Persist in the Balkans

The world doesn't stand still for domestic crises in America. Consider the Balkans region of Europe. The Serbian province of Kosovo is careening toward a humanitarian tragedy as Yugoslav troops crack down on Albanian separatists, causing huge flows of refugees. In nearby Bosnia, a second election held under the US-brokered peace agreement promised progress, though Bosnian society remains riven by ethnic nationalism.

Both situations demand strong international - and specifically US - engagement. Washington has warned that continued assaults on Kosovo's Albanian majority could trigger a response by NATO forces. But it's doubtful Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic takes this seriously, especially now that Washington is immersed in scandal and possible impeachment.

Yet the time is swiftly approaching, as in Bosnia, when NATO powers will have to decide between armed intervention or inaction as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds.

The goal of US diplomacy is renewed autonomy for Kosovo - perhaps along the lines of that now granted Chechnya within the Russian Federation. But that reasonable outcome is greatly complicated by the mounting refugee problem, with its burden of prolonged tensions.

Such a burden is still acutely felt in Bosnia, four years after peace was attained. The country remains split along ethnic lines - in virtual ratification of the ethnic cleansing practiced most brutally by the Bosnian Serbs, who were incited by Milosevic. Last weekend's peaceful election was a sign of progress. But ultranationalist forces are still strong, as the apparent defeat of a relatively moderate Bosnian Serb candidate shows. The war's legacy of bitterness hangs on - not least because so many Bosnians remain refugees, cut off from their homes.

Further progress in Bosnia will require a sustained international presence, including American forces - though, hopefully, in decreasing numbers. It will also demand sustained political rebuilding, especially the constructive use of news media and of new political institutions.

America has a vital interest in ensuring peace in regions like the Balkans. And the world has a vital interest in sustained US engagement. As the US turns inward to solve a constitutional and moral crisis, it must not ignore that crucial interdependency.

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