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Once in, it may be hard to leave

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As Kosovo burns, the United States appears committed to an involvement in the Balkans that could stretch well into the next millennium.

That's because it's hard to see how ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugees can ever return to their homes without the cover of a US-led protective force.

And once such troops enter the battered region, they may have to stay for years. In nearby Bosnia, American units arrived as part of a UN peacekeeping mission in December 1995. They were supposed to leave within 12 months. Some of them are still there.

The US thus might be close to becoming the main outside guarantor of Balkans stability - a role the Austro-Hungarian Empire played for centuries. That's probably not the foreign-policy legacy President Clinton had planned.

"Whatever else William Jefferson Clinton has been called in recent months, we may as well add one further name: Franz Josef Clinton," writes Adam Garfinkle, an editor of The National Interest, in that policy journal's current issue, referring to the region's 18th-century emperor.

It's still possible that the US could exit the Balkans quickly, of course. NATO bombing might yet force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to yield. NATO might agree to a solution in which Yugoslavia retains the slice of Kosovo where Serbian historical monuments are centered, and the Albanian Kosovars get the rest. The bomb campaign could simply run its course, with NATO and the rest of the world then turning their backs on an obdurate Mr. Milosevic.

But the logic of declared US and NATO policy would seem to lead to a deeper role.

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