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Jewish World Review March 25, 1999 /8 Nissan 5759

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(JWR) ---- (
IT IS DIFFICULT TO IDENTIFY a reason for our newborn war against Serbia, unless it be the right of global elites to impose their tastes on lessers through the force of arms.

Never in our history has a call to combat seemed as perplexing and hollow as this one. President Clinton and his aides have tried repeatedly to persuade themselves and Congress of the need to enter a far-off civil conflict in Kosovo (a province of Serbian-controlled Yugoslavia), but no single reason seems satisfactory. The White House thus has offered a shifting menu of justifications:

Reason No. 1: We must act to stop the slaughter of innocents. This is an admirable goal. Yet, we could achieve the same aim far more grandly, with much less risk to American blood and treasure, if we decided to invade Rwanda or the Congo. Kosovo doesn't rank among the top dozen bloody civil wars raging on our planet today.

Reason No. 2: Administration officials warn that the fight could widen into a global conflict unless we act quickly to put out the fire. They point to the first world war, which began after a peasant named Princip put a bullet into the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on St. Vitus' Day, which commemorates Serbia's loss in the Battle of Kosovo -- in 1389.

But the present situation differs from 1914 in critical respects, the chief of which is that no major power has a defensive alliance with the feuding parties. If anything, NATO could ignite a wider conflict. The best way to duplicate the casus belli of the first world war would be to plunk an international force into Kosovo and stir up resentment among Turks, Albanians, Macedonians, Greeks, Germans, Russians, Romanians -- and heaven knows who else.

Reason No. 3: We feel an obligation to get NATO out of a mess. This is the honest explanation. This is not a war to save children, snuff out genocide or starve warlike appetites. It is a fight to save face.

Now comes the really odd part. NATO wants to whack Serbia, but it doesn't want the other side in the war -- ethnic Albanians -- to win.

The civil war in Kosovo features several traits that one finds in only the most intractable disputes. We have a fight over historically disputed land (Serbian claims go back as much as a millennium; Albanians can point to several hundred years' tenancy of Kosovo).

We have ethnic groups straining to rewrite borders imposed on them by outside forces. Serbians want a piece of Bosnia. Albanians lust to create a Greater Albania by snatching territory in Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro. And we have visceral religious disputes, in this case between Orthodox Christians (Serbs) and Muslims (Albanians).

Western powers have had the good sense not to commit troops to places with similar problems -- such as Palestine and Kurdistan. Few students of the region believe that anybody can spread good manners merely through the use of well-aimed ordnance. At best, we can subdue the warring factions for a while.

That being the case, this enterprise seems breathtakingly high-handed. A bunch of outsiders, lounging in well-appointed conference rooms, have studied a far-off civil war and forced their way into the conflict without a clear invitation from either side. If that isn't imperialism, nothing is --- and the ultimate result of this fight could be a fatal weakening of the notion of national sovereignty.

If we're lucky, we'll bomb and back off. That way, the president will have avoided looking like a complete idiot by withdrawing a third ultimatum to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and we won't get sucked into a ground conflict that could sunder our nation.

Here's the best reason not to send ground forces: The Serbs have something at stake in this rumble; we don't. They think of Kosovo as we might think of Bunker Hill or Valley Forge --- only their passions and memories run far longer and deeper. Serbs see Kosovo not just as the heart of their republic, but as a place that has been wrested repeatedly from them.

The Battle of Kosovo is a Serbian Alamo, a defeat that led to a short-lived span of independence followed, Serbs say, by nearly 500 years of occupation. I say this not to condone the murder of ethnic Albanians, but to explain: Serbs are fighting for what they consider hallowed ground.

We do not have enough available troops to win a Kosovar ground war (or to handle predictable flare-ups in such places as Bosnia and Macedonia), and one doubts European powers have the will to send hundreds of thousands of their finest into harm's way. After all, we're not fighting a territorially ambitious ideology, such as Nazism or Communism. Furthermore, as far as the vaunted International Community is concerned, there is no Plan B if Milosevic shrugs off the bombing and continues terrorizing Albanians.

This may explain why, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert invited the president to explain the war to a joint session of Congress -- as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did at the outset of America's entry into World War II -- the White House demurred. The administration seems almost embarrassed by its military plans. As a result, the president has refused to consult with Congress, thereby producing astonishing levels of skepticism among Democrats and Republicans.

If this is a war to save face, we ought to get in and out quickly. This is not a satisfactory way to resolve the ongoing horror of Kosovo, but it's a much better option than throwing our young men and women into a battle we don't know how to fight or intend to win.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate