Should NATO Send in Ground Troops?

Dear John,

Since our last exchange last week, it looks to me like we’re getting closer to a ground war in Kosovo. The deployment of the Apache helicopters, the sending of several thousand U.S. troops to Albania, the NATO estimates that within 10 or 20 days all Albanians will have been driven out of Kosovo, combined with Secretary Albright’s declaration Sunday that the only acceptable outcome is a return of all Albanian refugees to Kosovo–all this suggests to me that a decision to go in on the ground may soon be approaching. Can the administration really believe that they can force Milosevic to withdraw his troops and allow refugees back into Kosovo by airpower alone? Why would the refugees return, absent some NATO military force to provide them protection from another Serb onslaught? And what are the chances that Milosevic will agree to allow in such a force in a “permissive environment”? I suppose there may be some small chance that events could unfold this way, but not much. And I have to give the administration, and Gen. Wesley Clark, enough credit to know that the odds of such a stunning reversal by Milosevic are low.

Therefore, the choice is upon us: Either the administration and NATO cut their losses and negotiate some face-saving settlement with Milosevic, or they send in ground troops. I don’t doubt that some in the administration would prefer the former, but I don’t think Clinton believes he can get away with what the press and his critics will surely declare a surrender. Nor do I believe Clinton and his fellow NATO leaders want to go down in history as the people who fought NATO’s first war, and lost. With Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft now all calling for ground troops, not to mention Sens. McCain, Lugar, and Robb, it seems to me that is the course Clinton will ultimately choose. The fact that the Clinton administration continues to deny this “intention” doesn’t necessarily mean much. I would expect the administration to keep denying it until the president announces that he’s changed his mind.

What then? Do we go in and push the Serbs out of Kosovo, à la Desert Storm and Kuwait? Or do we go beyond Desert Storm and take out the source of the decadelong Balkan crisis, Milosevic? Perhaps you saw Gen. William Odom’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week recommending an invasion of Yugoslavia from Hungary. He didn’t spell out exactly how that might be accomplished, but maybe you can flesh it out a bit.

I share your concerns about the administration’s ability to mount such a campaign and, more importantly, to build public and congressional support for a ground war. Certainly the way it’s conducted the air campaign until recently gives little reason for optimism on either score. I wish I thought that were a good reason to oppose going to a ground attack. But I continue to believe that the stakes of losing this war to Milosevic, in terms of the alliance and of U.S. credibility with other foes like Saddam and the North Koreans, are just too high.

By the way, you made another excellent point last week. What effect will a ground war in the Balkans have on our military capabilities in the Gulf and in East Asia? My guess is that we may be much more vulnerable than we want to be. This is why you and I agree on one thing for sure: The Clinton administration and the Republican Congress need to wake themselves up–and wake up the American people–to the need for vastly increased spending on defense.