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Crisis in Yugoslavia

19 Countries Speak With a Single Voice

April 24, 1999|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — In private, hidden behind curtains of pomp and ceremony, the leaders of the NATO alliance still harbor disagreements over the details of how to wage their war to wrest Kosovo from Serbian control.

But on the main points, they reached something close to unanimity Friday--and sought to turn it into a weapon of long-distance persuasion, to convince Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic that he should simply give up and withdraw from the ravaged province.

"Unity and determination, total and unanimous," declared French President Jacques Chirac, a leader who has not hesitated to dissent from U.S.-led initiatives in the past.

Almost every summit tries to proclaim unity and determination about something, of course. But NATO's triumphant declarations of accord after a three-hour, closed-door meeting over Kosovo were significant on two counts.

First, the allies confirmed their agreement on a major escalation of the air war against Yugoslavia, including strikes against nonmilitary government facilities such as the Serbian television headquarters--a policy that was under heated debate only a week ago.

Second, the allies had a crucial strategic purpose in mind: They want to send a clear message to Milosevic that his hopes of dividing NATO are unfounded and that Serbia faces far more damage, both military and economic, than he might have anticipated.

"The almost universal chorus was, 'We're going to continue the air campaign, we're going to intensify the air campaign, and we're going to win,' " said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Clinton's national security advisor.

NATO's escalating bombing raids will "extract a higher and higher price from Milosevic, from his intransigence, till he reaches the point where he decides to cut his losses," he said.

"I'm more convinced of this now than I was four hours ago, by virtue of the meeting that I just sat through--because I've seen 19 leaders who have made it very clear that they will succeed," he added.

Not all U.S. and NATO officials are equally confident that the bombing can force Milosevic to back down or induce others in his regime to change Serbia's course.

But even the pessimists tend to agree that a show of NATO unity is important at this point, to make sure Milosevic has not misunderstood Western intentions.

In a mirror image of NATO's initial miscalculations, some U.S. officials say, Milosevic might have believed that the allies would not have the stomach to bomb nonmilitary targets in the heart of Serbia, at least not for long.

"He knew we were going to bomb him," one official said. "But he may not have realized that we would bomb him in Belgrade, keep bombing as long as necessary, and keep the alliance together while we did it."

According to this theory, Milosevic expected at least some NATO members, like neighboring Greece and Italy, to object to large-scale bombing or a long-term military campaign.

But while Greece and Italy have raised objections--Italy's foreign minister, Lamberto Dini, denounced Friday's attack on Serbian television as "terrible"--they did nothing to block the escalation.

Berger and other U.S. officials pronounced themselves delighted with the result--a message to Milosevic from all 19 NATO governments that he faces many more weeks of bombing and a stepped-up effort to cut off Serbia's oil supplies.

"If [the summit] didn't exist, we would have had to invent it," Berger said.

At the same time, the allies also sent a clearer message about a possible exit route they would like to see Milosevic take: acceptance of a Russian peace initiative, as long as it sticks to NATO's terms.

"Russia . . . has an important role to play in a search for a solution to the conflict," the summit's statement on Kosovo said. But it added, in an unusually sharp clause, "There can be no compromise on [NATO's] conditions" for ending the war.

A senior U.S. official said the Clinton administration hopes Russia's diplomatic efforts succeed--"It would be a very good way out of this problem," he said--but added that there is no clear sign yet that Milosevic is moving toward NATO's conditions.

The question now, he said, is whether several more weeks of bombing will help move him--"diplomacy backed by force."

Amid the show of assertive unity, some discordant notes did rise.

There was the Italian complaint about the bombing of Serbia's television headquarters.

There was a wrangle over how to stop oil shipments into Yugoslavia; the United States wanted to intercept ships in the Adriatic Sea, but France worried that a too-aggressive blockade might harm Montenegro, Serbia's smaller, more moderate partner in the Yugoslav federation.

And there was a still-open disagreement between the United States and its closest allies, Britain and France, over the question of whether NATO should consider putting ground troops into Kosovo if Yugoslav forces are reduced to the point of posing no significant threat. Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have promoted such a scenario; Clinton has resisted it.

Under other circumstances, a difference among major NATO partners over such a crucial question might have caused endless hand-wringing. But the three leaders quickly agreed to ignore the problem for now.

"The problem is not concrete, so there has not been a debate," Chirac said.

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