Gore Increases Role in Kosovo Crisis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 1999; Page A4
Vice President Gore is openly pursuing a high-profile role on the Kosovo crisis, a strategy many analysts say helps him address public doubts about his strength as a leader but could backfire if the situation overseas worsens significantly.
In a series of public appearances and during closed-door military sessions, Gore has emerged as an outspoken proponent of the massive air war being waged in the skies over Yugoslavia. On Saturday night he agreed to a rare on-the-record interview with reporters about the crisis, and on Monday volunteered to step in front of the cameras at a political event in Chicago to make the administration's case once more.
Behind the scenes, President Clinton tapped Gore last week to brief three former presidents on the looming crisis and to alert Soviet Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov of the likelihood of airstrikes.
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said it was natural for Gore to raise his visibility on this issue: "He's been very involved in the decision-making process and a very strong public and private advocate for an aggressive response to President [Slobodan] Milosevic's offensive in Kosovo. Since he plays an integral role in the development of policy, as he conducts his business around the country it would be very natural for him to enunciate that policy."
The Gore team sees Kosovo as a chance to display both the vice president's knowledge of complex foreign policy matters and his toughness. They have been eager to quietly put out the word Gore is a key player on foreign affairs, studying his classified briefing materials and peppering military leaders with technical questions. And they expect him to continue speaking out on the situation. Yet his prominence and deep involvement in the military plan brings risks, especially if the Kosovo mission is considered a failure.
"Gore does not want to be running for president in the year 2000 with American casualties in Kosovo," said Larry Berman, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Recent polls show Gore is not viewed as a strong leader. His forceful talk on the Balkan crisis, referring to Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, as "one of these junior league Hitler types," may bolster his stature on the national stage, advisers and outside analysts said.
"This is an opportunity to show he has some policy backbone and is willing to use America's might to protect freedom and human rights," said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "The only downside is if we get committed to a long, protracted ground offensive and he has to be defending" a bad turn of events.
Since his days in Congress, Gore, a Vietnam veteran, has been one of the more hawkish members of the Democratic Party, from his support of the Persian Gulf War to his willingness to back Israel's interests in Middle East disputes.
"One of the reasons Bill Clinton chose Al Gore [in 1992] was to bring in someone who had strong moderate foreign policy credentials to strengthen the ticket that way," said Bruce Jentleson, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an informal adviser to the vice president. For the same reason, administration aides suggest, Gore makes an effective point man for the White House on international issues.
Now, Berman said, as Gore begins his own presidential campaign, he is attempting to neutralize Republican attacks on the Clinton administration's foreign policy: "He's anticipating hits in Campaign 2000 from several Republican candidates. He has more background, experience and interest in foreign policy than Clinton" and is eager to display that.
Several analysts cautioned, however, that if the United States becomes mired in the Balkan crisis Gore may be studying Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's belated attempt to distance himself from President Lyndon B. Johnson on Vietnam. Humphrey's 1968 presidential bid failed.
Already, several GOP candidates are using Kosovo to attack Gore.
"This is symptomatic of the Clinton-Gore drift on foreign policy," Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes said yesterday. "This crisis, this tragedy could have been prevented several years ago." He suggested the United States simultaneously cut off weapons supplies to the Serbs and help "massively arm the Kosovo Liberation Army."
Like Gore, presidential candidate and former POW Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been out front on Kosovo. Although he supports the basic mission, he has criticized the administration for not following through on previous ultimatums to Milosevic, saying it was a mistake to preclude any military option. "We must now do whatever it takes to win," he said in an interview yesterday. "We cannot allow this Balkan thug to prevail. We must do whatever is necessary, including perhaps sending in ground troops."
Other presidential prospects have taken a more cautious, support-the-troops stance. Republicans George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and Lamar Alexander said now that military action is underway, they support the NATO troops and the airstrikes, but said they are concerned that the administration has no "exit strategy."
Democrat Bill Bradley echoed that concern and has suggested that Europeans should play a larger role in the ethnic struggles in Kosovo.
But because of his role as vice president -- and an activist one at that -- Gore may have no choice when it comes to defending Clinton's decisions overseas.
"I think he'll be held to account in either case, so staying in the background doesn't serve his interest," said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "If this ends in a fiasco . . . he won't be able to escape the political consequences."
And if Gore is elected president, the public will hold him responsible for the policies the Clinton-Gore administration pursued, observed Johnson administration wise-man Harry McPherson. "He inherits exactly the same agenda of questions. Why are we there? What do we do now?"
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.
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