Persisting on Kosovo

A logical first step out of the Kosovo crisis is in sight. The diplomatic conference set for this weekend at Rambouillet outside Paris should draw both sides of the conflict together for negotiations. The prospect for useful talks is heightened by a firm deadline and the threat of NATO air attacks and blockades if cooperation isn't apparent.

The model for Rambouillet is the Dayton conference that brought an end to Bosnia's war. The similarities: Some key parties are the same - the Serbian government, the Americans, the British, French, and Russians, for example. And the pressures are similar - an agreement or else.

The differences, however, are substantial. The sides in Kosovo haven't reached the stalemate and exhaustion evident in Bosnia after nearly four years of war. One side - Kosovo's Albanian majority - is badly splintered, though even the militant Kosovo Liberation Army has now agreed to join the talks. Since the dispute revolves around a province of Serbia rather than already-recognized countries, a final outcome is harder to envision.

The Serb side has balked at talks too, but is sure to participate. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may not attend in person, but he'll be maneuvering behind the scenes for every concession possible, such as lifting of sanctions against Serbia in exchange for steps toward self-rule in Kosovo.

All this means the talks in France will require extraordinary discipline and pressure if agreement is to be reached in the mandated 14 days.

The peace plan, as drafted by the six-nation contact group on the Balkans, includes renewed autonomy for Kosovo (Mr. Milosevic took it away in 1989) and final self-determination after three years. Key elements, such as disarming Kosovar rebels and withdrawal of most Serb forces, are only sketchily outlined.

This much is clear: the plan requires a long-term commitment from the United States and its European allies. More than 20,000 international troops will be needed to police the agreement. The British and French have indicated they'd be willing. Washington is tentative, with hot debate in Congress over any troop commitment a certainty.

Thoughtful Americans, such as former House International Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton, are calling for careful reassessment of US interests in the Balkans. Can the cost of a further troop commitment there be justified? Is there any clear end-point to such commitments?

The larger purposes of US and allied involvement in the Balkans are to extinguish the sparks of war on Europe's flanks and, equally important, to avoid further mass killing, atrocity, and cultural destruction.

The price of taking a tough and time-consuming path toward peace in this tortured region may seem high. But the costs of giving up would be higher. NATO's members must persevere as tough peacemakers.

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