Clinton must sell ground war plan to public, Congress

The Republicans may support a call for ground troops but not before they trash Mr. Clinton on the way he has conducted foreign policy.

April 26, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It is apparently only a matter of time before NATO begins using ground troops in Kosovo.

But before it happens, there are several intermediate steps President Clinton and NATO must take so that such an escalation of the war will be accepted by the people whose sons and daughters in the military will be put at risk.

Mr. Clinton in particular needs a cover story because he was so firm in his original resistance to the use of ground troops. There are already signs that public support for the president's conduct of the war, although still impressive, is beginning to erode.

The softening-up process already has begun, of course, in the much-advertised review of the current policy by NATO. The decision is essentially Mr. Clinton's to make, but there are 19 nations that -- in theory at least -- have a voice in that decision. Indeed, for Mr. Clinton, the NATO commemoration here over the weekend offered a special kind of cover by bringing home the point that this is an international consensus against Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic, not just a reflection of U.S. policy.

Different targets

A second step in preparing the nation for the use of ground troops has been the new and broader definition by NATO of what constitutes "military targets." Now the bombs are being aimed at one of Milosevic's houses and at the Belgrade facilities of the state-run television network. The prospect is clearly for heavier bombing of Belgrade.

Such attacks are certain to result in more civilian casualties than was the case in the first three weeks of bombing. But it was fanciful to imagine that the Serb leaders could be brought to their knees with some immaculate operation that spared ordinary people anything more than some temporary inconvenience.

This intensification of the air war is essential for Mr. Clinton if he is to rally popular support for ground troops. Americans may be convinced over time that it is necessary to put U.S. troops in harm's way, but not if NATO has drawn some protective ring around Serb civilians.

Congressional support

Mr. Clinton also must bring the Congress as well as the country along with him if he changes the policy as radically as seems likely. And that is a task that will be complicated by politics.

The most obvious problem for the president is his own limited credibility with Congress. Congressional Republicans may support a call for ground troops but not before they trash Mr. Clinton on the way he has conducted foreign policy so far. It should not be forgotten that, as always, there is another election just around the corner.

Unfortunately for Mr. Clinton, his standing with his fellow Democrats is not what a president would want to enjoy in a situation like this. Mr. Clinton is not trusted by many Democrats, and few congressional Democrats are willing to walk through a wall for him. This doesn't mean he cannot enlist support for ground troops, but it does mean that he has to make the case convincingly.

Presidential politics

Nor should it be forgotten that any debate over ground troops will occur in the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign. The competition is starting in earnest months earlier than in previous elections because of the front-loaded primary schedule.

The Republican candidates, with a few exceptions, are already braying about what they consider the failures of the Clinton administration, and, of course, the Democrat they hope to oppose next year, Vice President Al Gore.

The implication of all this is that the crisis in Kosovo could last for the several months it would take to bring troops into position to fight a ground war.

The lack of flexibility seems clear because it took three weeks for the Apache helicopters to arrive at the scene. However, during the Persian Gulf war, several months were needed.

Halting the war

It is still possible that, contrary to the predictions of the military experts, the air attacks will be debilitating enough to persuade Milosevic that he should begin serious negotiations to end the assault on his people.

Mr. Clinton has always been an extraordinarily lucky politician and a master at talking his way out of awkward corners.

It will take all of his luck and all of his skills to walk away from this one without paying some terrible costs.

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

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