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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Inside Clinton's war

The President weighs his choices as Slobodan Milosevic betrays little sign of desperation amid NATO's growing assault

By Michael Duffy and Douglas Waller

April 12, 1999
Web posted at: 12:09 p.m. EDT (1609 GMT)

TIME magazine

Bill Clinton has the visage of a wartime President. He looks tired, friends say, because the war's first week kept him up virtually around the clock. Days were spent selling the war to aides and Congress, and nights were filled with chats with leaders around the world. As a bid to encourage NATO unity, Clinton told his closest counterparts, Gerhard Schroder of Germany and Tony Blair of Britain, to call him whenever the urge struck. They took him up on the offer. "He doesn't care about time zones," explains a friend. "He tells these guys, 'Call me anytime, day or night.'" Those conversations, which were frequent and interminable, abated last week, but the strain the war has taken on Clinton isn't hard to see. During Thursday night's state dinner for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, Clinton dueled with drowsiness, rubbing his eyes as cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a spirited Gershwin tune.

Clinton is settling into the fight in other ways. In the first few days of the air war against Serbia, he telephoned the Pentagon every evening to make sure all the American pilots had returned safely from their bombing runs. Two weeks later, Clinton no longer calls; the generals, he knows, will ring him if anyone gets shot down.

And last week Clinton executed the most important order of the war since its beginning on March 24: he granted a request from NATO Commander General Wesley Clark for 24 Apache helicopters and 18 long-range missile launchers. Those weapons might not sound pivotal in a war in which three different kinds of American heavy bombers have already seen action, until you consider the nearly 3,000 fully armed support G.I.s who follow those weapons everywhere they go. Even as Clinton, his aides and his allies insisted that they were not contemplating a ground war, the President was in the process of moving soldiers onto Balkan soil.

Before giving a green light to the chopper mission, the President passed the war's first week by studying Pentagon target plans, testing allied support for such a move and asking top advisers for their opinions. One weekend morning, while Clinton worked the phones with leaders overseas, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Henry Shelton shuttled for an hour between the Oval Office and the patio outside, alternately answering Clinton's questions and enjoying an incandescent spring day. Finally the aides left the President alone to decide whether to deploy the Army's air cavalry. A few minutes later, Clinton summoned Cohen and Shelton back in. "I want to go with the Apaches," he said.

If all goes according to plan--and few things in war ever do--those choppers will begin arriving this weekend in Albania. More helicopters and their accompanying troops, tanks and armored infantry carriers may follow, though the Army is still sorting out details of the deployment. Meanwhile, the allies' air war continues to accelerate. With clearing weather over the strike zone last week, NATO doubled the number of daily bombing runs, demolished several key targets and rolled over a Serbian-proposed Orthodox Easter cease-fire. Just a few weeks after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright predicted a "relatively short" campaign, Clinton and his allies are settling in for a long siege, giving war a chance to work and praying that Slobodan Milosevic may be more inclined to abandon Kosovo after weeks of bombardment.

The allies have little choice. Short of an all-out ground assault, which no one seems to want, or withdrawal, which no one can bear, the Administration contends that the only option is to increase the pressure. Which means that less than a month after it began, the Balkan mess is quickly becoming a test not only of military skills but of wills: Which side, Serbia or NATO, will first lose its stomach for war?

In that game, Milosevic has been NATO's best ally. By displacing and deporting more than a million Kosovars, he has generated worldwide sympathy for the refugees and turned an American public that was skeptical about the operation into wary believers. Pictures of thousands of refugees loaded into boxcars and stories of parents separated from their children helped NATO argue that the war is just and the enemy evil. Realizing his blunder, Milosevic last week closed the Kosovo border to refugees and drove any ethnic Albanians still trying to flee back into the province. (He then reopened the border last Friday night to force out an additional 1,500 rain-soaked Albanians.) "Milosevic played into our hands by doing disgusting things and then having them filmed," says a top NATO diplomat. "He's waking up to the fact that he's been stupid."

But he has also outmaneuvered the alliance so far. In just 10 days he has taken total control of the breakaway province, pushed more than 500,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and created a huge humanitarian problem for his enemies. He believes he can outlast NATO, letting time open rifts between hawkish nations like the U.S. and Britain and such skittish ones as Italy. Already he has scored a small--though probably unanticipated--victory, by dividing leaders of the U.S. military and diplomatic corps into bickering, rear-covering camps. CIA officials have been leaking word that they had warned the White House of the refugee problem. Pentagon officials accused NATO war planners of being too timid. Secretary of State Albright's detractors singled her out for underestimating Milosevic. Albright publicly denied the charge, but privately she seethed over the damage to her carefully cultivated image. Clinton called her with reassurances last week after an acidic piece appeared in the Washington Post. "I read the newspaper for facts," he told her, "and I didn't see any in that story."

But the second-guessing at home may have emboldened Clinton to increase the war's pace, as foreign-policy owls in both parties argued, in effect, "We shouldn't be doing this, but if we are, let's win it." Allied forces last week boosted their bombing from about 200 to 400 sorties a day, added daytime attacks to nighttime ones and started to isolate Serbian forces inside Kosovo. And Clark, looking for more firepower, has sent a long wish list to the Pentagon. After a quick trip to Brussels last week, Secretary Cohen weighed in with orders to give the general whatever he wants. The Pentagon deployed 88 more aircraft to the region over the weekend, bringing the total of aircraft there to 700.

Pentagon officials kept up the steady roll of videotapes showing imploding bunkers and damaged industrial sites, and after a 90-minute closed-door briefing Thursday afternoon, Senator John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, came away optimistic. "The degradation of his military is appreciable," he announced. That was not enough for some of Warner's colleagues. On Friday a bipartisan group of nine Senators and House members returned from a tour of NATO facilities with Defense Secretary Cohen and called on Clinton to begin to prepare allied forces for a land war and the nation for the casualties that will go with one. "It is important for the Administration to reinforce the point to the American public that NATO's efforts could require many more weeks or months to succeed," their letter to Clinton stated.

As the war's pace has increased, so have civilian casualties. Pentagon officials conceded that at least one 500-lb. bomb, apparently from a U.S. warplane, fell some 600 ft. short of its target and hit an apartment complex near Pristina, killing 10 civilians. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon called it an unfortunate but unavoidable cost of war.

No allied pilots perished in the war's first two weeks--a streak of luck that cannot last forever. The Apaches are fearsome tank killers at night, but their mission and their sensitive, high-tech gear also make them vulnerable to ground fire. Skimming low over the trees at little more than 150 m.p.h. with lights out, their pilots wearing night-vision goggles, the choppers have radar that can spot armored columns three miles away, and they can unleash 16 Hellfire missiles, plus scores of 70-mm rockets. The helicopters will be guided in to their targets by an armada of spy drones and surveillance aircraft. "It will give us," boasts Bacon, "the capability to get up close and personal to the Milosevic armor units." But it will also give the Serbs a chance to get dangerously personal as well. The slow-moving Apaches will show up like lighted Christmas trees on Serb radar.

The Pentagon knows too that the Apaches and rocket launchers won't be able to deter the irregular gangs of Serb thugs from terrorizing Albanian Kosovars any more than the supersonic aircraft have. "These are small-unit operations that are pure brutal tactics at the point of a gun or at the tip of a knife," concedes Army Colonel Joseph Kaufmann, director of the Pentagon's Balkan task force. "Consequently they're able to disperse well."

But if the strategy for war is relatively clear, the plan for halting it isn't. NATO's corridors, so recently filled with debates about whether to go into Kosovo, now echo with talk about how to get out. "Nobody has a clear crystal ball on this," admits an alliance official. The cautious compromise of Rambouillet seems a naive pipe dream in a land where compromise has been banished. Most Kosovar Albanians--to say nothing of the Kosovo Liberation Army--would never accept Belgrade rule. The White House has yet to endorse independence for Kosovo, but once Albanian Kosovars are returned, vows a senior aide, "they're going to run the place, and that's a fact."

What form that self-rule would take is still undecided. One problem is that parts of Kosovo--particularly in the north and west--contain the Serbian Orthodox Church's holiest shrines. Giving Milosevic access to the region in a postwar world would reward Serb aggression. But not letting the Serbs in might be worse, making lasting peace impossible.

The solution to that problem may be partition. Under one scenario, only a small parcel--perhaps no more than 10% of the province--would be partitioned off for Serb holy shrines and the tiny Serb population that remains. Russian troops, whom NATO wants to join the peacekeeping contingent, would supervise this area, while the alliance's soldiers watch over the rest of the province--probably for years.

Simple as it may seem to carve Kosovo up, doing so could tilt the balance of power in the Balkans. A British diplomat was worried last week that a "rump Albanian Kosovo" would be just the kind of undernourished state that would unify Albanians in countries such as Macedonia, Greece and Montenegro. That could trigger a push for a Greater Albanian state that would include parts of several nations--a one-way ticket to chaos.

One need look no further than the border refugee camps to see how fragile the Balkans remain. While conditions improved for more than half a million ethnic Albanians who had managed to flee Kosovo since the air war began, the states to which they fled were convulsed. Inside Macedonia and Montenegro, officials struggled to hold together governments stunned by the economic and social costs of the influx. Meanwhile, relief organizations scrambled to build tent cities, and NATO diverted transport planes from the war effort to rush in food, which the refugees were consuming at the rate of about 250 tons a day. About 120,000 people were to be convoyed or flown out of the Balkans for temporary resettlement around the world; the U.S. first agreed to house 20,000 refugees at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but then backed off when refugee organizations complained that the facility was too far away.

Milosevic, meanwhile, is still maneuvering to settle the crisis on his terms. His unilateral cease-fire offer last week was followed by hints that the three U.S. Army POWs he had would be freed if NATO agreed to an Easter bombing halt. NATO ruled out any suspension, and former Cypriot President Spyros Kyprianou, who flew to Belgrade to win the G.I.s' release, came home empty handed. In a classic example of wartime double-talk, Yugoslav government officials declared that "peace has been restored in Kosovo." Milosevic claimed to be "negotiating" for the Kosovars' safe return to their homes with ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova--a man who State Department officials believe is under house arrest.

Clinton dismissed Milosevic's offers as hollow and vowed that NATO "was determined to stay united." Albright was to fly to NATO headquarters in Brussels on Sunday to give 18 other foreign ministers a stay-the-course pep talk. That shouldn't be hard: public support for the operation is high in European capitals, and most of their leaders have been burned at one time or another by promises Milosevic has made and later broken.

At least one of the region's leaders--Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic--is still hoping for a quick resolution. "I believe the war is coming to an end," he told TIME. "It was good that there was some peace initiative launched from Belgrade. It was insufficient, but encouraging."

Milosevic seemed undeterred by the isolation. U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats say they've picked up no evidence that he's cracking under the bombing or considering any serious diplomatic feelers. Serbs--even as they are watching TV shows on how to explain bombing to their children--are ready to canonize him as the hero who has stood up to the world's superpower. And the White House has been careful so far not to label him explicitly a war criminal, to the relief of some NATO officials who realize the alliance may still have to negotiate with him. Asked last Thursday if he thought Milosevic was a war criminal, Clinton dodged. "The important thing to me," he said, "is to stop the killing, to stop the exodus, to see the refugees return, to see them safe, to see a solution that gives them the autonomy they were promised, to have an international peacekeeping force that will prevent this from happening again."

--With reporting by Edward Barnes/Podgorica, Johanna McGeary/Skopje and Jay Branegan, Mark Thompson and Karen Tumulty/Washington


Cover Date: April 19, 1999

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