Three advisers, one voice on Kosovo

Clinton's 'ABC Club' is sticking together on Balkans war - despite

Around the White House, it's called the "ABC Club," Albright, Berger, and Cohen.

On Wednesday mornings, this presidential troika of foreign-policy advisers meets for breakfast in the office of National Security Council Director Sandy Berger. It's a time to thrash through issues and reach consensus, for nothing pleases Mr. Berger more than to present the president with a plan that's already got buy-in from the key players.

Berger's emphasis on consensus-building is paying off now. Military and political observers describe the White House as remarkably unified on the grave and complex subject of Kosovo. As one former White House official describes it, the common front is "impressive," especially in the face of severe criticism of the NATO air campaign.

Maintaining that unity is crucial, especially now, in the wake of the controversy over NATO's admission last week that it accidentally bombed a train of refugees, and in the face of continued doubts about whether an air war can succeed without intervention by ground troops. Keeping a unified front while pressing forward with the NATO campaign could be essential for President Clinton's advisers, who are well aware of the havoc wreaked during the Johnson administration over disagreements about the Vietnam War.

At stake now is the administration's credibility in the eyes of its enemy, as well as its ability to build support from Congress, the American public, and in this case, 18 other NATO countries.

To be sure, unity hasn't always reigned among administration officials. For instance, two years ago Defense Secretary William Cohen clashed openly with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the president over US peacekeepers in Bosnia. Mr. Cohen told the press in 1997 that the peacekeepers should be out by June 1998. Yet they are still there.

Despite reports of internal disputes over White House Kosovo strategy, the fact remains that every single member of the president's core team signed on to the air campaign. And whether it's in talk-show soundbites or White House meetings with lawmakers, the group remains publicly steadfast that the air campaign, given time, will work, and that ground troops are not necessary.

"I can't speak for every colonel in Brussels, but the fact of the matter is ... that everyone has total confidence in the success of the plan and you don't hear any sniping or any bickering from anyone at the White House," says NSC spokesman David Leavy.

Internal debate is one thing, says former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, but once the commander in chief initiates a military strike, "the worst thing you can have is people standing and shooting at each other in the White House."

The task is made doubly difficult in the Information Age, when White House decisions - and their aftermath - are visible to all via TV and the Internet.

"When so much of a process plays out before the media and the camera, with so much instant communication around the world, it puts a very high premium on having a united front," says Michael Van Dusen, deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

The Clinton administration is famous for being "on message," with everyone singing the same policy chorus. But Kosovo is more challenging, says the former White House official, because every option is a bad one, lives are at stake, and there's no predictable ending.

So far, Congress is falling in line behind the unified White House, postponing formal debate and votes on the air campaign and indicating support for $6 billion in emergency spending the Pentagon is expected to request for the Kosovo effort this week.

One reason for the White House unity is that, like President Bush's foreign-policy team during the Gulf War, some of Clinton's advisers have known each other for years.

"These are people who have worked together for a long time," says another former Clinton official. "There's a sense of camaraderie, a sense of trust. They're actually people who like each other, unlike in previous administrations."

The former official was referring to friction between the Carter administration's Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and NSC director Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Mr. Vance resigned over the aborted rescue mission of hostages in Iran.

This source, and others, insist that Berger is not just a "yes man" for Clinton - that he encourages debate and doesn't shrink from delivering unpleasant news to the president.

But others point out that the president has surrounded himself with people who think alike, officials acutely aware of how foreign policy will play to the domestic audience.

And like the president, not one of his core foreign-policy advisers - with the exception of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry Shelton - has served in the military.

The result, say the president's critics, is weak foreign policy based on the lowest common denominator.

They argue that Clinton and his team have simply arrived at the wrong consensus, and are now stuck in a failing, halfway war whose political objectives overreach the military measures designated to achieve them.

At a minimum, say these critics, NATO should start prepositioning ground troops for a possible attack, and the president should begin to make the case to the American public, Congress and the allies for such a course.

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