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Sunday, April 4, 1999 Published at 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK

Kosovo: 'Clinton's greatest foreign test'

The captured servicemen Ramirez, Stone and Gonzales

By Washington Correspondent Paul Reynolds

Another great American debate has begun - at stake are issues of war and peace, of intervention versus isolation, and the future of the post-impeachment presidency.

If Bill Clinton faced his greatest domestic test during the impeachment proceedings, then he might be facing his greatest foreign policy test right now.

Kosovo: Special Report
He has launched an air war which seems to have made matters worse, he is refusing to organise a ground force. He offers justification but no solution.


And the sudden appearance on breakfast time television here of three American soldiers added another complication.

[ image: Testing times for Bill Clinton]
Testing times for Bill Clinton
No-one can forget the humiliation endured by President Jimmy Carter during the last and dismal year of his presidency while American diplomats were held in the embassy in Teheran.

Mr Carter had the noble aim of saving lives, so he did not threaten Iran, but his resolve eventually cracked, and he approved a rescue mission which came to grief in the sands of Tabriz.

I was in Miami at the time, about to look at the exodus of boat people from Cuba.

The shock to America when it learned that morning of the failed raid was huge.

Yellow ribbons

A small crowd gathered round a television at Miami airport. A friend in New York said "this means war".

Fortunately, it did not, and the hostages were in due course set free, though not until the very day on which Mr Carter handed the presidency to Ronald Reagan.

No American president wants to go through that again. Will the captured three come to haunt Mr Clinton?

[ image: Yellow ribbons are appearing for the three servicemen]
Yellow ribbons are appearing for the three servicemen
Already the television news programmes are showing yellow ribbons tied on the fences. Already they are being called the hostages.

The problem for the president is that rhetoric is not matched by delivery.

Every time Mr Clinton, Mr Blair or any of the Nato leaders gets up and states how important this undertaking is, how at the end of the 20th Century we must make a stand, then the question inevitably follows...why limit your actions? Why not do more?

Some think it is already too late, that the plan actually worked very well, but was simply the wrong plan.

Glum faces

It did not allow for the sudden surge of refugees. The operation was successful, as it were, but the patient died.

The glum faces at a Pentagon briefing I attended did not match the confident words from the spokesman at the podium.

And so there is an air of gloom in Washington. There are, as there always are, voices from the side calling for more urgent action.

[ image: Flags and ribbons adorn the fence outside Andrew Ramirez' LA home]
Flags and ribbons adorn the fence outside Andrew Ramirez' LA home
Senator John McCain, a former POW in Vietnam and now a presidential candidate, says that troops should be used; and an array of Washington foreign policy pundits emerged during the week to urge ground force intervention.

But I do not detect any public enthusiasm for a ground war; indeed, the sight of the captured soldiers will probably strengthen the view that America can get involved, but not too involved.

The great debate will not conclude that another Vietnam-type war must be fought.

Gladstone's speeches

One often wonders why America bothers. Kosovo, after all, is a far away place of which they know little.

And yet the crisis shows that there is room in this great land for a sense of justice and responsibility, just as there was in imperial Britain.

[ image: Clinton: Expressed his resolve to take care of captured servicemen]
Clinton: Expressed his resolve to take care of captured servicemen
Bill Clinton could do worse right now than read William Ewart Gladstone's speeches about saving another Balkan people, the Bulgarians, from the Turks in 1880.

Great powers are capable of great oppressions, but also of great gestures. The Balkans, it seems, have not lost their fascination for the West, though luckily, this time round, the powers are not pitching in against each other as they did in 1914.

Some progress has been made in this violent century.

It could all end without a clear result -- the refugees could lose their homes, Mr Milosevic (fully demonised by the media here) could hold onto Kosovo, and Mr Clinton could be left saying that, sadly, we have done our best and have made him pay a price, but we could do no more.

That could be enough for most Americans, and Bill Clinton, the Houdini of the White House, could probably sell it.

But it would not be a triumphant end to the presidency of a man who wants to be remembered for something other than impeachment.

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