Should NATO Send in Ground Troops?

Slate’s Complete Kosovo Coverage

Dear John,

Can we agree that we’re no longer debating whether the United States and NATO should have gotten involved in Kosovo? You and I have disagreed on this point, but now the U.S. and NATO are involved, and the question is the nature of that involvement. Even if you believed that events in Kosovo over the past year did not warrant American intervention, that judgment would not determine whether under the present circumstances the U.S. should see the operation through to a successful conclusion. You have argued that the U.S. did not have a “national interest” at stake in Kosovo. We can rehash that debate if you like. But wouldn’t you agree that since the bombing began, the national interests at stake have grown considerably to include the future of NATO and the international credibility of the United States?

These are not abstractions. That quintessential realist Henry Kissinger opposed U.S. involvement in Kosovo, and a month ago even opposed sending ground troops as part of a peacekeeping mission in the event an agreement at Rambouillet had been reached. But now Kissinger argues, presumably on the basis of the same realist thinking, that, once begun, the U.S. and NATO cannot afford to lose the battle against Milosevic and that therefore ground troops must, if necessary, be used. Sens. John McCain and Chuck Hagel, not exactly men with itchy trigger fingers, have insisted that the only acceptable “exit strategy” in Kosovo is victory. McCain has even been brave enough to suggest that the interests at stake are sufficiently high as to warrant sending U.S. soldiers into harm’s way with real risk of casualties.

If you agree that failure in this crisis is unacceptable, then the questions concerning ground troops are practical ones: Is it necessary to use ground forces, or can air power alone do the job? Can a ground operation work? Do we have what we need to mount a successful operation in Kosovo? As a decorated veteran of the Gulf War, John, you know the answers better than I do. I had hoped that the use of sufficient air power against Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo would be enough to blunt and eventually break up his ethnic-cleansing offensive. Unfortunately, NATO and the Clinton administration were too reluctant to change their original game plan of steadily escalating pressure against Milosevic, with low casualties on both sides. As a result, the beginning of a riskier and bloodier air assault against tanks and men in Kosovo has been late in coming. It may, in fact, be too late. Unless NATO air power does break up the offensive in the next couple of days–leaving the Kosovo Liberation Army to engage in small-unit combat against the scattered Serb forces–then it looks as if Milosevic will succeed in cleansing vast portions of Kosovo of its Albanian population.

My question for you is this: Does the U.S. have enough forces stationed in Macedonia, in the Adriatic, and in Germany to mount a rapid incursion into Kosovo for the purpose of at least creating an enclave of safety for the ethnic Albanians? From what I gather, Gen. Wesley Clarke seems to think the answer is yes, that a U.S. force, supported by U.S. air power, could hold its own against a Serb force of roughly equal or even greater size. One U.S. Army commander, quoted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, argued that “a reasonably competent American tank company could dispatch an entire brigade [of Yugoslav tanks] without much risk. It would simply be a firing range exercise.” If that’s true, let’s get going.