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Call it the first humanitarian empire. For a moment, look beyond the horrific slaughter and the terrible plight of ethnic Albanian refugees. The immediate crisis obscures a host of profound long-term — and largely unintended consequences — of the current Balkan intervention that will impact U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

First, there are the complications from the bombing campaign and Belgrade’s ethnic cleansing of nearly 1 million refugees. These ethnic Albanians are scattered across Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. All of the host countries are poor with little capacity to sustain large numbers of refugees. Just sustaining the victims of this war — whether as refugees or orchestrating their return to Kosovo — will be a Herculean task for NATO countries. Already, U.S. President Bill Clinton has asked Congress for $6 billion for the war and humanitarian assistance.

Then there is the larger question of the fate of Kosovo, and most likely Montenegro, the other remaining province of the former Yugoslavia. These will both likely be wards of NATO for much of the next decade. And don’t forget Bosnia. Only NATO forces have kept fighting from recurring there. More than three years after the Dayton accord, there is little substantive progress toward Bosnia becoming a multiethnic state. Indeed, the war may destabilize Bosnia as well.

In sum, the former Yugoslavia is becoming a protectorate of NATO one province at a time. One can speculate on the fate of an economically exhausted Serbia itself. Who will pick up the pieces after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic? This will be an enormous albatross around the neck of U.S. foreign policy for a decade under any imaginable scenario.

We are looking at open-ended commitments over the next decade well in excess of $30 billion (remember, the entire U.S. foreign aid budget is less than $15 billion). The cobbling together of some new political entity(ies) and rebuilding regional infrastructure will be a major task facing NATO for over the next decade. At some point the major powers will be forced to think in larger terms, of what kind of Balkan political and economic vision should emerge from the ashes.

Clinton recently hinted at a new Marshall Plan: “We should try to do for Southeastern Europe,” he explained, “what we helped do for Western Europe after World War.” This legacy will be occupy the attention of the foreign policy of the next U.S. president, whoever it is, at the expense of other matters far more important to U.S. interests. All this assumes, of course that we do not stumble into a ground war with still wider costs and obligations.

Kosovo also raises the issue of trans-Atlantic responsibility sharing. This is a local, southeastern Europe problem, yet 90 percent of the air sorties are American. Will the American public sustain a lopsided alliance or become wary of such commitments?

Then there is the impact on NATO itself. The war against Serbia is a sobering event that occurs coincidentally on the eve of NATO’s 50th anniversary, as NATO ponders what it wants to do when it grows up. This is known in NATO parlance as defining a new “strategic concept.” In plain English, it means devising NATO’s purpose absent the Soviet threat, which was, of course, the secret of the alliance’s laudable success.

NATO’s new mission is now inextricably linked to Kosovo, as the war is NATO’s first out-of-area mission. If NATO decides that it does not want to send ground troops, that will be an important statement about the limits of NATO commitment when the immediate security of its members are not directly threatened. If NATO loses, that could unravel the alliance. In any case, it is a vital test. For if instability on the periphery of NATO borders is the challenge NATO defines as its central purpose, there is a large swath of territory on the southern rim of the Eurasian landmass — from the Balkans to the Caucasus to Central Asia — that will be unstable for the next decade. Is this also NATO’s business, or will it require cooperative action with Russia?

All the former Soviet republics belong to the NATO-linked Partnership for Peace, which has forged NATO military relations with these fledgling states on the Russian frontier, including along the Chinese border. In fact, after trying to assure Moscow that NATO posed no threat, the first act of the enlarged NATO is to use one of its new members (and former Soviet ally), Hungary, as a staging area for the air war! With some 300,000 ethnic Hungarians living on Serbian territory in Vojvidina, Hungary could be drawn into the conflict more directly. In any case, one may forgive the Russians for being a tad suspicious about the future.

Indeed, one of the huge strategic challenges of the next generation is managing the difficult transformation of a beleaguered Russia. Yet the U.S. seems to have placed a higher priority on Yugoslavia! For grand strategy, this does not pass the laugh test.

Beyond that are a host of cosmic questions about the impact on the post-Cold War world. Does the Kosovo intervention set a new precedent of ethnic self-determination or humanitarian concern trumping national sovereignty? If so, there may be a long line at NATO’s doorstep, starting with the Kurds, the Basques, the Kashmiris and the Tibetans, just to name a few. Or, in light of U.S. inaction from Sudan to Sri Lanka, does it only apply to white people? And what of the issue of legitimacy: Can NATO pursue its agenda outside the U.N. Security Council?

Perhaps the most troubling thing of all is Clinton’s disturbing utopian fantasy. In a recent speech in San Francisco, Clinton proclaimed, “the principle we and our allies have been fighting for in the Balkans is the principle of multiethnic, inclusive democracy.” And just where would that exist? Clinton went so far as to argue that statehood should not be based on ethnicity. That is news to Slovenia and Croatia, not to mention our NATO allies. He has taken ideology beyond Woodrow Wilson’s mere self-determination: the Balkans must be recreated in America’s image! Clinton seems to believe if we all just sat down and talked we could learn to get along. So much for history.

These are but a few of the larger questions posed by U.S. Balkan adventures, only the beginning of unintended consequences. One consequence is revealing the limits of U.S. military strategy of being able to fight two major regional contingencies. Would the U.S. be able to respond adequately now if Saddam Hussein started rattling his saber? You can be sure Baghdad and Pyongyang are watching the Balkans closely for the measure of American will.

More broadly, what does a long-term NATO engagement in the Balkans mean for the world? Will it divert Washington’s attention and resources from other challenges from the rise of China to the Mideast peace process to global financial instability? The list goes on. It is tempting to recall here just what road is paved with good intentions.

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