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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

No to a ground war

Led by John McCain? Perhaps. But by Bill Clinton? Think again

By Charles Krauthammer

April 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:20 a.m. EDT (1520 GMT)

TIME magazine

What in God's name do we do now? There are three schools of thought: 1) now that we're in it, we've got to win it--meaning ground troops; 2) cut our losses before it's too late; 3) keep on bombing until we have a better idea.

Option 3, air war on autopilot, is the current policy of the Clinton Administration. It is a hope and a prayer. It is not a policy. At some point the choice will come down to 1) fight on the ground or 2) retreat under some Russian-brokered deal.

What should it be? There is a powerful groundswell to win. Even those who before the bombing thought Bismarck was right when he said the Balkans were "not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier" are having second thoughts. Many who, like Henry Kissinger, opposed the war, have come to the view that now that we are committed, we must win.

Their case is powerful. Whereas we had no compelling national interest in Kosovo before March 24, we do now. Our actions have created interests. Two in particular. First, a moral obligation to the Kosovars, whom we said we were going in to save and who are now shivering, starving, terrorized and homeless. We owe them--as we did the Kurds, whom we encouraged to rise up against Saddam after the Gulf War--at least safety, if not victory.

Second, the war on Serbia has become a test of NATO credibility. The Administration foolishly staked the credibility--and perhaps the existence--of the most successful defensive alliance in history on the outcome of a civil war in a backwater of minimal strategic significance. But now that we're there, it is minimal no more.

The case seems open and shut. The U.S. should go in and, in the words of John McCain, use all necessary force to finish the job.

Alas, the real question is not Should the U.S. (and its allies) go in on the ground? The real question facing us today is Do you really want this foreign policy team--Clinton and Albright and Cohen and Berger--running a Balkan ground war?

They launched an air war of half-measures, expecting Milosevic to fold at the first sight of Bill Clinton coming over the horizon on a Tomahawk. They had no contingency plan when Milosevic didn't. They had no contingency plan--indeed, they were shocked--when the man they call Hitler countered with a savage campaign of ethnic cleansing. They responded with the feeblest of aerial escalation, recapitulating the disastrous gradualism of Vietnam.

By every one of their criteria--protecting the Kosovars, preventing the crisis from spreading to neighboring countries, keeping the conflict from internationalizing--this campaign has been a disaster. Do we want to entrust a ground war, a far more dangerous and risky enterprise, to a team that has demonstrated a jaw-dropping inability to plan ahead, to adapt to contingencies, to act forcefully?

Even if your answer is yes, consider this: the Clinton team is so viscerally opposed to ground troops that Clinton ruled them out from the very beginning, thus immeasurably emboldening and strengthening Milosevic. Clinton was willing to sacrifice the military advantages of leaving the ground-war question ambiguous in order to rid himself--he thought--of the issue. He is terrified of becoming Lyndon Johnson, stuck in a ground war with no exit. He confessed as much to Dan Rather: "The thing that bothers me about introducing ground the prospect of never being able to get them out."

It is one thing to urge a ground war on leaders simply incompetent to carry it out. It is another to urge it on leaders unwilling to carry it out. What kind of ground campaign can we expect from an Administration that has been pressured into mounting one?

And finally, consider Clinton's co-commanders. One of the reasons the air war has been such an abject failure is that every move must be approved by all 19 NATO members. Luxembourg, say, has veto power over targets. France has raised objections to the very minor step of blockading Yugoslav ports. The committee of 19 had to approve the deployment--the agonizingly slow deployment--of Apache gunships. Imagine a ground war run by this hydra-headed body, in which every rule of engagement, every change in strategy, every new operation would have to go before and through the committee of 19.

If we had a serious President (say, John McCain) and a serious Secretary of State (say, Jeanne Kirkpatrick) and a serious NATO commander (say, Colin Powell), it might make sense to go in on the ground to win. But we don't. Which is why we are where we are. Better a face-saving deal that alleviates some of the suffering of the Albanians than a charge up Kosovo hills, led by a reluctant, uncertain Clinton.

A pessimist, says Israeli humorist Yaakov Kirschen, is a person who thinks things have hit rock bottom. "I am an optimist," says Kirschen. "I believe that things can get much worse."

And so they can. Especially in the Balkans.

This team has demonstrated a jaw-dropping inability to act forcefully.


Cover Date: May 2, 1999

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