How to keep NATO credible?

This week's crisis in Kosovo tests President Clinton as well as the pact preparing for its 50th anniversary.

Even as it confronts an Iraq unbowed by four days of airstrikes, the United States is facing a fresh challenge in another part of the world where it is relying on the threat of force to contain instability.

Four days of clashes between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in Serbia's Kosovo province have triggered a flood of new refugees and jeopardized a cease-fire the US secured in October in hopes of promoting peace talks.

The concerns of the US and its allies were evident in a warning issued this week in which NATO reiterated that it will launch airstrikes to preserve the cease-fire. "NATO is ready to intervene," the 16-member alliance declared.

For President Clinton the crisis represents more than a test of his strategy to prevent the conflict from sucking in adjacent states and endangering the progress of Eastern Europe's nascent democracies. Also at stake: NATO's credibility and cohesion as it prepares to mark its 50th anniversary in April with the largest gathering of world leaders ever convened in Washington.

The US-dominated defense pact has been wrestling with its future since the Soviet Union's demise left it without a clear foe. While it has opened its doors to new members and is policing the US-brokered peace in Bosnia, NATO is divided over new missions it is to adopt at its Washington summit. Among other things, the Clinton administration is pushing its allies to accept more operations outside of NATO's boundaries - the borders of its member states.

But a failure to prevent the violence in Kosovo from exploding anew and destabilizing the region would boost opposition to the US, officials and experts say. The divisions in NATO would deepen, creating fresh doubts about its purpose in the coming century and making a mockery of the glittering celebrations Mr. Clinton is to host in Washington.

Rain on a summit's parade?

"The damage to NATO would be extraordinary," says a US official, speaking anonymously. "NATO may have to try to resuscitate itself at the summit rather than celebrate its 50th anniversary."

US officials say they are striving to shore up the cease-fire, which was wrested by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke from Slobodan Milosevic, the authoritarian president of what remains of former Yugoslavia. It now comprises only Serbia and Montenegro.

"We are concerned about the situation. There is no guarantee that [widespread] fighting will wait until the spring," says a senior State Department official. At the same time, he describes the recent clashes as localized and insists that the truce has held in most of the province.

Halting an onslaught

Using the airstrike threat, Mr. Holbrooke compelled Mr. Milosevic to pull out some of his forces from Kosovo and halt a seven-month onslaught against rebels of Kosovo's 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority. Serbian police and troops drove tens of thousands of people from their homes in a bid to weaken support for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Hundreds of people were killed, most of them ethnic Albanian civilians.

Milosevic also accepted 2,000 unarmed international observers to verify the Serbian withdrawals and keep tabs on the KLA.

The rebels, who agreed to observe a truce, are fighting for independence after a decade of ruthless Serbian rule of Kosovo, which Serbs cherish as the birthplace of their culture and Christian Orthodox faith.

The US, which opposes independence for Kosovo, has sought to use the truce to start talks on greater autonomy for the province. But the effort has stalled badly over rejections by both sides of three US-drafted plans. At the same time, low-scale violence and the reemergence of the KLA in areas from which it had been driven kept frictions aboil.

Serious fighting erupted Christmas Eve when Milosevic sent back into Kosovo some 1,500 troops and police withdrawn in October. They attempted to dislodge KLA units from around Podujevo, a town straddling the main road linking the province and Serbia proper. At least 15 people died in combat that raged until international verifiers brokered a truce on Sunday. But the area remains fraught with tensions.

On Tuesday Yugoslavia asked the United Nations to declare the KLA a terrorist organization and to crack down on its support network abroad.

Experts agree the KLA threatened the road through Podujevo. But, they say, by sending back into Kosovo units he withdrew in October, Milosevic deliberately broke the cease-fire while Clinton was preoccupied by the tumult over his impeachment and this month's airstrikes on Iraq.

Milosevic "had to test because that was the only way of knowing whether the international community was willing to respond," says Aleksandar Vasovic of B-92, Serbia's leading independent radio station.

It boils down to courage

Jim Hooper, a former US diplomat who heads the Balkan Institute, a Washington think tank, says the lack of a forceful US reply will encourage Milosevic to test Clinton further with more truce violations.

"What Milosevic is signaling is that more of this is in store," says Mr. Hooper. "This all boils down to the level of political courage in Washington and the willingness of President Clinton to respond forcefully to Serbian provocations and tests of his own will."

"The Serbs may be shooting at the KLA," says Hooper, "but those bullets are aimed at NATO's credibility and Bill Clinton's leadership."

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