Once again, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has bought time with promises he is unlikely to keep. Even as he agreed last week, in a meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, to stop all repressive actions against civilians in Kosovo, Milosevic defied the international community's fifth ultimatum to stop the killing there.
Having stood aside and allowed Milosevic to perpetrate a reign of mass murder in Bosnia from 1991-95, the United States and its allies finally seem to be saying that enough is enough. Unfortunately, last week's NATO air show of resolve took place while Contact Group members--the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia--were still trying to puzzle out the political strategy all this firepower was supposed to support. This was not encouraging. The United States and its allies missed a chance in the Balkans before, with lethal consequences; this time, all southern Europe could hang in the balance if they fail again.
Last week in Moscow, Milosevic professed his "adherence to a peaceful resolution," insisting that "there was no kind of ethnic cleansing" going on in Kosovo, indeed, that Serb forces were responsible for "no civilian victims at all." He blames Albanian "terrorist groups" for the deaths of some 350 ethnic Albanian civilians. Even as he spoke, hundreds more Kosovars joined the 80,000 refugees already flooding northern Albania and Macedonia.
Milosevic has refused to withdraw Yugoslav army and security forces from Kosovo, the Contact Group's primary demand. His refusal renders virtually meaningless his other commitments to Yeltsin: to assist refugees in returning home and to permit international monitors and humanitarian missions to enter Kosovo. Although he promised to resume peace talks with Kosovar moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova, Milosevic is well aware that Rugova, who is desperate to staunch his hemorrhaging credibility, has refused to negotiate as long as Yugoslav forces remain in his province. Moreover, Milosevic will not negotiate either with an international mediator present or representatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the mushrooming but ill-equipped separatist group resisting Milosevic's offensive.
Milosevic insists on keeping his troops in Kosovo to defend Serbia's rightful claim of sovereignty over its southern province, an area Serbs hold dear as their Jerusalem but have not chosen to live in. The Contact Group, wary of triggering a pro-Milosevic Serbian backlash or emboldening the KLA and ethnic Albanians throughout the southern Balkans to press for some sort of Greater Albania, consistently has opposed independence for Kosovo. Other than that, it's unclear just what the group wants.
In fact, the international community, like its adversary, is buying time. NATO plans for military intervention have not been finalized. The lack of consensus within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Contact Group on how to stop Milosevic has created a kind of "Catch-22": For every proposed action, there is a real fear that blocks implementation. Some European countries simply are reluctant to embark on a series of military initiatives that will cost millions of dollars and risk thousands of lives; others, led by European Union chairman Tony Blair, have insisted on first creating a legal basis for taking military action against a sovereign nation by securing a U.N. Security Council resolution. The Clinton administration has made noises about acting alone if necessary, but nobody believes it will--certainly not Milosevic, who knows an idle threat when he hears one.
In the early 1990s, two U.S. administrations, worried about the potential threat to Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus of a Serb-Kosovar conflagration, warned the Yugoslav president that they would respond with force in Kosovo should he instigate any further conflict there. But that commitment, first expressed by President George Bush in a Dec. 25, 1992, cable and reiterated by Secretary of State Warren Christopher within weeks of Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, has not been mentioned since this spring's Serb offensive began, because the Clinton administration made a conscious decision several years ago to allow the warning to erode. Last week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who has made the administration's toughest statements on Kosovo, finally erased Bush's "line in the sand" when she told a Senate appropriations subcommittee that, "the Christmas warning has never been made public specifically."
The Clinton administration's approach to the rapidly escalating crisis in Kosovo has been an exercise in compulsive self-delusion, as diplomats have repeatedly dithered, dawdled and pandered to Milosevic by imposing, then removing, wrist-slapping sanctions and rewarding him merely for promising to cut back on his criminal behavior.
Pentagon strategists, still committed to the Colin L. Powell doctrine of "clear mission, overwhelming force," have ordained that any NATO action in Yugoslavia must be preceded by the complete destruction of Milosevic's 60 surface-to-air missile sites and 241 combat aircraft. But the history of the Bosnian conflict suggests that massive force may be unnecessary.
In late summer 1995, after months of equivocating and a few, apologetic "pinprick" strikes, it took relatively limited NATO firepower to force Milosevic to back down. More efficient use of force, of course, would substantially reduce the risks of harming civilians, increasing the refugee flow, emboldening the KLA to fight for independence, rather than negotiate, and engendering virulent anti-NATO sentiment that could endanger the thousands of U.S. troops now posted in the region. Whether Clinton is capable of exerting moral leadership on Kosovo remains to be seen. But there is no longer any question that such leadership will be needed if the international response to Milosevic's murderous actions in Kosovo is to be any more than what one former State Department analyst has called "a dance of appeasement."
The president must state clearly that, this time, Milosevic has gone too far. He should press NATO to impose immediately a no-fly zone over Kosovo and to shoot down anything that flies. It is too late for preventive deployment along Kosovo's Albanian and Macedonian borders to try to contain the conflict; instead, NATO should answer any continued violence by wiping out, as the Pentagon has advised, some of Milosevic's air-defense capability and launching a series of sustained air strikes against key Yugoslav military and secret police installations--first inside Kosovo, then progressively northward into Serbia proper--until Milosevic orders his troops out of Kosovo.
Any post-ceasefire negotiations, furthermore, must include the KLA and an international mediator. The safe return of refugees and complete political autonomy for Kosovo must be conditions for any settlement. As in Bosnia, a NATO contingent and international monitors will have to remain behind to disarm any remaining paramilitary units and enforce the peace. To garner public support for the essential contribution of U.S. troops to this mission, Clinton must tell Congress and the American people exactly what he told Bush in an August 1992 campaign speech, with regard to the atrocities then being committed in Bosnia: "We cannot afford to ignore what appears to be a deliberate and systematic extermination of human beings based on their ethnic origin."
For more than five years, Milosevic, as shrewd a Washington watcher as they come, has been able to call Clinton's bluff. The Kosovo crisis affords the president a historic opportunity to help Europe finally isolate this longtime menace and to define a vital role for an expanded NATO in the 21st century.