Kosovo: A Bad Beginning And No Good Ending

It began with the loftiest of intentions: President Clinton and NATO would take Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic by the scruff of the neck and force him to stop harassing ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Instead, the allies' police action has turned into a Balkan imbroglio in which both sides blundered: The U.S. President misread Serbian resolve to chase ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, while Milosevic failed to understand that NATO had to react strongly to reports of mass murders of civilians in Europe.

As NATO bombs rained down on an unrepentant Serbia in late March, Yugoslav troops and militias intensified their war of terror against the Kosovars, forcing more than 100,000 refugees to flee to Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. In the wake of a failed peace mission to Belgrade on Mar. 30, Russia sent warships to the Mediterranean. This tinderbox of Balkan passions is precisely what the West sought to avoid. Now, in capitals around the world, political leaders, diplomats, and analysts are wondering how the Kosovo crisis will end. In fact, it's possible to envision several different endgames in which the fighting peters out. Yet no real resolution seems likely.

In the most likely outcome, Milosevic becomes the next Saddam Hussein, a defiant leader of a pariah state. Weeks of intense NATO bombing grind down his military. But Milosevic still succeeds in driving the Kosovars out of their territory well before his last tank is destroyed. The result: Serbia would declare a moral victory over the West. Kosovo would be predominantly Serb, and Milosevic would enjoy rising domestic support.

RUSSIAN RESCUE? Then what? Once Kosovo is "purified," Serbia could sue for peace, and NATO, eager to end the bombing and wind down the confrontation, would be hard-pressed to turn down the offer. Yet Milosevic would also lose any legitimacy he has left in Europe. Normal commercial ties, such as Telecom Italia's $496 million stake in the Serbian phone company, would be imperiled as furious allies impose an economic embargo on the outlaw nation. But as Iraq's Saddam Hussein has shown, a dictator's ability to survive isolation is often underestimated. In this situation, Milosevic would hang on, Serbia would be quarantined, and a humbled NATO would ease its pangs of conscience by pouring millions into humanitarian aid for displaced Albanians in Southern Europe.

But there is still the possibility that all the parties involved could return to the negotiating table. In this situation, Russia would play a key role as peace broker: Milosevic himself, now branded as a war criminal, may never again be able to bargain face-to-face with the U.S.

But Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov or one of his aides could negotiate on behalf of Milosevic. Since Russia is desperate to overcome its post-cold-war impotence, it could gain mileage by playing the peacemaker role. U.S. officials say that if Primakov can broker a pact that keeps alive the issue of an Albanian ethnic enclave, a Russian rescue could be a plus. "We believe Kosovo should be an autonomous region of Serbia," insists a senior Administration official. Yet any enclave the Albanians do secure would be fragile and need massive support from the allies.

If neither of these alternatives plays out, escalation of the war is almost inevitable. Some GOP hawks and former military officials now think that the West has boxed itself in to a future ground war in the Balkans. Otherwise, NATO's humiliation could fatally weaken the alliance. And as evidence of mass killing mounts, hawks are talking of an allied invasion as the only way to halt the carnage. "It's time to stop treating Milosevic as a negotiating partner and time to start treating him as the enemy," insists former Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci.

For now, Clintonites are resisting, reckoning that U.S. public opinion won't support such action. "The President is determined to continue a systematic air campaign," an Administration official says, expressing grave doubts that "sending in over 100,000 [troops] to occupy Kosovo and Yugoslavia is the correct way to move forward."

As matters now stand, only the discovery that the Serbs have herded large numbers of Kosovar civilians into concentration camps could persuade the allies to budge from this position. That means the West may be in for weeks or months of indecisive but bloody action in the Balkans.

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