NATO's police powers

April 01, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Political language can infuse its own logic into events. President Clinton says Serbian atrocities in Kosovo constitute "genocide."

If so, then what can realistically be said to remain of the premise on which NATO went to war?: The appropriate conclusion of this crisis would leave Serbia diminished and chastened, but retaining sovereignty over Kosovo.

Serbia's atrocities are not genocide -- a campaign to exterminate an entire category of people -- but they are patent war crimes intended to terrorize a people into flight.

In the whirl of war, events can, in a week, drain serious statesmen's political formulations of plausibility. After a week of Serbia's bloody rush to create new facts on the ground in Kosovo, it is no longer pertinent to say (as Defense Secretary William Cohen did at the beginning of the war) that the bombing could end if Slobodan Milosevic "embraces the principles of Rambouillet," or to say, as Henry Kissinger does in an essay written for this week's Newsweek, that a plausible settlement would involve "the withdrawal of Serbian forces introduced (into Kosovo) after the beginning of negotiations at Rambouillet."

Those futile talks in France in February involved a quest for the status quo 1989, before Serbia revoked Kosovo's autonomy. But because of the campaign of terror that Serbia vastly intensified in Kosovo last week, last month is ancient history. And the phrase "too clever by half" perfectly describes such a plan for fine-tuning the appropriate presence of war criminals among their victims.

A distressing, but perhaps sensible, oddity of the war's first week was that NATO's tactics implied a goal superior to its stated one. The stated goal was to prevent atrocities. But the tactic of concentrating air attacks on what most threatened airplanes -- Serbia's air defenses -- implied that NATO's overriding goal was to minimize NATO casualties, even if that would have the clear consequence of allowing the Serbian war criminals additional days to inflict casualties on Kosovars.

Economizing NATO lives is not a contemptible goal. Such economizing reflects more than the humanity of the democracies. It also reflects a hardheaded assessment by NATO's leaders of the fragility of such public support as the war against Serbia enjoys.

Still, this calculation is a sobering reminder of the narrow parameters within which NATO nations -- not least the United States -- operate when combating rulers who do not share the democracies' civilized aversion to casualties, including casualties inflicted by war's inevitable collateral damage on the other side's civilians. Thus this war began with NATO announcing what it would not do -- use ground combat troops.

This, in spite of a general truth that is of particular pertinence to NATO's stated goal in this war: Wars are generally won by men with rifles occupying the contested ground. Men with rifles and pistols are sufficient for ethnic cleansing and are not targets that $45-million combat aircraft are designed to thwart.

When NATO says its objective is to "degrade" Serbia's capacity for ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO sets a goal so modest that success can be declared at any point. (Saddam Hussein had essentially won the post-Gulf War when U.S. policy was defined down to "reducing" his capacity to threaten his neighbors.) NATO may be resolved to be a regional policeman, but a policeman of a peculiar kind -- one that will not walk the beat but will fly over it.

Events are in the saddle, riding NATO. If NATO makes Serbia so weak that Kosovo is safe, Kosovars will feel that secession is safe. What could then become unsafe is Europe between Germany and Russia. Ten percent to 15 percent of the 170 million people who live there are ethnic minorities within their nations. For example, according to professor P. Edward Haley of Claremont McKenna College, writing in the Los Angeles Times, 25 million non-Russians live in the Russian federation, and 40 percent of ethnic Albanians live outside Albania.

If by its action in Kosovo NATO seems to affirm the principle of ethnic self-determination, or if the drama being played out there emboldens armed ethnic minorities to assert a right to self-determination, then NATO, which has expanded eastward and probably is not done expanding, could learn that a policeman's lot is not a happy one.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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