Second-guessing the commander-in-chief

Second-guessing the commander-in-chief

Almost immediately after NATO bombing began in Yugoslavia on March 24, the dissenters, the doubters, and the detractors of President Clinton and his policy began to second-guess the wisdom of U.S. involvement in an assault in the Balkans. That was no surprise. In times of military conflict, "the media have knocked around every President since [Franklin D.] Roosevelt," said William M. Hammond, a civilian Army historian and research fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy. "We always have that." (Indeed, Presidents before FDR were also roundly criticized.)

But what surprised some Washington observers-and perturbed President Clinton and his top advisers-were the anonymous officials within the Administration who quickly sought to put some daylight between themselves and Clinton's attempt to bomb Slobodan Milosevic into submission without ground troops. The amount of no-attribution dissension within the ranks-what Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright termed covering "your you-know-what"-was unusual for the first days of war, and it underscored just how badly things were going.

"Advice Didn't Sway Clinton on Airstrikes," The Washington Post reported on April 1. "NATO Had Signs Its Strategy Would Fail Kosovars," read a front-page headline from The New York Times the same day. "Joint Chiefs Doubted Air Strategy," reported The Post on April 5. Two days later in The Post: "Albright Misjudged Milosevic on Kosovo."

The stories that said Clinton and his advisers had received, but bypassed, important cautions and predictions from the military and intelligence communities only added to the barrage of criticism from editorialists, pundits, and experts-for-hire. "If you can't win over a good chunk of that environment, that should give you pause," said Richard N. Haass, a former national security adviser to President Bush and currently director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "It doesn't mean you're wrong, but at a minimum, you're not selling your policy well; at worst, there's something wrong with your policy."

Publicly, Clinton and top administration officials tried to dismiss the second-guessing as self-servingly revisionist, incorrect, or a symptom of nervous impatience. "The Monday morning quarterbacks are criticizing this game when it's in its first quarter," Albright advised CNN's Larry King.

"These are brave people who don't put their names on things," Clinton spokesman Joseph Lockhart said disparagingly when asked by reporters this week whether the internal leaks undermined the authority of the commander in chief. "We are not going to allow ourselves to get sidetracked."

White House officials refused to speculate about leakers' motives but bemoaned the results: "I think, at times of conflict, there should be unity and bipartisanship and America should speak in one voice," White House national security spokesman David C. Leavy told National Journal.

And not just because it's a public relations embarrassment when they don't, said retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was President Bush's national security adviser. In an interview, Scowcroft ticked off a list of undesirable effects from the leaking, beginning with an image to Milosevic and the NATO alliance that Clinton may be trying to lead in the United States from a position of weakness.

"I think they've been damaging," he said of the articles that played up internal criticisms. "It makes us look like a bunch of Keystone Cops running around, frantically disagreeing. It makes [NATO officials] wonder ... if the policy is being constructed in a haphazard way."

And inside the White House, the natural inclination is to become more secretive, Scowcroft added. "As people start to leak, the tendency is to make the decision group smaller and smaller, and then you leave out the kinds of experts who can keep you from error." Reacting to the leaks, he continued, "tends to distort policy-making, either to demonstrate that the rumors are wrong, or to make course corrections."

Although the White House doesn't want to dissect the leakers' motives, several analysts said in interviews that there are three likely explanations: First, the desire, because this military operation is fraught with so many potential unhappy consequences, to place on the record the fact that Clinton got all the right intelligence from the experts. "The frustration of being second-guessed on the same issues that you had advocated to the President can prompt an effort to correct the record," said retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Bosnia in 1995-96.

Second, patriotic worries that the President is not getting the best advice through established channels. "It's a symptom that something is wrong within the chain of command," Hammond said. "Usually people don't do that if they're being heard somewhere else."

And third, the presence of a generation of Vietnam veterans-the officers now in command of Clinton's operation-who faithfully followed their leaders into an abyss more than 30 years ago, and swore they'd never be unquestioning again. "The Pentagon suffers from the Vietnam syndrome," noted a former Administration official.

Added to the mix of anxieties are the military's accumulated misgivings about their commander in chief-his lack of military service, his handling of gays in the military, the fights over defense funding, his wobbly foreign policy teams, and the Monica Lewinsky affair. "The doubts about him and his military experience sort of get agglomerated with the impeachment problems, to raise doubts about him and, therefore, about the policy," Scowcroft said.

Some observers suggested in interviews that Clinton failed earlier this year to adequately prepare the American public and Congress for the prospect of the Belgrade bombings, both because he was preoccupied with the Senate impeachment trial and because he was determined not to do anything that might risk his 60-plus-percent job-approval numbers. "That was his whole source of strength in retaining the presidency," noted Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Presidents Reagan and Bush.

Part of this rationale extends to the use of ground troops, which Clinton ruled out immediately. The same President who punished despots with bombings four times in the past six months also communicated to Milosevic that bombings were the limit of U.S. commitment. Clinton's explanation was, in part, that there was no public support for troops.

Actually, the public may be leading its President this week on the issue of using ground forces. Reeling from images of refugee horrors, Americans in several recent surveys now tell pollsters they not only support the air strikes, but would back the use of U.S. and NATO ground forces. "If he follows that rallying point," Fitzwater warned, "then he has to worry about it subsiding as quickly as it came up."

The vagaries of public opinion tied to military operations are something Bush knew well and Clinton observed in 1991 and 1992. Presidents can be admired for their foreign policy achievements, without being politically rewarded by the public.

Operation Desert Storm invited plenty of criticism before it commenced, particularly from congressional Democrats, who joined with their colleagues to debate whether the United States was ready to end diplomacy and use force against Saddam Hussein. Congress assented in a close vote, and hand-wringing accompanied the war at every step. After the end of the so-called 100-hour war, when critics questioned whether Saddam Hussein should have been removed from power, Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, called the second-guessers "simple-solutionists," arguing that the swift cease-fire on Feb. 27, 1991, saved lives.

"Over 130 years after the event, historians are still debating Gen. George Meade's decision not to pursue Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces after the Union victory at Gettysburg," Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir. "A half-century after World War II, scholars are still arguing over Gen. Eisenhower's decision not to beat the Soviet armies to Berlin."

All Presidents who have mobilized the military for conflict have expected criticism and worked to hold public support, said historian Hammond. For example, Abraham Lincoln grew so infuriated with the Peace Democrats, or "copperheads," during the Civil War, that he eventually arrested a vocal group of anti-war critics and imprisoned them without trial for being "guilty of any disloyal practice." George Washington was so concerned during the Revolutionary War about maintaining public support that he gave newspapers some of the tent linen destined for his army so they had something on which they could continue to print.

Mobilizing the public has always been a priority in times of war. What has changed so dramatically, even since Desert Storm, is the bumper crop of 24-hour-cable, Internet, newsletter, and other media outlets. When military leaders and politicians seek to control the information-as they are doing with Yugoslavia-questions and instant analyses quickly fill the yawning void.

"One of the phenomena we're seeing now is that the nucleus of criticism of the President is coming from the foreign policy think-tank establishment," Fitzwater said. "The new media magnify that about 100 times over what it would have been 10 years ago because there are so many more outlets for all these talking heads."

So far, however, the faceless critics within the administration, as well as Washington's opinion leaders, have not visibly altered Clinton's mission. And the outcome in Kosovo has not yet been determined.

"The comparison to Vietnam is a big stretch, I think," suggested Gary R. Hess, a history professor at Ohio's Bowling Green State University and the author of a forthcoming book about presidential decision-making before war. "But [Clinton] could lose a great deal of the public support he has managed to sustain, rather remarkably, for at least the last five years."

NEXT STORY: Valley volleys

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