Friday, May 28, 1999
Section: Editorial
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 6B
Memo: Opinion
Robert C. McFarlane is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and served as President Reagan's national security adviser from 1983-85. He wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.

American goals in the Kosovo crisis, as defined by President Clinton -- to secure the withdrawal of Serb forces, the return of Kosovo Albanians to their homes with an outside security force to protect them -- are praiseworthy and achievable. To do so will require the use of ground forces -- from two to five divisions depending upon the character of the force and its scheme of maneuver. No serious military authority questions that judgment.

However, 60 days into our conduct of this war using air power alone, those same serious experts -- who urged the use of all necessary means from the start -- are beginning to question whether we should go ahead and do so. Their second thoughts derive from the woeful ineptitude the Clinton administration has shown in its conduct of the war thus far and the fear that if that pattern continues, we will not accomplish our purposes but instead suffer a humiliating defeat at great cost in lives, treasure and international standing. These critics reach this conclusion with heavy hearts and a sense that the impending defeat before us represents the beginning of the demise of American power and leadership in the world. But they are beginning to fear that a decision to use ground forces, and then to subject them to the constant and inept interference of a commander in chief driven by domestic political considerations, could lead to an even worse loss and lasting embarrassment. Let me back up to explain.

Setting aside whether we ought ever to have become involved, now that we are in it, we must not lose. The stakes are too high. Our ability, now and in the years ahead, to deter challengers and to promote and defend our national interests from the Persian Gulf to North Korea rests largely on our being perceived as competent to wage and win any conflict we face. Similarly, it is important, if we hope to lead and benefit from collective security alliances, that our allies have confidence that siding with us will put them on the winning side.

Winning, however, requires leadership at the top -- a commander in chief who is competent to define our interests in terms intelligible to the American people, define threats to those interests persuasively, forge a sound politico-military strategy that spares no available resources and prosecute that strategy with unwavering determination to a successful conclusion regardless of doubt or criticism.

Under any outcome in this crisis, we are probably going to suffer enormous damage to important American interests. First and foremost, allies who by definition look to us for leadership may hedge their bets by mending ties with Russia and China. Their support and votes in international bodies may become less reliable and their criticism less guarded. China and Russia likely will remember how little consideration we gave to the precedent of intervening in a sovereign country's internal affairs and ponder the relative importance we placed on that impulse versus, say, preventing the collapse of the Russian economy or maintaining regional stability in Asia.

A worse outcome, however, would be to lose and withdraw in humiliation. Or so I have always believed. But I am beginning to fear that there is a worse outcome: to launch into a ground war and then fail. I have little doubt that left to do its job, our military could take back Kosovo, provide a safe haven into which the Kosovo Albanians could return and protect it until an acceptable regime of autonomy is functioning. Unfortunately, however, from what we have seen in the more than two months of this war, it seems clear that the military will not be left to do its job. Instead, with a wet finger in thewind driving policy, forces once committed will be vulnerable to the devastating effect of bombing moratoriums, negotiating ''pauses'' or paralyzing referrals to the U.N. or to NATO, with its painstaking 19-nation decision-making process.

Once major ground forces are committed, body bags will start coming home in significant numbers. And, with the president continuing to interfere based upon domestic political considerations even while unable and unwilling to make the case for doing what it takes to win, we will end up watching the White House spin the ''failure of Russian diplomacy'' or ''Serbian fanaticism'' into an excuse for withdrawing after a humiliating failure. Regretfully, I believe that we could withdraw now at less cost.

Some will say that such is life in the multicultural world. Nonsense. Leadership and winning create their own constituency.

As one who came away from the Vietnam War with at least the expectation that we now knew what not to do, I am astonished to see this return to feckless incrementalism, the absence of coherent policy and a void of political leadership. Maybe you had to be there. We're in a war, Mr. President. This is important. Get on with it.

All content 1999 SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS and may not be republished without permission.

All archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.