CONSERVATIVE OPINION OVER THE KOSOVO campaign seems about equally divided between those who consider it a debacle turning into a morass and those who consider it a fiasco turning into a quagmire. These views prevail across the spectrum of where-we-go-from-here opinion–that is, among the bug-out crowd, the march-to-Belgrade crowd, and everyone in between.
There are two reasons for this. One is, quite simply, that the war (not that anyone at NATO headquarters or in the Clinton administration likes that term) began badly, continues haltingly, and doesn’t look to be ending any time soon, at least not short of retreat and humiliation. The other reason can be summarized as follows: Bill Clinton.
Where to begin? Well, probably with the draft dodging during the Vietnam war, then the decades of lies on that subject, continuing through gays-in-the- military and Mogadishu, not omitting Haiti and phony photo-ops at Normandy, on to Monica’s services during phone conversations with congressmen about sending troops to Bosnia, proceeding to dogwagging in Sudan and Afghanistan, all while North Korea festers, Saddam sneers, China spies, readiness deteriorates, and generals get cashiered for conduct far less indiscreet than their commander in chief’s–culminating at last in an ill-conceived Balkan war during which the world’s foremost authority on talking your way out of a jam has been unfailingly incoherent. Bill Clinton is, in this view, the White House occupant least qualified to be commander in chief in the history of the Republic.
In short, the war, such as it is, has been personalized around Clinton: The war’s failure is his failure, and his particular failings as a leader practically foreordain a bad outcome along precisely the lines we are seeing. Only Bill Clinton could be arrogant and historically ignorant enough to sit in the White House picking the targets for U.S. bombs, a la LBJ. Only Bill Clinton could make the decision on the relationship of ground troops to U.S. war aims on the basis of polling. Only Bill Clinton could start bombing without an inkling of what to do should bombing fail to achieve the objective — except continue bombing.
In response, some throw up their hands, saying that the commitment of U.S. prestige to this venture is worth sacrificing because under this president, failure is inevitable. For those conservatives who believe, with Sen. John McCain, that once you’re in it, you have to win it, the concern is still rather Clinton-centric: The project has been to create a political consensus that will drive the president’s actions–to lead from the rear by pushing. Hopes for success are not high.
But in the same spirit of preparing for all contingencies so conspicuously absent from the administration’s thinking, it wouldn’t hurt to consider another possibility, however remote: What if we win?
There are various possible definitions of victory, of course. Do we need to eliminate the Milosevic regime and put the Serbian leader on trial for war crimes in the Hague in order to consider the outcome satisfactory? Or would we settle for a conditional capitulation by Belgrade that would include Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo and a peacekeeping force there, paving the way for refugee resettlement? And surely it is the case that the administration will be presented with opportunities to declare victory and cease hostilities, regardless of whether the declaration means anything. But suppose at the end of the battle, even the administration’s severest critics find they must concede that the rout they anticipated did not take place. The exercise in contemplating the possibility of victory is useful for this reason alone: It reveals ways in which the emphasis on the persona of Bill Clinton is misplaced.
Were this merely Bill Clinton’s war, we would be contemplating, mutatis mutandis, Bill Clinton’s victory. Our hero, in this scenario — perhaps initially ill-advised by his feckless underlings — would have stayed the course through early adversity while mustering the resources to win. In the end, there would stride Bill Clinton, liberator of Kosovo, conqueror of Belgrade, protector of the Albanians, keeper of the Balkan peace, and, by the grace of God, builder of the bridge to the 21st Century Pax Americana. Imagine the size of the statue on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina; perhaps at home we could rename Baltimore/Washington International Airport after him.
There is something wrong with this picture, is there not? True, in the event things turn out well, Clinton will deserve more credit than conservatives will be willing to give him. But there will be many other places to look for the origins of the victory. Start with NATO, where a capable general, Wesley Clark, whose record of commitment to a decent outcome in the Balkans is second to none, has so far been hobbled by hesitant political leadership. But credit will be due the collective NATO political leadership as well, for hanging together through a difficult time and demonstrating the alliance’s commitment to civilized conduct in Europe. Foremost, of course, will be the credit due the sheer fact of U.S. power: Without the United States, the nations of Europe would have been unable to stop the horror on their doorstep.
Bill Clinton plays a role in all of this, of course. And he has made plenty of mistakes that are clearly his own. But come what may, it’s important to frame the issue correctly. The proposition being tested in Kosovo comes down to this: Is U.S. power and prestige in the world today so overwhelming, that even Bill Clinton can wield it relatively effectively?