April 9, 1999
Nato's leaders are treading the path that led to insanity in Vietnam
Another middle way has not worked. The Great Bombing Pretence is collapsing in Kosovo, as it was bound to collapse. Foreign policy is revealed not as focus-grouped, glamorous kid-machismo but as something that kills people.
Nato's bombing adventure in Kosovo looked good for a day or two. But it was always cynical and ill thought-out. Now, with generals on both sides of the Atlantic screaming no, the "immaculate coercion" of the cruise missile war must be followed by the real thing.
In the United States this week I have heard almost no support for Nato's belief that "bombing alone" would win security for Kosovo's Albanians. I hear only Lyndon Johnson's notorious Vietnam quote, "I never felt that this war would be won from the air." Yesterday's New York Times/CBS poll was clear. Will airstrikes stop President Milosevic? Sixty per cent say no. Will America send ground troops? Seventy-five per cent say yes.
The 24 American ground attack helicopters being sent to Albania are the first swallows of an awesome summer. Last October Western diplomats told Mr Milosevic to give autonomy to Kosovo "or else." He was threatening no state, and perpetrating no greater evil than those being ignored by the West in the Caucasus or condoned as a fait accompli in Bosnia. But great men had said "or else," and the networks were watching. So now it is "or else."
Europe thinks it goes to war when diplomacy has failed. America thinks it goes to war when Europe has failed. It is grimly intriguing that the American pro-war lobby is made up of mostly younger people who do not remember (or have forgotten) the Vietnam escalation. The issue, once again, is not the plausibility of the operation but the esteem of Uncle Sam and confidence in America's military omnipotence. As for whether a Kosovan war will be anything but an American one, you can hear, read and talk about this subject from dawn to dusk and not hear a word about British involvement - beyond the complaint that "America is having to rescue Europe from another of its messes."
The collapse of "bombing alone" this past fortnight has been spectacular. The misreading of Mr Milosevic by Nato deserves to rank with Gallipoli and Pearl Harbor in the annals of military incompetence. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair could not have been more clear in the objective. It was to "stopthe killing and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and force Milosevic to grant the region partial autonomy." The bombing has achieved the opposite. By targeting cities, factories and bridges, and hitting enough houses to kill civilians (including, of all obscenities, native Kosovans in Pristina), the bombs have increased support for the regime and made compromise less likely.
Why leaders pursue strategies that so regularly fail (as this approach failed in Iraq) is for psychologists to answer. Mr Milosevic's response was exactly as predicted. Faced with demands that he accept Nato troops on his soil and a promise that they would not be imposed, he had to judge whether that promise was believable. He sensibly concluded that it was not. He urgently moved his formidable army into Kosovo, where until this week not a single bomber had been able to find it.
In two weeks the Yugoslav leader cleared half the province of its Albanian population and, in grim Balkan fashion, treated perhaps hundreds of Albanian men as putative KLA fighters and shot them dead. Mr Milosevic is now in a position to offer a "monitored ceasefire" but with the Kosovo Liberation Army truly crushed. It defies belief that anyone in London or Washington thought bombing alone would achieve any other outcome.
Nato spin-doctors are frantically trying to express "surprise" that Mr Milosevic moved so fast and acted so ruthlessly, and argue that bombing alone was always a long-term strategy, whatever that means. The American press hoots derision at such excuses. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence are known to have been sceptics about bombing from the start. In the nearest Washington comes to an official statement, "sources" this week admitted that there never was any coherence to bombing alone. As a State Department official admitted: "We have accomplished nothing." The policy is dead.
Whether Mr Milosevic would have behaved with the ruthlessness of the past two weeks without the bombing is, of course, horribly moot. What is certain is that before the arrival of Madeleine Albright, Robin Cook, Richard Holbrooke and the world's most powerful bombs, Mr Milosevic was conducting a guerrilla war with the equally ruthless KLA, a group that had scant local support until its cause was "adopted" by Britain and others.
The United Nations last week put the Albanian-Serb balance of atrocities at roughly even. After the arrival of the grandees, Mr Milosevic changed tack and did what he did in Bosnia. He has killed thousands and displaced half a million people, while conceding not one inch to Nato. He has enforced an Albanian diaspora, tweaked Uncle Sam's nose and won the grudging support of Russia and China, important if there is to be a land war. In other words, he has done precisely what President Clinton and MrBlair said they would never let happen.
This week Nato's leaders, having learnt nothing, came up with a new pledge. It was that the displaced people of Kosovo would soon march home under the banner of a Nato protection force. If I were a Kosovan, I would give no more weight to such promises than to an offer of autonomy from Belgrade. The West gave similar pledges under Dayton to displaced Muslims in Bosnia. They have not been honoured.
We now have "the ground option." The Pentagon is reported to have considered the invasion of Kosovo so crazy that it refused to draw up contingency plans. That has had to change under presidential order. Schemes of Vietnamese fantasticality are now being woven. They involve the air cavalry "cleaning" corridors into Kosovo for an infantry advance through the mountains. Behind them will come returning Albanian villagers, to be resettled in safe havens along the border, secured by modern technology from marauding Serbs. What the RAF has left standing of Pristina may have to be flattened. But as they said in Vietnam, you sometimes have to destroy the village to save the village.
In the heat of war, a fine line divides practicality from insanity. An idea later dismissed as risible, like bombing Cambodia or defoliating North Vietnam, may have seemed serviceable at the time. Desperate leaders need desperate ways out of corners. Today's armies, designed to confront communism, are being marched into battle by fidgety leaders to get nasty pictures off the television screen. A wild compulsion appears to have seized Western liberalism as it gazes ogle-eyed at whatever atrocity the networks have selected for the nightly "grief pornography" slot. It is as if, with the Cold War over, liberals now want their turn at playing war games. They want to feel the surge of power, the roar of the chopper blade, the thrill of "bombs away."
If I thought for one minute that the appalling destruction America and Britain are now raining down on Yugoslavia could conceivably achieve its declared objectives, I might ponder the justice of such action. There is such a thing as a world order and it does merit imposition, as in the Falklands and Kuwait. Though the integrity of states should be respected, it is not absolute.
But in Kosovo no virtue appears achievable. A European state, already afflicted by a communist past and a brutalist present, is being plunged into further misery. Those we purport to help are being killed and exiled. The best we can hope is that Mr Milosevic declares his cleansing at an end and invites the "monitors" back, as he did last October. That will be a Nato defeat. But it will be a lesser defeat than the madness now on offer from the hawks of Washington and London.
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