Commentary Magazine

The Road to Kosovo

Around The beginning of April, the United States discovered that it was at war.

On March 24, President Clinton announced that American and other NATO forces had commenced air strikes on Serbia, whose ruler, Slobodan Milosevic, had refused to sign an agreement providing autonomy for the province of Kosovo. For Clinton, air strikes were a familiar tool: he had ordered them on previous occasions—against Iraq, against the Bosnian Serbs, against the terrorist Osama Bin Laden—and had threatened them many other times. But in each instance, the attacks or threatened attacks were designed to punish some outrage or undergird what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to call “diplomacy backed by force,” and usually they were brief and inconclusive. Never before, even in the twelve-day bombardment of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 that helped to bring about the Dayton accords, had they seemed to amount to war.

Now, in contrast to those earlier episodes, Milosevic’s response made it impossible for Clinton to cease firing and claim he had achieved his objectives. Not only did the Serbian ruler reiterate his refusal to bow to American terms, but his forces launched an all-out campaign to annihilate the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army and to drive the bulk of Kosovo’s Albanian population out of the territory. His defiance was underscored by the capture of three American servicemen by Serbian soldiers somewhere along the Macedonian border. Although the State Department carefully avoided describing the three as prisoners of war (even while demanding that Serbia respect the Geneva convention governing the treatment of such prisoners), with the Yugoslav army on the attack all over Kosovo, and NATO trying to stop it by means of an intensifying bombardment, it was hard to escape the fact that this time America was at war.

And it was losing. In announcing the attack, Clinton had focused on two goals: “to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive” and “to prevent a wider war” that could “involve and destabilize neighboring nations.” Early into the campaign, it became obvious that NATO was achieving neither objective, and indeed that its actions were counter-productive. The scope and brutality of Serbian attacks on Kosovo civilians increased manyfold, and fighting spilled over into Albania. Serb forces occupied a disputed piece of Croatia; Kosovar refugees flooded Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro; and the economies of the nearby fledgling democracies were damaged by the disruption of commerce.

Similarly unmet were two other goals articulated by the President: to “seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo” and to “demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s purpose.” The first was quickly shown to be moot: Serbia’s military capacity may have been diminished, but it was sufficient to drive all of the Kosovars from their homes and to murder, maim, rape, and despoil as many of them along the way as the Serbs wished. The second was undermined by Clinton’s own repeated assertion that he did not “intend to put our troops” in Kosovo (except with Serbian consent). Administration officials tried to compensate by insisting that the air war alone would do the trick, by destroying things “near and dear” to Milosevic. But when these touted pressure points turned out to be targets like a tobacco warehouse in which Milosevic’s son had a financial interest, NATO’s strategy was revealed as little more than a hope and a prayer.

Nor did these attacks accomplish any notable progress toward the one key aim that NATO leaders were reluctant to articulate—namely, weakening Milosevic’s hold on power. On the contrary, 27 leading Serbian dissidents, self-described “activists for a democratic and anti-nationalist Serbia,” issued a statement decrying the fact that “the existing regime has only been reinforced by NATO’s attacks by way of the natural reaction of people to rally around the flag in times of foreign aggression. . . . The democratic forces in Serbia have been weakened.”

To make matters still worse, after the initial round of NATO attacks, it was revealed that U.S. forces had almost exhausted their supply of air-launched cruise missiles. These had been the weapon of choice for Clinton’s various strikes in the past, for the reason that they can accurately deliver a relatively large explosion from a distance that will keep a pilot safe from ground fire. No production line currently exists to replace the cruise missiles; a new, follow-on weapon is now being rushed toward initial service in 2002. If, in the meantime, America should face combat in, say, Iraq or Korea, U.S. strategists will have to do without, and U.S. pilots may pay with their lives for the shortage.

Finally, even though Kosovo is little more than a flyspeck on the map, the war that NATO was losing turned out to have surprisingly high stakes. The war was begun for humanitarian reasons; but because it constituted the first time NATO was being tested in combat, it soon took on a strategic significance. In justifying his decision, Clinton said that failure to strike Serbia “would discredit NATO.” If so, how much more would NATO be discredited if it should end up being defeated by Serbia? Since the close of the cold war, the alliance has been haunted by doubts about its enduring purpose. If the war is lost, these will return with a vengeance. Indeed, administration officials themselves acknowledged to the Washington Post that “the result could be the emasculation of NATO and a belittlement of American standing in Europe.” And since NATO is everywhere understood to be America’s number-one foreign commitment, any such result is bound to damage our standing in other regions as well.

How did we come to find ourselves with so much to lose in a conflict so remote that we stumbled into it without clear intent? The war in Kosovo did not descend upon us as a quirk of fate. Although it may have caught us by surprise, our current predicament is the logical outcome of a trail of our own policy choices, made over the course of a decade. To understand it, which is the prerequisite for working our way out of it, we must first retrace our steps—steps that will take us to regions of the world other than Yugoslavia, and especially to Iraq.



The crumbling of Yugoslavia first became visible during the administration of George Bush, just a few months after the completion of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Although President Bush was then boasting that in Iraq we had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome”—a metaphor for the stark aversion to employing force—some aspects of our Persian Gulf intervention gave reason to doubt this.

For one thing, in order to win (by a narrow margin) the Senate’s approval of military action against Iraq, Bush had first had to procure a UN Security Council resolution setting a deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Then-Governor Bill Clinton exemplified the attitudes, especially among Democrats, at which this tactic was aimed. Asked at the time how he would have voted had he been a Senator, Clinton responded that he agreed with those who argued for giving sanctions more time rather than going to war. But, he added warily, “I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote” because “it would [not] have been a good thing for Congress to go on record . . . watering down and weakening the full impact of the UN resolution.”

In addition to this still-widespread reluctance to countenance military action on the basis of American interests alone, some decisions taken during the war itself likewise suggested that our recovery from the Vietnam syndrome was only partial. Force was employed, but risks were reduced to an absolute minimum: before attacking Iraq, Washington deployed to the Gulf a huge share of its military assets. And once we attacked, we halted the campaign as hastily as possible, leaving in place a tyrant whom Bush had likened to Hitler.

The result of the first decision was that while America felt exultant about its victory, it was also left feeling drained by the effort. This was one reason Washington was eager to accept suggestions by European leaders at the time that they would take the lead in handling Yugoslavia. The result of the second decision was that Saddam Hussein soon resumed his mischief. And the result of both was that, from then until now, the twin challenges of Yugoslavia and Iraq have reverberated against each other, taxing Washington’s capacity to manage a global foreign policy.

By the end of 1991, European efforts to pacify Yugoslavia had failed. Serbian forces attacked Slovenia and then Croatia as each of these republics claimed independence. Washington’s reaction was summed up famously by Secretary of State James Baker: “We have no dog in that fight.” And the conflict grew far more savage in the spring of 1992, when it spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the world first heard the term “ethnic cleansing.” But still the U.S. kept its distance, President Bush referring to the Bosnian mayhem as a “hiccup.”

Then, in its last days in office, the Bush administration slammed the barn door shut after the horses had fled. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger sent Milosevic a note warning that “in the event of a conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the U.S. will be prepared to employ military force against Serbians in Kosovo and Serbia proper.” Not only was the timing strange—Eagleburger spoke for an administration that in a few weeks would no longer exist—but the focus seemed off as well.

True, Kosovo was a seething cauldron where Milosevic had first hoisted the banner of virulent nationalism. But it was universally recognized as a part of Serbia. Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, had declared its independence, been granted diplomatic recognition by Washington and many other governments, and been admitted to the United Nations. Serbian-supported attacks on Bosnia were therefore tantamount to international aggression, flouting the very same principles Bush had invoked against Iraq. Why ignore flagrant Serb violations of international law in Bosnia and then threaten Serbia militarily over Kosovo (a threat that itself violated international law)?

These questions were in the air during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bush’s abdication on Bosnia became a target for candidate Bill Clinton. “It is time for real leadership to stop the continuing tragedy in the former Yugoslav republics,” Clinton said then, adding, on another occasion, “The United States and the international community must take action. If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide.”

But once Clinton took office, he put these thoughts behind him. Although he has lately revised the history of his early presidency to make it seem otherwise, domestic issues were his overwhelming and practically his only priority. As for Bosnia, Secretary of State Warren Christopher called it “a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent,” stressing that “it does not involve our vital interests,” and Clinton himself said at the time: “I don’t want to have to spend any more time on that than is absolutely necessary, because what I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems.”

In order to do that, Clinton appealed to the United Nations to play a more central role in managing international relations. After all, had not the world body proved its worth in the Persian Gulf crisis? “UN peacekeeping holds the promise to resolve many of this era’s conflicts,” declared the new President, while “we’ve simply got to focus on rebuilding America.”



The president’s “focus on rebuilding America” began with an attack on the federal budget deficit. This initially discomfited some of his fellow Democrats; after all, cutting and balancing the budget was traditionally a Republican objective. But when the numbers were parsed, Clinton’s approach set them at ease. Domestic spending was reduced not a cent. Instead, the entire Clinton cut was to come out of international programs, and the lion’s share of it from defense.

These sharp reductions were masked behind something called the “bottom-up review,” announced as an exercise to determine American defense needs from scratch. Although based on the supposition that we should be able to fight two regional wars simultaneously, the resultant budget involved a sleight of hand—in fact, two. First, our forces were proportioned to the less demanding requirement of fighting two wars in close sequence rather than at the same time. And second, even this easier standard was not fully funded: estimates of the shortfall ranged from the Congressional Budget Office’s $53-$ 100 billion (over five years) to the General Accounting Office’s $150 billion. One of the many development programs terminated by these economies was the tri-service standoff attack missile, a new weapon intended as a successor to the cruise missiles currently in the Pentagon’s inventory but no longer being produced.

With the nation at peace, military shortages carried little price. The budget deficit fell, the economy prospered, and the President reaped a bonanza of public approval. His reliance on the United Nations, however, did not work out so well.

When Clinton took office, there was still a substantial U.S. military contingent in Somalia; it had been dispatched there by President Bush to rescue the victims of famine and then kept there, at the urging of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to help toward the more ambitious goal of repairing the country’s political cohesion. Given his own strong orientation toward the UN, Clinton acquiesced in Boutros-Ghali’s plan, agreeing to leave a contingent of several thousand U.S. troops in Somalia.

This decision proved fateful when, in October 1993, a company of U.S. army rangers was decimated in a firefight with Somali gangs in the alleyways of Mogadishu. Americans were shocked by news photos of the corpses of soldiers being desecrated by gleeful mobs of the very people the GI’s had gone to rescue. Clinton ordered a rapid withdrawal.

The President’s political embarrassment over Somalia had tragic repercussions six months later when violence seized Rwanda and some half-million or more Tutsis were murdered by Hutus over the span of a few months in the first case of true genocide (to use a term often invoked loosely) since Hitler. When he visited Rwanda last year, Clinton acknowledged that “the international community must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy [because] we did not act quickly enough. . . . We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name.” But this apparent apology was really an exercise in self-exoneration, for the person who blocked international action was Clinton himself, and it was also he who ordered that the word “genocide” not be uttered lest it build pressure on him to respond. The only plan America would agree to was to send aid to refugees after the fighting and killing had ended.



The cold shoulder he turned toward the dying Tutsis epitomized the indifference to foreign affairs that characterized Clinton’s first two-and-a-half years in office. But then, in the middle of 1995, in the case of Bosnia, the President shifted to a more active approach. He recalled it this way in a recent speech:

When President Milosevic started the war in Bosnia seven years ago, the world did not act quickly enough to stop him . . . . A quarter of a million people . . . were killed. . . . This was a genocide in the heart of Europe. It did not happen in 1945; it was going on in 1995. Now, at the time, a lot of people said, well, there’s nothing you can do about it, Mr. President . . . . [But] I just don’t believe that . . . . [So] the United States and our allies, along with the courageous people in Bosnia and in Croatia . . . found the unity and the will to stand up against the aggression, and we helped to end the war.

Here again we have a blatant case of bowdlerized history. This genocide, if that is what it was (the Serbs’ bloody campaign was intended not to annihilate all the Muslims but to drive them away and seize their land), had been going on not only in 1995 but also in 1994 and 1993. Only the first nine or ten months of the war in Bosnia occurred on Bush’s “watch.” If 250,000 people died, most did so after Clinton became President. Contrary to the studied implication that it was he who overruled the nay-sayers, Clinton withstood appeals to halt the Bosnia carnage for as long as he possibly could.

What finally compelled him to reverse course was a combination of pressures. First, Jacques Chirac replaced François Mitterrand as president of France and called for tougher action against Serbia. Second, Congress passed a resolution providing arms to the Bosnian government in contravention of a UN-imposed embargo. (Although Clinton vetoed the bill, it had passed both houses by a two-thirds majority, so an override seemed to be in the cards.) And finally, the 1996 election loomed on the horizon. In the Washington Post, it was reported that “Clinton’s newest political guru, consultant Dick Morris, had suggested in mid-level meetings that, as one [official] put it, ‘you guys ought to take care of Bosnia before 1996 so it does not screw us up.’ ”

With this as an impetus, Clinton secured NATO’s agreement to twelve days of bombing, which may have helped to soften the Serbs, although the stunning success of Croatian ground forces in recapturing Serb-held territory in the region called the Krajina probably had a bigger impact. But the real key to the Dayton accords that ended the fighting was Clinton’s willingness both to accept a de-facto partition of Bosnia—the essential goal of the Serbian aggression—and to treat Milosevic as the key peacemaker. Not only did this earn Milosevic an implicit (and perhaps explicit) exemption from prosecution for war crimes, despite the fact that he was the mastermind behind most of the violence, but it strengthened his position in other ways as well. So jury-rigged was the Bosnia created by Dayton that years of delicate implementation would be required, thus placing a continued high premium on securing Milosevic’s cooperation.

The implications for Kosovo should have been clear. Although virtually all Serbs felt an attachment to this cradle of national identity, Milosevic had put his own distinctive stamp on the Kosovo cause. He had justified his seizure of power from his mentor, Ivan Stambolic, in 1987 with the claim that Stambolic had been insufficiently vigilant over Serb interests in Kosovo. On this issue above all others, Milosevic marked himself out as a militant.

At the same time, Dayton also contributed to the radicalization of Kosovo’s Albanians. Since Milosevic’s ascent, they had suffered relentless persecution, aimed, it seemed, at encouraging their emigration. For years, under the leadership of their chosen president, Ibrahim Rugova, they had pressed their claim to independence nonviolently. Now, in the eyes of many young Albanians, Dayton had completed the process by which each and every one of the former Yugoslavia’s various subgroups would achieve its national aspirations—except themselves. An increasing number rejected Rugova’s Gandhian approach and rallied to the radical guerrilla force called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which made its presence felt early in 1996 with several small armed attacks on Serb officials.

In sum, as far as Kosovo was concerned, Dayton hardened an already intractable conflict.



There remained one other international issue that threatened to roil the waters of Clinton’s 1996 election campaign. In August, Saddam Hussein sent his military northward to reestablish sovereignty over Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that had enjoyed a kind of de-facto autonomy under the umbrella of Western military protection. Most Iraqis seemed to believe that America would defend this territory, on which thousands of members of U.S.-sponsored opposition groups operated under the guidance of the CIA. But instead of bombing Saddam’s attacking tanks, Washington chose to strike at some Iraqi anti-aircraft positions far from the scene of battle and to announce an extension of the “no-fly zone” over southern Iraq. In short, the administration avoided a potentially messy confrontation with Saddam’s forces while shielding itself from the charge that it had altogether failed to take action.

Although this succeeded in keeping the Iraq issue out of the electoral debate, Clinton’s thinly disguised capitulation inflamed Saddam with the hope of new victories, and he soon initiated a string of challenges to the regime of sanctions and inspections designed to deprive him of all weapons of mass destruction. His mounting defiance culminated in the expulsion of American arms inspectors in January 1998. Punitive U.S. air strikes were averted by the last-minute mediation of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, but Saddam predictably refused to honor his agreement with Annan, curtailing cooperation with UN inspectors in August and ending it entirely in November. After aborting one bombing mission, Clinton finally launched Operation Desert Fox in December.

In explaining his threat of air strikes, Clinton had said that if Saddam were allowed to keep his arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, “some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal.” But the President brought Desert Fox to an end after a mere four days, and did not even bother to advance the claim that he had destroyed Saddam’s arsenal, thus in effect conceding the end of the UN weapons-inspection regime. Although it was said that the attacks had degraded Iraq’s military machine, they had done the same to ours as well, for in those four days the U.S. Air Force (in a harbinger of things to come) exhausted much of its remaining store of air-launched cruise missiles.

Saddam’s success in riding out Clinton’s punishment could not have been lost on Milosevic. Both men had been playing a similar game of defying Western demands, backing down under threat of attack, and then quickly welching on their promises. More: although Saddam posed as the spear-carrier of Islam, while the Serbs postured as Christendom’s rampart against the infidel Turk, the two strongmen had forged an alliance based on a shared enemy, the United States. Reportedly, Iraqi cash and oil were to be exchanged for Serbian anti-aircraft missiles. No doubt they also compared notes on tactics for dealing with Washington.

In February 1998, just as Saddam was intensifying his confrontation with the weapons inspectors, Serbian military and police forces launched their largest campaign against KLA guerrillas in Kosovo. Villages were destroyed, civilians murdered. These hostilities continued throughout the spring and summer, leading to an October agreement brokered by Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton accords, under the threat of NATO air strikes.

The alliance’s European members, it should be noted, had been reluctant to issue such threats. But they had been humiliated by their weak performance during the Bosnia crisis, and did not want to be seen once again as weak sisters. Washington and its major European allies also found themselves jockeying for influence within the newly reconfigured NATO, and the competition may have helped to stiffen all the partners. American leaders no doubt assured their allied counterparts, as they were later to express in public, that the mere threat of force, or at most a very small dose, would secure their aims.

In the event, Milosevic took a page from Saddam’s book He at once violated the October agreement, then agreed to negotiations this past winter at Rambouillet in France. But he clung steadfastly to what was dear to him. He would no more yield up Kosovo than Saddam would yield his weapons of mass destruction. Its bluff called, in late March NATO began to bomb.

Initially the attack, very much like those on Iraq, showed a certain circularity. NATO targeted antiaircraft facilities—in other words, the alliance bombed little more than that which might inhibit its ability to bomb. Had Milosevic responded passively, we and our allies might well have ceased after a few days, declaring that we had taught him a lesson and appealing for renewed negotiations. But when, instead, he launched a massive assault against those in whose name we bombed, we found ourselves at war.



Secretary of State Albright has called Kosovo “simply the most important thing we have done in the world.” If that is so, it is only because we failed to do more important things. In Rwanda, the dimensions of the humanitarian catastrophe were vaster. In Iraq, the peril to our security was and is greater. In Bosnia, both the humanitarian and the security issues were larger. Yet to each of these challenges, we responded belatedly and with half-measures or less, with the result that Iraq’s weapons programs have been unchained, Bosnia is essentially partitioned, and the Rwandan carnage continues to reverberate in the Congo.

Time and again, we have made threats that we have not even begun to carry out, or used force in small, symbolic gestures. Albright summarized this approach in the course of one of our many feckless confrontations with Iraq: “We are talking about using military force, but we are not talking about a war.” If using force is not tantamount to war, we have now discovered in Kosovo that it can get you into a war. It got us into this one because our adversaries were emboldened by the demonstrated hollowness of our threats; because we ourselves felt our credibility slipping away; and perhaps because of a guilty conscience. As Albright herself put it, Kosovo presented “an opportunity to make up for the mistakes” that were made in Bosnia.

Well, then? Now that we are in the war—a war we would not have felt the need to start had we faced up to earlier challenges—the price of our mistakes has suddenly grown steeper, and the fates will surely not be so forgiving as they have been till now.

It would be wholly in keeping with the pattern of bluster and retreat that has led us to our present pass if we were once again, in effect, to cut and run. Not that we would just quit, or surrender. Rather, we would camouflage our loss, or even call it a victory. Under a diplomatic settlement involving Russia or the UN, or both, Milosevic might give us a face-saving exit. That could entail a partition of Kosovo that would cede parts of it to the Albanians while rewarding Serbia with the areas of greatest historical significance or economic value, “cleansed” of their former Albanian inhabitants. More likely, it would rest on a signed piece of paper solemnly affirming the right of all Kosovar refugees to return to their homes.

Such pieces of paper exist with respect to the refugees from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Today, nearly four years after Dayton, precious few of those refugees have returned; who remembers, or cares? Just as we have kidded ourselves about the efficacy of our actions in Bosnia, Iraq, and Rwanda, we could kid ourselves about Kosovo, too. But as in the case of Saddam, so in the case of Milosevic, it is only ourselves we would be kidding. If we were to settle now for a phony resolution, we would infallibly set the stage for still greater challenges, in the Balkans and elsewhere, and likely sound the death knell of NATO as an effective force.

That is hardly to say that the other option before us is free of serious risks of its own. This option is to harken to Douglas MacArthur’s observation that in war there is no substitute for victory. Once Milosevic turned his wrath on the entire Albanian population of Kosovo, the legal and moral grounds for prosecuting this war to victory became much stronger than they were when we started it. And, despite the warnings of some military analysts, there can be no doubt that our armed forces would be more than a match for Serbia.

Here, too, however, the unworthy sources of our conduct have come back to haunt us, this time in our failure to fund the forces necessary to fight two regional wars, even in close sequence, much less at the same time. Already, in the ominous words of General Richard Hawley, head of the Air Force’s combat command, shortages of munitions and trained personnel, directly attributable in both cases to budget cuts, have created a “desperate need” for “a significant retrenchment in commitments for a significant period of time.” Deploying a large ground force to Kosovo or Serbia will thus be an arduous undertaking, and one that will as/?/dly make us vulnerable in other parts of the world, presenting a temptation to the likes of Saddam—by late April, we had to curtail our enforcement of the no-fly zones over Iraq because the planes were needed in the Balkans—or the rulers of North Korea.

Those are foreseeable dangers, but war also often brings unexpected consequences, as we were reminded by the unintentional bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. One of the few foreign-policy goals to which President Clinton has devoted assiduous attention (in part because of the domestic electoral benefits it apparently entailed) has been to cultivate a “strategic partnership” with Beijing. Suddenly, in one stroke, all the warm glow of repeated summit meetings with Zhu Rongji and Jiang Zemin—not to mention high-technology sales and innumerable other gestures of friendship—turned to frost. Sino-American relations are more troubled than at any time since the Cultural Revolution, and they will not soon be put right.

Such considerations have been enough to persuade many Americans, including many conservatives, either that the war is unwinnable or that the price of winning it will cancel out any potential benefits. This view sees only our current weakness, and is blind to our underlying strength. We have prevailed in war before, despite being ill-prepared, and despite having to pay for our unreadiness in the heavy coin of casualties and increased vulnerability. And we have coped with the unforeseen contingencies, often also at a price. But it is important to recognize that such is the awful nature of the choices put before us by the repeatedly compromised record of the past decade.

Whether we will learn a lesson from our current predicament remains to be seen. Even a President who came to office bent on avoiding international entanglements has discovered, after a fashion, that America’s interests and values and its central position in global politics make that impossible. It follows that we must equip ourselves with forces commensurate with the burdens that, in one form or another, we are bound to assume—and with the courage to face them squarely. In addition to the urgent necessity of ending the war in Serbia with the defeat of Milosevic, the fundamental and no less urgent task before us is to confront and overcome the spirit of avoidance, self-indulgence, and pusillanimity that has led us in so brief a span from a condition of abundant security to one of looming peril.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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