NATO-led war disadvantages seem all too clear to military

May 21, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- America's military, particularly the Air Force, is backing away from NATO's war in Yugoslavia. This is not only a predictable disavowal of failure, but it also raises serious questions about future U.S. relations with NATO.

It will influence how the U.S. Air Force -- which now considers itself America's "senior service" -- shapes its global strategy, which in turn will determine Washington's future strategic options.

Last week, a leaked report from the Pentagon to the White House warned that victory in Kosovo is impossible without ground intervention. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, went on television to criticize NATO's conduct of the war.

Lieutenant General Michael Short, the U.S. officer in charge of the NATO air war, in a recent interview, criticized the target constraints set on his operations.

At NATO, criticism goes in another direction. Critics call Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO's supreme commander in Europe and a friend of President Clinton's, a "political general." (If his speeches are fair evidence of his thinking, he has a profoundly conventional mind, bureaucratically observant and politically correct.)

General Clark's conduct of operations, dictated by Washington political considerations, is said to resemble the unsuccessful incremental escalations of the Vietnam War; and he reportedly told planning staffs last November that an attack on Yugoslavia should permit "no loss of aircraft."

The staffs considered this a stunningly unreasonable way to make war. Pierre Lefevre, a commentator at the Brussels daily Le Soir, wrote in March that NATO's command seemed convinced that Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic would back down as soon as an attack gave him the excuse to do so: "Airstrikes appear therefore to be an unavoidable stage. NATO has not in any event planned for any other scenario."

That is a damning comment on the competence of NATO leadership, and one that events have tended to confirm. NATO has been fighting the war it planned, without regard to the war Milosevic was fighting -- and winning.

However, NATO's mistakes cannot all be blamed on General Clark, who is an Army officer and understands the need for land operations. The general was ordered to deliver an Air Force war with zero losses (among NATO forces, at least; Kosovo's civilians have to look after themselves).

The case of the Apache helicopters -- sent to Albania with great fanfare at General Clark's request, but which the Pentagon considers too vulnerable to fire from infantry shoulder weapons -- is a grotesque example of Washington-imposed limits.

Such is the modern U.S. military culture. Last year, the director of U.S. Air Force security forces was quoted in the Washington Quarterly: "Force protection has become the Air Force's highest priority. Conducting that mission is now as important as projecting our combat power."

That is no foundation upon which to build a Roman empire for the 21st century, as some U.S. military and civilian theorists would like to see done. It is the foundation for something quite different.

It is a stance that welcomes a strategic conception foreseeing military strikes and campaigns conducted from bases inside the United States or from the sea, using unmanned missiles and robots, or aircraft with stand-off weapons, employing human beings only in "non-hostile environments."

This is a global strategy of national isolationism, with U.S. forces safe behind ocean defenses -- eventually (so it is planned) enjoying the invulnerability provided by anti-missile defenses.

There is no real place here for NATO. The alliance undoubtedly would be maintained for the political leverage it provides the United States in Europe, and because it blocks development of a European rival to NATO, something that's not a serious prospect.

The Kosovo war has offered further evidence to the Pentagon of the disadvantages of coalition war. It makes unnecessary and unwanted complications when 19 governments have their say in decisions.

Some U.S. officers now think that it is easier to work under a U.N. mandate, as in the Persian Gulf, than through NATO. The United States was able to recruit a coalition and run the gulf war as it saw fit.

However, it is easier still to act unilaterally, from a space-defended continental stronghold, striking enemies with robot weaponry commanded through satellites, which offers negligible risk of casualties -- all of this in harmony with the deepest impulses in America's historical relationship to a disordered and threatening world.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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