Despite reservations about our long-term policy in Kosovo and the Balkans, I voted for airstrikes against Serbia because the worst thing that we could have done in the face of Slobodan Milosevic's atrocities would have been nothing.
I was troubled during the initial phase of the war when our political objectives -- including prevention of further "ethnic cleansing" by Milosevic and agreement by the Serbs to the Rambouillet accords -- had to be discarded or modified. I felt that I had seen this before in Vietnam, where our servicemen and women paid a high price for the failure of our political leaders to lay out specific and militarily achievable objectives. But my worst fears have not been realized, and I want to pay tribute to our servicemen and women, our military leaders and to President Clinton and his national security team for:
Putting an end to the Milosevic regime's ability to brutalize Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
Facilitating the safe return of Kosovar refugees.
Demonstrating the cohesion and willpower of NATO.
Conducting operations in a way that minimized the loss of NATO military and civilian lives in Kosovo and Serbia.
But the battle in the Balkans is far from over. We may have avoided another Vietnam, but we have not yet avoided another Korea or Bosnia, where cessation of military hostilities was not followed by a resolution of political problems. Nor have we avoided another World War I, in which the armistice was followed by a peace settlement that paved the way for World War II.
Our objective now must be to achieve a long-term, stable and humane outcome in the region that will allow our military to come home from the Balkans without having to return in the near future to deal with the same problems.
To do so, we must develop a long-term plan for refugee relief and resettlement, and we must address the economic devastation in much of the Balkan region. The prospect for lasting reconciliation between the peoples and nations of the Balkans is small without economic recovery. Given the depth of the problem -- and the NATO bombing effort unintentionally exacerbated the situation -- we are looking at a project that is certain to be lengthy and costly.
I am pleased that both the European Union and the president have highlighted the importance of such an effort, with Europe appropriately taking the lead role. However, while I agree that aid to the Serbian government is out of the question while Milosevic is in power, we should not rule out the provision of humanitarian and economic development assistance to the people of Kosovo through nongovernmental entities.
We also need to convene an international conference to "determine a mechanism for a final settlement of the Kosovo problem" based on "the will of the people" as called for in the original Rambouillet proposal supported by NATO. This mechanism for a final settlement was to have occurred at the end of a three-year period during which Kosovo would have received substantial autonomy but would have remained part of Serbia. Even if the Rambouillet proposal had succeeded, the basic question of how to reconcile Serbian and Kosovar Albanian interests and objectives merely would have been postponed.
NATO's intentions for Kosovo are commendable: "a peaceful, multiethnic and democratic Kosovo where all its people can live in security and enjoy universal human rights and freedoms on an equal basis" with a high degree of autonomy but within Serbia. However, by these standards, almost all of the Balkans now falls far short of what we seek for Kosovo. Furthermore, it is an outcome that neither side -- understandably including the Kosovar Albanians -- supports. Thus, it cannot serve as the basis for a realistic long-term policy.
Instead, we must lay the groundwork for an international conference to facilitate a comprehensive political settlement acceptable to all parties. Additionally, such a conference should address Bosnia, where U.S. forces have been helping enforce an uneasy peace since 1996 at an estimated cost of $10 billion with no clear end in sight.
Only a settlement acceptable to all parties promises the kind of lasting agreement essential to our fundamental goals of peace, stability and human rights in the Balkans, and only such a settlement can ensure that the sacrifices made by our troops, the innocent civilians in Serbia and most of all the Kosovar refugees will not have been in vain.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Georgia.