Cover Story

A war too far

Air strike diplomacy tries to be surgical, but-with American soldiers captured, U.S.-Russia relations on ice, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo on the run-the NATO war on Yugoslavia is anything but antiseptic.

Issue: "Kosovo: What's next?," April 10, 1999

The graffiti scrawled on a wall off Belgrade's main street said, "Finish this bombing off so I can start painting my apartment."

The artistry expressed a prevailing sentiment in the capital of Yugoslavia during the opening days of NATO air strikes. It captured at once the disconnect felt by many civilians toward an ethnic crisis created largely by their own government, as well as widespread cynicism about the consumer mentality with which the United States and its allies make war: at discount prices and for a limited time only.

By the end of the war's second week, however, the air barrage by the United States and its 18 allies was becoming more than a comma in the foreign policy conversation. NATO agreed to "broaden and deepen" its air attacks after it became clear that Serb forces were emptying Kosovo of its Albanian population. Alliance attacks hit government buildings inside Belgrade, the capital, and not just military installations outside the city, which were hit during the first week of bombing.

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President Bill Clinton and other NATO leaders rejected a proffer from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw some of his forces from Kosovo in exchange for a halt in allied bombing. Mr. Clinton called those terms "unacceptable" until Belgrade ended its "war of terror" against its Albanian citizens.

Hawkish resolve notwithstanding, the situation in the Balkans is unnerving NATO brass and courting disaster. NATO generals calculated the strength of Yugoslavia's military but failed to measure its allegiance to ethnic cleansing and the country's determination to protect its own borders. "Even we have been shocked by the sheer enormity of what is going on in Kosovo at the moment," confessed NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.

Nor did NATO's political heads count on how quickly the conflict would spread. Serb forces captured three U.S. soldiers in Macedonia, pulled tanks in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Pristina, and looked poised to take their anger out on U.S. troops stationed in nearby Bosnia. Serb supporters rioted outside U.S. embassies-and even McDonald's restaurants-in Moscow, Prague, Athens, and other European capitals.

Russia surprised Western officials most of all, choosing to risk the loss of cash infusions from the West in order to stand by its age-old Slavic ally in the Balkans. Moscow recalled Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov mid-flight, en route to Washington for a meeting on Russia's financial crisis, when NATO airstrikes were launched. One week later, he was meeting with Mr. Milosevic in Belgrade, and Russian warships were on their way to the Mediterranean, according to Russian news agencies. Those news services reported that a squadron of seven ships, including missile frigates and anti-submarine frigates from the Black Sea Fleet, would be in place to monitor NATO activities by early April. While Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried to sound diplomatic, ultranationalist politicians contending to succeed him in office next year promised to arm Belgrade if NATO gives arms to Albanians.

When Mr. Clinton told the American people two weeks ago that the NATO operation would "defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe," this was not what he had in mind.

"If you look at what we said was desirable at the outset, we have achieved the opposite," said Thomas Moore, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. "This is not to say that Milosevic is not to blame. Yet NATO assaults have solidified Serb nationalism behind Milosevic; they have created a far worse humanitarian crisis than we sought to correct; and launched an irrevocable movement toward Kosovo independence, which will raise the cause of a 'greater Albania.' In short, we have destabilized the whole region."

Defense experts say that it is increasingly clear that achieving the Clinton administration's stated goals-defusing ethnic tensions and ending atrocities-cannot be achieved without ground forces. So far, Mr. Clinton and NATO officers have ruled out ground troops because it is a politically tense option.

From discussions with Pentagon officials, Mr. Moore says there is "real concern" about a lengthy NATO operation. Top officers see a frayed military that is losing its edge because of multiple commitments to peacekeeping missions and on-again, off-again crises. Hardware, too, is at a premium. By last weekend, NATO officials were strategizing around a completely depleted U.S. inventory of cruise missiles.

"What was intended at the outset was to use air power and force Serbs to the table to make an agreement. Then NATO troops would go in as peacekeepers," said Mr. Moore. "That is not going to happen. Now they will be combatants.If we want a final, definitive solution, it will require NATO going to war on the ground."

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