GIVEN SERBIA'S utter despoliation of Kosovo, and the looting by Serb troops of everything that could be rolled, pushed or driven across the border, you might expect the conversation now to center on reparations -- from Serbia to Kosovo. Instead, much of the conversation among leaders of the winning coalition in Germany this weekend centered on the possibility of reparations to Serbia. President Clinton made clear, rightly, that the United States will offer only humanitarian aid as long as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic remains in power. But the line between humanitarian aid and reconstruction is fuzzy enough, and the debate live enough, that it's worth restating the logic for withholding aid.

It is pointed out that no Balkan reconstruction ignoring Serbia is likely to succeed. Key trade routes run to or through Serbia; and an embittered, isolated, impoverished Serbian population will destabilize the entire region. Unfortunately, though, as long as Mr. Milosevic remains in power, the Serbian population will remain isolated and impoverished; no amount of aid can change that. He depends on their isolation and their hatreds to remain in power. Europe and the United States have tried working with the strongman; it failed.

It is also compellingly argued that innocent people shouldn't be left to suffer on account of Mr. Milosevic's ills. "You must not penalize 10 million Serbs for the conduct of one man," Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin argued. This is what persuades Mr. Clinton, also rightly, to offer food and medicine, if necessary. But as a practical matter, it is almost impossible to help ordinary Serbs in any meaningful way as long as their government remains dysfunctional, autocratic and corrupt. Any funds intended to rebuild factories, for example, are as likely to end up in bank accounts in Cyprus as in workers' pockets.

And the war in Kosovo wasn't really the work of one man. Saying that Serbia needs to unseat Mr. Milosevic is shorthand for saying that Serbs need at least to begin to come to terms with the terrible things their armed forces and paramilitaries have done in this decade, to the approval or silence of most of them. The way to help Serbia is to make clear that its best hope is to "reject the murderous rule" of Mr. Milosevic, as Mr. Clinton said yesterday -- to reject everything he stands for and embrace the path of democracy and European integration.

Even now, after NATO's successful air campaign, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Kosovar men are imprisoned inside Serbia, having been illegally seized and then kidnapped across the border. It would be unimaginable for the World Bank or European Union to begin cheerfully rebuilding bridges across the Danube while they remain captive.