Nato's decision to bomb the sovereign state of Yugoslavia for atrocities within its borders has set a new precedent: It came with no UN approval and no immediate threat to an international border.
The decision was made easier by an emerging consensus in the international community that intervention in civil wars can be justified to prevent mass killings.
Yugoslavia's leaders don't see it that way. They argue that they should be able to handle the year-old uprising among ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.
And many critics say the 19-nation NATO alliance is setting a dangerous precedent by expanding its role beyond its borders.
But, says Kurt Bassuener of the Balkan Action Council in Washington, NATO is now understood to be the protector of Europe, while the US is responsible for the Americas. "[NATO] has the structure and ability to intervene in Europe," he says. "We have the responsibility to act."
And a string of massacres in Kosovo by Yugoslavian forces has shown there is legitimate concern "that their forces will continue in an unacceptable way," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "There are reasonable grounds to support intervention [in Yugoslavia] because of human rights alone."
American intervention in sovereign countries has a long history that has paved the way for today's action.
During the Vietnam War, the US extended fighting into Cambodia, calling it "an incursion." In 1983, the US invaded the small Caribbean nation of Grenada without UN approval to oust a communist-friendly group. In 1992, the UN approved the use of American soldiers in Somalia to prevent starvation, but the action turned tragic when the US expanded its role. In 1994, the US, with UN approval, was within hours of invading Haiti to reinstall an elected president, but entered peacefully when the military regime there capitulated.
"Human rights issues push sovereignty to the edge," said Kofi Annan, who is now secretary-general of the United Nations, in 1993 in reference to Somalia. "When you have a cruel and painful situation, the suffering of these people is so much more important than sovereignty."
But it was the lack of foreign intervention in the 1994 massacre of some half-million people in Rwanda and in the 1992-95 massacres in Bosnia that has hardened the consensus among Western leaders to justify invading a country's sovereignty.
THE primary objective of the imminent military campaign against Yugoslavia, and specifically its dominant Republic of Serbia, is to stop a year-long war in Kosovo, where a 90 percent ethnic Albanian population is seeking independence.
The impetus for action, although at times mixed, has been a ferocious military campaign by the Serbian police and the Yugoslav Army, in which hundreds of civilians have been massacred.
Though intervention in Yugoslavia is driven by humanitarian concern, there are also strong international issues to be addressed. An ethnic war in Kosovo could spread throughout the Balkans, engulfing Macedonia and possibly engaging Greece and Turkey, NATO allies, on opposite sides. Furthermore, prolonged fighting in Kosovo could lead to a Europe-wide refugee crisis. Already tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians have fled Yugoslavia for Germany, Italy, Macedonia, Albania and other nearby countries.
Such scenarios have been used by US officials to justify a greater role in the conflict. The lead negotiator during months of failed negotiation, not coincidentally, was the US ambassador to Macedonia, Christopher Hill.
The United Nations Security Council, whose authorization is preferred in any intervention, is split on the issue, with Russia and China sometimes supporting the Yugoslavs. Both countries have their own secessionist provinces: Russia has Chechnya, China has Tibet and, in its view, Taiwan.
Gary Dempsey, a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is against intervention, but for different reasons. NATO was established as a cold-war alliance to counter the Soviet bloc, and expanding its role now would create greater instability by alienating the Russians.
"This would be an entirely new precedent for NATO," he says. "It looks like the international community will be trying to bomb the Serbs into giving them an invitation" to send a peacekeeping force to Kosovo.
Furthermore, he says, air- strikes would essentially support the ethnic Albanian rebels, and other independence-seeking groups could be inspired to launch similar movements. "We could have copycats," he says.