Bombs vs. Negotiation

War's tendency toward chaos struck again Friday night when NATO bombers mistakenly targeted the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This time the collateral damage was not only human (three killed, 20 injured), but diplomatic.

The outlook for a negotiated settlement to the Kosovo crisis had brightened significantly last week when the G-8 group of nations, which includes Russia, issued a communiqu sketching key points of agreement. It embraced most of what NATO has been demanding. And it came with Moscow's imprimatur, a point not lost on Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, for whom Russia has been the prime (and only) ally.

China is much less of a player in the Balkans. But that could change now. It has made its opposition to NATO military action clear from the start of the air war, and its help will be needed if the planning for an ultimate Kosovo peacekeeping force winds up in the UN Security Council, as envisioned by the G-8.

Right now, one need is foremost: The errant bombs of Friday can't be allowed to collapse diplomacy. The newly enlivened diplomatic track must be pursued with a diligence equal to that which has characterized the military campaign. Damaged relations with China have to be mended. In this situation, the US and NATO should halt the bombing, or at least ease it - drawing back from targets that carry ever heavier risks of civilian casualties.

As we've said before, NATO's style of warfare - using primarily high altitude bombs and guided munitions because alliance members shy away from ground involvement - is liable to undermine its moral stance, as mishaps multiply. The purpose of NATO's action has been to force a reversal of the abominable ethnic-cleansing policies favored by Mr. Milosevic in Kosovo and thus restore a degree of stability to this corner of Europe. That purpose is right; it must be pursued. But the chosen military means of attaining it have taken a terribly wrong turn.

The better strategy is tough-minded diplomacy. The G-8 outline is a credible start. Its highlights: Withdrawal of Serb military, paramilitary, and police units from Kosovo; return of all refugees and displaced persons; deployment of "effective international civil and security presences" under United Nations authority.

That last item can't be overemphasized. Milosevic has talked of a lightly armed "presence," without any NATO participation. He won't get that. The force has to be sizable and it has to be armed heavily enough to deter aggression from either side - Albanian guerrillas as well as Serb die-hards. That almost certainly means NATO involvement in some form. Most of all, this force has to assure returning refugees that they will not again be at the mercy of their tormentors.

The hundreds of thousands now in camps in Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and abroad are, sadly, at the heart of this crisis. Those people have to be convinced that they can return home. Just as essential, many of them have to be persuaded to put aside their own thirst for revenge.

Reason and moral sensibility, not violence, must gain the upper hand in the Balkans. The Western alliance should rethink its strategy and shift its energies toward negotiation.

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