So, What Do We Do Now?

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Dear Owen:

We’re making progress, I think, although it rests largely on the premises we have long shared. Herewith some responses to your questions to me, and some of my own back.

Regarding ground operations, let me commend two recent short pieces, one by Bob Killebrew in Sunday’s “Outlook” section in the Washington Post, and another by Andy Bacevich in the May 3 issue of the National Review. As you know, they are both distinguished retired Army colonels with command, staff, and combat experience. Neither of them think that the challenges would be anything like insuperable. I am not a staff planner (neither is John Keegan), and we don’t have the space here for too many details, but some quick points to deal with your concerns about geography and civilian casualties: First, the force we are sending need by no means consist of massive armored formations; second, you would be amazed at the extent of engineering resources the U.S. services have available, if we are willing to mobilize them; third, weak, dependent allies like Macedonia exist to be coerced into serving as jumping-off points for military operations–and then compensated for it (sounds brutal, but this is war, and to win one must treat it as such). As for Serb civilians, I suspect that those who do not flee will, instead of fighting us, cling to us for dear life. I mean that literally. Much as they may not like NATO, they will far prefer having British or American or French soldiers around their villages than having the KLA (which, by the way, I do not favor arming). Will some get killed in the fighting? Absolutely. So will some of our troops, and so will lots of Serb troops. That’s terrible, but that is war, and that’s what we are waging, no matter how much smooth-talking politicians shrink from using the word.

As for allies and alliances, I quite agree that one could find better folk to go tiger-shooting with than this lot. Unfortunately, the only real man among contemporary European political leaders–Margaret Thatcher–is not available, so Tony Blair will have to do. (Would you feel different if she were in power and on our side, by the way?) The only shred of comfort in this whole sorry business is, in fact, the willingness of the ‘60s-generation European leaders to do anything involving the use of force. In the hands of a more adroit American leadership, we might even persuade them to make this at least halfway a European effort.

Your broader points about NATO do not convince me. This war may have been unwise or avoidable, but the point is that it has begun, and for you to argue that we should have chosen otherwise a month ago does not advance our discussion of what to do now. Your assertion that in recent decades NATO’s “mystique grew and it exuded an air of invincibility” I find hard to understand. Particularly in recent years it has been a gaseous, unwieldy debating society, good at standardizing military procedures and exposing soldiers and diplomats to one another. But possessed of a mystique? Surely you jest. The central European states want in because it’s a way of getting an American guarantee and free security for the foreseeable future–it has nothing to do with NATO’s mystique.

Your concern about the norm of respect for sovereignty does not make sense. You are a realist in international relations: Do you really think that states respect sovereignty because it is a principle, or because they fear the consequences if they do not? (Come to think of it, did Britain respect American sovereignty when it shipped arms to the Confederacy? Has France respected the sovereignty of a host of African states? What respect has China shown for Tibetan, or Russia for Belarus’ sovereignty? For that matter, the United States tramples on national sovereignty all the time for far less compelling causes, like appeasing the Cuban-American lobby.) You are right, this is not genocide going on in Kosovo, but it’s something truly ghastly, and more than just a bit of nastiness within borders. It’s systematic mass murder, rape, and deportation, and if we can quash it, at a reasonable price, that’s not a bad thing to do. Yes, we are being inconsistent, but so too are prosecutors who have to pick which criminals they are going to pursue with a vengeance, and those that will cop a plea.

Now, some questions for you. How would you propose implementing your policy of bailing out? What kind of deal could we get? Where would the Kosovars go? Is credibility not an issue at all in your book? And how would NATO fair if, after all the pronouncements thus far (and we don’t get to turn the calendar back five weeks!), it were to shrug its shoulders and walk away?

Over to you.