Amid all the deserved criticism of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for his violent crackdown in Kosovo, spare a few thoughts for the actions of the US and other western powers. Now that dozens of people have been killed in a few days in scenes reminiscent of the start of the Bosnian war, foreign ministers have flown to high-level meetings and issued strong statements.
President George Bush's almost forgotten "Christmas warning" to Belgrade - that Serbian violence in Kosovo would lead to a US military response - has been dusted off, even as spokesmen carefully note that no military response is planned.
What set off all this activity? The Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government reacted in its usual bone-crushing manner to a series of killings by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA). That guerrilla group offered a military alternative to the non-violent campaign for the independence of Kosovo led for years by Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosova.
Not long ago, observers questioned whether this guerrilla group really existed. Recently, however, a series of attacks demonstrated its reality. Even before these attacks, many warned that the tentative settlements of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia had, if anything, intensified the potential for conflict in Kosovo. Mr. Milosevic had destroyed the province's autonomy in 1989. Albanians resented being ignored in the Dayton Accords. The feeling grew that the Bosnian Serbs had gained a form of autonomy through violence, while Rugova's nonviolent methods had failed. Weapons looted from armories during last spring's Albanian uprising flowed across the south Balkans.
Plenty of organizations and analysts warned that violence was inevitable. Only the Rome-based lay Catholic Community of Sant' Egidio managed to broker a partial agreement to reopen the Kosovo schools to Albanian students, the first agreement ever between Milosevic and Mr. Rugova. Despite some efforts, Washington and major European capitals never mobilized the sustained pressure to ensure implementation of this accord or to address any other grievances in Kosovo.
However, the repression provoked by the KLA made the threat of war real enough to arouse the major powers to convene a meeting of the Contact Group of countries concerned with Yugoslavia and to impose new sanctions. If there were an obvious or easy way to resolve this conflict someone would have done it already. No state except Albania accepts the right of Kosovo to secede from Serbia and Yugoslavia.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has articulated an emerging consensus by calling for "increased autonomy" for Kosovo within Yugoslavia, which would have to include guarantees against further repression and violence and require international monitoring. Both parties currently reject this position.
Effective policy will require sustained international pressure and incentives, including a real threat to use the type of force that finally ended the fighting in Bosnia, forceful international mediation, and support for dialogue that might generate new alternatives.
The bigger lesson goes beyond Kosovo. Only strategic, political leadership of foreign policy can mobilize the efforts needed to avert these crises and show that violence is not the only way to redress grievances.
Other obvious crises impend on the horizon. A policy review on Nigeria, for instance, is still slowly making its way through the foreign policy bureaucracy, even as a regime based on political exclusion consolidates its hold with money from the international oil market.
We now confront the dangers of another Bosnia in the Balkans. Are we also sitting by while another Liberia develops in West Africa, on a vastly larger scale? Proactive policy is not easy, but neither is stanching blood that has already started to flow.
* Barnett R. Rubin is director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.