Asked to identify the war's largest consequence, one senior policymaker made a forecast last delivered from the White House by Woodrow Wilson: "It's not too much to hope that this is the last Balkan war, and maybe the last European war for a long, long, long time." Another high-ranking official agreed, though others dissented from that view and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was careful to dodge it.

"I am not going to predict things like that," Albright said, but then struck a note of optimism that "maybe some of these ideas we're dealing with because of boundaries and ethnicity will disappear" and Europeans will "begin to think more about multi-ethnic societies that can cooperate on economic and foreign policy issues."

That grand sense of the possibilities leans toward the loftiest rhetoric of Europe's senior leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing recently in Newsweek, put it this way: "We need to enter a new millennium where dictators know that they cannot get away with ethnic cleansing or repress their peoples with impunity. In this conflict we are fighting not for territory but for values. For a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated."

Nor was it only the hawkish Britons who defined the war thus. French President Jacques Chirac described the Kosovo war as "a great victory for human rights, a grand idea, that has developed step by step in this century with setbacks and tragedies along the way." Speaking during April's NATO summit, he said he agreed with Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, "He said, 'Now I know what a just war is about,' and he was not wrong."

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, interviewed during the NATO summit, saw the Kosovo war explicitly as a model. "This operation is the first signal of the coming century," he said. "In the 21st century human rights will be the fundamental basis for defining international relations. Relations between nations can no longer be founded on respect for sovereignty--they must be founded on respect for human rights."

That looks grossly overstated now, even should NATO's apparent victory hold. Neither sovereignty nor self-interest is nearing obsolescence among nations, and the plentiful examples of ethnic slaughter and repression are not driving any arguments for Kosovo II. No U.S. government is likely to exert much pressure against Turkey for abuse of its Kurdish minority, and "the Turks can invade Iraq and go after Kurdish rebels and no one even mentions it," said William Arkin, a defense analyst. "When we care about sovereignty we care about it, and when we don't we don't."

So many factors helped draw NATO into Kosovo--a "repeat offender" in Slobodan Milosevic; discomfort with weak replies to his cross-border wars in Bosnia and Croatia; Kosovo's special potential to spread its woes across the dangerous ethnic geography of its neighborhood; the coincidence of NATO's 50th anniversary--that it is hard to see an occasion for a repeat.

"Any comprehensive view is just destined to be wrong," said a top White House official, dismissing the impulse to universalize the Kosovo war or to find in it a precedent for action elsewhere.

There were many moments in the conflict, said one U.S. general involved in its planning, when it seemed the alliance might actually lose. "I thought that if Milosevic got to winter, yes--we lost," he said, referring to allied pressure to cut a deal before tens of thousands of homeless from Kosovo died of exposure. "And I think he came pretty close."

At best, said Arnold Kantor, a top State Department official under President George Bush, "it's one early precedent, and I think it reflects a kind of groping toward a new set of rules for an entirely new international environment." But it "turned out to be much more difficult, much messier than they could have imagined."

Johns Hopkins professor Michael E. Mandelbaum proposed to ask those in Kosovo on whose behalf the war was ostensibly fought: "Are you better off now than you were four months ago?"

Clinton's advisers have two replies, one of which cannot be proved and the other of which has not yet been. The first is that Milosevic would have unleashed the full fury of his Kosovo offensive without the NATO air campaign; the other is that the damage will yet be undone. "We're at the intermission of this movie," said one White House official. "We have been very clear in saying this mission is not accomplished until these people are home. I think it's silly to judge success or failure on a freeze-frame picture right now."