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Jewish World Review June 7, 1999 /23 Sivan 5759

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Facts on the ground

(JWR) ---- (
IN AN EARLIER FOREIGN-POLICY crisis in the Clinton administration, advisers were discussing how to spin the story to the public. Someone interjected with a report about the facts on the ground. There was silence. Then someone started talking about how to pitch the story on the Sunday news shows. The approach tells us something about the priorities for foreign and military policy in this administration. Spin comes first. Facts on the ground come second.

The White House spinmeisters won't have a hard time with the Kosovo agreement. The line is simple: Bill Clinton stood up against war criminals; stood fast against criticism and continued the bombing; faced down Milosevic, and skillfully orchestrated the negotiations that resulted in his capitulation. Never mind the fact that when Clinton began the bombing he could not tell Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema what he would do next if Milosevic did not immediately accept the Rambouillet terms. Never mind that by ruling out ground troops he gave Milosevic the time and space to expel 800,000 Kosovars and massacre thousands of others. Never mind that the world's foremost military power flew 31,000 sorties, dropping 20,000 bombs and missiles on a country with a third-rate military. And never mind that what we have at this writing is words on a piece of paper. Milosevic has reneged on agreements before and may again. This agreement may mark not the end of a negotiation but the transition point between ethnic cleansing and ethnic warfare.

But Americans' relief that Americans are, for a time anyway, no longer under fire, and that most if not all of our goals are on the way to being achieved, will undoubtedly help Bill Clinton and his would-be political heirs, Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the bombing of Kosovo continued with no apparent result, Clinton's job rating dropped to 53 percent–an acceptable level, but well below the 70 percent approval he was receiving during the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings. Look for the job rating to rise again. Even more important for the Clintons and Gore, the Kosovo involvement was creating a sense that things are out of control. One reason surely for the very high levels of satisfaction with the direction of the nation, registered in the strong incumbent showings in the elections of 1996 and 1998, has been a sense that the United States has things under control. A vague but growing sense that things were out of control, and that the United States was facing new threats, was contributing to Clinton's rather low foreign-policy ratings even before bombing began March 24.

The spin will now be that everything is under control. But the facts on the ground are rather different. Even if the Kosovo agreement is carried out, U.S. troops will be employed as policemen for years to come, increasing the strain on operational tempo that has in the last year pulled military recruiting and retention down below the levels needed to maintain the high quality that was so apparent in the gulf war. The argument is made that this is just a result of the booming economy, and Congress and the administration will solve it with a pay increase. Well and good. But some argue that the Clinton administration's peacekeeping emphasis and increasing feminization of the military have made it unattractive to the kind of young men inclined to enlist; they note that the Marine Corps, which one Clinton Pentagon appointee called "extreme," has continued to meet its quotas.

Vulnerability. Nor is our position around the world as secure as almost everyone assumed 12 months ago. The Cox Commission report issued last month and the Rumsfeld Commission report issued last July show a far scarier view of the world than the one underlying administration spinning and policymaking. Both were written with full access to intelligence sources, and both were issued with the unanimous endorsement of serious Republicans and Democrats who often disagree on policy.

The Cox report shows us that China stole the design of small nuclear weapons, got help from U.S. companies in developing guidance systems for aiming its missiles and, since 1996, with administration approval, has purchased 600 high-performance computers. This means that China has the capability to build, deliver and test nuclear weapons that can hit all of East Asia and, within 10 to 20 years, much of the United States.

The Rumsfeld report showed that rogue states like North Korea, Iran, and (not as quickly) Iraq could "inflict major destruction on the U.S." with missile attacks within five years of deciding to do so, a choice they may already have made, since we have no way of monitoring their preparations. To defend against such attacks, the United States can do nothing, since we have no ballistic-missile defense; the Clinton administration has opposed it for fear it would violate the abm treaty signed in 1972 with the Soviet Union.

These look like sunny times for the spin doctors; they look like difficult times for serious policymakers. For suddenly we face dangers of daunting proportions for which we are unprepared, just as we were for a ground war against a derisory military power in Kosovo–and we may not always be so lucky.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the annual Almanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©1999, Michael Barone