Should NATO Send in Ground Troops?

Slate’s Complete Kosovo Coverage

Dear Bob,

You are quite right on the first point–which is why I dropped the national-interest argument once the United States became involved in Bosnia in late 1995. The Balkans are, in the words of Kissinger, a self-created national interest, but one nonetheless. Even derivative national interests become vital when the United States decides to attach its credibility, the future of its flagship alliance, and the rhetoric of total war to this exercise. (How did Milosevic go from being President Clinton’s “partner for peace” in Bosnia to Al Gore’s “Junior League Hitler type” in only a few months?) Nonetheless, we are there. I agree we must get out having accomplished something sustainable.

In terms of whether to send ground troops, I honestly don’t know whether I’m for or against it at this point. It is not an abstract question for me, as a former practitioner and planner of that art–nor is it for the country. When I’ve been asked this question on the ubiquitous talk show circuit, I always ask back, “Well, what do you want them to do?” Cue the blank stares.

Questions about using ground troops in Kosovo cannot be answered in a vacuum. This is not exclusively a moral question. There are many political and military considerations that must be debated–the goals of the operation foremost among them.

As things now stand, there is an inexorable momentum toward thinking about ground troops–but it is a momentum that tends to avoid policy considerations rather than confront them. Current thinking considers ground troops not as part of a proactive policy designed to accomplish something decisive and sustainable but as a tool NATO could use to reinforce a failing policy. This is hardly the way in which to introduce ground forces–as an excuse rather than a strategy. If there is any parallel to Vietnam in all of this, it is in the way in which the military is getting involved–the wrong way around, as our friend H. R. McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty has shown.

Ground troops, or military force of any kind for that matter, must work within a political framework that has defined goals and objectives. There is no evidence that the Clinton administration has a clear framework that NATO’s current or future military operations are working to support. Even if the current air strikes cause Milosevic suddenly to fold, the nature of the peace accords that could emerge as a result is very unclear. Surely Rambouillet cannot be on the table after all that has transpired in Kosovo in the past week. It would make a strategy easier to formulate if the president answered the question, “Toward what are we now bombing?”

Bombing to stymie Milosevic’s murderous actions in Kosovo is a noble response–but a response is not a strategy. There has to be a political endgame in here someplace. The White House has been silent on this score. Critics of the administration who have called for “winning the war” must also flesh out exactly what they mean by that in order to turn inspiring rhetoric into a policy toward which ground troops or other forces could contribute. Sen. Chuck Hagel called for clear and incisive policies and then declared war on Milosevic without a single detail of objectives or goals! Sen. Richard Lugar says, “Send in the troops!” without any details other than that Milosevic should be prosecuted as a war criminal.

The military does not worry so much about difficult, protracted, or even costly missions as much as it has anxieties about incoherent plans, ill-defined endgames, and shoddy policy at the political level that could make irrelevant the sacrifices incurred on the ground. I agree with you that the military is dragging its feet on this by playing up the difficulty of the terrain, weather, enemy, etc. Like Korea in the winter of 1951 was a picnic? Our military can do almost anything we ask of it there–and well. But the foot-dragging is a signal–“Give us better guidance!”

So, you are right that this would be a relatively easy fight for the U.S. military–logistics and transportation being the hardest parts of it all. We have more than enough troops in Germany to occupy Kosovo and defend it from the Serbs. We do not have enough to invade Serbia proper and occupy the country until a democratic election gives us a pro-NATO government in the country we just conquered. I’m not sure which path Hagel, Lugar, Sen. John McCain, and others would have us on. We can do both–no problem from the military standpoint–but there are costs. (One would be having to put Iraq completely on hold for years–and you and I have both written advocating a much harder U.S. military line there.)

It will take a few weeks to get there–too late to affect the crisis but not too late to restore the status quo ante. But I’d like to see some idea of what ground troops will be working toward before–as we say in the airborne community–I tap anybody out the door.

Deploying ground troops should not be seen only as a litmus test for one’s emotional attachment to the plight of Kosovo. It is a serious policy matter that could give the United States half-baked results when we entirely make it up as we go along.

Respectfully yours,