The post-Monica presidency

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The Independent Culture
WHO WOULD have believed that within a month of Monica Lewinsky's television interview, America would have put a whole year of sordid presidential scandal and constitutional angst so firmly in its place? But as the United States goes to war, the smallness, the meanness and the sheer anatomical awfulness of the White House sex saga reveal it for what it was: a domestic distraction.

The war is real. You would not necessarily know that from the television screen. The programmes labelled "White House in Crisis" have faded noiselessly into "Kosovo in Crisis" - the nightly tale of displaced people and military folk. The parade of confident blonde lawyers on the talk shows has given way to a posse of equally confident armchair generals.

But the people know. No one has mentioned Wag the Dog - except the Serbs. Belgrade television aired the (American) film - which tells how a compromised President fabricated a "virtual" war with, of all places, Albania - just as the all-clear sounded after the first night of Nato bombing.

It was a neat propaganda point scored by beleaguered Serbia, but it was lost on Americans. They were rallying around their Commander-in-Chief. You remember: the one supposedly so discredited by his Oval Office frolics that he had lost all respect; the one who would be for ever pictured on his Kennedy-esque rocking-chair being ministered to by Monica; the one who sanctioned the dismissal of soldiers for lying about adultery while he was bearing equally false witness to all America; the one who said that it all depended on what the definition of "is" is?

Well, somehow, between then and now, the President has re-established his credibility. Or probably, as the polls consistently testified, he never really lost it. The public did, after all, "compartmentalise" his sins. He ordered his troops into battle and they obeyed. The same people who questioned his motives for bombing Sudan and Afghanistan last summer and Iraq in December are now wrapping themselves in the flag. And even as his cabinet fights about who gave or ignored what advice about dealing with the Serbs and saving the Kosovars, the President himself has seemed to float above the fray.

He has looked weary, at times preoccupied, but never wavering, at least not in public. The impression being given - which is, of course, carefully cultivated - is that if advice was ignored, whether on the effect of the air strikes or the scale of the exodus, it was for the noblest of reasons. And the unspoken message is one whose truth will never be proved beyond doubt: if Nato had not acted when it did, there would have been carnage on an epic scale; those hundreds of thousands of dispossessed people would not now be in exile, they would have died.

"We have a lot of tough questions to answer about this operation," Mr Clinton told reporters early on, acknowledging misgivings in his own camp, "and I am quite sure that we cannot answer every one to everyone's satisfaction." But, he went on, "I would far rather be standing here answering these questions, with these people [members of his cabinet and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] talking about this endeavour, than I would to be standing here having you ask me why we are permitting a wholesale ethnic slaughter, and `ethnic cleansing', and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and not lifting a finger to do anything about it."

Both Mr Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, exude the sense that they are trying to replay the history of the Second World War and give it a different ending before the century is out. For Ms Albright one factor may have been the loss of family in Nazi concentration camps and her own flight to the United States.

For Mr Clinton, there may be alongside the moral concern to avert anything resembling a new Holocaust, a desire to rebut accusations that have dogged his presidency, and especially his foreign policy: that his actions abroad have been dictated not by any higher purpose, but by the polls; that he is not the visionary shaper of the world that maybe he had hoped to be, but a mere manager of crises that his neglect helped create, and that he has no policy, only reactions.

Whether genuine or fabricated after the event, the Administration's argument that Nato is - or was - trying to stop the extermination of the Albanian Kosovars before it was too late, is hard to disprove.

Not even the evidence that is before us of an appalling misreading of President Milosevic's intentions and unconscionable suffering on the part of Kosovo's Albanians refutes the argument that - at least on this occasion - Mr Clinton's intentions were honourable.

And it is quite possible that Mr Clinton will be able to stick with this argument to the end. In the unlikely event that Nato retreats from its objective of bombing Serbia into loosening its hold on Kosovo, Mr Clinton can say that he did his very best - but (and any one of these would suffice) an insufficient number of Allies/ Americans/ Congressmen had the stomach needed for the fight, and he is regretfully stepping back.

He can even turn the biggest miscalculation of all to his advantage, arguing that it was the miscalculation of an innocent; he just could not believe so ill of anyone, even Mr Milosevic, that he would drive almost the whole Albanian population of Kosovo from their homes.

More likely, though, such arguments will not be needed. Nato will - in Mr Clinton's words - "persist and prevail"; at least, it will reach a point where it can claim to have done so. In that case, he will stand vindicated before the doubters in his Administration, in the military, in Congress, and in the Alliance, at least until the bills - and not just the financial ones - start rolling in.

For Mr Clinton personally, the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict could be positive if it helps to restore the missing moral element to his presidency. But it will probably be less kind to others. Those in the Administration who questioned the wisdom of the military operation will appear churlish, almost regardless of the outcome. If the operation is not deemed a success, a particular loser could be Vice-President Al Gore, not because he expressed doubts about the enterprise - on the contrary, he has been responsible for some of the most fiercest, and most simplistic, rhetoric about Slobodan Milosevic - but because he will be associated with the failure rather than the moral leadership.

In the longer term, there will be calls for explanations that go beyond the immediate questions of why Milosevic's intentions were so badly misread and why the extent of the exodus from Kosovo was not anticipated. There will be questions about whether it was wise for the United States to get itself into a position where its money, if not its troops, will be required to help protect the Kosovar Albanians for years if they return home. There will be questions about the damage done to the West's relations with Russia, where resentment of US and Nato action could extend into the next generation and beyond.

So long as he does not lose his nerve and forsake the moral high ground, Mr Clinton could well emerge from what must be one of the sorriest diplomatic and military miscalculations of the past two decades with his personal authority enhanced and his presidential legacy rehabilitated. That there had been warnings of the pitfalls ahead from the Pentagon and intelligence services only makes that positive judgement more, not less, likely. Not Monica, but Kosovo will define his two terms at the White House; not making love, but waging war - and a war that a consensus on both sides of the Atlantic sees, for the time being at least, as just.