The lesson of Kosovo, alas, is likely to be that it is easier to get into a bear trap than out of one.
The question that should have been decided long ago is, what is the national interest of the United States - what is the regional interest of NATO - in this small, faraway place. It may be true, as President Clinton asserts, that Kosovo is a threat to the stability of Europe, as was an assassination in neighboring Sarajevo 85 years ago, triggering World War I. It may also be true that our national conscience forbids us to stand by while unspeakable atrocities are committed. But the first few days of bombing have led to more atrocities and to more refugees, thereby increasing the instability which the bombing was supposed to prevent.
In any event, the threats used as a negotiating tactic with President Slobodan Milosevic put US and NATO credibility at stake and made air attacks mandatory. (A sub-lesson: Don't make threats unless you are prepared to carry them out, and especially unless you have thought about the consequences if you do carry them out.)
Worse, the necessity for military involvement arose with US public opinion divided. Not two weeks ago, 191 members - out of 435 - in the House of Representatives voted against participation of US troops in the NATO peacekeeping operation. Only last Tuesday, 41 senators - out of 100 - voted against participation in NATO air strikes. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has warned against intervening, while Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP presidential candidate, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former ambassador to the UN, support it.
The worst outcome would be the one we appear to be heading for. This is starting an action possibly leading to a long-term, unwelcome involvement not rooted in a solid consensus. We are propelled on this course not only by the urgency of circumstances created by careless threats. More unhappily, we are being propelled by the well-worn cry to rally round the flag and support the president in times of crisis, especially to support the troops which the president has perhaps unwisely committed to unnecessary danger.
Early in the evolution of the crisis, Congress resisted pleas from the president and secretary of state to postpone debates on US policy in Kosovo. That was good, because it is only through debate in Congress and elsewhere that a desperately needed consensus can be reached or that it can be demonstrated that consensus is unreachable. But after a White House meeting, Congress flip-flopped and switched from critical questioning to pallid cheer-leading.
This does a disservice to the troops it is intended to support. In 1951, Sen. Robert Taft, the much-respected Ohio Republican, opposed President Truman's decision to send troops to Europe to support what was then a young, untried NATO.
"As I see it," Taft said, "members of Congress, and particularly members of the Senate, have a constitutional obligation to reexamine constantly and discuss the foreign policy of the United States. If we permit appeals to unity to bring an end to that criticism, we endanger not only the constitutional liberties of the country, but even its future existence."
The same argument was made in the Senate in the 1960s with respect to Vietnam. President Johnson sought to quiet it by the appeals to unity that Taft had warned against. To the degree that the president's appeals were heeded, they simply prolonged that tragic conflict.
The highest service Congress could perform for the president and for the armed forces right now would be a full public airing of the policy options facing the US and NATO in Kosovo. That would not be pulling the rug from under the troops involved; it would be the best way to support them.
Instead, Congress is moving to involve us further by declaring US policy to be Mr. Milosevic's removal and Serbia's democratization.
The capabilities of air power are frequently overestimated. What if bombing does not work? Do we back off and lose more credibility, or do we send ground troops? (The Balkans are the only place worse than Asia for a ground war.) What do we do if the NATO alliance begins to become unglued? These are not the issues we wanted NATO to talk about during its celebratory 50th anniversary meeting in Washington next month. They should have been answered before the bombing threats were made.
It will not do to embark on such an enterprise with no more than simple majority support from the public and Congress. Significant minority opposition should be taken as the gravest warning of trouble to come. If such exists, it is better to know it now than later. That might even enable us to jump out of the bear trap before it snaps shut.
*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is coauthor of 'Invitation to Struggle: Congress, the President and Foreign Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992).