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National Perspective | Washington Outlook

Americans Will Weigh Kosovo War Against Price of Good Intentions

Foreign policies sustain support when they meet their objectives at a cost Americans consider reasonable. They lose support when they don't. They are measured not on the elegance of their theory, but on the effectiveness of their execution.

April 19, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Fittingly enough, the clouds parted for the congressional leaders visiting the White House last Monday night precisely at the moment the talk turned to the weather in Kosovo. There for a briefing from President Clinton and his top aides on the progress of the war, the legislators heard the familiar complaints that rain and clouds had dimmed NATO's ability to bomb. But Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Henry H. Shelton then noted--in a comment whose meaning took a few seconds to detonate--the weather gets much better in June.

As the war grinds on, the debate over Kosovo is increasingly turning on the price of good intentions. On every front, events there are sending the same message as Shelton's extended weather forecast: This war, with its daily accumulation of costs, isn't likely to end any time soon.

As if on cue, those costs last week tumbled past each other in succession--the human (the tragedy of Kosovar refugees mistakenly hit by a NATO airstrike); the financial (the reports that the administration will seek as much as $6 billion in additional financing for the war); and the personal (the disruption threatened by the Pentagon's decision to call up as many as 33,000 reservists).

Finally, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen acknowledged publicly what Shelton suggested privately: The air war could go on for many months.

And even that, officials increasingly hint, might be only a prelude to a ground war fought not by NATO but by the battered Kosovo Liberation Army.

James Chace, the author of an acclaimed recent biography of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, notes that throughout U.S. history presidents have attracted the most support for foreign policies that both advance American interests and embody American values. Indeed, current polls suggest that Americans largely accept Clinton's contention that intervention in Kosovo was both "a moral imperative . . . [and] a strategic imperative," as he told newspaper editors in a tightly-argued speech last week.

But there is a third dimension to U.S. attitudes toward foreign policy: cost. Americans are generally not a theoretical people, and even less so on foreign affairs. Foreign policies sustain support when they meet their objectives at a cost Americans consider reasonable. They lose support when they don't. They are measured not on the elegance of their theory, but on the effectiveness of their execution.

As an intellectual construct, containment of Communism defeated all rival theories for a quarter-century, guiding America's interaction with the world from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson. Its support crumbled not because it ran into a better argument, but because in Vietnam containment finally demanded too high a price and produced too meager a result.

Much more rapidly, the same thing happened to George Bush's dreams of a New World Order after the Gulf War in 1991. Bush envisioned a post-Cold War world where the leading nations "worked together to promote peace and prosperity . . . [and] to keep the dangers of disorder at bay." But that grand idea was smothered in the crib when Bush and the other NATO leaders decided the price was too high to intervene in the wars that tore through Yugoslavia after first Slovenia and Croatia, then Bosnia, declared their independence in 1991 and 1992.

The life cycle was even shorter for "assertive multilateralism"--the doctrine that Madeleine Albright proclaimed in Clinton's first term of greater reliance on the United Nations during international crises. That idea lasted as long as it took for the U.N. to prove its futility in Somalia and Bosnia.

Clinton has never put a name on the doctrine that has prompted him to intervene against humanitarian abuses in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia (belatedly) and now Kosovo. His closest ally among world leaders, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, last week heralded it as a "new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated."

Clinton has been less millenial in his own comments; when discussing Kosovo, he's always been careful to insist that the U.S. "can't . . . intervene everywhere." In some cases, he seems to envision the United States equipping others to act, as through the Africa Crisis Response Initiative that is enlisting African democracies to create a multinational force capable of responding to a future Rwanda.

But by using force in Kosovo, Clinton has demonstrated that he believes the United States and its allies, where feasible, should move against atrocity more quickly than they have in the past, particularly if they can make a case that their interests are at all affected. To him that is clearly the lesson of the tragedy in Bosnia, where he and other leaders dithered for more than three years before launching the bombing strikes that helped drive Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic to the peace table. "We cannot be indifferent," Clinton insists.

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