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Peace shifts score in US politics

Tentative pact could cement Clinton's Houdini image, boost the Gore

The political ramifications from the peace plan in Kosovo - as tentative as it is - are already reverberating from the White House to Capitol Hill to the 2000 campaign trail.

In the parlor game of Washington politics, President Clinton seems headed for another improbable boost in prestige - perhaps adding to his mythology as the Houdini of American politics.

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Vice President Al Gore would benefit from a lasting pact as well, since he wouldn't have to defend a prolonged air campaign or possible ground war - a "second Vietnam" - while trying to run for president. And Republicans in Congress, who have been critical of every administration flinch on foreign policy, may not have the easy issue they had hoped for in the next election.

"Kosovo is defused as a political issue," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University here, noting that all this assumes a peace plan is actually nailed down.

That is a big assumption. Even under the best of conditions - the successful return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to a secure Kosovo - the debate about America's role overseas will continue. And Republicans, according to analysts, will persist in hounding Messrs. Clinton and Gore for their ad-hoc foreign policy.

Moreover, much could still go wrong with the pact itself. Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic - who suddenly and surprisingly capitulated to NATO's demands last week - could still stir up other ethnic trouble. The Kosovo Liberation Army might refuse to disarm. And the refugees may be too distrustful to return home.

That is why, as in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, the administration is not gloating. It is tempering hope with caution.

Still, from the president to the secretary of State, there is relief that Clinton has dodged a serious threat to his presidency. "It was a high-wire act," says Mr. Thurber. "It didn't look like it would end this soon."

Indeed, the commander in chief, who never served a day in the military, can now point to the power of an air war that produced no combat casualties for US forces. Analysts say his decision to rely on air power alone (this is the fourth region targeted by US missiles in the past 11 months), of not getting ahead of the public (polls showed Americans opposed to a ground war), and of forging consensus (a difficult task among 18 other NATO allies) have boosted his standing.

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Nor is Clinton the only one to benefit. The NATO alliance, as well as the reputation of the US military, survived a serious credibility threat.

"There's going to be a respect for United States military power," says Robert Zoellick, a former State Department official and foreign-policy adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. On the other hand, says Mr. Zoellick, "whether they'll come out of it with respect for United States political and diplomatic acumen, I'm less certain."

For those like Zoellick, who are assessing the impact of the peace plan on the 2000 campaign, there's no doubt that Gore comes out the big winner. One caveat: If Milosevic were to remain in power, Yugoslavia could turn into another Iraq that will periodically "flare up," says Zoellick.

While the vice president has avoided the possibility of having to run for president amid an intractable war, other likely candidates for the White House are benefitting from the peace breakthrough as well. For one thing, they now won't have to debate the war, or the fine points of US involvement overseas, unless they want to.

One exception here is Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. He was propelled to national prominence by standing out among his presidential rivals by arguing that NATO should use all means necessary, including ground troops, to win the war.

Still, even Mr. McCain can arguably justify his position. He argues that NATO's belated decision to conduct a more serious bombing campaign and reconsider the use of ground troops helped push Milosevic to accept the peace plan.

McCain, however, illustrates the deep divisions in the GOP-controlled Congress over Kosovo. He has been far more hawkish than the majority of his colleagues about US intervention in the Balkans.

Overall, the approach of the Republican majority in Congress has been to gripe about Clinton's war. They attempted - with only marginal success - to use their purse-string powers to exert authority over Kosovo policy. This approach, marked by internal squabbling, has left the GOP looking slow-footed and basically irrelevant to an unfolding peace agreement.

Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here, says that eventually the GOP presidential nominee will have to bridge over this foreign policy split. In the meantime, don't expect peace in the Balkans to make the president's relations with Congress any easier. Preoccupation with Kosovo has already eaten up time that lawmakers could have devoted to other issues. Spending on a Balkans recovery will likely be an issue.

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