War is hell -- for GOP politicians

Torn between internationalism and isolationism, Republicans try to make the best of Kosovo.

Published April 15, 1999 5:54PM (EDT)

War is hell, even on politicians. And the early political fallout from the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia and Kosovo is becoming a quagmire both for Congress and for the presidential contenders in both parties.

So far, there's been a striking political role reversal: Republicans, who used to be reliable defenders of U.S. military initiatives, are doing most of the criticizing, while normally dovish Democrats defend President Clinton's actions in Yugoslavia. Defense Secretary William Cohen was caught in a political pincer Thursday morning when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Republican members are normally pro-military. But Oklahoma Sen. James Imhofe scolded Cohen, insisting the United States had no business getting involved in an air or ground war in the Balkans. And for the first time Cohen acknowledged that American casualties are not a "possibility but a probability."

On the House side, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright found herself in a similar fight in front of the Appropriations Committee, with many Republican members criticizing her for starting a war without adequate preparation. The Clinton administration will have to ask the committee for a $4 billion supplemental appropriations bill to pay for the war's enormous expense, and the politics are already intense. Republicans can probably be counted on to support an increase in the military budget, but they may attach strings that won't be to the administration's liking. House Majority Leader Richard Armey sent an e-mail to Republicans early Thursday asking for support to tack on more funds to increase Pentagon funding across the board, but it's likely Armey and his allies will also seek dollars for things Clinton opposes.

But if the war may ultimately hurt Democrats, right now it's giving the Republicans the biggest political problems. The GOP is sharply divided between old-line internationalists like former Sen. Bob Dole and isolationists like Pat Buchanan, who has a number of GOP allies in Congress. California Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate Silicon Valley Republican, has introduced two bills intended to force the House to declare war on Yugoslavia or halt the bombing campaign by May 1. He introduced the legislation under the War Powers Act to compel Congress and the Clinton administration to obey the constitutional requirement that "Congress and only Congress [can] declare war."

"We are presently at war," Campbell declared. "It is an unconstitutional war, and the sooner we bring the matter to a vote in the House of Representatives, the sooner the Constitution is complied with."

In this topsy-turvy political climate, liberal California Democrats who represent the anti-war wing of the party immediately criticized Campbell for not backing the military action. Still, the solid support for Clinton among Democrats started to develop some cracks.

On April 14, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, normally a staunch defender of the president, took to the Senate floor to issue a strong broadside. "Despite claims by NATO and Pentagon officials that they predicted everything, the United States and the rest of NATO were clearly unprepared for the debacle that unfolded," he said. "I suspect historians may look unkindly on the administration officials who did not have the contingency plan if Milosevic refused to back down after a few days or weeks of NATO bombing."

Leahy went on to praise Arizona Sen. John McCain for advocating the use of ground forces. Clouds over the rugged mountains of Kosovo have brought sunny days to McCain's campaign to take the White House in 2000. The longer the war drags on, the more media, money and volunteers will flow into McCain's camp.

"The phones are ringing off the hook," says McCain's campaign press secretary, Howard Opinsky. "Our poll numbers are up six points." Campaign contributions are sure to follow.

In the crass calculus of presidential politics, the pained faces and bombed bridges that flash across American TV screens have given McCain the opportunity to display himself as a true American hero, the Vietnam War vet who spent years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. By comparison, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's reticence to comment on the American and NATO air war in Yugoslavia has dropped him from golden boy to missing in action. And the Republican Party that used to line up in lockstep on military and foreign policy matters is divided and demoralized, according to a variety of GOP activists.

The war in Kosovo is the first defining moment in a campaign that is a year away from hitting high gear. In a crowded field of potential GOP nominees, McCain has quickly defined himself as a distinguished former Naval officer who knows something about foreign affairs and isn't afraid of taking bold positions. As soon as Serbian troops captured three American servicemen, McCain was all over the news: "Nightline," "Larry King Live," the three morning shows. He looked like Ike Eisenhower in waiting.

"Avoiding casualties, theirs and ours, is not our primary objective," he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday. "Winning is, the sooner the better. To that end, we should commence today to mobilize infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war in Kosovo."

"It's a total plus for McCain," says veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "All the other Republicans are scared to talk."

The greatest fear is coming from Bush's campaign headquarters in Austin, Texas. The son of the former president has said very little about Kosovo, and what he has said makes him look less than presidential. Bush apparently referred to Kosovar refugees as Kosovarians. "What's that," asks a gleeful Democratic operative, "a new group from a distant galaxy in the next 'Star Wars' movie?"

In his most candid remarks to date, Bush told New York Times columnist William Safire: "I believe we ought to be slow to engage our military, slow to commit our troops," but he begged off on more details, saying he didn't have full intelligence on the matter.

It's not that Bush lacks good advisors. Two luminaries in the foreign policy firmament, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Haas, have put themselves at Bush's disposal. But he's either not happy with their advice or he's chosen to take the politically expedient course of keeping his mouth shut.

Or perhaps he's trying to avoid the fate of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, whose presidential bid collapsed when he said he'd changed his views on the Vietnam War because he'd had "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get."

Bush's inability to take a clear position has opened him up to jabs from other Republicans and Democrats. On the one hand he's said that the United States has a stake in Kosovo; on the other he's tapped New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg as his standard bearer for that state's key early primary, and Gregg is firmly against U.S. involvement.

"He's getting buffeted by his right and by his right," says one prominent Democratic official.

The governor's vacillation is a metaphor for the divisions within the GOP. With the Democrats in command of bedrock GOP issues like the economy and crime, Republicans are desperate for an issue, but they are in disarray on defense, too.

"For 30 years, Republicans have maintained a unified foreign policy as military hawks against communism," says Luntz. "This time, for some strange reason, Bill Clinton has unified the Democratic Party, and the Republicans are divided." Indeed, isolationists may constitute a strong bloc of GOP primary voters, so that McCain's strong support for the war could ultimately backfire come election time.

The day McCain advocated sending troops to Kosovo, Pat Buchanan, running once again for the GOP nomination, said the Kosovo campaign was "the greatest debacle I've ever seen almost in my lifetime." Both Steve Forbes and Dan Quayle, two more in the pack of GOP hopefuls, have come out against U.S. involvement.

David Keene, longtime head of the American Conservative Union, is calling for a withdrawal from Kosovo. "Who appointed us God?" he asks.

Looking like Republicans, the Democrats are unified behind Clinton and the bombing campaign. Even liberals like Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is in step. But there are pitfalls, especially for Vice President Al Gore. The Democratic front-runner has been a proponent of American involvement, but a prolonged war that starts costing American lives could put Gore in the position of campaigning while soldiers in body bags are flown home.

"Gore's got to be very nervous," says Keene. "He doesn't know what's going to happen."

But even GOP candidates who favor action in Kosovo have found ways to criticize Clinton, and by extension Gore. Both McCain and Republican presidential contender Elizabeth Dole assailed his "credibility." Taking a page from McCain's speeches, Dole used a speech Wednesday before the Naval Academy to call on Clinton to "build up and deploy the forces necessary to win the war" in Kosovo. But she also hit Clinton's credibility and vacillation on foreign policy. "When we accept half promises," she said, "we send the wrong messages about our values and our will."

McCain has already admitted the potential risks of his strong position. "I know that should Americans die in a land war with Serbia, I will bear considerable share of the responsibility for their loss," he says. "I and any member who shares my views must be as accountable to their families as the president must be."

The bottom line is that McCain gets to look presidential as long as Americans are at war, and that's a big advantage for a candidate who was not at the front of the large Republican pack.

"Americans are seeing someone who they could easily see sitting in the Oval Office," says McCain spokesman Opinsky.

Meanwhile, Bush is still sitting in Austin, padding his campaign war chest.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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