With Kosovo, faltering NATO is exposed

October 08, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Sophisticated weaponry can serve, or even produce, simple-minded policy. We may yet see again how some marvels in the U.S. military inventory, cruise missiles, produce a retrograde policy that can properly be called high-tech isolationism.

When U.S. leaders who are ill at ease with U.S. power hear the word duty, they reach for their cruise missiles. Those weapons provide telegenic, antiseptic action-at-a-distance. They make possible illusory decisiveness, without follow-through.

The Clinton administration has used them as a substitute for serious policy regarding Iraq and terrorism. Now cruise missiles may be fired to express ersatz seriousness about Serbia's actions in the province of Kosovo. Someone the New York Times identifies as "a senior administration official who requested anonymity" -- one can see why -- says, "We are at last serious."

At last, but about what? People stabbed with a pitchfork, eyes gouged out with a cleft stick, a decapitated man's brain removed and left displayed beside his wife's corpse, a woman shot in the face, her two daughters ages 7 and 5, also dead, in their yellow rubber boots, 10 men beaten and executed and their mutilated bodies returned to their families, an elderly couple butchered, a woman seven months pregnant dead with her stomach slit open.

By such behavior Serbia is trying to recommend contentment, or at least quiescence, to the ethnic Albanians who are 90 percent of the 2 million residents of the province of Kosovo. The province, although part of Serbia, enjoyed substantial autonomy until that was taken away in 1989 by Slobodan Milosevic. This energized the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is seeking independence. That is Mr. Milosevic's excuse for his war crimes.

He has learned from Saddam Hussein how to play with the United States as with a yo-yo. Disdaining a watching world -- television; satellite cameras that record mass graves -- Mr. Milosevic butchers for as many months as it takes for the West to awaken, then he sends some of his forces back to their barracks, until the West's eyelids again grow heavy.

Now, let us stipulate: Jeffersonians are thin on the ground in the ++ Balkans, and in the Kosovo independence movement. And independence for Kosovo might destabilize Macedonia, where there is a substantial Albanian minority. And Americans, of all people, know that secession should not be countenanced for what the Declaration of Independence calls "light and transient causes." Still, when (again the Declaration) a long train of abuses evinces a design of absolute despotism (or, in Kosovo, what the Washington Post calls "incipient genocide" or "genocide at one remove"), that trumps concern for Serbia's territorial integrity.

Of course the current president never means a syllable he says, including those at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum, about how shameful it was that "far too little was done" in 1943 and 1944 "even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts." Our knowledge is hardly "fragmentary" concerning the emptiness of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's Clintonesque fustian: "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia." Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon is right: "It's time to shoot or shut up."

Nothing short of attacking Serbia, including its air defenses, will get Mr. Milosevic's attention. And dropping the bridges of Belgrade would concentrate Serbian minds on the costs of Mr. Milosevic continuing in power. If NATO cannot do this, and put peacekeepers on the ground in Kosovo, it should use its dwindling energies to disband.

Fifty years ago NATO became the first peacetime alliance committing the United States to war if others were attacked. NATO was, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan says, emblematic of a new orientation: "Foreign policy began to anticipate, rather than merely react to, conflicts." The conflict NATO was created to prevent by muscular anticipation -- an invasion of Germany by the Soviet Union -- was prevented.

Now NATO seems too sclerotic and risk-averse to devise other uses for itself. If NATO cannot act, and in a timely manner (its dilatoriness in Bosnia cost hundreds of thousands of lives), to preserve stability in Europe, why does it continue?

True to the survival instinct of institutions, NATO responds to the loss of its founding rationale by enlarging its membership. Kosovo has revealed NATO to be a hound that is delighted to have two leashes attached to its collar, one held by the United Nations, the other by Russia. Not that either leash is necessary to restrain such an arthritic hound.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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