Peace In The Balkans: Agreement vindicates Clinton's quiet faith

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The Independent Online
WITHIN AN hour of Javier Solana's announcement that he had suspended the bombing, and within minutes of Tony Blair's statement from London, President Bill Clinton appeared in the White House briefing room to welcome the start of the Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo and hail the "resolve and unity" of Nato.

Mr Clinton gave one of the most confident and low-key statements of his presidency. Expressing his gratitude to Nato leaders and the mediators, to the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, to the US Congress, to the absent Madeleine Albright, and especially to the US military, Mr Clinton said that the apparent Serbian capitulation was a vindication.

Referring to the Kosovo refugees, he said: "Their only hope was that the world would not turn away in the face of ethnic cleansing and killing, that the world would take a stand. We did for 78 days. Because we did, the Kosovars will go home."

To Mr Clinton's left were the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the US armed forces, General Hugh Shelton; to his right, the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, and the White House chief of staff, John Podesta.

After the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the setbacks early in the Nato military operation - notably the unexpected exodus of Kosovo refugees - it would be tempting to see this tableau of administration unity, military-political solidarity, and undisguised satisfaction in a mission accomplished as marking Mr Clinton's rehabilitation as President. Tempting - but perhaps premature.

Nevertheless, after six years in the White House, Bill Clinton performed well throughout the Kosovo campaign, picking and choosing from the advice he was given, selecting a course - an air campaign - that would minimise US and allied casualties, coping with the setbacks and the criticism, and determined to the end.

The expulsion of the Kosovars, which provoked a storm of condemnation in the United States, seemed to make him more determined to pursue the revised war aims - not just protecting the refugees, but getting them home. Asked yesterday if Mr Clinton felt "vindicated", his spokesman said: "He always felt that the air campaign was the right way forward and never wavered."

There was a quiet assurance about Mr Clinton in the three months of the Kosovo operation that made the military intervention seem less like a crisis and more like the reasonable and right thing to do.

His rhetoric had little of Tony Blair's gung-ho acceptance of combat and casualties, and this may have lulled Americans into premature boredom - television ratings for the war fell dramatically after the first six weeks. But he kept the return of the Kosovars constantly in American sights and showed the same quiet confidence yesterday.

He had the huge advantage that he will not stand for office again. The only hint of hesitation - his late readiness to consider ground forces - seemed to reflect concern for his chosen successor, Al Gore, who faced the prospect of campaigning for the presidency, like Hubert Humphrey, with his former boss's unfinished war round his neck.

Mr Clinton was also fortunate that congressional criticism came from both sides - from those who wanted swifter, tougher action and those who wanted no action at all - and that the Republican Party was divided. The opposition to the air-only strategy was nevertheless impressive, from successful Gulf War generals in retirement, to respected former secretaries of state and national security advisers, and - if periodic leaks are to be believed - even from serving inmates of the Pentagon.

Even public opinion, the traditional fount of Mr Clinton's support, was divided. For once, he seems to have looked askance at the "focus groups", staying confident in his own judgement. Speculation will continue over the source of Mr Clinton's strength.

Was it an internal moral sense that had deserted him through most of the Monica affair? Or outrage at the plight of the Kosovars? Or guilt about being a commander in chief who once ducked, or appeared to duck, his duty to serve?

Such arguments will persist for as long as US troops remain in the Balkans. The timetable for that, as Mr Clinton acknowledged to reporters yesterday, is open.