US Threatens Force: Why Now?

Helping Kosovo's refugees before winter is only one goal, US officials say privately.

The bid by the United States to end the Serbian onslaught in Kosovo without NATO airstrikes involves more than an effort to save tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians from the ravages of the Balkan winter.

The White House is also weighing American foreign interests and domestic politics as it presses Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to make "serious progress" by tomorrow toward fulfilling the deal he struck earlier this week with US envoy Richard Holbrooke.

The US insists that the deal is aimed at averting a humanitarian catastrophe among the estimated 50,000 ethnic Albanians living in the open after being driven from their homes by Serbian forces pursuing rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

"The most important thing is to right this situation," President Clinton asserted soon after the accord was announced Tuesday.

But many analysts charge it was wider foreign policy and domestic political calculations that compelled the US and its allies to give NATO the go-ahead Monday for airstrikes, forcing Mr. Milosevic to compromise after nine days of talks with Mr. Holbrooke.

Some American officials privately concur, pointing out that for months the US has been collecting evidence of massive Serbian human rights violations, including spy-satellite photographs of what may be mass graves.

They say that if the US truly had the interests of the refugees at heart, it would have acted much earlier to halt the eight-month-old Serbian assault.

"It is now a question of higher American interests," says one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US worries that airstrikes could erode the dim prospects for a negotiated resolution to the crisis and harden Milosevic's authoritarian rule.

Milosevic is now using NATO's threat as a pretext to shut down independent media. There are concerns he will next target his tiny democratic opposition, including pro-West leaders in Montenegro, which with Serbia makes up what remains of Yugoslavia.

The US is also concerned about the fallout from intervention elsewhere in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Bosnian Serb extremists could retaliate against NATO-led troops enforcing the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

Moreover, there is anxiety within the alliance about the effect of airstrikes. Until last week, NATO was deeply divided on whether it could intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state without a UN resolution.

Then there are US concerns about the impact of intervention on relations with Moscow, which vehemently opposes NATO action. The Russian Defense Ministry is promising the Serbs military aid and the Kremlin has threatened to freeze ties with NATO even as Russia's fiscal crunch deepens apprehensions about the state of its massive nuclear arsenal.

But Clinton is under pressure to unleash NATO against the Serbs if Milosevic fails to halt his offensive in Kosovo, withdraw police and troops deployed there since March, and allow humanitarian workers and 2,000 international monitors to enter.

As part of the deal with Holbrooke, Milosevic must also cooperate with United Nations war crimes investigators and agree to a framework for talks with ethnic Albanian leaders on a political accord giving them considerable autonomy from Belgrade, including their own police.

The greatest pressure on the US and its allies to proceed with airstrikes - should Milosevic renege on the agreement - is the looming humanitarian disaster.

Failing to avert one could ignite a worldwide outcry over Western inaction as television footage shows ethnic Albanian civilians dying of starvation and exposure in the winter snows.

"We must fight for these ... refugees," asserts Wolfgang Schuessel, foreign minister of Austria, the current European Union president.

Furthermore, American officials worry that should the conflict continue, refugees could begin streaming into neighboring Macedonia, destabilizing that fragile democracy and igniting tensions there between majority Macedonians and the large ethnic Albanian minority.

Between 250,000 and 400,000 ethnic Albanians have been driven from their homes in Kosovo since February by Serbian forces pursuing the KLA. The rebels are fighting for independence from Serbian repression for the province's 2-million-strong ethnic Albanian majority, virtually all of whom want to secede.

Pressure on Clinton to make good on the threat of NATO airstrikes should Milosevic backslide is also high at home. Enraged by recent allegations of Serbian atrocities against civilians, Republicans and Democrats have endorsed NATO action, a call echoed by many former officials and led by Clinton's 1996 election foe, Bob Dole.

Furthermore, NATO's credibility is at stake as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary with the admission of its first former-communist members next year at a glittering Washington summit.

Milosevic, the instigator of the former Yugoslavia's collapse and four wars since 1990, has broken promises before. Likewise, since becoming embroiled in the Balkans, the US and its allies have failed to make good on other political commitments and threats of force (see box, above).

Repeating that pattern would raise fresh doubts about NATO's utility in the post-Soviet era and about US leadership of the alliance. Also, a failure in Kosovo could harm efforts by NATO members to prepare in time for the US summit a "new strategic concept" for the next century on dealing with threats from outside the pact's boundaries.

Clinton, his own authority weakened by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, insists that NATO will act if Milosevic reneges on the new deal. "The international community prefers compliance to conflict," Clinton asserted Tuesday. "But in voting to give our military commanders the authority to carry out airstrikes against Serbia, NATO sent a clear message to President Milosevic: NATO is ready to act."

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