Will America crack?

While the US stands high in military might, on the human front it is infinitely vulnerable
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The Independent Culture
AMERICA AWOKE yesterday to find its worst fears confirmed. Three US soldiers, reported missing on the Macedonian-Yugoslav border the previous evening, had been captured by Serbian forces and paraded on Belgrade television as prisoner-hostages. Such pictures, as any American president knows, have the power to turn the tide of a war, declared or not; to shake, if not in fact topple, the President.

The military significance of the incident for the Nato operation against President Milosevic is negligible; the loss of one small, Jeep-like vehicle and three rank-and-file soldiers - a private and two NCOs - will not tip the scales of advantage one way or another. In terms of public morale in the US, however, the impact is potentially cataclysmic.

The change in the American mood was immediately palpable. The networks' normally irrepressibly cheerful breakfast anchors were solemn. Reporters in the field seemed deflated. From Aviano air force base in Italy came reports of a pervasive disappointment that the concerted rescue mission had failed. The fact is that while the US stands head and shoulders above any other country in terms of its military might, on the human front it is infinitely vulnerable - and its enemies well know that.

The first real setback for the United States in the Nato operation in Yugoslavia - and a genuine military loss - was the downing of the F-117A Stealth plane on only the third day of air strikes. In propaganda terms, however, the humiliation caused by the loss of the plane was more than outweighed by the textbook rescue of the pilot. Serb pictures of the burning wreckage and its insignia were neutralised in American opinion by reports of the pilot's joyous return to his base.

In the hours before the rescue mission was declared successful, there had been dark mutterings from the ubiquitous military strategists who have taken over from the lawyers as media experts that, if the rescue failed, it would probably be better for the pilot to be dead than captured. Dead, he would be a hero; captured, he would be a liability. Short of a spectacular rescue to pluck the three men from their captors, something that the Yugoslav authorities will have taken every measure to prevent, the captives are now a liability to the whole Nato operation.

The coming hours will determine whether the American public is swayed by their plight to the point where support for Nato air strikes and for President Clinton starts to crack. But there were already signs that Americans were not as solidly determined to support Nato action over Kosovo to the bitter end as some Europeans, especially Britons. A Gallup poll published yesterday, but taken before the capture of the three soldiers, showed a majority in Britain supporting the deployment of ground troops if necessary, but a large majority (two-thirds) of Americans opposed.

At the start of the Nato operation, as now, polls showed support for air strikes, but not for US ground troops. Americans have become inured to involvement in low-level hostilities that do not cost lives: the air strikes on Iraq that were continuing until two weeks ago caused not a ripple in public opinion.

That lack of concern, however, was transformed within a matter of hours when American television started showing the pictures of Kosovo refugees and recounting their harrowing experiences at the hands of the Serbs. Refugee pictures have a particular resonance in the US, where millions of people have experiences of their own, or family histories, that include just such forcible eviction.

Those pictures prompted a perceptible shift in the signals sent out by the administration. Last weekend the emphasis had been on "business as usual", "no panic"; Mr Clinton spent Sunday at Camp David, and on Monday afternoon played golf. By Tuesday, though, he was making known through reporters that he was "deeply disturbed" by the scenes from the Kosovo border.

On Wednesday evening he went on television - in a one-to-one interview with Dan Rather, the "most trusted newsman in America", to reiterate his support for the Nato operation and stress his determination to see it through. Yesterday, he was scheduled to make a troop-rallying visit to the Norfolk naval base in Virginia.

The administration also spruced up its message, producing official after official to counter the growing wave of accusations that Nato was directly responsible for the refugee crisis. While this was, and remains, the Serbian propaganda line, such charges had an inescapable logic.

The wave of women and children crossing the border in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, weeping and destitute, had only begun - so far as American viewers were aware - in the wake of Nato attacks. And these pictures were hard to dispel, however forcefully and unanimously President Clinton, his Defence Secretary, his Secretary of State and others insisted that the Nato air strikes had been ordered because Serb forces were preparing to sweep Kosovo.

The Pentagon, too, whose daily military briefings had hitherto been bland and uninformative, suddenly sprang into full propaganda mode, producing senior uniformed officers and a barrage of maps, charts and photographs to show the extent of Nato air strikes, and to chronicle at least a tentative, if sanitised, balance of success and failure.

The Pentagon had been under pressure from US reporters, disappointed - and increasingly angered - not only by the lack of detail coming from the Pentagon, but by being consistently upstaged by their colleagues stationed in Europe.

While the original discrepancy between the briefings on either side of the Atlantic may have been intentionally arranged to promote Nato as the leading force behind the military action, downplay the US role, and shield the US from criticism should things go wrong, that thinking backfired. American reporters, for whom the brisk double-act of Jamie Shea and Air Commodore David Wilby had become compulsive breakfast-time viewing, were surprised and impressed by the unsuspected skill of the British briefers.

The friction between the Pentagon and other departments that has become apparent in recent days is likely to increase. The bombing of targets inside Montenegro - a part of Yugoslavia that had none the less conducted itself as neutral - has been a particular cause of discord. Mounting evidence of practical miscalculation - from running short of cruise missiles to stockpiling large quantities of food aid in areas that are now effectively behind enemy lines - has undermined confidence in the Pentagon's management.

The news yesterday morning only exacerbated that mistrust. The Pentagon evinced a marked ambiguity about which side of the border the captured soldiers had been when they were reportedly ambushed, and there was no explanation of why their car had become separated from the four-car convoy normally stipulated.

Ultimately, however, the buck stops with President Clinton, and to his credit he has not (yet) tried to pass it. His fate is now in the hands of ordinary Americans, no less than it was over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. If Americans are content to regard the three soldiers as unfortunate casualties of war, and no more are taken captive, and President Milosevic is forced to retreat, he may emerge as the strong national leader he aspires to be.

If, however, the public panics about the capture of the three soldiers and elevates them into national martyrs, Mr Clinton could quickly find himself in a position not dissimilar to that of Jimmy Carter over the US hostages in Iran, where his every action and statement is conditioned by their fate. Then, instead of being remembered as a President who failed because of a foolish sexual dalliance and the lies it spawned, he could find himself remembered as a President who failed for a truly presidential reason: a major political and military misjudgement.