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A Times Editorial

After the bombs drop

Americans deserve a clear explanation of what their leaders and NATO hope to accomplish in theBalkans, and to what lengths the campaign will go.

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 1999

NATO commanders promise that the air campaign launched against Serb targets will be "swift and severe," designed to do real damage to Yugoslavia's military capabilities rather than simply to send a message. Now that the United States and its allies have made this commitment, Americans can only hope that the attacks will be as successful as intended, with minimal risk to NATO pilots and innocent civilians on the ground.

However, air warfare alone usually is an imprecise and limited military tool. Serb troops, military hardware and other targets are not nearly as exposed and vulnerable as those in, say, Iraq. And attacks on Serb forces inside Kosovo may well imperil the ethnic Albanian civilians we are trying to protect.

Cruise missiles and combat jets are even less precise tools of diplomacy. President Clinton and other Western leaders are betting that a punishing air campaign will be enough to drive Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic back to the bargaining table. If that happens, NATO's strategy will be remembered as a great success.

In recent weeks, though, Milosevic had responded to Western threats by escalating his assault on Kosovar civilians. The number of Serb troops in and around Kosovo has been doubled, and more and more ethnic Albanians have been slaughtered or burned out of their homes.

What happens if the planned bombing campaign ends and Milosevic hasn't budged? Are the United States and NATO prepared to send ground troops into Serbia? If so, the military costs could be calamitous. Are we prepared simply to keep bombing, even if the result is an intensified Serb campaign against Kosovar civilians?

For that matter, what happens if the bombing emboldens the Albanian rebels to renew their quest for full independence from Serbia? Both Milosevic's government and the rebels have been reluctant participants in the diplomatic process recently broken off in Paris. Calibrating a bombing campaign to achieve a new negotiating balance may be beyond the capacity of the smartest of smart bombs.

If NATO leaders have prepared for these and other scenarios, they have kept their plans to themselves. The American people deserve a better explanation, assuming one exists, of what their government has committed itself to.

The humanitarian urge to help the beleaguered people of Kosovo is one that most Americans share. However, Americans also have reason to question whether this limited military operation will serve our strategic and humanitarian goals any more effectively than the diplomatic process that the Clinton administration and its NATO partners chose to short-circuit.

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