Should NATO Send in Ground Troops?

Dear Bob,

The deployment of Apache attack helicopters does appear to represent a new stage in the campaign. Not because of the Apaches themselves but because they come with a large ground “package” (support troops, mechanics, an infantry company for security, communications teams, etc.) that could be as large as 2,000 Army troops. Also, losing Apaches is more likely than losing F-15s or F-16s, which have not been flying below 15,000 feet. Apaches fly at anywhere from 10 to 2,000 feet usually.

I do have two problems with the way this decision was made: First, every increase in military assets and pressure has been very incremental–and undertaken only after the previous policies showed no effect on the Serbs. Gradually reinforcing failing policies, in other words. Second, the secretary of defense and other administration officials are insisting that this does not mark any sort of change in their strategy–just part of the (euphemistically labeled) “campaign.” This is eerily similar to the way in which the United States became involved in Vietnam–a drip, drip, drip of graduated pressure accompanied by officials convincing us it means nothing or was planned for all along. This is the wrong way to go into a war–backing in rather than leaning forward in the saddle. Already you’re seeing the Joint Chiefs leaking their dissatisfaction with the strategy. Is that the rats I hear leaving the ship? …

There was a good piece in the New York Times on Sunday trumpeting the utility of the Powell Doctrine–criteria and all. This is something we’ve disagreed on in the past, but I hope you can see the soundness of those policy considerations I’ve already discussed along with the military principles embodied in “overwhelming force.”

But I must say it doesn’t sound as if you have any problems with overwhelming force in this instance. You know where you want to go. The problem is, the calculations of the Powell Doctrine or similar considerations would present even President Kagan with a bill that he might have trouble selling. While it works, it is not very flexible. And it is meant to be inflexible. In a democracy, it is supposed to be hard to go to war.

Nonetheless, President Clinton is much deterred by this “bill” presented by the military and looks to be completely against investing political capital to convince Americans and the rest of NATO that the fight should be taken to Serbia on the ground. This is my principal concern about the commitment of ground troops: They would go in under a president who wants a free lunch, not a fight. I think he would waste their sacrifices. On their behalf, I’m glad they are not yet committed. Any drunk can take the first punch and get into a fight. It takes a coherent strategy, genuine leadership (not spin), good instincts, and strength of character to get out of a tough fight having accomplished something important. FDR had those qualities. I would not attribute them to the president.

As for the political momentum building for “going all the way”–where’s the beef? Sen. John McCain is profiting from his criticism of the halfway strategy, but he needs to define what he means by “winning” if we are going to continue to hear from him that “now we’re in it, we have to win it.” Is taking back Kosovo the only goal? Do we march on Belgrade? Is Milosevic to be left in power (à la Saddam) or indicted, captured, and tried (à la Noriega)? What about the rest of NATO? Is it to occupy Kosovo? All of Serbia? For how long? To what end? How will we know when we’ve arrived at that end? One of the reasons we are still in Bosnia is we do not know how to measure success. Our kids will pull duty in Kosovo some 20 years from now unless we squarely confront those issues.

This is not to say that all these questions must be definitively concluded before anybody crosses the line. Most wars have these things refined as they go along. Indeed, we have a saying in the military that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Nonetheless, goals and costs must be weighed and presented to the American people as being something worth the possible sacrifices. Otherwise, you have very transient support from a fickle public. The sound and fury from all the Washington pundits and foreign-policy elites doesn’t add up to much when things go wrong and caskets start trickling in to Dover AFB. (With deference to the New York Times’ Johnny Apple and columnist George Will, who both have sons in the Marine Corps.)

I noted that two-thirds of Slate readers have voted to send in the ground troops. I wonder if they’d feel differently if their son, daughter, mother, father, brother, or sister were killed over there and possibly for nothing (Lebanon, Somalia, and Haiti are right back where they started in 1983, 1993, and 1994). If they can still vote to send in the troops after that then the United States has real public support, not voyeuristic empathy. Our troops are prepared to fight (and die) if need be–I know, having just worked with the 82nd Airborne division on a deployment. Those kids are as rough and ready as the ones I went to war with in Desert Storm. Is the rest of the country and its leadership as ready?