Seven weeks into the bombing of Yugoslavia, can a formula now be found that allows NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down from the present conflict, and allows everyone to turn from one-upmanship back to problem solving?
Certainly, some of the diplomatic news looks encouraging.
On May 6, the Russians won an agreement from US and NATO allies that they no longer insist on NATO monopolizing a future peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
And on May 10, Milosevic told former UN negotiator Yasushi Akashi that, while he still insisted the peacekeepers deploy under UN auspices, he did not rule out their having some arms, and did not rule out some involvement for NATO.
These signs of movement on both sides should allow an able mediator - perhaps one of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's two new special envoys - to work quickly toward finding an acceptable formula for a cease-fire.
The global political aftershocks from NATO's destruction of the Chinese Embassy underline that any large-scale bombing campaign is bound to have damaging side effects, precisely because of its scale. Next time it may be another embassy, hospital, or school.
But if the time has come for problem solving, then how do we agree on the problem to be solved? If the "problem" is the fact that Milosevic remains in power in Belgrade, then NATO leaders should see that nothing they are doing now, or could foreseeably do in the near future, can resolve it.
Gung-ho talk of "prevailing" over Milosevic, like that heard from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, may be psychologically satisfying. But it is childish and unnecessarily inflammatory - unless NATO leaders are prepared to commit, and to risk, what it would take to remove him militarily from power. Which they are not.
So the "problem" still should be seen as that for which NATO went to war in the first place: to find a formula for Kosovar-Serb coexistence in Kosovo that is workable and constructive over the long haul.
No matter how long an international force lasts in Kosovo, at the end of the day those two peoples will still be present in the province, with Serbia the dominant power in the region. This inescapable fact - that both peoples will still be there, and need to find a way to get along - has informed the work of the Kosovars' guru of nonviolent social action, Ibrahim Rugova, all along.
Mr. Rugova won good support from Kosovars throughout the hard years of the early and mid-1990s. But the West then sidelined him during the negotiations at Rambouillet, France.
The result? An increase in the influence of the militant Kosovo Liberation Army, with all the potential that influence carries for future destabilization.
Opting for a coexistence formula in Kosovo will not be pleasant or cheap for most NATO leaders.
The Kosovars will need considerable economic aid to help them rebuild. The Serbs will also demand - and should get - some aid to help repair damage caused by NATO's bombs.
Providing such aid is certainly economically feasible. The population involved is not enormous. And how much better it is to envision the province's people rebuilding their homes rather than being locked into continual homelessness and hatred!
Plus, providing this aid is much, much cheaper for the West than the financial, political, and global-strategic costs of continuing the NATO bombing.
Those wise old fathers of the Roman Catholic Church - who centuries ago formulated the rules for waging a "just war" - said many sensible things. One idea was that, however "just" the cause for which a war is contemplated, if it does not have a good chance of success, then it should not be waged.
They knew - as Blair and President Clinton seemed to forget - that unleashing any military escalation opens a Pandora's box of highly unpredictable, very damaging, and uncontrollable consequences.
If there's a chance to defuse this conflict and return to solving the problem, our leaders should take it. Soon. And for the longer haul, they need to look for good alternatives to NATO's diplomacy-through-bombing.
In 1993, veteran Mennonite peace-builder John Paul Lederach proposed the creation of an unarmed, multinational "Peaceforce," 250,000 persons strong, which could be sent by the UN to any region where intercommunal violence threatens. Committed solely to using nonviolent means, Peaceforce teams would protect vulnerable populations, monitor cease-fires, and watch over the early phases of rebuilding.
If that proposal had been taken up in 1993, we could have had enough Peaceforce teams today - at a fraction of the cost of NATO's bombing - to keep the peace in Kosovo, East Timor, eastern Congo, and elsewhere. Now, as the broad economic and political costs of the bombing are assessed, it is time to look at this idea anew.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.