Clinton's Kosovo debacle

April 15, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- When Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked on a Sunday television news show about Serbian placements of land mines and other measures against a possible invasion of Kosovo by NATO ground forces, he said: "I think that they will continue to prepare, but one of the things that they cannot guess, I think, is that if NATO ever decided to use a ground force, the direction from which they would come and how NATO would go about it."

Asked how long it might take NATO to get ground forces deployed for invasion, General Shelton said that "would depend on how many entry points you used coming in. And we haven't excluded using more than one point of entry or numerous points of entry if in fact that was required."

That is more like it. Unfortunately, NATO's civilian leadership continues to assuage Serbia's anxiety.

In a self-refuting essay in Newsweek, with the telling title "A New Generation Draws the Line," Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Clinton's soul mate, argues in Mr. Clinton's self-referential style. He says that some criticism of the conduct of the war comes from people who cannot "come to terms with" the fact that the war proves that people like Mr. Blair and Mr. Clinton "who hail from the progressive side of politics" are "prepared to be as firm as any of our predecessors -- right or left -- in seeing this thing through. See it through, we will." Seven paragraphs later Mr. Blair's Churchillian pose becomes comic as he disavows any intention of "fighting our way in" to Kosovo.

Neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Blair seems to have planned for the possibility that the air campaign will not drive Serbian forces into complete retreat from Kosovo. By beginning a military campaign with a promise not to use ground troops, Mr. Clinton has done a predecessor a favor. His hero, John Kennedy, is no longer the author of the most irresponsible exercise of U.S. power since the country became a world power.

Kennedy's Bay of Pigs debacle may have had one dangerous consequence: the amateurishness and irresolution may have emboldened Nikita Khrushchev to place missiles in Cuba. It remains to be seen whether regimes in North Korea, Iraq and elsewhere will now be similarly emboldened by the Blair-Clinton way of being "firm."

To minimize the chances of that, NATO should put Slobodan Milosevic on notice that its ends as well as its means are being reconsidered. That the objectives of a war are not permanently defined by the origin of the war is illustrated by a story: At one of London's first high society balls after the end of World War II, a gentleman exclaimed, "This is what we fought the war for." Lady Cunard dryly replied, "Oh, do you mean they are all Poles?"

The war that began over Germany's invasion of Poland soon acquired the aim of destruction of the German regime. The goal of "unconditional surrender" reflected the impossibility of negotiating -- splitting differences -- with Adolf Hitler. NATO should make Milosevic's removal one of its revised war aims.

Germany's foreign minister says "the '30s are back," but Milosevic is less a Hitler than a Francisco Franco, whose cruelty was his charisma. But Milosevic operates in a context of international law, or at least emerging norms, that Hitler helped make. Milosevic is unquestionably guilty of the kinds of crimes international tribunals have been constituted to punish. If captured, he should be prosecuted.

Mr. Clinton may think of this half-hearted war partly as Mr. Blair seems to, as some sort of generational gesture. Mr. Clinton is most comfortable when thinking about little things -- school uniforms, the minimum wage and, above all, himself.

Shortly after the Bay of Pigs, in an Oval Office conversation with Richard Nixon about foreign policy, Kennedy said, "It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn't it? I mean who gives a [expletive deleted] if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?" Kennedy's generation was schooled in realism by large events. In what is thus far his Kosovo debacle, Mr. Clinton is demonstrating the consequences of the diplomatic and military unrealism still prevalent in his generation on "the progressive side of politics."

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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