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Friday, June 4, 1999 Published at 04:20 GMT 05:20 UK

World: Americas

Clinton's sigh of relief

President Clinton: Public support for Nato action was waning

By Washington Correspondent Tom Carver

President Bill Clinton must be sighing with relief. This time last week he was facing what one official called "no good options".

Kosovo: Special Report
The air war seemed to be burning a lot of jet fuel but not going anywhere. Everyone in Washington was awaiting a decision on the ground war and ordinary Americans were losing interest.

When asked, most Americans wondered where it was all leading and why Nato was making so many mistakes.

When the public parrot what the pundits are saying in the papers and on TV, it's a good indication that they don't really have an opinion of their own.

During the Lewinsky scandal, the opinion polls consistently defied the experts but not over Kosovo.

"Let us know when it's all over" seemed to be America's attitude. The initial anger, which greeted the first waves of refugees, had evaporated.

Slipping polls

Friends and relatives in the UK rang to tell me that they had Kosovo refugees staying in their towns and villages. But not in America.

[ image: The Pentagon did not want a ground war]
The Pentagon did not want a ground war
As soon as the three American soldiers were released from captivity, Kosovo seemed like just another distant conflict. Support for air strikes slipped from 62% to 50%. Only a minority supported a ground offensive.

President Clinton has never let himself get ahead of the polls and he certainly wasn't going to do it over Kosovo.

It's been suggested that President Slobodan Milosevic capitulated after becoming convinced that Bill Clinton was prepared to retake Kosovo by force. If the Americans did convey that to the Serb leader through intermediaries, then it was a good bluff.

Ground force always unlikely

Sending American troops in to recapture a Balkan province never seemed a likely option.

Pentagon officials said it was "highly problematic" whether a ground invasion could be mounted before the onset of winter, claiming that 200,000 troops would be needed to rebuild the roads and bridges to get into the province before they even started fighting.

They scoffed at the British suggestion of a 'semi-permissive' environment. "Semi-permissive is like being semi-pregnant," General Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is reported to have told President Clinton. "It doesn't exist."

A figure like President Clinton with so little credibility amongst the military assuming the role of a wartime leader and valiantly overruling the pollsters and his generals - unlikely.

When I reminded one general about all the talk of a vital national interest, he almost laughed. "The only vital interest," he said, "is the preservation of Nato."

That is the most honest reason I have heard why America allowed herself to be drawn into this venture. President Clinton never seriously tried to sell it to his people as a stand against genocide, like Tony Blair did.

Future imperfect

A diplomatic solution in which Mr Milosevic capitulated and agreed to Nato's demands was what the White House was holding out for.

A generous interpretation would be that in the end, it was President Milosevic not President Clinton who blinked first. A cynic would say that Clinton was simply fortunate.

No one knows the hatred and the killings that may be reaped by future generations in the Balkans as a result of this ethnic cleansing (which Nato failed to stop) and the aerial devastation which Nato caused.

But by then this generation of politicians will long since have passed form the stage.

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