Choosing not to fight a war

April 02, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- "We may not have the means to stop it," says Javier Solana, NATO's secretary-general, speaking of Serbia's campaign of ethnic cleansing, "but we have shown we have the will to try." Mr. Solana's almost complacent statement -- NATO has meant well; NATO can feel good about itself -- is precisely the reverse of the truth.

Obviously, NATO has the means to subdue threadbare and isolated Serbia. NATO lacks only the will to do so. NATO is choosing to lose a war.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say that NATO is choosing not to fight a war. NATO is waging a sort of war against an eccentric selection of Serbian targets, and NATO is disappointed by the results, even though NATO is essentially unopposed.

Serbia, too, is waging an essentially unopposed war, mostly against unarmed civilians. The surrealism is complete: two simultaneous, parallel wars, one waged unsuccessfully by a military colossus, the other waged successfully by a military midget.

The first seven days of the conflict were seven days that shook the world. On the eve of the April celebration of NATO's 50th anniversary, the most successful alliance in world history may have died by suicide.

Slobodan Milosevic wins if he remains in control of any portion of Kosovo.

Mr. Solana says, "All our energy should be concentrated on stopping the killing and helping the refugees. We are going to continue the bombing until we can guarantee that the killings stop and will not restart."

That statement (which reads like a familiar dark jest: "The floggings will continue until morale improves") is transparently false. Mr. Solana knows that bombing cannot "guarantee" the permanent end to the killing that intensified when the bombing began. Furthermore, NATO has made it abundantly clear that its first objective is to minimize its casualties. Its second objective is to minimize casualties of Serbian civilians.

The killing on the ground vastly accelerated when NATO began its operations with the perverse announcement that it would never occupy any of Serbia's ground without Serbia's permission. By now, reports of NATO's opaque decision-making call to mind President Lyndon Johnson, in the White House basement, poring over maps, authorizing the bombing of this target in North Vietnam but refusing permission for the bombing of that one.

We read that the United States has "urged" NATO to authorize targeting government buildings in downtown Belgrade. Who, exactly, urged whom? Is this "war by committee"? If so, is the committee controlled by its most reluctant members?

On Tuesday President Clinton, who never speaks on this conflict without subtracting from clarity, issued what, amazingly, he obviously thinks was a stern warning to Milosevic:

"He will see that his military will be seriously diminished, key military infrastructure destroyed, the prospect for international support for Serbia's claim to Kosovo increasingly jeopardized."

Earth to commander in chief: Milosevic, unlike NATO, is not fighting to conserve his means of fighting. And Milosevic is not an American lawyer. He does not lose sleep fretting about "international support" for his "claim" to Kosovo. Milosevic may remember what American legalists may not, the homey axiom that possession is nine-tenths of ownership. Milosevic has Kosovo.

NATO's state-of-the-art aircraft -- stymied by rain and clouds-- have not so far seriously jeopardized Milosevic's creation of new facts on the ground by the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Why should he tremble at the prospect that weakened "international support" might jeopardize his "claim" to Kosovo?

As NATO went to war -- sort of -- a warrior who was uneasy about what was beginning, set aside his skepticism and spoke a simple truth. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said: "We're in it and we have to win it."

Instead, NATO is seeing the destruction of what it was fighting to protect: Kosovars and its credibility. NATO's response is an institutional shrug: Well, we tried, sort of.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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