Consensus Grows to Send Ground Troops
By Dan Balz
Even as the Clinton administration continues to rule out ground forces until "a permissive environment" exists in Kosovo, a chorus of foreign policy experts and key members of Congress have been making the case that deployment may be inevitable.
They argue that, with the air war failing to achieve its immediate objectives of stopping Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, it may take such a risky commitment to deal with the mushrooming humanitarian disaster unfolding on the ground there and to salvage the credibility of the NATO alliance.
Foreign policy analysts say some of the old notions of left and right have gone out the window in the post-Cold War environment. Instead, the consensus for what could be a wider war in Europe fuses humanitarian instincts of many on the left who are outraged by the scenes of refugees flooding into Macedonia with realpolitik advocates who argue that U.S. power and prestige must be protected in a conflict with a leader like Milosevic.
"Very early on, there was among the foreign policy establishment a realization that this was real, that this was not just a bit of bombing, but that it basically was a declaration of war," said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and a former National Security Council adviser to President Clinton. "People realized what we were engaged in was war and that the stakes were far grander and far larger than the administration painted them."
Dissenters have been few and far between, despite a post-Vietnam reluctance to commit ground forces in combat and a perception that the American public won't tolerate casualties on the battlefield. Some Republicans strongly oppose the use of ground forces, but with Congress in recess until next week, it isn't clear how divided the legislative branch is about what the administration should do next.
The drumbeat in favor of ground forces by the foreign policy establishment, coupled with the grim images of the flood of refugees leaving Kosovo, has had an immediate-and significant -- impact on public opinion.
Last week, a CBS News poll found that 41 percent of those surveyed supported ground forces to help end the conflict, with 52 percent opposed. The Post-ABC News poll, conducted yesterday, shows 55 percent in favor and 41 percent against. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The poll, based on interviews with 509 randomly sampled Americans, found that support for the NATO airstrikes had risen from 55 percent last week to 68 percent. About two out of three Americans -- 68 percent -- said the airstrikes would not be sufficient to achieve NATO's goals and that ground troops would be necessary to finish the job.
Public opinion analysts cautioned, however, that the public still has reservations about the use of force under messy conditions. "There's very little appetite for casualties," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "Support there now would evaporate if the specter of a quagmire were to be evoked by Kosovo."
For now, the events in Yugoslavia have brought together disparate elements along the political spectrum in support of a more robust U.S. response to the evidence that Serbian forces have used the bombing campaign as an excuse to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.
"With the Cold War over, one of the things that happened on the liberal wing of politics is an increasing desire to do humanitarian things with foreign policy," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.
The arguments in favor of preserving U.S. and NATO credibility have, if anything, been made even more strongly by the foreign policy elite. On almost any day, the editorial pages of major newspapers and television talk shows have been filled with such commentary from former secretaries of state and members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
The policy debate has grave implications for Clinton and Vice President Gore but also may affect attitudes toward Republican candidates seeking the 2000 presidential nomination. Republican candidates remain divided on the deployment of ground forces.
Analysts said yesterday the war in Yugoslavia has given a short-term boost to Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), who was an early and outspoken advocate of using whatever means necessary to win the war and explicitly put the issue of ground troops on the table when others were not talking about it. "He's taken amazing strides in making himself a credible candidate," said Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), who leads the GOP field in the polls, was judged more harshly for having been more tentative in his statements, although he attempted to clarify his position yesterday during a telephone interview from Texas. He wouldn't say definitively whether he judged the administration's policy a failure but said a stable Europe and the refugee crisis meant that it is in the U.S. interest "to win" the war. "All options ought to be on the table," he said. "If the mission is to win, then I think all options ought to be available to the military planners."
On the issue of ground troops, Bush said, "I don't have all the intelligence briefings, but the commander-in-chief must say this is the mission and use whatever means necessary to achieve our objective. If his military briefers say it's important to use troops to achieve the mission, I would be supportive, if two things exist: first, a strong commitment to win, and second, a clear exit strategy."
Former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger wrote in Sunday's New York Times that a decade ago, the Bush administration decided that the splintering Yugoslav Federation "was a swamp into which we did not want to walk."
The Texas governor was asked whether he thought his father's administration had made the correct judgment. "I don't have any comment on that," he said. "I haven't seen the piece. My assessment now is to say to Milosevic, who is on a terrorist campaign of ethnic cleansing, that we are going to stop you."
Among other GOP presidential candidates, Elizabeth Dole has said she would not rule out the use of ground forces, while Patrick J. Buchanan, former vice president Dan Quayle, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, conservative activist Gary Bauer, Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich and New Hampshire Sen. Robert C. Smith said they oppose their introduction. Quayle, who was vice president to Bush's father, has argued that NATO countries other than the United States should supply ground troops if they are needed.
However strongly the consensus among the foreign policy establishment appears for possible deployment of ground troops, several analysts said the president will still face skepticism from the public if he decides they are needed, if for no other reason than the bombing campaign has been judged a failure.
Citing the anti-terrorist raids in Afghanistan and Sudan last summer and the most recent strikes against Iraq and now the campaign against Milosevic, Daalder said Clinton will have trouble persuading the country that a ground phase of the war will be successful. "The administration has oversold its previous use of air power," he said, "and those chickens are coming home to roost."
Polling director Richard Morin and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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