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Eric J. Plosky

Nobody but me, I suspect, is willing to admit this shameful truth: Many of you reading this column don’t know Kosovo from Shinola. Even former vice president Dan Quayle, circumlocuting about Kosovo on “Meet The Press” this past Sunday, didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. So let’s set the stage before we start our discussion.

Kosovo is a province of Yugoslavia. Most Kosovars are ethnic Albanians, while most of the rest of Yugoslavia, including the government, is ethnically Serbian. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb president of Yugoslavia, had/has ambitions to “cleanse” Kosovo of its ethnic Albanians; the NATO bombing campaign apparently designed to dissuade him from doing so has instead prompted hundreds of thousands of Kosovars to flee to neighboring Macedonia and Albania, creating a massive refugee crisis.

Why is NATO -- why are we -- bombing Kosovo? We must consider several vital questions.

Is this a human rights issue? NATO would say yes, that its bombing is intended to punish Milosevic’s sheer human brutality, to communicate that such brutality is unacceptable. But American foreign policy hasn’t been dictated by human-rights issues. China, which has an abysmal human-rights record, is courted as a trading partner; Iraq’s civilians suffer under punitive economic sanctions. And even this decade we have conveniently ignored genocide in Africa and in East Asia.

If we have ignored genocide in the past, why do we take action now? 500,000 civilians were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994, but it might just as well have happened on Mars --Americans didn’t identify with dark-skinned corpses lying in heaps in Africa, and they certainly weren’t moved to demand intervention. Pictures of Kosovo, however, resonate eerily. Kosovars fleeing their homes are fair-skinned; their clothes and mannerisms resemble ours. Perhaps even more ominous are images of bedraggled refugees packed into trains -- it looks like the Holocaust. America stiffens to the Holocaust uniquely; our cultural memory of that depravity is constantly refreshed by Hollywood. The idea that the Holocaust could be happening again in Europe is too alarming for Americans to ignore.

What about NATO leadership? Ten years ago, George Bush, John Major, and other conservatives presided over NATO; today, most member countries have left-leaning administrations. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have made a big deal over human-rights issues, have protested previous non-intervention, and are now obligated to act upon their liberal ideals, if only to retain credibility. Ignoring a situation like Kosovo would spell the end of the so-called “New Left.”

A skeptic would claim that NATO is using the cover story of human rights to conduct a bombing campaign against Milosevic’s government for other reasons. Perhaps NATO or the United States has some undisclosed strategic or diplomatic agenda in Yugoslavia, and is able to carry it out by claiming to bomb Serbia on behalf of Kosovars’ human rights. This explanation is plausible if only because, as said above, American foreign policy is not actually predicated on human rights. Perhaps NATO is Dr. Strangelove, cooking up some bizarre scheme of which it alone has knowledge. We must be alert to the possibility, however remote.

Why only an air campaign? What about ground troops? American military commanders are still basking in the relatively bloodless success of 1991’s Gulf War against Iraq, which convinced most of the lay public with high-tech gun-camera footage that smart bombs and missiles lobbed from afar are the ways to win a war. Planners and politicos are, as a result, now interested only in such seemingly low-risk operations, especially since ground troops, though they may accomplish military objectives more effectively, have several nasty habits. Short-term deployments tend to last much longer; when actual battles are fought, troops seem, curiously, to suffer casualties. When they don’t die, troops have a tendency to multiply, as more forces are slowly deployed over time.

What about countries opposed to NATO intervention? NATO was formed as a strategic alliance to oppose the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. That was a half-century ago; NATO today finds itself sans opponent. Russia is descending into anarchy, unable even to feed or clothe its army, and President Boris Yeltsin’s warnings can apparently be ignored with relative safety. China, the only other power to consider, has opted to remain an observer. So NATO believes it can operate with some degree of impunity.

Finally, is it working? What’s the concluding analysis? NATO’s bombing campaign, instead of halting the Kosovar exodus, has greatly accelerated the flow of refugees from Kosovo; where there were tens of thousands fleeing, there are now hundreds of thousands. Kosovars flooded neighboring Albania and Macedonia for the first two weeks of NATO bombing before the Yugoslavian army closed off Kosovo’s main exit roads. Now Serbian troops are rounding up Kosovars, presumably for use as human shields, and mining Kosovo’s borders. Deploying NATO ground forces would have been messy in the first place; mines make troop deployment more unpalatable. Has bombing really accomplished anything?

One last thought: is there another side to the story, something not obvious upon first consideration? Does the bombing campaign have to do with NATO’s membership-building drive? Does NATO wish to undermine chances of a Slav alliance between Russia and Yugoslavia? What about the United Nations? Does NATO wish to keep the UN at arm’s length by asserting its own power, and if so, why? And is there some secret diplomatic or strategic agenda being carried out as bombs fall from NATO planes? Follow the Kosovo situation. Demand answers. Make up your own mind.