Without peace at hand, Clinton is out of luck

June 02, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It has been growing increasingly apparent in the past three weeks that the decision by President Clinton and the NATO allies to bomb the Serbs into submission was based on several fundamentally flawed premises.

Now the situation is being made all the more difficult by a series of events that could not have reasonably been expected. Mr. Clinton's luck has run out.

The original mistake was the supposition that Slobodan Milosevic would capitulate under pressure and mend his ways. Or, the thinking went, he would come under pressure from his people to yield and put an end to their hardship.

That was a gross miscalculation. Milosevic has not given an inch. Although the Serbs are being bombed down to the ground, reporters on the scene in Belgrade have found the distress of people there has heightened their resolve and their anger at NATO and the United States. If they are turning against Milosevic, it is not visible to the naked eye.

The second fundamental misjudgment was the belief that NATO's aims could be achieved with bombing alone -- and, more to the point, bombing from high altitudes that would not put NATO pilots at risk.

The third obvious miscalculation was the estimate, if any was made, of the scope of the refugee problem. The president and his NATO colleagues may have anticipated thousands of refugees or even tens of thousands. But did anyone foresee hundreds of thousands? If so, where did they plan to feed and house them?

Did anyone foresee hundreds of towns and villages in Kosovo being burned to the ground by the Serbs? If so, does anyone know any way to keep Mr. Clinton's pledge to restore the Kosovars to living in safety in their homes? Does anyone imagine those 50,000 NATO troops being assembled now would be enough to impose such a situation unless there is some kind of surrender by Milosevic?

The problem for Mr. Clinton has been compounded by developments that could not have been predicted in most cases. One, for example, was the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It was always a good bet that there would be a number of serious accidents that would take innocent lives; no war is immaculate, even in the era of the highest technology.

It was Mr. Clinton's bad luck, however, that one of the several accidents that we know about would be one that would lead to so many complications. With the Chinese deeply offended, the United Nations has become a difficult venue for any negotiations to end the war on terms Mr. Clinton and the NATO allies could swallow.

Then there is the question of dealing with Russia. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that Russia would turn out to be the prime defender of the Serbs and Milosevic. Their relationship has a long history. What has made the situation much dicier, however, is the bizarre drama being played out by Boris Yeltsin and the political system in Moscow. Mr. Yeltsin and his allies have an obvious stake in taking a hard line toward Mr. Clinton considering their domestic problems.

A month ago, the conventional wisdom here was that the situation in the Balkans would be resolved under some peace plan brokered by the Russians -- one that would allow face-saving for Milosevic but also fulfill the Clinton commitment to returning the Kosovars to their homes. Today that seems a distant possibility.

If the whole thing were not already complex enough, the indictment of Milosevic as a war criminal has added a final element to the equation. It may be, as Mr. Clinton claimed, that the indictment tells the world in the loudest and clearest tones that the NATO position is just. But it raises other questions that may be far more important than the world's perception of what has been happening in Kosovo.

On the face of it, the indictment would seem to take away any incentive for Milosevic to agree to terms that might be construed as a surrender. The imperative for him now must be to keep control of his own status. But the question is whether he can negotiate at all with NATO representatives who, technically at least, should feel obliged to arrest him.

While all this is going on, domestic support for the war in the Balkans is eroding rapidly. Most Americans believe, according to one recent survey, that the president is "over his head" in dealing with the situation. We don't know if that is the case. It is undeniable, however, that his luck has run out.

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

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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