Updated: 06-Aug-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 2
Summer 2001
p. 21-23

Instant History

Jamie Shea(1) reflects on continued interest in NATO's Kosovo campaign and reviews five books which have already appeared on the subject.

Although the television images of NATO's bombing missions and of thousands of refugees streaming across borders are more than two years old, the Kosovo conflict continues to generate interest, controversy and occasionally passion. Hardly a month goes by without the appearance of another history or memoir. Some, such as Wesley Clark's recently published account, have been accompanied by a barrage of publicity in the leading news magazines. My records show that more than 200 books on Kosovo have already appeared in the English language alone. To my great surprise, even the most arcane aspects of the Kosovo conflict are being investigated by PhD students. Just last month I was visited by one graduate who was writing his thesis on the semiological linguistic analysis of NATO's press briefings. Several heavyweight actors in this saga, now retired from government, are rumoured to be working on their own accounts. So the battle for the ultimate historical verdict looks set to continue.

Why has such a short and limited conflict generated such a heated debate? Why have so many of the key players felt the need for post factum — and public — vindication? I believe there are two reasons. In the first place, it is the discrepancy in the eyes of many between ends and means. While few disputed the need for international pressure to relieve the plight of the Kosovo Albanians, many recoiled at the use of force on such a scale, particularly when it required air strikes against Yugoslavia as a whole. The belief continued in many quarters that the violence could have been stopped by giving diplomacy more time — a view which overlooks Slobodan Milosevic's categorical rejection of the peace accords worked out at Rambouillet. Others felt that military force should have been threatened earlier and more energetically in order to avoid having ultimately to use it — an argument that too easily presumes Milosevic's rationality in calculating risks and weighing outcomes. Every civilised individual would like means to be directly proportionate to ends. NATO itself tried to do this at the beginning of the air campaign, publicly ruling out ground forces and limiting itself to 50 strike aircraft and targets in or near Kosovo. Unfortunately, instead of stopping, the violence escalated, as Milosevic responded by displacing 1.3 million Kosovo Albanians of whom more than 800,000 were forced over the border. Only two months later, when Allied leaders had demonstrated their total determination to prevail by escalating the air campaign and grappling with the option of ground forces, did Milosevic finally throw in the towel.

The second reason for enduring interest in NATO's Kosovo campaign lies in the voluntarist nature of modern conflict. The vital national interests or physical security of NATO's 19 member states were not directly or immediately threatened by the ethnic violence in Kosovo, even if the possible spill-over of fighting did threaten to destabilise NATO's Partner countries in the region. For all NATO's 19 governments the decision to launch Allied Force was a close call, requiring difficult judgements. Would the price of intervention ultimately be less than that of abstention? Was the extent of the violence against civilians in Kosovo of a sufficient dimension to justify a full-scale air campaign? How could the need to ensure political support within NATO countries be squared with the need for maximum deterrence and, later, a quick, decisive air campaign? How could public support in an Alliance with 19 different governments and public opinions be maintained over the long haul, if the immediate use of force failed to bring Milosevic to heel? How could a convincing legal basis for the use of force be identified in the absence of a UN Security Council Resolution? And how could NATO ensure an improvement in the post-conflict situation and reach a political solution in Kosovo, which would vindicate the decision to use force and justify the inevitable destruction and disruption?

The jury is still out on the last of these questions. Given the legacy of hatred in Kosovo, we may have to wait some years before KFOR can leave the province, secure in the conviction that a multi-ethnic, democratic and prosperous society has been created. But it is the merit of the books listed in this review to have dealt authoritatively with most of the other bitter controversies that clung so doggedly to Allied Force at the time.

Tim Judah's Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press, 2000) is excellent in analysing the origins of the conflict. Starting deep in history, Judah charts the recurrent pattern of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, with both sides enjoying the upper hand at various stages in this long, rather depressing history. Judah, the author of a previous, much-respected book on the Serbs, is a true Balkan specialist and unbeatable on the local factors. While being scrupulously fair to both sides, he charts in detail the splits and radicalisation among Kosovo Albanian leaders and the emergence in the 1990s of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). He has a clear grasp of the key factors that tipped the balance towards violence, in particular the disappointment of Kosovo Albanians that their cause was not taken up at the Dayton Peace Conference in 1995, and the near collapse of the Albanian state in 1997, which allowed the KLA to get its hands on thousands of weapons at bargain-basement prices.

Although Judah shows that the Kosovo Albanians were not angels, he clearly points the finger at Milosevic and Belgrade in consistently failing to address Kosovo Albanian grievances and exacerbating the situation through an increasingly wilful and indiscriminate use of force against the civilian population. It may be tragically typical of Milosevic that he had no clear strategy for dealing with Kosovo and that his spasmodic but brutal actions only succeeded in provoking the very NATO intervention and lengthy armed presence inside Yugoslavia that he wished to avoid.

From a NATO perspective, one of Judah's most helpful observations is that Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing started well before the initiation of air strikes. He points out that in January 1999, two months before Allied Force, the Serb special forces had already forced 300,000 Kosovo Albanians from their homes. He also demonstrates that ethnic cleansing of the local civilian population was on an upward trend and would have increased whether NATO had acted or not. In doing so, he gives the lie to commentators who allege that NATO caused the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo by taking action and that its cure was worse than the disease.

Judah's profound grasp of the psychology of the ethnic Albanian and Serb leaderships comes across clearly but also at the expense of a detailed account of the positions of the 19 Allied governments and their military establishments. In his book, the NATO air campaign is treated only briefly, if succinctly, towards the end. Those wishing to pursue this angle would be better advised to turn to Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo (Brookings Institution Press, 2000) by Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon, both prominent scholars at the Brookings Institution with previous administration experience. For a NATO insider, their account is heartening and sobering at the same time. It is heartening because the authors offer a number of fascinating and intellectually rigorous analyses into the possible alternatives to NATO's approach. In doing so, they show that the alternatives much touted at the time, such as partitioning Kosovo, more vigorously clamping down on the KLA or offering Milosevic concessions to get his agreement to granting Kosovo full autonomy, would not have worked in the circumstances of the spring of 1999. The only way to prevent not only a humanitarian disaster, but the destabilisation of the entire southern Balkans (which would, incidentally, have inflicted lasting damage to NATO's credibility) was, in the view of Daalder and O'Hanlon, for the Alliance to take military action. To paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy, Allied Force was the worst outcome, except for all the others. But having vindicated Allied Force through an exposure of the fallacies of the alternatives, the authors of Winning Ugly are equally unrelenting in their assessment of NATO's conduct of the conflict: hence the bittersweet title of their book. Napoleon once said: "God, if I have to fight, let it be against a coalition." In a similar vein, the pitfalls of Alliance politics and conflict by committee are well analysed, even if the authors acknowledge that, as it is unlikely that nations will conduct humanitarian interventions alone in future, putting up with coalition politics will be de rigueur. Alliances may complicate military decision-making, but they also make it clear to an oppressor that he is up against the international community. Ultimately, this was a key factor in Milosevic's isolation and failure.

Where Daalder and O'Hanlon drive home their argument is in pinpointing the gap between European and US military capabilities in Allied Force, which placed a disproportionate burden on the United States while frustrating European Allies, who felt excluded from the inner circle of decision-making. If coalition warfare is to function smoothly in such operations in future, military contributions within NATO will have to be more evenly matched. Daalder and O'Hanlon also take NATO to task for starting the air campaign too slowly and ruling out a ground option at the beginning, thereby depriving the Alliance's strategy of the element of surprise, which would have kept Milosevic guessing. They have a point, but conflict is the art of the politically possible as well as the militarily desirable. NATO's choice was not between the perfect campaign and the imperfect variant. Given the need to achieve consensus among the 19 NATO governments, it was a choice between an imperfect campaign and none at all. Better perhaps to win ugly than to lose beautifully. Nonetheless, Daalder and O'Hanlon's criticisms cannot be ignored, particularly as they are convinced that: "This war will not be the last time that NATO governments use force to save lives."

Those who suspect that behind every great event there is always a turbulent inside story will be fully served by Waging Modern War (Public Affairs, 2001), the memoir of the commander of Allied Force, the former SACEUR General Wesley Clark. All students of conflict know only too well that the stress of battle and the need for constant decisions often give rise to bureaucratic struggles and personality clashes. Confronting superiors can sometimes be as demanding as confronting adversaries. General Clark documents his frustrations with his Pentagon colleagues with candour. Even NATO officials who were at NATO headquarters during Allied Force will find on reading this book that they only knew half of what was going on behind the scenes. The insider nature of General Clark's book, with its intensive diary-like narrative, makes it a treat for specialist officials and journalists but perhaps less for the general reader who is not familiar with the actors involved. Issues of bureaucratic turf and policy clashes frequently overshadow the author's more general reflections on the nature of modern conflict, the principles of successful crisis management or the prospects for building peace in the Balkans. Books on famous events written by participants inevitably place the author centre stage. In the case of General Clark, this is hardly surprising and offers many valuable insights. But it also means that those who were not in Clark's daily entourage feature only occasionally and fleetingly, even though they also played important roles. What we learn about the author himself is as important as what we learn about the event. General Clark is good at describing the constraints that politicians, the media, NGOs, colleagues and bosses impose on a commander trying to win a modern war, but to some extent most of these constraints have existed for a long time. They dominate the literature on Vietnam, for instance, as much as that on Bosnia or Kosovo.

What one would really have liked from Clark's book is more conceptual analysis of how the new form of hightech, media-spotlight warfare differs from the old. While sympathising with Clark's predicament — trying to convince his Pentagon superiors and colleagues that, whatever the lessons of the Gulf War, overwhelming force is not a doctrine that can be applied to every type of conflict — one wonders at the end of Waging Modern War, what is new or significant about the word "modern".

One stimulating attempt to answer this question comes from Michael Ignatieff in Virtual War (Chalto and Windus 2000). Stringing together contemporary interviews and essays, including one on Clark ("the virtual commander"), Ignatieff's book is full of insights into the elusive modern quest for the perfect war, with zero casualties and impeccable moral and legal justification. Its most interesting discussion is the use of the selective image of reality, both to enhance support at home and to discredit the adversary's cause in the eyes of his own public opinion. But even the best media manipulation, the most persuasive politicians and the most advanced technology cannot conceal the brutality and human suffering of armed conflict indefinitely, any more than it can avoid real casualties. Ultimately, the virtual war of the air waves comes face to face with the real war. Ignatieff, a veteran of the Balkans and most other ethnic conflicts of the past decade, is a real thinker on modern warfare. I can only hope that he will develop these interesting insights into a fuller, more comprehensive work in the future.

The Kosovo conflict witnessed a controversy surrounding NATO's media operations and the daily press briefings from NATO headquarters and Alliance capitals. The public presentation of the conflict has been as hotly debated by journalists as the conduct of military operations themselves. Did NATO deliberately lie? Were there more spin doctors than spokesmen? What is the responsibility of governments and journalists in explaining modern conflicts to the public? An excellent account of NATO's media operation is given by its military spokesman at the time, General Walter Jertz, in Krieg der Worte, Macht der Bilder (Bernard and Graefe, 2001). Jertz is honest in describing NATO's failings as well as its successes in handling the massive international press corps that descended on NATO headquarters for the duration of the air campaign. He makes it clear that, in Clausewitz's "fog of war", getting accurate information from the theatre in real time was never easy, but he demonstrates convincingly that NATO did not deliberately mislead and was often the victim of its own quest for transparency. Jertz highlights many valuable issues for future improvement. One can only hope his book will be published in other languages to give it a wider audience.

NATO has taken a good deal of stick over Kosovo, both at the time and since. There have been revisionists aplenty to seize on every piece of bad news to argue that NATO had no right to intervene militarily. But these books, all well worth the read, show that NATO has nothing to fear or to regret from an in-depth examination of the facts. The authors are all critical of what went wrong or could have been done better. But if Allied Force does not emerge from these histories as a more perfect operation than it really was, neither does the moral and strategic necessity of NATO's intervention in Kosovo appear any less necessary and just.

  1. Jamie Shea is director of NATO's Office of Information and Press.