War In The Balkans: How Clinton defeated his own generals

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The Independent Online
IF THE peace settlement reached with Belgrade yesterday sticks - and the flurry of diplomatic activity suggests that it may - the rejoicing will nowhere be greater than at the White House. For all the ultra-caution of its first response - "Movement by the Serbian leadership to accept these conditions ... is of course welcome," said President Clinton after a cabinet meeting, "but based on our past experience, we must also be cautious" - the White House will have won. Bill Clinton's war, dismissed as a "coward's war" and ridiculed as "immaculate coercion", will be vindicated.

For the three months of the Nato operation in Kosovo Mr Clinton's was a lone voice. His insistence that the conflict be conducted from the air and only from the air, and that an air war was winnable, was denounced in military circles, ever more openly, as the irresponsible reverie of a non-military man.

The first scenarios worked out by the Pentagon last October posited either a ground war, requiring up to 200,000 troops, or nothing. No one, it was said, had ever won a war from the air alone.

The barely disguised view of US generals, past and present, was that there had either to be total war, or no war at all. If Mr Clinton wanted to prevent Yugoslav leaders from evicting Kosovar Albanians - and having failed in that objective, to ensure their return - he would have to commit ground troops. In the military book, the American president had made a cardinal error in ruling out the use of ground troops at the outset, weakening Nato's bargaining position and narrowing its options. As recently as two weeks ago, a US magazine revealed that the chiefs of staff had written to Mr Clinton arguing for ground troops. The letter dated from before the start of the operation, but the timing of the leak seemed a calculated attempt to force Mr Clinton's hand.

The stature of those arguing for a ground war moreover continually grew. Colin Powell, the hugely respected chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during the Gulf War, and former President Jimmy Carter were among them. Equally strong criticism was coming from Congress: from Democrats who complained that not enough was being done to help the Kosovars, and from two groups of Republicans: the party's isolationist wing which objected to US involvement, and a solid pro-war camp who reproached the President for not trying hard enough to win. Mr Clinton also had to face international pressure, exerted chiefly by Britain, for tougher action in the face of continued Yugoslav intransigence.

Common to their arguments was the view that air bombardment had not prevented the eviction of Albanians from Kosovo and would not force Yugoslav troops out of Kosovo. The time would come, they said, when Nato would have to choose between mounting an invasion of Kosovo or conceding defeat. With the credibility of Nato at stake, defeat was not an option, therefore an invasion looked inevitable. The only question - represented with increasing urgency by British ministers in recent weeks - was when?

Mr Clinton meanwhile made only minimal concessions to his critics: two weeks ago he allowed that "all options" were on the table - including, it was now assumed, ground troops. Then a US newspaper report yesterday said that Mr Clinton was starting to wonder whether he might have been wrong about pursuing only an air war.

In fact, it had been clear from the outset that Mr Clinton had listened to the arguments of his military advisers and had consciously rejected them. If Mr Clinton was to retain public support for intervention over Kosovo and if Nato was to operate as a credible alliance - both preconditions for action - the choice was never between an air war and total war; it was between an air war and no war at all.

With the exception of a tiny window in the first week of the military operation, when the refugee exodus was at its height and three American servicemen were in Serbian captivity, there was no support in the United States for a ground war. Despite multiple attempts by the White House to convince Congress otherwise, Mr Clinton was never given a mandate to engage US troops in combat. He was granted money, he narrowly escaped a complete ban on ground troop deployments, but that was the extent of his room for manoeuvre.

Many critics of Nato's air war over Kosovo drew invidious comparisons with what they saw as the short sharp success achieved in the Gulf War. What the military needed, they argued, was one clear objective and a free hand to accomplish it, not the elaborate picking of targets and political squeamishness about casualties.

Once the expulsion of refugees had begun, as it did within hours of the first Nato bombardment, however, the original objective - to end oppression of Kosovo Albanians was void. Once the first week of bombing had failed to intimidate Yugoslavia into swift submission, the revised objective - to "degrade and destroy" Yugoslavia's military capacity - was more nebulous.

Militarily, the operation was also far more complex than in the Gulf: the terrain, the weather, the mingling of military and civilian populations, all dictated different tactics.

For the public the lesson from the Gulf War was not that ground troops were a prerequisite, but that missiles could be finely directed and civilian casualties kept to a minimum, as well as casualties among Allied troops. These were new demands, and Nato - as Mr Clinton understood, but not his generals - ignored them at its peril.

If Nato ground troops now enter Kosovo not as a force of invasion, but as enforcers of peace, the Kosovo campaign may not have completely rewritten the rules of war - skirmishes and Allied casualties in Kosovo cannot be excluded - but it will have gone a long way towards defining a new type of conflict. It may be a "coward's war", but it is perhaps the only level of war that a squeamish public will support. What is more, it worked.