Has President Clinton beaten not only the Serbs but the pundits?

If the Western peace plan accepted yesterday by Slobodan Milosevic takes hold--a major if, to be sure--it will bring down the curtain on the media's 73-day military miniseries, freeing reporters to head for the beach. Could it also mean that all the commentators who castigated the White House for utterly and completely bungling the war might say they were wrong?

Not a chance.

"Can anybody out there tell me who won?" Oliver North asked on his conservative radio show. The answer, he said, was "partly Slobo. . . . He got what he wanted. . . . Slobodan Milosevic set out to do one thing: drive the Kosovar Albanians from their homelands. He has done so."

Rather than credit "our beloved impeached leader," North said the war "may be ending just in time to save Al Gore's hide."

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, which has urged the use of ground troops, said: "Even if Clinton wins a decent deal from Milosevic, he's not going to go down as our Churchill or Eisenhower. It's been a creepy and cowardly war. . . . The original goal, saving the Kosovars, was lost in the first several weeks. When 90 percent of the people were chased out of their homes, that was what the war was designed to stop."

Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, who strongly argued the need for ground troops, was more gracious. "Sure it's a victory for Clinton," he said. "It's also a victory for Republicans who supported the war, which is not a majority. . . . Some congressional Republicans look pretty silly. There will be a temptation among some conservatives to be niggling in praising Clinton, and that would be a mistake."

As for his own prognostications: "I thought ground troops would be necessary. I think the threat of them helped in the last two or three weeks. I probably underestimated the efficacy of air power alone."

One former Clintonite didn't hesitate to indulge in a full gloat. "The punditocracy in Washington has not been this wrong on something this important since way back in the dark days of impeachment," said Paul Begala, North's co-host on MSNBC's "Equal Time." "For the partisans, their hatred of Clinton trumped their love of country. They just hate Bill Clinton. . . . By God, they were wrong. We stood up to ethnic cleansing without losing a single soldier or airman in combat."

The bombing of Yugoslavia in late March provided a sequel for a press corps that had been transfixed by 13 months of Monica Lewinsky and impeachment and needed a new drama. Journalists from around the world were dispatched to Belgrade, "Crisis in Kosovo" logos were prepared, specials and town meetings hastily arranged.

But the media seem to have tired of the story lately; Day 60 or 70 of the bombing is not quite as compelling as Day 2 or 3. The refugee story gradually faded. Even the calamities, such as the NATO bombing of another hospital or train or bridge, were treated in more routine fashion. A growing share of ink and air time was devoted to Campaign 2000 and Hillary 2000.

In the war's first four weeks, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the CBS, NBC and ABC evening news together averaged 23 stories a night on Kosovo. In the following three weeks--a period that coincided with the Littleton shootings--the average number of stories dropped to 11 each night. And from May 12 through June 1, the networks aired seven war stories a night.

Even yesterday, echoing the administration's caution, the cable networks appeared as interested in Wednesday's plane crash in Little Rock and Hillary Rodham Clinton's all-but-certain Senate bid as in the news that Balkans peace might be at hand.

The post-deal dissection of the peace plan--and, for the moment, the bombing continues--is no simple affair. To paraphrase the president, it depends on what the definition of "victory" is. And it depends on each commentator's stance on the war.

Tony Blankley, the former Newt Gingrich spokesman, opposed the war on grounds that national security was not jeopardized and NATO would be damaged. "There's a fairly simple measure of success--whether the vast majority of Kosovars can return to their homes," he said. "Then we'll be able to judge whether the president racked up a victory or not. It would be nice to wrap it all up by the evening news, but I think we have to wait."

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page feared a Vietnam-style debacle and backed a negotiated partition of Kosovo. "I'm still a little skeptical; the devil's in the details," he said.

Page said there had been "a sense in the pantheon of punditry that this was just a disaster building up toward a quagmire, and all of a sudden we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We may see an interesting bit of pundit spin. The I-knew-it-all-along line shifts from 'the bombing's not going to work' to 'they weren't that far apart anyway.' "

So what will the critics say now? "There are two competing impulses at play," Blankley said. "One is never publicly admit you're wrong. And the other is not to be on the losing side of a conventional consensus. I'm not sure which of those sentiments will trump the other, but it will be fun to watch."

CAPTION: Oliver North says Slobodan Milosevic "got what he wanted," the Kosovar Albanians driven out.