Leading Article: Ground troops are now the only deterrent left

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The Independent Culture
THE CAPTURE of three American soldiers will give further ammunition to those who believe that the entire mission against Milosevic is a foolhardy enterprise. In reality, the mission is not foolhardy, but over-cautious.

Slobodan Milosevic has, unsurprisingly, used the capture of the soldiers for his own propaganda purposes. But the parading of the American soldiers on Belgrade television may also help to harden American opinion, until now deeply wary about distant Kosovo.

Such a hardening of opinion is needed if the crucial next step is to be taken. It is increasingly clear that the use of ground troops - or, at the very least, the credible threat of ground troops - is the only way to force Milosevic to compromise. There is a tendency to talk dismissively of "armchair warriors". But the armchair peacemakers have had an incomparably poor record in the Balkans in the past decade. Even the doves now admit that if the international community had taken tougher action in Bosnia at an earlier stage, then thousands of lives could have been saved.

One much-heard argument against the current bombing campaign, and against the use of ground troops, is that the war has only made the lot of the Kosovo Albanians even worse. In the narrow sense, that is true. Conspicuously, however, we do not hear that argument from the Albanian refugees themselves; they blame Milosevic himself for their plight. The people who have borne the brunt of the horror know just how grim the prospects would have been had the international community continued simply to stand by. For Milosevic, brutality against civilians is part of the standard repertoire. The wholesale slaughter and "ethnic cleansing" in recent days provides the most vivid possible reminder of why it was necessary to take tough action against Milosevic in the first place.

All the well-meaning concerns about too tough a policy against Serbia become irrelevant when set against the background of the latest bloodshed. The current policy of extermination is merely the logical extension of what Milosevic had already been doing for many years. The mass killing of civilians provides the final proof - though proof should no longer be needed, after the experience of the past 10 years - of the lengths to which Milosevic will go to retain absolute power.

We might have hoped, after the experience of Iraq, that politicians and generals alike would be wary of leaving a job half-done. Increasingly, it looks as though that may be the outcome of the current action in Serbia. This would be doubly disastrous. At the very least, a declaration of readiness to prepare a ground assault would send an important signal. On each previous occasion, the West has blinked before Milosevic. To do so on this occasion would be the ultimate betrayal - not just of the Albanians, but of all the Balkan nations he has trodden over in turn.