The Washington Times

A three-part series in The Washington Post last week, “The Commanders,” offered a fascinating behind-the-scenes portrait of NATO’s Kosovo campaign. It illustrates just how complicated, frustrating and tense things were among the generals themselves and between the generals and the political leadership of NATO’s 19 member countries. But it also offers some reassurance.

Notwithstanding the highly visible disorderliness of the conduct of the war, at bottom even blundering and fecklessness on the part of an alarmingly large number of the players could not derail the seriousness of purpose and the institutional gravity of NATO’s undertaking. Let’s start with the bad news. As we all had reason to conclude at the time, the political leadership of NATO was ill-prepared for a defiant Slobodan Milosevic. The expectation was that he would capitulate in a matter of days once the bombs started falling. When he didn’t, the NATO political leaders seemed almost flabbergasted.

This in turn quickly exposed how little NATO political leaders had actually agreed on before the bombing began. Although the military commanders in NATO, under the determined leadership of Gen. Wesley Clark, had done as much planning for war scenarios as they were authorized to undertake (and probably then some), there was no consensus beyond the decision to use force to make Mr. Milosevic comply with NATO demands on Kosovo.

So there were wide-ranging arguments within NATO over what targets to hit and when to hit them. Gen. Clark seems to have spent most of the war on the phone or shuttling in person to reassure nervous NATO governments. In addition to running a war, he had to take on a large share of the task of keeping the alliance together. Moreover, he met much skepticism within the U.S. military establishment. The Post series chillingly recounts a briefing Gen. Clark gave in May to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were skeptics about the engagement from the start and dead set against ground troops. Time was running out to deploy for a ground war. Gen. Clark spelled out plans for possible ground operations to bring the war to a conclusion. When he finished his presentation, the chiefs in effect did nothing, giving him the vague, kiss-of-death suggestion to study the matter more, in The Post’s description.

In addition, there was the spectacle, eerily reminiscent of the micromanagement of the Vietnam War, of target lists being couriered from the Pentagon to the White House for extensive scrutiny, debate and approval. The international politics of targeting was immensely complicated. France often balked at the more aggressive targeting of Serbia, only haltingly arriving at support for what became, in effect, an air campaign of strategic bombing designed to bring the gravity of the war home to Serbs. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, complicated matters with the allies by his open advocacy of ground war.

All in all, it was no way to run a war. On the other hand – and this is the heartening fact – the war did get run, and won.

It is apparent that whatever else may have been true, there was no decisive political sentiment among the United States, Britain and France, the three key allies, to halt the war short of achieving NATO’s stated aims. Thus all the fevered consultations by Gen. Clark and others have, in retrospect, the quality of getting to yes, as books on business negotiations say. We agreed that our cause is just, didn’t we? Yes. We have committed the prestige of the alliance, haven’t we? Yes. We must make Mr. Milosevic comply, mustn’t we? Yes. In order to do that, we must continue bombing, right? Yes. And the bombing must hurt him, no? Yes. And that means targeting things of value to him and his government, right? Yes.

At this point, one may bicker, and the players certainly did – over what exactly to hit, and with what munitions, and how hard and how often. But the dispute is not over whether to continue, but how. The French government was reluctant to allow the darkening of Belgrade, until the U.S. offered a weapon that could short-circuit the power grid but allow for it to be repaired within hours. France might insist that one particular bridge remain off-limits – while agreeing on the need to destroy most others. Britain could safely be granted a veto over targets for B-52s flying from its soil -without imperiling the entire air campaign. And while there was much balking at the prospect of ground troops, no one could or would stop Gen. Clark from drawing up plans and upgrading the roads on which troops would have to travel through Albania.

It is apparent from this account that it would have taken immense determination on the part of anyone involved to accept defeat and bring the war to a halt. Institutional forces within NATO, set loose by the decision to go to war, also served to buck the alliance up given outbreaks of wobbliness as the war went on.

What remains unknowable is how dependent these institutional forces within NATO were on the single-minded determination of Gen. Clark. The evidence of his persistence is unmistakable. Would another commander be driven by the logic of the situation to act as decisively and effectively as Gen. Clark did?

The alliance superstructure helped the NATO commander enormously, even as it must have driven him to distraction. But it would be foolish to assume that the superstructure alone saved the day. History, in the end, still has a fair bit of biography to it.