European Affairs

WINNING UGLY: NATO's War to Save Kosovo     Print Email
Thomas W. Lippmann

By Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon
Reviewed by Thomas W. Lippmann

With the passage of time, the North Atlantic alliance's air war against Serbia in the spring of 1999 may come to be seen as a straightforward, uncomplicated chapter in the tortured history of the Balkans.

Spurred by President Slobodan Milosevic, Serb security forces were inflicting appalling atrocities on the ethnic Albanian population of the province of Kosovo. NATO and the U.N. Security Council demanded an end to the violence. Milosevic defied them repeatedly. And so NATO resorted to force, bombing defense installations and industries, and eventually Serb troops in the field, until Milosevic capitulated.


Behind that simple narrative, however, lies the most complicated international security crisis since the 1973 Middle East War. We are indebted to Ivo H. Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, for this lucid and forthright narrative, which lays out all the dismaying complexities and conflicting imperatives that buffeted NATO as it sailed through these uncharted waters.

Both authors were critical of the air campaign as it unfolded. Even now, despite its ultimate success, they argue that in its initial phase the air war was based on a flawed "bomb and pray" strategy crafted on the erroneous assumption that Milosevic would fold after a few explosions. To their credit, however, they acknowledge that the pressures on President Clinton and all other NATO decision-makers at the time were so great and the issues so complicated that errors in strategy and tactics were probably inevitable.

As the day of reckoning approached, the list of issues that had to be dealt with was daunting. Mr. Clinton, without whose commitment NATO would not be able to act, was undergoing his impeachment trial. The alliance itself was taking in new members from the former Warsaw Pact and just beginning to determine its role in post-Cold War Europe. It had never undertaken combat in its own defense, let alone outside its members' territory.

Some alliance members wanted authorization from the U.N. Security Council before acting; but Russia's opposition to the use of force ensured that no Security Council resolution could be obtained, and as the authors note, "NATO could not allow itself to be prevented from stopping mass murder in its own back yard by unreasonable demands from foreign capitals."

With admirable clarity, Daalder and O'Hanlon explain how this murky international situation was complicated by the realities within Kosovo. Unlike Bosnia, an independent country and a member of the United Nations, Kosovo was - and nominally remains - part of Serbia. The alliance did not favor independence for Kosovo, nor did it wish to become the surrogate air force of the increasingly aggressive ethnic Albanian rebel army.

Moreover, Milosevic had been instrumental in forging and implementing the Dayton agreement that halted the Bosnia conflict, and the allies did not want to reopen that wound. And the entire conflict was destabilizing Kosovo's fragile neighbors, Macedonia and Albania, and threatening to engulf much of southeastern Europe.

The authors' presentation is refreshingly cool and level-headed; they waste little time on episodes that stirred passions when they happened but turned out to have little impact on the outcome of the war, such as the unfortunate air strike on a refugee convoy or the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Assessing the conflict a year after its end, they conclude that it was probably inevitable, but the allies should have done more to try to head it off; that the military campaign was deeply flawed at the outset, and preparations should have been made in advance for the possible use of ground forces; and that in the end, for all the problems, the campaign was a success. Their conclusion that "Kosovo is a much better place today than it would have been absent NATO intervention" seems beyond dispute.

The strength of their book lies less in new information - they rely heavily, as their footnotes show, on previously published material - than in their skill at weaving together the complex skeins of military policy, strategy, politics and diplomacy that came together in a backward corner of Europe.

The authors deserve full marks for clear writing, comprehensive treatment, balanced judgment, and mostly persuasive analysis. Their account of how Russia, despite its opposition to the bombing and its impotent anger at NATO's decision to bypass the Security Council, came to play an essential role in the diplomacy that ended the war is especially enlightening. They also offer a compelling analysis of the fatally flawed October 1998 agreement between Milosevic and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke.

The book does have two weaknesses. The first is that the authors lack any information about what was going on in Milosevic's inner circle, or in Milosevic's head, during the conflict. In their analysis of why Milosevic took the risk of defying NATO and why he eventually yielded, they are obliged to rely on locutions such as "probably" and "it seems likely." It could be years before Belgrade's archives are opened and scholars can fill this gap.

The second is a circularity, or contradiction, in their analysis of the air war. They argue that "given its poor state of preparation, NATO could have lost this war." But 75 pages later, they write "In this David versus Goliath struggle, Goliath just had too many advantages...over an atavistic tin-pot communist dictator and his bands of criminal militias."

Both assessments cannot be correct. But these quibbles aside, Daalder and O'Hanlon have delivered an exemplary book.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.