AuthorMoorcraft, Paul
PositionNATO's Balkan campaigns

Paul Moorcraft provides an interim report on NATO's Balkan campaigns.

`Political correctness has finally conquered even Clausewitz.' That might be the interim report on NATO's two shooting wars against the Serbs. It is always dangerous to risk strategic overviews in the middle of a war, especially in a highly volatile region such as the Balkans. But, at the time of writing, with the Kosovo War just concluded, some tentative conclusions may be suggested.

Clausewitz's chief dictum was that the military should be used to achieve a pre-ordained political goal. In Kosovo the professed goal of NATO's 19 democratic nations was to stop the eviction of the ethnic Albanians, who made up more than 90 per cent of the province's population. This failed. Approximately half of the Albanian Kosovars, over 800,000, were forced out, or fled, after the bombing began. Many thousands became internal refugees. The war had other aims: notably, stabilising the Balkans and, by default, the preservation of NATO's credibility; even the alliance's survival seemed at stake. Gradually, then, NATO's war aims expanded. Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, some alliance politicians said that the Serb regime must be toppled.

The desired end-state in Kosovo was fudged, and so might be the final settlement. The lessons of the Vietnam failure and Gulf War success were ignored: victory requires a clear and achievable war aim, domestic support, the use of rapid and overwhelming force, and a clear exit strategy. None of these applied to NATO's war against Serbia.

Radical humanitarianism

A part of the reason is what may be termed the new `Radical Humanitarianism'. The Gulf War was largely about oil, but the Kosovo War was primarily fuelled by humanitarian impulses. One British newspaper columnist described Prime Minister Tony Blair as `the high priest of the secular religion of human rights'. Few would doubt Blair's sincerity about combating the atrocities committed against the Kosovars but, in war, idealism without military-realism is fatal. An over-optimistic, even simplistic, belief that a short air war would crush the Serbs was the first major blunder of the `something-must-be-done' school. The optimists thought that air power could win the war in 72 hours.

`Air power,' as Eliot Cohen noted in the Foreign Affairs journal, `is an unusually seductive form of military strength because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.'

Some American intelligence reports had bolstered the instinctive tendency of politicians to go for the quick fix, but the majority of professional military analysts in the United Kingdom and the United States warned that air power alone, especially with initial minimum force, was not guaranteed to compel the Serbs to surrender. Presumably, the generals have carefully recorded these reservations for any future postmortems. It took NATO 12 days to launch the same number of combat operations flown in the first 12 hours of the 1991 Gulf War. No military leader of the calibre of Norman Schwarzkopf was able to stamp his personality on the Kosovo War or fashion a coherent overall strategy. Even in democracies, sometimes generals need to have the cojones -- to use Madeleine Albright's pert phrase -- to say `no' to political armchair strategists.

Insufficient support

With the war over, the Anglo-American political leadership will argue that there was insufficient domestic support, at the outset, for a ground war. That may be true, but it could also be an indictment of the leadership style of the US President. No amount of military professionalism can compensate for the absence of political will. Fortunately, President Clinton's luck held, once again. He did not have to face up to a ground war. Apparently, the Russians persuaded the Serb government that NATO forces in Macedonia and Albania were shaping up for a forced entry into Kosovo. When Moscow finally decided to dump their old allies in Belgrade, and to join the EU mediation, Milosevic realised he was on his own.

Although the air campaign, Operation Allied Force, appears to defy military precedent, it was mainly the increasingly serious threat of ground attack, allied to the abandonment by Moscow, which forced the Serbs to back down. It is also true that attrition played a part: 10,000 Serb military casualties, dead and wounded, without a single loss from fighting on the Allied side. Nevertheless, the expectation that the Serbs would succumb after a few days of bombardment was a serious miscalculation.

Did the first NATO-Serb war (1994-95) teach the politicians nothing? That war was also fought for allegedly humanitarian reasons; Bosnia's long and bitter struggle caused the deaths of tens of thousands and the forced mass movement of Europeans. It could be argued that forceful and timely action by NATO could have prevented the Bosnian tragedy. Yet, by the summer of 1999, another NATO war had swamped...

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