A Celebratory Clinton Declares Victory
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 1999; Page A1
President Clinton finally uttered yesterday the single word that he dared not let escape from his lips until now: "Victory."
He went to the White House briefing room in the morning to claim it. He stood on the South Lawn in the afternoon to celebrate it, borrowing the spotlight at an event to honor the World Series-winning New York Yankees. And he booked time on national television in the evening to ruminate on what NATO's Kosovo campaign – in 79 days of aerial bombardment he never did call it a "war" – means for the future.
"I can report to the American people that we have achieved a victory for a safer world, for our democratic values, and for a stronger America," Clinton told the nation, after a week in which a tentative peace accord left the alliance teetering just shy of its goal. He vowed that the hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians expelled from Yugoslavia will go home: "In Kosovo, we did the right thing, we did it the right way, and we will finish the job."
Yet just as Clinton and his national security team began the conflict in surprising isolation – subject to criticism in Congress and second-guessing by military experts and enjoying little of the surge in public support that presidents usually get at the start of a war – so too they ended it celebrating mostly alone.
While the White House and Capitol Hill struck a deal on funding for Kosovo, debate in Congress was dominated yesterday by more criticism and expressions of doubt about what the administration had really achieved. House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) said, "Any attempt to claim victory by either side would be an injustice to those who have endured so much suffering." And polling experts noted that the American public was largely disengaged from this war, in striking contrast to the public mood during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
This war ended in a slow-motion style that may have undercut the drama. For a week, while difficult negotiations with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's military commanders were underway, Clinton had cautioned against celebration and issued a no-gloating injunction to his team.
But that order was plainly lifted yesterday, as NATO suspended airstrikes and prepared for the arrival of peacekeeping troops in Kosovo and administration officials appeared everywhere on TV to talk about it. Clinton led a parade of official statements and unofficial boasting that conveyed an unmistakable air of "We told you so."
Asked by a reporter at the morning event if he felt "vindicated against the criticism that the air war would not work," Clinton initially demurred, saying he was happy that pilots had kept civilian casualties to a minimum. Then he warmed to the subject, praising two men by his side, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton.
"I think it's a tribute to Secretary Cohen and to General Shelton and the others who believed that . . . given the capacity of our forces, that this strategy could work," Clinton said. "I think that our people in uniform, starting with our secretary of defense, are the ones that have been vindicated by this."
Clinton's evening address mostly steered clear of the debate about the air war. Instead, he struck a somber tone as he focused on what he called the hurdles ahead as an international peacekeeping force moves into Kosovo to establish autonomy and return ethnic Albanians to their homes. He warned that the new mission will be arduous – removing mines, rebuilding homes, accounting for the missing – and may involve casualties, but he pledged it will take place under NATO command with robust rules of engagement.
Addressing the people of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Clinton said their leaders were to blame for the punishing air war. He suggested that removing Milosevic, who was indicted by an international tribunal for sponsoring the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, is a long-term goal of U.S. diplomacy.
He lavished praise on the U.S. military, particularly its pilots – "You've made us very proud" – and, in a remark aimed at boosting the man he wants to succeed him, noted the contribution of Vice President Gore in the U.S.-Russia diplomacy that led to the peace accord.
Clinton is eager to add a stop in the Balkans on a trip to Europe next week. Aides said he would like to visit refugees in Macedonia, but it remains unclear whether logistical hurdles can be cleared; a stop at Aviano Air Base in Italy is a fallback option.
Clinton's schedule on the last day of war was strikingly similar to the first day. Just as on March 24, there was a morning trip to the briefing room in time to have Clinton's image on television newscasts in Europe as well as in the United States. And just as before, he aimed to command the national audience by speaking live in the evening from the Oval Office, a format he has used infrequently.
Yet the content of his words on these two occasions did not in all instances mesh well – a fact that will surely fuel the debate about how much celebration is in order. On March 24, he said his first goal was "to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo." That goal proved impossible, as the start of war only accelerated the expulsions and exterminations, forcing NATO to move to a fallback goal, "to seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity."
Also on that day, Clinton said, "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." Yesterday, he said, "We never took other options off the table." This statement reflected how close the administration had come to reversing its air-only strategy and planning for invasion after Milosevic resisted far longer than expected.
Even so, Cohen declared yesterday, "We achieved our goals with the most precise application of air power in history."
Some commentators said the fact that NATO carried out its battle from thousands of feet in the air may have contributed to the detachment many Americans seemed to feel. "It bothers some people that we waged a war in which we had zero casualties," while thousands died on the ground, said Michael Harrison, who monitors radio talk shows nationally for Talkers magazine. In general, Harrison said, public discussion about Kosovo "has been conducted at an intellectual, perfunctory level, but not at a passionate gut level."
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed. During the Persian Gulf War, polls consistently registered people saying that events in the Middle East were the nation's most pressing problem. That never happened this time, as concern about children and the nation's cultural values trumped events in the Balkans. "There's a different level of attentiveness to this conflict," Bowman said.
The inability of the nation – particularly Republicans in Congress and commentators in the media – to rally behind military leaders or give Clinton the benefit of the doubt has left a residue of grievance at the White House. Republicans, said one Clinton adviser, "have rewritten the rules that prevailed for the whole century" about political protocol during war.
Beyond resentment, there was delight at how Clinton once again had seemed to outpace critics who assumed that his comeuppance was at hand in the Balkans. "After the pundits' coverage of the Lewinsky drama, the midterm elections and Kosovo," said senior White House adviser Douglas B. Sosnik, "the country is certainly entitled to enjoy a pundit-free summer."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company