The Clinton administration worries that the conflict in Kosovo, where more than 300 ethnic Albanian guerrillas and civilians have been killed since February, could spread throughout the Balkans.
"There is a genuine concern throughout the region that if this goes unchecked, it could have much wider implications than just Kosovo," says Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Unfortunately, the Kosovo conflict is likely to spread, but not in the way Mr. Cohen imagines.
News reports indicate that Kosovo's guerrillas are incapable of mounting a full-scale war that will spill out of Kosovo; Serbian security forces are handily beating them. The real threat for a widening conflict comes from neighboring Albania. Former Albanian president Sali Berisha recently gave his family farm to Kosovo's rebel forces to use as a military training ground - an immensely popular decision that is part of his manipulation of the Kosovo crisis to mount a political comeback.
Mr. Berisha refers to the fighting in Kosovo as a holy war and has called on ethnic Albanians to "defend their homes and their land." He defines the "Albanian nation" as including not only Albania but also Kosovo and western Macedonia, both of which are dominated by ethnic Albanians. He has also called Albania's prime minister, Fatos Nano, an "enemy of the Albanian nation" for failing to support Kosovo's secessionist forces.
Despite that political backdrop, NATO intends to conduct war games in coming weeks with Albania's Army. That will raise its confidence and improve its war-fighting skills, thus increasing the danger of war in the southern Balkans. The United States may be inadvertently helping the very forces that will initiate the spread of the Kosovo conflict.
NATO defense ministers recently authorized military planners to draw up a range of options for intervention in Kosovo, including air strikes. Although official US policy is opposed to independence for Kosovo, military intervention will convey a competing message: that Washington will not tolerate the use of force to prevent it. Unfortunately, that may embolden Kosovar Albanians in their efforts to break away from Serbia.
Many Kosovar Albanians already believe that Washington is on their side.
"One of our main struggles is to convince them that we really don't support independence," explains Richard Huckaby, director of the US Information Agency in Kosovo. "They just don't get it.... I have tried really hard to lower their expectations."
US policymakers are the ones who "don't get it." Military intervention in Kosovo will strengthen the perception by ethnic Albanians that the US backs them. If Belgrade responds violently, as is likely, US troops could find themselves pulled into the cross-fire.
If military intervention consists of deploying NATO troops along the Kosovo-Albanian border, that will not stop the bloodshed in Kosovo. It will simply prevent Kosovar Albanians from acquiring weapons from Albania to defend themselves. The resulting slaughter could create greater nationalist political pressure in neighboring Albania, not less, and increase the likelihood that Albania will become directly involved in Kosovo.
Military intervention in Kosovo could also spread the conflict by causing Bosnia's already deeply flawed Dayton Peace Accords to completely unravel. Indeed, if it appears that the US is facilitating Kosovo's secession, Bosnian Serbs could interpret that as a sign of a broader anti-Serb Western agenda. That would not only expose US troops stationed in Bosnia to possible acts of retribution like those that occurred against US Marines in Beirut in the 1980s or more recently in Somalia, it would threaten to undermine the fragile US-brokered peace there as well.
There is a real danger that the conflict in Kosovo will spread, but this will happen because of Washington's interventionist policies, not in spite of them.
* Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute . He recently spent four weeks in Serbia and Kosovo.