This week's Senate vote to kill a resolution permitting the president to use any force necessary to win the Kosovo war was not a repudiation of NATO's actions to date. It does, however, highlight Congress's - and especially Republicans' - deep divisions over the conflict.
Most Democrats voted to set the resolution aside because the White House asked them to. President Clinton still maintains he does not intend to use ground forces, and the White House and Senate leaders of both parties wanted to avoid a repeat of last week's ambiguous House votes.
Republicans fall into three camps: those who, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, maintain that fighting a war means doing what it takes to win; those who insist the White House must ask for ground troops before they will vote for them; and those who think the war is a failed adventure by a president they neither like nor trust.
Senator McCain's fellow Republican presidential candidates are no less divided. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander call on the president to ask Congress for what it takes to win. Patrick Buchanan and Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire oppose any intervention at all. Others take positions in between.
Republicans should stop and think hard about what they are doing. One can disagree with, but respect, those who sincerely believe the United States and NATO shouldn't be fighting in Yugoslavia in the first place. Our quarrel is with those who base their position on political considerations: their visceral dislike of the president and their hope that Kosovo may finally bring down his approval ratings and lead to GOP victory in 2000.
There's a through-the-looking-glass aspect to the current debate. Republicans who - during GOP administrations - argued that the president needs maximum foreign-policy flexibility, but who now invoke Congress's prerogatives, have a credibility problem. (Likewise, Democrats who for years opposed Republican presidents' interventions but who now argue vociferously in favor of this war have some explaining to do.)
War decisions must rest solely on what each individual decides is in the nation's best interests - regardless of which party controls Congress or the White House. Dislike of the incumbent president shouldn't be a factor.
If and when NATO decides to prepare to deploy ground forces (in our view, the sooner, the better, so that Slobodan Milosevic fully grasps the stakes), Mr. Clinton must go to Capitol Hill and make the case before Congress and the American people. If he does, Congress will likely back him.
There may well be a Republican president in the near future. He - or she - may need to take firm military action in a future crisis. Members of both parties would be well advised to make sure their positions are based on principles, not politics.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society