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Leadership on Kosovo

If there was ever a time for President Clinton to stop basing decisions on opinion surveys, this is it. He faces the greatest foreign policy crisis of his long administration.

The war in Kosovo is at a crossroads. One key NATO ally, Britain, pushes for the ground-troops option, anticipating that Slobodan Milosevic's forces are nearing the point of minimal resistance. Another key ally, Germany, rejects that thinking and inclines toward a bombing pause and a negotiated settlement. Russia's mediation efforts continue, though a diplomatic breakthrough still appears distant.

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And hanging over all is the realization that only a few months are left before winter's onset in the Balkans - with all that means for hundreds of thousands of exposed refugees and for military operations.

To his credit, Mr. Clinton has cautiously endorsed putting a 50,000-man "peacekeeping" force in place on Kosovo's borders, a step urged by Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO commander.

The value of this step is (1) to be ready to move in quickly if Mr. Milosevic meets NATO's conditions, and (2) to be there if ground action against weakened Yugoslav forces becomes the only way to reverse the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. Moving troops into place will demonstrate to Milosevic that NATO will stand its ground - and that he'd better give ground on the diplomatic front if he wants a say in the makeup of the international force that eventually occupies Kosovo.

When Milosevic meets NATO's first condition and signals a readiness to withdraw his troops from Kosovo, a new dynamic begins. At that point, NATO should negotiate a pause in the air war to allow an orderly withdrawal. Troop movements would be closely monitored.

If the withdrawal appeared genuine, NATO forces could begin escorting refugees back. And negotiations, possibly under UN auspices, could move on to the ultimate makeup of the international peacekeeping force, and civil administration of the province.

This scenario largely hinges on clear direction from Washington. Fence-sitting and poll-watching won't do. If public support is flagging, Clinton must reiterate why NATO has intervened in Kosovo - to reverse the human tragedy perpetrated by Milosevic and to bring stability to a volatile corner of Europe.

For all its tragic mistakes, the air campaign is taking a toll on Milosevic's regime. Serb mothers and wives are protesting the conscription of men to fight in Kosovo. Many Serbs would prefer a peaceful future of rebuilding, free of Milosevic's warmongering.

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This is a time to push on all fronts. Leadership from the most powerful country in the world is critical.

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