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White House Hopefuls Speak on Kosovo

Balkans Special Report

  Clinton Saw No Alternative to Airstrikes

George J. Tenet,TWP
Before NATO's air campaign, CIA Director George J. Tenet had warned that the Serbs might respond by intensifying their ethnic cleansing. (The Washington Post)
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 1999; Page A1

The warnings were there for President Clinton. For weeks before the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, sources said, CIA Director George J. Tenet had been forecasting that Serb-led Yugoslav forces might respond by accelerating their campaign of ethnic cleansing in the province of Kosovo – precisely the outcome that has unfolded over the past week.

All during this time, U.S. military leaders were offering Clinton a corresponding assessment of their own. If the Serbs did launch such an assault, they said, air power alone would not be sufficient to stop it – precisely the analysis that NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, articulated publicly this week when asked what the military could do to halt the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Balkans.

But in the face of this advice, according to a variety of U.S. and European sources familiar with the decision-making, Clinton and his senior White House advisers pressed on with their planning for an air campaign. The group, participants said, never reassessed the fundamental judgment they had reached the previous fall, which ruled out the use of ground troops as a way of protecting Kosovo's majority Albanian population from a brutal crackdown by the Serbs.

That judgment, which several administration officials said was arrived at easily and with little internal dissent, is now at the core of what could count as the most serious foreign policy crisis of Clinton's presidency. With more than a hundred thousand Albanians already driven out of Kosovo by Serb "ethnic cleansing," and an unknown number killed, a central question is confronting Clinton: Why were his foreign policy aims not more closely matched with the military means necessary to achieve them?

The essential answer, as offered by a variety of administration officials, is that Clinton never believed he had a viable alternative. The use of NATO ground troops, never a likely option, was expressly ruled out by the White House in October, when NATO military analysts produced a study that concluded it would take as many as 200,000 NATO troops to protect Kosovo on the ground.

As several officials at the White House and at other national security agencies described it in recent days, that number was instantly viewed as a deal-killer.

"The numbers came in high," said one senior administration official. "No one said yes, no one said no; it was taken off the table. . . . It was a complete eye-roller."

"The idea of troops never had any traction that I remember," said a senior White House official.

NATO's analysis, officials said, was not a comprehensive study. Instead, it was an initial review that some U.S. officials called a "SWAG" – military parlance for a "scientific wild-ass guess."

The 200,000 figure, moreover, was at the high end of the estimates, and was contemplated for a scenario in which troops forcibly occupied all of Yugoslavia, a senior defense official said. If NATO went into only Kosovo in a "non-permissive environment," the number of troops required would have been 75,000, an official said – troops that would enter after an air campaign similar to the sort that is now being carried out.

Even a lower troop count, however, scarcely made the idea of a ground-based campaign more appealing to the Clinton White House – either before the air campaign began or now that it is being subjected to widespread second-guessing.

This second-guessing, in fact, is prompting an increasingly sullen defense from many White House officials, who complain that Clinton is being held by commentators and political opponents to an impossible standard that is constantly shifting.

If the United States had pursued a ground strategy, Clinton aides say, the administration would have been defying public opinion both here and in other NATO countries, and criticized for risking a military quagmire. If the administration had decided not to engage at all in Kosovo, Clinton would have been assailed for allowing the alliance to go limp in the face of a humanitarian disaster.

The only alternative, as senior White House officials have described it this week, is to press on with a bombing campaign that has so far not proven capable of achieving the goal Clinton described in his speech to the nation the day the bombing began: "to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo."

Clinton, according to White House aides, always knew that this goal might prove unachievable with air power. That is why, they said, his speech included another aim: "if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo."

Even if there were political support for using ground troops, the option is hardly more appealing to the White House. Clinton, sources said, is being advised by his national security advisers that inserting ground troops would be a virtually certain recipe for a costly, open-ended commitment in Kosovo and, possibly, all of Yugoslavia.

"Invade, occupy and stay there," one senior administration official said of what would happen if NATO troops go to Kosovo. "You own this country."

"The thing that bothers me about introducing ground troops into a hostile situation, into Kosovo and into the Balkans, is the prospect of never being able to get them out," Clinton told CBS's Dan Rather in an interview televised last night.

As the administration decides what to do next, it must also fend off a we-told-you-so debate within its own ranks. While White House officials said they always contemplated the possibility of a Serb assault, several people familiar with NATO planning said what has unfolded is decisively on the worst-case end of the spectrum. "We underestimated the ferocity and velocity of [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic's offensive to transform the ethnic balance in Kosovo," said a senior NATO military source.

A political-military plan prepared in October envisioned that Milosevic might accelerate ethnic cleansing, but also that he might yield quickly once force was applied, said one former administration official familiar with the planning. Different parts of the government put their faith in different scenarios. "The military was always more cautious about air power than the State Department," the former official said.

A State Department official responded: "Our job is to pursue diplomatic options." Balkans policymakers in Foggy Bottom, this official said, believed that "political objectives would not be achieved" without "a credible threat of force," but that does not mean that "anyone was predicting [a] rosy scenario" in which Milosevic would quickly back down.

White House officials, meanwhile, are bristling at what they see as revisionist history from many retired military commanders commenting on the crisis, as well as at some whispered background comments from current officers – that the military had argued for keeping the ground option alive.

"They were the ones who were most against it," one senior administration official said.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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