And now, making the Balkans whole again

May 27, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton, a better president than columnist, traduces the truth the way a shark feeds -- relentlessly, voraciously, as a metabolic necessity. As in his column in Sunday's New York Times, which began with these words: "We are in Kosovo with our allies to stand for . . ."

He could not go three words without involving the truth in a fender-bender. We are not "in" Kosovo any more than we were "in" Germany in 1943. You may ask, what is a preposition among friends? Well, as Mark Twain said, "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." But sticking to the truth -- "We are over Kosovo with our allies . . ." -- would have sacrificed style to facts.

The Times, careless about the semantic niceties involved in what is called "coercive diplomacy," titled Mr. Clinton's column, "A Just and Necessary War," thereby using, as Mr. Clinton did not, the "W" word. Columnist Clinton spoke only of "our military campaign." The president, who has not stopped campaigning since he was in his 20s, confuses war, which is about the destruction of the enemy's forces, with modern politics, which is about inducing mood swings in mass audiences.

Still, all wars end. This one will. When and how? Opinions differ.

The lead story in Monday's Washington Post reported the commander of NATO's air war, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short, saying of the Yugoslav army in Kosovo, "I don't have a good feel for knowing how close they are to breaking," but he has a feeling that two more months of the campaign as it now is being conducted will either "kill" it or "send it on the run." He said if you are being pounded so relentlessly that you "know that every time you move you're liable to be hit, at some point your spirit will break, particularly if you're not getting any help from Belgrade."

Fresh troops

The lead story in Monday's New York Times reported that Belgrade is sending fresh troops into Kosovo. NATO's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz: "We have no sign of withdrawal. The contrary is correct."

Paddy Ashdown, a former Royal Marine commando, now leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, says he has never heard of anyone "surrendering to an aircraft." However, NATO is being methodical, which can be a military virtue. But time may be on the side of Slobodan Milosevic, who may be able to hunker down longer than NATO can continue papering over its differences, which will widen as NATO's target list expands and civilian casualties multiply.

`Passive resistance'

Italy wants a bombing halt. Greece says Turkey's planes participating in the air war cannot cross Greek air space. Hungary says it will not be a staging ground for a ground attack. National Journal's James Kitfield reports on "passive resistance" within NATO at war. He says that early in the air war some governments of NATO members showed displeasure with certain target selections by flying their missions but refusing to release their ordnance, claiming mechanical or weather problems.

And Germany vows to veto any NATO use of ground forces except in a "permissive" environment, meaning with Milosevic's permission. Perhaps there is something to be said for ending the 20th century worrying about German military reluctance.

Columnist Clinton says "I do not rule out" such options as ground forces. A spokesman for Mr. Clinton's National Security Council says the administration is "steadfast" against ground troops. Open-minded about what it steadfastly opposes, the administration plans to make the Balkans whole again with . . . perhaps something analogous to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

While satellites in their quiet orbits photograph mass graves, NATO planners in quiet conference rooms anticipate the return of the survivors of the buried to live under the sovereignty of the buriers. And Mr. Clinton plans reconciliation: "There needs to be a magnet, a stronger force pulling people together than the forces pulling people apart. That means there needs to be an economic revitalization program that embraces the region."

The "military campaign" may not be going exactly as planned, but postwar recovery will be a piece of cake. We will write a check.

It is beyond parody; it is impervious to satire. In the midst of a war demonstrating, emphatically and redundantly, the fierce salience of religious and ethnic fevers, and the centuries-spanning durability of historical memories, Mr. Clinton, who evidently has not noticed the 20th century, stands as the last economic determinist. His shallowness amazes.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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