Let's Make A Deal


In the course of human affairs, there are times that call for boldness, conviction, and resolve in the face of evil. Now is not one of those times. Rather, now is a time for caution, equivocation, and mendacity: or, if you want to put the case more politely, for realism, flexibility, and diplomacy. In short, Bill Clinton's hour has come.

The Serbian parliament's conciliatory vote Thursday suggested that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic might be willing to meet NATO's terms. If so, NATO wins. But what if Milosevic holds out for concessions and face-savers? Then Clinton has a nasty choice: negotiate to close a deal; press on (forever?) with the air campaign; or prepare and possibly execute a ground invasion of Kosovo. The least bad of those options is to make a deal with the tyrant.

Never! says Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister. "No compromise, no fudge, no half-baked deals." The alliance's demands are not negotiable, ground troops are needed, so send the tanks. On May 26, Blair's government announced that a further 12,000 British troops had been placed in readiness to join the 5,400 already deployed in Macedonia. Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, said, "The sooner we get on with it, the better." We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, etc., etc.

What Blair seems to imagine is that the allies will mount a forceful campaign, seize Kosovo from Milosevic, and then halt at the Serbian border. Then the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees will be resettled under NATO's protection, and Milosevic will be very, very sorry for what he did. But Milosevic sees a few things that Blair, apparently, does not.

Unquestionably, NATO has the raw force to conquer Kosovo, but the alliance's political position is not so strong. The Germans have declared themselves against any invasion; the Hungarians and Greeks refuse to let NATO troops use their territory as invasion routes; the Italians have broken ranks over the bombing. That is the state of allied unity today, before an invasion. Anyone who has watched the air war so far could reasonably suspect that the niceties of 19-member coalition politics might hamper NATO's effectiveness in fast-moving ground warfare. The allies might find themselves debating each escalation endlessly or, perhaps worse, allowing themselves to be driven willy-nilly by military exigency, without any clear strategy. I know, it seems hard to imagine NATO waging a war that way, but stretch your mind.

Milosevic sees all of that. He also sees that a ground war limited to Kosovo might actually strengthen his political position at home. So far, he knows, he has had a good war. The bombing has transformed an increasingly unpopular local despot into a fighter against foreign aggressors; it has allowed him to take ruthless steps against his political opposition; it has induced even many of his natural political enemies to stand by him. If the Serbs have rallied to Milosevic's government under air assault, just wait until NATO's tanks begin rolling over the land of Serbia's martyrs.

Not being a fool, Milosevic may decide to fight a NATO invasion cursorily and then withdraw to safety behind his borders. In that case, he may end up with the better end of the bargain. He would still have his army, and he could stake it menacingly along Kosovo's border. He would also still have his presidency, which might be strengthened by anti-NATO sentiment. Whenever his political grip began to weaken, he could shell some Kosovars and provoke a crisis with the alliance. Milosevic could make NATO's occupation of Kosovo long and eventful. Saddam Hussein has shown the way.

On the other hand, the Serbs might put up a spirited and ruthless defense, complete with hostage-taking, guerrilla warfare, and their patented savagery. On rugged terrain, even a crudely armed and poorly fed indigenous force can hold its own against invaders, especially invaders who fear to get their hands dirty or their men killed. On paper, Ho Chi Minh never had a chance.

So the alliance might find itself bogged down, neither winning nor losing, while the clock ticked and the allies sidled toward the exits. Meanwhile, every time NATO turned its back, Serb irregulars could pop up to pick off some some GI from Nebraska or to terrorize any handy Albanians. That sort of permanent crisis would not be plainly better than making an imperfect but workable deal with Milosevic now.

In his country's northern province of Vojvodina, Milosevic sees 350,000 ethnic Hungarians, each of them a potential hostage. Raise your hand if you think he would hesitate to round them up and throw them into stadiums or chain them to munitions dumps or just kill them. "Invade my south," Milosevic thinks, "and just watch what happens in my north." He also has another hostage, Montenegro. The democratic government there is technically part of Yugoslavia and is bound to Serbia at the waist, but it is pro-Western in outlook. If NATO invades Kosovo, the alliance had better also be prepared to defend Montenegro and the Hungarians–most of Yugoslavia, in other words.

Milosevic is not like Hitler. He doesn't pathologically hate anybody or really care much about anything, except for one thing: power. Any outcome that leaves him in control is a victory for him, never mind the collateral damage. As long as NATO is not prepared to march on Belgrade and dispatch Milosevic, either to The Hague or to hell, it is not prepared to hurt Milosevic, and it is not prepared to stop him from killing and displacing thousands more innocent people, and it is not prepared to pursue and destroy his army. In other words, if NATO is not prepared to march on Belgrade, it is not prepared to win.

But of course the alliance is not prepared to march on Belgrade, and for good reason. James Anderson, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, has estimated that Kosovo might be taken with as few as 50,000 troops, but taking all of Yugoslavia (including Montenegro) would require 500,000, and seizing and occupying just Belgrade would require at least 150,000, with (Anderson guesses) 5,000 or more Allied casualties. Does anyone seriously believe NATO has the stomach for that kind of war? Moreover, a conquest and occupation of Yugoslavia would be a geopolitical calamity. Imagine Russia's reaction, just for a start.

Milosevic sees all this. He therefore knows that NATO, by limiting the main ground action to territory that he can afford to lose, and by letting him use Serbia as a safe haven, will be fighting with one hand in its pocket–again.

Given that the real-world alternatives are either 1) to prevail in Kosovo while leaving Milosevic entrenched and mischievous in Belgrade, or 2) to be dragged by degrees into a larger Yugoslav campaign that could destabilize the rest of Europe, a question that Tony Blair has yet to answer is: What is so bad about making a deal with Milosevic?

Well, that depends on the deal. Allowing Milosevic to keep somewhat more troops in Kosovo than NATO might prefer, or putting blue U.N. helmets on the peacekeepers, would not be perfect but ought to be tolerable. Negotiating at all would give a leering Milosevic the satisfaction of being the first indicted war criminal to haggle with NATO. Purists in Washington and London would accuse Clinton of dealing with the devil. They would be right.

Still, making such compromises, particularly after having promised never to make them, requires a certain type of courage, albeit not the same type as is required to bellow for a ground invasion. Fortunately, Bill Clinton is not one to believe he is, say, Churchill. I don't think he wants to lead a ground campaign in the Balkan badlands, and I don't think he thinks he is the man for the job, and I don't think Milosevic thinks so, either.

So Clinton would be wise–and, in a way, strong–to do what needs to be done to end the war. For all its tanks and bombs and planes, NATO is not in a strong position in Kosovo if it has to keep fighting. Now is no time for Blairism (which is to say, purism). The truth is that NATO needs this war over as badly as Milosevic does.

"Unlike Mr. Blair," writes the columnist Anne McElvoy in London's Independent newspaper, "Clinton cannot see a line without fudging it." Yes, and thank goodness. The point of this column is not that NATO can't or won't win on the ground in Kosovo. The alliance can and might win. The point is that the gamble is large, the payoff is not much (if at all) better than the sort of settlement that is already visible in outline, and NATO's position is treacherously weaker than it looks. Better, then, to clinch a deal and do some weaseling, if that is necessary, and get it over with. Bill Clinton, your country needs you. Do what you do best: Bend.