Clinton's foreign policy pattern holds true once more in Kosovo

Bold measures bring ambiguous success

War In Yugoslavia

June 06, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On March 24, as the first NATO bombs began to fall on Yugoslavia, President Clinton told a skeptical nation his war aims were threefold: to protect the people of Kosovo, to cripple the Serbs' ability to wage war, and to maintain the fragile NATO alliance.

A month later, with the first two aims in tatters and the third in doubt, the goals suddenly shifted. Now the Serbs had to leave. NATO forces had to go in, and the refugees had to return.

The success of NATO's air war over Yugoslavia may depend on which goals the final peace accord is measured against. If those first goals remain operative, most analysts agree, only the maintenance of the NATO alliance was unambiguously secured. If those goals are forgotten, last week's peace accord appears far more satisfactory.

Partial success, no debacle

Such ambiguities have come to be hallmarks of the Clinton administration's foreign policy, where bold diplomatic and military moves have yielded mainly partial successes. Yet from Haiti to Iraq, from North Korea to Bosnia, and now to Kosovo, Clinton has also avoided the debacles his critics have constantly forecast.

Nowhere has that high-wire act been more dramatic than in Kosovo, where a sudden peace accord appears to have secured the president his greatest foreign policy achievement, but at the price of enormous destruction and an open-ended U.S. commitment to a still-unstable part of the world.

For the president's supporters, the ambiguity of the achievement is understandable. Clinton has been unafraid to tackle seemingly intractable problems that other politicians have been unwilling to touch, and he has done so in a poisonous political atmosphere where domestic foes have been willing to undercut his efforts.

"I am in full gloat right now," Paul Begala, a former top Clinton adviser, said Friday, even as most Clinton aides remained circumspect about the prospects for peace in Kosovo. "This was the right thing to do for the right reason, and by God, America won."

But just what America has won is still far from clear, given the original goals and the different framework drawn up for the war's conclusion.

The peace agreement accepted Thursday by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic does, however, appear to have met each of the new objectives: to get the Serbian forces out of Kosovo and to return the Kosovar refugees with protection from a NATO-core peacekeeping force.

Moreover, the accord seems to hew closely to the peace proposal in Rambouillet, France, that Milosevic was presented before the bombing began. There are some key differences: The newest peace agreement would give a much larger role to the United Nations than the original accord, which could allow China and Russia to muddle peacekeeping operations. And Rambouillet explicitly held out the possibility of eventual independence for Kosovo, a goal the United States never really embraced.

On the other hand, Rambouillet would have granted the Serbs a much larger military presence in Kosovo than the few hundred Serbian soldiers envisioned in last week's peace agreement. And NATO will have far more control over the province's governance.

A significant victory

That is a significant victory, said Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now with the RAND Corp. Hunter had expected Milosevic to offer the allies a deal that would fall far short of what he agreed to, in an effort to split the NATO alliance.

"This came out better for NATO than I expected," Hunter said. "They didn't get everything. They didn't get a clean agreement that [peacekeeping] would be just a NATO operation. They didn't get a clean agreement on how many Serbs would be left there. And they didn't get a clean agreement on just what will come out of the U.N."

"But," he said, "this is a major achievement."

Yet it came at a cost, and that cost has been paid in virtually every foreign policy endeavor undertaken by Clinton, foreign policy analysts say. Milosevic, who has now waged war in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, is still in power and potentially free to make trouble again. He thus joins a growing number of world leaders -- such as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the leaders of North Korea -- who have backed down from conflicts with the United States, only to bedevil the nation again.

"It's like a video game where you zap the bad guy and he pops right back up on the screen," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Pomona, Calif.

More important, U.S. officials must now maintain a fragile peace, as they have been doing in the Persian Gulf, Haiti and Bosnia for years.

Wallace J. Thies, an associate professor of politics at Catholic University, called it the "20-20 solution," 20,000 troops marooned abroad for 20 years.

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