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Anointing the 'Devil You Know'

October 18, 1998|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — As superdiplomat Richard C. Holbrooke returned from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with yet another last-minute deal in the Balkans, reaction in much of the West was mixed. Relief that airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization wouldn't be needed for now against Serbia mingled with a sense of disappointment: Slobodan Milosevic, the slippery Serb president, had once again escaped a long-overdue punishment.

Both reactions are right. NATO airstrikes against Serbia might still be necessary, but they also will be expensive. In particular, they might mark the definitive end to the increasingly shadowy collaboration between Russia and the West. Ever since the days of the czars, Russian leaders have tried to distract public opinion by appearing as the protectors of endangered Orthodox Serbia in the Balkans. Czar Nicholas II used Austria-Hungary's ill-advised annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina to help consolidate his authority after the failed 1905 Russian revolution, and he came galloping to Serbia's rescue again in 1914, after a fanatical Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne.

President Boris N. Yeltsin today is every bit as vacillating and weak as Czar Nicholas was then, and he is as much the creature of his shadowy, crackbrained advisors as Nicholas was of Rasputin. NATO airstrikes might force Czar Boris into Serbia's corner and polarize the European security system for the first time since the Cold War. Not that Russia is any threat to Europe today, but its definitive alienation would vastly complicate the work that needs to be done as European integration proceeds.

Then there's the risk that the bombing will not work. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon both tried to bomb the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, and neither had much luck. The new Holbrooke agreement hopefully means we have escaped the worst Balkan nightmare: NATO bombs Serbia; Serbia doesn't surrender; Serbian terrorists in Bosnia and elsewhere start bombing NATO barracks and mounting terrorist attacks on U.S. and other troops in Bosnia and Macedonia.

But if Western opinion is correct in greeting the peace agreement with relief, it is also correct to regret what happens now. Milosevic has again escaped; after plunging Yugoslavia into a series of murderous civil and international wars, this odious man of blood has again outfoxed the West and consolidated his political position. He is now, as he was throughout the Bosnian War and the preceding Serbo-Croatian War, both the main villain of the peace and the West's indispensable partner in brokering an end to hostilities. We threaten him with airstrikes, but only to coax him into signing agreements--agreements that recognize his legitimacy and convert us from his opponents into his partners.

Milosevic has good reasons to be satisfied with the outcome of this latest game of brinksmanship with NATO. As so often before, his delaying tactics allowed him to achieve his main objectives before bowing to superior force. He has smashed the Kosovo Liberation Army, inflicted heavy reprisals on Kosovan villages he suspects of aiding the armed fighters and, better yet, thoroughly split the Albanian political movement in Kosovo. Ibrahim Rugova, who for 10 years guided a remarkably successful nonviolent resistance movement among the province's 90% Albanian minority, has lost the political initiative to younger, more radical and less coherent voices associated with the KLA's disastrous policy of armed struggle.

What has been most galling and exhausting to the West is the way Milosevic has been able to manipulate Western diplomacy and institutions. NATO is supposed to be a military organization, but it is clearly a bureaucratic one: Any decision to use force takes weeks or months of painstaking negotiation among the 16 (soon to be 19) NATO members. Once the decision to use force has been made, there are all the questions about which forces, under whose command and toward what end. NATO is thus more likely to bore an aggressor to death than to defeat one in battle.

This creates an ideal set of opportunities for a Milosevic, or anyone who wants to follow in his footsteps. Given the West's elephantine bureaucracy and its unwillingness to use force, Milosevic can play on the hopes and fears of Western policymakers for months: provoking them to the edge of action, then soothing them until they relax. Until the very last minute, he controls the timetable and he can heat up or cool down the crisis.

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