With US opinion wavering, a climbdown may be on the cards as the costs and dangers of escalation hit home
It was not a classic Clinton performance. The acou-stics were bad, the microphones were not working properly, and he had a cold. So when he add-ressed several thousand military personnel at Norfolk navy base in Virginia last week, the President could be forgiven for lacking a little of the oomph that he normally brings to a set-piece speech.

The tone was robust and patriotic, as he talked about the three soldiers captured by Yugoslav forces on the Macedonian border. "The United States takes care of its own," he said. But in this case, can it? And can it take care of the Albanians in Kosovo? And can the President who has bounced back from every other blow, even from impeachment, ride out the punches this time?

The latest step by the US and Britain, hitting "downtown" Belgrade with cruise missiles, ups the stakes about as far as it's possible to go without ground forces. These are cruise missiles landing in Europe, not that far from Vienna or Athens. There will be more, but what then?

All of this has hit an unsuspecting American public with some force at a time when they do not seem to have been looking for a fight. Saddam Hussein has been systematically demon-ised for a decade; and when the missiles start flying in Iraq, there is wide understanding of why, even if there are some strong disagreements about strategy. Not so Slobodan Milosevic. After all, wasn't he the man the West needed to broker a deal in Bosnia? Kosovo was not on the radar of American politics until the air strikes began. Though the crisis had been brewing for years, its complexity and distance had meant it was not a mainstream issue. If Bosnia was difficult, then this was all but impossible to parse into the language of domestic politics.

The President and his speechwriters have been trying, and to some extent succeeding. One of the main arguments that they have used is moral: the duty of the US to help the Kosovar Albanians. This, at least, resonates with the US public. But the opinion poll data suggests that Americans have far more reservations about this campaign than that waged against Iraq, that also they fear it will not work, and that it is hitting the President's poll ratings which are concerned with his competence on foreign policy.

He has had some help in staying afloat thus far. There are critics aplenty to dissect the White House arguments from the left and the right, but they cancel each other out. The conservative Washington Times had twin commentary articles on its pages last week, one demanding that the US cease the intervention, the other demanding that it put in ground forces. The public, thus far, have had no single figure putting the case against Kosovo.

This obsession with the domestic politics of the war, though, has damaging features. Supporters of the Clinton ad-ministration say it has carried out foreign policy in a pragmatic and practical fashion. Critics say it has done so in a sporadic and self-serving way. Both would agree that considerations of domestic policy come high up the agenda. There are good reasons for that; the US public, never that keen on international adventurism, no longer has the Cold War as a rationale for the deployment of forces abroad. And the stomach for using US troops diminished rapidly after Somalia. Mr Clinton's predecessor, George Bush, was a foreign policy president, and much good did it do him come the 1992 election.

But the strategy for the present campaign leaves the President uncomfortably exposed. It boils down, at the moment, to "carry on bombing". There is lots of talk about staying the course and not wobbling, of proving Nato's resolve, and so forth. But without any great new ideas about what to do next. Indeed, given the premise of the operation - Milosevic will buckle under consistent pressure - there is not much more anyone can say or do. Given the nature of the Serbian regime, there will be no sign it is about to crack until it has happened.

The capture of the three US Cavalry scouts, and the shooting down of an F-117 Stealth fighter, show that unpredictable events will occur to deflect from this strategy. These things often come in threes; another blunder and harder questions will be asked - including those about how long the US can persist without any evident results.

So far, the pictures of refugees streaming over the borders have helped the President to some extent, because they show that there is human suffering, and that there is indeed a job to be done. At some stage, however, the questions that are asked now by foreign policy professionals - Why are the refugees still coming? Why were there no plans to help them? Why assume that all this will work eventually? - will become more generally asked.

As to the question - What next? - the answer remains, more of the same. The debate about ground troops may rumble occasionally across the television screens, but there is little evidence so far that anyone in Washington has a serious commitment to taking the step. The risks are seen to be just too huge.

Arming the Kosovo Liberation Army may be a serious possibility, but that is highly unlikely to materialise, given the broader doubts in Europe.

Upping the ante, by changing the targeting, seems the easiest option. Even then, there will be problems - with some European allies, such as Italy and Greece, within the Pentagon when it comes to deploying helicopters, and on the ground in assembling the forces and then deploying them.

But the list of things that can go wrong as the war drags on is long and disturbing. The risks to the regional stability of southeastern Europe - and stability was, after all, supposed to be the main aim of the operation - grow as refugee flows increase, Montenegro is threatened, missiles fall in Bulgaria, and unrest stirs in Bosnia. The credibility of Nato - a secondary aim - is hardly buttressed if it keeps on bombing, and yet nothing happens.

The Nato summit in two weeks' time, which was supposed to be the occasion for lots of backslapping and mutual congratulation, now looks set to be a joyless affair. Relations with Russia have frequently threatened to spin out of control in the post-Cold War years, but now there is a real possibility that will happen.

So what comes next may be a climbdown. If results are not on the agenda, then it is time to declare victory and get the hell out, a tried and trusted formula in US foreign policy. The Rambouillet formula is already shredded; Nato officials speak of "international" military forces in Kosovo, not of the alliance any more; expectations are starting to be scaled down. More on these lines is likely in the coming days if some kind of resolution is not possible.

Climbdowns can be managed, smoothed out, as they have been with Iraq on a number of occasions. But the President also knows that a climb- down now will carry domestic political costs, just as an escalation carries international costs. It is a hard calculation to make, but that is the way that it will be framed within the White House: interests must be traded against each other.