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Those of us who questioned the wisdom of the diplomacy preceding the war over Kosovo owe it to the Clinton administration to express our respect for the fortitude with which it persevered, and the skill with which it buttressed Allied unity and achieved Russian acquiescence. But victory leaves us with just as severe a challenge: to avoid being permanently mired in a corner of the Balkans as the modern equivalent of the Ottoman and Austrian empires. The so-called Petersberg plan risks turning into an open-ended commitment toward ever deeper involvement, casting us in the role of gendarme of a region of passionate hatreds and where we have few strategic interests.

Many commentators emphasize the differences between the plan put forward by the Finnish president and ratified by the Yugoslav Parliament, and the Rambouillet proposals in the name of which the bombing was initiated. And there are nuances of some consequence. The NATO forces are entering Kosovo on the basis of a U.N. mandate rather than an agreement between Belgrade and the Atlantic Alliance. Kosovo is explicitly described as a part of Yugoslavia, albeit an autonomous one (Point 5); the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Yugoslavia are affirmed (Point 8). The provision for a referendum at the end of three years has been abandoned, and the initial insistence on complete NATO control has been watered down to some extent by a series of U.N. mandates and the presence of Russian forces.

But even where the peace plan still parallels the Rambouillet accords it threatens near-permanent American involvement in an endless set of predictable conflicts and possible guerrilla war. The turgid language of the accord was designed to be impenetrable, so that each party could interpret the inevitable ambiguities as favorable to itself. This diplomatic device is not without precedent, but it is a special problem when it involves parties that have refined their volatile passions for centuries in the crucible of mutual slaughter. The Petersberg plan provides for four stages of political evolution: (1) an interim reign over Kosovo by a designated administrator; (2) an international civil presence; (3) substantial autonomy for the people of Kosovo within Yugoslavia, under the aegis of the U.N. Security Council; (4) the development of provisional democratic self-governing institutions.

Every aspect of this scheme is a potential land mine. According to Point 8, the political framework is supposed to take full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. How can those objectives possibly be reconciled? Rambouillet provided for the occupation of Kosovo by NATO and a referendum on the future of Kosovo at the end of three years. The peace plan stops at autonomy and repeatedly affirms Yugoslav sovereignty. But the KLA fought and suffered for independence, not autonomy. After what its members and the population of Kosovo endured during the ethnic-cleansing campaign, remaining within Serbia will be inconceivable to them. The additional provision of Point 8, for the "demilitarization of the KLA" by NATO, is even more difficult to imagine happening.

If any of these provisions are to be realized, they must be imposed by American and other Allied military forces. We will be in the ironic position that, having fought on the side of the Albanians for their autonomy, we may find ourselves resisting them (or perhaps even fighting against them) over the issue of their independence. And having gone to war to defend the Albanian population against Serbian ethnic cleansing, we may now be obliged to protect the Serbian population against the rage of their Albanian neighbors. Unless we are willing to sustain a near-permanent military occupation, ethnic cleansing of the Serbian population could well be the outcome.

The confusion is magnified by another provision of Point 8 that envisions "negotiations between the parties." But who are these parties? Presumably they are the Serbs and the Albanians. It adds that deadlock "should not delay or disrupt the establishment of self-governing institutions"--a provision that could paradoxically guarantee deadlock. The agreement is silent as to who should shoulder the task of imposing such self-governing institutions--implicitly leaving that responsibility with the United States. Not only are we imperceptibly on the road to replacing the Ottoman and Austrian empires in the Balkans; in time, we may face the same hostility from the native populations that they did.

The projected command arrangements compound the ambiguity. The military forces, in the words of the U.N. resolution, will be substantially NATO's. Additional troops from Russia will be assigned under uncertain command arrange-ments.To prevent the partition of Kosovo, Russian troops will not be given a separate area--unless they pre-empt the decision by occupying a part of Kosovo unilaterally, as they seemed to be doing last week. Moreover, the role of all these forces is vague and their rules of engagement are defined by the Security Council.

Analogies to Bosnia are misleading. The Dayton agreement ending the Bosnian conflict was negotiated and approved by all the parties. In Kosovo, NATO has imposed an agreement on both sides. In Bosnia, the three armies ended up on homogeneous territories specifically assigned to them by the Dayton accords. In Kosovo, there is no such equivalent solution. Nor are there armies to separate, since Serb forces will presumably have left. NATO's task--to confirm the departure of Serb forces, to disarm the KLA and to protect Kosovo's borders--is likely to bring them into conflict with Albanians seeking to influence events in Kosovo or Macedonia. All this may place our troops squarely in the middle of a civil guerrilla war, posing the same dilemma we encountered in Somalia.

Arrangements for civil administration contain comparable potential conflicts. The enormous tasks of reconstruction will fall to the civil administrator appointed by the U.N. Secretary-General "in consultation with the Security Council" and operating under a mandate established by a U.N. resolution. The administrator will need to organize a police force and oversee the restoration of essential services in a totally devastated country. As indigenous Kosovar institutions come to life, they are likely to challenge the civil administrator's authority in the name of independence. What if the KLA emerges as the police force of the autonomous authority? And, as Serbia recovers, it may challenge--possibly with Russia's backing--the civil administrator in the name of Yugoslav sovereignty.

The situation in Kosovo differs from Bosnia in yet another important respect. Bosnia was, in a way, sui generis. The evolution of Kosovo is bound to have a profound impact on its neighbors. The immediate impact is likely to be on the Albanians in Macedonia, who comprise about a quarter of the population. They are likely to demand, at a minimum, the same status for themselves that the Kosovars are given. And the disintegration of Macedonia could ignite another Balkan explosion. Comparable pressures can be expected from the smaller Albanian minority in Montenegro. As well, there exists a drive toward a greater Albania, encouraged both from Tirana and by emigre Albanians supplying much of the financial muscle.

Aware of these tendencies--and as a sop to Russian and Yugoslav self-respect--the West has conceded Belgrade's sovereignty over Kosovo in order to keep it from emerging as an independent international presence. But the plan cannot possibly work smoothly. Russia and Yugoslavia will have every incentive to affirm Yugoslav sovereignty, while America and NATO cannot indefinitely stand in the way of Albanian self-determination.

In short, if we try to implement the U.N. resolution for any length of time, we will emerge as the permanent party to arcane and bitter Balkan quarrels. It would be far wiser to cut the Gordian knot and concede Kosovar independence as part of an overall Balkan settlement--perhaps including self-determination for each of the three ethnic groups of Bosnia. In such an arrangement, the borders of Kosovo and its neighbors should be guaranteed by NATO or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As in Bosnia, the international forces would then patrol both sides of these borders for at least a substantial interim period.

Moving the issue to a definite resolution as quickly as possible is all the more important because of the hostility of the international environment. Most nations either supported or tolerated the Dayton accords. This is not the case in Kosovo. Russia may have thrown in the towel on seeking to shape the immediate outcome significantly. But it feels deeply humiliated; Kosovo has become a public symbol of Russia's loss of influence and public degradation by the West. It has no incentive to facilitate the arrangement once it is in place. Rather, Moscow is likely to seek occasions to obstruct it or to oppose elsewhere what it perceives as America's hegemonic tendencies. From the U.S. point of view, the quicker the Kosovo issue is removed from the Russo-American agenda, the better for our long-term relations. And Russia should have no interest in perpetuating a state of affairs in which it can embarrass us but cannot prevail.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of China, which rejects the unilateral manner in which NATO intervened in what Bei- jing perceives as the internal matters of Yugoslavia. Indeed, most of the nations of the world will have an incentive to create obstacles to the application of the Rambouillet principles enshrined in the Kosovo agreement. Countries concerned that they may be the subject of unilateral NATO action may distance themselves from us after the dust settles. They may have an incentive to acquire weapons of mass destruction as the surest deterrent to America's conventional superiority. How ironically history repeats its patterns. During the cold war the democracies relied on nuclear weapons to balance an assumed Soviet conventional superiority. In the post-Kosovo period it is the smaller countries which may turn to weapons of mass destruction in response to America's overwhelming technological edge in conventional weaponry. For all these reasons, it is imperative to undertake a major assessment of how to relate the new foreign policy to an international consensus.

Even the Atlantic Alliance will never be the same after Kosovo. The Clinton administration skillfully held the Alliance together through more than 10 weeks of bombing. But the decision of the European Union's heads of state at Cologne to accelerate a unified European defense and foreign policy reflects deep uneasiness about Europe's relative impotence in face of the imperious American tactics. A serious European effort to build autonomous centers of decision would be far from undesirable provided Europe backs up its new organizations with appropriate resources. But it also requires a new thoughtfulness on both sides of the Atlantic if the vital American interest in close transatlantic cooperation is to survive.

For the foreseeable future, America will have a division and a half of our soldiers on near-permanent sentry duty at the fringes of the Balkans. We should therefore temper triumphalism with some reflection on the need to establish geopolitical priorities. Before we treat Kosovo as the model for a new era of humanitarian diplomacy, we should examine where else either the diplomacy or the strategy might apply. There are some 22 million refugees around the world and scores of ethnic conflicts. To which of them would a comparable mix of force and diplomacy be relevant? Where else could we bomb for 10 weeks without U.S. military casualties, a prohibitive risk of escalation or creating untenable precedents? The demonstration of what democracies can accomplish when aroused will stand us in good stead in the years ahead. But the ultimate legacy of Kosovo will depend on whether our diplomatic endgame matches the display of our power.

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