European Affairs

Waging Modern War     Print Email

By General Wesley K. Clark
Reviewed by Michael D. Mosettig

For its first 50 years, one of the strongest political and military alliances ever assembled - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - was never tested in the battle it anticipated against a mighty Soviet Union. When NATO did go into combat, amid a massive anniversary celebration, few could have imagined a three-month air campaign against a §ea speck of an adversary and that the alliance would achieve its limited objectives largely by luck.

NATO's war for Kosovo has already been well chronicled, in two first drafts of history, by journalists Michael Ignatieff and Tim Judah. Now we have the first Kosovo memoir by a major participant, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), the American General Wesley Clark. He has produced a remarkably forthright account of his stewardship that provides 21st century reinforcement for the Clausewitz principle that war is an extension of politics by other means.

By training, Clark would have seemed ideally suited to the role that history conferred on him. A West Point graduate and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, his rise through the ranks included politically sensitive assignments. He shared Arkansas roots with his commander in chief, President Bill Clinton.

But although his political training and instincts served him well in his European command, his memoir is a chronicle of ill-fortune in his dealings with his colleagues and superiors at the Pentagon. This account of those misadventures inside the American military will provide new ammunition to European politicians and defense analysts arguing for an independent or autonomous European force.

As SACEUR, Clark officially wore two hats: commander of all allied forces committed to NATO, and commander of all U.S. forces in Europe. That meant he reported through two separate channels: to the American President, via the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense, and to the NATO Council and Secretary General, in this instance the Spaniard Javier Solana.

Solana, the one-time Socialist politician who had opposed Spanish entry into NATO a decade earlier, comes across in this account as an adroit and courageous diplomat, instrumental to the success of the Kosovo war.

When, after months of delay and unsuccessful diplomacy, the decision was made in March 1999 to attack Serbia, Clark effectively found himself running three campaigns simultaneously. The first was the effort at "coercive diplomacy" to force Slobodan Milosevic by aerial bombardment to stop his assaults on the Kosovar Albanian population.

The second involved coalition diplomacy among NATO nations on how to conduct the war. The third was a non-stop battle with the Pentagon over the strategy, tactics and resources to be devoted to a con§ict that many in the American military did not want to fight.

Clark argues that the air war was ultimately successful, even with the occasional errors such as hitting the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade that drew so much negative attention and that caused so much friction among the allies. Not a single allied pilot was lost, and Milosevic ultimately caved, though his surprise decision to do so still remains a mystery.

The Serb leader may well have succumbed to the threat of a ground attack that was being put together, albeit haphazardly and discordantly, by the U.S. and allied armies.

Clark's account of politics and diplomacy inside NATO councils seems direct and honest. There were obvious differences of opinion and perspectives, especially over tactics, such as whether to bomb strategic targets or to try to use air forces to kill tanks and vehicles on the ground before they were deployed against the Kosovars.

Even trickier was the task of running target approvals through the American chain of command, while also gaining the concurrence of the allies. Obviously, this was not easy. But as Clark points out, the Americans did resist the temptation of unilateral targeting and the allies did share 40 percent of the air assaults.

Nevertheless, the most intense moment of the war came at its end, as Russian troops brie§y occupied the Pristina airfield, and brought a confrontation between the United States and its faithful ally, the United Kingdom. The top British General, Sir Michael Jackson, refused a direct order from Clark to take the airfield, dramatically declaring he was not following orders from Washington that could start World War III. Jackson's London superiors backed him up, much to Clark's chagrin, especially when he discovered his backing in Washington had gone wobbly.

This was yet another example of how soggy Clark's footing had become in the Pentagon. During the war itself, his problems with his American colleagues, best portrayed in the endless delays in deploying the Apache attack helicopters, ostensibly an ace in the American armory, which never actually went into action. His path to the Pentagon seemed littered with banana peels, faux pas and misunderstandings that eventually led to his ignominious replacement as SACEUR soon after the war ended, well before his normal rotation.

One imagines there were personality problems that he does not or cannot explain. More fundamentally, however, the brick walls that Clark ran into were about doctrine, strategy and Pentagon politics.

Basically, much of the civilian and military leadership of the U.S. defense establishment did not want to be involved in the Balkans. American post-Cold War military planning had become so transfixed by preparations for fighting in the Persian Gulf and Korea (the so-called Two Medium Regional Con§icts Plan) that it appeared incapable of adjusting to real con§icts taking place elsewhere.

Clark's tragi-comic accounts of appealing for resources for the real war in Kosovo, and being rebuffed by Pentagon generals who wanted to husband those assets for wars that were not being fought, could be fodder for a new generation of books like Joseph Heller's manic depiction of World War II in Catch-22.

Instead, these memoirs are likely to be real ammunition for French and other European diplomats and military leaders who question American willingness to confront future crises in Europe.

Clark asserts that Kosovo, not the Gulf War of 1991, represents the likely wars of the future for the United States and its European allies, fought in uncertain terrain for limited or humanitarian goals. That is a scary proposition, not only for the U.S. military, which clearly has no appetite for such combat, but for many political leaders in the alliance as well.

As Clark avers, a key reason the war was pursued as strongly as it was, while public support was dubious at best in most of the allied democracies, was that the major allies could not afford the alternative of losing, that is to say of stopping the bombing without forcing Milosevic to end his terror campaign against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. Nor could NATO as an institution have tolerated such an outcome.

Perhaps the most succinct commentary on the Kosovo war came soon after it ended from an unnamed NATO defense minister, who said: "We never want to do this again." The value of this memoir is that it forces to the front the worrying riposte: but what if we have to?


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number III in the Summer of 2001.