Over and over again, madmen prove they can control the world's attention by terrorizing the innocent. It's happening again, in the powder keg that is the Balkans, as Slobodan Milosevic sets out to decimate people he hates.

The disintegration of the Serb province of Kosovo was the Bush administration's worst fear in the Balkans, prompting then-President Bush to warn Milosevic in December 1992 not to start trouble there. Kosovo, once a part of the old Yugloslavia and the homeland of the Serbs, now is 90 percent ethnic Albanians, and they are unhappy being part of Serbia. Led by the often ruthless Kosovar Liberation Army, the Albanians have been rebelling in an effort to be independent.Serbia, with control over the massive and formidable old Yugoslav army set up by the Communist dictator Tito, is quelling the uprising in Kosovo. It's using the same "ethnic cleansing" approach applied so ferociously in Bosnia under the direction of Yugoslav president Milosevic. Through his actions in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Bosnia and now in Kosovo, Milosevic meets every definition of the term "war criminal."

When Europe and the United States dithered so pathetically about what to do in Bosnia despite mass rapes, concentration camps and Nazi-style mass graves, the line in the sand they drew was Kosovo. Eventually, NATO went into Bosnia and there made pledges of "never again."

"Never" didn't last very long.

Now thousands of Albanians are fleeing for their lives into the mountains, across the border into Albania and Macedonia or wherever they can escape the rifles and cruelty of Serbian soldiers and police. Sometimes they have nothing but the clothes they are wearing. Children are getting lost from parents. Makeshift refugee centers are overwhelmed.

NATO decided to warn the Serb attackers with mock bombing runs, launching U.S., French and British planes in a show of force while diplomatic efforts are ratcheted up to try to calm the situation before the whole region goes up in flames. The idea is to warn Milosevic, sitting in Belgrade directing his soldiers like pieces on a chessboard, to back down.

If he doesn't listen, NATO promises to strike actual targets and possibly send ground forces into Kosovo.

NATO wants a cease-fire and an end to the repression of Albanians in Kosovo and negotiations with separatist forces in Kosovo aimed at ending tensions. The United States wants "autonomy" for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo but does not favor independence on grounds it would be destabilizing.

However, the recent history of the threat of force isn't encouraging. Threats of force didn't prevent genocide in Bosnia. That other madman, Saddam Hussein, did not back down before the 1991 gulf war. A lot of people died, and he's still giving the United States and the United Nations headaches.

It's hard for Americans to care about war so far away in a province most have never heard about until recently. But just as American soldiers - men and women - are in Bosnia and Macedonia, they could be sent to Kosovo. Clinton has not ruled out the use of American troops in Kosovo, although it's definitely not something he wants or intends to do.

It all may be out of Clinton's control. If the violence in Kosovo escalates, overnight there could be a dangerous, widespread Balkan conflict, the White House, NATO and Pope John Paul II agree. That's why Clinton is working on Russia and China to get their approval in the United Nations for a resolution calling for "all necessary means" to stop ethnic cleansing and the killing of innocents in Kosovo.

Or else, once more, history will repeat itself.