Washington — Slobodan Milosevic caught NATO's leaders unprepared for his brutal use of Kosovo's civilians as a weapon of war. But the vicious trap he engineered is now swinging shut around the Serbian ruler himself. He has made it impossible for NATO to accept any end to the war that does not include the total removal of his control over Kosovo -- now, and forever.
The refugees have gone from being a war tool for Milosevic to becoming an unanticipated war aim for NATO: The hundreds of thousands of civilians driven at gunpoint into the Kosovar wilderness and into neighboring countries must be returned, in safety, to the territory they have fled.
This is a visible, measurable, human goal. It takes precedence over the more elastic political objectives the Clinton administration expected to pursue if NATO could bomb Milosevic back to the negotiating table in France. The necessity of resettling the refugees removes the flexibility that arguing over the rules of autonomy for Kosovo would have offered the diplomats of the six-nation Contact Group.
The gates of the Fudge Factory are swinging shut as the separate ground and air wars being waged in Kosovo escalate toward a point of no diplomatic return.
Milosevic is mining the frontiers and herding the Kosovars he has dispossessed but not exiled into position as human shields against bombing. The NATO air campaign concentrates on bridges, ammunition depots, factories and other buildings but not on the Serb troops carrying out the ground war.
Public indignation over the Serbs' callously strewing refugees into Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and beyond enforces unity on the 19 North American and European members of NATO as the alliance expands its air armada and as discussion of using ground troops grows.
Milosevic's tactical skill in confounding NATO by uprooting 800,000 civilians comes back to haunt him. Ethnic cleansing on this grand scale ties the West's hands. It pushes NATO toward the difficult and dangerous -- but perhaps unavoidable -- war aim of unconditional surrender as the only appropriate outcome to Milosevic's crimes.
It is now politically impossible for the Clinton administration to negotiate with Milosevic after his bloody betrayal of earlier agreements with Washington. The U.S. miscalculations and the shortcomings of the ramshackle "threat-based diplomacy" dear to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are too obvious to allow President Clinton to go down that road again.
That is why the White House is leaving room for an initiative from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan or from Russia, if either (or both together) can get Milosevic to stop the killing, pull out his troops so the refugees can return and let Kosovo become a de facto international protectorate, its status to be decided later.
That idealized outcome, however, seems beyond Milosevic's reach. Having carried out the Serb nationalist dream of emptying the hallowed territory of Kosovo of nearly half its ethnic Albanian population, how can he agree to the conditions that would let those Kosovars return? His inclination will be to ride out whatever NATO throws at him from the air and count on the alliance not having the will to send ground troops after him or his commanders.
The outlook is that the Kosovo campaigns will still be unfolding when the NATO summit begins here on April 23, making the planned 50th anniversary celebration a council of war. That meeting must now be turned over to the making of decisions rather than the giving of speeches.
Milosevic must be put on notice now that once the NATO summit begins, all opportunities end for an outcome short of the unconditional surrender or the withdrawal of his forces in Kosovo. He cannot be allowed to string out the air war, looking for chances to chip at allied unity and resolve.
The alliance must resist the Serb ruler's likely effort to push the battle of Kosovo into a fog of no-war, no-peace. Using the summit as a deadline should clarify the intentions, and limit the opportunities for mischief, of would-be intermediaries. It will handcuff any NATO leaders tempted to settle for leaving Milosevic in charge of all or some of Kosovo as a way out.
The time for imprecision on war aims is rapidly passing. It may be useful (if morally distasteful) right now to be vague on whether Milosevic will be pursued as a war criminal and on whether any form of partition is still possible, as Albright and aides are.
To refuse to adopt and communicate clear war aims beyond the NATO summit, however, would be to play into Milosevic's hands once again.
-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.