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Oops, sorry about that bomb, too.

That seems to be the undiplomatic tact this nation has adopted in regard to its mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade Friday night.

It was an accident, right?

Of course, it was. After all what on earth would NATO have to gain from an act which would make one of the most powerful nations in the world made as hornets nest?

This is exactly what the leadership in Beijing and the Chinese people are as a result of the bombing in which three people were killed and 20 gravely wounded. Indeed, the ensuing government-approved anti-American, rock-throwing protests which have left our ambassador to China, James
Sasser, a virtual prisoner in the U.S. Embassy have strained relationships between the two countries to its lowest point in nearly 30 years.

Even a string of an abashed corps of politicians, diplomats and military officials in both the U.S. and NATO who have regretted, deplored and apologized in every form known to man have failed to stem the spread of anger sweeping across China on this centennial eve of the famed Boxer Rebellion where the Chinese rose up against foreign domination in 1900.

However, part of the problem is that the accidental bombing seems to fit so neatly into an established pattern of military missteps that have framed the entire Kosovo air campaign. Indeed, the stream of profuse apologies flowing out of NATO headquarters in Brussels seems almost as endless as the unintended targets - residential neighborhoods, hospitals, market places, passenger trains, refugee conveys, the foreign embassy of the capital of neighboring Bulgaria - that our planes keep dropping all those high-tech missiles and so-called "smart" bombs on.

So common have these incidents become that the five most used words in NATO-speak seem to be "deeply regret" and "a tragic mistake."

However, the Chinese are unwilling to be pacified with a roundup of the usual rhetoric. The leaders in Beijing have termed NATO's action "a horrifying atrocity" that violate both human rights and international law. Moreover, Chinese officials say, in words void of polite diplomatic phrasing, that they will not allow the U.S. to "whitewash the atrocity."

While the Chinese are unwilling to believe it was a tragic error, many in this country are preaching that the bombing was somehow a "wag the dog" act to divert attention from the unfolding debacle involving Chinese theft of our nuclear secrets.

To both, we would say that the wisest course in this matter would be to follow the maxim: If given a choice between cunning conspiracy and abject stupidity, choose the latter.

Indeed, this whole matter took a trip into the surreal Monday with the Central Intelligence Agency's admission that it was using outdated maps of Belgrade to plan the bombing campaign.

Leaving out the question of why the CIA, rather than the military, is drawing up a list of targets for NATO bombing missions, this admission is staggering in its level of incompetency.

It seems intelligence officials told lawmakers behind closed doors in Washington that a combination of old maps, lack of communication within our government and a bunch of educated guesses that went terribly wrong led to the bombing of the embassy.

In a series of blunders that more resemble the antics of the Three Stooges than those who have life and death responsibility of planning a war, CIA operatives misidentified the target and pre-strike checks by the Pentagon and other allied military commands failed to catch the error. In addition, neither the State Department or, it seems, any of the other NATO allies bothered to alert target planners that the Chinese Embassy had moved to its new location in 1996.

It should be noted that this incident comes less than a year after the CIA recommended an attack on a target in the Sudan which it claimed was involved in manufacturing chemical weapons. It turned out it was nothing more than an impoverished nation's one-and-only pharmaceutical plant.

This whole affair has made the CIA, NATO and the Clinton administration laughingstocks in the eyes of much of the world. Indeed, regulars on Monday's Don Imus' radio program, which is simulcast on MSNBC cable TV, were openly joking how the CIA could have simply called a Belgrade taxi company to find out the right address.

Granted, target planning is far more complex than that, but on Sunday The Sentinel was able to find four sites on the Internet which showed the PROPER location of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in less than 20 minutes.

Moreover, any currant tourist map of the Yugoslavian capital shows the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. And American diplomats who were stationed in Belgrade until less than two months ago regularly attended social functions at the embassy. These diplomats include our military attache, whose job it is to provide the Defense Intelligence Agency with up-to-date maps of the city.

While the series of mistaken bombings - all of which have involved U.S. warplanes - amount to only a minuscule percentage of the more than 18,000 combat missions flown and 9,000 bombs and missiles fired, NATO officials from several countries are openly acknowledging that the succession of accidents is eroding public confidence in the campaign.

It is absurd in the extreme to think that a military adventure which was folly in the first place would lead to diplomatic folly of immense proportions because our CIA can't even use up-to-date maps.

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