As Kosovo war rages, a president under fire

Members of both parties oppose current mission, but have yet to agree

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona - a former prisoner of war - says the US ought to be playing to win in Kosovo, taking a more aggressive posture even if it means ground troops.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas says the president's policies are as productive as throwing gasoline on a fire.

Even Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey has reported telling National Security Adviser Sandy Berger: "I don't believe this mission was properly defined or executed."

With the situation in Kosovo going from bad to worse, President Clinton is taking increased fire here at home from congressional snipers. Yet for all the charges leveled at the administration, no alternative plan has gained enough support to undermine Mr. Clinton's leadership.

Consensus may begin to emerge now that Congress is returning from recess, but as the refugee crisis in the Balkans deepens and videotape evidence of mass slaughter of ethnic Albanians surfaces, official Washington is caught between confusion and anxiety over how it should respond to the war in Kosovo.

"There are no good policy alternatives, so it's hard for Congress to coalesce around an alternative," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "For now, our fat's in the fire."

While NATO has been unable to stop the epic refugee crisis and ethnic cleansing by using air power alone, the Western alliance is voicing its resolve to choke Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces. Crippling those Serbian forces will be key to any future troop deployment.

In fact, this resolve to systematically grind down the Serbian military and Yugoslav infrastructure has increased calls for a NATO ground presence that would include US service members.

A pair of Democratic congressmen, both from New York, is calling for the immediate deployment of a NATO force to protect refugees and reoccupy Kosovo. While the White House insists there are still no plans to send American troops into Kosovo, US involvement is expanding.

Washington has approved the use of Apache helicopters for use against Serbian tank and troops. The support staff for the helicopters would take at least 2,000 American troops to the region.

If Clinton were to change course on the use of US forces in the region, it wouldn't be the first time. In 1995, he pledged the use of US peacekeepers in nearby Bosnia.

But his promise to bring them home after a year went unfulfilled. More than 6,000 Americans still man that force today.

If such a shift in the current conflict occurs, Congress is already demanding that it be consulted. "When it comes to putting any [US] troops into a warlike situation," Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin (D) warned yesterday, "the Constitution requires consultation of Congress."

Given the scale of the tragedy in the Balkans, and the scramble by the US and NATO to counteract the humanitarian crisis intensified by the nearly two-week-old bombing campaign, some congressional critics have chosen to hold their fire.

"I think those voices most critical are put in the position at this point of seeming to undermine combat effectiveness," says Donald Abenheim, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Others, he says, have tried to "out hawk" the administration. "We have to be tougher than hell with Milosevic," says Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania. "If we can find some handle on the refugee situation, we will have a little more patience with the air attack."

To ease the refugee crisis, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced yesterday that the European Union will accept as many as 100,000 refugees as temporary guests.

The first planeload is expected to be transferred to Sweden as early as tomorrow. An undetermined number of refugees will be flown to temporary housing in the United States. "We will take a portion - we are going to try very hard to share the burden," Ms. Albright said.

On the ground meanwhile, the Pentagon is airlifting emergency tents and food to border countries to help sustain the displaced population.

In Washington, some strategists believe the dialogue between the White House and Congress is going on as expected, given the circumstances.

"In the past few days, about a dozen folks [in Congress] have stepped forward and said, 'What are we doing here?' " says retired Col. Raoul "Roy" Alcala. "A lot of that is grandstanding, but there is a thoughtful element there," he says. "Congress can't always lead, but it can help shape."

Still, when the current crisis ends, others say Congress will demand accountability for the actions of the past two weeks. Says Professor Schier: "Once this is over, I fully expect a full-scale congressional investigation to see what went wrong."

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