Kosovo: the power of the weak

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The Kosovo tragedy once again illustrates the advantages of the weak over the strong. By all objective definitions of power, the US and its allies should have had no difficulty in prevailing quickly over a Somali warlord, an Arab dictator, or a Serbian nationalist. But in no case has this been true.

Old rules that applied in the great wars of the century seem no longer valid. The nations with the greatest military and economic resources find it difficult to work their will over small, poor countries.

In Somalia in 1994, Mohammad Aideed, a Mogadishu warlord undermined humanitarian efforts that were protected by US forces.

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Despite the Gulf War and the continuing bombing of Iraq, Saddam Hussein remains in power, exercising brutal control over his people.

Three weeks of aerial attacks have yet to persuade Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to agree to an internationally monitored peace in Kosovo.

With the experience of the 1990s, perhaps it is time for a new view of international power relationships.

Tactics available to the weak are clear.

A disregard for human life, abhorrent to the Western nations of the 1990s, combined with highly efficient security forces permit total control over a population. In Saddam Hussein's case, this extended even to members of his own tribe and family.

Latent nationalist feelings, expressed through doctored history and a sense of victimization, are exploited to mobilize the citizenry and demonize others. Mr. Milosevic has capitalized on the resurrected glories of the Serbian past. Hussein has rebuilt Babylon and proclaimed himself a second Nebuchadnezzar. Outsiders may scorn these pretensions, but even in brutalized Baghdad, such symbols of past glories generate pride.

The television age may expose dictators through graphic demonstrations of their crimes, but the technology also provides opportunities for these same rulers to broadcast their messages from the security of hidden bunkers. An efficient manipulation of domestic channels of news and comment hides outside truths from local publics and monopolizes the information they receive.

Dictators have risen to authority by a cunning understanding of the vulnerability of opponents and tactical skills that keep potential rivals at bay. They utilize these same talents in their tests of wills with democratic nations less flexible and less wily than they. Neither Milosevic nor Saddam Hussein may understand the mechanics of democracy, but each clearly understands the unwillingness of democratic nations to make substantial sacrifices.

The weaker nation pursues its objectives at great cost - in destruction and loss of life. The West has yet to learn how high a price either Saddam or Milosevic is prepared to pay. But, for the West, the cost is also high. Military expenditures throw off budget calculations at the cost of internal programs - in even the richest nation. Relief for victims requires more resources and, when hostilities end, the price of maintaining peace and reconstructing nations will be high.

Skewed foreign policy objectives also exact a cost. In the case of the US, this has meant strained relations with Russia and a delay in vital arms control agreements. And who can say what lasting enmity toward the US may be created among those in Iraq and Serbia on whom the bombs are falling?

No easy options exist today for stronger nations in the face of the aggressive brutality of the weak. Military power has its costs and limitations. Sanctions are difficult to maintain; in brutal regimes people suffer while elites exist in isolated luxury.

Negotiations must overcome deep mistrust and the impatience of those in the West who seek a quick solution. Inaction in the face of TV images of group slaughter is politically unsustainable in a democratic society.

Saddam and Milosevic may yet fall before the West's onslaught, but the price will be high on both sides. The outcomes will dramatize once more the incredible power of the weak to frustrate the objectives of the strong.

*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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