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Kosovo Peace Was A Tall Order

No diplomat with any experience in the Balkans ever thought for a moment that solving the crisis in Kosovo would be easy. And as the debate over U.S. diplomatic strategy rages in Washington, about the only thing everyone can agree on is that there was never any easy way to bring peace to that troubled region.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, was the point man for America's effort to gain a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Kosovo. For months, he shuttled back and forth between Belgrade and Pristina, trying to deal with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on the one hand and a loose coalition of Kosovar-Albanians on the other.

Hill developed a plan, a so-called interim agreement that would postpone a more permanent solution for three years. Essentially, Hill's plan gave the Kosovars full autonomy with control over their own lives--control over education, health, courts and the police.

However, the Kosovars wouldn't be guaranteed full independence, which is the goal they seek but that is vehemently opposed by the Serbs. To enforce the deal, NATO would place about 28,000 troops in Kosovo to keep the peace. Four thousand members of the NATO force would be Americans.

Last October, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was called in to deal with Milosevic. He got a deal for the Serbs to halt their military crackdown in Kosovo, averting what the State Department said would have been a humanitarian disaster over the winter and halting a flood of refugees into parts of Europe.

The deal also called for international monitors to enter Kosovo and report on any military activity. Milosevic largely ignored other parts of the deal, but it set the stage for further negotiations.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Hill continued his diplomatic effort and in late January, the so-called Contact Group - the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia - threw down the diplomatic gauntlet, inviting both sides to come to Rambouillet, France, for two weeks of negotiations behind the locked gates of a medieval chateau. Their expressed aim was to get both sides to sign on to the Hill plan.

If Milosevic prevented a deal from being struck, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, then NATO was prepared to launch air attacks against Serb targets. As described by Albright, this would be "diplomacy backed by the credible threat of the use of force."

The U.S.-led diplomatic effort was complicated because not all of the Western allies were in complete agreement. Russia, a member of the Contact Group and a close ally of the Serbs, strongly opposed any use of force by NATO. And even among members of NATO, there was some disagreement over the use of force.

It was in this context that the parties met at Rambouillet in February and negotiated for 17 days. At the last moment, the Kosovars signaled their willingness to sign but asked for several weeks to consult with various factions bachome.

Milosevic refused even to participate, and the Serb delegation refused to engage seriously on the most crucial element of the plan - the NATO peacekeeping force that would guarantee the safety of the Kosovars.

With the impending threat of NATO air strikes against the Serbs, and still with no deal, Albright and her diplomatic team did not give up. All sides gathered again in Paris last week for three days. Finally, the Kosovars signed the Rambouillet Accords, but the Serbs again refused, according to U. S. officials.

That set the stage for what Albright called one last diplomatic effort - Holbrooke's mission to Belgrade.

President Clinton said that U.S. security interests were threatened, and that NATO had to act to stop the Serbs from causing a greater humanitarian disaster than already existed.

Albright maintained that the Clinton administration learned from Bosnia that it is better to act sooner than later in situations like this. But up until NATO's attack, many in Congress on both sides of the aisle were unconvinced, saying the president did not make a convincing case for NATO intervention into the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

In the wake of NATO's strikes, it will be left to diplomatic historians to sort out the reasons why the Clinton Administration's diplomatic effort apparently failed.

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