Clinton suggests U.S. goal is elusive

President, advisers see lower chances of Kosovars returning

April 03, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The White House raised the prospect for the first time yesterday that NATO's air strikes will fail to achieve President Clinton's objective of bringing hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians back to their homes and restoring Kosovo to a protected and autonomous land.

Even as the military campaign surged into the center of Belgrade last night, the White House -- from Clinton to national security officials -- seemed to be preparing the public in case they have to jettison the chief political aim of their military campaign against Yugoslavia: returning Kosovo to its ethnic Albanian majority.

White House aides quietly began to concede that air power may not be enough to drive President Slobodan Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo, a point that has been made for days by some vehement critics of the bombing strategy.

"With international isolation and sanctions, [Milosevic] is on his way to making Serbia a Third World nation," a senior White House official said. "But if he and his people are willing to endure that pain and ignominy, air power can't compel a change in their behavior."

The president's own confidence seemed to slip yesterday when he appeared at an unscheduled press event to say NATO has "a good possibility of achieving" its mission and "quite a good chance" of bringing the Kosovars home.

"I believe we have quite a good chance of achieving our objectives of the return of the Kosovars to live in security with a measure of self-government," said Clinton, who previously had been explicit in insisting that NATO would accept nothing less.

Later, when his spokesman, Joe Lockhart, was asked whether the president was acknowledging the possibility that NATO would not achieve its objectives, Lockhart pointedly refused to rule that out.

"This isn't a situation where you have an ideal choice, and a choice that you are absolutely 100 percent certain will work and one that absolutely won't work," Lockhart replied.

"These are difficult decisions in difficult situations."

The changing tone yesterday was all the more striking since as recently as Thursday, the administration had declared that NATO would approve no cease-fire that fell short of the full repatriation of the refugees.

The White House is waging its air war with increasing doubts about its outcome. Clinton met with leaders of international relief agencies yesterday, pledging the support of the U.S. government in coping with the onslaught of refugees, who now number close to 700,000, inside and around Yugoslavia.

But at that meeting, Clinton acknowledged his own uncertainty, telling relief workers that NATO would continue its bombing campaign but that he was no longer willing to predict its ultimate outcome, said Raymond Offenheiser, president of one of the agencies, Oxfam America, who attended the meeting.

Clinton again said he had no intention of introducing U.S. ground forces into the conflict.

Some advocates for the Kosovars greeted the White House's shifting language with consternation.

"It sounds like they are almost conceding defeat," said Avni Mustafaj, president of the National Albanian American Council, who had met Wednesday with Clinton and had emerged convinced of the president's resolve to press the NATO offensive until Kosovo was guaranteed safety and autonomy.

James Hooper, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, an anti-Milosevic advocacy group, said:

"The issue here isn't Slobodan Milosevic's leadership. The issue is Bill Clinton's leadership."

Some military experts continue to believe that NATO's air war can still achieve some success, if given time.

A knowledgeable Republican Senate aide said yesterday that the 10-day bombardment has already begun to cut off fuel and food supplies to Yugoslav troops in Kosovo. Eventually, some military officials say, Milosevic would have no choice but to pull those troops out of Kosovo and closer to his power center in Belgrade to protect his own hold on the government and guard other troubled borders.

The senior White House aide acknowledged that this is exactly what NATO is still hoping for, but the administration's confidence may be waning.

"That is the logical, if not necessarily the probable, outcome," the official said.

At the same time, the airstrikes may increasingly be more about punishing Milosevic for his actions than about winning back Kosovo.

"There's no doubt that what Mr. Milosevic wants to do is to keep the land of Kosovo and rid it of its people," Clinton said yesterday. "We cannot let that happen with impunity."

But punishment will not solve the political crisis that brought NATO into warfare in the first place, Balkans experts warned. Mustafaj, the National Albanian American Council president, predicted that radicalized Kosovar refugees will continue to wage war on Milosevic's forces, perhaps keeping Serbia unstable for decades.

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