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Lawmakers Express Worries Over U.S. Balkan Campaign

By Bradley Graham and Guy Gugliotta

In grave exchanges notable for their lack of partisan polemics, Congress and the Clinton administration Thursday began testing each other’s resolve in escalating what both sides agreed could be a prolonged, expensive and potentially deadly intervention in the Balkans.

For hours in Senate and House hearings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listened to worried lawmakers voice their anxieties about the current air war over Yugoslavia and their misgivings about what the future may hold.

It was clear that neither party has reached a consensus about whether to send U.S. ground troops to drive Serb forces from the ethnic Albanian enclave of Kosovo. It was equally clear, however, that many lawmakers are growing hawkish about the need to win NATO’s war in the Balkans.

Winning will be expensive, however, and top congressional appropriators huddled with administration officials to work out details of an emergency spending proposal that some said will be close to $6 billion through Sept. 30.

Senate Republican leaders hope Congress will pass the emergency proposal by the end of next week, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised a full-scale debate on the future in Kosovo. Thursday’s hearings marked the administration’s first public appearances in Congress to detailing the course of the war since the bombing campaign began March 24.

“We are involved in a limited and political war of incremental gradualism,” complained Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) at an Armed Services Committee session, echoing the frustrations of many members about the course of the battle so far. “It’s what I call the immaculate coercion. It’s called casualty avoidance.”

Cohen acknowledged that the United States would have done “things differently” in managing the fight if not for the need to maintain unanimous support within the 19-member NATO alliance. But he recalled there was no political support in the United States for acting unilaterally.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said NATO attacks should have hit harder from the first day and expressed disbelief that the administration had not started planning for a ground war in Kosovo. “Limited actions beget limited results,” said the senator, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. He and others pressed for a commitment for at least the start of detailed planning for ground forces

But Cohen and Shelton opposed the idea. They voiced concern that any move to consider a ground option could stir divisive debate in the United States and Europe, undercutting political support even for the air campaign. Shelton said NATO military commanders had been specifically ordered by the alliance’s political body, the North Atlantic Council, not to draw up plans for ground forces, although he added that alliance planners were updating an “assessment” done last summer on the rough number of troops it would take to seize Kosovo or all of Yugoslavia by force.

The Pentagon leaders urged lawmakers to be patient with the air campaign, which they said would intensify. Shelton told the senators that “in the next few days,” attacks would be carried out.”