Time to rethink the bombing

The 'NATO must win' refrain is obscuring the allies' moral purpose

The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade could serve as the wake-up call for NATO. In spite of the failed attempt to find a peaceful solution to the Kosovo crisis and the resulting legitimacy this fact seemed to bestow on NATO's actions, the "bomb until you agree to our demands" strategy seems unlikely to work as planned - and to become morally more questionable each passing day.

There can be no doubt that civilized nations cannot in principle tolerate "ethnic cleansing." But any actions taken to end it must be effective. It now seems clear that Slobodan Milosevic was well along in his plans to drive the Kosovars out of Kosovo long before the bombing began, and that whatever intelligence was available to Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright was deficient. It should be equally clear that the Kosovars are not going to return to Kosovo as long as Mr. Milosevic is in power, unless there's a strong NATO military occupation. And it should be just as clear that Milosevic will not agree to that; nor, probably, would the Russians press him to do so.

Yet the prevailing justification for continuing the bombing has been that "NATO must win." Why must NATO win? If conditions are different from those perceived at the time the bombing commenced, it is time to reexamine the situation and even call for a halt to the bombing. Chris Hedges, The New York Times Balkans correspondent until 1998, in a long article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, writes that both Serbs and Kosovars at the moment seem equally committed to getting each other out of Kosovo. Even a NATO presence, if agreed to as the price for ending the bombing, would likely only delay the ongoing battle between the two groups.

It is ironic that a US president - who avoided the draft in Vietnam largely because he, like millions of other Americans at the time, was conflicted about the purpose of that war - should now let questionable analogies with the past make him the coalition partner who is urging others on to war.

The world has more than a few nondemocratic leaders left in it. US policy in Iraq still has not removed Saddam Hussein from power, and our policies toward that country have damaged its people more than they have Hussein. Bombing Yugoslavian cities, whose citizens have little more voice in their country's affairs than do the Iraqis, is considered by many people with strong moral sensibilities to be a criminal act. Yet, as in all wars, one's senses become inured to violence and people are apt to say, along with NATO, "We must win - at all costs." Fortunately, in America, the presence of so many nongovernmental social-purpose, humanitarian, and religious groups almost assures that if the bombing is not soon replaced by a more creative diplomacy, there will be demonstrations la Vietnam, as there already have been in Europe.

The world's only superpower has an especially heavy moral responsibility to use that power wisely. Having a military power unmatched by any potential enemy makes it even more important that that power be unleashed only in the most extreme situations. One feels that the traditional humanitarian instincts of Americans now are being drawn on, or even manipulated, for political purposes in order to continue a policy that was poorly conceived in the first place.

* Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the Monitor.

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