It's proverbial that when war starts, the best-laid plans often go awry. That, sadly, has been borne out by the first days of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.
From reports, the bombing has been as precise as military planners could have hoped. Targets have been hit. Without a doubt, Slobodan Milosevic's capacity to wage war against the Kosovars is being undermined. But his immediate capacity to wreak havoc in Kosovo is all too intact.
Mr. Milosevic has exercised that capacity to the fullest. His troops are accomplishing, in rapid fashion, just what the NATO action was supposed to avert: the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. The predicted flood of Albanian refugees is happening.
What makes sense now?
Militarily, the air attacks should decisively shift toward the Yugoslav forces rampaging through Kosovo. Knocking out air defenses and bases had its rationale, and its costs. Bombing installations in Montenegro, for instance, only turned political opinion there, which had been significantly anti-Milosevic, more against the West.
Without question, low-flying missions in Kosovo will expose US and other allied pilots to greater danger. But Kosovo is where the effort must be concentrated. To launch more heavy bombers against the rest of Yugoslavia in an effort to increase Milosevic's discomfort is likely to harden opinion against NATO without stopping, or at least slowing, the atrocities in Kosovo.
At the same time, an ear must be kept to diplomacy. The Russian mission to Belgrade isn't likely to yield something immediately palatable to the Western alliance. But any hint of a readiness to return to meaningful negotiations on Milosevic's part should be followed up.
The future of Kosovo at this juncture is cloudier than ever. Milosevic and his ethnic cleansers may be angling for a partitioned province, with a large chunk wholly Serb. On the other side, the Albanian separatist fighters retreating before the Yugoslav onslaught still hope for an independent Kosovo, probably minus Serbs.
A negotiated settlement, recognizing the political rights of both peoples, is the best outcome. Inflamed nationalism appears to leave no room for it. NATO's military action is an effort to make that room. Its outcome is far from clear, but its underlying purpose remains right.