WASHINGTON -- The Balkan war has turned politics upside down. Hawks are doves, one-time peaceniks are now warriors. Can't tell the players even with a score card.
But I never imagined hearing Republicans sing a hallelujah chorus for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. When Mr. Jackson brought out three captured American GIs from Belgrade, GOP senators who wouldn't be caught in the same pew with Mr. Jackson were belting hymns of praise.
"A tremendous accomplishment," rhapsodized Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "It took a lot of courage for Jackson to go over there when others have failed."
"Reverend Jackson took a chance. It took a lot of guts to do it," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said on CNN. To hear other Republicans cheer Mr. Jackson, you'd think the Chicago preacher had switched to the party's hymnal: tax cuts for the rich, more prisons and guns. What's going on?
Sure, they had to applaud his bailout of imprisoned Americans. But the GOP saw Mr. Jackson's renegade trip as zinging President Clinton. Mr. Lott sounded as though he were wearing 1960s headband-and-beads: "Let's give peace a chance."
In truth, Mr. Jackson had again shown his uncanny gift for global daring that stole the spotlight from a president. After all, Mr. Jackson's political life seemed dead. No more cries of "run, Jesse, run." His quixotic campaigns that bedeviled Democrats in '84 and '88 were history. He was host of a fringe TV show.
But Mr. Jackson again burst from semi-oblivion. He did it in 1984 when he flew to Syria to release Robert Goodman, a U.S. pilot who had been shot down. He persuaded Fidel Castro to free 22 Americans from Cuban jails. In 1990, Mr. Jackson persuaded Saddam Hussein to let loose 700 foreign women and children Iraq held as human shields.
How does Mr. Jackson pull off these stunning missions, always to the embarrassment of presidents and State Department dignitaries? First, he's a shrewd opportunist. He'd been talking of freeing the American trio from Belgrade since their capture. Suddenly, Yugoslav-connected Rep. Rod Blagojevich, an Illinois Democrat, paved the way for him. Second, Mr. Jackson is a free agent with moral clout, handy for foreign despots in crisis.
Critics claim that Mr. Jackson was "used" by Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic, his trip was a "public relations stunt." So what? He not only walked out with the three GIs, but he also may have broken the Balkan diplomatic ice. Never mind outrage about a photo of Mr. Jackson holding Milosevic's hand in prayer. "You don't hold hands with a butcher," snapped Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
"You pray with sinners and victims, not just friends," retorted Mr. Jackson. "If Senator McCain was in jail, I'd go get him."
Mr. Clinton, although he invited Mr. Jackson to the White House, was cool toward the triumph. Their off-and-on relationship is tricky -- remember Mr. Clinton dissing Sister Souljah in Mr. Jackson's presence in '92? And Mr. Jackson's post-Yugoslav sermons for more talk, less bombing, complicate Mr. Clinton's resolve to blitz Milosevic out of Kosovo.
Indeed, Mr. Clinton's foreign adviser Sandy Berger tried to chill Mr. Jackson's trip: "You won't be safe. We'll still be bombing. You don't have authority to negotiate." Mr. Jackson shrugged. And packed.
The Clinton team feared Mr. Jackson, once home, would praise Milosevic, condemn NATO's bombing, call for peace talks. For once it was right.
"He [Milosevic] could have kept the soldiers as trophies, war bait to rally his troops," Mr. Jackson said. "Neither side is talking -- they demonize Clinton, we demonize Milosevic. We're bombing their bridges but there's no diplomatic bridge. Big problems need big leaders."
Translation: Mr. Jackson wants to stop the bombing while Milosevic meets with Mr. Clinton, Britain's Tony Blair or NATO leaders. "Talk it out, not fight it out," he sermonizes.
His message was off key when NATO was intensifying the blitz, knocking out Belgrade electricity, accidentally blasting buses and apartments. But Mr. Jackson's pressure may not be futile. "We could have a bombing pause," Mr. Clinton acknowledged, "if there's a beginning of Serbian withdrawal."
Who knows, maybe Mr. Jackson opened a glimmer of daylight in the Balkan nightmare. Perhaps Milosevic is signaling through Mr. Jackson that he's heard enough bombs in the night. And Mr. Clinton, with a rebellious Congress, could be ready to cut a deal.
Go ahead, call Mr. Jackson a media hound, a self-made celebrity who thrives on made-for-TV adventures.
But he went into Belgrade under the bombs and yanked out three Americans. When no one in the Clinton administration had a clue except to keep dropping bombs, Mr. Jackson may have started an end-game dialogue.
Without the Preacherman, peace didn't have a prayer.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Pub Date: 5/06/99