The western allies who united a few months ago to force a Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo are today split over what to do about a humanitarian emergency caused largely by their own military actions. Specifically, how can hundreds of thousands of Serbs, including refugees from Kosovo, be helped to survive the coming winter?
The answer would be pretty straightforward - launch a relief operation - except for one factor: Aid might be manipulated by the government of Slobodan Milosevic. At the least, it could ease public discontent in Serbia, thus weakening political pressures on the regime. This is a reasonable concern, shared by both Washington and Europe. But it shouldn't be a governing concern.
People's need for food and warmth shouldn't be held hostage to the removal of an unsavory leadership. The parallels to Iraq and Saddam Hussein are obvious, if imperfect. Serbs, however, may have an opportunity in the next few months to vote Mr. Milosevic out - an option not available to Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the European Union's aid plan, called "Energy for Democracy," should go forward - despite US opposition. It calls for shipping heating oil to towns run by politicians that oppose Milosevic. The Europeans are convinced that aid applied in this fashion will strengthen opposition forces - as well as keep more people warm during the cold months.
But the hoped-for opposition backing for the EU plan failed to materialize. The anti-Milosevic ranks divided over the EU's desire to link further aid to cooperation with the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. Their argument was that humanitarian aid shouldn't be tied to such a politically explosive issue within Serbia.
Clearly, priorities need to be reestablished. First, move ahead with basic aid that can help the economically devastated Serbs get through this winter. Second, don't relent on pointing out Milosevic's terrible disservices to his own country's well-being and to the cause of human decency. Third, make it clear the tribunal's indictments won't go away.
Short-term humanitarian relief will not jeopardize longer-term political change and justice. It should do just the opposite by lessening the despair and resentment that the Milosevices of the world feed on.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society