How to wreck NATO

Launch a ground war in the Balkans

The recently concluded washington summit served as a low-key coming-out party for NATO's three new members - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - which formally affiliated with the alliance shortly before the first Cruise and Tomahawk missiles slammed into Belgrade on March 24. As one Central European diplomat observed wryly: "With our luck, if we joined a church it would mobilize and go on crusades."

No crusades are planned, at least for now. Despite coaxing from President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last weekend, the 19 NATO members balked at preparing to dispatch ground forces as part of Operation Allied Force. Nonetheless, pact leaders did persuade the Hungarian government to allow aircraft to fly missions from its country.

Officials in Budapest realize the harmful consequences that could spring from assuming a higher profile in the anti-Serb hostilities. In retaliation, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic might persecute the 360,000 ethnic Hungarians of Serbia's northern Vojvodina province.

Although the Poles stand prepared to back an invasion, neither the Czechs nor the Hungarians favor such escalation.

Indeed, pro-intervention policy gurus agree on one thing: NATO's viability depends upon success in Kosovo. As Henry Kissinger said: "NATO cannot survive if it now abandons its objectives of ending the massacres [and the commitment of ground forces] will have to be considered to maintain NATO credibility."

Only a Pollyanna would summarily dismiss the use of any tool against the Serbian tyrant. Still, if the preservation of NATO stands as the top priority and the air war fails, exhaustive diplomatic efforts - involving the UN, Russia, Balkan nations, and NATO - must occur before the alliance involves itself in Balkan land engagements.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower declaimed the impeccability of military plans - "until fighting erupts." Introducing NATO foot soldiers could boomerang because of these likely unintended consequences:

*Converting from a flood to a tsunami the flow of Kosovar refugees, who could capsize the Macedonian regime, raising the prospect of two NATO blood enemies - Greece and Turkey - lunging at each other to fill the political vacuum.

*Intensifying already virulent Serb nationalism, particularly if NATO units included Germans, reviving memories of valiant Yugoslav resistance to the Wehrmacht and its Italian, Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian janizaries during World War II.

*Undercutting the gutsy but fragile Djukanovic government in Montenegro, which has exhibited valiant independence from Belgrade.

*Exacerbating anti-war feelings in the Czech Republic - the least bullish of the new members toward entering NATO - where President Vaclav Havel endorses air sorties that Prime Minister Milos Zeman openly condemns.

*Continuing to marginalize and alienate Russia, with which the "new NATO" promised to strengthen ties.

The US public witnessed its young people die in a half-dozen conflicts during the cold war. In contrast, most European nations haven't suffered major battle deaths since V-E Day. The arrival of body bags in Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Budapest, and other capitals would precede by a few days, if not hours, serious anti-NATO demonstrations in these cities.

Failure to anticipate the volatility of public opinion on the Continent could make the initial decision to launch missiles appear, by comparison, a paragon of military acumen. And NATO would suffer a huge setback should the profoundly troubled Operation Allied Force devolve into a protracted, bloody farce. As a result, should the alliance again open its membership rolls, only security consumers - not security providers - would apply.

*George W. Grayson, a professor of government at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., wrote 'Strange Bedfellows: NATO Marches East' (University Press of America).

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