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Wobbling Towards A Ground War

Clinton may still just say no, but NATO seems to be edging towards ground troops in an "unpermissive" environment.
By Ian Williams

Improvisation reigns in the Kosovo peace process.

Touring Macedonia recently, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan predicted that the UN would have a "central role" in resolving the Kosovo crisis. In truth it may be little more than a cameo, with the script and direction from elsewhere.

Yet the real directors of the drama, the G8, the Security Council and the US, are by turns divided and confused, ensuring that any solution will be an ad-hoc affair, with much haggling over the degree of the Serbian withdrawal, and the size, composition and control of the international force.

That is, if an invasion doesn't happen first.

Even hard-line UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has talked about the feasibility of a handful of Serbian troops to keep the Yugoslav flag flying. Reports from Bonn suggest that this could mean 5,000, halving after one year. They would "protect" the holy sites--the Orthodox churches and monasteries that the Serbs claim substantiate their occupation of Kosovo.

The international force agreement is more difficult. The Russians are unhappy with a replay of the Dayton agreement for the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia, which enshrines NATO command and control while allowing Russian "association".

KFOR would almost certainly operate under a UN mandate, and would have NATO, Russian and non-NATO components. However if, as suggested, the Russians were to take the zone in the north of the province, it could be a step towards Dayton II--a de facto partition of the province, leaving the richest part in Serb hands. It would remain Albanian-free since few Kosovars would care to rely on Moscow's protection.

With so much left unresolved, it is hardly surprising that the G8 talks ended last Friday, May 23, with few signs of progress. Despite moments of optimism, UN diplomats were not racing to the Security Council to pass a resolution. They cautioned that it could be weeks before any type of agreed text is ready, and even then, confusion at the G8 could leave open much room for argument.

Meantime, China still declares its refusal to countenance any UN resolution until the bombing stops, although somewhat less fervently as the World Trade Organisation talks loom and the patriotic fervour of the embassy bombing ebbs.

Yet the question remains, What purpose would a Security Council resolution serve? NATO wants it to legitimise its actions, get the Russians on side, and give the Serbs a ladder to climb down gracefully.

Belgrade wants to move decision-making to a forum where it can count on Chinese and Russian vetoes to improve any deal. As Yugoslav Assistant Foreign Minister Nebosja Vujovic told reporters in Belgrade on Friday, "Read my lips. It's not about NATO. It's about the UN."

But the Yugoslavs may not get a free-ride there. Annan may follow the orders of the Security Council, but he has resisted vociferously pacifist calls by some of his staff to condemn the NATO bombing. While expressing a pious hope for Security Council involvement, he stressed that military action may be necessary when diplomacy fails.

Other UN members who supported the fifty-plus previous resolutions condemning Milosevic's regime may also be less eager than Moscow to give Belgrade any solution too disadvantageous to the Kosovo Albanians.

In Washington, Senator John McCain's bilaterally supported resolution pre-authorising the US of ground troops was defeated in the Senate by a three to one majority. The forces ranged against it included the White House, determined to silence all poll-disturbing mention of ground troops, and Republicans, equally determined to make sure that if the President does have to ask for authorisation, he will suffer the maximum political damage for it.

It was in this spirit that Congress passed the special emergency authorisation bill. They took the $6 billion Pentagon appropriation that the president had asked to cover the war's costs, and doubled it by adding lots of extra money for the military. Clinton knows all too well that the same opponents who are proving so uncooperative about pressuring Milosevic will join members of his own party in savaging him if any deal looks like a sell out of the Kosovo Albanians.

Adding to his problems, the visit of Robin Cook, and reported phone calls between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Clinton have, despite public disavowals of a split, reinforced the call for ground troops. A steady stream of leaks from the military suggest the same. For the White House, perhaps more potent than any strategic military necessity is the rising popularity of McCain as a presidential candidate.

The current Clintonian response is to prepare a NATO force of 50,000 on the borders of Kosovo, including a contingent of 7,000 US troops. This will, officially, not be a commitment to an opposed invasion but merely preparation for an agreed entry to support the return of the Kosovo Albanian refugees.

But the message may get across to Belgrade. Unless Milosevic offers a way out, the notoriously indecisive Clinton seems to be wobbling towards a ground war, with or without UN approval.

Ian Williams, UN correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of the book United Nations for Beginners, was for many years US editor of the IWPR magazine WarReport.

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