- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

Remember Kosovo? That was our last military engagement before September 11, 2001. In March 1999, we bombed Kosovo to blazes under the auspices of NATO, ostensibly to protect the 90 percent majority Kosovar Albanians against the “ethnic cleansing” savagery of Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed dismay that the NATO allies had failed to involve the Security Council in its decision to use force in the Balkans. Sound familiar?

Later, without any clear exit strategy, our forces entered the province under the auspices of NATO and the United Nations to drive out the Yugoslavian army that was murdering Albanian Muslim civilians. Security Council Resolution 1244, mandating an international administration of Kosovo, visualized a final political settlement within three years and recognized that Belgrade, which had displaced 700,000 Albanian Kosovars, had lost its right to sovereignty over the province. Ironically, we wound up still there almost six years later mostly protecting the Serbian minority against the repression of the Albanians.

With America’s eye on Iraq, it is easily forgotten that Kosovo has since 1999 been a U.N. protectorate run by the Security Council at an annual cost of $350 million. We now have a reduced force of some 2,000 troops constituting 15 percent of the U.N.-NATO peacekeepers, pending resolution of the province’s final status.

At such low force levels, there is little political impetus to do anything. Unfortunately, according to a recently released report of the International Crisis Group, “time is running out in Kosovo,” and there is the distinct possibility of a return to violence and instability if a settlement is not achieved. Kosovo Albanians are anxious over their unresolved status. Kosovo’s Serbs distrust the Albanian track record of dealing with minorities and may invite Serbia’s armed forces to help them if agreement cannot be reached shortly. Deadly rioting broke out in March 2004 over independence-related issues. The looming specter is of renewed armed conflict and regional instability.

Everyone agrees there are four basic elements to a settlement:

(1) Protection of minority rights.

(2) A guarantee Kosovo will not be partitioned.

(3) A solution that does not include making Kosovo part of a greater Albania.

(4) And independence from Belgrade’s rule.

The vexing problem is that it has been nearly six years since we bombed Kosovo’s capital Pristina, and there is not even a timetable or process in place for resolving Kosovo’s status. As Mr. Annan’s Special Representative observed last August when he arrived in Pristina, “I think there’s a limit to how long you can keep a place in limbo.”

The way forward is easily limned but elusively achieved as it calls upon bitter ethnic enemies to live together peacefully. The six-member “contact group” — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia — which really controls our involvement in Kosovo, has the muscle to declare a settlement framework for settlement and an independence timetable.

The contact group said last September that, “Kosovo would not return to the situation prevailing there before March 1999.” The Crisis Group report suggests the United Nations should appoint a special envoy to consult all interested parties on the form of a settlement and the process for putting it into effect. Not a bad idea. Then, the usual stuff: a constitution, a rule of law, providing among other things protection of minority rights and enforced by constitutional tribunals headed by international judges and meeting international standards, and an international monitoring commission to observe and report if new Kosovo back downs on its internationally crafted obligations. All it requires is international political will.

But nothing seems to be happening. Even if progress were made, the lurking question is whether any settlement dictated by the international community would work on the ground.

The scholar Niall Ferguson has shrewdly observed there are historically “seven characteristic phases of American engagement: impressive initial military success; a flawed assessment of indigenous sentiment (as in the vice president’s admitted miscalculation in Iraq, “We will be embraced as liberators”); a strategy of limited war and gradual escalation of forces; domestic disillusionment in a protracted and nasty conflict; premature democratization; ascendancy of domestic economic considerations; and ultimate withdrawal.”

In other words, we seem to engage, get bogged down, abandon our premises for going in the first place, declare victory and go home. This may ultimately prove to be the case in Kosovo.

It has been nearly six years and the latest news out of Kosovo is that the United Nations is dithering over where to find 3,000 corpses missing since the initial conflict.

If we can’t move toward resolving the small problems of the world, what hope do we have for solving the big ones?

James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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