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Crisis in Yugoslavia

U.S., NATO Divided Over Balkan Strategy

April 23, 1999|DOYLE McMANUS and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — After four weeks of airstrikes over Yugoslavia and unhindered "ethnic cleansing" inside Kosovo, the Clinton administration and its NATO allies remain publicly united on war strategy--but inside their secret councils, two divisions have appeared.

One disagreement is over the likely course of the war: White House officials say they still believe that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will crack under escalating bombing, but others in the administration and NATO are doubtful.

A second disagreement, officials say, is over what the alliance should do if the pessimists are right: If Milosevic refuses to back down, should NATO move toward sending ground troops into Kosovo?

One camp, led by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and (privately) by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, says the United States and NATO should consider sending troops into Kosovo if the Yugoslav army, battered by airstrikes, no longer poses a serious threat.

But President Clinton and the Pentagon strongly oppose that idea, officials said. Clinton fears that such a deployment could turn into a quagmire, aides said, and has asked them how NATO would extricate itself.

"I don't have an answer to the question: How do you leave?" a senior official said.

The U.S. and British governments papered over the dispute this week by directing NATO's military planners to produce a formal assessment of several options for using ground troops, including Blair's proposal that a force could be deployed even without Milosevic's consent.

"Perhaps this assessment will change things . . . [but] I doubt that our position will change," the senior official said.

And for the moment, the dispute was largely theoretical. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook noted that the Yugoslav army, with 43,000 troops in Kosovo, still stands in the way of any ground incursion. "We are not sending in troops to fight their way in," he said. "When it is safe to commit those ground troops to guarantee a cease-fire . . . is a judgment we can only make when that time comes."

Still, the issue may become a real decision--and a supremely difficult one--for Clinton and other NATO leaders a few months from now, once the air war has reached its limits.

Behind the debate over NATO's next steps is a more basic question: Can airstrikes alone force Milosevic to back down?

Clinton says yes. "A vigorous prosecution of the air campaign, intensification of economic pressure, along with our continuing diplomatic efforts, I believe, is the correct strategy--and I believe it will succeed," he said Thursday.

But other officials in the U.S. and allied governments don't agree. "The Yugoslavs have burrowed into the ground," a French diplomat said. "They've got tunnels everywhere. Remember, they spent decades getting ready for a Soviet invasion. And taking out five tanks a day, something like that, isn't going to stop the suffering of the Kosovars."

As a result, when officials in these two camps look at the future of the Kosovo conflict, they see two different scenarios unfolding.

A close aide to Clinton said Thursday that White House officials still believe "the most likely . . . scenario" is that Milosevic will simply back down.

"Milosevic, coming to the realization that we are not going to stop, can decide to cut his losses," he said. "It's like the scene in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' where they're being pursued, and the pursuers won't go away, and they look back and say: 'Who are these guys?' That's us. That's NATO. And we aren't stopping.

"It is not unlike Milosevic to cut his losses," he said. "And his losses are going to mount, and his losses are getting closer to home and more disruptive."

One way the Yugoslav leader might back down, he added, would be by accepting a deal mediated by Russia. But the United States will still insist that any such deal include all of NATO's objectives, he said.

At the State Department and in the British and French governments, by contrast, there is less confidence that Milosevic will crack.

Instead, many of those officials see a different "most likely" scenario: Milosevic refuses to give in, but the air war gradually disables Yugoslav forces inside Kosovo, leaving Belgrade unable to exercise control over the territory.

"When we destroy all their tanks and APCs [armored personnel carriers] . . . they can't replace them," one senior official said. "In the end, there are limits to what they will be able to do militarily."

This outcome, another official said, "is basically victory. It means some form of Serb fatigue or acquiescence as they're unable or unwilling to hold Kosovo. It means there's a clean slate to move in. It means there's no organized resistance."

The question that will confront NATO at that point will be: Who moves in?

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