Sen. John McCain is out there everywhere, demanding that President Clinton at least prepare for the possibility of sending American troops to fight a ground war in Kosovo. McCain knows the public is divided on this topic. The latest CBS News poll shows that 45 percent of Americans support the introduction of ground troops, while 46 percent are against it. But McCain has never been one to pull punches predicated on polls.
John McCain, as many Americans are aware, spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was beaten and tortured, but never broken. Now the senior senator from Arizona, he is a man who understands politics but has resisted becoming a "pol." In a speech this week, he argued that by announcing that it would not send in ground forces, NATO made a huge tactical error:
"...you're never supposed to show the enemy what you won't do to win. We should commence today to mobilize infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war in Kosovo," McCain insisted. And, he said, if that in itself doesn't scare Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, "we will be prepared to do what we must to end this conflict on our terms."
Though McCain's position does have some support in Congress from influential senators like Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, he is at odds not only with the administration but also with important members of his own party. And for McCain, more than most senators, speaking his mind on this controversial issue could be dangerous. John McCain wants to be president of the United States. In fact, he was supposed to announce his candidacy this week, but held off because of the situation in Kosovo.
Still, he leaves no doubt that he will run. And he will now do so faced with the possibility that he could be wrong on Kosovo in many ways. It's possible that, as President Clinton contends, the Serbs can be defeated solely with the use of air power. Then, McCain could look like he was too rash in calling for troop mobilization. Or, influenced at least in part by McCain, the president could opt for sending ground troops into Kosovo. There could be heavy fatalities, and troops could get bogged down for years.
But in an interview McCain told me, "I see where we are faced with a number of bad options. This is the least bad option. The consequences of failure are so profound that we have to do everything necessary to win."
And--this is the key--he acknowledged: "I full appreciate this means young Americans may die, and I fully appreciate I take some responsibility for that."
McCain's own military service and his time in that POW camp gives him, perhaps, more authority to speak than any of the other power players on this subject. Americans may not agree with him, but at least they will not have to hunt for his meanings in a maze of obfuscation. And when you listen to him, you have no doubt that his words do not come from a committee of advisors but from his own convictions.
By Rita Braver
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