Nato's fatal misfire strengthens foes' cause

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 1999, 12:00am

THERE may have been a more effective way for Nato to damage its own cause than by striking the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade yesterday, but it is difficult to imagine what.

The accidental hit that killed at least four people and wounded many others is just the latest in a string of fatal misfires which divert world attention from what the Western allies are trying to accomplish in the Balkans, however erratically. These fearsome strikes also give the thuggish Yugoslav regime reason to hope it may yet outwait its foes rather than settle for a compromise end to the Kosovo war.

Any unintentional attack on bystanders is bad enough. But this one hit the diplomatic compound of a nation that just now has special importance to the search for Balkan peace. A recent flurry of negotiations has brought the main Western nations and Russia, the leading interlocutor with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, close to a common position on how to end the fighting. If completed, that agreement will be presented to Belgrade for his acceptance, presumably on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

The terms basically are those Nato has been advancing for weeks. But they include at least two items intended to help give Mr Milosevic a face-saving exit from his bloody strategy. One is the fact that Russians, the Serbs' historical friends, are involved and would contribute to any armed force eventually assigned to keep peace in Kosovo.

The other is that the political settlement is supposed to have some kind of United Nations blessing, even if military control remains firmly with Nato. A UN stamp of approval would show Mr Milosevic that his limited international support has eroded completely, yet let him appear to be acceding to the global will and not just that of his adversaries.

And that's where China comes in. It holds one of five permanent seats on the Security Council, and could veto any effort to give peace terms a UN imprimatur. Even before the embassy strike, China strongly opposed Nato's right to wage this war and demanded a bombing halt. It refuses to associate itself with foreign intervention which might set a precedent for similar responses someday to China's own policies regarding Taiwan or Tibet.

So the chances of Chinese approval were always unclear. Just where those chances stand now, after what Beijing denounced as a 'barbarian act', remains even less certain. Chinese officials understandably are furious, and the usual Nato expressions of regret are unlikely to mollify them. In addition, of course, the bombing gives Beijing leaders a perfect excuse for continuing to keep their distance from all aspects of the West's Balkan policy.

Just where this leaves the war effort is also unclear. On the diplomacy front, talks continue to fix details of the overall peace plan. Later this week a senior US official will be in Moscow to negotiate such complex issues as the composition of a peacekeeping force and the kind of administration Kosovo will have once Serb troops withdraw. And Russian envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin is in Bonn for related discussions.

But even if these talks produce a final draft, a basic obstacle remains: Mr Milosevic has given no indication that he will accept any kind of settlement, no matter who signs or stamps it. And the adverse worldwide reaction to yesterday's embassy bombing may well reinforce his belief that he can sit tight and take it for longer than voters in democratic countries will allow their governments to keep dropping bombs.

If that proves true, leaders in Washington and Europe can blame themselves. They are trying to wage a hi-tech and antiseptic war from great altitude, without risking casualties which could prompt a voter backlash. Understandably enough, no one wants to order troops into battle which can be justified on moral and strategic grounds, but falls short of being a survival issue for any Nato member. This means the alliance has denied itself the ability even to threaten an invasion against the killers and looters Mr Milosevic has turned loose in Kosovo.

Because that threat doesn't exist, each bombing accident - and there have been enough to prove that so-called precision weapons quite often go astray - may well strengthen President Milosevic in his resolve. The terrible Saddam Hussein survived a ground attack; why can't the Serb autocrat hope to survive a war the West wages with many more self-imposed restraints? This awful Balkan fighting won't have any winners; even if the surviving Kosovars eventually do go home, they'll return to waste and rubble. And if Western public opinion forces the campaign to be curtailed before they return, the Chinese Embassy bombing will be one reason it ended that way. Despite much wishful thinking, there are no clean and safe wars.