President Clinton may have trouble saying what he means - or meaning what he says - about NATO ground forces for Kosovo. A newly self-confident Germany, celebrating 10 years of unification, apparently has no such problem.
The president, in announcing the air campaign on March 24, and clearly having American public opinion in mind, asserted, "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." That was taken to mean that troops would only go in after an agreement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic to serve as peacekeepers.
If that was what Mr. Clinton meant, he apparently doesn't mean it any more. Striving not to appear out of step with the forthright British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has openly called for a troop buildup in Macedonia, the president has agreed to go along with reinforcement of NATO troops, presumably, but not necessarily, to serve as peacekeepers.
The current Clinton mantra is that, while still pursuing the air campaign, "I do not rule out other military options."
That may suit Mr. Blair, but it does not suit German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder, who has bluntly stated, "There will be no NATO land war." And, since every NATO partner has a veto on future plans, he is in a position to make that stick.
After a meeting with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer on Tuesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said they had concentrated on the "unity of the alliance." But there was no sign that Germany had backed down on its opposition to deploying ground troops against the Serbs.
The world has certainly changed since 1949 when I covered the admission into the North Atlantic Alliance of a West Germany desperately eager to become part of the Western anti-Soviet family. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed then to put all German forces under NATO command, and he pledged never to develop or to acquire nuclear weapons.
Resonating through that half century is the quip of Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary-general, that the purpose of the alliance was to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." But today Germany is up. It has, in effect, stepped into a vacuum in alliance leadership created by American vacillation.
On a prearranged visit to Beijing, Mr. Schrder apologized, on NATO's behalf, for the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. At a news conference in Brussels, he went so far as to cast doubt on the Pentagon's explanation of an outdated map and he demanded a NATO investigation of the episode.
It is not hard to understand the domestic political considerations that impel the chancellor to talk tough to the United States. The Social Democratic leader governs in a coalition with the leftish Green Party, which has threatened to bring down the government in the event of a ground invasion of Serbia.
Not forgotten in Germany is that the last German troops to invade Yugoslavia were Hitler's troops, and the principal resistance to the invaders came from the Serbs.
To send ground troops to Kosovo now would require a consensus decision of the 19 NATO countries. Schrder was reported to have said, bluntly, that sending ground troops into Yugoslavia would be "unthinkable."
The German chancellor is the current rotating chairman of the European Commission, and he is supported on Kosovo by Italy, Greece, and perhaps others. What is striking is the blunt way Schrder has chosen to speak to the Clinton administration. And without apologies for being German.