Balkans strategy not a blueprint for future

June 09, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

EVEN IF the fraying peace agreement with Serbia can be stitched back together, it would be an overstatement to describe it as a triumph after all the human suffering and physical destruction that have ravaged Kosovo these past 10 weeks. But if NATO can compel compliance -- admittedly still a big if -- the agreement would represent a vindication for President Clinton and the alliance.

Mr. Clinton is routinely accused of lacking the self-discipline to set a course and stick to it. But, amid calls for the deployment of ground troops on one side and demands for withdrawal on the other, he persevered in the NATO air campaign against Serbia. He has been rewarded with an accord that -- if it recovers from the last-minute impasse in negotiations and then holds through implementation -- offers a better outcome than almost anyone in Washington considered possible until the moment it was announced.

Yet even if this becomes a victory for NATO, it is unlikely to establish the clear-cut precedent that its supporters had hoped for. On both sides of the Atlantic, the war's advocates -- many of them with roots in anti-war politics of the 1960s and 1970s -- saw Kosovo as the model for a new generation of humanitarian military intervention to prevent atrocity, even within national borders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair planted this flag most boldly when he declared: "Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter."

But the high political, financial and human costs of this campaign appear just as likely to make the Western leaders think long and hard before raising arms against atrocity again. "Clearly, this is not an experience that anybody would like to repeat any time soon," says former Clinton national security aide Ivo Daalder, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That assessment solidified as the agreement itself became murkier over the weekend.

A matter of interest

The morality of taking a stand against "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo is virtually beyond dispute. What will remain disputed -- even if the agreement holds -- is whether the United States and its allies can afford to intervene in cases (like this one) that offend their values more than their interests.

Those who support this form of armed Samaritanism can point to a simple and powerful fact: Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic was forced to back down, even without a ground invasion. But the road to that result exploded the dream of an antiseptic, low-risk war. By fighting solely from the air, NATO kept down its fatalities to a remarkable level (none on the battlefield, and two in a training accident). But in almost all other ways, the engagement proved more difficult than expected -- with more bumps still possible ahead.

Says Mr. Daalder: "If the idea was that a bit of bombing would bring Milosevic around . . . there proved to be big costs that nobody really anticipated: 1.4 million people expelled, thousands murdered and raped, the expenditure of $10 billion plus and the worsening of relations with China and Russia." Add to that list political tensions at home and abroad. NATO has displayed remarkable unity through the 10-week campaign, but strains have showed as it persisted. Germany announced it would not support a ground war; Hungary, a new NATO member bordering Yugoslavia, rolled up the welcome mat by announcing it would not let its territory be used as a staging ground for an invasion.

At home, the reaction was also sobering. When public support has eroded for earlier wars, it has usually been because American casualties were rising. But even without casualties, disappointment in the results drove down support for U.S. involvement in Kosovo from 61 percent in April to 49 percent by late May, according to Gallup surveys.

Milosevic's intransigence even did what independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's interrogations could not: lower Mr. Clinton's job approval rating from 64 percent in March to 53 percent in late May.

And it wasn't only the public that quickly grew restive. The next president -- no matter his (or her) party -- is likely to view Kosovo as a warning about the difficulty of sustaining congressional support for military action in the era of the 24-hour news cycle.

Democrats mostly backed Mr. Clinton, but when Milosevic didn't seem to waver, their support did. A week before Milosevic apparently accepted the agreement, 29 House Democrats wrote Mr. Clinton urging a bombing pause to jump-start negotiations. All signs pointed to sharper Democratic divisions if Mr. Clinton concluded he needed ground troops to win.

For a future Republican president, the signs were even more ominous. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- arguably the three Republicans best positioned to actually win the White House next year -- all endorsed the bombing and even the use of ground troops.

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