Kosovo: A General Lament

Kosovo: A General Lament


In mid-June of 1999 NATO’s first military campaign ended in victory over Yugoslavia. It may have been the first war in history in which the winning side suffered no combat casualties. America’s coercive diplomacy had worked. Yet for Wesley Clark, the US Army general who led the NATO forces in the fight, “it didn’t feel like a victory.” Most other NATO leaders felt “simply relieved” the whole affair was over.

A few weeks later, Clark was rewarded by being summarily relieved of his command, notified via phone call by Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Within an hour he received another long-distance call from a reporter in Washington who had been tipped off. It may just be a rumor, Clark said, hoping to find a graceful way out. He immediately called Shelton back, suggesting that premature publicity would be humiliating to him personally. “All you have to do is correct the leak and say it’s just rumor,” Clark pleaded. That was impossible, Shelton said. The Pentagon had already notified Congress about his replacement. Clark then phoned Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was traveling in Japan. When Cohen finally accepted the call, he was brief: The decision had been made and “you should know it’s been cleared by the White House.”

This dramatic passage helps explain why Clark wrote this book. Waging Modern War is dressed up as an analysis of the changing nature of contemporary conflict; the struggles over Bosnia and Kosovo are indeed presented here as a string of high-powered conferences, press briefings and frantic phone exchanges. But they provide the background for Clark’s other war–against his own superiors in the Pentagon–and the infighting in Washington’s bureaucratic jungle makes for more fascinating reading.

The villains in this rather bitter tale are Cohen, Shelton, Army Chief Dennis Reimer and other mostly unnamed Pentagon officials who restricted “my interactions within the broader U.S. government,” as well as the media and Congress. The Joint Chiefs prevented him from achieving a clear military victory–by resisting “their obligation to win” and failing to “support” him. Shelton is portrayed as a detached and vague executive without “Washington experience” or understanding of how NATO works; Reimer is depicted as a Machiavellian figure plotting in the shadows to undermine the man whom he once considered a potential Army chief of staff.

In short, Clark insinuates that he was set up, just as a friendly Congressman had warned him. His requests were ignored. He was muzzled. At one point Cohen ordered him “to get his f—- face off the TV.” His 800-plus aircraft using the latest weaponry seemed unable to inflict significant damage on Slobodan Milosevic’s military and police forces. But how could they do it when each target had to be approved by the White House? Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Clark’s frustrations. But the way he relates them seems designed to seduce the reader into believing that if only he had been allowed to execute his strategy–for example, to deploy Apache helicopters–the course of the war would have been different.

The Apache issue is in some ways a central unifying theme of the narrative. The modern helicopters, tanks and artillery pieces that Clark assembled in northern Albania were never used because the Joint Chiefs thought the plan too risky. The vulnerabilities of the Apaches in the rugged and inhospitable Albanian Alps were all too evident; a couple of them were lost in training missions near the steep mountain walls that form the natural frontier between Yugoslavia and Albania.

But the Apache issue is something of a red herring. The real policy disagreements centered around the use of American power in conflicts where US national interests are ill defined or missing, as we can see from the following two exchanges recorded by Clark.

First, at the White House Clark contends he was knocking on an open door in offering his view that Milosevic would back down if confronted by the threat of airstrikes. He finds National Security Adviser Sandy Berger “interested” and “receptive.” “And you think the air threat will deter him?” Berger asks. “Of course, there’s no guarantee. But, yes,” Clark replies. There are no follow-up questions–Berger only “nodded in assent”–presumably because he had heard similar advice from two top civilian experts on Milosevic and the Balkans, Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke. (Albright publicly likened Milosevic to a “schoolyard bully” who would collapse after a few punches.)

At the Pentagon, however, Clark’s hunch sets off alarm bells. “What…if the air threat doesn’t deter him?” Gen. Joe Ralston asks. “It will work,” Clark says, adding that he knows Milosevic “as well as anyone.” Ralston persists: “OK, but let’s just say it doesn’t. What will we do?” “We’ll bomb,” Clark replies. “Right, but you know that there are real limitations on what the Air Force can do,” Ralston says. “And what if the bombing doesn’t work?” Clark: “I think that’s unlikely, but in that event, I guess we’d have to do something on the ground, directed at Kosovo.” What if that doesn’t work, asks Ralston. We’ll keep going, replies Clark, suggesting a full-scale ground involvement. But it would not come to that, Clark assures Ralston, because he knows that Milosevic does not want to get bombed.

In Waging Modern War, Clark breezily dismisses Ralston’s concerns as “innate conservatism” and proceeds to outline his own bold views on war in the post-cold war era. Traditional US military education, he says, still focuses on Clausewitz’s assertion that “no one in his right mind would, or ought to, begin a war if he didn’t know how to finish it.” Clark continues:

In practice, this proved to be an unreasonable standard. In dealing with complex military-diplomatic situations, the assertion of power itself changed the options. And trying to think through the problem to its conclusions in military terms always drove one to ‘worst-case’ analysis. Had we done this in Bosnia we could well have talked ourselves out of participating in any agreement.

Later, when the war was going badly and the skepticism of the Joint Chiefs was vindicated, the question of an eventual ground invasion became another source of contention. The Joint Chiefs had considered a ground campaign from the north, while Clark insisted on the southern strategy–moving troops from Albania into Kosovo. In arguing against the northern option, Clark asserts that “the Yugoslav military would be well prepared to defend” the approaches through the Pannonian flatlands north of Belgrade. His other concerns were “the problem of urban warfare in Belgrade, or the determined resistance of the Serb population along the way.”

But Clark is on very shaky ground here. The basic Yugoslav defense posture has been based on the realization that the country could not rely on frontal defenses or actions by regular armed forces against a superior enemy entering the northern flatlands, which are natural tank country. (There are no military fortifications of any kind between the Hungarian border and Belgrade, although Yugoslavia had acquired a substantial number of American TOW antitank missiles.) The basic defense force was a universal citizens’ militia known as the territorial army. The role of the regular armed forces was to slow down an expected Russian attack from the north and withdraw into the mountains and merge with the territorial army to conduct defense in depth, or partisan warfare.

The strength of this defensive nation-in-arms concept, quite apart from the recognition of realities, rests on its message to potential invaders that the price of an attack will be high. Ironically, it was shown to be highly effective during the Yugoslav wars. When Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, both had strong territorial armies (which were always under local control) and were capable of successfully resisting a far better equipped Yugoslav army, which was under Milosevic’s control.

Clark offers no evidence in his memoir of having made a sustained attempt to understand the enemy’s defense doctrine. He suggests that the Pentagon’s reluctance to commit US ground forces to a campaign in the rugged and inhospitable mountains reflected the capriciousness of the Joint Chiefs. Some of them, he says, were “almost looking for reasons why the ground attack in Kosovo would not work rather than how to make it work.” In questioning the “quality” of the Joint Chiefs’ advice to President Clinton, Clark says that “none of them had seen or studied the terrain in northeast Albania.” But speaking as someone who has crossed, several times, all of the six mountain passes between the former Yugoslavia and Albania, I find their skepticism entirely reasonable. I could not imagine an Abrams tank negotiating any of them without prior extensive engineering road work.

Moreover, the general is apparently unaware that Yugoslavia had a close military relationship with the United States ever since President Truman unilaterally offered several planeloads of US military communications equipment to Tito in 1949. For a while, Yugoslavia was formally linked to NATO by virtue of the Balkan defense pact that Tito concluded with Greece and Turkey, both NATO members. The Pentagon had a fairly detailed knowledge of Yugoslavia’s defenses. (American pilots knew the exact location of the underground military communications center outside Belgrade; they unsuccessfully tried to destroy it during the first day of the war.) The Yugoslavs, unlike the Iraqis, knew well how the US military operates; most of their senior officers had passed through US military academies.

But tactical disagreements only highlight a deeper split in Washington’s establishment about how to manage America’s pre-eminence in the post-cold war world. On one side were defense and foreign policy experts around President Clinton who saw American hegemony as a way to solve the world’s problems. The “laptop bombardiers,” as these experts are sometimes referred to, insisted that the United States and its allies could and should use force against a sovereign country in order to halt the abuse of human rights by its regime against its own citizens. (This was first applied in Bosnia, not in Rwanda, where, at roughly the same time, far more people were massacred within a far shorter period of time.) The assertion of power in this context was described as a moral act driven solely by our commitment to humanitarian values.

The Joint Chiefs, on the other hand, were wary of this policy and its implications, sticking to the proposition that power should be used to defend or advance US national interests.

It is not clear at which point Clark parted company with his old military comrades to join the laptop bombardiers, led by Albright and Holbrooke. Nothing in his earlier career suggested the likelihood of such a departure. A native of Arkansas, Clark was a West Pointer, a Rhodes scholar and a veteran of the Vietnam War, in which he was wounded. When he was a colonel, in 1986, his commanding officer, General Reimer, was greatly impressed by Clark and talked about him as a future Army chief of staff. A few weeks later, at age 43, Clark won his first star.

But only after the arrival in the White House of another Rhodes scholar from Arkansas did Clark’s career really take off. He added three stars during Clinton’s first term even though his promotion to four-star general in 1996 was expressly opposed by the Army. Nor was Clark the Pentagon’s candidate for the post of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Clark hints that his personal relationship with the President may have helped him. (In one of his first meetings with the Joint Chiefs, Clinton asked the Army chief if he knew “my friend, Wes Clark.”)

It seems clear that the change in Clark’s thinking occurred after he arrived in Washington in 1994 and came under Holbrooke’s spell. The general admired the diplomat’s compelling personality, his hyperactive ambition and his activist, can-do approach. (During one of their first private talks about the Bosnian war, Holbrooke asked Clark, “Don’t you think we ought to bomb?”) Clark volunteered to join Holbrooke’s Bosnia mission and observed him bluffing the Balkan warlords, negotiating deals of great consequence on the fly, stitching things together as he went along and at the signing of the Dayton accords gaining public adulation rarely accorded to a diplomat. Holbrooke’s view on coercive diplomacy and the crucial importance of the media gradually became Clark’s own. Even his Army loyalty was shaken; he came to share Holbrooke’s view that his military superiors in Washington were consciously sabotaging the Dayton peace process. (“Wes, do you understand that there are members of the Joint Chiefs who want our efforts [in Bosnia] to fail,” Holbrooke tells Clark. “Not Shali,” Clark thinks, defending only the chairman at the time, Gen. John Shalikashvili, but not the other five service chiefs.)

After a structured Army life, Bosnia vaulted Clark into another, far more interesting orbit, where he hobnobbed with European leaders, negotiated with Balkan warlords, attended glittering diplomatic functions and received constant media attention. More important, Bosnia in Clark’s mind “had set a pattern that could be applied again”–this time in the emerging Kosovo crisis. He seems oblivious to the fact that Bosnia and Kosovo–although only seventy miles apart–have two vastly different ethnic mixtures with vastly different histories. There’s nothing in this book to suggest that Clark ever closely examined the political purpose of the assertion of American power in Bosnia or what would eventually happen to that unhappy territory now that Dayton had compelled three ethnic communities to form a multiethnic state favored by only one of them (the Muslims).

Grave decisions affecting the lives of millions are based on the hunches of a few laptop bombardiers without regard to their ultimate outcome. Clark, perhaps inadvertently, concedes this point. After the attack on Yugoslavia began in March 1999, he writes, “a number of us had begun to ask in private about the political goals of the campaign.”

There you have it. The Pentagon’s concern about the lack of strategic clarity was not irrational, as Clark would have us believe. Milosevic did not cave. Except for Britain’s Tony Blair, who declared the NATO attack to be “bombing with compassion,” other NATO allies were wary to various degrees about the whole venture. Once it became clear that Serbia would not collapse, Clark’s (and the Administration’s) only option was to bomb Serbian civilian infrastructure with the intention of rendering the daily life of the population impossible.

But the deliberate destruction of nonmilitary targets violated the very international law that NATO claimed to uphold. Most questionable and legally troubling was the intimidation bombardment of the editorial offices of Belgrade television in full knowledge that civilian casualties were inevitable. (One should not exclude the possibility that war crimes charges will be leveled at some future date against those who ordered it, as human rights advocates have suggested.) Clark makes only a fuzzy reference to the strike on “the television facility.” (The transmitter, which one might ordinarily think of as the “facility,” is located some twenty miles away, on top of Mt. Avala.)

The nearly three months of bombing inflicted severe damage on the Serbs, while their neighbors suffered collateral economic pain. It ended through diplomacy, with the help of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin; Russia was rewarded with the rescheduling of more than $4 billion in debt payments. But quite apart from making matters worse in the Balkans, the intervention extended America’s open-ended commitment to maintain troops in the area. Kosovo itself is in ruins–economically, psychologically and politically. It is also clear that the intervention sowed dragon’s teeth, insuring continuation of the profound civil and nationalist strife that is now developing in neighboring Macedonia.

Clark’s book about halfway wars like the one against Serbia is, in essence, an excellent manual on How Not to Wage Modern War. Not that the author would consent to this title. A halfway war, of necessity, has to look like a Nintendo war, in which supersonic jets and high-tech weapons defeat barbarian demons on the ground without spilling a drop of American blood.

The prosecution of such wars has to be carefully programmed. Since they don’t involve national survival, appeals to patriotism don’t work. Clinton and his advisers knew from the beginning that they would be unable to muster public support for the use of ground forces–which means the prospect of body bags coming home–for an affair in which the United States was not directly threatened. “Nothing would hurt us more with public opinion than headlines that screamed, ‘NATO LOSES TEN AIRPLANES IN TWO DAYS,'” Clark reasoned. Which meant that the planes would remain at high altitudes as they proceeded to hit their targets.

Equally important is the justification that was advanced in the months leading up to the attack. Clark presents it as “the moral and legal imperative” to destroy Milosevic’s military and police, who “were committing or aiding the ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. Naturally, I turn to Clark’s description of the Kosovo situation, because I spent a good deal of time as a reporter in Kosovo–first in 1975-76 and later between 1990 and 1996–which gives me a background from which to measure his accuracy. I find his descriptions one-sided and appallingly misleading.

To begin with, Clark ignores the fact that the Albanian Kosovars proclaimed independence in 1991 and organized a parallel government, complete with their own school and health systems. He states merely that the “mistreatment” of Albanians in 1998-99 was “the source of NATO’s action.” The difference is important: The Kosovo Albanians had been mistreated ever since Milosevic came to power. The province came under direct police rule in 1989. Schools were shut. All Albanian civil servants were fired. Most people lived off remittances sent by relatives working abroad. Yet when Milan Panic, in trying to dislodge Milosevic in a December 1992 election, promised the Albanian Kosovars everything short of independence if they would take part in the balloting (the solid Albanian bloc of nearly 900,000 votes could have been decisive), the Albanians refused. “We begged them to stand in the elections,” former British Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen, who accompanied Panic, told me. “But they were totally secessionist…. It’s like talking to Scottish nationalists; these are not people you can do business with.” Milosevic tried to break the nonviolent secessionist movement through constant pressure: police raids on villages, perpetual searches, financial penalties and other forms of harassment. Although the repression was horrendous, there was no “ethnic cleansing” at that point. Nor did the outside world respond to the Kosovars’ appeals for help.

Only after the Kosovars began an armed struggle against the Serbs in 1997 did the outside world begin to pay attention. The newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army quickly raised tensions through a campaign of assassinations of Serb officials. By mid-1998, Kosovo was engulfed in a war for independence, with the KLA controlling more than a third of the province. Milosevic was now dealing with a serious insurrection. Predictably, he resorted to massive force. At that point, the Serbs began conducting major raids on villages suspected of harboring KLA guerrillas, and the villagers began fleeing to escape Serb artillery shellings.

Even this was not the type of ethnic cleansing that had been carried out earlier in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia itself, with the aim of changing the ethnic composition of designated regions. Clark, however, sticks to a cartoon version of Kosovo’s crisis: NATO had to attack Serbia to force Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing. The focus on this indisputably malevolent despot–we have to “hurt” him, “break [his] will” and remove him from power–seems to reflect the need to convince the public of the wickedness of Milosevic and the Serbs.

I suspect that Clark’s harshness toward Milosevic may be in part based on personal embarrassment. At one time he was cozy with the Serbian leader, and the dictator’s abandonment of his onetime Bosnian and Krajina allies helped Holbrooke’s and Clark’s careers. In turn, Holbrooke and Clark helped rehabilitate Milosevic at Dayton, making him the “guarantor” of the Bosnian peace treaty. (“He’s always liked you,” Holbrooke told Clark while urging him to intervene with Milosevic.) Who would now admit being friendly with an accused war criminal, today awaiting trial at The Hague? How else can one explain that Clark, having worked the other side of the street and repeatedly assured his superiors that he knew Milosevic as well as anyone else, came to realize in 1998 that he should be removed from power and that this revelation was imparted to him by a Bosnian Serb leader, Biljana Plavsic, herself now under indictment and awaiting trial in The Hague?

Truth is the proverbial first casualty of war. Usually it takes years to learn what really happened during a war. We now know that some atrocity stories were exaggerated. A young Albanian woman named Rajmonda was all over cable television during the war, explaining that she had started killing Serbs after they killed her sister, only to admit after the war’s end that this was not true. (“If this small lie…made some kind of impact on what Western countries did in Kosovo, then it’s worth it,” an Albanian commentator said later.) Most figures–including Clark’s account of the number of Serbian tanks destroyed–were vastly exaggerated. So were claims by the US government and NATO about the number of missing Albanians feared dead: On April 19, 1999, the State Department put the figure at 500,000, while Defense Secretary Cohen reduced it to 100,000 on May 16. (After the war, the International Committee of the Red Cross said 3,368 Albanians were missing, and it has their names. There may be a few thousand more still unaccounted for, but the totals are nowhere near the US projections; The Hague’s indictment of Milosevic lists about 600 Albanians who died in Kosovo.)

But lies and exaggerations are natural parts of warfare, as is news management, at which Clark seems to have been quite effective: On the night of the assault on Belgrade, he had an aide call Tom Brokaw of NBC News to complain about his use of the phrase “American-led airstrikes.” The wording, Clark said, would get the mission “on the wrong foot with the public.” (The fact that the phrase was accurate is indisputable; for example, Clark himself notes that 99 percent of bombing targets were selected by the United States.)

Clark briefed journalists and gave interviews “to protect the credibility of the campaign.” He also understood the need to feed journalists material in background briefings, and he found media representatives to be quite cooperative. Journalists attending his briefings, he says, asked questions that displayed “a sense of underlying moral purpose and unity here (except for the one Serb journalist present).” Sadly, this simple statement says more about the press coverage of the war than any critical analysis I have read.

But books are different; they lack the excuse of a daily or weekly deadline. They require candor and dispassionate judgment. Clark’s memoir is disappointing, which is unfortunate, because Kosovo was NATO’s first but probably not last war. Clark was apparently still feeling hurt and humiliated when he wrote it. There is something tragic about his view of himself, a sense that he was there alone fighting Milosevic and the Pentagon, cajoling and hectoring reluctant allies, and waging the battle for public opinion–and in the end being abandoned by his superiors. “The stress of the relationship with Washington had been the worst part,” he thought after the war ended.

The problem is that he is not completely candid. I realized that early on, while reading his account of a 1994 meeting with the notorious Bosnian Serb military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic, who a year later was accused of war crimes by The Hague’s international tribunal. The two apparently got on so well that they agreed to exchange hats. I remember looking at newspaper photographs of them with their hats switched and thinking that the picture told me a great deal about Clark’s judgment. Clark makes no mention of the friendly hat-swapping in Waging Modern War. It occurred at a time when anti-Serb sentiments in Washington were running high. Only connoisseurs understand why he experienced what he calls a “painful few days” after meeting Mladic, and why that left a “profound impression” on him: To have a friendly meeting with a Serb was, as he puts it, “reputation-breaking” stuff.

At the time Clark was still making a career in the military; we shouldn’t be surprised if the picture comes back to haunt him, should he try to build another career, in politics.

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