- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

A year ago NATO intervened in Kosovo, but forfeited the opportunity to eliminate Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, whose regime has been the central source of terror in southeastern Europe for a decade. Such a move would have permitted the United States and its allies and the democratic opposition in Serbia finally to take charge and help promote the terms of a new Balkan order. Instead, the price of American leadership on the cheap turns out once again to be messy and expensive.

Senior Pentagon officials fear an explosion of violence in Kosovo this spring. Under the pressure of Belgrade's economic blockade, the independence-minded government of Milo Djukanovic is becoming increasingly embattled. In Serbia, Western sanctions alone have succeeded neither in helping the opposition nor in weakening the grip of Mr. Milosevic's blood-soaked rule. In fact, the opposition remains divided except on one point: U.S.-led sanctions are largely counterproductive, hurting the Serbian people and permitting Mr. Milosevic to pin the blame on the West.

So what's next? One of Belgrade's current games is to supply and instigate in Kosovo militant Serbs, who keep stirring the pot. Mr. Milosevic's proxies are close to success in the de facto annexation of the northern portion of the province. Imagine how the Serb ruler now delights in knowing that NATO forces face the prospect of fighting Kosovar guerrillas who threaten attacks into Serbia. Skirmishes in Kosovo are serious, but they are still really small beer. If Mr. Milosevic decides to topple the democratically elected government of Montenegro, a new bloodbath will begin. NATO will be wringing its hands again over whether and how militarily to intervene. Sound familiar?

The timing must be tempting for Mr. Milosevic. NATO's top general, Wesley Clark, will be gone from his post soon. In Kosovo, Klaus Reinhardt, the German commander of NATO's 37,000 troops, is scheduled to rotate out, too. At home, the United States is starting to stick its head in the sand as it does during any election season. This, while the European Union (EU) elevates navel-gazing to an art form.

The answer to all this is not for the United States to cut and run as some in Congress predictably suggest. It's difficult to reach a destination when you don't know where you're going. It's time to ask questions that should have been posed long ago: What are the prerequisites for regional stability? What should a post-Milosevic Balkans look like? The West desperately needs leadership that only the United States can provide.

In Kosovo, it's time to confront the dreaded "I" word independence. The current ambiguity regarding Kosovo's status creates confusion on the ground, emboldens Belgrade and its allies, and offers a pretext for violence to radical Kosovars. The United States has avoided the subject because Europeans fear that independence would produce a domino effect. It would lead, our allies contend, to fresh violence and instability, the disintegration of Macedonia, and the establishment of a Greater Albania. Nonsense. There's nothing automatic about such a process. And there's a great deal of sense in an idea being circulated by William Taft, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Mr. Taft has proposed a step-by-step plan to permit what 99 percent of Kosovars will never give up on a state free from Serb rule. The idea is simple: Tell Kosovars if they cooperate with the West in building democratic Kosovo, then Kosovo will be permitted self-determination. Concrete interim steps would offer the promise of democratic self-rule, catharsis for the victims of Serb terror, and standards and incentives for Kosovar behavior. It's earned independence. U.N. administrator Bernard Kouchner has already suggested that Kosovo's final status should be tackled sooner rather than later. Now is the time.

It's also high time to tell Mr. Milosevic that his days are numbered. Non-governmental organizations and former dissidents from Bratislava to Bucharest are starting to band together to build ties to the Serb opposition. They have experience in building democratic movements. These efforts deserve as much financial support as we can provide. So do the free media that manage to survive in Serbia. But the United States and its allies should also indicate that we are ready to reconsider poorly targeted sanctions. When sanctions are lifted, let Mr. Milosevic's opponents claim credit and use Western trade and aid as a weapon against the regime.

Finally, in Montenegro it's time to draw a line. Mr. Milosevic has closed the border for trade. He has transferred units from Kosovo to the Yugoslav republic. The new 7th battalion of military police is under Belgrade's control. For months, the Djukanovic government has warned the West of what's coming and pleaded for additional economic assistance. While the United States has been responsive, the EU, until now, has only dithered. The Europeans, who always crave "crisis prevention," should be shamed into action. We should also use Montenegro as a shipping route for supplies to Kosovo and Bosnia. Montenegro wants to continue its wartime cooperation with NATO. Ultimately, though, a security guarantee for Montenegro would be the best way to convince Slobodan Milosevic, the loser of four wars, not to try still another. In the event of Serbian aggression, perhaps it's time to consider what regional leaders have been urging Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: Get rid of him.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative.

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