`Victory' in the Balkans will come at a terrible price

Future years of military involvement in the Balkans is a painfully scary prospect.

June 21, 1999|By Thomas Sowell

NOW THAT Slobodan Milosevic has made yet another agreement with NATO, the Clinton administration has declared victory and its media allies have joined the chorus of congratulation. Yet the question must be asked: What is there to celebrate? Who is better off now -- and for how long?

It is not nearly as difficult to get Milosevic to sign agreements as it is to get him to live up to them. Now the Russians have become a wild card in the game, creating new problems. We have NATO and Russian troops facing each other on opposite sides of a conflict in the same country. When this happened in Berlin in 1961, such an armed confrontation was seen as a cause for grave concern, not congratulation.

This is a typical Clinton quick fix, with little or no regard for the long-run consequences. How long will NATO and Russian troops remain in Kosovo together, generating frictions that could turn explosive? And what if Boris Yeltsin's successors see this as an opportunity to score points politically at home by hassling NATO in the Balkans?

Even if we are fortunate enough to thread our way through this minefield, what have we accomplished with our "victory"? Supposedly we were in the Balkans to prevent ethnic cleansing. But there has been more ethnic cleansing in Kosovo since our intervention than there was before.

Presumably, the test of our success will be whether the Kosovar refugees return home. After the unspeakable horrors and humiliations that many of these refugees have suffered, how many will even want to return to scenes that have left scars on their souls? How many Jewish refugees returned to Germany after World War II?

There is, of course, the possibility that NATO -- meaning principally the Clinton administration -- will make it hard for these refugees to do anything other than return to Kosovo. That would make this whole operation look like a winner, at least statistically. And appearances are largely what politics is all about.

Political process

Forcing the Kosovars back would be a cynically brutal way to treat people who have been through so much anguish already. But it would not be out of character for a man who has killed innocent people while bombing a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan on the eve of his impeachment.

The great problem with short-run quick fixes is that they have long-run consequences. Future years of military involvement in the Balkans -- a region with a long history of being one of the most explosive tinderboxes in the world -- is a painfully scary prospect.

Even if we take the optimistic view that we can somehow muddle through it all, without having to either get into a shootout with Russian troops or having to pull out with our tail between our legs, the damage may still be lasting.

Nothing is more certain than lasting damage to the American taxpayers. Some of those missiles that made such dramatic explosions on TV cost a million dollars apiece.

Military price

Then there is the cost of maintaining troops thousands of miles from home and the cost of rebuilding devastated Kosovo. During the conflict, our military itself has sustained long-run damage by a little-noticed edict that prevented service people who had served out their time from being discharged. Breeches of faith are not small things, especially when you are already having trouble attracting enlistments into the armed services.

Again, this is a quick fix to another Clinton administration problem. Their neglect of the military has made a military career less attractive -- first by discharging people who wanted to stay and now by forcing people to stay who want to leave. This too is a quick fix whose price will be paid long after the Clintons have left the White House.

Thomas Sowell is a syndicated columnist.

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