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NATO's Slow Fuse

July 21, 1999

It was no secret during the first weeks of the Kosovo war that Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the American commander of NATO, felt he was being prevented by political differences within the alliance from conducting the kind of air campaign against Yugoslavia that doctrine and experience said was required. NATO operates by consensus, meaning its major decisions are often reached only after its 19 members argue and compromise their way to a unified position. That may work all right in defining broad political objectives. But when it comes to waging war, it can be inhibiting and even crippling.

Clark has now aired his frustrations in an interview with the Washington Post, acknowledging that the need to maintain political cohesion within NATO sharply limited how the air war was initially fought. The soundest course would have been to apply as much pressure as quickly as possible, to shock Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic into recognizing how high the cost of defying NATO would be. Instead, because of political constraints and partly because of poor weather conditions, pressure was stepped up only gradually. The incremental escalation gave Milosevic time to disperse his forces and improve his defensive capabilities.

In the case of Kosovo, the slow escalation did far worse. While NATO continued to debate the limits on bombing, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo proceeded. The 78-day air war was ultimately successful because it forced Milosevic to pull his troops out of Kosovo and let NATO's troops in. But thousands of Kosovar Albanians were slain before Milosevic yielded. And an unnecessarily prolonged air campaign, waged largely by U.S. planes and pilots, added hundreds of millions of dollars to the war's cost.

NATO needs to rethink the issue of political constraints on military actions before it next might have to fight as a coalition. The question of civilian control over the military, which is accepted by all the NATO democracies, doesn't need further debate. But the question of by what measure national political concerns should be allowed to shape military operations does need to be resolved. One NATO ambassador noted on Monday that "we were more worried about how our [military] actions were playing to public opinion in our own capitals rather than analyzing the impact on Milosevic and his regime." That was a mistake that should not be repeated. Holding back doesn't win wars. It only extends war's suffering and costs.

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