BRUSSELS — The United States and its NATO allies on Wednesday began the most extensive combat operations in the alliance's half-century existence, unsure of success and jittery about the consequences of their action.
At news conferences and in public statements, as attacks on President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia commenced, leaders in Washington, allied capitals in Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters on the outskirts of Brussels all struck a posture of unity. Yet beneath this veneer of public resolve, the air was heavy with uncertainty and misgivings.
"We're all nervous," one high-ranking NATO official said.
The mood was similar on the other side of the Atlantic.
"This is an unpredictable, messy and dangerous business," said Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), a respected member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He derided congressional colleagues who were demanding exact timetables and exit dates from the Kosovo crisis.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) worried about far more cataclysmic consequences.
"I believe we are coming close to starting World War III," Stevens said during an animated Senate floor debate Tuesday evening. "At least I know we are starting a process that is almost going to be never-ending."
This unusually high level of concern as military action began in Kosovo came despite the West's relatively successful deployment of forces in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina and a casualty-free, three-month air campaign in the skies over Iraq.
The reasons underlying those concerns are numerous:
* The bombing could ignite a broader war, possibly infecting the NATO alliance itself by heightening existing tensions between Greece, which is sympathetic to the dominant Yugoslav republic of Serbia, and Turkey, which has religious ties to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population.
* The campaign might not be enough to force Milosevic to accept the presence of NATO ground forces as peace patrols in Kosovo. If it isn't, the alliance may not have a politically sustainable alternative strategy.
* There are doubts about the legality of the airstrikes under international law. While the United States insists that existing U.N. resolutions leave room for the mission, some European governments have argued that a new resolution is needed.
* The rugged terrain, poor weather and strong Serbian air defenses could combine to make the mission extremely dangerous, and the heightened risk of casualties could quickly erode congressional and public support for the action. That, in turn, could have disastrous consequences for the alliance and for Washington's global leadership role, foreign policy specialists fear.
"The American people are not sold on the necessity of this intervention," said Richard Haass, a Bush administration foreign policy advisor and author of "The Reluctant Sheriff," a recent book that explores the United States' equivocal approach to its role as the globe's lone superpower. "If the United States is shown not to have the stomach for this intervention, then bad guys around the world will note that lesson."
Summed up former President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski: "This is a test of American leadership . . . something we have to see through now that we've started it."
To reassure Yugoslavia's nervous neighbors that they won't be sucked into yet another war in the Balkans, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana has dispatched letters to Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Slovenia promising support if they are threatened by Yugoslavia, an alliance official said.
NATO has been markedly slow to come to grips with the Kosovo crisis, the most violent ethnic conflict now raging in Europe, in which the province's ethnic Albanians, including a faction of armed rebels, are pitted against Yugoslavia's Serb majority and Serb-dominated power structure.
It was nearly 10 months ago that alliance ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, first started talking about "military implications of further deterrent measures" to staunch the bloodletting that began more than a year ago. In October, NATO came close to ordering military attacks but backed off when Milosevic finally agreed to a cease-fire and a troop withdrawal--agreements that have since been violated. Five months of diplomatic cat-and-mouse games with Belgrade ensued as the fighting and nightmare ordeals of civilians in Kosovo continued.
Deadlines in negotiations that opened in France last month were set, then forgotten and extended, and a new round of talks held.
There was "a string of warnings and ultimatums that were not carried through," William Hague, leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, complained to the House of Commons on Tuesday. "The credibility of NATO has been called into question."
"If you threaten or promise action, you have to follow through from time to time on your promises," an official at NATO argued. "Otherwise, your threats don't mean anything anymore."