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One Small Step Toward Disaster

Making a Mess Others Clean Up

April 04, 1999|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."

NEW YORK — The Bay of Pigs and the Fall of Saigon: Until last week, those were the two worst U.S. foreign-policy flops since the end of World War II. Now the Rape of Kosovo threatens to join this exclusive club.

It is hard to imagine a more public, more humiliating foreign-policy failure. Bombing Yugoslavia was going to do six things: protect the Kosovars, weaken Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stabilize the region, demonstrate the wisdom and firmness of the Clinton foreign-policy team and keep U.S. ground forces safe.

So far, we are zip for six. More than a half-million Kosovars are fleeing for their lives; Milosevic has never been stronger politically. Weeks before what was to be a gala 50th-anniversary celebration, the NATO alliance faces the greatest military and political crisis in its history. Floods of refugees and the passions of war have destabilized fragile states in Albania and Macedonia; more trouble may follow as violence spreads. Russia has definitively turned away from security cooperation with the West. Three captured U.S. soldiers face a kangaroo court in Belgrade. Last, but not least, this administration has brought shame, disgrace and blood guilt on the United States.

The biggest casualty so far is the tattered credibility of the Clinton administration in foreign affairs. Apparently nobody in the upper reaches of the White House or State Department bothered to ask basic questions: What happens if airstrikes don't make Milosevic say uncle? What happens if he uses the attack to launch a new round of ethnic cleansing?

Because the administration never asked these fundamental questions, the United States was caught flat-footed when Milosevic launched his attack on the Kosovars. We don't have peacekeeping ground troops close enough to separate the civilians from their attackers; we don't have supplies for refugees; we don't have either a political or a military plan to cope with the unspeakable atrocities of the barbarous Serbs.

This isn't just feckless incompetence; it is more like drunk driving: operating dangerous machinery with your judgment impaired.

Thanks to this fiasco, U.S. choices in the Balkans--never attractive--are growing steadily worse. Unless the airstrikes start working much better than they have so far, we must either build up ground forces for an invasion of Serbia, arm Serbia's neighbors for a general Balkan war or partition Kosovo with Milosevic, allowing some, if not all, of his ethnic cleansing to stand--and leaving the U.S. still caught between revenge-seeking Kosovars and fanatical Serbs.

Building up ground forces for a potential invasion would be both politically costly and honorable. It is, therefore, the last thing to expect from the current Clinton team.

Wars in the Balkans have always been risky business. Driving the Serbs out of Kosovo, allowing the Albanians to return to their homes and setting up an independent Republic of Kosovo under a NATO protectorate are attractive goals. The costs in both money and blood might be high if U.S. ground forces come in, but success would be sweet: The rule of law would be established in Europe; NATO would stand unchallenged as the defender of the European security order; and peace, at least for a while, would return to the Balkan peninsula. Another alternative: arming the local Serb haters--the Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Albanians--for a war of revenge. Given enough money, weapons and time, the neighbors could probably defeat the Serbs without U.S. ground troops.

But wars, as the Clinton administration has learned to its sorrow, are unpredictable. The more likely outcome is that the Clinton team will stick with what it knows best: caving and spinning. The administration will split the province with the Serbs but try to extract a few face-saving compromises. Milosevic, the spinmeisters will say, won't keep all Kosovo; he'll let U.N. peacekeepers--and maybe a few NATO units--patrol the slice of the province he gives back. If NATO's airstrikes hurt Milosevic badly enough, he'll give back a reasonable slice; otherwise, he will offer crumbs. President Bill Clinton will take them, and spin.

Either way, thousands of innocent Kosovars will be dead and hundreds of thousands will have lost all they owned. The radicalized Kosovar leadership that emerges from the ethnic cleansing will be unwilling to compromise with the Serbs, and will plot their revenge. A truncated Kosovo will yearn to rejoin Albania, unsettling the region for years. A sullen, impoverished Serbia will fester for decades; a new generation in the Balkans will grow up in an atmosphere of hatred and suspicion. Russia will turn farther from the West and, with its nuclear weapons and arms industry, will draw closer to longtime U.S. enemies like Iran and Iraq.

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