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NATO: Analysis From Washington: A Difficult Choice On Kosova

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 12 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Even more than in Bosnia, the events in Kosova soon are likely to confront the international community in general and NATO in particular with an extremely difficult and unpalatable choice.

If the Western alliance decides to intervene militarily on behalf of Kosova, an ethnic territory within the borders of a state recognized by the international community, such a step could fragment both NATO and the current international coalition, lead to casualties, and create a precedent other ethnic minorities around the world might seek to invoke.

But if NATO decides not to use force to block Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosova, thousands of people there are likely to die and hundreds of thousands more are likely to flee into neighboring countries where their presence could trigger a more general Balkan war.

Because these options are so stark, many Western leaders are seeking to find a middle diplomatic way, hoping to find some means to change Milosevic's approach either by imposing ever harsher sanctions or enlisting the assistance of Moscow, Belgrade's traditional ally.

To date, these approaches have not achieved what their authors have hoped. Sanctions and diplomatic pressure have not convinced Milosevic that he must stop fighting. They are likely to continue, but past problems with each is forcing NATO governments to consider using airpower or even a blocking force at the borders of Kosova to contain the problem.

But both serving officers and outside analysts have pointed out that airpower is unlikely to be able to prevent ethnic cleansing from continuing. And they have acknowledged that containing the population in Kosova in this way could have the effect of leading to a situation in which Milosevic's forces would be in a position to kill even more Kosovars.

As a result, discussions in NATO capitals increasingly focus on the question of whether to put military forces on the ground in Kosova.

Ever more people in NATO capitals have concluded that they have no option left except for the introduction of alliance troops on the ground.

They point out the danger for Europe and the West more generally if Milosevic gets away with his program of genocide. They call attention to the instability massive refugee flows could produce in neighboring countries like Albania and Macedonia.

And they note that both the violence and the refugees could spark a broader conflict that would inevitably draw in outside powers, including several NATO allies.

Because of the moral imperatives of helping people in trouble and because of the likelihood that failure to act now will require even more difficult and expensive actions later, advocates of intervention are gaining ever more support.

But the opponents of such actions are advancing three arguments against this move, each of which carries a great deal of weight with Western policy makers.

First, opponents suggest that there is little public support for a move that could put NATO troops at far greater risk than they currently face are currently in Bosnia.

Second, they argue that such a step by the Western alliance would lead to a serious breakdown in relations with Russia because of its longtime support for Yugoslavia.

But third and perhaps most significant of all, they note that putting NATO forces into Kosova would create a dangerous precedent, both for the alliance and for other countries around the world.

On the one hand, the Western alliance has never been prepared to put troops into another country without the approval of the government of that country. Doing so in this case would thus represent a clear violation of the existing rules of the international system and thus leave both the alliance and the world fundamentally transformed.

Milosevic and his army would certainly react vigorously. And at the same time, some NATO member countries might refuse to go along, a move that could lead to the breakdown of the alliance.

On the other, the willingness of the alliance to intervene directly in support of an ethnic minority under attack by its central government not only raises the specter that NATO might be prepared to do so elsewhere, something that would certainly worry the Russian government, but also increases the likelihood that some minorities would actively seek such outside intervention.

Because doing nothing would be morally untenable for many people in the West and because doing something effective appears to entail so many risks, the debate is likely to continue and decisions prove hard to find.