Clinton won, but there won't be any postwar victory parades

June 28, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- Those were startling TV pictures of the prez running a gauntlet of hugging, kissing admirers who joyfully shouted "CLIN-TON! CLIN-TON!"

What an oddity -- people exuberantly happy that the Balkan war is over and giving a U.S. president credit. The mob joy, of course, took place in Macedonia, where at least Kosovo refugees are grateful the United States and NATO prevailed.

You can bet such a scene won't happen in Washington or any American city. The Balkan peace has stirred only grumpy ho-hums.

And you'll never see videotape of the carpers, doubters and doomsters -- the Jeremiahs who predicted a quagmire and that air power would never win -- lining up to salute Mr. Clinton: "Mea culpa, Mr. President! You were right."

But why the surly silence? How can we win a war and nobody cheer?

Past wars

Other foreign triumphs lit parades and hoorahs. The hostages freed from Iran came home to a sea of yellow ribbons. Even Ronald Reagan's pseudo-war in Grenada drew raves. Although he left Saddam Hussein still swaggering, George Bush after the gulf war was rhapsodized by Congress like a returning Caesar and his poll ratings shot up to 91.

Mr. Clinton? The big lug lucked out. Again.

Diehard critics, terminally annoyed that Mr. Clinton keeps extricating himself from jams, choke on the "V" word. They point out that 860,000 refugees fled Kosovo, most after the bombing started; NATO couldn't prevent the massacre of 10,000; the air raids soured relations with China and Russia, Slobodan Milosevic is left in power and the Balkans remain a dangerous, expensive pit with U.S. troops to restrain the ancient blood feud.

A success

But when Mr. Clinton held together an alliance of 19 nations, achieved his aims in ending the ethnic cleansing and returning the Kosovars, made Milosevic cave, and did it without loss of one American in combat -- well, it may not be a World War II conquest, but I'd call the Balkan war a success.

Pundits never apologize for being wrong. So don't expect any sackcloth and ashes from George Will, who said, "NATO's minuet of capitulation is a colossal farce." Or from the Wall Street Journal's Robert Bartley, who said, "Clinton has backed himself and us into a corner." Or ABC's Sam Donaldson, who said, "Bombing alone will never work."

Nor can Mr. Clinton anticipate kudos from congressional doomsayers, especially the 38 of 55 Republican senators who voted against the air war. "He's going to start World War Three!" shouted Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaskan Republican. "Foolishness, an ill-conceived venture," grumped Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican. In the House debate, where hostility against the war was poisonous, Tom DeLay bellowed, "Let it be Clinton's war, a failed policy talking us deeper into a quagmire."

Sure, some Balkan war antipathy could be blamed on a new breed of isolationists. You saw the split in Republican 2000 politics, where Pat Buchanan predicted "a massive disaster," yet John McCain kept urging, "Win, even if it takes ground troops."

But in the pundit-and-pols ferocity against the war, you couldn't miss the subterranean venom: Virulent dislike of Mr. Clinton. As Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Republican said, "Those against the war are driven by blind hatred."

But does that explain the strange ambivalence -- the "so-what?" skepticism -- of most Americans toward the war's end? In a Gallup poll, only 40 percent called it victory. Only 46 percent told Pew pollsters that NATO met its goals. You'd think Milosevic won. "The results were too messy and ambiguous," said pollster Andrew Kohut.

I suspect another reason: It was a remote-control war waged by smart bombs (and some not so smart) from 20,000 feet. Each day Pentagon briefers droned on about sorties flown, bridges hit. You sensed a detached passivity in Americans.

The war seemed distant, computerized, lacked heroics.

And you can't discount suspicion and fatigue with Mr. Clinton's soap-operatic dramas. When his obituary's written, I suspect Monica Lewinsky and Kosovo will be in the lead. But it's hard suddenly to switch images of Mr. Clinton from lying adulterer to successful war leader.

So there'll be no victory parades, no church bells pealing, no rally-round-the-flag spike in the president's poll ratings. From the get-go, I applauded Mr. Clinton's humanitarian motives if not his strategy. Now I accept his modest exit line: "We did the right thing. And we did it the right way."

For irritated critics who cavil that Mr. Clinton got lucky, remember this: The refugees got lucky. Every U.S. pilot who flew a mission got lucky. So did we all.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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