WASHINGTON — In sharp contrast to the long, confused buildup to last month's confrontation with Saddam Hussein, the Clinton administration has moved with great speed to halt the latest crackdown by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the province of Kosovo.
The swift response came about for several reasons, including the relatively solid common ground shared by the U.S. and its allies on issues related to the troubled region, U.S. and allied officials say. That cohesion is an extended benefit of the thorny and lengthy diplomacy that led to the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accord that ended the ethnic bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Unlike the recent crisis with Iraq, the U.S. has continued to make progress with its major partners on problems in the Balkans. All the players now are familiar with the issues and complexities involved, and with the tools they can use to end the violence, the officials say.
As a senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization official put it: "When you've got 31,000 troops on the ground there, it concentrates the mind wonderfully on what's happening in the region."
Another force propelling the fast reaction is the risk that the Kosovo flare-up will spread. Although the ethnic warfare in Bosnia before 1995 did not spill over to large swaths of neighboring regions, NATO countries see more danger from Kosovo, a province in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia where a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists has taken dozens of lives.
Senior State Department officials believe that the sparsely populated corner of the Balkans has the potential to ignite an ethnic powder keg that could reach across the entire southern Balkans, potentially dragging in NATO allies Greece and Turkey.
It was that nightmarish scenario that led the Bush administration to nurture a broad policy of keeping out of most Balkans intrigues while warning firmly that it was prepared to intervene if violence came to Kosovo.
"We're working on the lesson that we can't afford to get it wrong twice," notes a senior NATO official, referring to the long delay among members of the international community in dealing with the bloody breakup of the Yugoslav federation earlier this decade.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was in Europe as the Kosovo crisis unfolded, managed to cajole allies to back a limited package of measures that she and her staff had cobbled together on their flight across the Atlantic.
With U.S. prodding, other nations in the so-called Contact Group that monitors the shaky peace in the Balkans agreed on a series of measures aimed at enhancing stability in the region.
The group--made up of the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy--agreed to extend a small, little-known United Nations peacekeeping mission in neighboring Macedonia, where more than 350 American soldiers and about 500 troops from European countries patrol the frontier.
The group also expanded a multinational European military mission in Albania and decided to send a special European envoy, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, on a diplomatic trouble-shooting trip to the region.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott is also expected to press for a regional conference on the Kosovo crisis, a move that American officials say will help air concerns and break down suspicions among countries that have little high-level dialogue.
At the same time, NATO is granting Albania immediate emergency consultations, reviewing the tiny nation's security needs and demonstrating concern by sending Secretary-General Javier Solana on a high-profile visit to the Albanian capital.
Even NATO's new Civil Emergency Planning Directorate geared up to deal with a large flow of refugees from the region--a flow that has yet to materialize.
While the swift reaction appears to have defused the immediate crisis, it will take far more time, diplomatic energy and political determination to bring any lasting peace to Europe's latest trouble spot.
"We've managed to move quickly, but that's probably the easy part, and it's certainly no guarantee for a solution," a senior U.S. administration official says. "Now the test is to hold everyone's feet to the fire for the tough choices ahead."
Indeed, this latest international flash point has this lesson for the United States: Even when the response is swift, even when luck is on its side, even when the new machinery of post-Cold War European security seems to work as envisioned, lasting solutions remain complex, difficult and elusive.
"Give them credit for trying to nip this in the bud, but the tragedy is, the result of this quick diplomatic game isn't certain because we don't know where this is all going," says Peter Rodman, a foreign affairs specialist in the Ronald Reagan administration. "Crises ultimately are resolved by substance, not process."