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Victory in Kosovo? Despite what Clinton says, U.S. lost

WASHINGTON -- The papers are signed. The troops are moving in. Victory.

Victory? On the eve of the Kosovo war, the president of the United States declares the objective: "To protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive." This would be done in one of two ways. We would deter Serbia from ethnically cleansing Kosovo, or, failing that, we would physically -- militarily -- destroy Serbia's ability to do so.By Clinton's own standard, the war was lost -- irretrievably, catastrophically lost -- in the first week. NATO launched a campaign at once anemic and tentative, a campaign of bombing empty buildings. Slobodan Milosevic responded with the most massive ethnic cleansing in Europe since the Second World War.

Now 11 weeks and a million refugees later, there is an agreement that permits a return to the status quo ante. Well, not quite: It will be a partial and imperfect return, given that many Kosovars are dead and many will not want to return. Moreover, what they are returning to is not Kosovo, but a wasteland that was Kosovo.

This is not victory. This is defining victory down.

It did not have to be this way. After all, Milosevic finally agreed to a partial undoing of his ethnic cleansing only when NATO attacks on his civilian infrastructure became intolerable. Why then did we not turn out the lights in Belgrade on Day 1? Two weeks into the war I wrote, noting the obvious, that "the only possible way out of this war short of abject defeat" was an air campaign of "seriousness" -- hitting "power plants, fuel depots, bridges," the kind of war that actually kills combatants and inevitably civilians but that so debilitates the enemy nation as to bring it to a halt -- and to the negotiating table.

Historians will puzzle over why Clinton and Blair and Schroeder and the rest did not do this until after Kosovo had been wiped nearly clean of Albanians. But it is no puzzle: Clinton thought that military minimalism -- so congenial to the ex- and current pacifists in his coalition -- was a win-win proposition for him.

Either Milosevic would fold in the face of a demonstration war, or, if he did not, Clinton could do exactly what he had done after his little pre-impeachment three-day war on Iraq: take to TV, offer a gaudy list of targets hit, declare victory and go home.

What he had not counted on was Milosevic's public exposure of such a fraud. In Iraq, Clinton could pinprick and declare victory because there were no cameras to record his failure -- nuclear and chemical weapons are being developed by Saddam unmolested but for now unseen. In Kosovo, on the other hand, a million refugees parade before the cameras of the world. Not even Clinton could spin his way out of that defeat by calling it victory.

So the air war went on, finally got serious, and now we have something that is being called victory. But the supposed instrument of Serb surrender, the U.N. Security Council resolution codifying the cease-fire conditions, is riddled with ambiguities.

The central point throughout the conflict has always been who will run Kosovo after Serb forces leave. The governing Security Council resolution authorizes an international security presence with "substantial" NATO participation. The command structure is not spelled out and the Russians insist that their troops will not be under NATO command. If they are not, will they have their own occupation zone, which will effectively partition Kosovo?

More muddle: Serbia is allowed a presence at the re-entry points for the refugees. Will that scare away the refugees? We don't know. And who is going to "demilitarize" the Kosovo Liberation Army?

I am not objecting to these compromises -- they are the necessary accommodations to end an extraordinarily ill-conceived war. What I do object to is spinning it into a triumph. If this is such a triumph, does anyone imagine that we will ever repeat such an adventure?

And the final irony: Even if all the ambiguities are answered in NATO's favor, even if the Yugoslavs comply with every detail of the military agreement signed with NATO on Wednesday, what are we left with? The prize for victory: The United States and its allies are permitted to interpose their soldiers between mortal enemies in a continuing Balkan guerrilla war. For years.

Washington Post Writers Group