Clinton must detail his Kosovo strategy to public

April 02, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The situation in Kosovo is rapidly taking on the dimensions of a disaster -- militarily and politically.

The principal victims are the innocent bystanders -- in this instance, the tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians driven out of their homes.

But one tangential added casualty of the disaster in Kosovo may be President Clinton's last shred of credibility as a national leader. It is clear that the president failed to understand the basic rules of political conduct of foreign policy written by the American experience in Vietnam a generation ago.

The first rule is that no foreign adventure can be sustained without U.S. public support. The approval rating for Mr. Clinton's handling of this war is 55 percent, an extraordinarily low figure for a president after a week of a crisis.

The second rule: To help win support, the president needs to take great pains to explain why it is necessary to risk young U.S. soldiers' lives.

Mr. Clinton should have gone on prime time television and discussed in detail the nature of the threat to the national interest that requires such a formidable commitment.

Whether Mr. Clinton had the credibility to make a convincing case, of course, is questionable. And there are experts who will argue that no such case can be made about a crisis in the Balkans. But history shows that Americans tend to rally mindlessly around the president whenever the country is faced with troubles abroad.

President Jimmy Carter's approval rating rose sharply after the Iranians seized the 51 hostages at the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979. More than five months passed before the polls turned against him.

But Mr. Clinton cannot expect the benefit of the doubt that was accorded Mr. Carter. Whatever good feeling he enjoyed among the American people was seriously diluted by his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. And even if that were not the case, his position is undermined by two facts of political life today.

The first is that he cannot expect weeks and months of freedom from partisan criticism. Mr. Clinton is already being hammered by the Republicans for playing golf during the first days of the crisis, a move that surely qualifies as the dumbest piece of politics in months.

The second problem, obviously, is that the situation on the ground is going so badly. We seem to need to learn repeatedly the lesson that air power alone cannot win a war. So already there is the inevitable talk about the use of ground forces to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo and allow the 100,000 refugees to return home.

But Mr. Clinton lacks the credibility with the U.S. public to break another promise, commit ground troops and accept the prospect of substantial casualties. And the idea that this would be a quick fix is a joke. On the contrary, most military experts seem to think it would take huge numbers of troops and several months to "win" the war in Kosovo.

Already the president is trying to counter the accusations that the bombing of the Serbs caused Slobodan Milosevic to send more forces to conduct genocide in Kosovo. But when Mr. Clinton says that is "absolutely not" the case, will the public believe him?

At this point Mr. Clinton still holds that slim margin of support among the American people and the face-saving cover that is provided by this being a NATO operation.

But both of these are declining assets. There is a restiveness about Kosovo among some of our allies and many of our citizens. If he can still lead the country, the president needs to do it by laying out -- better late than never -- a convincing rationale for the policies he is following.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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