WASHINGTON — When President Clinton sent 2,000 US troops to Haiti in 1994, two-thirds of the public was against it. Congress didn't like it either.
But the president went ahead anyway. As former aide George Stephanopoulos writes in his new book, White House polling showed the public could rally behind a limited, humanitarian mission. And Mr. Clinton felt he had to keep his word to return democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
Keeping your word; sounding the humanitarian warning; limiting engagement. Sound familiar?
Kosovo isn't exactly Haiti. Refugees are not washing up on the shores of Miami. Nor is it Iraq, Bosnia, or Somalia. But former Clinton advisers as well as military and political analysts hear the echoes of the president's other foreign-policy crises in the way he's approaching this one.
Characteristically, they say, Clinton's modus operandi in Kosovo has been to take measured steps, avoiding the risk of major loss of life to US forces. It has been far more reactive than preventive. And, they add, as with other military missions, some of the goals are vague, making it difficult to measure success.
With hundreds of thousands of refugees on the move and gruesome accounts of killings, the strategy so far has been judged a gross miscalculation on the part of the administration and its NATO allies - though it remains to be seen whether the president's renewed call for "undiminished, unceasing, and unrelenting" airstrikes will ultimately prove him right.
The stakes for his presidency are high. If Clinton loses Kosovo, the shadow of impeachment "will pale in terms of what history has to say about Bill Clinton," says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff for Clinton.
Mr. Panetta, who helped the president through Haiti, describes the commander in chief as "two presidents": a man who operates mostly on "gut" when it comes to domestic policy, but who has to make up for his discomfort with foreign policy by constantly soliciting advice from others.
After six years of listening to advisers, the president's critics say, he still mostly just reacts to crises abroad - whether in North Korea, Iraq, or the Balkans. Though his explanation to the American public was that these strikes were preemptive, others argue he waited far too long to focus on the troubles in Kosovo.
"We've been acting more like a fireman than somebody who's trying to develop insurance policies to protect against these kinds of disasters," Panetta says.
When the president does dispatch his firefighters, his goals are often vaguely defined.
Take Iraq, where the US has been waging a low-level air war since December. The point is to contain and restrain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But how, and for how long, asks Michael Turner, a former CIA official who specializes in national security at the United States International University in San Diego.
"When do you decide that your efforts have been successful? How do you evaluate them? We're not told these things."
THE same applies to Kosovo, where the president's objective to "seriously damage" Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's war machine and "deter" his ability to threaten Kosovo, is unclear, says Mr. Turner.
This week, Clinton expanded those goals - he added the safe return of refugees and protection of them through international security forces.
But it's a question whether these goals are achievable without introducing ground troops - which the president has adamantly refused to do unless Mr. Milosevic removes his Serb troops from the Kosovo region.
The bind he's now in, observers say, is classic Clinton. As in his domestic policy, his Kosovo strategy is a series of "small steps" lacking boldness, says George Edwards of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station.
Budget constraints and a Republican Congress forced a mini-agenda of school uniforms and V-chips. Likewise, public opinion and NATO's war-by-committee restrict Clinton in Kosovo.
Limiting action to an air campaign only "is what the traffic will bear," says Mr. Edwards, who derides Clinton for his lack of leadership and criticizes his Kosovo approach as "doing the minimum and hoping for the best."
But as in Bosnia, the
desperate plight of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians could turn the public to support a more interventionist policy - and provide the president the cover he might need to, say, redefine "permissive" environment and send in ground troops.
According to an April 5 ABC-Washington Post poll, this is already starting to happen. Some 55 percent of Americans support the use of US and European ground troops if airstrikes alone do not end the conflict in Kosovo, the poll shows.
Clinton confidante Dick Morris believes the president will not yield on the ground troops issue. This is a wise course, in the view of Mr. Morris, who says the president uncharacteristically commenced airstrikes with too little public support behind him.
"I think he's determined not to send in ground troops, and I think he's not going to weaken in that determination," Morris says.
But Morris fears the president will get entangled in a "creeping escalation" mission if, for instance, low-flying American Apache helicopters are used to attack Yugoslav troops deployed in Kosovo. Calling the helicopters "POW manufacturing machines," he categorizes them more as cavalry than air power.
Rather than succumb to mission creep, Morris says, the US should simply pull out and go home if it can't win this one. As he wrote in the New York Post this week, "We cannot fight every injustice or defeat all tyrants."