NATO's Counsel of Patience

President Clinton remains convinced the NATO air campaign can force Serb troops to end their war against the Kosovar Albanians. He, his European counterparts in NATO, and his allies on Capitol Hill counsel continued patience.

As the weather has cleared somewhat and additional aircraft have been brought in, NATO appears to be making progress in hitting strategic targets. The question of when, or if, such bombing will impel Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic back to the negotiating table remains open.

There's a moral as well as a military calculus involved in this strategy. NATO's moral credibility will come under increased attack as more targets of mixed civilian and military significance - such as power stations and broadcasting facilities - are destroyed. But that has to be weighed against the immense costs of an all-out ground offensive against Yugoslav forces. And, most importantly, against the moral cave-in of simply letting the expulsion, murder, and rape in Kosovo go unchallenged.

Even as the bombing continues, NATO diplomats have to be alert for any movement by Mr. Milosevic on key conditions, such as an armed international force to ensure peace in Kosovo. Future talks with the Serbian leader may seem a distasteful prospect, given his record of deception and his vicious policies in Kosovo. But NATO will have amply demonstrated its resolve. Milosevic will know the cost of deceit.

In this regard, it's positive that both Washington and NATO finally appear willing to consider the option of land troops. It was a mistake to rule out their use to begin with, as it signalled Milosevic that his troops would have a free hand in Kosovo. And make no mistake: NATO must be ready to send in the troops when it becomes necessary. The president will have to work closely with the allies to develop the necessary consensus.

In addition, NATO can't omit Russia from its calculations. The alliance's embargo on oil shipments to Yugoslavia heightens the possibility of confrontation with Moscow. NATO must work to keep Russia part of the solution.

Domestically, the president must continue to make his case to the American people and Congress. This week could see a House vote under the War Powers Act. GOP leaders doubt that either a motion to withdraw US troops or a motion to declare war on Serbia will pass, leaving the status quo in place.

The Senate will probably continue to put off any votes, to avoid giving the president carte blanche or Milosevic the wrong message. What might pass is a resolution requiring the administration to get congressional authorization before using ground forces. The GOP leadership wants the request for infantry troops to come from the White House, not Capitol Hill.

In fact, the president must lead in this matter. He is the commander in chief. He should visit Capitol Hill and set forth his arguments about what it will take to reach NATO's goals of rolling back the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo and stabilizing the Balkans. Then Congress should support him.

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