Waging war based on polls, not sensible strategy

The United States is disastrously conducting a war without having been attacked, or an ally having been attacked, or any other emergency that would preclude a debate.

April 28, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said, six years ago, that NATO must either "go out of area or out of business," he may have underestimated NATO. It may be doing both.

NATO is pleased as punch to remain unified while waging war for more than a month without suffering a single casualty. However, unity was strained when the alliance escalated "the battle between good and evil, between civilization and barbarity" (Prime Minister Tony Blair's words) by bombing a television station. This was part of phase II of this tidy war to produce a "permissive environment" for troops to deliver Kosovars into "substantial autonomy" under the man NATO depicts as a Balkan Hitler.

The squeamishness of some allies about the attack against the Balkan Hitler's television facilities may be assuaged by the fact that Serbian broadcasting has remarkable recuperative powers. And speaking of such powers, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, cheerily reported that Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic's "operations in Kosovo have been brought to temporary halts on three occasions due to lack of fuel." Which means that Milosevic's forces have improvised recoveries three times -- so far.

Small economy

Still, Serbia, which when the war began had an economy 20 percent smaller than Idaho's, will have a much smaller one when the war ends. The end may come when Serbia figures out how to help NATO surrender its current position, which is, essentially, that Serbia must surrender unconditionally to NATO's terms. They were repeated in NATO's communique, the 15th point of which was especially robust: "We reaffirm our strong support for the democratically elected government of Montenegro. Any move by Belgrade to undermine the government of President [Milo] Djukanovic will have grave consequences."

So, after utterly failing for more than a month to achieve its stated goal of protecting the people of one province of Yugoslavia (Kosovo), NATO feels emboldened to escalate its bluster about another province. What "grave consequences"?

Aside from a resolution declaring that the United Nations is very cross, the only arrow in NATO's quiver is bombing. NATO, which has gone to war in part to polish its credibility, has now made its credibility hostage to a promise of grave consequences for "any" attempt to "undermine" the government in a province where Milosevic has an estimated 12,000 troops.

Republicans seem determined to do nothing -- certainly not their duties, constitutional and others -- that might make this seem like something other than "the Clinton-Gore war."

The United States is disastrously conducting a war without having been attacked, or an ally having been attacked, or any other emergency that would preclude a debate. A debate might prompt the bewildered administration either to devise a more sensible strategy or to liquidate the adventure before more damage is done. But most congressional Republicans seem to see only a chance for electoral advantage.

Democrats display bovine docility by following wherever their nonleader wanders. This, in spite of the fact that his conduct in this crisis refutes the idea that although he is demonstrably as dishonest as the day is long, at least he is intelligent and well-educated. But no one can be either who accepted the premises on which the war was begun -- that Milosevic is Hitlerian but temperate enough that bombers will settle things by tweaking his calculations. Perhaps fresh plans for achieving this are being concocted by game-theorists and "getting to yes" conflict-resolution specialists who, one suspects, are conducting this war.

Key player

The United States is NATO's dominant member. (The National Journal reports that the United States provides 90 percent of NATO's power-projection capability, and that the other 18 members' defense budgets combined amount to 60 percent of U.S. defense spending.) The U.S. commander in chief is incorrigibly dishonest; his arrogance makes him oblivious to his ignorance; his claim to foreign policy competence, mocked by retreats regarding North Korea's and Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction, is annihilated by this policy meltdown.

Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has coined a verb: before plunging into the fog of war, "you should worst-case it."

The question may soon come down to what would be worse for America: A settlement that humiliates NATO by leaving Milosevic better off than he was and Kosovars immeasurably and irreparably worse off than they were? Or a ground war conducted by the NATO committee responsible for the misadventure so far, and in which the dominant nation's forces are commanded by overnight poll results masquerading as a president?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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