Deployment of troops is NATO's next step

April 13, 1999|By Jay Bookman

THOUGH we're willing to kill for Kosovo, we're not willing to die for it. The Serbs, on the other hand, are willing to do both.

And that's the core of our problem.

NATO's air campaign in Kosovo has undoubtedly had an impact. It has forced the Serbs to disperse their troops, hide their armor and artillery and perhaps now to use kidnapped Albanian civilians as human shields.

Effects of the bombs

There are also signs that the bombing campaign is beginning to drive home the seriousness of the situation to the Serb public.

However, the Serbs' sole advantage in this conflict -- NATO's unwillingness to risk casualties -- has given NATO an even greater handicap. The hard truth is: You can't fight a war without fighting, and slowly, reluctantly, the U.S. public and officials seem to be coming to that conclusion. The gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, the brutality of the Serb attacks on civilians and the inability of NATO air power to stop the killing on the ground have begun to change the thinking on use of U.S. ground troops.

A polite campaign

After all, there's an inherent absurdity in our current strategy. We're trying to stop a coldblooded killer by compassionate means. Before we launched cruise missiles at two government buildings in Belgrade, we were so polite that we made sure they had been emptied of personnel, even though they served as headquarters for the police units conducting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

By the time we attacked -- in the middle of the night, as further assurance that no one would be hurt -- the buildings had become empty symbols. Our attack became an empty symbol as well, with no real impact.

Until now, President Clinton has refused to even consider the option of ground troops. But events may soon force him to. Serb President Slobodan Milosevic has succeeded now in much of his original aim, having emptied the Kosovar cities and countryside of much of the Albanian population. He's ready to talk terms, and NATO's refusal to consider ground troops gives it little ability to alter the facts that Milosevic has created. On the other hand, an announcement by Mr. Clinton that he had ordered the mobilization of troops for use if necessary would greatly alter Serbian confidence in their military situation.

In all likelihood, the troops would not have to be used in combat. During the several weeks it would take to mobilize and deploy them, continued bombing will have further degraded Serbian military capacity and civilian willpower, and the threat of fresh Western troops should prove decisive. And once a peace agreement is reached, the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Serbian atrocities will not return to Kosovo without real assurance of their safety, and it would be immoral to force them to do so.

On the other hand, if the mere threat of NATO troops is not enough to force Milosevic to negotiate seriously, ground combat may eventually be necessary.

That's a sobering thought, but having begun this fight we have no choice but to finish it. And as bad as the humanitarian situation is right now, things have the potential to get much uglier in the days ahead. To remain totally unprepared to intercede is simply wrong. We have taken on a responsibility for the lives of many thousands, and we have to fulfill it.

Jay Bookman is an editorial writer for the Atlanta Constitution. His e-mail address: jbookman@ajc.com.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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