The decisive issue of the next presidential campaign could be the "doves" against the "hawks," just as it was during campaigns staged during the Vietnam War. That can only happen if the United States gets involved in a protracted war in Yugoslavia and its casualties are high and mounting.
Our current involvement is indeed shaping political positions, pro and con, on the bombing of Kosovo - whether it is enough, whether the president should have ruled out in advance the use of ground forces.
But how candidates stand on the US bombing initiative isn't likely to change the votes of many Americans. Not yet. That happens only if and when the public becomes much more emotionally involved.
Iowa Congressman James A. Leach, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee and regarded as an expert on the global scene, particularly on Russia, is sounding like a "dove" these days.
As he reminded us at a recent Monitor breakfast, he is one of those urging the president to get the approval of Congress, under the War Powers Resolution, before he deploys troops into military action in Kosovo. Also, several weeks ago Mr. Leach voted against congressional authorization of US intervention in Yugoslavia "because I could discern no national interest in taking sides in a civil war in the Balkans, no approach that would lead to a diminution of violence, and no credible exit strategy."
Yet Leach says there are no real "doves" or "hawks" - not yet. "It is too complicated," he told us, for such definitive terms to be applied.
How right he is. Alongside the moderate-Republican Leach in expressing reservations about US intervention in Kosovo is arch-conservative GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Then there's Sen. John McCain, an independent-minded Republican admired by many liberals, who wants the US to go in - yesterday, were it possible - to defeat the Serbs and drive Slobodan Milosevic out of office.
One could well ask: What would a "dove" description mean now? Perhaps supporting the humanitarian cause of helping the Albanian refugees and, therefore, if necessary, sending in armed forces, might be seen as a kind of dovishness. Indeed, some Republicans are calling this a "liberal's war."
Yet the term "hawk," certainly in the historical sense, has always been applied to stronger, more aggressive action - in both the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War.
So it's all very confused - at least for now. I listen to the various candidates rather grudgingly spell out their positions on Kosovo. They really don't want to be too precise - lest they be caught up in a position they will have to change later.
Vice President Al Gore is, as would be expected, in lockstep with President Clinton on this issue. But one would have to know that Mr. Gore has worries this war might turn sour. He must be keenly aware that he could end up being perceived as one of the leaders of an unpopular war.
Another presidential candidate, Republican Lamar Alexander, told us at a recent Monitor breakfast that he wanted Mr. Clinton to go to Congress and get the authority to do everything he needs to do to "win the war" in Kosovo. He sounded like Leach. Is he then a "dove" or a "hawk"? To me, it sounded as if Leach would prefer Congress to withhold that authorization and that Mr. Alexander would want to see Congress provide that backing. It's hard to tell.
Other Republican candidates have shown support for the troops and left the door open for later reassessment on the whole military initiative and how Clinton has run the operation. And Democrat Bill Bradley seems to be similarly positioned.
Oh, yes, one must not rule out one alternative outcome.
The continued bombing might drive out Mr. Milosevic and allow the refugees to return. That possibility seems dimmer and dimmer as NATO and the president appear to be moving inexorably toward the use of ground forces.