The Kosovo miscalculation

Instead of delivering a lightning blow, NATO is shuffling the masses

Did America and its allies miscalculate on Kosovo? Let me count the ways.

First, last October when Richard Holbrooke, believing he could repeat the success of his Dayton agreement with President Milosevic on Bosnia, announced a peace plan calling for a pullback of Serb forces from Kosovo and restoration of political autonomy.

Second, at Rambouillet in January, when the United States and its five Contact Group partners believed that Mr. Milosevic could be pressured into accepting autonomy for Kosovo with NATO troops deployed to protect it.

Third, in February in Paris, when the Kosovars accepted the deal and the US believed that, under threat of bombing, Milosevic would also sign on.

Fourth, on March 22, when Mr. Holbrooke flew to Belgrade with a "final" ultimatum.

Fifth, on March 24 when NATO launched its air campaign, believing it could cripple Yugoslav forces before they could expel the Kosovars from their homes.

Then a sense of improvisation entered into American and NATO planning. Giving up on Milosevic as a negotiating partner, the US seemed to be moving toward a policy of "regime change." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright denounced Milosevic as a modern-day Hitler and said the administration was focusing on the question of whether dealing with him was "possible any longer."

But there is no visible sign of an acceptable successor. Milosevic has successfully eliminated or co-opted most opposition leaders. And the NATO bombing campaign has apparently won him the support of many who in the past opposed him.

The vast forced exodus of Kosovars was clearly not anticipated. Under pressure from Western Europe, President Clinton has offered assurances that they will be enabled to return to their homeland. History does not provide many examples of successful mass repatriation.

In Norfolk on April 1 and again the next day, Mr. Clinton asserted that NATO's purpose was the return of refugees, protected by "some sort of international force." Soon after that, spokesman Joe Lockhart said there was no change in policy and no intention to send in ground forces. He did not say how the president planned to protect returning expellees.

There are three fundamental American relationships that may undergo change under the pressure of the Kosovo war.

First, the UN. By making Kosovo a NATO operation without even the gesture of seeking Security Council approval, the US established the precedent of ignoring the UN. In this fast-moving situation, Clinton wasn't about to invite a lot of dithering and an inevitable veto by Russia and China. But the authority of the UN, once flouted, isn't likely soon to be fully restored.

Second, NATO. The US succeeded in getting the backing of all the other 18 members But that consensus is likely to fray, especially if the question of assembling a ground force arises. It is ironic that the NATO summit April 23 to 25 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most successful alliance in history finds the organization engaged in military conflict for the first time - something it managed to avoid during a half century of the cold war. The summit is supposed to define NATO's future mission, but what mission statement would cover a war against a state that has not threatened any NATO member, an intervention within a sovereign state?

Third, the bilateral relationship with Russia. This vast country, which has not been able to find its footing in the 10 years since the fall of communism, is intensely sensitive to the idea of not being taken seriously when it tries to speak out for Slavic cousins in Yugoslavia. The perception of impotence feeds nationalist and anti-American sentiment in Russia. It doesn't help that President Boris Yeltsin is so dependent on US and international aid that he can hardly afford to make good on his veiled threats of intervention in Kosovo.

All these strains could be overcome had the US been able to deliver a lightning blow against Milosevic. The longer this war goes on, the more the wounds in America's international relationships will remain unhealed.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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