Into the storm’s eye of the Balkin war stepped Rev. Jesse Jackson, and, once again, he
emerges with prisoners of war. Exercising what scholars called "citizen’s
diplomacy," where personalities intervene in international situations for individual
political, ideological, or moral reasons, Jackson by-passed the normal channels of
diplomacy and injected an unstable variable into the equation.
As he did in Syria (1984), Cuba (1984) and Iraq (1990), Jackson pushed his way into the
latest U.S. foreign policy debacle. Arriving in Serbia with a delegation of about 20
religious and political figures, Jackson eventually met with Serbian President Slobodan
Milosevic and bargained the release of the three captured U.S. soldiers.
The Jackson mission was a confluence of opportunism on the part of Jackson, Milosovic,
and even for Clinton and NATO. For Jackson, he was able to insert himself into the top
story of the year, perform a humanitarian act, and attempt to change the discourse of the
conflict toward peace. For Milosovic, the release of the prisoners allowed him to look
magnanimous in the face of NATO’s bombings and continued destruction. The unreasonable
appears reasonable. For Clinton and NATO, they were able to get three soldiers back
without stopping the war (or accidentally killing them in the ever increasing errant
While Jackson’s mission had no real strategic impact, it had the tactical effect of
putting a humanitarian spin on a war that has been long on rhetoric and demonization. It
also removed one more rationale ("bring our boys home") to be invoked by Clinton
in his desperation to justify the war.
Jackson’s stand on the war has been ambiguous and somewhat contradictory. Early on in
the war, Jackson engaged in the popular sport of demonizing Milosevic. In his April 2,
1999 newsletter, he wrote that "Hitler and Milosevic are virtually identical,"
and that Milosevic "is evil. He will continue killing until he is stopped."
While Milosevic is certainly the brutal, cold-blooded calculated killer that many have
accused him of being, Jackson’s earlier words reflect more NATO and Clinton’s rhetoric
than Jackson’s present diplomacy stance. His earlier position reflected none of the
complicated and nuanced realities of a conflict that offers no easy solutions.
Since his trip, Jackson has called for stopping the violence in Kosovo, repatriation of
the refugees, and the imposition of a credible, and multinational peacekeeping force.
These carefully crafted words avoid the controversial stances of calling for a complete
stopping of the bombs and the stationing of troops that will be under United Nations or
Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) authority. Jackson
acknowledges that the "bombs alone are not getting the desire results" and
suggests a "pause" in the prosecution of the conflict, and he does favor
bringing in the United Nations in the peace talks.
It should be remembered that Jackson is an employee of the Clinton administration, and,
despite White House antagonism, was likely in constant contact with the administration
during his trip. In 1998, Jackson was appointed Special Envoy to Africa. Since that time,
he has went on several missions on behalf of the White House and State Department to
Nigeria, Liberia, and other parts of Africa. In those instances, Jackson articulated U.S.
policies toward the region and particular states such as defending Clinton’s Africa Growth
and Opportunity Act. He stills maintains the position as Special Envoy.
Opposition to Jackson’s mission was vocal and widespread. From the New York Times to
"off the record" statements from State Department officials, Jackson’s maverick
style was harshly criticized. Jokes were manifest everywhere (example: What’s the most
dangerous place in Serbia? The space between Jesse Jackson and the TV cameras.)
In the black community, particularly in the black press and on the radio, many feel
that opposition was based on Jackson’s color, and the long-standing view that foreign
policy should be outside the portfolio of civil rights and black leaders. Should the war
continue and especially if ground troops are introduced, soldiers of color will even
further put pressure on civil rights and progressive black leaders to take a stand against
Clinton. If the impasse between NATO and Milosevic continues, Jackson may find himself
accumulating frequent flyer miles to Serbia for some time to come.