NATO is in a must-win situation

War: The worst thing the Western alliance can do is to strike a face-saving deal with Slobodan Milosevic.

April 25, 1999|By Dusko Doder

SINCE THE air war in Yugoslavia appears to be flagging, the United States must begin to face up to the pros-pect of a ground-troop deployment if it is to achieve its publicly stated objective.

Indeed, the NATO alliance should immediately begin the prepositioning of troops in Hungary, a new NATO member and Yugoslavia's northern neighbor, and in Albania. The alliance needs to demonstrate that victory is the only strategy in the conflict with Slobodan Milosevic.

The pre-positioning of forces, which would take weeks, should be accompanied by several steps aimed at convincing Serbs, particularly the intellectual and political elite, of the need for political change in Belgrade.

One of those steps could be a pause in the air campaign once the prepositioning gets under way. So far the bombing has rallied the Serbs around their leader, but there are several indications -- including guarded conversations with intellectuals in Belgrade -- that the support is more superficial than substantial.

It could well crumble once the air bombardment paused.

Many, if not most, Serbs privately regard Milosevic as Serbia's nemesis. They should be persuaded that it is in their best interest to remove him.

True, when he came to power in 1987, he was probably the most popular politician in Serbia's history. By 1991, however, he could no longer take a walk in the streets of Belgrade. The man who started with the promise to the Serb nation that "no one will ever dare beat you again," three years later used riot police, tear gas and tanks against his people to keep himself in power.

With the bombing pause, the West should bring charges against Milosevic before the war crimes tribunal in the Hague for his role in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. His record during the past 12 years makes it conspicuously clear that he is a principal generator of instability in the region.

This might seriously undermine Milosevic's standing in Serbia and make it clear to the Serb establishment that he could not play any role in the eventual settlement of the crisis.

Finally, the West has to reach out to the Serbs. Before the bombing started, President Clinton had not made the case for it to the American people, let alone to the people on whom the bombs would fall. The NATO allies must clearly articulate that this is not a war against the Serb nation; nor is the U.S. Air Force the air force of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The bombing pause would alleviate the plight of the civilian population, particularly the wretched Kosovo Albanians. Missiles and bombs launched in the name of protecting them have, in fact, made their situation worse -- quite apart from Serb brutalities. The destruction of the civilian infrastructure might be "degrading" Milosevic's military, but it is also degrading Western moral values. Tony Blair's spin notwithstanding, there is no such thing as bombing "with compassion."

No doubt NATO can bomb the Serbs into submission. But if the deployment of ground troops is inevitable, the continued bombings of civilian targets would enhance popular hostility to foreign soldiers and make their mission more dangerous over the long term. Resistance to foreign invaders is something that has been bred into countless generations of Serbs by their unhappy history.

Moreover, cruise missiles are the wrong instruments for solving the conflict between Serb and Albanian nationalism.

What is, in essence, a war for territory can be resolved with a modicum of good will on both sides and patient but forceful outside mediation. But that can be done only after Milosevic's departure from the scene.

However ill-conceived the assault on Yugoslavia, the main thing is to stay the course. American prestige is deeply involved, and extrication will not be easy. The worst outcome is to let Milosevic prevail.

There are temptations to downgrade the initially stated U.S. objectives and make a face-saving deal with Milosevic. The administration made this mistake earlier -- dealing with and rehabilitating Milosevic after he was publicly branded a war criminal by Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger in December 1992. To do so again would amount to a resounding defeat.

Dusko Doder is a free-lance journalist who covered Yugoslavia for The Sun from 1991 to 1996. He is the author of several books, including "The Yugoslavs" (Random House, 1978) and a biography of Slobodan Milosevic to be published in October.

Pub Date: 04/25/99

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