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THE WAR IN KOSOVO

Europe Steps Up

Moving Ahead of a Low-Risk President

April 18, 1999|William Schneider | William Schneider, contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — The American people seem to be figuring out Kosovo on their own. Their conclusion? We're doing the right thing. But we're not doing it right.

Growing numbers of Americans support the airstrikes. At the same time, growing numbers believe the Clinton administration does not have a clear, well-thought-out policy in Yugoslavia.

When he addressed the nation last month, President Bill Clinton appeared to rule out U.S. ground forces. He said, "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." As always, Clinton was careful in his choice of words. He said he does not "intend" to send troops "to fight a war." No troops, say U.S. policymakers, unless there is a "permissive environment." Clinton's press secretary says, "We don't envision ground troops going into anything but a permissive environment."

What exactly is a "permissive environment"? Apparently one in which U.S. troops have "permission" to be there. What if nobody gives us permission? Well, then, the secretary of state has said, "There are ways to create a permissive environment." With ground troops? No, with airstrikes and Apache helicopters that get close to the ground, but with no troops actually having to set foot on the ground. Until a permissive environment exists.

It's an odd kind of warfare. The U.S. forces the bad guys to give Americans permission to go in. Then the ground troops go in when the fighting is, presumably, over. With news of more atrocities coming out every day, and with controversies emerging over civilian casualties, the American public is not saying, "The U.S. shouldn't be doing this." They're saying, "This isn't working."

Critics accuse the administration of following a doctrine of "immaculate coercion." But guess what's happening? The public--in the U.S. and Europe--is beginning to endorse the idea of sending ground troops if that's what it will take to stop the brutality. The U.S. public's opposition to the use of ground troops has been dropping about 10 points a week.

In late March, two of three Americans opposed ground troops. Now a majority say they would support sending in U.S. ground troops, along with troops from other NATO countries, if the airstrikes are not effective. The public has gotten behind this war. There's growing determination to win it, whatever it takes. On this issue, the public may be leading and the leaders following.

What's shaping public opinion if it isn't people's elected leaders? The answer is, the pictures. Horrifying pictures of brutal and inhuman massacres. Of refugees being shoved into trains. Pictures that bring to mind the most appalling event of modern history. Pictures that even young people are familiar with, from films like "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful."

Americans say they know what the U.S. is fighting for. Last week, the Gallup Poll asked, "Do you personally understand why the U.S. and NATO are carrying out this military action?" Almost 80% said they do. That's impressive for a war where the U.S. doesn't really have strategic or economic interests. This is a humanitarian cause. People get it. They've seen the pictures. They want it stopped. Americans don't support this policy because they think it's working. They support it because they think it's right.

The situation in the Balkans cannot be changed by immaculate coercion. It is deceptive for Clinton to pretend it can. The American people appear to have figured that out for themselves. They know it will be impossible to make any kind of "peace deal" with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He is a war criminal. The only acceptable goal is unconditional surrender, accompanied by Milosevic's removal from power.

"The plan did not go as the administration expected," Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Vietnam prisoner of war, has said. "That's not a reason to change the objective, even if Americans are killed or captured. It's a reason to change the means to reach that end--which is victory. There's no substitute for it."

Why can't Clinton say that? In his public life, unlike his private life, Clinton has turned out to be a low-risk president. His policies are small scale, cautious and incremental. He stays close to what the public wants. That's why his domestic policies have been a success. But the rules may be different in foreign affairs, as the country is beginning to find out.

Clinton certainly didn't start out as a low-risk president. His first two years in office were bold and ambitious, sometimes reckless. Remember gays in the military? The tax hike? Bill and Hillary's big health-care adventure?

The Democrats paid a terrible price in 1994. Clinton learned a lesson, with a little help from his shadowy advisor, Dick Morris: Think small. Stay with the people. In the words of the immortal Thomas "Fats" Waller, "Find out what they like, and how they like it, and give it to 'em just that way."

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