Covering Kosovo like Monica

Can the White House wage war when every private Oval Office strategy battle gets leaked to the media?

Published April 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

It's Day Seven of the air war against Slobodan Milosevic and his genocidal hoodlums, and the ass-covering and finger-pointing is well under way. White House decision makers are waking up to find their every private utterance about strategy on the front pages of the day's newspapers and going to bed at night watching cable chat shows -- which had until recently been devoted to All Monica, All the Time coverage -- filled with blather about Kosovo.

White House decision makers are not happy.

One senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that coverage of the Balkans is more disturbing than Zippergate.

"When the president meets with his political advisors, people expect that the meeting will be leaked in the next 20 minutes," the official said. "During the Lewinsky scandal, you'd pick up the paper every morning and there would be a blow-by-blow analysis of meetings inside the White House. But I don't think people expected that to happen with the military, and with international matters."

There are actually several similarities between media coverage of the Lewinsky scandal and the Kosovo crisis. Pundits, you'll recall, declared the president defeated and impeached early in the intern drama. Likewise, in Kosovo, "We're only in Day Seven and already the press corps wants us to declare defeat before it's even begun," the official said.

And a quick scan of cable news shows will find a lot of the same smug faces from the Monicacophony, now passing themselves off as Kosovo experts, spewing Quik'n'easy sound bites on an issue as old and complex as the Balkans. There's the Wall Street Journal's John Fund and publisher Mort Zuckerman on MSNBC; their seats must still be warm. It's not hard to detect relief, even glee, in the hosts: "We're ba-a-a-a-a-ck!" But this time the topic isn't semen or cigars -- it's mass displacement, slaughter and genocide, a mini-Holocaust that should be too serious for talking heads who don't know Kosovo from a casaba. War is not a time to throw out opinions hastily formed.

But then, when it comes to opinions hastily formed, Clinton himself wasn't helping matters when, on the day the bombing began, he confessed that he'd been "reading up on the history of that area," like a grad student dilettante. The president's draft-dodging notwithstanding, it's tough to argue with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- a man who knows war all too well -- when he described this administration's foreign policy as "feckless."

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It's not just snipes from the sidelines that are getting under the skin of administration officials trying to bring an end to the terror in Yugoslavia. Some of the Chatty Cathies talking to the media are wearing medals and carrying guns.

Thursday's story by Washington Post writer John Harris, for instance, indicates that President Clinton's strategy sessions with State Department, administration and military officials have more leaks than a colander. A New York Times report Thursday cited complaints about the White House and NATO's "missed signals and suggestions of mismanagement" from anonymous military and civilian officials in Brussels and Washington. It's got to be tough to stare down a tyrant like Milosevic when the players on your own team are giving off-the-record assessments as to when and how and why you might blink.

The unhappy administration official specifically cited Harris' story in the Washington Post, which described various unnamed sources from the White House, the military and the State Department all sniping at one another's arguments. "If I'm president and I pick up the Washington Post and see the entire military meeting recounted, it not only hampers my ability to decide what we're doing in Kosovo, and how to best explain it to the country, but it also sends signals to the Serbs," the official said. "Can you imagine if people did this in World War II, came out of meetings and told the press about the strategy debates? It just didn't happen."

Of course, presidents are never happy about leaks about military affairs, even when they serve the national interest. President Nixon, for instance, was pretty steamed at Daniel Ellsberg over the Pentagon Papers. And the Clinton administration itself has been using the media to "telegraph" its military strategy, alerting reporters to airstrikes before they began, for instance, and describing the escalation of bombing in "Phase Two." But the anonymous military criticism also has an ass-covering dimension to it, captured in a Thursday Associated Press headline about the unprecedented military leaking: "Military fears image may be damaged."

"Some of the stuff being written is undermining the administration's ability to wage a justifiable action," the official said. "It hampers the process. If you know that what you're going to talk about" in the privacy of a closed-door Oval Office meeting "is the next minute going to be on [CNN's] "Inside Politics," on issues that are not and should not be about politics, it hinders making the policy."

In the end, the administration's only recourse is ... to talk to the media, too. Clinton went on "60 Minutes II" Wednesday and told the nation, "I understand the frustration of some of our people in the Pentagon," but "I don't want a lot of innocent Serbian civilians to die because they have a man running their country that's doing something atrocious." Clinton urged Americans to "have a little resolve here ... We cannot view this as something that will be instantaneously successful."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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