Making good on a threat; Kosovo bombing: NATO follows through to try to halt persecution that threatens wider European war.


AS the Iraq experience shows, bombing is not guaranteed to produce the desired political result quickly. It does not make tyrants feel chastened.

The massive NATO bombing in Serbia takes on a mighty war machine built with U.S. aid to help the former Yugoslavia repel, and therefore deter, attacks from the former Soviet Union.

The core of the war machine became Serbia's in the breakup of federal Yugoslavia. Some hardware and manpower were dissipated in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia earlier in the decade.

What's left is poised to crush fewer than 2 million ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population of the Serbian province of Kosovo. This army has already massacred civilians, methodically and through chain of command, to induce more to flee as refugees.

Serbia is repeating the pattern it set in Bosnia four years ago, which was stopped by a similar bombing campaign that, hindsight says, would have saved more lives if launched earlier.

The policy of ethnic cleansing, ordered by President Slobodan Milosevic, is an outrage against humanity.

It places traumatic burdens on neighboring countries. Most fragile is Macedonia, a third of whose people are ethnic Albanians. Albania itself is struggling to overcome its heritage of anarchy.

Allied and neighboring countries are watching to see if the West values Muslim life (most Albanians are Muslim) or only Christian.

If Albanians have a historic protector, it would be Turkey. If Serbia claims guardians based on history, they are such Christian Orthodox countries as Greece, Bulgaria and Russia.

The U.S.-led bombing is a problem for Russia. Its imminence provoked the cancellation of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's visit to Washington. Russian President Boris Yeltsin undertook a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert the bombing. Even after a 35-minute telephone conversation on Wednesday, President Clinton was unable to convince the Russian president that the air strikes were warranted.

Serbia's military commanders are, from Tito's time, a privileged caste. If bombing induces them to change the Milosevic policy or even the president and move toward toward democracy, so much the better.

There had been hints that Mr. Milosevic simply required belligerence from NATO before he could accept international troops to keep the peace in Kosovo. He had too much prestige resting on his policy, this theory holds, to give in unless he could claim to have been bullied.

The best outcome of this tragedy would be for that interpretation to prove accurate.

Otherwise, a campaign to degrade Yugoslavia's ability to slaughter Albanian Kosovars must continue, without winners and with risk, but without alternative.

Pub Date: 3/25/99

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