Europeans united in determination to defeat Milosevic

`Ethnic cleansing' galvanized generations born after World War II

War In Yugoslavia

May 06, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

BRUSSELS -- It has become conventional wisdom to say that NATO underestimated the ability of Yugoslavia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic, to absorb heavy bombing.

But less discussed is how badly Milosevic might have judged the determination of NATO, especially the European allies, to keep pounding away until he relents.

"Milosevic badly misjudged the Europeans," said retired U.S. Maj. Gen. William Nash, who commanded Army forces in Bosnia in 1995 and 1996. "They've put up with him for nine years, and they've had it."

Nash says the British and French are especially determined to see the war through, having unveiled an ambitious plan last year to create a common European defense policy.

Milosevic had to be hoping that the European alliance would collapse once the toll of civilian casualties from the bombings began to pile up.

But while those collateral damages continue to grow, and while there has been some grumbling among the European allies, especially the Greeks and Italians, the level of unity shown by others so far has surprised even some NATO officials.

Polls suggest that overall support for the air war in NATO countries is running at about 2-to-1.

That unity seems not to have been demonstrably weakened by NATO's "mistakes," which Yugoslav authorities say have killed more than 500 civilians in Serbia.

NATO says it is doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties but acknowledges that a high-altitude air campaign will inevitably lead to mistakes.

The Angus Reid Group, which does polling for the Economist, has found that support for NATO's action, not just in the 19 NATO countries but across Europe, has not fluctuated greatly, despite the casualties from errant bombs and missiles.

After 10 years of stoking ethnic hatred, Milosevic may have started one Balkan war too many for most Europeans. Having absorbed the refugees and instability caused by Milosevic's wars in Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo, most appear willing to see through a messy, protracted, restrained war of attrition.

French President Jacques Chirac spoke for many when he said that Milosevic's policy of forcibly expelling ethnic Albanians from Kosovo is not only immoral, "it is anti-European."

For all the talk of the war in Kosovo being a test of NATO's credibility, many Europeans see it as a test of theirs, too. The European Union, after all, was founded on the premise that if Europeans were integrated politically and economically, they could overcome their propensity to wage war against one another.

Since the end of World War II, that common purpose has brought stability and increasing affluence to the continent, with the notable, tragic and repeated exception of the Balkans, where the breakup of the former Yugoslavia has created wars and millions of refugees for a decade.

Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based Institute for International Relations, believes Milosevic badly underestimated how determined the majority of Europeans are to see his ability to wage war not just hobbled, but destroyed.

Moisi said the images of ethnic Albanians being driven out of Kosovo resonate with Europeans, not just those who lived through the forced expulsions and the Holocaust and World War II, but younger generations who grew up with the lessons of that conflict.

"Europeans are very much impressed by the power of images, and the images of refugees have a profound effect on most Europeans," said Moisi. "We are not only united by common values, but by common emotions. Milosevic is facing not only NATO, but a combination of Hollywood and CNN."

Elisabeth Pond, author of the just published book "The Rebirth of Europe," argues that Europe's determination to confront and defeat Milosevic underscores how much Europeans have come to see themselves as a people, not just a collection of individual countries.

She said the photographs of refugees forced out of Kosovo on trains were a turning point.

"Something in Europe snapped that last week of March, when those photographs went out all over the world," she said. "It had a galvanizing effect. Europeans are saying they will not have this happening in Europe in 1999."

The attacks on Yugoslavia amount to the first war led by a European generation that came of age in the anti-war fervor of the late 1960s. The left-of-center governments in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, Europe's most powerful countries, are run mostly by Cabinet ministers who were student activists in the 1960s and 1970s -- "old lefties" who are now, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among the most outspoken hawks.

"This is not a battle for NATO or for territory. This is a battle for humanity," Blair said Monday after touring a refugee camp in Macedonia. "We cannot allow a policy of `ethnic cleansing' to be carried out in this part of the world, which is very much part of Europe."

Still, if there is support for the war in unlikely places, Moisi and others say there is little stomach for sending in ground troops unless Milosevic capitulates. Moisi said European support for the air war could wither if the campaign drags on, but senses a stubborn determination across the continent.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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