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Yugoslavia: Use Of Ground Forces Divides NATO

Prague, 20 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is in Washington today to discuss the Kosovo crisis with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Cook has said the visit is meant to demonstrate NATO's solidarity on the air campaign against Yugoslavia. But the trip comes in the midst of a growing debate among alliance members over sending ground troops into Kosovo.

It's not the first time NATO members have publicly disagreed over the use of ground troops in the Serbian province. But this week, any appearance of NATO unity over strategy began to unravel.

On Monday, Cook said in Brussels that NATO should be prepared to send an international security force into Kosovo without the permission of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- a move the White House has opposed. The New York Times reports that the comment prompted a 90-minute telephone conversation between U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which Clinton expressed his displeasure at Cook's remarks.

In public, Clinton appeared to waiver on the issue, when he told reporters he has not and will not rule out any option.

Germany's opposition to a NATO ground invasion is more public and more clear cut. On Tuesday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said it would be unthinkable to launch a ground war. He reiterated Germany's opposition at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana in Brussels yesterday. "The German government and our Parliamentary opposition take an equally clear position, namely that we reject the deployment of ground troops. That's a German position that is fully accepted in our parliament, but if I understand the NATO position -- and I tried to help develop that position -- then it is also the present strategy of NATO. And since the strategy of an alliance can only be changed by agreement among the allies, I take the view that the NATO strategy will not be changed."

Michael Clark, director of the Center for Defence Studies at Kings College in London, says the alliance is facing possible failure because NATO cannot agree on a military strategy. He says one of the main problems is a lack of leadership from Clinton, who he says has relied heavily on public opinion in deciding foreign policy.

"The critical issue is Clinton's own quality and style of leadership. He is a leader who really doesn't get out in front very much. He sees the way the wind blows and he follows it and he's been noted for this throughout his presidency. Now that he feels that the trend is away from a ground campaign he's keeping his head down and trying to discern which way public opinion is going."

American public opinion over U.S. involvement in Kosovo is mixed, with support apparently falling somewhat. A recent poll by The Pew Research Center shows 53 percent of Americans favor U.S. involvement in Kosovo, down nearly 10 points from a month ago. Exactly half, 50 percent, support sending ground troops. Beyond mixed public attitudes, Clinton would likely face significant resistance from the opposition-controlled Congress to a use of ground troops unless they go in after a peace deal has been signed.

Analysts say that public opinion has also played a key role in Germany's position. Edward Foster, head of the European Program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says German citizens have what he calls a "strong cultural problem" with sending troops into combat. Chancellor Schroeder must also consider the views of his coalition partner, the Green party, which strongly objects to a ground war and could topple Schroeder's government if he agrees to send ground troops.

In England, public opinion favors an expansion of NATO's Kosovo campaign to include an effort on the ground. Clark of Kings College says Prime Minister Blair, who is now seen as the most hawkish western leader on the issue of ground troops, governs a country whose citizens accept that soldiers may be killed in active service.

"There's only been one year since 1945 when British troops have not been killed in active service and that generally is accepted by the British public. And I think the British have always had this sense that if you start to get involved in a military operation you've got to plan to take it through to its logical conclusion and that sort of thinking does not inform American politics. It informs the American military but it doesn't inform American politics or German politics as much as it informs British politics."

Military strategists agree that Britain has two weeks at most to convince NATO allies to commit to an invasion force. They argue that to be effective, such a force must include between 80,000 to 100,000 troops. A force that size would take at least six weeks to deploy. Experts say that if they are to defeat Serb forces, NATO troops must complete their campaign before winter starts. And they say that means they must be in place by the beginning of August.