Undaunted by the cease-fire in Yugoslavia, Republicans on Capitol Hill found new ways yesterday to find fault with President Clinton, accusing him of producing a "humanitarian disaster" for the people of Kosovo and costly new burdens for Americans in pursuit of a shaky military victory.
"The administration grossly miscalculated the [Yugoslav] response and the result was a humanitarian disaster," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.), in an assessment widely heard in GOP circles. "If the administration calls this `winning,' then what we're winning is that we get to occupy Kosovo at the cost of billions of dollars and we get to be in Kosovo for no telling how long," he added.
"It's a relief, not a victory," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).
But there were limits to how far the Republicans would go. Embarrassed by a series of conflicting votes at the war's start, the House backed off a confrontation with Clinton over spending for the forces that the United States and its NATO allies are sending to Kosovo this week to keep the peace.
It did so after the president pledged in letters to all House members that he will seek Congress's approval for new funds after Sept. 30 if they are needed to avoid "harming military readiness" in other areas.
After receiving the letter, the House voted 270 to 155 to strike language from the $288 billion defense authorization bill that would have cut off funding for Kosovo before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1. After the amendment passed, the House approved the overall bill, 365 to 58.
Congress would have been the "laughingstock of the world if the [cutoff] proposal had been approved just a day after the Kosovo peace agreement was reached," said Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Even so, with a few prominent exceptions -- such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) -- Republicans refused to acknowledge the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo as a victory for the United States, NATO or Clinton, especially for the president.
While many GOP lawmakers argued earlier that an air war was bound to fail, they conceded that it worked, but contended that better diplomacy would have won the same terms without airstrikes. They also said that Clinton prolonged the war by failing to prosecute it forcefully enough from the start.
"After 11 weeks of bombing, we have less world stability than we had when we started . . . we have a settlement we could probably have had at the start," Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) said during yesterday's House debate. "If this is victory, what would defeat look like?"
This kind of political call to arms has provided a rallying point for Republicans who are tired of seeing Clinton escape what they regard as the consequences of his own flawed policies, actions and character, first on impeachment and now on Kosovo.
But even some strong GOP sympathizers question the political wisdom of the strategy, especially if the peace holds.
"This strikes me as really dumb politics," said Robert Kagan, who served in the State Department in the Reagan administration and is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "This is a pretty big victory, and Republicans have to be careful about appearing to be unhappy with success," just as Democrats got a reputation as grumpy naysayers in the 1980s, he added.
Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Republicans run the risk of looking like "sore losers" and attributed their tactics to frustration with Clinton's political resilience. "Every time they back him into a corner he somehow emerges unscathed. . . . One day he's in a military quagmire and the next day he has a great political success."
The Republicans would be far better off if they followed the example of the Democrats during debate over the Persian Gulf War, when they opposed sending troops but immediately swung behind the operation after they lost, Wittmann said. "One thing you don't do in American politics is question a victory by American troops."
Among the relatively few Republicans who have described the Kosovo peace agreement as a victory was Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a Vietnam prisoner of war and candidate for the presidential nomination. "We can argue about whether we should have become involved in this conflict and about how we prosecuted the war, but we should all agree that our victory is very good news for the United States, NATO and the world," he said in a statement Wednesday.
Warner quoted Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine, as praising the president for steadfastness during the war and implied that he agreed, which is about as close as any Republican came to giving any credit to Clinton.
In the House, Hastert said he was "thrilled, very, very happy" with the peace agreement but warned, as many other lawmakers of both parties have done, that Europe must pick up most of the cost of peacekeeping and rebuilding in the Balkans.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) stopped short of Hastert's enthusiasm and Nickles's condemnation, but he was largely critical. There can be no real victory so long as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power, he told reporters earlier this week.
Lott tried to draw a distinction with President George Bush's failure to dislodge Iraq's Saddam Hussein from power in the Gulf War. "As we say in Mississippi, there's nothing that can be learned from the second kick of a mule . . . and this is the second kick," he said.