State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin, barely restraining his exuberance over apparent Serbian capitulation last Thursday, declared that the notorious unreliability of Slobodan Milosevic made it too early to pop the champagne corks. The real question is whether the bubbly ever should flow in celebration.

Former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, a career diplomat who is neither an isolationist nor a Serb sympathizer, labeled President Clinton's triumph "a Pyrrhic victory." Quite apart from doubts about Yugoslav President Milosevic's compliance, disarming the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and returning ethnic Albanians to the ruined province are daunting tasks.

But the truly Pyrrhic nature of NATO's victory lies in longer-term implications. Serious students of foreign policy, far from eager to join in Rubin's prospective champagne bash, were melancholy. U.S. relations with China have been undermined. The most dangerous elements in the Russian military have been emboldened. Most worrisome, the world now sees America with different eyes.

Eight years ago, when the U.S.-led coalition won the Gulf War, Rowland Evans and I wrote a column "on being wrong." We had overestimated Iraqi resistance and the alienation of the Muslim world. But in 1991 we expressed concern about the easy victory in a war declared by presidential decree without real congressional deliberation, concluding: "It is hard to imagine any bar on any president against waging any war in the future that he says is required to correct gross injustice." This prediction proved all too accurate.

I feel no need to eat crow this time about saying that Milosevic would not yield quickly and that Clinton never would invade Kosovo. These factors resulted in relentless bombing to bring the Serbs to heel. The fearsome display of American force has disturbed responsible critics who shared Clinton's view that Serb persecution of Albanians in Kosovo was a valid U.S. concern.

"We are in danger of losing prestige and goodwill around the world," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican who supported the bombing once it began. Eagleburger said, "We look like the big bully to a lot of people around the world."

Former senator Sam Nunn, a rare Democrat critical of both the Gulf and Kosovo wars, saw a systemic difficulty: "I think we have to be more mature in handling these civil wars around the globe. We've got to develop other tools beyond military force to deal with what are non-vital interests, and I consider this a non-vital interest." The other tools? Perhaps waging a war of words and somehow disabling the targeted communications system before the bombing begins.

Revulsion at American use of force takes on a more sinister tone in Russia. Nunn returned from a recent trip to Moscow fearful that NATO's attack on Yugoslavia had immeasurably strengthened hawks in the Russian military and political establishments. The NATO assault has encouraged those in the Kremlin who argue that their country's reduced means require reliance on nuclear arms and their early first use -- a hair-trigger doctrine that Nunn, while a Senate Armed Services Committee member, fought as American policy for two decades.

But this frightening fallout from intervention in the Balkan wars has little impact on the international decision-making process to which the United States now seems committed. On the day Milosevic appeared to hoist the white flag, Jack Kemp addressed a Rome conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall and sounded like Pat Buchanan:

"Here we have an international entity [NATO] threatening literally to destroy a sovereign nation-state [Serbia] so that it can constitute a new protectorate [an independent Kosovo] under its auspices, after which one of the international courts will apportion blame and the international financial institutions will be sent in to reconstruct the societies and their economies."

The seemingly cost-free nature of the Kosovo war could breed new interventions. NATO last week estimated that 5,000 Serbian troops died in the bombing, while not a single killed-in-action was suffered by the alliance. Clinton pitched not only a no-hitter but a perfect game. Wise heads in Washington ponder the ultimate cost of that victory.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.