Neither total war nor total victory

If wars help define nations, the image of America mirrored in the recent Balkan War is of a country both preternaturally strong and deeply conflicted. There's little argument that the United States and its NATO allies fought and won a just war. That they did it solely from the air without a single combat casualty marks a watershed in modern warfare. But that achievement raises questions about how much blood Western nations are willing to shed in defense of their interests or on behalf of hundreds of thousands of civilians threatened with murder and deportation. This was not total war, nor total victory.

Certainly the war revealed, or perhaps refreshed, America's internal divisions. While most opinion polls showed solid majorities supporting the humanitarian impulses of the war, and the U.S. Senate quickly voted its endorsement of the air war, the House of Representatives-designed by the Framers to be closest to public sentiment-had no comment on the war until a month after it had begun. And then when it did vote, the House failed to endorse, condemn, or stop the war, preoccupied as it was with the man conducting the war, whom they had only recently impeached.

For NATO, the lessons were about both potentialities and limits. A 19-nation coalition of governments, ranging from rightist to leftist, held fast to a strategy that, though imperfect and low-risk, emerged victorious. Yes, the air war revealed the chasm between U.S. and NATO military capabilities, and it highlighted some inadequacies in the alliance's command and decision-making structure, but strength in unity was the old lesson learned anew. Yet NATO's certain preoccupation with the Balkans for the coming decade almost certainly spells the end of any ambitions for a "global NATO'' intervening far beyond its borders.

The United States and NATO, in their relations with Russia and China, were reminded of the need to be cognizant and cautious of their rivals on the Asian land mass. Russia deflated NATO's victory parade by sneaking into Pristina's airport; China's recurring flashbacks of being dominated by foreigners triggered violent responses to the U.S. error in bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. But these were emotional public reactions, quite apart from both countries' private realizations that they are dependent on the global system of finance and trade that NATO has protected for half a century.

For the Pentagon, too, the lessons are mixed. Although President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to enunciate a doctrine for humanitarian intervention, their pronouncements were so couched in caveats that they hardly amounted to a set of governing principles for the use of force. Nor is there a reaffirmation of the Colin Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, named for the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The war was apparently won by air power alone-or was it the veiled threat of a ground invasion in the closing days of the war that persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate? Either way, questions about the air war abound, from its effectiveness to the morality of taking such limited, slow-acting steps while such brutality against civilians continued on the ground. And the air war exhausted the collective U.S. air forces and has already prompted a re-evaluation on Capitol Hill of whether the Air Force is buying the right weapons and airplanes. Even more strangely: Though the air war was victorious and halted a destructiveness every bit as bad as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, no ticker tape parades greeted the returning airmen, and the alliance commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, was not feted as a hero but testily interrogated by Congress.

Above all, the feeling provoked within the alliance and at home by the war's end was less an exultant cheer of victory than a collective sigh of relief. The overriding sentiment: Let's not do this again anytime soon.

"Certainly no one will approach a similar effort in the future with any enthusiasm,'' said Zalmay M. Khalilzad, a senior foreign affairs analyst at RAND, a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

The Clinton Doctrine and Congress

Because Kosovo saw the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, it is no surprise that President Clinton was asked whether a principle informed the U.S. decision to go to war in Yugoslavia. And it is no surprise that the President answered the question in the affirmative: "If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their ethnic background or their religion, and it is within our power to stop it, we will stop it,'' Clinton said.

Within days of that pronouncement, however, unnamed Administration officials hastened to add condi- tions to the "Clinton doctrine.'' Besides a clear moral justification, they said, the United States must also have strategic interests involved and a reasonable assumption that the operation would not exact too heavy a price. That sounds much like the same pragmatic approach that has governed U.S. actions for much of the 1990s; it led the United States to withdraw quickly from a humanitarian mission in Somalia after casualties began to mount, and to send only 2,100 troops and 57 air transports to help with refugee relief in Rwanda, despite mass genocide.

But proscriptive doctrines on the use of force always tend to relax in the exigencies of the moment. And it would be a mistake to say that Kosovo marks the birth of a "Clinton doctrine'' on humanitarian interventions.

"Any broad, grand strategic doctrine for defining the `whys' of American military involvement will collapse under the pressure of events, the uncertainties involved, and the unique character of a given contingency,'' Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, wrote in a review of the lessons of Kosovo.

Indeed, one of the unique features of this war was the conflict between the Administration and the Republican-led Congress. Coming so soon after Clinton's impeachment and various "wag the dog'' controversies of the preceding year, the war in Kosovo became a surrogate for the never-ending duel between Clinton and the GOP Congress; Republican leaders called the conflict the "Clinton-Gore war'' and "Clinton's bombing campaign,'' forgetting for the moment the participation of 18 other nations in the air campaign. Some members of Congress even conducted free-lance diplomatic missions to Moscow and Belgrade, at times undercutting U.S aims. The tensions came to a head in late April and early May when the House voted to require congressional approval for the use of ground troops; deadlocked on a vote authorizing U.S. involvement in the air war despite on-going missions; yet doubled the emergency supplemental appropriation that the Clinton Administration had requested to conduct the war.

"That was the most embarrassing moment on the House floor I've witnessed in 30 years of watching Congress, because it came closer to lawmakers undermining the troops in the field than anything I've ever seen,'' said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington. "You could also make a plausible case that a lot of actions taken by Congress collectively during the conflict were based less on an assessment of our national security interests, and more on an animosity towards Bill Clinton. That's disturbing.

"If this disconnect between the Administration and Congress represents a long-term trend, it could have a very negative impact on the ability of future Presidents to use force, or the threat of force, as an instrument of U.S. diplomacy,'' Ornstein added.

Cordesman did not disagree with that conclusion. "Rightly or wrongly, the U.S. government effectively blundered into [Kosovo], and in the process, it became obvious that the executive branch and the Congress have no clear way to decide whether to go to war, to provide legislative approval of the conflict, or to reach any formal consensus on the scale of military action. It may be that one of the lessons of modern war is that the United States must muddle into war, muddle through it, and muddle out.''

Russia and China

Two of the most worrisome events of the Balkan conflict were the Russian peacekeepers' dash to take the Pristina airport in Kosovo; and a Chinese mob's destruction of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in the wake of the mistaken U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade. The first called into serious question whether the erratic Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin, has firm control over his military forces. The second has raised fundamental issues concerning the Administration's already-strained policy of engagement with China.

Given the Russians' visceral opposition to NATO's air strikes against their traditional allies, the Serbs, it was probably inevitable that the war would cause short-term tensions between Washington and Moscow. Nor did Russia disappoint. Immediately after the war, as part of a "planned'' military exercise, it sent long-range nuclear bombers near the coast of NATO member Iceland.

But because of the need to isolate Slobodan Milosevic completely, NATO found it nevertheless necessary to make Russia part of the solution to the Balkan crisis. Involving Moscow directly in the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo may actually ease U.S.-Russian relations in the long term. Besides, say most observers, the fundamentals of the relationship between Moscow and the West have not changed. Russia is still financially teetering and militarily weakened.

"The order for the Russian military to dash to Pristina was vintage Yeltsin, and as a bit of bravado, it was enormously popular inside Russia,'' Keith Bush, director of Russian and Eurasian studies at CSIS, said at a recent symposium. "The bombing campaign had engendered a deep feeling of irrelevance and impotence among Russians of all stripes, from the intelligentsia to the man in the street. At the same time, Russia is an economic basket case, and it will remain very, very dependent on International Monetary Fund loans and Western debt relief for a long time to come.''

A number of experts are more concerned about the impact of the Balkan War on U.S.-China relations. Gerrit W. Gong, director of Asian studies at CSIS, said the Kosovo model-humanitarian intervention based on strategic bombing without the need for ground troops-is disturbing for Chinese officials, who have their own recurring problems with Tibet and Taiwan. "And the Chinese view these things through a long historical lens,'' said Gong. "I've heard recent references in China to the fact that many of the Western countries involved in NATO's war in Yugoslavia were the same ones involved in the Boxer Rebellion.''

Repairing relations with Moscow and Beijing will very likely require heavy diplomatic lifting in the months to come. Ultimately, however, Kosovo was on the periphery, and the interests tying the United States to Russia and to China have not changed.

"In terms of China, I believe there is a fundamental stability, because neither side has an interest in worsening relations,'' said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Carter, speaking at a recent conference. "The strategic relationship with Russia is more volatile, due largely to internal conditions in Russia, which are dynamic, somewhat unpredictable, and occasionally quite bizarre. We have to strike a difficult balance between not excluding Russia, but also not rewarding arrogant or risk-taking behavior. That's particularly important with a power that might be tempted to engage in dangerous nuclear brinkmanship.''

NATO and Europe

Slobodan Milosevic's one hope for successfully weathering the war was that the NATO alliance would fracture under the extraordinary pressures of an 11-week bombing campaign that included several errant strikes, scores of unintended civilian casualties, and the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy. The fact that the alliance held together despite profound rumblings in a number of left-of-center coalition governments in Europe will probably be remembered as NATO's greatest achievement of the war and the strongest argument for the alliance's continued credibility.

"We learned a lot about NATO in the Kosovo conflict, and perhaps the most striking aspect was that no country broke ranks, despite the fact, for instance, that the German coalition was in trouble, the Italians were conflicted, and public opinion was running overwhelmingly against the war in Greece,'' said Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and an analyst at RAND. "Instead, we saw Germany come of age as a fully contributing NATO ally and power within the alliance; we learned once again that when the chips are down, the French are with us; and for the first time, we saw Britain actually leading the Atlantic alliance with its resolve. I think the alliance as a whole came of age during the Kosovo crisis, and proved that it has successfully reshaped itself.''

Yet the cohesion of the alliance was purchased at tragic cost in the blood of thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. From the outset, U.S. and NATO officials maintained that either of two desirable military approaches-introducing ground forces, or beginning with a massive air campaign that would have struck hard at all of Milosevic's strategic centers of power on the first night of bombing-would have splintered the alliance.

Gen. Clark, NATO's supreme allied commander, said during Senate testimony in early July that there was no way the alliance could have held together if planners had started out with a full bombing campaign and all the necessary staging for ground forces. "It just wasn't going to be possible,'' he said.

Those self-imposed limits, however, left NATO unprepared to respond to the Serbian deportations and mass murders of ethnic Albanians with any stronger measures than slowly ratcheting up the intensity of the air campaign.

To avoid a repeat of such tentative war-making-by-committee, Clark and German Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, have called for a review of NATO's decision-making and crisis management methods. In the view of many experts, once NATO's political officials reach consensus on a given military action, military officers should have greater latitude and discretion in shaping the campaign. But some experts believe that the situation requires nothing less than a radical overhaul of NATO's consensus-building apparatus. Presently, any military action requires a unanimous vote of all 19 members.

"NATO's entire decision-making structure is designed for an all-out war against a Soviet onslaught,'' said Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at CSIS. "In Kosovo, we found out that structure doesn't work anymore. In instances like Kosovo, you have neither the solidarity imposed by a massive attack on the alliance, nor do you have all the time in the world to decide what to do and how, because people are dying, villages are being demolished, and women are being raped.''

As a reform, Luttwak suggests NATO create an "intervention committee'' of a handful of leading members that would decide when to endorse military action-playing a role much like the Security Council's at the United Nations. "That would narrow the decision-making process by getting away from the requirement for unanimity, and those nations who don't want to participate wouldn't have to. The others could form coalitions of the willing within NATO,'' said Luttwak.

The Balkan War also revealed the depths of the technology gap between U.S. military forces and their NATO counterparts. U.S. forces supplied roughly 70 percent of the air assets for the war and had to conduct an overwhelming majority of the air strikes because the Europeans lacked the necessary electronic jamming aircraft, precision-guided weapons, stealth technology, and advanced command-and-control systems. In some cases, European aircraft lacked even the secure radios required to communicate with NATO command aircraft without letting the Serbians eavesdrop.

"It's very clear from the air operations,'' Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre recently told defense reporters, "that the allies have not invested in the defense capabilities necessary to fight a modern war the way the United States does it, and the way Western democracies want them fought: with high precision and low collateral damage. That's why [Defense Secretary William S.] Cohen put the marker down at the recent NATO summit that all the European allies need to increase their defense budgets.''

The Balkan War has reinvigorated an effort-led by the United Kingdom and France-to create a separate European defense identity within NATO, and increase the European nations' capabilities to conduct future operations, even outside NATO's borders, on their own.

John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that British officials, alarmed by U.S. resistance to the use of ground troops, will be pushing hardest for Europe to do more. But as Chipman pointed out, it's not at all clear whether European parliaments are ready to pay the tens of billions of dollars it would take to catch up to the United States militarily. For several decades now, they have been unwilling to do so, and Kosovo still may not be motivation enough to change the European mentality.

But Chipman, along with a number of other observers, does believe that the strains of the Balkan War put to rest speculation about a "global role'' for NATO, effectively defining the borders of Europe as the outer limits of the alliance's reach. "Kosovo confirms that the debate about a `global NATO' was largely journalistic,'' Chipman said. "The fact is, NATO has taken on the Balkans as its prime security concern for the next 10 to 20 years, and that's more than enough to fill the alliance's plate with European matters.''

An Airpower Paradigm

As doubters frequently note, no war has ever been won with airpower alone. Except in Kosovo, maybe.

It is still unclear what motivated Milosevic to yield-the strategic bombing campaign against high-value targets, Russian pressure, the threat of a future ground war, or successes on the ground by a Kosovo Liberation Army aided by NATO B-52s. But certainly the airpower debate will continue in military circles. And at least the future of precision-guided bombs is secure. Air Force officials claim an astounding 99.6 percent accuracy rate in an air campaign that broke an enemy's will while killing an estimated 5,000 enemy troops, compared with zero NATO service members lost in combat. "America's lead in this `revolution in military affairs' is not only enormous, but growing exponentially,'' said Brzezinski.

But if history is any guide, flaws in the "almost-immaculate'' air campaign will emerge in the months to come, and will most likely reshape what airplanes and bombs the Air Force buys next. There are already indications that the air strikes destroyed fewer of the tanks and artillery pieces in Kosovo than the 30 percent initially reported, possibly because the Serbian forces made such widespread use of decoys. U.S. forces ran low on selected precision-guided munitions such as cruise missiles and the satellite-guided bombs dropped by the B-2 stealth bomber. The campaign also revealed a shortage of the electronic-jamming and counter-radar aircraft, such as the Navy's EA-6B Prowler and the Air Force's F-16CJ, that are essential in destroying an enemy's air-defense system. And since there were scarcely any dogfights in the air war over Kosovo, it is hardly surprising that the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee last week redirected $1.8 billion in production funds away from the new, and very expensive, F-22 air-superiority fighter to pay for the older, and less expensive, F-15 and F-16 fighters, and mid-air refueling tankers.

Still, for most airpower advocates, the gradual escalation of the Kosovo air campaign remains an example of how not to fight a war. It was only when many of the target restrictions were relaxed, after the first month of the war, they note, that the air campaign began having a major impact. "If you have the capability to strike an enemy catastrophically, the quicker you apply it, the greater the shock value, and the sooner the war will be over,'' said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Link, a former strategic air planner. "I don't see any rationale for an air campaign of graduated intensity, because a 10-day war is always preferable to a 78-day war.''

Air Force officials and other experts also worry that NATO has set an unmatchable precedent by becoming the first wartime victor to suffer not a single combat casualty. Ever since Vietnam, the U.S. military has accepted as gospel that the American public will simply not support an operation that incurs significant casualties. That mentality was demonstrated in the overwhelming force that Gen. Colin L. Powell demanded in Desert Storm. And he was right: Only 100-plus combat casualties were sustained in the Iraqi desert. Despite public opinion polls showing that Americans have a far more sophisticated view of casualties, and are willing to suffer them if the national interests involved are sufficient and clear, the much-publicized goal of avoiding casualties has become a self-fulling prophecy for the military. But it is one that they cannot hope to satisfy forever.

"This war sets the bar very high, and if people want to use it as a measure for future conflicts, we will fail,'' said a senior Air Force official. "I don't think you're ever going to see another zero casualty war.''

Moreover, some experts have questioned whether, in the case of the White House's refusal to consider ground troops for Kosovo, for example, a slavish aversion to risk befits a superpower. Among them were British Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the former commander of U.N. troops in Bosnia, who wrote in a letter to The (London) Times: "After 11 weeks of one of the most intensive air campaigns in the history of warfare, it is clear that NATO tragically failed to accomplish its objectives'' of preventing further violence against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians,'' wrote Rose. The result was "thousands of people brutally murdered and more than a million people driven from their homes. The fundamental message is that it is not possible to safeguard a people by bombing from 15,000 feet.''

Ground Force Controversy

President Clinton's early decision to rule out ground troops makes it hard to draw lessons about the U.S. Army from the Kosovo conflict. The slowness of the deployment of Task Force Hawk and its two dozen AH-64A Apache attack helicopters, however, has raised serious questions about the Army's readiness to handle the kinds of challenges many experts believe it will face in future operations. Not only did the task force take three weeks to deploy, but its training operations in Albania were rapidly followed by two crashes (one of them fatal to both pilots), and the helicopter gunships were never used during the air war.

The controversy grew after a memo written by the task force commander, Brig. Gen. Richard Cody, was obtained by the now-defunct Legi-Slate Inc. news service. According to Cody, problems with the Apache units included a shortage of experienced pilots so severe that 11 crews had to be sent over from the United States; out-of-date equipment; and an Apache force that had been decimated by a philosophy of "robbing Peter to pay Paul.''

Two facts-that deploying Task Force Hawk took so long, and that Army leaders said they would have needed two to three months to insert viable ground forces into the Balkans-will surely reignite an ongoing debate about whether an Army largely built around heavy Cold War-era divisions is light or mobile enough for today's less predictable missions.

"On the issue of whether the Army has been slow in making itself lighter and more lethal, the answer is probably yes,'' said retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "Unfortunately, the technology is not there yet, to make a light force you can rapidly deploy lethal enough to take on enemy armored forces. There's no silver bullet.''

Shalikashvili also deplored the "silly argument'' over whether a war can be won with air power only. "I'm delighted that U.S. airpower continues to progress, but anyplace in the world where we have vital national interests, we will need to fight as a joint, air-ground team for maximum effect. Anyone who argues differently is confusing what you can do in a think tank with what's possible in the real world.''

Finally, the Kosovo War will force a new debate about whether in becoming the world's de facto police officers, the armed forces of the United States are big enough, or structured properly, for this new role plus the current requirement of being able to fight two major regional wars almost simultaneously. The war's demands on the U.S. Air Force, for example, were enormous. That branch committed a greater percentage of its air fleet than during Desert Storm or the Vietnam War. "I think we're lucky that a major crisis didn't occur in North Korea or Iraq while this was going on,'' said Khalilzad. "God forbid that they both might have erupted.''

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec