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Don't Let Milosevic Win While the West Temporizes

NATO: Alliance equivocation on airstrikes just plays into the Yugoslav leader's hands, whereas force has worked in the past.

October 09, 1998|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter was U.S. ambassador to NATO, 1993-98, and negotiated nine Bosnia airstrike decisions

Time has now run out for NATO in Kosovo. Unless it decides promptly to counter Serbian atrocities with military force, the alliance's credibility will be seriously damaged. This will send a telling message to everyone in the Balkans and beyond who is judging Western willpower to stop conflict and deal with the realities of post-Cold War instability.

Yugoslavia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, continues to toy with the alliance. As he did for more than two years in Bosnia, he has carefully pressed military action to a point just short of provoking NATO to act. Statements by senior allied leaders have had little effect, as Milosevic has accurately judged that their bark, at least so far, would have no bite. His goal has been to complete this year's campaign, then turn responsibility over to others for dealing with the winter tragedy facing the hoards of refugees he has created. As happened at Dayton three years ago, Milosevic thus would continue to be a man with whom the West must deal, rather than a war criminal who should be hauled off to the Hague tribunal.

Even at this eleventh hour, following months of paralysis in allied capitals, including Washington, several European allies continue to temporize and have marshaled a long list of reasons not to act, despite the evidence of slaughter taking place within a European nation. Most important, they argue that, unlike Bosnia five years ago, the U.N. Security Council has not asked NATO to act.

For several allies, including Germany with its special history, this is not a trivial issue. Any military action not mandated by formal commitment--as in defending territories covered by the North Atlantic treaty--must have at least the color of international law. But for some allies, requiring a U.N. mandate is more of an excuse than a reason. Italy worries that NATO airstrikes would embolden the Kosovo Liberation Army and risk new sources of turmoil just across the Adriatic. France is reluctant to see NATO, under U.S. leadership, erode Paris' pretensions to be Europe's security leader. Even Britain's position is ambivalent. It speaks strongly of NATO's need for resolve, but London is loath to weaken Serbia and was for months the chief allied proponent of first securing U.N. approval.

In each case, the key is U.S. leadership. As we learned in Bosnia, if the U.S. is resolute, in the end France and Italy will not want to be left behind, and this will provide cover for Bonn to agree. And if these important allies are prepared to act, London will make good on its rhetoric.

But if U.S. leadership fails and allies persist in making the Security Council the only acceptable source of authority, they inadvertently give a veto to Russia and effectively hamstring NATO's role in stopping European conflicts, both now and in the future. Alternative comfort can be found in the U.N. Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, to all of which the Yugoslav federation is a signatory. And a Russia that wants to be taken seriously as a European power must stop basing its Balkan policy on an outdated and romantic attachment to Orthodox Serbs who shared loyalties with St. Petersburg in the 19th century. NATO would like to have Russian support, but given a choice it cannot shirk its responsibilities so close to home.

The case for NATO's turning bluff to battle is strengthened by experience. When the alliance did finally begin Bosnia airstrikes in August 1995, Milosevic and company rapidly backed down and the war stopped. Furthermore, because the Serb leader has so obviously manipulated the alliance for so long, NATO cannot accept anything short of Serbian capitulation on all peacemaking demands, diplomatic as well as military.

If Milosevic just accepts enough half-measures to reinforce allied doubters and forestall NATO action, he will win the test of wills both with the alliance and with U.S. leadership. He will be free next spring to pick up where he left off, and he can still refuse to address the Kosovar Albanians' legitimate rights. Last-ditch diplomacy can thus accept no compromise with Belgrade.

In Bosnia, 3,000 civilians had to die in Srebrenica before the allies finally agreed to use force to stop the slaughter. The Kosovars butchered last week in Gornje Obrinje deserve no less respect.

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