After months of indecision, the US and its 15 NATO allies are brandishing anew a military threat against a Serbian onslaught against ethnic Albanian rebels and civilians in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province.
NATO defense ministers, meeting Thursday in Portugal, authorized preparations for "limited" and "phased" airstrikes should Serbia defy a UN demand made Sept. 23 for a cease-fire and negotiations.
Western officials insist NATO's decision to ask each member nation to join in the preparations underscores its determination to act now. Officials worry that winter cold will jeopardize tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians living in the open after fleeing Serbian forces. "This is not posturing," asserts a senior NATO official. "There is real movement. We are moving very rapidly into the force-generation process."
Yet many experts and even some US officials remain dubious. They question whether the Clinton administration, engulfed by scandal, and its allies are serious about the latest in a litany of unfulfilled threats and broken promises.
With some 32,000 NATO troops in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, none wish to become embroiled in another Balkan quagmire.
Furthermore, there are bleak prospects for a durable political resolution that can satisfy the independence demands of Kosovo's 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority and Belgrade's rejection of anything but limited autonomy.
A second major unknown is whether Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the progenitor of four Balkan wars since 1991, will call NATO's bluff.
The answers to these questions carry profound implications for the stability of southern Europe and the credibility and cohesion of history's most powerful military alliance as it strives to justify its relevance in the post-cold-war world. Also at stake is the credibility of the United States as a leading force for world stability.
Many experts and US officials doubt Mr. Milosevic will suspend his offensive, as he is aware of Russian opposition to intervention and an unresolved dispute within NATO over whether United Nations authorization is required. The US says a new UN vote is not needed, while NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said "the use of force will require further decisions."
These experts and officials believe Serbian forces will pursue their offensive until Milosevic is satisfied he has decimated the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and thoroughly punished its supporters.
Serbian officials have launched a sweeping legal campaign aimed at such supporters. They have arrested more than 500 ethnic Albanians and accused them of anti-state activity. Serbian officials say they are seeking a total of 927 individuals.
Most of the detainees will be tried in October and face up to 20 years in prison. "It seems that the Serbian military offensive is winding down," says Fred Abrahams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But the legal offensive is just gearing up."
According to ethnic Albanian lawyers, the Serbs are mostly arresting young men from areas where the KLA has been active.
"Most of the accused have done nothing," says Bajram Kelmendi, a Pristina-based lawyer. "For example, the government has been arresting the doctor who treated a KLA soldier, the farmer who fixed a road the KLA used, the store owner who sold food to the KLA."
Since fighting between the KLA and Serbian forces began in late February, more than 600 people have been killed and more than 250,000 have been driven from their homes. Most of the victims have been ethnic Albanians. Dozens of Serbs are also missing, and are presumed to have been taken prisoner by the KLA.
Kosovo's latest problems trace back to the late 1980s, when Milosevic stripped the Albanians of their autonomy. Since then, unwarranted arrests and torture have been widespread, lawyers and humanitarian aid officials say. But never have there been as many instances as there have been in recent months.
SHOULD NATO move to act, experts say, Milosevic could take sufficient steps toward compliance to forestall intervention, as he did repeatedly in Bosnia. He has also used such tactics in Kosovo amid President Clinton's retreat from a 1993 threat to use force, NATO exercises in Albania and Macedonia earlier this year, and Russia's failure to hold him to a cease-fire pledge it won this summer.
Yet experts also note that recent developments may have convinced the US and its allies that action is required to avert a humanitarian calamity that would engulf them in domestic political firestorms, further impair NATO's credibility, and push the Balkans deeper into instability.
These developments include:
* A realization that President Clinton's personal crisis is hampering effective US leadership, making it critical for the West to avoid further delays in taking action. Some US and European Union officials say this concern is reflected in the decision by France and Britain to pick up the ball by sponsoring Wednesday's UN resolution.
* The defeat of the KLA as a major military threat, thereby eliminating any risk that NATO intervention could help its drive for independence, which the US and its allies oppose.
* Growing bipartisan support in the US for intervention that gives Clinton political cover from accusations that he is seeking action to divert attention from possible impeachment proceedings. This support is being led by his GOP foe in the 1996 election, former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, who recently returned from a visit to Kosovo.
* The prospects that thousands of ethnic Albanians could starve or freeze to death this winter, a calamity that would be beamed into televisions the world over.
* Concerns over growing regional instability posed by the victories earlier this month of some hard-line Serbian and Croatian nationalists in elections in Bosnia and new turmoil unleashed by a failed coup and political violence in Albania.
"There has clearly been a shift in the last few days," says a European diplomat. "We cannot ignore what is happening."
* Justin Brown contributed to this report from Pristina, Yugoslavia.