War of Wills

How you look at things.
April 2 1999 3:30 AM

War of Wills

NATO and Milosevic are playing a head game over who's punishing whom.

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Amid the saturation coverage of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, the Serbian point of view is nowhere to be seen. This weekend, while American military and foreign policy officials made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, the only air time a Serbian spokesman could get was a brief interview on CNN. It looks as though the media are helping NATO win the war for American hearts and minds. But the real PR war isn't about which side is right. It's about which side is choosing the course of the conflict, and which side is imposing the consequences. And in that war the American media are helping the Serbs.

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Virtually the first question posed on every talk show Sunday was the same. "One of the unfortunate consequences of our bombing seems to have been to unleash a bloodbath, where the Serbs, military, paramilitary, are storming into Kosovo and driving people away," Tim Russert declared on Meet the Press. "Some are suggesting that the first phase of the air campaign has only intensified the alleged ethnic cleansing, the atrocities being committed in Kosovo," Wolf Blitzer added on Late Edition. On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer suggested that NATO's bombing "has simply backfired."

American officials disputed these suggestions, but the underlying damage was done: The ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was framed as a "consequence" of the bombing. This is the opposite of how the United States envisioned the story: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was the actor, and NATO was imposing the consequences. It's "an upside-down argument to think that NATO or we have made this get worse," sputtered U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when confronted on Face the Nation with the charge that the bombing had backfired. "Milosevic is the one that is to blame. He is the one that is making it worse. And what we were trying to do is to make sure that he pays the heaviest price for what he is doing."

The bombing can make Milosevic pay a price, but it can't necessarily break his will. The longer he holds out at home and escalates the genocide in Kosovo, the more the American media pronounce the bombing a failure. "Allied Action Fails to Stop Serb Brutality," says Wednesday's Washington Post front page. The New York Times raises the possibility that Milosevic's defiance shows the bombing strategy was "fatally flawed" and adds that "NATO officials here are on the defensive, insisting day after day that it was not their bombing that sparked the Serbian attacks or the huge civilian forced exodus from Kosovo."

The bombing was supposed to force Milosevic to accept a peace plan that would grant limited autonomy to the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But Milosevic has shredded the peace plan by fomenting so much hatred between Serbs and ethnic Albanians that coexistence is impossible. Instead, having driven the ethnic Albanians from their homes, he's offering to let them return--and even to remove "some" of his troops from Kosovo--if NATO halts its bombing first. By framing NATO as the actor and the Serbs as the enforcers of consequences, Milosevic gets to define the options and their costs. Rather than play NATO's game--autonomy or bombing--he's creating a new game: ethnic cleansing or bombing. In the new game, all NATO gets for backing off is what it had in the first place.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Milosevic is making steady progress in turning the game upside down. European NATO leaders have stopped demanding that he sign the peace plan and have started demanding merely that he "stop his repression." "We are going to continue the bombing until we can guarantee that the killings stop and will not restart," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana declared Tuesday. The new offer implicitly emerging from the Europeans is: Stop the cleansing and we'll stop the bombing.

Will Milosevic play NATO's game or vice versa? That depends on which side's will breaks first, which in turn depends on each side's assessment of the strength of the other's will, which in turn depends on how the media portray their morale. While the Times editorializes on Page A28 that "NATO must muster all the air power it can and use it against Mr. Milosevic's murderous troops," its front-page headline--"On 7th Day, Serb Resilience Gives NATO Leaders Pause"--gives him a huge lift. The media also help Milosevic by playing up cracks within NATO over how far each member country is willing to pursue the bombing. Knowing the limits of NATO's will bolsters Milosevic's confidence and helps him dictate the terms of the game.

President Clinton did his best Tuesday to reframe the war in NATO's terms. The ethnic cleansing isn't a consequence of the bombing but was planned long beforehand, Clinton argued. The Serbs' terms for ending the bombing are "unacceptable," he added, and NATO is "united" and "determined to stay with our policy." If Milosevic continues the cleansing, said Clinton, he will suffer further costs: the devastation of his military and the loss of Yugoslavian sovereignty over Kosovo. And by accelerating the bombing, NATO is warning Milosevic that it is willing to match him escalation for escalation. Eventually, the consequences will become unbearable to one side or the other. It's a head game. War always is.

For more Kosovo coverage, click here.

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