Wed, 24 Mar 1999

Bomb the Serbs and betray the Kosovars

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): Hollow threats and fake deadlines are North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)'s trademark in the Balkans, but this time it will not be able to run away. Letting the Serbs call NATO's bluff over Kosovo yet again, as they did over Bosnia so many times in the past, would leave the alliance's remaining credibility in shreds. So you can hear NATO's leaders talking out loud, trying to work up the nerve to drop a few cruise missiles on Slobodan Milosevic.

"The military clock is ticking," says NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. "The threshold has been crossed," says U.S. President Bill Clinton. "They (Serbs) absolutely must move. There is no other alternative except war," says Anne Gazeau-Secret, spokeswoman for the French foreign minister. "I wouldn't look at this as a one- or two-bomb affair," says Gen. Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

But Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic says nothing at all -- and in St. Petersburg, Dr. Valentin Kashinov's website contains instructions on how to make a device for less than US$200 that will jam the signals from Global Positioning System satellites that make cruise missiles so accurate. It also contains an appeal to "the mothers of NATO pilots and soldiers" not to bomb Belgrade.

It would be a very good thing if the Serbs built Kashinov's devices and sent all of NATO's cruise missiles crashing into hilltops when the alliance goes to war in a week or ten days' time.

Not because the Serbs are in the right, or because using military force against Serbia to stop the genocide in Kosovo is wrong. On the contrary, it would be a good thing because if NATO couldn't use its cruise missiles as a token way of slapping Milosevic's wrists, it would have to formulate a serious military strategy to deal with Kosovo.

The problem with cruise missiles is that they are good for everybody except the real victims of this confrontation, the Albanian Kosovars who are being shelled and burned out of their villages by Serbian forces even as you read this. They are good for NATO because they let it act on its threat to punish Serbia without annoying the "mothers of NATO pilots and soldiers", who would get very upset if their offspring were killed or captured in a Balkan war. The thought of actually taking casualties, and paying the political price in domestic support, paralyses the will of political "leaders" throughout the West.

Cruise missiles are good for Milosevic, too, because he needs a few bombs to be dropped on Serbia right now. Not too many, you understand, but just enough to unite Serbian nationalists behind him if he decides to tough it out -- or to give him an excuse for pulling out of Kosovo, if he really feels he must do that to survive politically. And "not too many" is what he is likely to get.

The sequence of events over the next two weeks will be as follows. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov will visit Belgrade urging Milosevic to accept the agreement for peace and autonomy that the representatives of Kosovo's Albanian majority have already signed in France. Milosevic will politely tell him to get lost. Then various NATO dignitaries -- Gen. Clark, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke are likely candidates -- will go to the Serbian capital to give Milosevic his last warning, his really final warning, and his absolutely irrevocable, truly final warning.

And then, perhaps a week and a few thousand dead Kosovars from now, NATO will let the cruise missiles fly. But only at Serbian air defenses and military facilities in Kosovo province, not in Serbia proper -- and probably only for one or two days. Then, in the best traditions of "Operation Rolling Thunder" (the U.S. bombing campaign that failed to locate North Vietnam's "threshold of pain" three decades ago), NATO will stop and listen for a response from Belgrade.

It may not be true, but the important thing is that Western governments, and above all the U.S. government, believe it to be true. So it's quite reasonable for Milosevic to think that NATO is a paper tiger. If he isn't cowed into submission by the bombing, NATO has nothing left in reserve, for it is terrified of committing ground troops to combat.

That is why Dr. Kashinov's device would be so helpful, for by writing the seductive but essentially useless cruise missiles out of the scenario, it would compel NATO's political authorities to sort their strategy out now. If they aren't prepared to use ground troops in the end, then they shouldn't have pulled out the OSCE monitors and exposed the Kosovars to renewed ethnic cleansing.

The NATO alliance should be prepared to use its troops to protect the Kosovars. What are those huge defense budgets for, if the troops are effectively unusable? But if it isn't, then it should not have started down this road.

When your bluff has been called this many times, it is stupid and irresponsible to start bluffing again. The principal victims will be the people you are trying to protect.