Empty Gestures in the Balkans

STUNG by charges of waffling and the loss of American diplomatic prestige over the war, President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher are now trying to cut their losses in the Balkans by containing the Serb killing fields within Bosnia. Due to the past failures of the United States in relation to the Balkans, containment will be much harder than it should be.

The Clinton administration's answer to the problem last week was to "urge" the United Nations to deploy air strikes to protect the peacekeepers. We will see what action, if any, that brings. A short time ago, Mr. Clinton tried to "send a signal" to the Serbs and stop the war's explosion by deploying 300 troops and 30 attack planes to the region. Three hundred troops and 30 planes were supposed to send a signal to a state that controls Europe's fifth largest army - an army that helped kill about 200,000 p eople and left another 2 million homeless - an army whose leaders are accused of ordering systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes. Serbia has already proven it can endure sanctions. Perhaps our signals so far have been too subtle.

To no one's surprise, Serbia did not heed the president's intended message but chose instead to gamble that world leaders would continue to do what they have done so well in the past: nothing. It has proven a safe bet.

Belgrade's response to the president's last move was to expel the human rights monitors that international organizations have placed in areas under Serb control. Serbia prefers the world not to see what it is doing.

Clinton and other Western leaders recently joined in urging Serb President Slobodan Milosevic not to expel the monitors. Of course, this same group of leaders last year threatened military action against Serbia if it continued a campaign of terror. Now, Bosnia is all but dead, a victim of the international community's impotence. Indications are strong that Kosovo is next.

Before the monitors were expelled, the House passed two amendments I offered that would have more than doubled the number of monitors in Kosovo and throughout the region. Now, we will be lucky to replace the original number. The monitors played a neutral role in Kosovo. Belgrade's expulsion of the monitors can only mean they think the time is right to provoke an open fight - one they can easily win with the 40,000 troops and the artillery they have parked in Kosovo.

Those wishing to contain the conflict can only hope that the president's new call for air strikes doesn't become another empty threat. The US must insist that Serbia begin making concessions to the Albanian majority in Kosovo and establish a strict timetable for implementation. Due to past inaction, we have little room to bluff the Serbs into compliance. They know from experience that 300 American troops in Macedonia are not going to cross the border to save the people of Kosovo. Ironically, because we h ave not followed our threats with action in the past in Bosnia, our policies make it more likely that we could be drawn into a situation we cannot control. Earlier, we could have made a big impact on the Serbs with a relatively small price, but that opportunity is long past.

For too long the agreements, concessions, and frameworks for peace have been destroyed by both Serbian insubordination and Western complicity. For the past two years, the West has signaled displeasure with Serbia. In response, Serbs keep pushing their boundaries. They have ignored the West and become bolder. Now it will take more than empty ultimatums and 300 troops to bring peace to the Balkans.

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