NATO's Tough Test - Kosovo

Alliance defers to diplomats for now. But lack of action may harm its credibility.

For the second time since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the future of the United States-led NATO alliance is being put to the test in the Balkans.

The US and its 15 allies had thought that any post-cold-war doubts about NATO's future evaporated with the success of its 2-1/2-year-long peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

But there's new trouble in the region - a war in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian forces. And NATO's recent threats to intervene are not only putting the alliance's credibility at stake, but they're exposing a broader dispute over when and where NATO can act outside its borders.

In fact, in the absence of a Soviet-style foe, this question has become the most important issue NATO confronts as it reexamines its purpose and missions for the 21st century.

"Kosovo brings us a challenge that could either unravel all of our success ... or give us a very clear indication of NATO's real relevance in the new millennium," says a US official, speaking anonymously.

Indeed, the issue holds consequences far beyond Kosovo. The US wants NATO to be able to undertake new kinds of "out of area" missions. These could range from punishing those who develop chemical weapons to putting down any attempts to disrupt Gulf oil supplies. France and Portugal have even raised the possibility of a NATO role in containing unrest that threatens their interests in north Africa.

NATO members are now forging the outlines of a 21st-century mission statement called the "Strategic Concept." In May, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued that NATO should have the widest latitude to act. The alliance, she said, needs to give its military planners "the guidance they need to address the full spectrum of military contingencies NATO forces are likely to face in the future."

Meanwhile, NATO has virtually completed plans to intervene in Kosovo, deploying extra aircraft and munitions to the region after simulated "show of force" airstrikes last month.

But in recent days, NATO has retreated from its threat to hit Serbian forces, whose assaults on ethnic Albanian rebels have also killed hundreds of civilians and uprooted some 76,000 refugees. Instead, with rebels gaining ground, it has thrown its weight behind US efforts to arrange a cease-fire and peace negotiations.

US diplomacy, however, shows no signs of success. American envoy Richard Holbrooke failed this weekend to arrange new talks. And in a new tact, an observer mission of Belgrade-based diplomats traveled into Kosovo's interior Monday to assess the extent of persisting fighting.

With the prospects of a diplomatic solution fading, pressure is building on NATO to prevent the war from spilling into Albania and Macedonia. A wider war could drag in NATO members Greece and Turkey, throwing the alliance into turmoil. An escalation in the violence might also unhinge peace efforts in Bosnia.

This test of NATO's credibility and cohesion comes at a sensitive time for President Clinton: Preparations are under way for a glittering celebration he'll host next April for the alliance's 50th anniversary. It will feature the unveiling of the new Strategic Concept and the induction of Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in the first round of NATO expansion, one of Mr. Clinton's most important legacies.

BUT with so much at stake, NATO remains riven over whether it can intervene in Kosovo, partly because of the lack of a political plan to end the fighting. The discord also reflects a broader split over when NATO can act outside its borders.

Some allies, led by France, say intervention in Kosovo, which is part of a sovereign state, must be authorized by a United Nations resolution. Without it, they say, intervention would set a precedent that could be used by any nation as a pretext to meddle in its neighbors' affairs.

France also believes intervention without a UN OK would strengthen Washington's grip on NATO, experts say. "Part of this is about the relative distribution of influence within the alliance," asserts Robert Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO.

Finally, these allies argue that intervening without UN approval will exacerbate tensions with Russia, which opposes NATO action in Kosovo. Moscow sees the region as its traditional bailiwick and doesn't want a precedent set for outside involvement in its own internal disputes.

But the US, Britain, The Netherlands, and others contend that while desirable, UN approval isn't necessary. The UN charter, they point out, allows regional coalitions to act to ensure regional stability.

But there are other reasons for their stance. They oppose restraints on NATO's ability to act quickly when it determines its interests are in jeopardy.

This concern dates to the Bosnian war, when NATO was frustrated by having to share authorization for airstrikes on Bosnian Serbs with a reluctant UN.

NATO wants to avoid similar situations in the future. "You wouldn't want your capacity and interests held hostage" by UN members, says the US official.

Furthermore, submitting to UN approval would give Russia, as a permanent Security Council member, veto power over NATO. That's something Clinton promised he wouldn't allow in setting up ongoing NATO consultations with Moscow.

In the end, the crisis in Kosovo may force a resolution of the issue. Experts say that with the danger of a regional conflict growing, NATO may have no choice but to intervene. The question then becomes whether it can stop the fighting or risk becoming embroiled itself.

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