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  •   Clinton Takes Time Out as Clock Runs on Kosovo

    President Clinton stops outside his vacation retreat to meet residents of Amelia Island, Fla., Tuesday. (Reuters)
    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 27, 1999; Page A2

    AMELIA ISLAND, Fla., May 26 – As the clock ticks toward one of the most important decisions of his presidency--whether to send U.S. ground troops into Kosovo--President Clinton is projecting an air of calm, vacationing in this coastal resort and citing optimistic reports that airstrikes alone will suffice in driving Serb forces from the embattled province.

    Several military experts have said NATO has only a few weeks to decide whether to start assembling the type of invasion force--at least 75,000 soldiers backed by heavy weaponry--that would be needed to drive Serb troops and paramilitary fighters from Kosovo before wintry weather arrives in October. But Clinton and his top aides, outwardly at least, are acting as if no decision is imminent.

    One official today suggested the allies could even wait a full year before returning Kosovo Albanians to their homes, saying, "It's going to be an awfully cold winter in Belgrade and Novi Sad" if Milosevic continues to fight and NATO planes continue to knock out his fuel and electrical supplies. NATO has said its goal is to return the refugees this year, and the air war is designed to break the Serbs' ability to prevent it.

    While refusing to rule out a ground war, the Clinton administration argues that it won't be necessary because the air campaign is taking a withering toll on Milosevic's forces. "The president has complete confidence in the air campaign, that the air campaign can accomplish our objectives," said National Security Council spokesman David Leavy. The peacekeeping force now being assembled, he said, "is not a vanguard for a ground invasion."

    White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, briefing reporters today as Clinton began a five-day vacation on Florida's northeast coast, said there's increasing evidence that "the air campaign is biting and impacting Milosevic." He said the president received his usual daily NSC briefing and made one Kosovo-related phone call, but otherwise spent the day biking, golfing and reading at White Oak Plantation, where his wife has joined him. He said he knew of no heightened focus on the Balkans conflict in recent days.

    One key administration official said this week that difficult choices are not far off. "There's obviously going to be a crunch point coming up in the next few weeks, in which a decision on whether to begin active preparation for ground troops or not must be made," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. A ground invasion against active Serb resistance, he said, "is not in our current planning." He added, however, "The president never ruled out, categorically, ground forces in a nonpermissive environment. If we get to the point where we have to consider that as an option, we will do so."

    But a new poll indicates declining public support for such an option. The CNN/USA Today poll found that 57 percent of Americans would oppose a ground invasion if bombing fails to break the Serbs' grip on Kosovo, and 40 percent would support it. More than 80 percent would support a halt in the NATO bombing, which Russia has advocated as a spur to diplomatic efforts. The poll showed Clinton's overall approval rating at 53 percent, the lowest since mid-1996.

    Support for the NATO bombing also appears to be waning in Congress, where 16 House Democrats who previously backed the administration's policy told the Chicago Tribune they plan to release a letter to Clinton Thursday asking for a three-day halt in the airstrikes "to open the door to a peace settlement." The Senate, however, voted 77 to 21 tonight against a move by Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.), who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, to cut off funds for U.S. participation in the bombing campaign.

    As he vacations, Clinton continues to work for NATO solidarity in the face of growing resistance to a ground war, especially among the Germans and Greeks. He telephoned German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Monday and Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema this morning, Lockhart said.

    A senior administration official said that Germany this week said while it could not take part in a ground invasion of Kosovo, it "would not stand in the way" if other NATO countries decided to.

    One White House official said two hopeful British newspaper articles were "rattling around the NSC" this week. One claimed that about 3,000 Yugoslav reserve troops had refused to return to Kosovo after a home leave. The other was by a prominent military historian who said the bombing campaign is working.

    Those who have spoken with the president in recent days say he seems confident in the air campaign. "I think the administration continues to be quite encouraged by the intelligence reports they're getting on the circumstances," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview this week after he and other Democrats met with Clinton in the White House. "I think their intention is to stay the course."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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