NATO can't justify this cowardly strategy

May 13, 1999|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS -- The war between Serbia and NATO has reached its endgame, which is political, and concerns the terms on which the two sides will settle. Slobodan Milosevic has demonstrated far more skill at this sort of thing than anyone holding a position of responsibility in the NATO countries. One therefore expects the worst.

We are in the endgame because NATO is unwilling to undertake a ground war that could succeed. It conducts an air campaign, which has proven indecisive and offers no promise of producing a decisive outcome within the limited time still available to the alliance.

This lack of success has undermined public support in the NATO countries and contributed to alienating opinion in the larger world.

There is a moral ambiguity in the way the war has been fought that has created a very widely felt unease. This moral malaise -- which has nothing to do with bombing mistakes or civilian casualties -- is being ignored by the political leaders of the alliance. Time is running out for NATO's air war, yet nowhere is a sense of urgency apparent.

This shift in moral perception contradicts the Western sense of resolution and willingness to sacrifice, as displayed in the polls during early April, when NATO's attack on Serbia -- meant to force it to halt its outrageous assault upon more than a million members of its ethnic Albanian minority -- seemed an act of clear and refreshing moral purpose.

The political "realist" might have questioned the prudence of NATO's decision or the long-term utility of its policy, in the light of the Balkans' history of ethnic struggle, or because an important and dangerous precedent was set by violating the Serbian nation's sovereignty.

However, the realist would have admitted that an effort to defend or help the persecuted Albanian Kosovar minority was, in itself, a moral act -- presuming that it was efficacious.

No helping hand

Morality, however, is qualified by the question of efficacy. Has NATO accomplished anything that has helped the Kosovars? Thus far, the answer is no. NATO has ignored them because defending them did not fit the NATO war plan. It seemed too dangerous.

Efficacy is indispensable to political morality. Making war uselessly is not a moral policy. To be morally defensible, a war must have a reasonable prospect of ending or alleviating the harm that is the reason for going to war.

Half the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo -- 900,000 people -- have been expelled into misery abroad, and hundreds of thousands more, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, are on the roads or hiding in the mountains of Kosovo. Serbia's objective of depopulating the country of ethnic Albanians is nearly accomplished.

NATO has done virtually nothing to interfere with this, even though it possesses the means for doing so. Its huge array of ground power and tactical air power remains in barracks and hangars.

NATO's plan -- which obviously is a U.S. plan -- has once again been to try to force an enemy to yield in that dimension of the war he is winning, and which is vital to him, through punishing him in another dimension of war more accessible, more convenient and safer for the intervening power.

War games

Another cause of the moral disorder in NATO's position has been the effort to pretend that this is not a war at all. President Clinton says NATO "is not at war with the Serbian people." Why not? Most Serbs have for more than a decade endorsed Milosevic as their leader and have supported his policies of ethnic cleansing. Why have they no responsibility for what has happened since 1991.

The ultimate reason why a moral shadow has fallen over NATO's conduct of this war is that its actions have reflected the assumption that the lives of NATO's soldiers and airmen are more valuable than the lives of Yugoslavs.

So far, NATO has not had a single war casualty. Serbia has probably suffered several thousand, chiefly from NATO bombing of troops. Kosovo's total, like Serbia's, is unknown, but fatalities there must be in the tens of thousands. Also, there have been the well-attested rapes, other deliberate humiliations or degradations of ethnic Albanians.

The political conduct of the war has been cowardly. NATO's war strategy has dishonored that organization. The protection of civilians is a military obligation.

The only moral justification for NATO's initial intervention was the protection and rescue of civilians. To have subsequently killed from a great distance, while assuring NATO safety at the cost of civilian suffering, has been dishonoring. This is why support for NATO is in decline.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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