What has happened in Kosovo is just prologue, but its horror will shape what follows.
The moment of truth comes when Slobodan Milosevic's oppressive power is destroyed. NATO's military mechanics must then give way to a political effort that turns blood and ruins into peace.
The allies face a project of nation-building more complex than anything done since the occupation of Germany after World War II.
In certain respects it is more difficult. Defeated Germany, cowed and passive, had roots in Western culture, which its masters had betrayed. The surviving leaders were hanged as war criminals. It was a clean end.
In Kosovo and countries around it, the victors must work with the glowing embers of civil war. In the past year and a half, as Mr. Milosevic has erratically increased violence to the full level of tragedy, the Western response has wavered between lethargy and panic. Little, if any, concrete planning has focused on postwar needs.
Only now are the European Union and the United States beginning to talk about reconstruction and stabilization.
The idea of a regional "Marshall Plan" will be raised today at the NATO summit meeting in Washington. It's an idea that revitalized Western Europe after World War II but that fits the Balkans like a left-hand glove on the right hand.
By contrast, in August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchilll were already outlining their peace aims. In January 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt appointed an advisory committee on postwar problems.
Today, the bestiality of the Serb forces calls for a new start.
It seems obvious that Kosovo cannot remain a province of Serbia, as NATO still proposes in the Rambouillet formula, but must be independent. Kosovo will need support in restoring its towns and homes - and the tattered fabric of its society. Diabolically, Milosevic's men have not only killed, raped, and looted, they have also destroyed identity, taking birth and marriage certificates, property deeds and other documents from people they have expelled.
The highest priority, after the preservation of life, is to register the scrambled survivors, reuniting families and communities if at first only on paper. Without this they cannot return - as return they must. Fortunately, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Red Cross, and other nongovernmental organizations have made a start.
Only an international force like the Stabilization Force in Bosnia (SFOR) - which has a core of NATO troops plus soldiers from 20 non-NATO countries, including Russia - can follow through. SFOR's success is a model for Kosovo. If the Russians don't like an international protectorate there, let them lump it.
The first imperative in restoring sanity is to engage the moderate elements in Serbia and Kosovo. They are surely the silent majority, dominated for the moment by guns and demagogy.
Milosevic has opposition in the Yugoslav Army. In the last three months of 1998, planning the present nightmare, he dismissed 20 senior officers including the chief of staff, the air force commander, and the head of domestic intelligence. It has been said that the worst outrages in Kosovo were committed by the Serb Special Police and by paramilitary bands commanded by the indicted war criminals Ratko Mladic and Arkan.
The Serbian Orthodox Church, a stronghold of Serb nationalism, also has voices of reason. They must be assured Serbs who choose to remain in Kosovo will be protected. And, because Serb culture has ancient roots there, its churches, monasteries, and holy places must be inviolate. The conflict must not become self-perpetuating.
On the ethnic Albanian side, the KLA is the expression of rage against unendurable oppression, not a homicidal preference. For nearly 10 years, the mass of the people, led by Ibrahim Rugova, practiced peaceful resistance, maintaining their parallel society - administration, newspapers, schools, taxes - under the Serb boot. They can do better in freedom.
Certainly, the Balkans is a bag of bother, but under Tito, Yugoslavia did not burst into flame. It was Milosevic, preaching a Greater Serbia for his own aggrandizement, who roused the furies - in Kosovo first, in 1989. Without him and his gang, Serbia and Kosovo can live side by side.
The allies cannot work miracles but they can foster normality: reconstruction (in Serbia too), disarmament of all heavy weapons, human rights, the rule of law. Symbolically of the greatest importance would be the prosecution of war criminals, the thugs who committed the atrocities and those who gave the orders, up to Milosevic.
The process will take years, cost billions and require tens of thousands of peacekeepers to make it work.
As in Bosnia, the allies must pay the price of earlier indecision. That is the exit strategy. Anything less would reward Milosevic and risk breaking up the NATO alliance.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.