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The policy bomb

A week of gruesome bombing is a haunting overture to NATO's 50th-birthday party

By Johanna McGeary

April 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT)

TIME magazine

What a terrible moment for NATO to celebrate itself. Washington is busy gussying up for the red-letter weekend marking the alliance's 50th anniversary, but the bloom is gone. There will be no symbolic flyby while most of NATO's planes are engaged in firing lethal munitions at an enemy that will not cry uncle. There can be no self-congratulation while NATO generals are apologizing for two deadly mishaps that killed scores of Serb and Kosovo Albanian civilians. Even the lavish dinners will be muted by the thought of three-quarters of a million dispossessed Kosovars trapped inside the province at the mercy of Serb terror, hunger and disease. The summit, which begins this weekend, was supposed to define "a new NATO for a new era." Instead, it has its hands full figuring out how to win a regular old-time war.

Last week didn't help much. Four weeks of bombardment by the West's air armada may have exacted a toll on Slobodan Milosevic's fuel depots and airfields, army barracks and police headquarters. But the laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles have been powerless to halt the carnage inside Kosovo. What was billed as a fast, decisive air campaign to frighten Milosevic into submission has degenerated into a grinding war of attrition, demanding more planes, more troops, fresh plans, new goals.

President Bill Clinton and the other men who lead NATO are now having to improvise. The lack of progress provokes calls from one side to send in the infantry and from the other to press for political accommodation. U.S. lawmakers returned from their Easter recess but couldn't decide where it was politic to come down in the most serious military conflict since the Gulf War, so they punted, putting off all debate and all votes until they see which way the war blows.

The Administration was clutching at straws too. On Thursday the President and various aides suddenly hinted at another war aim: if Milosevic won't capitulate, then NATO will bomb until it destroys enough Serbian forces to level the ground for Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas to take over the province. "That is one of those fantasies that nonexperts create," scoffs a Western diplomat in Tirana. "[The K.L.A. has] gotten their asses kicked. So how can any reasonable man expect the K.L.A. can drive the Serbs out of Kosovo?"

NATO was distracted from diplomatic big-think last week by the more immediate need to allay the impact of its misfires on civilians in the war zone. When two missiles struck Train No. 393 while aiming to blow up a Serbian bridge across the Southern Morava River last Monday, at least 10 Serbs were incinerated and 16 other passengers badly wounded. While Belgrade played relentlessly on the West's heartless intentions, NATO brushed off the mishap as a "regrettable" consequence of Serbian intransigence.

But the alliance fared disastrously two days later when it first denied its planes had savaged a convoy of fleeing Albanians inside Kosovo, then fessed up to the terrible error. Serbia spared no efforts to display this second sample of Western "atrocity," escorting journalists from Belgrade to the grisly scene of corpses and bodies blasted apart. But as NATO struggled to downplay the unfortunate accident of war, there were suggestions that some of the scenes had been staged by the Serbs.

No matter the truth, such images raise the pressure to look for a peaceful solution. A growing number of NATO's members convening for the summit are restless to open a diplomatic front. But for now, the diplomacy is quite literally all talk. While the 19 NATO nations solidly agree on five basic principles for any peace settlement--a halt to all combat activities and killings in Kosovo; withdrawal of Serbian military, police and paramilitary forces; the deployment of an international security force; the return of all Kosovar refugees; a political solution on the basis of the Rambouillet accords--not everyone concurs on the details or the means to get there.

Some tentative initiatives have been put into play. Last week Germany, whose government must keep the pacifist Greens Party inside its ruling coalition, floated what was quickly labeled a peace proposal. But the main inducement to Milosevic, a 24-hour suspension of bombing if he would begin removing his forces, was a no-go with Washington and London because neither trusted Milosevic to deliver on his end of the deal. Washington had less of a problem with Germany's idea of putting the Kosovo peacekeepers under a U.N. mandate if Russia agreed to be part of the force, but balked at giving the U.N. too strong a hand on the steering wheel. The White House, says a top official, remains adamant that no matter what the force is called or how it's dressed up, "we're not going in unless it's a NATO-led force."

But no one seems to know what could open the door to a smooth NATO entry. This week's summit is likely to delve less into the metaquestions facing NATO--who should have nuclear weapons, for instance--than the immediate problem of how to get safely in, and eventually out, of Kosovo. In an effort to rectify its grave mistake in telegraphing Belgrade that ground troops would never be used, NATO may announce at the summit that "it is starting to plan for ground troops," said a senior U.S. diplomat. But the alliance has not actively moved closer to committing foot soldiers to the fray.

Nor does it have means at hand to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars trapped in half a dozen remote pockets by marauding Serbian forces. Intelligence officials are warning that hunger, disease and exposure could soon start wiping out the displaced ethnic Albanians. Military officers rule out using NATO troops to carve out a land corridor to feed the hungry. Airdrops aren't practical either, since slow transports would have to fly dangerously low to deliver their cargoes and the Serbs might pick off the supplies.

Washington officials insisted last week that Milosevic is beginning to feel the pain. But they've been insisting that for the past four weeks, and so far Belgrade has sent out no diplomatic feelers, and no one in Serbia shows visible signs of cracking. "Any meaningful diplomacy, besides just wheel spinning, requires Yugoslavia to change its positions and accept NATO's basic principles," says a discouraged senior State Department official. "I can't see anything happening."

All the West's peace settlements require Milosevic, in effect, to surrender, and that means the allies are going to have to beat him decisively. Even then, NATO is still not sure what it would do next. The ideas the West is mulling--partition, protectorates, autonomy, regional-stability pacts, complex territorial rearranging of the volatile Balkan jigsaw--raise questions as explosive for the region as the current crisis. Nor do they go to the heart of the problem: Milosevic himself. In his constantly evolving dialogue with the American people, Clinton seemed to realize that last week when he said, "The last thing we need in the Balkans is greater Balkanization. The best solution is not endless rejiggering of their borders" but a democratic Serbia led by someone other than Milosevic. A good peace plan, no doubt, but if Iraq is any lesson, NATO has no idea how to accomplish it. And in the meantime, Milosevic will have left Kosovo a desolate, smoking ruin.

--Reported by Douglas Waller and James Carney/Washington, Thomas Sancton/Brussels, Massimo Calabresi/Vienna

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Cover Date: April 26, 1999

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