Should NATO Send in Ground Troops?

Dear Bob,

If the United States has firmly determined that Kosovo is worth fighting for, and the president has rallied the necessary political and military support, then we could implement your plan. Like you, having once taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, I’d like to see Congress get back into the mix and restore its constitutional role in this matter. But, for now, let’s say the president gets approval. (This is by no means a certainty. Remember, the Senate only backed Bush by five votes in January 1991.)

Your mission to forcibly retake Kosovo from the Serbs does have clearly defined and achievable military goals. The question is whether they are decisive and sustainable. They are, but only so long as NATO remains the force guaranteeing that Kosovo is not attacked again by the Serbs and that an independent Kosovo does not destabilize the rest of the area with ambitions of its own. In short, NATO would have to maintain a robust presence in the Balkans for some time (at least a decade, probably more), and a political framework would have to be put in place to prevent other ethnic conflicts from flaring up again in the future.

In Bosnia, the military goals supporting peacekeeping (muscular separation of previously warring factions) do not match our support for the political framework for Bosnia (an integrated multiethnic state with common judicial, political, and financial systems). That is the big reason why we are there in our fourth year of that mission after fervent promises from President Clinton that it would last only a year. I do not see an end in sight there, but we are trapped by the fact that leaving will be more cataclysmic than staying. By the way, the cynical political game he played with the timing of the Bosnian extension/election of ‘96 will come back to haunt the president in spades if a Kosovo ground troops vote is taken in Congress. Quite simply, he is not trusted on the Hill.

Who knows how an invasion of Kosovo would go? I think we can assume that some Serbs will fight for what they see as such an important part of Serbia, but I also think they would quickly be overwhelmed. With no wild cards (such as house-to-house fighting or the use of chemical weapons), I think NATO could do it in a few weeks and with less than a few hundred casualties. It really depends on the Serbs.

What would you do about Milosevic if he gives up Kosovo without much of a fight? Do we then make his hand-over or downfall an additional condition of the operation?

More important, if we use the Desert Storm model to invade Kosovo and expel the Serbs, we are subject to the age-old rule of “you broke it, you buy it.” If one NATO soldier sets foot in Kosovo, then NATO owns it until the ethnic tensions in the Balkans are tamped down for an acceptable length of time. What will most likely work is a post-World War II  Germany/Japan style occupation where NATO would keep the peace while the whole region is rebuilt economically. As we’ve seen from the fact that we’re still in Germany and Japan, this can take quite a long time.

I realize it may seem terribly unsophisticated to portray such a complex situation in stark terms, but I do think it comes down to two basic choices: Take a Kosovo-partition deal from Milosevic and contribute to some sort of peacekeeping mission for a decade, or make the Balkans a NATO protectorate until we get bored with them or they have proven that they are bored with fighting each other. That should make for a cheery NATO summit here in Washington later this month.

I’m not a cultural determinist, but I’m not optimistic about making the Balkans into Alsace-Lorraine. I’m not sure NATO’s patience would hold out, and I’m uncomfortable with the precedent it sets for our foreign policy in Europe and elsewhere. Where do we draw the line? Moldavia, Armenia, Chechnya? Does the United States rescue only white people? What happens when parts of Africa or Asia start to go down the same road (well, actually, they have–and much more violently). Do we really have only one tool in the toolbox and that is to invade, occupy, and pacify over long periods of time and at great expense? I’m not sure Americans are ready for the low return from the burdens of Empire.

It is a rare occasion that I agree with Tom Friedman of the New York Times, but I am sympathetic to his column today. Crank up the military pressure on Milosevic, insert ground troops into the area to compound that pressure, and put forward a political framework that can produce a peace that is not imposed at the point of NATO’s gun over the course of decades. What I would add to Friedman’s plan is that a goal must be to indict, isolate, weaken, and remove Milosevic from power. This would mean a partition of Kosovo–but one well in favor of the Albanian majority and one that puts them on the path to eventual independence.

The United States will still be heavily invested–militarily and politically–with such a plan. However, it is also a plan that, over the next few years, can be managed more by Europeans than by a NATO formation dominated by U.S. troops. Moreover, like most lasting peace plans, it should cut in the Serbs who have done nothing wrong. You can’t make a lasting peace in the Balkans without including all the parties.

If there is no hope of that, NATO forces should be positioned to take back Kosovo by force. But, even then–and I cannot stress this enough–the burden of the work lies heavily in the political/diplomatic realm. I cannot remember a time when so many military options were examined without political goals to work toward and frameworks to work within. As Clausewitz said, war has its own grammar, but its logic is the logic of politics.

Right now it appears to me we have the worst of all worlds. Heavy military investment with no return, a campaign that creates a huge humanitarian crisis and makes Serbs bitter and irredentist, no political plan to turn to should Milosevic surrender or make peace, and not enough military power in the area to regain the initiative or conclude an outcome. Who’s gonna bet on that horse?