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14 June 1999

Our current howler (part III): Poorly grounded

Synopsis: After being wrong about everything else, the pundits remained sure about ground troops.

Commentary by Pat Caddell, Chris Matthews,
Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (Ret.)
Hardball, CNBC, 6/10/99

Commentary by Chris Matthews
Hardball, CNBC, 6/9/99

Success in Kosovo
Editorial, The Washington Post, 6/11/99

Lessons Of Kosovo
William Safire, The New York Times, 6/7/99

Victory, But at a Price
Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, 6/14/99

Last Wednesday night, pundit Pat Caddell saw the flaws in the Kosovo peace plan:

CADDELL: You know, the question of who goes back, and also the KLA--imagine. I’ll tell you, if I were a KLA fighter who joined after my mother watched her home burned, my father murdered, my sister raped, and my younger brother disappear, I’m not going to put down my guns. I’m going to want vengeance. And I think that Serbians who live there are in trouble. I don’t think this is all going to go away so nicely. But the other thing is I don’t know if Mom wants to go back. What are you going back to?

Caddell was right about one thing. He didn’t know if “Mom” wants to go back--almost surely doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But pundits who were wrong for the past three months knew what to do when a deal was struck. They began listing everything potentially imperfect with the deal--always acting as if they alone had noticed. One night earlier, the Hardball gang had been rolling its eyes at how messed up this new deal would be:

MATTHEWS: How does a guy from Alabama or Philadelphia or Maine who can’t speak any of the languages over there become a cop on the beat in Kosovo when he has to go over and say, “I’m trying to find out now who shot that guy yesterday, I’m trying to track down the criminal who shot a Kosovar. I think he was a Serbian, although I don’t know what a Serbian looks like.” This is incredible.

Everything was crazy, as usual. The following night, the talker, still troubled, posed his problem to Gen. Tom McInerney. Could we “enforce police power in a country” where we don’t even know the “garb,” the talker asked:

MCINERNEY: Yes, I think we can and I think they’ll do very well. It’s a superbly professional force and I think they’ll do well.

Dang! Major note to Hardball producers--stop booking irregular guests like the general, who don’t know how modern Hardball is played. Other guests understood the rules--the talker’s complaints are never challenged. Pundits exist to list complaints--always as if they, and no one else, had been smart enough to think of them.

Some pundits admitted they’d been wrong in some views. But there was one major point on which no one backed down; everyone knew things would have gone much better if Dumb Clinton had just threatened those ground troops! William Safire voiced the view that a thousand other savants had memorized:

SAFIRE: What are the lessons the West is learning in trying to stop national criminality? 1) Never tell the criminals what you will do. This is a sign of lack of confidence in your own people and your allies, and diminishes your ability to lead. “I do not intend to send ground troops” encourages the criminals and prolongs the war. Only when NATO ground troops became a live option...did the criminals begin to talk.

Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts have begged us to speak on this argument for months now. From start to finish it had roiled them ranks, and now we express their complaints. In doing so, we’re pleased to cite the Washington Post, whose recent editorial made so much sense. The Post made points on the ground troop question we had seen voiced by nobody else:

THE POST: It is said, for example, that Mr. Clinton erred in vowing not to use ground troops. But the threat of ground troops would not likely have deterred Mr. Milosevic in the absence of actual deployments; and deployments would have taken so long that he could easily have completed his campaign of terror in any case.

All the ethnic cleansing that Milosevic achieved, he could have achieved with ground troops in transit. It’s a simple, basic, logistical point--one we had seen no one else make before.

But there’s another problem with the pundits’ complaint, one the Post didn’t mention. What would have happened to Clinton’s political support if he had threatened ground troops from the start? Without question, some commentators who scored him for not threatening troops would have hammered him then for risking troops’ lives. There is no way of knowing what political effect a decision to send ground troops would have had.

Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek, actually spoke to this point:

ZAKARIA: In choosing to use limited means for limited goals, Clinton steered a course between inaction and overcommitment--which looks canny in hindsight. Not only did the air war maintain NATO’s unity, it also ensured that Russia and China would not veto a U.N. mandate for the war...It was the surest way to preserve domestic support...With a much better feel for the popular mood than his critics, he recognized that the public would support such a war as long as it was cheap.

Is that why Clinton held back from ground troops? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. We do know that those who have criticized Clinton have made little effort to speak to these points. Like Peter Pans, they have stamped their feet every time that their Daddy doesn’t rule the earth like a god. And, in saying things would have gone better if Clinton threatened troops, they have rarely spoken to the problems that Clinton avoided by running the war as he did.

But watching Caddell lecture on about “Mom,” one sees the role of the modern pundit. The pundit plays the role of the child, endlessly whining when life is imperfect. The pundit pretends that his Daddy could rule, and complains that Daddy doesn’t care as he does. The mental world of the child is acted out each night as the pundit gang does its complaining.

You’d think that, after having been wrong about everything else, the pundits would be more humble. And again, some pundits have stood up and said it: they were wrong in assessments they made. But others, wrong for the past three months, have clearly lived to be wrong again. We’re open to various critiques of the war--but not to Pat Caddell as Mom’s knowing Albanian.

Ground zero: Safire voiced another common view when he complained that our troops didn’t die:

SAFIRE: Do not place a higher value on the lives of warriors than on the lives of civilians. Members of armed forces are trained and paid to risk their lives, civilians are not.

But the key distinction is simply ignored--the “warriors” here were American citizens, the Kosovar civilians were not. It is absurd to think that an American commander-in-chief may not value his troops’ lives above others. We have not seen Safire’s argument, by the way, in interviews from the Kosovar camps. The refugees seem grateful for what was done, without suggesting what is plainly false--that NATO was under an obligation to try to do a great deal more.