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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Debate Turns to Finger-Pointing on Kosovo Policy

April 11, 1999|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration's top negotiator on Kosovo warned 13 months ago that airstrikes might be necessary to stop Serbian forces from continuing to massacre ethnic Albanians in the region. The White House rejected the idea as too extreme--and, within three months, the killing resumed at full force.

Six months ago, the United States actually did threaten airstrikes. But the White House turned down proposals to enforce a truce with armed peacekeeping troops--and, within three months, the war was back on at full force.

And just two months ago, NATO belatedly brandished both airstrikes and peacekeepers. But it declared that it would never send ground troops into combat--and the Serbs ratcheted up the violence once more.

In a recurring cycle of escalation, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic repeatedly tested NATO's resolve to stop him from using force to control Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. Each time, NATO sent back a muddy signal: It was ready to use force, but only the minimum amount necessary.

"At every point, the match between what we were ready to do and what was required to stop the conflict was one notch out of sync," said a senior U.S. diplomat who helped administer the policy.

"There were serious miscalculations on both sides," agreed another official who was involved. "Saying that we would never support [Kosovo's secession from Yugoslavia] was probably not the best choice. Saying we would never use ground troops in combat was probably not the best choice either."

Last week, in a round of finger-pointing, Clinton administration officials traded anonymous charges over who was responsible for the mess in the Balkans.

Defense Department officials said they had warned all along that air power wouldn't guarantee a quick victory. Some, sniping at the hawkish secretary of State, spoke of "Madeleine Albright's war."

Albright and her aides replied that they had never been optimistic that Milosevic would back down--and shot back as well that the Defense Department had agreed with President Clinton's decision to launch airstrikes.

In any case, administration spokesmen added, Milosevic is the one who should bear the blame for the bombing of Yugoslavia and the exodus of refugees from Kosovo.

U.S. May Have Missed Chances to Avert War

But in private, some of the nation's most accomplished diplomats, including some directly involved in the confrontation over Kosovo, worry that the administration missed several chances to avert this war. And they say the lessons deserve a serious look, beyond the debate over who most misjudged the Yugoslavs' intentions or endurance.

"Look, Milosevic was going to do this, or something like this, one way or another," said one. "But yes, we could have done things differently. We might have been able to handle it earlier, or handle it better. And we need to work through those lessons because this is the kind of problem we face in the post-Cold War world."

Clinton and Albright often say that U.S. diplomacy can solve deep-seated conflicts around the world when it is backed up by clear threats of U.S. force. But with Kosovo, that confident assertion at the core of American foreign policy has gone seriously awry.

The United States and NATO made several threats of force against Milosevic during the past year. But the Western powers also made clear that they strongly hoped to avoid the use of force and that there were limits on the amount of force they intended to use.

"We always threatened the minimum feasible amount of force, not the maximum," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council staff member now at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "It is likely that Milosevic read U.S. unwillingness to put a large stick behind its words as meaning he could push us and get away with it. We were inadvertently communicating weakness instead of strength."

There were several reasons for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's hesitance.

At one point last fall, Albright and other officials wanted to push for a NATO ground force to go into Kosovo, but Clinton refused.

"The midterm elections were coming up, everyone thought the Republicans were going to gain seats, impeachment was underway," a senior official explained. "There was great concern about public support."

But the problems weren't only in Washington. Early this year, Albright won the president's support for an unmistakable threat of airstrikes--but Britain and France insisted on restraint and another try at negotiations.

Results of Failure to Enforce Settlement

The result was a vicious spiral. NATO failed to enforce a durable settlement when the task might have been easier. Each successive campaign of repression by Milosevic sent more young ethnic Albanians into the Kosovo Liberation Army, the province's insurgent guerrilla force. And each new exploit by the KLA only hardened Serbian resistance to the idea of granting real autonomy to Kosovo.

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