Richard Cohen says that The Nation "more than any other magazine, probably, speaks for American liberalism," and then denounces the magazine's call for stopping the bombing of Yugoslavia as a liberal fantasy [op-ed, May 14]. But whose is the fantasy?

Advocates of this air war insisted it would forestall the mass displacement, plunder and murder of the Albanian Kosovars. Reality: The catastrophic effects of NATO's air war against Serbia have subverted the Clinton administration's declared humanitarian intentions. By forcing the removal of independent observers and raining bombs on Serbia, NATO gave Slobodan Milosevic the predictable strategic occasion to implement and escalate his long-planned scheme to brutally remove Kosovar Albanians.

Now the bombing intensifies with no humanitarian purpose, destroying the very people and places it was meant to protect. Innocent civilians -- Albanians and Serbs alike -- are dying as "collateral damage," even as Milosevic's killing and displacement of Albanian Kosovars goes on unimpeded. We are destroying a country that we will end up rebuilding -- or, more likely, walking out on. The bombing is destabilizing the entire region we promised to bolster and spreading the war we intended to contain.

Cohen argues that we must nonetheless defend NATO's credibility -- without which, he says, Russia might again prey on the nations of Eastern Europe. The Cold War lives, if only in Cohen's imagination. Reality: NATO's credibility is being shredded across the world as the bombing intensifies and civilian casualties mount, while America's moral reputation is being degraded more effectively than Milosevic's military capabilities. Polls show that public esteem for NATO -- from Central Europe to Latin American -- has dropped dramatically, not because the alliance is viewed as "weak and ineffective" but because it looks like a bully, willing to kill innocent people but unwilling to risk casualties. And while the bombing fuels anti-American anger in Russia, China and other countries with negative consequences for disarmament, economic reform and democratization, the Clinton administration has been counting on the Russians to help get it out of the mess.

Cohen says the war enforces the rule of law. Reality: The Clinton administration and NATO are pursuing their objectives by repeatedly discarding the very standards they claim to defend. NATO chose to launch a war against a sovereign nation without seeking U.N. sanction, thereby undermining the United Nations' authority and thus weakening its ability to deal with future conflicts. The president chose to launch a war without congressional declaration. The House of Representatives refused to endorse the air war, so now it continues in defiance of the will of Congress. NATO's tactics -- the bombing of civilian trains, refugee convoys and the economic infrastructure of Serbia -- violate international accords that all NATO countries have signed. The fact that Milosevic's brutal ethnic cleansing has earned his indictment by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal does not diminish the seriousness of NATO's violations. How can NATO encourage recognition of international law if the alliance itself views itself as above those standards?

But Cohen and others now demand further escalation of the war -- to win it no matter the cost or consequences. This may reflect the desperation of the war's original architects and supporters, but no just war destroys a society in order to save it or uses recklessly disproportionate means. As for the ground war being proposed, it would likely incite Milosevic to massacre remaining fighting-age Kosovar men and use civilians as human shields.

Cohen complains that by halting the bombing, the alliance would allow Milosevic to "retain Kosovo, not to mention his leadership." But NATO has never proposed to oust Milosevic and at Rambouillet compelled the Kosovars to drop their independence demands. A negotiated settlement is NATO's official goal. The argument is how to achieve it.

Considering the disastrous consequences of this war, what is the danger of giving peace a real chance? Cohen admits that NATO's strategy has been "incompetent" but suggests more of the same will somehow solve its faults. That's not realism -- or any liberalism worth the name. If we halt the bombing, however, it may enable all the parties, including Russia, to negotiate productively.

We must now move boldly toward a political settlement, which should include an effective international peacekeeping force acting under U.N. authority to protect the Albanian Kosovars, the opportunity for refugees to return safely, autonomy for Kosovo and a plan for economic reconstruction. (Much of this has already been officially proposed by the G-8 nations.) Only then will the United States and its allies actually help the victims of Milosevic's crimes.

The writer is editor of The Nation.