A review of Kosovo war finds little to cheer about

July 08, 1999|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The war for Kosovo was first described as a triumph of air power, a revolution in warfare and the first humanitarian war. President Clinton, during his trip to the Balkans, seemed to promise more such wars -- proposing what amounts to a Clinton Doctrine of intervention on behalf of the persecuted peoples of the world.

More sober voices will be heard before that comes about. The argument can be made that this war was the last, as well as the first, of its kind, at least so far as NATO is concerned.

The revolution in warfare has proved to be less revolutionary than previously thought, although its consequences will be important in the political power struggle among the U.S. military services.

The "super weapon" systems, confronted with low-tech countermeasures, proved less effective than advertised, and the stealth aircraft not so stealthy. Some systems of battlefield intelligence produced so many false alarms that their users turned them off.

As reports come in on what actually transpired during the war, NATO's triumphalism has become muted. The bombings were indeed the trigger for most of the ethnic cleansing.

A plan, "Operation Horseshoe," had been prepared in Belgrade for the full-scale expulsion and murder of Kosovo Albanians, and it commenced during the hours after the start of the bombings. But ethnic cleansing was clearly a result, as well as the cause, of the NATO bombing campaign.

The air war strategy was responsible for the fact that NATO's actions accelerated and expanded the humanitarian tragedy, while doing next to nothing to interfere with it. The stupidly proclaimed renunciation of a ground campaign, and the allies' (or to be exact, the United States) zero-casualties policy, prevented any effective interference with what the Serbs were doing at lower than 15,000-foot altitudes.

The most important military factor in the victory were the attacks on Serbia's civilian infrastructure -- attacks that NATO intensified after it became evident that the campaign against military forces was failing.

The decisive political factor was undoubtedly Russia's reluctant but inevitable abandonment of the Serbs. Next most important was NATO's maintained unity, which probably would not have survived a NATO land attack in Kosovo. The alliance, in short, was amazingly lucky. It was that luck that won the war.

Internationally, the victory has imposed major, but unacknowledged, political costs upon NATO and the United States, even among people otherwise sympathetic to the need to save the Kosovars. The air war, which spared those who waged and directed it, was dehumanizing -- and a form of oppression to those who helplessly suffered it.

Kosovo has been called a coward's war. This offends those whose lives are spared by fighting from invulnerable airspace, but for the millions who witnessed the Kosovo campaign, it provided a terrifying display of what seemed unaccountable power in the service not of humanity, but merely of the United States and its allies.

It may not have looked that way to Washington, but it did to nearly everyone else, even to people in allied countries who shared NATO's values and goals.

This is why the Kosovo war has acquired a double significance. On the one hand, it represents liberation and justice; on the other, it reveals a dehumanization of conflict -- both through the Serbian forces' and civilians' vile treatment of their Albanian Kosovar fellow citizens, and by the allies' determination to protect themselves from harm, whatever the cost.

Thus the precedent has not inspired hope, but apprehension. It forces small countries to look for deterrence by means of their own weapons of mass destruction, and causes the European allies of the United States to become more serious about organizing their own security. U.S. relations with Russia and China have been severely worsened.

The 44 percent of Americans who told CNN in mid-June that the war was not a victory were right.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/08/99

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