War In the Balkans - Strategy: Clinton stuck to `coward's war' strategy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIRST RESPONSES in Washington to Belgrade's reported capitulation were cautious in the extreme. President Clinton said what the alliance wanted was proof of Serbian withdrawl before the bombing stops.

The US has grown too weary of Slobodan Milosevic's promises to take his word at face value. But if initial reports are borne out, and the Yugoslav parliament's vote suggests for the first time in three months that they could be, nowhere will the satisfaction be greater than at the White House. President Clinton's war, dismissed as a "coward's war" and ridiculed as "immaculate coercion", will have been 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, ever more openly, as the irresponsible reverie of a non-military man. No one, it was said, had ever won a war from the air alone and no one would do so now.

The consensus against Mr Clinton was broad. The hopelessness of an air war was advanced periodically by the Pentagon, even as the military operation was in progress. It was embraced by a solid body of opposition politicians, chief among them Senator John McCain, whose credentials as a Vietnam veteran, former prisoner-of-war and survivor of torture, gave him moral and military authority.

And it was argued at key junctures in political forums, from Britain, by Tony Blair.

All argued that air bombardment alone would not force Yugoslav troops from Kosovo, at which point Nato would have to choose between mounting what would be, in effect, an invasion of Kosovo or conceding defeat. With defeat not an option, either for Washington or for Nato's credibility, an invasion looked inevitable. The only question - as represented with increasing urgency by British ministers in recent weeks - was when?

At the outset, the barely disguised view of US generals 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. The expression "ground troops" was always a code for "ground troops in a combat capacity". It was never the armed peace-keeping or peace-making force that Mr Clinton and a majority of Nato countries favoured.

As recently as two weeks ago, a US magazine revealed the existence of a letter to Mr Clinton from the chiefs of staff arguing for ground troops. The letter had been written before the start of the military operation, but the timing of the leak appeared to be a calculated attempt to force Mr Clinton's hand.

Colin Powell, the hugely respected chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during the Gulf War, expressed misgivings about the half-hearted nature of the war, as did former President Jimmy Carter. These were supremely influential voices. Mr Clinton ignored - or, as was in fact the case, actually rejected - their advice at his peril.

Two considerations underlying Mr Clinton's position, however, were neglected by his critics. His real options were distinctly limited and, while his military experience is zero, his political instincts are second to none. The choice for Mr Clinton 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 public support for a ground war. Congressional support was even less.

To be sure, Congress voted Mr Clinton twice as much money for the Nato operation than he had requested - except that half of it was earmarked to make up for what the Republicans regarded as unwarranted cuts in the past six years. Congress also voted not to restrict the US contribution to the Nato operation. Congress would not, however, give Mr Clinton the mandate he needed to send US troops into combat. And with public support for ground troops declining, the deployment of troops in combat represented a big risk.

Much of the military criticism of Mr Clinton's pursuit of an air war alone derived from the US experience of the Gulf War. If the deployment of troops in combat is avoided, this will bear out yet again the adage that generals are always fighting the last war.

General Powell and others advocated all-powerful air assaults at the outset, followed up with ground troops. Not stated, but implied, was also a free rein for the military in determining how to achieve the desired objective. Once the expulsion of refugees had begun, as it did within hours of the first Nato bombardment, the first objective - to prevent oppression of Kosovar Albanians was void. The revised objective - to "degrade and destroy" Mr Milosevic'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.

The imperative was to retain public support and preserve a united front within Nato and keep civilian casualties and damage to the minimum. The lesson from the Gulf War for America was not that ground troops are required to win a war, but that missiles can now be finely targeted and civilian casualties avoided, along with casualties among Allied troops.

If Nato ground troops now enter Kosovo not as a force of invasion, but as enforcers of peace, Mr Clinton will not have completely rewritten the rules of war - there could still be skirmishes and casualties in Kosovo - but he 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 sort of war that a squeamish public will support. What is more, it has worked.