No one should be surprised that Slobodan Milosevic was left unimpressed by NATO's recent military maneuvers near the Yugoslav border. Pugnacious dictators generally are unfazed by any show of force that doesn't score a direct hit on their own chins.

But the civilized world is left now in a quandary. It can use direct military action to force Milosevic into stopping the slaughter of Albanians in Kosovo, but that in and of itself would not be a solution to the problem.The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who comprise the majority, insist on becoming an independent state. They have the Kosovo Liberation Army, a growing and violent military organization, to help them achieve that goal. NATO, on the other hand, stands firmly against an independent Albanian Kosovo, and for good reason. Kosovo is of tremendous ancient cultural significance for Serbs, who are not likely to give it up without a long, desperate and bloody fight, and even if they lose that fight they are unlikely ever to leave the province alone.

U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke doesn't have a solution to offer. He left the region last week after four days of shuttle diplomacy, and the only suggestion he had was to send in a mission of diplomatic observers to get an accurate view of the fighting. That's even worse than staging useless military maneuvers.

NATO desperately needs to keep the peace in Kosovo. The ethnic struggles there easily could spread into Albania and Macedonia, igniting a conflict that could affect much of Europe. But peacekeeping requires more than just guns. Before the peace can be kept, NATO's leaders must have a plan in place, as they did in 1995 when the Dayton accord was signed.

Then, if military action is required, it would be used to enforce the plan rather than just to delay the aggressors from achieving their goals.

Crafting a plan won't be easy. It would almost certainly require NATO to pressure Albanians into withdraw their forces - an unpopular move because of Milosevic's systematic repression of that ethnic group. But how else could NATO discourage Albanians from attempting to form an independent nation?

Ultimately, the solution lies in either binding the power of Milosevic or forcing him from office. That likely won't happen without military force. But before then, NATO, led by the Clinton administration, needs to get serious and turn it diplomatic attention solely on the future of this important region.