JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Jacob SullumJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 13, 1998 / 15 Adar, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Slobodan Milosevic may have started something that can't be stopped

PARIS -- Consider Kosovo and Iraq. The similarities and the differences, influenced the response to the Kosovo crisis of the so-called Contact Group in London last Monday.

Kosovo, in terms of international law, is a Serbian internal affair. Whatever the violence committed against its Albanian minority, international law and convention limit the intervention of foreign governments to persuasion, or to measures of sanction or boycott that in practice tend to punish the population.

I do not say the innocent population, because the voters of Serbia unquestionably support repression of the movement for Albanian autonomy or independence in Kosovo. There is an immense emotional charge behind their belief that Kosovo, because of Serbia's history, is an inalienable part of Serbia -- whoever actually may live there.

The Serbian people had their chance last winter to depose Slobodan Milosevic. But the leaders of the democracy demonstrations, which then seemed so impressive, squandered that opportunity in sterile personal rivalries. Today, they support the Milosevic government against the Contact Group's demands.

In Iraq, where an even more ruthless apparatus of political control exists, no outsider can know what the scale of opposition to Saddam Hussein really is. Shi'ites in the southern half of the country, and the Kurds in the north, resist Baghdad's domination, but that antedates the present regime.

By defying the United States last fall, and again in the last few weeks, the Iraqi dictator has fired national pride and won an increase in permitted oil sales and humanitarian imports. If Saddam Hussein keeps the promises made to Kofi Annan concerning arms inspections, he is within sight of an end to sanctions.

The hysteria which often surrounds discussion of Saddam Hussein obscures the fact that because he has been an international aggressor he has been easier to deal with than Slobodan Milosevic.

He went to war with Iran in 1980, thinking to overthrow the revolutionary government there (and enjoyed tacit American sympathy in doing so, as well as subsequent intelligence and arms help). But when he invaded Kuwait, it was not difficult for the Bush Administration to organize an international coalition to eject his army.

Slobodan Milosevic is an internal aggressor. He attacks what he portrays as destructive movements inside his country's borders. When his country was Yugoslavia, he tried to prevent secession by Slovenia and Croatia. When Europe recognized those countries' independence, it turned Belgrade's action into international aggression -- but did nothing to stop it.

Mr. Milosevic could let Slovenia and Croatia go because his aim was a greater Serbia. It proved unattainable, and he abandoned the Krajina Serb minority in Croatia, and the so-called Republika Srpska in Bosnia. But he cannot now let Kosovo go because it is the focus of Serbian nationalism. His power has from the start rested on the nihilistic exploitation of that nationalism.

What can be done about people like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein? Europe and the U.S. contemplate an arms embargo, diplomatic isolation, etc., for Serbia, but Russia resists strong measures. No one dared talk about armed intervention, although the United States once warned of military action should the Kosovo Albanians be attacked.

Armed intervention is pointless when, as in Iraq in February, no coherent explanation can be supplied as to how bombing will make a difference to how the despot behaves. As a "lesson," bombing has always proven illusory policy. On the other hand, violence can make a difference when it has a direct effect on what is happening.

If the Serbian authorities do not call off their campaign of militarized police repression in Kosovo by March 19th, as demanded by the Contact Group, the argument can be made for attacking those forces. They are identifiable military targets and the actual instruments of Mr. Milosevic's power. NATO's experience in Bosnia demonstrated that force can change Mr. Milosevic's mind. However, this is not going to happen.

The legal objection to interference in other countries' internal affairs has not inhibited the United States in the past, in Central America and Southeast Asia. The U.S. has threatened to act without renewed UN approval in Iraq.

But the Balkans are another place, and Kosovo's fate is widely, and not unreasonably, thought by Americans to be distant from any American national interest. Military intervention would find little popular support.

The very sensible American initiatives already in place to influence the situation in Kosovo -- a big and visible U.S. information operation, U.S. troops stationed in Macedonia, active diplomacy in Belgrade -- have been possible because practically no one in Washington noticed them.

Europe's reaction to the situation is depressingly familiar. There is exactly the same stalemate that prevented constructive and collective European action when the old Yugoslavia came apart.

There is nonetheless some reason to think that Mr. Milosevic will back off. He takes calculated risks, and the downside of what he has done this time is considerable. He seems to have mistakenly assumed that the U.S., and therefore Europe, would ignore renewed repression in Kosovo.

However, his career has rested on provoking nationalism and creating wars. This time he may have started something he cannot, or will not, stop, and which the international community is unwilling to stop.


©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.