Why celebrate NATO?

April 21, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- NATO's decision, which borders on the bizarre, to proceed with its 50th anniversary celebration is a metaphor for the war that NATO began imprudently, is waging peculiarly and is losing. The celebration, like the war, will proceed pretty much according to plan because there is no plan other than to pretend that things are going as planned.

Within a week, the war begun to "avert a humanitarian disaster" (Prime Minister Tony Blair) was cast by President Clinton as psychotherapy for Kosovars: "NATO's military action has at least given [them] some hope that they have not been completely abandoned to their suffering." Now it has become a war to drive from Kosovo the forces that have made that disaster a fait accompli.

The driving is to be entirely by air power -- what has been called "immaculate coercion." But as the bombing enters its fifth week, there are 7,000 more Yugoslav forces in Kosovo than when the bombing began. NATO talks of bombing into the summer. Having been wrong about almost everything, NATO assumes that Italy will be content to serve indefinitely as NATO's aircraft carrier, and that the other allies will be steadfast.

Mr. Clinton, whose gaucheness borders on the grotesque, proposes a Marshall Plan for the Balkans. Is he unaware of, or just unimpressed by, the fact that the Marshall Plan was proposed in 1947, not 1942? It would be seemly to win the war, or at least have a plausible plan for winning, before trumpeting reconstruction plans. But, then, Mr. Clinton's White House flinches from the word "war," preferring "conflict."

So it almost makes sense, in this context of nonsense, that, while NATO's air armada bombs refineries and fuel depots to cripple Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, ships continue to unload oil in Montenegrin ports. The Washington Post reports: "NATO diplomats say a blockade of Montenegrin ports would be an act of war that many allied governments are reluctant to commit." No act of war during a war? How about an "act of conflict"?

Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander, says Yugoslav forces in Kosovo are "regrouping, refitting, reconstituting and preparing for future operations." But NATO's spokesman, Jamie Shea, says not to worry: Evidence that the plan is working is the fact that Slobodan Milosevic sleeps in a different bunker every night. The New York Times reports that bombing of property owned by Milosevic's cronies is supposed to weaken him -- think of him as a Balkan Boss Tweed -- "by chipping away at his system of political and economic patronage." The Pentagon says the bombing of empty buildings "affects morale and creates instability."

No wonder John Keegan, today's foremost military journalist and historian, says "this war appears to have been conceived by and to be under the control of, insofar as conception and control are words that can be applied at all, the foreign policy establishment instead of soldiers. There is the alarming reek of the seminar about events."

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, calls NATO's decision to begin the war by renouncing the use of ground forces "one of the most unusual actions I've heard in the history of warfare."

When Mr. McCain says we should be "fighting this war as if it were a war with huge stakes involved, instead of some strange interlude between peace initiatives," he may be anticipating a drearily familiar endgame.

In 1994, Jimmy Carter was dispatched to North Korea to fashion a face-saving way for Mr. Clinton to wriggle out from under his bluster, as it turned out to be, regarding North Korea's nuclear program. In February 1998, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was dispatched to Baghdad to fashion a way for Mr. Clinton to back down from one of his empty threats. (Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, promptly issued another: "Failure to allow the inspectors to go where they want, when they want, will result in the use of serious force." Before the year was out, the arms inspectors were out of Iraq.)

Soon we can expect Viktor Chernomyrdin, Boris Yeltsin's Balkan fixer, to begin brokering a way to end NATO's self-impalement on the hook of a "conflict." Look for a "solution" not displeasing to those who control Russia's parliament. Russia's aim is to undermine NATO, so Russia may not rush to interfere with what NATO is doing to itself.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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