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Crisis in Yugoslavia

With NATO Waging War for 1st Time, Albright Aims for Unity

Diplomacy: The secretary of State declares the alliance 'wedge-proof,' but there are signs of tension.


BRUSSELS — As military strikes on Yugoslavia near the end of their third week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright today will try to make sure that the U.S. campaign on another front--keeping NATO united--is also victorious.

"The alliance is wedge-proof," Albright declared to reporters aboard her U.S. Air Force Boeing 757 as she flew here from Washington on Sunday evening. "All of the allies are supportive of the action that we are taking."

But with the U.S.-led military coalition that faced down the threat from the Soviet Union waging real war for the first time in its 50-year history, the pressures, frustrations and emotions tugging at the 19 nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are extraordinary.

Last week, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin acknowledged that Albright's "biggest task each day is to ensure that the NATO allies remain as united as they've been remaining."

For instance, bombing the Serbs is especially unpopular in Greece, an Orthodox Christian neighbor and NATO member. The Clinton administration and other Western nations have been working hard to keep Athens in the fold.

A few days ago, a U.S. diplomat at NATO reported coming across an infuriated Greek colleague who was angrily shouting, "We are not slaves! We are not slaves!" in the halls of alliance headquarters here.

At today's special meeting of NATO foreign ministers, which Albright requested, the secretary of State's primary task will be diagnosing any potential splits in allied unity and finding remedies, State Department officials said.

NATO's united front in the face of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic--so strong, actually, that officials of the Clinton administration frankly admit their surprise--should be reiterated in "unambiguous terms," a senior alliance diplomat said.

For the Yugoslavs, the ranking diplomat said, the message from Brussels will be that there is going to be just "one winner" in the Kosovo conflict and that all of the NATO countries are resolved "it ain't going to be Milosevic."

Although doubts are now rife in the alliance about the wisdom of the U.S.-promoted strategy of using air power alone, and there has been much agonizing over the possible role of the bombing as catalyst of the Kosovo refugee crisis, most, if not all, of the allies appear to agree that the Yugoslav conflict is a defining moment for the alliance's future.

Ironically, a summit in Washington from April 23 through 25 was supposed to decide what NATO's role in the 21st century should be, but at last notice, the United States and some of its European partners hadn't managed to agree on a "strategic concept."

Now, NATO is "surprisingly united," said Jane Sharp, a veteran analyst of NATO affairs at King's College in London. "There is a sense that now that we are in there, we just have to push the Serbs out [of Kosovo] and deal with Milosevic once and for all. That is the cohesive sentiment in the alliance."

Clearly, the glue has been the conduct of the Yugoslav president, viewed as cynical and outrageously out of place in contemporary Europe, and the inhumane efficiency with which the Yugoslav army, police and paramilitary units have mistreated and deported a large portion of the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, who once made up 90% of the population of the separatist province.

Earlier in the decade, disagreements over what to do in Bosnia-Herzegovina put NATO through its sharpest crisis since the mid-1950s. This time, it has been much easier for Western countries to agree that the blame belongs entirely with Belgrade and to take action to stop it. If Milosevic's strategy was to split NATO, he has failed so far.

"Americans and Canadians, and the Europeans in NATO, are united in their determination as we near the beginning of the 21st century to have the shared values of the democracies triumph, and not the values of Milosevic," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said last week.

Not that there aren't latent frictions that may flare into full-blown disputes down the road.

"It is very difficult to predict because much depends on circumstances," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of studies and research at the Foundation for Defense Studies, a Paris think tank. "If a hundred Americans are killed, that might change the situation altogether."

Sharp, the NATO expert at King's College, said: "My worry is that if we just keep bombing and don't put in ground troops, we may have problems because I think the people who support punishing Milosevic will lose confidence if all we do is bomb Serbia and don't do anything in Kosovo."

Many Europeans say that the United States is overly eager to drop bombs from the relative safety of the air but has adopted a hobbling "zero deaths" policy that thwarts the alliance's ability to mount an invasion with tanks and foot soldiers even if that is the sole way to protect the dwindling populace of Kosovo.

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