On March 24, President Clinton went on television to explain the rationale for U.S. participation in the bombing of Yugoslavia. “I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war,” Clinton assured the public. A week later, Dan Rather observed that Clinton’s verbal gymnastics about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky (“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) had made people suspicious of how Clinton was “parsing” his words about Kosovo. “When you say you have ‘no intention’ to commit ground troops to accomplish the mission in Kosovo,” Rather asked Clinton, “does that mean we are not going to have ground troops in there–no way, no how, no time?”
It’s possible that Clinton can still avoid a ground war. But the probability that he will have to reverse that position–and explain his way out of it–is now at least as high as the probability was a year ago that he would have to admit to an “inappropriate” relationship with Lewinsky and explain away his previous denials. If an about-face on the question of a ground war becomes necessary, the phrase “no intention” will be only one of Clinton’s escape clauses. His promises to avoid a ground war, like his denials of the Lewinsky affair, are laced with convenient loopholes.
1.“Permissive environment.” Clinton has pledged not to send U.S. ground forces into a “hostile environment.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger have promised not to use American troops to “invade” Kosovo or enter a “combat situation.” However, administration officials have held out the possibility that U.S. soldiers would be sent into a “permissive environment.”
At first, everyone assumed that a “permissive” environment was one in which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, his will broken by the bombing, had agreed to “permit” NATO troops to enter Kosovo unchallenged. Lately, however, American officials have enlarged the meaning of “permissive.” Last Sunday, Albright acknowledged that Milosevic might never willingly yield. “There are other ways, however, to create a permissive environment,” she added. “What we are doing is systematically diminishing or degrading his ability to have that kind of control over the area.”
The next day, in a cat-and-mouse game with reporters over the meaning of “permissive environment,” Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart alternately defined it as a) “one where there is a political settlement”; and b) “an environment where the Serbs and Milosevic don’t have the ability to impose their will.” On this theory, once the Serbs’ defenses are sufficiently crippled by bombing, U.S. ground forces would enter Kosovo without significant resistance.
2.“Peacekeeping force.” In his March 24 speech, Clinton said U.S. troops would join a “peacekeeping force” to “implement” NATO’s peace plan if Milosevic accepted it. A week later, when a reporter pointed out that the peace plan was dead, Clinton insisted that the Kosovars must nonetheless be allowed to return home and live safely. “That will require, clearly, for some period of time, some sort of international force that will be able to protect their security,” Clinton conceded. U.S. officials have alternately described this entity as an “international peacekeeping force,” “international security presence,” “implementation force,” and “post-implementation force.”
But ever since the Serbs captured three U.S. soldiers snooping around the Yugoslav-Macedonian border a week ago, “peacekeeping” has become a plastic term. Clinton insisted the soldiers “were carrying out a peaceful mission in Macedonia–protecting that country from the violence in neighboring Kosovo.” The next day, when reporters asked what the soldiers had been up to, Lockhart insisted “they were left there in a peaceful and peacekeeping fashion, as a peacekeeping force.” This may be just the first of many armed confrontations NATO plans to attribute to “peace.” When asked Sunday about NATO’s plans to return Kosovar refugees to their homes, NATO’s military spokesman told CNN that the “peacekeeping forces” in Macedonia “were always planned to make sure that the Kosovar Albanians could live in peace and harmony.”
3.“Protectorate.” From the outset, Clinton stipulated that U.S. troops wouldn’t fight for Kosovar “independence,” and Albright said the United States wouldn’t impose an “occupying force” in Kosovo. Clinton told Rather it would not be “appropriate” to discuss “creating a Kosovar enclave that would keep [NATO troops] there forever.” When Rather pointed out that Clinton’s pledge to guarantee the Kosovars’ “security” amounted to the same thing, Clinton asserted that this wasn’t so and argued that he was only saying that the Kosovars were “entitled” to security. This mirrors Clinton’s favorite domestic policy spin: arguing that Americans are “entitled” to assistance or protection (e.g., a “patients’ bill of rights”) while avoiding discussion of what it will cost. Once Clinton ruled out an “enclave,” anonymous senior administration officials came up with a new phrase for the NATO-guarded territory to which the Kosovars would return: an “international protectorate.”
4.“Supporting the air campaign.” Clinton’s original promise to deliver “air strikes against Serbian forces responsible for the brutality in Kosovo” without putting “troops in Kosovo to fight a war” has proved to be self-contradictory. To hit the Serbs who are committing the brutality, NATO has to bring its forces down to the ground. The first step in this transition is the delivery of 24 U.S. Army helicopters to Albania. The helicopters are more like ground weapons than like air weapons: They will fly low over Kosovo, shoot at Serbian tanks and troops, and risk being shot down in return. That’s why they belong to the Army, not the Air Force. To protect the helicopters, the United States is also sending 18 surface-to-surface rocket launchers–indisputably a ground weapon.
To operate, service, and guard the helicopters, Clinton is supplying 2,000 Army troops, adding to the 8,000 NATO soldiers who are arriving in the region to help refugees. Everyone knows these troops are trained for combat and can be quickly converted into an invading force. Alternatively, the fuel and communications networks they will build can be used to support an invasion. U.S. officials insist that at most these troops might be dispatched to “escort” Kosovars back to their villages once “hostilities” have ended. Presumably, these are alternative euphemisms for a “peacekeeping” mission in a “permissive environment.” Nevertheless, U.S. officials assert that the helicopters and Army soldiers are “an expansion of the air operation,” “supporting the air campaign,” and “not a ground force.”
American hawks have complained for weeks that Clinton underestimated Milosevic’s rigidity. By swearing off ground forces, they argued, Clinton tied NATO’s hands, giving Milosevic confidence that he could destroy Kosovo without effective resistance. But Milosevic, in turn, may have underestimated Clinton’s agility. A president who can talk his way out of a perjury rap can talk his way into a war.