President could use history class

April 05, 1999|By James P. Pinkerton

BILL CLINTON is the first president in nine decades never to have confronted the political or military threat of communism.

Yet, in a long-ago era, two of his predecessors faced challenges that echo those of today. And the lessons learned then could still prove valuable to the incumbent now, if he is willing to pay attention.

The Kosovo crisis has stirred a yeasty home front debate. Pundits and would-be Wise Men offer various solutions: Send in weapons to the Kosovars, send in NATO ground troops, send in Russian mediators. And, among the Republican presidential hopefuls, two very different "vision things" stand out: John McCain says bomb harder; Pat Buchanan says bring the boys and girls home and keep them here.

Credibility gap

Until recently, Mr. Clinton's Balkan policy was simple and to the point: At moments of crisis, the president asked Monica Lewinsky to come and entertain him. Such action didn't help the situation on the ground, but it did open a credibility gap that leads observers to ponder the distinction between "degrade" and "destroy," for example, and to assume that the administration is lying when it abjures any plans to deploy American soldiers.

To be sure, Mr. Clinton never wanted to be an internationalist president. Two memoir writers, Dick Morris and George Stephanopoulos, both recall that their ex-boss considered the American people "isolationist" and saw no reason to contest that sentiment. Mr. Clinton recalls another it's-the-economy-stupid president, William McKinley, elected in 1896 with not a thought in the world about the world.

Yet McKinley's presidency was dominated by the event that put the young republic on the world stage: the Spanish-American War. Just as the roots of the Balkan troubles were growing before the Clinton presidency, so the Spanish conflict was smoldering before McKinley was elected.

Americans cheered the anti-colonialist Cubans when they rose up against their Spanish masters in 1895; the penny press stoked revulsion against the brutality of the Spanish commander, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Slobodan Milosevic of the day, to the point that U.S. intervention was possible even before the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor.

One key difference between 1898 and 1999 is that McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to be president, earned his war-leader credibility. Yet, as Americans exulted in their unexpectedly quick victory over Spain, McKinley puzzled over the territories gained as spoils of war, including the Philippines and, paradoxically, Cuba. "And so it came to pass," he marveled, "that in a few short months we have become a world power."

McKinley was assassinated in 1901; the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a serious student of politico-military matters. At the age of 24, long before he led the Rough Riders, he published a book on the Navy in the War of 1812. Yet Roosevelt studied peace as well as war; as president, his mediation of the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Such experience, as a theorist as well as a practitioner, helped him see into the geo-strategic future. As he warned in a letter to William Howard Taft in 1907, "The Philippines form our heel of Achilles. They are all that makes the present situation with Japan dangerous."

TR appalled

So what would Roosevelt think about U.S. involvement in Kosovo? One thing is surely certain: The man who counseled, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" would be appalled that Mr. Clinton has been contracting the defense budget while at the same time noisily extending U.S. commitments in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Eastern Europe (through NATO expansion) and now the Balkans.

Last Tuesday, as the president edged the United States closer toward committing itself to Kosovo's independence, the Pentagon admitted it was running short of cruise missiles.

Yet, as has often happened, the cost of Mr. Clinton's carelessness will be borne by others, down the chain of command, and not by that careless-in-chief himself. An inadequate U.S. military operation in Kosovo will leave Clinton embarrassed -- if that is possible.

But the real price, and perhaps the ultimate price, will be paid by those who are sent in with too little to do too much for people for whom it could well be too late.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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