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Crisis in Yugoslavia

How Conflict in Kosovo Triggers U.S. Trip Wires

April 03, 1999|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the broader scheme of history, Kosovo may leave more of a legacy than other flash points of the 1990s. Because of NATO's military intervention, the outcome in the Serbian province could shape other conflicts, helping to determine how much latitude majority groups have to pursue their cultural goals, what tactics are used in repressing minorities and how far minorities can go in fighting back.

Why should obscure little Kosovo become such a big test case, when virtually all of the other ethnic conflicts of the decade have produced far greater death and destruction?

While thousands have been killed in the Serbian province, Sudan has witnessed nearly 2 million deaths and Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi battles have produced several hundred thousand casualties.

The answer is that Kosovo fits the evolving criteria for action.

In the past decade, the United States has intervened militarily in only four conflicts. Present each time was one or more of three basic elements: economic need, political priority and humanitarian catastrophe.

* Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait endangered the free flow of Persian Gulf oil--the source of about 20% of U.S. petroleum imports, 40% of Europe's and nearly 70% of Japan's. The ongoing military deployment is intended to protect the Gulf states until Baghdad complies with terms of the 1991 cease-fire, and to prevent attacks on minority communities in the north and south.

* The 1994-96 deployment in Haiti was prompted mainly by political priorities and geographic proximity after a military coup against the first democratically elected president. Democratizing the Americas has long been a top U.S. goal, as its policy toward Cuba illustrates.

* The 1992-94 intervention in Somalia was an aberration because the East African nation was farther afield and lacked both cultural ties to the U.S. or a big domestic constituency. But intense media coverage of a devastating famine complicated by marauding warlords pulled at American heartstrings--at least for a while.

All three criteria apply in the Balkans, experts say. Europe remains the preeminent U.S. economic partner. Despite the growing importance of Asia to both parties, American investments in Europe are three times higher than those in Asian countries. European investment is four times greater in the United States than in Asia. And political instability in Europe imperils economic stability, especially if the conflict over Kosovo should spread as far as Turkey and Greece, experts say.

Culturally, Europe is the continent with the strongest traditional ties to the United States, Although the American population is increasingly diverse. A stable, democratic and united Europe has also long been a top U.S. policy goal.

So far, the Clinton administration has given the most prominent emphasis to the human tragedy playing out in the Balkans, although it was probably the least of the three factors in weighing whether to intervene, experts say.

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