War in the Balkans: American Reaction - US concerned as the war cost reaches $500m in two weeks

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WITH THE US Congress set to reconvene on Monday after the Easter recess, politicians are gearing up for a good old-fashioned row over the mounting cost of the Kosovo operation - estimated to have reached $500m (pounds 300m) in the first two weeks.

At stake for Democrats is the Clinton administration's reputation for sound finances and their own objective of more social spending. At stake for Republicans - their much-advertised hopes for tax cuts. These preliminary skirmishes over money for the undeclared Balkan war are so far as nothing compared with the furious blame-game already washing into the public domain from the inner sanctum of the Clinton administration.

It is a fight to the death or dismissal. First out of the gate with a pre-emptive strike was the CIA, whose director, George Tenet, told friendly reporters just two days after the start of air strikes that intelligence advice to the administration had been sound. It had warned the administration in good time both about the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's malign intentions and what he was likely to do in the event that "peace" talks failed. The CIA had a particular interest in clearing its name early, as it was still smarting from the blame that attached to it a year ago after its failure to detect that India and Pakistan were about to conduct their first nuclear tests.

With President Clinton managing to remain above the immediate fray, into the dock came the Pentagon, which was blamed - perversely perhaps - for not having wanted or prepared sufficiently to fight. The joint chiefs of staff were said to have called for tougher economic sanctions in preference to military action. Shortages of air-launched cruise missiles, aviation fuel and provision for refugees were laid at their door.

The joint chiefs struck back, implying that they were hamstrung by a lily-livered White House that thought it could win a war by `immaculate coercion' - fighting exclusively from the air without US casualties. They argued that there could be no middle way: either the White House wanted a war, in which case it had to be ready for ground troops, bodybags and all, or it should forget the whole idea.

The latest scapegoat has been the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. After a rash of (Pentagon-inspired) articles claiming that it was `her' war, she took her case direct to the viewing public. On CNN's Larry King Show, she defended military action as `the only way'. Two key officials, meanwhile, have kept a judiciously low profile. The National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, who took the initial flak for the White House rejection of CIA and Pentagon advice, appeared less and less confident before the cameras in the first three-day propaganda effort by the White House and has made no subsequent public statements.

The Deputy Secretary of State, the resident Russia and regional specialist, Strobe Talbott, has been even quieter.