Risky Bombing Campaign Begins

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Battle is joined, but NATO may find it easier to get into a war in the Balkans than to get out. NATO launched the first of its threatened air strikes against Serb forces Wednesday, following the collapse of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Kosovo crisis. The attack marks the beginning of a potentially messy conflict, whose historical consequences may reach far beyond the question of Kosovo's future status. "This is the first time NATO is intervening in a domestic conflict in a sovereign country, and it's doing so without the authorization of the United Nations," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. Besides antagonizing Russia, that decision could spell the end of the legal mechanisms that have maintained global order since World War II. President Clinton, with good reason, has been preparing America to suffer losses: Serbia has vowed to fight back with all the means at its disposal, which include some very sophisticated air defenses. And despite Washington's desire to avoid a ground war, Milosevic could always take that decision out of Western hands by attacking NATO ground forces in Bosnia or Macedonia.

The question now becomes what strategy NATO will pursue in its air campaign: "The Pentagon doesn't want to use force simply to send a message and then pause to await Milosevic's reaction," says Thompson. "They'd prefer a seamless escalation to erode his military capacity in Kosovo. But of course the initiative remains with Milosevic, who can call off the whole thing at any point by agreeing to sign the peace deal." Nobody really wants to think about what happens if he doesn't.

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