists, and so he accepted the need for the war; when he compared President Boris Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln, he was saying that he was not going to show much sympathy for secessionist tendencies in a patchwork quilt of nations and passions like Russia. So when Clinton called for "the least possible violence," he was being morally consistent - he had accepted the need for violence to stop secession and was urging moderation. Fair enough.

Where Clinton earned shame was in the United States' foot-dragging response to the execution of the war. Russia went wild in Chechnya, killing tens of thousands of civilians, including thousands of children; Washington responded hazily.

But even so, during the first Chechen war, neither Clinton nor anyone else in his administration ever argued that Russia had the right to kill civilians; that had to wait until the present day and Talbott, who has asked the Russians to strive for "minimal civilian casualties."

The Russians have been busily and unapologetically bombing hospitals, collective farms, apartment blocks and the Grozny marketplace, and given that, they have been forcing civilian refugees back into a war zone. And that's the best that this State Department official can come up with? Because what this comment does is accept that it's justifiable to kill X number of terrified children and old women, as long we keep the amount as "minimal" as possible. It's a subtle point - but then, the post-Kosovo world is doomed to be plagued by such subtleties.