NATO's victory was due to a brilliant diplomatic tour d'force.
Having blundered into the war with insufficient preparation or
planning and having prosecuted it amateurishly, NATO's political
leaders ended the war by giving a clinic in diplomatic cunning. Of
course, the prize NATO has won is control over Kosovo, a dubious
trophy at best. We wonder what was second prize? In addition,
war has opened a deep rift inside of NATO and intensified the
anti-reform process in Russia. Along the way, it also drove
U.S.-Chinese relations to the lowest level since Nixon first met
Mao. That is a large price to pay for assuming responsibility for
the Balkans. In fact, responsibility for the Balkans is not
something most sane people would want. But this much must be said:
even if NATO won a booby prize, the concluding diplomacy was a
wonder to behold.
NATO has won the 1999 Serbian War. Of that there can be no doubt.
There are two questions to be asked. First, how did it manage to
win the war? Second, what are the ramifications of this victory?
NATO did not win the war militarily. It won the war with a
breathtaking diplomatic performance in the last week that was
duplicitous, disingenuous, and devious--precisely what brilliant
diplomacy is supposed to be. Yet, at the same moment that NATO's
diplomacy snatched victory from the jaws of military stalemate, its
very characteristics have set the stage for an ongoing and perhaps
insoluble problem not only in the Balkans, but within the councils
of NATO and ultimately, in the global geopolitical reality.
The issue of whether NATO won the war militarily will be debated
for many years. The question of air power's efficacy is always
debated with religious zeal. In this case, the question comes down
to this: why did Slobodan Milosevic agree to the G-8 accords during
his meeting with Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari? Was it because he
could no longer resist militarily? Was it because the cost
Serbia of the air campaign had become unsupportable? Was it
because he felt that he had achieved all that he could achieve
militarily to that point? In other words, did Milosevic think he
was capitulating or did he think he was reaching a satisfactory
Certainly, the ability of Serbia's ground forces to resist a NATO
invasion of Kosovo had not been degraded sufficiently to permit
NATO to enter the "permissive environment" it required. When Serb
military negotiators broke off talks on June 6, NATO forces milled
about along the Kosovo border awaiting Serb permission for NATO
forces to enter. When French forces entered Kosovo a week later,
they reported formidable defenses along the Albanian-Kosovo border,
and expressed relief at not having to face them. Thus, unlike the
Iraqi war of 1991, there can be no argument that NATO's air power
had defeated Serbia's ground forces in Kosovo or elsewhere.
Serbia's ability to resist NATO's entrance into Kosovo remained
The next question about air power is whether it had imposed
strategic and economic costs on Belgrade that were unbearable and
whether these forced Milosevic to capitulate? This is an important
question, since air power theorists since Douhet have argued that
air power could achieve this goal, yet conventional air power
appears to fall consistently short of achieving this mission.
Since military strategies and budgets depend on how this question
is answered, interpreting the origins of Milosevic's actions is far
from an academic issue. It is an important and difficult question.
This is hard to answer because, in part, it depends on what was
going through Milosevic's mind when he agreed to the G-8 terms for
ending the war. But the very nature of the question we pose points
us in the direction of the answer. Since we need to wonder what
went through Milosevic's mind, it is clear we are trying to figure
out the reasons for his actions. Implicitly, the very question
means that Milosevic had a choice. If he had a choice that means
that the weight of the air war was not so unbearable that he could
not endure it. At the same time, maybe Milosevic chose not to
endure it. In other words, air power had not broken Serbia's will,
but the price may have been too high to endure, particularly when
alternatives were available them.
This is, we believe, the best case that can be made for the success
of the air war. That any case exists is remarkable, since the air
war was badly architected and conceived from the beginning. There
were insufficient forces in theater to carry out the sort of
overwhelming strike that NATO air planners felt was required even
to open the possibility of shattering Serbia's will to resist. The
buildup of air forces went too slowly. At no point did available
forces begin to approach the forces available in Desert Storm, in
spite of the fact that terrain, weather, and the correlation of
forces required larger, rather than smaller, forces. The air
campaign was controlled by civilians who triggered it without
sufficient planning and preparation, without providing minimal
resources, and without permitting a target set and tempo of
operations capable of fulfilling the mission. The Kosovo air
campaign was not and can not be a fair test of air power.
That said, it follows that the more extreme claims being made for
the success of the air campaign are unreasonable. The air campaign
did not in any sense conform to air power theory. Assertions that
in spite of all of its defects, it compelled Milosevic to
capitulate are, oddly enough, attacks on air power theorists. If
this air campaign was enough to break Milosevic, then air campaign
strategists themselves have vastly underestimated the impact of air
power. The Kosovo campaign was the polar opposite of what an air
campaign, in theory, required. Air power theorists have no reason
to defend this campaign and defending it undermines much of their
The critical point is that the air campaign did not leave Milosevic
without options. There is no doubt that he could have endured the
campaign that was underway for many months. Milosevic did not act
as he did because the air campaign had crippled him. Milosevic
acted as he did because it appeared to him that a satisfactory
diplomatic resolution was available and because he believed the
geopolitical situation had developed in an unfavorable direction.
Given that the broader strategic environment was moving against him
and a diplomatic option was available, it made no sense to prolong
The shift in the strategic environment was, obviously, the fall of
Primakov and the increasing unreliability of Russia as Serbia's
patron. The diplomatic solution was the G-8 compromise, which was
understood to differ fundamentally from the Rambouillet accord. As
the G-8 was written, Milosevic's acceptance of it did not mean a
capitulation to NATO, but the acceptance of an international
peacekeeping force under UN control, enabled by a UN Security
Council resolution. Since Serbia had accepted the principle of a
foreign presence in Kosovo, but objected to a purely NATO presence,
the G-8 accords seemed to achieve Milosevic's primary objectives.
NATO, mainly the U.S. and U.K., went into action the minute
Milosevic accepted the compromise. First, NATO created a public
atmosphere in which it successfully portrayed Milosevic's
acceptance of G-8 as its own victory. What began as a public
relations campaign designed for domestic consumption, was rapidly
transformed into the accepted reality. In a brilliant, global
public relations campaign, the U.S. and U.K. convinced even the
Serb public that Milosevic had surrendered. Milosevic found
himself trapped in a reality created by NATO.
Behind the atmospherics, there was a defining military reality.
NATO could not enter Kosovo unless the Serbs permitted it.
However, once NATO was in Kosovo, the Serbs lost their ability to
resist. NATO had to convince the Serbs to allow it to enter
Kosovo, past their frontier defenses. Once inside, Serb troops
were immediately helpless, having given up not only their terrain
force multipliers, but also having their lines of supply and
communications shattered and their forces enveloped in mobile
operations. The key was to get the Serbs to permit entry.
From the collapse of the border negotiations with Serbian generals
on the evening of June 6 until the entry of NATO forces on the
morning of June 13, NATO diplomats brilliantly manipulated, by
completely confusing, the situation. For example, they agreed to
enable the Security Council resolution called for by the G-8
accords. They agreed to give the UN control over civil
administration. They agreed to extensions in the Serb pullout.
They agreed to a Russian presence in Kosovo. They agreed with
everything, yet gave away nothing. Their goal was simple: to get
NATO troops into Kosovo. NATO understood that once that was
achieved, NATO would run Kosovo, regardless of agreements.
The critical part of these maneuvers was to keep the Russians under
control. It was, after all, the intervention of a Russian officer
that scuttled the June 5-6 discussions. NATO knew that nothing it
did would satisfy all of the Russians. Therefore, its goal was to
split the Russians into as many camps as possible and to isolate
hard liners. NATO simply had to impress on Milosevic that the
Russians were not prepared to enforce the accords they had
themselves negotiated in Bonn on May 3.
Milosevic and his generals, helpless amidst the political forces
unleashed by NATO, reached out to supportive Russian factions for
help. This led to the Russian intervention in Pristina and NATO's
diplomacy's finest hour. Rather than treating the intervention as
a dangerous crisis, NATO carried on with its basic three-part
program. First, it declared the intervention unimportant, and once
again, image became reality. Second, it isolated the Russian force
strategically, tactically, and politically. Surrounding countries
refused to permit overflights, NATO troops rolled around them, and
NATO's allies in the Kremlin hemmed in NATO's foes. Third, and
most important, by ignoring the Russian intervention, NATO got what
it wanted: its troops passed into Kosovo, behind the mountains and
minefields that had blocked them.
Indeed, the Russian intervention actually helped NATO to get in.
Serb military leaders, with misplaced confidence in the Russian
military's will to confront NATO, committed a fatal error. They
permitted NATO troops to cross the border on schedule. In fact,
they were eager for NATO troops to enter, expecting a confrontation
between them and the Russian forces. This would give Serb troops
the opportunity to join with reinforced Russian troops and compel
NATO to face war or retreat.
Instead, NATO used its influence in Moscow to limit the Pristina
force to a symbolic gesture. NATO then proceeded to surround,
isolate, and ignore the Russians. Russian forces at Pristina,
rather than becoming the trigger of a NATO-Russian confrontation,
became benignly treated hostages. NATO forces, now deep in Kosovo,
proceeded to impose the NATO occupation that Milosevic had resisted
and that the G-8 accords seemed to have avoided. Once NATO got
Serbia to allow a "permissive" entry into Kosovo, NATO was in
This was brilliant diplomacy. The simple fact is that having
blundered into a war they didn't really want, without a prepared
military force or a coherent strategic plan, Clinton, Blair,
Albright, Berger, Cook, Robertson and the rest in the end ran a
clinic in diplomacy. They turned a badly stalemated military
operation that was going nowhere into victory. The end game
provides a textbook in the use of diplomacy for retrieving poor
strategic positions. Even more than a victory for NATO, this was
victory for the Anglo-American coalition that drove this war.
And therein lies the tale. Everything has a cost. The first
that NATO must pay is the victory itself. It now controls Kosovo.
That is a booby prize if there ever was one. Second, NATO is now
responsible for the stability of the whole of the Balkan peninsula.
What the Austro-Hungarians and the Turks found undigestible NATO
will now try to digest. The Balkans is a region whose very
geography breeds insecure states without room for viable
compromises. It can be done, but the mission is, in the long run,
always exhausting. On the bright side, NATO now has a full-time
mission to keep it occupied.
NATO's greatest price will be paid in NATO itself. Gerhard
Schroeder has tried to put a good face on it, but the Germans were
and remain appalled by the risks the Anglo-Americans forced Germany
to accept in relation to the Russians. Schroeder insisted on
Friday that Russia should be treated with "respect," a code word
for avoiding another such confrontation. Germany cannot afford
another episode of Anglo-American diplomatic brilliance. Thus,
when Schroeder said last week that: "Human rights are and should
be inviolable," but that "we have to look at issues very closely
and in fact differentiate between different situations," he was
announcing that it would be a long time before Germany tried this
again. He went on to say that NATO action should be "confined to
its own territory and that should continue to be its way." After
Kosovo, a compliant Germany within NATO simply should not be taken
for granted any longer.
The Kosovo affair carries with it another price: it has intensified
the process in which reformers are losing out to communists and
nationalists. Kosovo was beyond Russia's reach. There are areas
that are very much within its reach, such as the Baltics, Ukraine,
Central Asia, and the Caucasus. NATO has established a precedent:
it can intervene in other countries so long as human rights issues
justify it. Human rights violations abound in the former Soviet
Union. As hard liners inexorably increase their power in the
Kremlin, NATO will have provided them with full justification for
intervention in areas where they have the upper hand and NATO is
without options. If suffering humanity is a justification for war,
NATO just gave Russia the moral basis for reclaiming its empire.
And it should be remembered that Russia may not be able to take on
NATO, but Lithuania or Uzbekistan have a different correlation of
forces, to say the least.
NATO has clearly won a victory and the diplomats have been
instrumental. However, it is a victory in which the price will be,
we think, higher than anyone anticipated or would have been willing
to pay at the beginning of the war. NATO came out of the war
internally weaker than it went in. Russia and China came out of
the war more, rather than less, hostile. The stability of the
Balkans is now a permanent and impossible responsibility for the
West. It was a victory. A few more victories like this and....