Clinton Can’t Ignore Serbian Atrocities

If any questions about the regime in Belgrade still lingered before the events of the past week, the totalitarian and genocidal character of Slobodan Milosevic’s gangster government is now past any pretense of doubt. So is the American interest in defeating Mr. Milosevic, who has spent the past several years transforming himself from a small-time Balkan Communist functionary into the symbol of a grim future for Europe and the world.

Even if the United States had no humanitarian interest in stopping the destruction of the Kosovar Albanians; even if the NATO alliance were not in jeopardy; and even if the flow of refugees did not create the peril of a wider war, we would still have a compelling reason to defeat the Serbian dictatorship.

That reason is to discourage potential Milosevic imitators who could pose a far greater threat in the future. As welcome as the fall of Soviet Communism was, both for the West and the peoples it had subjugated for so long, the unhappy truth is that stable democratic governments have not taken its place everywhere. As was the case after Germany’s defeat in World War I, the ruin of the East Bloc nations after the Cold War has encouraged politically dangerous elements in those societies. The nature of that peril is most obvious in Russia, where foreign policy is influenced by ultranationalists and ex-Communists with an increasingly fascistic tinge. Should those forces ever come to power, they must not think that NATO would countenance atrocities like those committed repeatedly in the Balkans.

As a matter of diplomacy, such arguments are difficult for American officials to make without exacerbating the political tensions that already exist. Delicate relations with Russia, badly strained by the bombing in Yugoslavia, would only be worsened if the President explained in precise terms the implications of inaction in Kosovo. But the broader rationale for the allied response to continued Serbian provocations is all too real.

For the moment, however, the openly stated purposes behind the NATO bombing campaign should be sufficient. Reports from the refugees driven into Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro indicate that war crimes are being committed on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. The fact that the West stood by and permitted similar crimes to occur so recently in Rwanda and Bosnia cannot excuse the same negligence in Kosovo. There are 2 million ethnic Albanians who face the choice of becoming corpses or refugees, and whose sudden arrival in neighboring states is likely to destabilize those fragile governments.

Those who counsel withdrawal should ask themselves at what point they would be willing to oppose Mr. Milosevic’s barbarism. Should we have waited until he realizes that he can scuttle the successful Dayton accords, and invades Bosnia to cleanse “Greater Serbia” of Moslems altogether?

As usual, Bill Clinton faces jejune criticism from opportunists on the right and left. They attack him when he does nothing, and they attack him when he does anything. Certainly, he and his counterparts in NATO ought to have been better prepared for the consequences of the bombing, particularly in terms of humanitarian aid for the predictable population flight. But the notion that NATO should be held responsible for the current situation in Kosovo is only plausible to those who have no familiarity with the events of the past decade. Mr. Milosevic began to create the conditions that now exist in 1989, when he inflamed nationalist passions on the 600th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat of Serbian Orthodox soldiers on a Kosovan battlefield. Since then he has inflicted an increasingly horrible repression upon the ethnic Albanians, who attempted to resist by peaceful means until the last few years when that effort had proved hopeless.

Proof that Mr. Milosevic and his fellow war criminals carefully planned their present course may be found in their systematic assault upon Pec, the first Kosovan city to be fully “cleansed” of Moslems. For centuries, Pec served as the center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and its early seizure by the Yugoslav army was symbolic, planned and in no way coincidental. Sooner or later, the Kosovo Liberation Army would have given Mr. Milosevic the excuse he desired for aggression. His bloody attitude toward any negotiated settlement has been revealed by the murders of the Kosovan politicians who had agreed to an interim solution at Rambouillet.

Whether Mr. Clinton once believed that Mr. Milosevic could be curbed by air strikes alone no longer matters much. It still is conceivable that sustained bombing will force the Serbian tyrant to seek a deal. But sometime during the next several weeks Mr. Clinton may have to decide whether to commit ground forces. In the debate over that issue, everyone should understand that the price of backing down from this test and undermining NATO may not come due until years after Mr. Clinton leaves office.