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Balkans Report

Allies See No Credible Alternative

Serb forces
In Gornja Klina, about 25 miles northwest of Pristina in the Drenica region of Kosovo, houses burn Monday after being torched by advancing Serb forces. (Reuters)
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 1999; Page A12

The United States and its North Atlantic allies tried mightily to prevent Kosovo's return to war. Now that they appear to have failed, they are hoping to halt the fighting quickly, without a winner.

Bombing to stop the conflict, which the allies are poised to commence, is not an easy policy to carry off. The Clinton administration and NATO are consciously risking the very regional escalation they so long sought to avoid. They are doing so, President Clinton suggested yesterday, because the alternatives look worse.

One unappealing aspect of nearly any alternative is the humiliation of NATO and of the United States, NATO's creator and main component.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has crossed, in turn, three lines that the Clinton administration persuaded NATO to draw, on pain of military reprisal. Forbidden to reinforce his troops in Kosovo, Milosevic dispatched some 40,000 to the province and its border. Ordered to sign a peace pact, he spurned it. And warned against a new offensive aimed at Kosovo's secessionist Albanian majority, Milosevic launched exactly that over the weekend.

Inaction "could involve a major cost in credibility, particularly at this time as we approach the NATO summit in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary," said a European diplomat. National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, speaking Sunday, listed among the principal purposes of bombing "to demonstrate that NATO is serious."

Clinton himself, on Friday, put the largest emphasis on the humanitarian disaster that he said would unfold without NATO intervention, citing the "sounds of sniper fire aimed at children." But as one of his foreign policy advisers remarked, "there are massive bloodbaths all over the world and we're not intervening in them." The difference, the adviser said, is that "this one's in the heart of Europe. I'd argue that the alliance itself is at risk because if it's unable to address a major threat within Europe, it really loses its reason for being."

The reason a Kosovo war is such a threat is that any outcome risks escalation.

If Milosevic crushes ethnic Albanian resistance in Serbia's restive province, the Clinton administration and NATO fear that the flood of guns and refugees across Kosovo's borders will ignite ethnic Albanian populations in neighboring Macedonia; in Montenegro, which with Serbia forms the Yugoslav federation; and perhaps in Albania itself. That in turn might draw in mutually hostile neighbors such as Turkey and Greece.

If Kosovo wins its independence by force, NATO fears those same populations might rise up to press for a single pan-Albanian state. And if the fighting goes on without a winner, Clinton said Friday, it has "no natural boundaries" anyway.

As they prepare to launch an air campaign, the Clinton administration and NATO therefore hope for a calibration of violence that is seldom achieved in war. Bluntly put, they want to kill enough Serbs and destroy enough of their war machine to prevent the defeat of a much less powerful rebel force, but not so many that the rebels will be emboldened to press for victory themselves. After a suitable interval, they plan to reintroduce their peace plan.

It is a tall order for NATO's commanders, the warmaking equivalent of the "Goldilocks economy" not too hot and not too cold. Even if bombs and missiles could bring such a result, several officials interviewed said there is not much ground for optimism that a democracy still less 19 of them operating on NATO rules of unanimous consent can manipulate them so precisely.

For the first time this weekend, senior officials in Washington and Europe began to acknowledge they may accidentally set the stage for an independent Kosovar state that they have long opposed.

"We're not going to be in a situation that can be perfectly choreographed," said one British official.

Berger, in some of his least-noted comments Sunday, seemed to threaten Milosevic with that very outcome, a scenario that Washington continues to regard as dangerous. "If he seeks a military victory in Kosovo, in my judgment he will lose Kosovo," Berger said.

The Clinton administration tried last October to demand Serbian restraint and impose limits on Serbian forces in Kosovo. When the rebels continued their guerrilla war and Milosevic ordered overwhelming retaliation, the administration decided on a bolder gambit: forcing a political settlement on both sides.

Milosevic complained in a letter yesterday to the French and British foreign ministers that the document completed in Paris last week can hardly be called an agreement, as his signature is demanded on pain of bombing. Even American officials acknowledged that, on that point, it was hard to rebut him.

"There isn't much precedent for demanding to dispatch peacekeepers at the point of a gun," one administration official said.

The diplomacy that led up to yesterday's final warning was designed and built in Washington. With modest contributions from Europe, American mediators rounded up an Albanian delegation from among competing guerrilla factions, tried out ideas on both sides in shuttle diplomacy, wrote up a model agreement between them and demanded that both sides sign before they had ever even laid eyes on one another.

The U.S. threat to the Albanian rebels, who had to swallow an autonomy with no guarantee of independence, was to abandon them to the mercies of the more powerful Serbs. The threat to Milosevic, who had to offer much more autonomy than he wished, was to bomb. The Albanians, eventually, agreed. Milosevic did not.

Clinton declared Friday that "the threshold has been crossed" for bombing, a comment described by one U.S. official as "enormously significant." But by one accounting, Milosevic crossed the threshold more than a year ago.

President George Bush, in one of his last acts in office, issued the "Christmas warning" to Milosevic in 1992. He warned, in a letter that has never been made fully public, that the United States would respond with armed force if the Belgrade government brought ethnic violence to Kosovo, where some 90 percent of the populace is Albanian.

When Milosevic launched what Clinton called "a brutal crackdown" in Kosovo in February 1998, Clinton did not make good on his predecessor's threat. Some critics have seen a lack of resolve in the successive warnings Washington has issued since.

But what critics see as vacillation is described by policymakers in Washington as orchestration of international backing for military force, much as they said they accomplished in Iraq. There, they said, they had to work hard to win Gulf Arab support because they could not launch a major air campaign without Arab bases, and they had to neutralize opposition in the U.N. Security Council because they could not maintain an economic embargo alone.

In the former Yugoslavia, they said, they have similar problems. For various reasons, NATO allies such as Greece and Italy have long been skeptical of military action in the Balkans, and it was desirable to wait until Russian opposition had softened. Clinton insists that the United States will provide only 4,000 of 22,000 peacekeepers contemplated in Kosovo, and officials said that means he has to bring NATO along with him before he can act.

"We do know where we want to go, or where we'll have to go," said one administration official, "but when you're talking about building international support, about not being a lone cowboy or global cop, it is a complex challenge to put all the pieces in place. You have to create the necessary diplomatic conditions for success."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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