Three calls Clinton ought to make on Kosovo

Mr. Clinton, i know you did not intend your policy on Kosovo to end up this way. But it is a ghastly and still-unfolding disaster. Here are the three phone calls you need to make - today.

To Shimon Peres. Talk to him, leader to former leader, about the dilemma you find yourself in.

Your rhetoric and actions up to this point seem to force you to persist in an escalatory policy which, as you can now see, is having the reverse of the intended consequence.

Three years ago, Mr. Peres was in the same situation. He had launched a huge bombing campaign against Lebanon, hoping to force the Lebanese government to start reining in Hizbollah guerrillas in the south of the country. But the bombing had the reverse effect. All parties in Lebanon, including the national government, rapidly rallied around Hizbollah, instead.

Peres and his advisers had quite misunderstood the psychology involved when a nation finds itself under bombardment. Especially after his bombers ended up directly killing more than 100 Lebanese refugees, he needed to find a way to halt a campaign that seemed to have its own, hard-to-stop momentum of escalation. It was almost, "Stop me before I bomb again!"

Peres needed help climbing down the tree of escalation up which, until then, his own rhetoric and actions had propelled him. Sound familiar? You helped him do that, Mr. President, by brokering a cease-fire in Lebanon. Now, you need the same help.

That's why the second call has to go to: United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is the best person, at this point, to help you down this tree.

You should know that, at some level, President Slobodan Milosevic and a broad sector of the Serbian public probably also want to de-escalate. They have been badly hurt. But your continuing actions make it hard for them to advocate de-escalation.

The best you can hope for at this point is a cease-fire, and a return to the status quo before the bombing. Yes, we know, that situation was not ideal. But at least the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had 1,400 civilian monitors on the ground in Kosovo. During the five months they were there, they provided significant protection to Kosovars trying to remain in their own homes.

On March 20, as NATO prepared to start bombing, the monitors were summarily pulled out. Then, the ethnic cleansing resumed in deadly earnest. If you and the NATO allies really support the Kosovars' ability to live half-decently in their ancestral land, then either you need to send troops to help them regain it, and afterwards - for long decades, maybe - to hold it against continuing Serbian hostility. Or, you need to seek a deal, now, that would allow them to return to what would be, at the very best, a totally demilitarized province. Mr. Annan is the best person to broker this deal.

Richard Holbrooke is the third person you need to call. This one can be short and sweet: "Thanks, Richard, but I don't need your services any more."

There has to be accountability.

Someone totally misread the Serbs' psychology - and as a result, hundreds of thousands of Kosovars are now homeless, dead, or refugees. And someone hoisted you up this tree of "strategic coercion," with its accompanying rigmarole about "credibility." (Memo to any future president: When one of the main reasons you launch military action is to "maintain credibility," then you know something is wrong. See where it got Reagan in - again - Lebanon.)

Maybe Mr. Holbrooke was not the main author of the present fiasco. Maybe it was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Maybe you, Mr. President, can openly confess your own lack of judgment on this issue. But someone needs to take responsibility.

One final thought.

Why not call the Dalai Lama, too? You feel you're carrying a heavy burden of human suffering? He's been there, too - for over 40 years now. You hear voices all around clamoring for the use of force to fight evident injustice? He's been there, too.

But when he was here in the US last November, he still said, "Through nonviolence, whatever we achieve, there is no negative side-effect.... Through violence, even though we may get some kind of satisfaction, the negative side effects are also immense."

Think about that, sir. Then go make those calls.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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