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.
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."
"The invasion is too late if it's not coming today," said Jasmin Jaha, a wounded relief worker from Pristina.
A ground war would add another distinction to a list of firsts in this campaign. It is the first time NATO has launched an attack over sovereign territory since the alliance formed nearly 50 years ago. It is the first time German fighters have been sent into battle since the end of World War II. And, according to Mr. Moore, "This is the first time since the Spanish-American War that America has launched an offensive war against a sovereign nation."
The precedents leave even a pro-military strategist like Mr. Moore, a Citadel graduate who served as chief of staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, uneasy. "This policy has been foolish and deluded from the beginning," he said, "but to pull out now would give Mr. Milosevic a great victory and open the way for further ethnic cleansing in Kosovo."
Already the crisis with Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia, has strengthened Mr. Milosevic's hand. Kosovo is considered the cradle of medieval Serbian civilization and a shrine by many Serbs. Serbian knights died there in the 14th century, fighting conquering Turks. Serbian troops took back the region during the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and again during World War I. Post-war boundary redrawings shook up the ethnic mix and meant Kosovo's population most of this century has been dominated by ethnic Albanians, who adhere to their own language and are almost entirely Muslim, in contrast to the traditional Orthodox heritage of Serbians.
Tension in Kosovo galvanized the rise to power of Mr. Milosevic in the 1980s, transforming him from vanilla Communist apparatchik to a national political hero by his fierce defense of the province's Serbian minority. After the war in Bosnia, relief workers in Yugoslavia predicted that Kosovo would be the next ethnic tinderbox. Operation World author Patrick Johnstone wrote in 1993, "The coming explosion [in Kosovo] could mean worse fighting than that seen in Bosnia."
Those predictions are being fulfilled, according to Christian relief workers along the Kosovo borders. In the days following the NATO offensive, they said 500,000 refugees-25 percent of Kosovo's population-had poured into nearby Macedonia, Albania, and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. The refugees give reports of civilians killed, looting and burning of entire villages, door-to-door operations to abduct and kill men, dead bodies alongside the roadside, rapes, families forced out of their homes at gunpoint, and wholesale confiscation of personal documents, thus removing identification.
NATO spokesman Mr. Shea acknowledged that thousands of Albanian men from Kosovo are unaccounted for. "Their whereabouts are unknown," he said. Survivors suspect they have been killed or herded into likely NATO targets as human shields.
Remaining Kosovars have no electricity and dwindling food supplies, even though international relief workers have been working from just over the borders to open corridors for aid. Peter Kuzmic, head of the Croatian relief agency Agape and the Evangelical Seminary at Osijek, reported from Macedonia that Kosovo refugees he interviewed described heavy bombing in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and a systematic eradication of the intelligentsia and civic leaders by Serb forces. Since NATO bombing first began, he has not been able to contact the fledgling evangelical church in Pristina. The evangelicals, who are both Serbian and Albanian, find themselves in an ethnic no-man's-land, subject to harassment from both sides.
The need for Christian charity is also apparent in Serbian parts of Yugoslavia under NATO assaults. Pentecostal pastor Miodrag Stankovic spent two days clearing out a 60-year-old bomb shelter at his church in Leskovac, a Serbian town.
"In 1944, about 6,000 people from our town were killed; all those who found refuge in the shelter survived. The day has come again to use it," he said. Although 500 people attended the church's March 28 service, the shelter holds only 40.
"Our non-Christian neighbors asked if we would allow them to seek refuge in it. 'Of course,' we said. We also thought of the children from the kindergarten near our church. They will need a safe haven, too. We Christians see it as our duty to stand up in the gap between the nations of our land," Mr. Stankovic said.