The Risky Line That Nato Has Crossed

As soon as NATO began launching cruise missiles at Yugoslav military targets on Mar. 24, President Clinton hit the airwaves. NATO, acting on its own, was using air strikes and taking sides in a civil war, for humanitarian, security, and economic reasons. The blitz, he said, would prevent further Yugoslav atrocities in the breakaway province of Kosovo and stave off expansion of the conflict into surrounding Albania, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey. The crackdown would also preserve stability in the rest of Europe and, Clinton hoped, force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic back to the bargaining table.

Thus the President has laid the groundwork for what could be a new level of military action: direct intervention in hot domestic conflicts to keep the strife from spreading and threatening U.S. interests. But even as the cruise missiles were launched, doubts were growing in Washington and in European capitals about Clinton's policy. Congress is divided over a military operation that is far riskier than earlier operations in Iraq or Bosnia against lesser forces. Just as important, the NATO move against a sovereign nation that had not attacked the alliance is a first. No wonder politicians and diplomats worry that the doctrine could take both the U.S. and NATO into dangerous territory.

NO EXIT. The fear is that the U.S. and its NATO allies have stumbled into the current policy after years of failed efforts to quell the discord in the Balkans. Critics in both parties worry that there will be no exit from the conflict if the bombing doesn't force Milosevic to capitulate. Unlike Bosnia, where the fighting had stopped before NATO troops arrived, the difficult task now is to separate the belligerents. "That's a dangerous job, one without any visible end," says Brent Scowcroft, a national-security adviser in two Republican Administrations. Even though Kosovo's population is mostly ethnic Albanian, Milosevic can't lose Kosovo--the former heartland of Serbia--and survive politically.

Experts also say it's unlikely the bombinG will cripple Yugoslav forces enough to stop the bloodshed.The air strikes may take out missile sites and even tanks, but all that's needed to continue the campaign against the Kosovars "is guys wandering around with pistols running after refugees," says Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

But the most troubling aspect of the new use of military power is the notion that it's acceptable to violate a sovereign state's borders. "We're not used to intrastate conflicts," says a European envoy to NATO. By contrast, when NATO bombed Bosnia in 1995, the U.N. had provided the alliance with its marching orders.

While the old rules provided some certainty, the new ones are propelling the Atlantic alliance into uncharted waters. "If this is the doctrine, do you apply it universally?" asks Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Why not intervene, for example, in Russia's rebellious Chechnya region, where 100,000 lost their lives, while 2,000 have died in Kosovo?

The Administration argues that the Kosovo mission doesn't raise such broad issues. Clinton says the U.S. is leading the attack because "we have the means to do it and we have allies who will help us do it in their neighborhood." An Administration official adds that Kosovo is different from Chechnya because Kosovo "sits in the heart of Europe and directly threatens U.S. interests."

Despite the questions, the NATO nations are united for now against Milosevic. There is genuine popular outrage across Europe over the plight of the Kosovar Albanians and real political frustration with the Milosevic government. The Yugoslav leader made it easier for the Europeans to agree on bold action after the recent executions of civilians.

That means the broader questions over Clinton's policy may be swept under the rug. But the sticky issue of when to intervene in internal conflicts won't be settled easily. With the recent expansion of NATO into Central Europe, the prospects for similar ethnic conflicts on the alliance's borders will grow. The region has a long history of animosities that lead to violence. The real danger of breaking up these fights will become quickly apparent if NATO must commit ground forces to Kosovo. As NATO approaches its 50th anniversary, it must ponder a difficult question: Should such perilous police work be its mission for the 21st century?

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