When Acting As Rome . . .

WHEN ACTING AS ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DID. If the United States, pursuing a Pax Americana, puts military forces on the ground in Kosovo, it should make clear that it does not have a ""timetable'' for an ""exit strategy.'' They are products of longings rather than logic and they telegraph tentativeness born of reluctance. They communicate lack of resolve and tell the people who are the problem to wait you out.

Most Americans would prefer to forgo the honor of being Rome. They think the costs are disproportionate to probable benefits, and imperial duties, such as administering the modern equivalent of Pax Romana, are inimical to democratic values. But U.S. policy has been Roman for a while.

With the creation of NATO in 1949, policy began, in Pat Moynihan's words, ""to anticipate, rather than merely react to, conflicts.'' But the conflict NATO was designed to deter had an awful clarity--massed tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap onto the north German plain. The conflict in Kosovo has the murkiness of civil strife. Serbia, the largest remaining shard of Yugoslavia, is abusing Kosovo, which is a province of Serbia.

Kosovars, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians, enjoyed--make that exercised--considerable autonomy until 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic, a Communist hack suddenly turned nationalist, revoked it, thereby stoking Serbs' possessiveness about the province deemed the birthplace of Serbian nationalism. Now Kosovars want at least autonomy, and preferably independence, which they demand in the name of ethnic self-determination. Now, where did they get that idea?

It may be a natural aspiration; it certainly has a long and varied pedigree; it has recently been a war cry of Bosnian Serbs. But Kosovars conversant with modern history can say they got the idea from an American of an austere, severe, you might even say Roman, demeanor. Eighty years ago he was glimpsed on his hands and knees, perhaps inventing Yugoslavia.

In a letter home, a member of Woodrow Wilson's delegation to the Versailles peace conference in 1919 described Wilson on the floor with a large map ""to show us what had been done; most of us also were on our hands and knees. I was in the front row and felt someone pushing me, and looked around angrily to find that it was [Italian Premier] Orlando, on his hands and knees crawling like a bear toward the map.''

Now, the fact that the United States, early in its Roman role, was present at creation of the precursor to today's debacle does not mean the United States must be involved in the debris. And the principle mandating, or at any rate justifying, involvement cannot be the general validity of demands for ethnic self-determination. That way lies international chaos and American exhaustion. Self-determination just for Kurds could destabilize a few nations. Neither can intervention be based on simple humanitarianism, unalloyed with interests. Kosovo is not nearly the world's worst killing field just now.

However, The Washington Post's formulation fits: Kosovo is in ""a geographical and political zone where American interests cannot be denied.'' Particularly if America is interested in being Rome, the power whose involvement is required to keep the level of world disorder below the threshold that jeopardizes peace and prosperity.

Americans may feel such jeopardy is too remote to merit anxiety. Their sense of being insulated from events abroad has been deepened by the fact that their economy has--so far--been almost impervious to foreign developments. South Korea's economic meltdown? Not to worry: South Korea's economy is about the size of Los Angeles's. Brazil is on the brink? Brazil has the world's eighth largest economy but accounts for only 2.4 percent of the world's economic output. (The United States, the European Union and Japan account for two thirds.)

However, if NATO cannot stop massacres in the center of Europe, it cannot long continue as an instrument of collective security against . . . what? Given how well things have gone in the last 50 years on the continent where in the preceding 35 years so much went wrong, at such cost in American blood and treasure, do Americans want to risk a rising tide of anarchy?

Also, because of graphic journalism in a wired world, massacres are on view in American living rooms in real time. Suppose this nation does not try to stop barbarism that it might be able to stop with a small portion of its military power. Suppose the barbarism is in a region--Europe--to which this nation has civilizational ties. In that case, this Republic might then stop thinking of itself as it always has, as having a complex fiduciary responsibility for the universal values it embodies.

Now, negotiations are supposed to stop the massacres by Serb forces. The hope is that NATO forces will be used only for peacekeeping, not peacemaking. But negotiations between the Serbs and Kosovars will not succeed unless there is a credible threat of effective force against Serbia. The Economist editorializes confidently that one of the ""important truths'' learned about fighting regional fires in NATO's backyard, in Bosnia, concerns the potential efficacy of U.S. air power: ""At a stroke, the threatened or actual use of precision bombing can sharply tilt the balance of power in any regional conflict, without much risk to the user.''

Actually, it is not obvious that the U.S. capacity for precision bombing should get so much credit for such success as has been achieved in Bosnia, and it is doubtful that even if it did, that demonstrates a general truth. In any case, the success in Bosnia is not such as to enable U.S. forces there to plan to leave in the foreseeable future. The fact that Washington has done less talking about its (we now know) spurious ""exit strategy'' may go far to explain such success as there has been.

Rome is Rome only when its power is not used too reluctantly, and only when the Roman legions are not looking too longingly toward home.