WASHINGTON — As Kosovo burns, the United States appears committed to an involvement in the Balkans that could stretch well into the next millennium.
That's because it's hard to see how ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugees can ever return to their homes without the cover of a US-led protective force.
And once such troops enter the battered region, they may have to stay for years. In nearby Bosnia, American units arrived as part of a UN peacekeeping mission in December 1995. They were supposed to leave within 12 months. Some of them are still there.
The US thus might be close to becoming the main outside guarantor of Balkans stability - a role the Austro-Hungarian Empire played for centuries. That's probably not the foreign-policy legacy President Clinton had planned.
"Whatever else William Jefferson Clinton has been called in recent months, we may as well add one further name: Franz Josef Clinton," writes Adam Garfinkle, an editor of The National Interest, in that policy journal's current issue, referring to the region's 18th-century emperor.
It's still possible that the US could exit the Balkans quickly, of course. NATO bombing might yet force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to yield. NATO might agree to a solution in which Yugoslavia retains the slice of Kosovo where Serbian historical monuments are centered, and the Albanian Kosovars get the rest. The bomb campaign could simply run its course, with NATO and the rest of the world then turning their backs on an obdurate Mr. Milosevic.
But the logic of declared US and NATO policy would seem to lead to a deeper role.
For one thing, officials insist that all refugees be allowed to return to their homes. It now seems unlikely that can happen without, not just a peacekeeping force, but a heavily armed NATO ground shield. The situation has simply become too polarized by bullets and bombs for anything else.
For another, even if NATO sets up an independent Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians would undoubtedly need outside troops to protect them until such time as they develop their own army.
At this point it seems unlikely that NATO would simply resettle Kosovo and quickly withdraw.
"The more you are involved in something, the more responsibility you acquire," says Radha Kumar, a Balkans expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The idea that you can bide your time and then leave seems implausible."
BOSNIA is a case in point. Reconstruction of ethnic communities in this war-torn former Yugoslav republic has proved more difficult than UN leaders had planned. If Bosnia still counts thousands of its inhabitants as refugees, more than four years after the 1995 Dayton accord ended the fighting there, how long will it take Kosovo to resettle its hundreds of thousands?
Thus, the next US president seems certain to find the Balkans a top foreign-policy concern, as is the long-running US presence in the Gulf region. Both areas may almost be seen as US protectorates, places where peace depends on F-15Es and Humvees.
That may be something of an exaggeration - but only just. Experts note that the Balkans has been controlled by outside powers or home-grown communists for centuries. Milosevic's nationalist manipulations present "a pretty fair case in favor of imperialism," says Michael Roskin, a former Army Balkans expert who is now a political scientist at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., half in jest.
Mr. Roskin says current NATO policy seems somewhat more communist than imperial, in that the restoration of Kosovo as an autonomous province of Serbia would be akin to the loose federalism established by longtime Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.
"We've gone from Tito to NATO," says Roskin. "Tito gave Kosovo a great deal of autonomy. It worked well, but they were always closely watched by his secret police."
Historical analogies between the US and the Balkans powers that preceded it are far from exact. Most important, Tito and the Austro-Hungarian Empire aimed at permanent power. The US presumably wants to exit the region as soon as possible.
The Austro-Hungarians had religious ties to portions of the Balkans. The monarchy itself was a symbol of power that elicited some devotion and support from much of the region's population.
Furthermore, the big geopolitical picture of the 18th and 19th centuries lent itself to the imposition of power on the Balkans. The empire was a buffer between Russia and Germany and an invaluable swing vote in the time's great game of balance of power.
"None of those elements that made the Austro-Hungarian empire a necessity exists today," says Paul Michelson, a Balkans historian at Huntington College in Indiana.
But if the past is a guide, the US could be in the Balkans longer than officials now insist. That is not necessarily a bad thing, say experts, pointing to the US role in the Gulf and its smaller involvement in the long-running observer force in the Sinai Peninsula, between Egypt and Israel, as forces for world stability.