WASIHNGTON - The mission of 3,500 NATO troops in Macedonia, including Americans, is billed as short and simple - disarm ethnic Albanian rebels and leave in 30 days. Instead, it is a perilous enterprise that is ill-thought-through and almost certainly destined for failure.
Yes, a peace treaty has been signed. The ethnic Albanians say they will hand over their weapons on a tandem track as the Macedonians in this tiny country enact laws to give them more rights.
Will that happen? Almost anyone on the ground will reply with a resounding no. The violence and ethnic hatreds have already pushed too far. The situation is much like that in Bosnia as the shelling of Sarajevo began. Then, too, NATO paid too little attention, though - largely because of the example of Bosnia - it is at least paying more to Macedonia.
Macedonians view NATO with distrust, fearing it is on the side of the Albanian minority. They believe NATO troops will become something of an occupying presence. The Albanians hope that NATO will be forced to stay and protect them.
What is clear is that the 19-member NATO alliance is skittish about being drawn into another Kosovo, where peacekeeping forces struggle to maintain control with no clear exit date. There is no end in sight, either, for the NATO-led troops in Bosnia, where, more than five years ago, American troops took part with a limited, one-year mandate.
NATO has insisted that its mission to Macedonia will not extend beyond 30 days. Publicly, that is non-negotiable. But even some NATO commanders admit privately that scenario, though palatable to political leaders, is unrealistic. Once troops are in, they are all too likely to be drawn into a spreading war. Or to be forced to return to one.
It is, of course, tempting to let both sides slug it out. But the situation in Macedonia has implications across the region. In the extreme, it could bring in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. It could certainly ignite conflicts across the former Yugoslavia, including in Bosnia and Montenegro.
More imminently, though, it could spread to include Albanians in Kosovo and Albania proper. If the Balkan wars of the 1990s were about a fight for a Greater Serbia, the present explosion of violence is about the fight for a Greater Albania.
NATO leaders need to understand the deeper and wider concerns and act in a sustained way to address them.
They should understand that the Macedonian Slavs have a real - and not entirely unjustified - sense that they are fighting for their survival. Few Macedonians doubt that the Albanians, now nearly one-third of the 2 million population, want eventually to link up with Albanians in neighboring Kosovo and Albania. The high Albanian birth rate also means the Slavs will be outnumbered in the coming decades.
In this context, it is perhaps not so surprising that the Macedonian Slavs, who have run a system of near-apartheid, are reluctant to relinquish their top-dog status. They also suffer from massive historical insecurity. If the neighboring countries had their way, Macedonia would not exist. The Bulgarians claim the Macedonians are really Bulgarians. The Serbs say they are southern Serbs. The Greeks say the name Macedonia was stolen from them.
The present limited approach does little but encourage each side to see NATO as lacking real commitment and to try to use NATO forces to further their own ends.
Even if the 30-day mission were successful, it would be all too fleeting. Why not stage a major conference led by the United States and the Europeans and involving all the parties? It could begin to study long-term solutions. America would bring its superpower clout, the Europeans the promise of eventual European Union membership. This has had results in Croatia.
A conference could look at ways to bring in foreign investment and regional economic cooperation. It would not, certainly, be an end in itself. But it would be a far more effective way to begin the search for one.
Louise Branson is co-author of Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant (FreePress, 1999). She was Balkans correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, based in Belgrade, from 1990 to 1996.