Although the Kosovo war finally seemed over yesterday, most Americans were not celebrating with a party in Times Square. They remained wary, ambivalent, unsure and disconnected -- as they have been from the start.
This was not a victory, many said. This was -- what? There seemed, at this early stage of peace, no real sense of who won and what will happen next. Polls taken last weekend, as peace talks opened and then faltered, found that Americans were worried the engagement might have been a mistake; that the Yugoslav leadership could not be trusted; that Americans should not die as peacekeepers. In interviews around the nation yesterday, there was still no sense that a great battle has ended, but instead that a strategic-diplomatic sideshow was, maybe, over.
Many of those interviewed expressed worry about what the refugees from Kosovo will see when they return home and what they will do. Others feared the United States could become mired in the Balkans for years -- "another Vietnam," said one. There was ambivalence about the bombing and its toll on civilians. And there was a lot of wariness about whether peace will hold and whether Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will continue to threaten stability in the Balkans.
Standing outside a noon showing of the latest "Star Wars" film, Lynn Ashby, 42, a mortgage broker out with her children on summer break, confessed, "It's like this movie: You feel like it took place in a galaxy far, far away and in some other time."
Ashby said she watched the conflict unfold, more at first and less later. "I cared a lot about the refugees," she explained. "You could feel their stress. But when I read more about it, I begin to wonder, what would have happened if we didn't bomb? Would it have been better or worse?"
Danielle Samulon, 24, a law student doing a summer internship in Los Angeles, said: "It became a horrible price to pay to accomplish [peace and a return of the refugees], but personally I think it was necessary. That's affirmed by the fact that all NATO countries contiguous to the battlefields agreed. No one likes war and no one likes people to die. I do want to know how many people got killed."
"I'm curious about what will happen to Milosevic. Will the problem be solved if he's still in power?" said Chung Han, 33, a lawyer in Samulon's firm who noted that strife between the different ethic groups is "so embedded in their psyches" that reconciliation will be difficult, if not impossible.
"[President] Clinton entered this whole fray without a defined exit strategy, but he got out all right," said Doug Thorpe, also a lawyer at the firm, who was eating lunch with his colleagues.
In Colorado, where voters worried that Clinton's decision to intervene in Kosovo would lead to a Vietnam-like quagmire in the Balkans, the president got credit -- sometimes grudgingly -- for the successful conclusion of the air war, and his Republican critics in Congress were judged harshly for trying to score political points from the crisis.
Mary Jo Deming, a ski instructor from Silverthorne, Colo., who describes herself as a moderate Republican, said the president and his advisers "should get a lot of credit" for a decisive intervention that claimed no American lives.
"Looking at the history of the Balkans," said Deming, "it was better to nip it in the bud."
With an allied victory safely in hand, Republicans on Capitol Hill, she predicted, will now engage "in a lot of backpedaling" and "say they supported it."
Erin Small, a graphics designer in Denver, said that faced with what she said was a "no-win" situation, Clinton "handled it the best he could." Republican critics of the administration policy, she said, were really looking to wound Clinton politically after failing to remove him from office.
But for some Coloradans, distrust of Clinton runs deep, and not even a successful foray in Kosovo can erase that. "Anything our president does is tainted, is wrong," said Jack Henley, an attorney from western Colorado. "I have no knowledge of what our objectives were [in Kosovo], but I do know the man cannot be trusted."
Similarly, Brian Murray, a guest ranch operator from north-central Colorado, gave Clinton little credit because he thinks the United States had little business intervening in the first place.
"I would have preferred it had never taken place," said Murray, on his way to see the new "Star Wars" movie with his young son. "There are a lot of hot spots all over the world, but we should take care of our problems first. If we put the money we spent in Kosovo into our own country, we'd be better off."
Bill Reynolds, a banker at a Central City, Colo., gambling casino, had similar reservations, worrying about an entanglement that could have led to a wider war in Europe. "I . . . didn't want my son to go," Reynolds said.
Burt Scott, a bartender from Manhattan, read about Wednesday night's Knicks game on his perch on a sunny rock in Central Park -- and expressed concern for the refugees from Kosovo.
"There's going to be a lot more suffering than people imagined at the beginning as far as the refugees getting back to their land, to their homes, to what family they have left. Restarting their lives is going to take a long time, years even," Scott said.
Although Scott did not think the bombing campaign was the best option, he said he did not know what else Clinton and NATO could have done. "That guy," he said, referring to Milosevic, "didn't seem like he wanted to negotiate. So like most things in life, you're between a rock and a hard place."
Before starting a run around the park's outer loop, John Winkopp, an airline pilot from Weston, Fla., paused to consider what would happen next.
"This will be perceived as a victory for Clinton, but I don't think it is," Winkopp said. "I think this sets a dangerous precedent -- that we can fight wars without risking lives. The American people are going to expect this: Whenever we have to fight, we won't lose lives. I'm not for losing lives, but war can be an ugly thing. From 30,000 feet up, it doesn't seem as ugly as it really is."
"Is this a victory? Yes and no. It's good because Clinton put a stop to it, but I have a little doubt about the Serbs keeping the terms," said Lenny Lin, an engineer for the New York City Transit Authority. "That remains to be seen."
South Floridians were tepid about the war in Yugoslavia being over and united in a conviction the United States probably should not have been there in the first place.
"Sometimes you have to control bad by war," said George Seife, 25, a clothing store manager. "But, here, I think that too often America focuses on other countries more when we should be focusing on our own country, on our own problems. We got into this for political reasons, and innocent people are being killed for political reasons."
Daniel Bueno, a 24-year-old cargo broker, was on his way to Office Max for some lunchtime shopping. "I think it's great that it is over, but it's not really over is my guess," he said. "It's another Iran-Iraq thing, where they aren't really going to pull out. I don't want to see a U.S. security force there; we've have bad experiences with that in Somalia. It puts us in danger; our guys are standing targets."
Wink Jackson, 60, a former Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam, was dropping off mail at the post office in his new Volkswagen Beetle. "Politically, I'm pleased at the end of the war, but it is the beginning of another problem, which is the inherent problem of outside forces in an occupied territory and arriving at ultimate, long-term solutions." he said. "But I am glad our guys are coming back without a single loss."
CAPTION: Danielle Samulon, right, a law student and intern, talks about the Kosovo conflict over lunch in Los Angeles with lawyers Karen Bray, left, and Chung Han.