Jewish World Review April 7, 1999 /21 Nissan 5759
It’s No Longer "Just About Sex"
(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com)
Anyway, I asked him about Bill Clinton’s scorecard so far on Kosovo: "He’s scared. I say parking lot in Yugoslavia, baby." His older companion, a black man, just nodded: "I have a son in the military, and that draft-dodger scares me." Mind you, upon further questioning, both these men thought the impeachment proceedings against the President were much ado about nothing; it was simply Ken Starr digging for sex stories. Nothing wrong with B.C. gettin’ a little on the side.
So ended Clinton’s worst week in his roller-coaster presidency.
Pundits are curious as to why his polling numbers are in free fall now—contradicting the usual rallying round the flag and commander-in-chief—especially when he became more popular with each criminal, and immoral, revelation that was publicized last year. My guess is that Americans now realize how hapless their "leader" is: They could dismiss the Monica unpleasantness as "just sex," especially as the economy soared, but now that Clinton is stumbling so disastrously in the war against Slobodan Milosevic, it’s apparent to all that this hack has no business occupying the White House.
Consider Clinton’s actions in the past two weeks: He’s admitted that he had to "read up" on the Balkans before making a speech to the nation; he invoked Hitler, "genocide" and ‘never again,’ playing-to-the-crowd rhetoric that’s typical of an official who’s never transcended pure politics; he allowed, inexplicably, cameras to film him golfing last Monday while bombs were falling in Serbia; and had the gall to tell CBS’ Dan Rather that he didn’t see his impeachment "as some great badge of shame," that in fact he was "honored" for the opportunity to defend the Constitution in the face of a partisan inquisition by Ken Starr and the GOP.
What’s Clinton going to do at this point, fly to Belgrade and challenge Milosevic to a thumb-wrestling match? No, this was a hollow threat, since he’s resolutely against sending ground forces into the region. What is he thinking? That a smart bomb will rescue those POWs? That the yellow ribbons sympathetic Americans are tying around trees in solidarity with the prisoners are going to sway Milosevic one iota? Doesn’t Clinton realize that when the country is at war there will be casualties, not only innocent European civilians, but U.S. soldiers as well?
On Friday, NATO dumped bombs for the first time on Belgrade, apparently inflicting huge damage on the Yugoslav capital, although in the confusing trade of propaganda between both sides it was hard to determine how effective the barrage was. Maybe some military storehouses were taken out; maybe more pharmaceutical plants. It was decisive, necessary action, even though one wonders how Clinton squares this strike during the Easter weekend when, in December, on the eve of his impeachment, he said he’d cease the bombing of Iraq when their holy days, Ramadan, began.
That was then; now he’s still in office, I guess.
Pardon the obvious, but while Clinton was plotting against his domestic enemies in the past two years, he’s been an ostrich on the international front. Milosevic has been able to play his hand because Clinton—and his double-A team of Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and William Cohen—has ducked the difficult task of developing a cogent, working post-Cold War policy. Where do we want to be on the spectrum defined by total isolationism, at the one extreme, and total global involvement and enforcement, at the other? What price will we be willing to pay to attain our goals and ensure our policies?
Presumably, Americans would sacrifice willingly, with blood and material resources, if Canada were uprooting our citizens from Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and pushing them south. We know that. But the government doesn’t have much of a working strategy beyond that, one that the public understands and embraces. One of the abilities of a great leader is to sort through profound, complex issues, digest them for the people and develop a consensus through a process of debate and education.
Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial headlined "Does Character Matter Yet?" rightfully ridiculed the Beltway establishment for defending Clinton’s inept presidency for so long.
"Less than a week into the bombing in Kosovo," the writer begins, "the political establishment in Washington is beginning to criticize President Clinton severely for ignoring the advice of the military and CIA that ground troops would be necessary, that air power alone would not deter Milosevic and the Serbs. There is now talk of a military disaster... We would like to know where this establishment—the politicians, pundits and Beltway press—has been the past six years, when some of us were pressing the argument that Bill Clinton’s handling of Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, the draft, Filegate and all the rest were relevant to the character and conduct of his Presidency. We were told, long before Monica and even before the Lincoln Bedroom rentals, that it didn’t matter."
True, there’s a measure of we-told-you-so self-aggrandizement in the Journal’s words, but who can blame the editorial board when it’s been casually dismissed as part of the mythical "vast right-wing conspiracy"? The Journal is correct when it calls Clinton’s foreign policy "narcissistic," and claims that the country "and especially those three captured GIs, are paying the price."
The New York Times, not surprisingly, has been patient with Clinton, despite clear evidence that he’s in a fog. The paper editorialized last Friday: "In warfare, disappointment and frustration can produce impulsive, defective decisions. Mr. Clinton seemed to recognize the danger yesterday when he told a Navy audience in Virginia that ‘We must be determined and patient.’ He and his aides should be guided by that view as they manage what promises to be a long and difficult conflict with Serbia."
Again, I ask: Just when does happy hour start in Howell Raines’ offices? Clinton has been "patient"—that is, not paying attention—for years now. Why he didn’t "read up" on the Balkans months ago is a question no one has the answer to. Had he prepared ground troops—even if he wasn’t going to deploy them—he wouldn’t find himself right now in the bind that will certainly cap off his failed presidency.
I was talking with Al From Baltimore on Friday, suggesting that Clinton is certainly the worst president we’ve had since World War II. Al didn’t completely disagree, but countered that Clinton has signed some significant bills, e.g., welfare reform and the balanced budget. I argued that those successes weren’t his idea: that the first two years of his administration were highlighted by an onerous, class-warfare tax hike and by his wife’s socialist health-care plan. It wasn’t until the GOP took control of Congress that Clinton shifted right, to the horror of his liberal base—and not because he really believed that "the era of big government" should be over, but because he wanted to be reelected in ’96. Enacting that legislation, along with some financial hanky-panky with the Chinese, let him achieve that goal.
In any case, it’s not just the Journal that’s lacerated Clinton since the bombing began. The media world has turned upside down, with broadcast and print pundits usually in the tank with the President severely critical of his disorganized wartime strategy. Appearing on Chris Matthews’ Hardball last Monday, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell ridiculed the President with a vehemence I’ve never seen before from an "objective" network journalist. Speaking about the now-infamous golfing photo-op she said: "I mean, it’s quite extraordinary. I’ve got to wonder who was directing the politics in the White House. It’s clear that Ed Rollins, when he was political director in the Reagan White House, would not have directed this picture. This would not have been the picture you would’ve seen in the middle of an air war when we’ve got refugees streaming across the border, a tragedy of epic proportions on the ground, and here’s the President of the United States taking time out to play golf."
I think Mitchell was excessively harsh: Obviously, Clinton has been working around the clock, albeit ineffectively, on this catastrophe, but like any person he needs some time to relax. I don’t begrudge him a round of golf, a hand of cards, a blowjob in the Oval Office, whatever. But I agree with Mitchell that the President’s staff is in terrible disarray, allowing such an image to be broadcast around the world.
And a president, to be effective in conducting a foreign policy like this, has got to have the public behind him, he’s got to have the Congress behind him." As far as goes Clinton’s impeachment, this liberal historian said: "Of course this is going to blight his presidential reputation forever. Clinton is never going to escape this impeachment proceeding. And remember, he’s the only elected president in the country’s history to have been impeached."
Brinkley, who wrote The Unfinished Presidency about Jimmy Carter, thinks it was a mistake to get involved in the Balkans, but blames Clinton for not following through with his threats now that NATO has committed to the action. "Now that we’re in," Brinkley said, "we have to go forward. And there’s more than just bombing… strategic bombing is important, but also an economic embargo. We’re gonna have to freeze Yugoslav assets and then move troops into the region... Bill Clinton made a major mistake in telling Milosevic that we’re not gonna be using ground troops."
My favorite guest on Thursday’s show, a real pistol, was Jowitt, incongruously a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley. When Matthews asked him about Clinton’s handling of the Balkans crisis, the academic unleashed a vicious, but articulate, tirade. "Well, I think it’s a bit surreal and it’s also irresponsible. I mean look at what he’s done. Basically, you’ve got a Mother Teresa foreign policy, which is fine, you know? I liked Mother Teresa. He’s trying to do something ethical. But if you’re going to be Mother Teresa, you better back it up with Mother Superior force.
"And basically what we’ve done is exacerbate the very situation that we’re trying to ameliorate. Every single outcome goes against what we wanted. We’ve allowed him to escalate the war in Albania, to go through ethnic cleansing, through ethnic expelling, traumatize his population, destabilize Albania, destabilize Macedonia—and we’re supposed to be for nascent, fragile democracies—unsettle Greece and unsettle Italy, which doesn’t want a new province populated by Albanians, at the same time consolidating support for Milosevic and doing away with the opposition. This is one hell of an effective strategy."
Then Jowitt goes on the offensive, articulating what many Americans feel: "I think right now we should do something. And this is radical. I think we should take Primakov’s argument. We should say to Milosevic, ‘We’ll meet you in Moscow…’ and basically argue, ‘We’ll stop the bombing and we’re going to partition Kosovo with you. And if you don’t take it, we’re going to invade you.’ That’s what a great power does. Invasion is a very serious thing. Invasion means we’re going to have to occupy the equivalent of Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and we haven’t done very well in either Haiti or in Bosnia. We have not thought out the consequences of this bombing, and no decision is mature unless the consequences are understood and accepted. This is an irresponsible policy. And the shrill hyperbole that Milosevic is a combination of Pol Pot, Stalin during the Great Terror and Hitler, there’s only two things wrong with that. Serbia isn’t Germany and Milosevic isn’t Hitler."
Last Friday, The Washington Post, which was very squishy on the impeachment issue, siding with Democrats in calling for censure rather than the Senate conviction that Clinton deserved, ran a bitter editorial about Clinton’s self-defense in his interview with Rather.
(To digress briefly, I wonder how all the senators and pundits who argued strenuously for Clinton’s acquittal on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice feel now. I’ll bet more than a few would agree that we’d be better off with Al Gore as president right now. He may not have invented the Internet, and perhaps he rents hogs in Iowa to prove his farming roots, but I’d have a lot more faith in Gore’s leadership during this crisis than I do in Mr. I’m Burnishing My Legacy.)
The Post wrote: "The unseemliness of Mr. Clinton’s self-pitying musings, especially at a moment like this, is stunning. On the historical interpretation, we certainly part company with the president. We believe that lying under oath was a serious offense, and we don’t ascribe base political motives to all of those who felt such conduct warranted his removal from office. In fact, we can recall Mr. Clinton himself, at moments when he evidently felt in more political jeopardy than he does now, acknowledging the seriousness of his offenses and expressing a willingness to accept a fairly severe censure from people whom he did not attack, at that time, as political malcontents... Mr. Clinton had the audacity to compare himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to a question about his reputation for ‘parsing words too closely’—for toying with the truth, that is. ‘That’s what they said about President Roosevelt, too,’ Mr. Clinton said. ‘He made a pretty good president.’ Mr. Roosevelt did make a pretty good president. One reason may be that he spent more time earning his place in history and less time decorating it in advance."
But she makes up for this silliness by writing the two best paragraphs about Clinton and the Yugoslav dilemma that I’ve read so far: "Instead of tipping off the villains in Belgrade that he was only willing to fight an air war, the President should have approached the conflict with the same bravado he showed when Dick Morris told him that polling indicated he should not go public with a confession about Monica. According to Mr. Morris, Mr. Clinton replied, ‘Well, we just have to win, then.’ "If the President had thought of Kosovo as a primary state, he might have mustered the burning determination needed to scare Slobodan Milosevic."
Last Friday, in The Baltimore Sun, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, two old-line journalists who are about as centrist (and usually Democratic-leaning) as you can get, were exceptionally skeptical of Clinton’s actions. "The situation in Kosovo is rapidly taking on the dimensions of a disaster—militarily and politically... [O]ne tangential added casualty of the disaster in Kosovo may be President Clinton’s last shred of credibility as a national leader. It is clear that the president failed to understand the basic rules of political conduct of foreign policy written by the American experience in Vietnam a generation ago... Already the president is trying to counter the accusations that the bombing of the Serbs caused Slobodan Milosevic to send more forces to conduct genocide in Kosovo. But when Mr. Clinton says that is ‘absolutely not’ the case, will the public believe him?... There is a restiveness about Kosovo among some of our allies and many of our citizens. If he can still lead the country, the president needs to do it by laying out—better late than never—a convincing rationale for the policies he is following."
The Washington Post’s Mary McGrory, who’s allergic to almost any conservative—with the possible exception of John McCain, every pundit’s favorite Republican—was similarly scathing about the President’s behavior during the crisis, zeroing in on his golfing expedition. Yes, she did take a cheap shot at President Bush for boating in Maine before the Gulf War (unfair, since when the conflict actually began months later, a prepared Bush, in suit and tie, worked tirelessly to monitor and direct the invasion), but her words about Clinton were nasty.
Ed Koch, writing last Friday in the Daily News, was soft on the President, inexplicably giving him credit for "marshaling NATO’s air war over Serbia and Kosovo," without pointing out that Clinton has no game plan beyond that. He knows that Clinton has ruled out ground forces, but writes nonetheless, as if he’s not listening: "We, along with every other NATO nation, must be part of the rescue effort, even if that requires sending in U.S. ground troops." As is the former mayor’s style, he then plays to the crowd, Clinton-style: "As a Jew who remembers how the world stood by and allowed my people to be rounded up, brutalized and, ultimately, gassed to death, I can only hear in my head the promise made by decent people around the globe following World War II: Never again."
Politicians and world leaders pick their battles; media commentators similarly choose the foreign flare-ups and slaughters that touch them either personally or emotionally. So it would be unlikely that Colbert I. King, who wrote in last Saturday’s Washington Post, should have the same opinion of Clinton’s fortitude as Koch. After expressing amazement at Clinton’s blithe dismissal of his impeachment debacle, King turns to another question Rather asked. He writes: "Next comes Rwanda... Rather asked Clinton about the allied bombing campaign. ‘Why now and why [Yugoslavia]? We’ve had Rwanda, Sudan—you didn’t go into those places…’ Here’s what Clinton said: ‘Let’s remember what happened... I think the rest of the world was caught flat-footed and did not have the mechanism to deal with it. We did do some good and I think limited some killing there.’ I’ll bet that’s not how those who watched the dead pile up in Rwanda remember it."
King then goes on to catalog the carnage that began in Rwanda five years ago: "That’s the date—April 6—when the Hutu government’s killing machine got rolling in Rwanda. Three months later, after the soldiers, militiamen and death squads silenced their rifles, grenades, machine guns and mortars and put down their machetes, hammers, spears and clubs, at least a half-million men, women and children—three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population—had been slaughtered. It was genocide. The world was not caught flat-footed as the president told Dan Rather. It looked squarely in the face of evil and averted its gaze... No, Mr. President, say what you wish to the cameras, but your administration was not caught flat-footed in Rwanda. Your State Department and United Nations ambassador—then Madeleine Albright—heard the terrifying words of warning. Your White House just didn’t want to get involved... ‘We did some good,’ Clinton told CBS. Amazing. Simply amazing."
On April 2, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman was doubtful that the administration will come up with any coherent strategy, writing, "We are losing now, folks." He then sums up NATO’s options: "Beat the Serbs until they learn to love the Kosovars. Invade Kosovo and own it forever. Cut and run and bear the stain forever. Or bomb and talk and hope to build a messy diplomatic solution from the ashes of Kosovo. Oh, there’s a fifth option: Put your hands together and pray that the Clinton team knows something that you don’t."
Even The New York Observer’s Joe Conason, who’s defended Clinton far more strenuously than a man of his intelligence should, joined the naysayers, although softly, about the President’s lack of a clearly thought-out military plan. In his April 5 column, Conason concluded: "Whether Mr. Clinton once believed that Mr. Milosevic could be curbed by air strikes alone no longer matters much. It still is conceivable that sustained bombing will force the Serbian tyrant to seek a deal. But sometime during the next several weeks Mr. Clinton may have to decide whether to commit ground forces. In the debate over that issue, everyone should understand that the price of backing down from this test and undermining NATO may not come due until years after Mr. Clinton leaves office." Of course, that wouldn’t bother Clinton at all: leaving his miserable droppings for a predecessor.
Last Saturday, The Boston Globe’s John Ellis declared that the war was already over; Milosevic has achieved his "ethnic cleansing" and will initiate "peace" talks with the NATO powers. "And," Ellis writes, "President Clinton will take whatever he can get and get out... At the peace conference, Milosevic will be happy to spit back territory in southern Kosovo that he neither cares about nor needs. He’ll call it a concession and perhaps throw in the kidnapped U.S. infantrymen as a gesture of ‘good will.’ Clinton will take that, too. He cut and ran in Somalia. He’ll cut and run in Yugoslavia...
"The watching world will learn a new lesson, which is that the iron fist of the United States doesn’t pack much punch. Homicidal gangsters have hamstrung the most powerful military force in human history. This is Clinton’s national security legacy. This is his bridge to the 21st century. This is the cost of feckless leadership."
I’ve laid out this sampling of leading newspaper pundits—omitting The
Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly and The New York
Times’ William Safire, all three of whom have been historically more
fierce in their criticism of Clinton—to demonstrate how far the
President has fallen from the heady days of Whitewater and Oralgate,
when his approval ratings were stratospheric and his friends in the
press numerous enough to fill Yankee Stadium. That isn’t the case
anymore. With this most public and embarrassing debacle, this stunning
example of his inability to lead the country either morally or
strategically, it’s finally clear that William Jefferson Clinton will
slink back to Little Rock or Hollywood a diminished man who, even by the
most liberal historian’s reckoning, will be judged as a politician who
excelled at little more than getting elected to the presidency
04/05/99: The Gore Republic Gets Dressed Up. So What?