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Beyond the Bombs

Even as the bombs drop, it's crucial to look beyond them. The point of this military action is not to defeat or humiliate Serbia, but to show its hard-line leader - who has demonstrated before that he understands force best - that the NATO allies are deadly serious.

Slobodan Milosevic's forces will not be allowed to overrun Kosovo and scatter its people into surrounding countries. Europe's stability is at issue. That, at heart, is NATO's motivation.

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The United States and European nations are not entering this conflict on the side of the Albanian separatists. The goal of the agreement completed in February at Rambouillet, France, is not Kosovar independence from Serbia, but assured autonomy within the Yugoslav federation, which Serbia dominates. The Albanian side in Kosovo signed that agreement, reluctantly, and its willingness to make peace on that basis entitles it to protection against aggression by Yugoslav forces.

The hoped-for result of NATO air raids will be Mr. Milosevic's realization that he has no choice but to acquiesce and join the Rambouillet pact. The alternative is to watch his military wilt under NATO bombs and missiles. His political dilemma is acute: If he does sign, Serbs can rightly ask why he didn't do it earlier and save them from this destruction; if he hunkers down, he risks increased disgruntlement in his own ranks and a strengthened resistance in Kosovo.

The NATO attacks, it's clear, are not "pinpricks" but extensively planned efforts to weaken Milosevic's warmaking ability. Riding them out will be costly to Milosevic, but appearing to capitulate under pressure could seem costlier, in his calculation.

For all his propaganda muscle, Milosevic has critics within Serbia, though he has closed off their means of communication. In Montenegro, the other partner in what's left of Yugoslavia, his critics are less muted. Montenegro's more moderate government would like out of the federation with Milosevic.

The "endgame" is much debated. For the short term, it's to halt warfare in Europe's Balkans tinderbox. That means getting the Serbs to stop their Kosovo offensive and join the peace process. Longer term, the goal has to be the triumph of peace and democratic process, howbeit tentative at first, over virulent ethnic nationalism. That's a tough battle, demanding patient resolve, but it must be fought.

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