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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Clinton: Making peace with war

By Michael Duffy

March 29, 1999
Web posted at: 11:27 a.m. EST (1627 GMT)

TIME magazine

A few years ago, a colleague and I asked Bill Clinton if he'd ever been in a fistfight. Yes, the President said, he'd been in a scrap in the eighth grade, when he was being hassled by a neighborhood bully who was smaller than Clinton but had been after him for some time. Clinton felt sorry for the boy--he had problems at home. Clinton didn't want to hit him and tried to ignore him. But one day, after being bothered by the boy for half an hour, Clinton hauled off and smacked the kid.

Clinton insisted the story was "very revealing." Listening to him, it was hard not to think of shaggy dogs. But apocryphal or not, the story does tell you everything you need to know about the President's attitude toward force. He doesn't like it, isn't comfortable with it, and will avoid using it until the last moment. And so last week, when he finally had to take action against Slobodan Milosevic, he first had to make peace with going to war.

As the downing of a U.S. jet shows, the attack on Serbia is easily the riskiest and most complex military action of Clinton's presidency, his biggest roll of the dice. U.S. interests in Kosovo are murky, the coalition is fragile, the terrain unforgiving, and the enemy holds a lot of cards. And if you look closely, you can see the unmistakable damage from impeachment: the public is behind him by a thinner than normal majority as the operation begins. Credibility abroad begins at home.

It has taken six years of using force around the globe for Clinton to overcome his instinct not to use force at all. The dovish part of the President, his make-love-not-war part, is so deeply ingrained that his advisers no longer bother to deny it. He really believes that we all could get along fine if only he were around to lead us in a big conflict-resolution workshop. He normally keeps that stuff under wraps, but it was on display last Tuesday in a mostly ad-libbed speech at a conference of government unions. "I want us to live in a world," he said, "where we get along with each other, with all of our differences."

Hard-liners called that speech the worst name they could think of--"sentimental"--and made noise about how real men know that foreign policy has always been a choice of lesser evils. But that's exactly what Clinton was saying last week. He knows from his experience in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995 that Milosevic understands only force. The dirty little secret is that it's taken Clinton several years to realize that. It's impossible to know if last year's Balkan bloodshed might have been diminished had Clinton acted faster. But when Milosevic massed troops on the Kosovo border two weeks ago, Clinton faced a choice between his instincts and his experience, between doing nothing and doing something he had only recently learned how to do. "The dangers of acting," Clinton said Wednesday night, "are far outweighed by the dangers of not acting."

If Clinton has absorbed the lessons of force, it barely shows. His speech came late in the game, as the bombs began to fly; his aides were feeding his last fixes into the TelePrompTer with five minutes to go. He didn't look comfortable when he spoke, and the tension didn't abate later. On Friday, when his aides asked him about another matter, he took their heads off. That's revealing too.


Cover Date: April 5, 1999

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