The Balkans Truce: Once again, Clinton comes up smelling of success

US Cabinet
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The Independent Online
ALLOWING HIMSELF a slight smile in public for the first time since Yugoslavia signalled its acceptance of a Kosovo settlement, President Clinton held out the prospect yesterday of a swift end to the bombing and said he hoped the withdrawal of Serbian troops could be arranged "professionally and expeditiously.

"There is an enormous oportunity to be seized," he said of Kosovo's future. "We are moving from defeating something evil to creating something good." Mr Clinton's guarded optimism at two public appearances in Washington was in marked contrast to the wariness with which he and other members of the US administration had responded to news of the Yugoslav parliament's vote the previous day. And it was accompanied by a show of unity in the US administration not seen since the earliest days of the Nato bombardments. After conspicuously falling away from public defence of the military operation, the cabinet was back in front of the cameras, welcoming the agreement, warning of possible pitfalls and implicitly claiming some of the credit.

The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, her deputy Strobe Talbott, the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, and Vice-President Al Gore were all out and about associating themselves with the likely end of the conflict. Their emergence, and their identically worded expressions of cautious hope, recalled the choreographed shows of unity at the start of the conflict. The chief of staff of the US Air Force, General Michael Ryan, for his part celebrated the success of the air-only operation in a "We told you so" article for The Washington Post.

These reappearances signified their survival after the rounds of institutional sniping that followed each setback. It was "Madeleine's war", when the first bombings triggered the mass exodus of refugees. It was White House timidity that was blamed when President Milosevic failed to capitulate within days. It was the overly gung-ho attitude of the US air force that was blamed for mis-hits on refugee convoys and non-military buildings. Only the CIA - which was blamed for the erroneous bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the diplomatic fracas that followed - and the National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, under a cloud from the Chinese spy scandal, were noticeably absent from the feast.

If the US administration is emerging from the conflict battered, but intact, and Mr Clinton with his reputation as a risk-taking strategist and politician enhanced, the Republicans were negotiating yet another setback. Divided during the conflict between isolationists who felt the military intervention a mistake and those who advocated much tougher use of armed force, they criticised Mr Clinton variously for committing US troops to a long-term involvement in the Balkans, for giving in too easily to President Milosevic, and for extending the conflict by not attacking heavily enough at the start.

Among the fiercest critics were Republican presidential candidates, among them Elizabeth Dole, who warned that "the Clinton-Gore administration may consider acceptance of a command structure that is not under Nato control". She implied, (with little evidence), that the US could delegate authority over its troops to the United Nations, a relinquishing of national control that is anathema to Republicans.

Her fears were echoed by George W Bush, while the former Vice-President Dan Quayle, who is again a presidential candidate, accused Mr Clinton of being forced to negotiate because of falling poll numbers.

While Mr Clinton will probably be judged a winner, the implications for Al Gore depend on the progress of the peace. If Kosovo is successfully pacified and there is an orderly return of refugees, he will benefit by association with success. If things go wrong, Mr Gore could find his campaign for the presidency suffering.

Also biding their time were the military top brass. In comments almost buried in his first response to Yugoslavia's apparent capitulation, Mr Clinton insisted that he retained confidence in his chiefs of staff. In other words, the chiefs were safe, at least for the time being; heads would not roll.