Just hours before President Clinton sent bombers to attack Serbia, he gave a speech to explain why. Unlike the televised address he delivered the next night, this speech, delivered to a union group on Tuesday, appeared to be unscripted. It was Clinton being Clinton. It has to be read to be believed. For incoherence and simple-mindedness, for disorganization and sheer intellectual laziness, it is unmatched in recent American history.

It is forgivable to make a difficult, if mistaken, decision in a situation with no very good options. It is not forgivable to send American men and women into battle in the name of a cause one can barely elucidate.Clinton's first stab at telling us "what Kosovo is about" is this: "Look all over the world. People are still killing each other out of primitive urges because they think what is different about them is more important than what they have in common."

But if that is what Kosovo is about -- an inability to "just get along," to quote Rodney King -- why are we going to war? Cruise missiles are an odd instrument of social work.

In fact, Clinton is wrong. The reason for the killing in Kosovo is not mindless ethnic hatred, but quite rational power politics. There is a guerrilla army of Kosovar Albanians who want independence and are willing to kill to achieve it. And there is a Serb army that wants to keep Kosovo in Yugoslavia and preserve the sovereignty of the state. And they are willing to kill for that.

By the president's logic, the American Revolution was Minutemen and Redcoats killing each other out of primitive urges because they thought what was different about them was more important than what they had in common. Contrary to Clinton's sentimental view, civil war -- in Kosovo as elsewhere -- is not mere mindless bigotry. It reflects the desire of one group to dominate another, and the other to resist that domination. It is about politics, not about psychology.

Later in the speech, Clinton seems dimly to acknowledge this point. He said "it was an insult" to claim that the Balkan peoples are congenitally given to ethnic warfare, "that somehow they were intrinsically made to murder one another." So, he concludes, contradicting his view of just five minutes earlier, Kosovo is indeed about more than people just fighting over ethnic differences out of primitive urges.

What then? Clinton makes a halfhearted attempt to show that it's about our economy, stupid. "If we're going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key." Our economy demands a "Europe that is safe, secure, free, united, a good partner with us for trading."

OK. But what's that got to do with Yugoslavia? How is it that during the Bosnian war, a far more savage conflict involving three European countries, the United States enjoyed its greatest peacetime expansion in history, a boast Clinton never tires of making?

Perhaps realizing that he is on soft ground here, Clinton immediately switches rationale. "And so I want to talk to you about Kosovo today but just remember this -- it's about our values. What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?"

But if Serbia's Milosevic is Hitler, how come this Hitler has been our peace partner in the Dayton Accords these past three years now?

Never mind. When in doubt play the Hitler card. No matter how ridiculous the analogy. After all, Serbia has no ambition to rule a continent, nor the power to do so.

It was always wrong and unwise to call Saddam "Hitler" (as both the previous and current administrations have done), but at least Saddam in control of the vast oil wealth of the Persian Gulf would have become the dominant power in the region and a nuclear-armed threat to world peace. But Serbia? In Kosovo it is not even attempting to take over any foreign territory. Its objective is merely to retain sovereignty over a province that has been Yugoslavia's since Yugoslavia was created in 1918.

Clinton then veers into an attempt at domino-theory geopolitics, saying that it is really about Greece and Turkey. He says that twice, never explains why, and then drops the subject completely. Was he reading talking points?

It was a disgraceful performance. People join the military knowing they might one day be asked to risk their lives. They thus cannot complain when that day comes. But they also join the military with the expectation that when they are sent to risk their lives, they serve a commander in chief who can, unscripted, justify their coming sacrifice in a manner that at least simulates deliberation, strategic thinking and coherence. On that score, they have already been seriously let down.

Washington Post Writers Group