The Serbo-NATO War -- Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

May 12, 1999

Comment: #271

Discussion Thread:  #s 252


[1] LTC Jonathan Czarnecki, US Army (Ph.D.), "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF LIMITED WAR," May 12, 1999 Attached

[2] STRATFOR, "Weekly Analysis -- The World After Kosovo," Global Intelligence Update, May 3, 1999.

The two References to this comments paint starkly different portraits of the Serbo-NATO war. LTC Czarnecki, a professor of strategic planning, argues in Reference #1 that the war is a reasonably successful example of how the US will have to conduct future limited wars of this type. The analysts at STRATFOR take the opposite view in Reference #2, arguing that the war is a watershed event that will lead to American retrenchment in what they christen the New World Disorder. I urge readers to read each carefully, because they bracket the boundaries of what is sure to be a vigorous debate in the coming months and years.

Chuck Spinney

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Reference 1

Lt Col John Czarnecki, US Army
May 12, 1999

Welcome to the world of limited war. This is war limited by means, by ends or both. It is a form of war only vaguely glimpsed by classical strategic theorists, strongly argued for and against by modern strategists, and practiced with mixed results by the United States. If Russell Weiley, the noted historian on the American military, is correct, the US doesn't like to practice this form of warfare because it goes against the grain of its fighting tradition and culture; using Weigley's interpretation of Hans Delbruck, Americans prefer a "strategy of annihilation" — unconditional surrender, total defeat of the enemy, complete victory for our side. This is how Americans fought its "big" wars: the Civil War, WWI, and WWII.

But, Americans, particularly since 1945, have fought in many limited wars: from Greece and Turkey, through Korea, through the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, into Grenada, El Salvador, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and finally ending up in the Balkans and Iraq. None of the conflicts mentioned above, or the several additional ones that an observer can find carved into the Iwo Jima monument in Arlington, Virginia, have left a particularly satisfying taste in American appetites to engage in international affairs. Yet the US always has always reengaged, or continued to engage the chaotic international environment. Why?

Because we have to for economic and media (moral) reasons. Whether Americans like it or not, the country's economy vitally depends on international economics; the country could not sustain its standard of living without the goods and services provided by other nations. True, less than 30 percent of the nation's GDP is based on trade, but it is the components of that <30 percent that make a difference - like oil, like scarce metals, like ball bearings for some examples. US grand strategy dictates that diplomacy and military presence supports its worldwide economic reach. From the media perspective, the US is the largest and most penetrated market in the world. TV, radio, movies, and now the Internet all influence, educate, and moralize American audiences for good or bad. The media is a form, at least a component, of a national soul or conscience. It does reflect national culture. But, as we know, the media is not passive in this role. Media influences people to do violent things; it influences people to come together and act as community. Media also can influence nations, especially the US, to act internationally. It was media reporting of the intense famine in Somalia that generated the potential for UN and US action. And who will forget the cover of a national news magazine that featured a young Kosovar woman, obviously distraught and tired, carrying a young child through a war-torn area. One should remember that it has been the media that has led and maintained popular support for the Kosovo conflict. One should also recall that it was media opposition that undercut that same support for Vietnam.

There are now several commentaries out on the street and the Internet saying that Kosovo, rapidly approaching a diplomatic solution, represents a high-water mark for US intervention in international affairs. Some say that the US will disengage because of its distasteful and bungled Kosovo operation. I don't think so. As Ralph Peters has written, Kosovo is a face of future war. The US cannot go back home anymore; economics and the media have forced the country outward into the badlands beyond its borders. That hostile terrain is full of possible Kosovos. And the operation in Kosovo was not nearly as botched as critics have insisted.

Consider what was at stake; or as we systems analysts would state, what was the problem? NATO saw a vital interest in the Kosovo situation. Its two member states on the southern flank, Greece and Turkey, were close to taking active support of opposing sides in the dispute. Such internal opposition would spell at least trouble for the alliance, and possibly cause an irreparable fracture. One must recall the historical routes of invasion to Europe; the Balkans is the equivalent of an interstate for invasion. Greece and Turkey form a bulwark against such a possibility, however remote. Americans need to learn that what is historically remote to its citizens is very relevant and close to others - like the Serbs, the Kosovar Albanians, and the Europeans. NATO felt it had to act. However, NATO countries were constrained to act by the level of popular support of member nations' citizenry. After the collapse of negotiations at Rambouillet, NATO could only use military options that were supportable by the members. An air campaign was the acceptable means - a limited means.

One should remember that NATO and Serbia agreed that Kosovo was a legitimate part of Yugoslavia, not an independent entity. Thus, the conflict was not a war for independence, but a war to stop Serbian actions that were undercutting the alliance. The NATO objective effectively was a situation status quo ante bellum, not the removal of Slobodan Milosevic and his thugs, or the overthrow and complete defeat of Serbia. The air campaign, limited means, was designed to obtain a limited end.

Enter the US. As a member nation of NATO, for better or worse, the US faced a strategic diplomatic situation: make Russia, who was a patron of Serbia, angry and upset the evolving relationship with that country, or support NATO. In retrospect, the US chose NATO over a, hopefully, temporary freeze in US-Russian relations. Was this wise? It could be if the US considers Europe a more valuable ally, at least in the short run. The US, through coalition warfare, engaged in a limited war for limited ends.

Oh, one can easily fault the details of how NATO and the US initialized the Kosovo strategy. Yes, there was the naiveté of publicly prohibiting ground forces as an option, and the underestimation of the viciousness of Mr. Milosevic's response to the bombing. But, overall, the logic and the strategy for both NATO and the US make sense. Further, because of the media, popular support for the war has increased in most member nations as the conflict has progressed. The alliance has held firm because of that support. In the end, it has been the enemy that has started to crack and negotiate — as was the objective of the air campaign in the first place. Why was the air campaign successful? Because the objectives of the campaign were limited - to driving a wedge into the Clausewitzian trinity in Serbia, particularly between the government and the people. Yes, the Serbian people will likely always hate NATO; but they are and will learning to hate Mr. Milosevic and his cronies even more. Mr. Milosevic cannot effectively control his nation as a dictator anymore. He knows it and is starting his negotiations dance. Even more, Mr. Milosevic now knows that NATO and the US stand firm, and have not fractured despite his propaganda efforts to make such a break.

In fact, Mr. Milosevic has something in common with US strategic critics: both have underestimated the will of the President. Domestic US political opponents to Mr. Clinton could have warned both parties of the dangers of such an underestimation. This president, when he perceives his own vital interests at stake, exhibits the characteristics of a classic Clausewitzian leader: ruthless, determined, flexible and cunning. He bounces back from adversity not merely to survive, but to succeed. Mr. Clinton has a track record of doing so from his years in Arkansas through his presidency. Kosovo is Mr. Clinton's "bounce back" from the Lewinsky scandal. Mr. Clinton's sheer determination will not allow him to conceive of anything short of victory — according to NATO's limited ends. Mr. Milosevic should fear the President because of this will. Mr. Clinton did not hesitate in sending a vital strategic signal to Serbia about his seriousness on this matter: he called up the reserves - something a former president, Mr. Johnson, faltered on in a previous limited war.

The American people, because of the media and because of the President's publicity campaign, support the Kosovo operation and will feel good for doing so. Just observe how Americans are accepting the refugees in Ft. Dix. The American people are ideologically motivated to "do good" in a very hostile world. Kosovo has given them a crusade, and they are responding accordingly. The successful end to the operation will allow them to feel good about their country, their armed forces, themselves. It does not matter to them that Russia has reemerged as the "honest broker" in the peace negotiations. What matters is that they have brought a peace to a part of the world. They will continue to allow their leaders to engage in such operations, even if it means putting peacekeepers on the ground in Kosovo as a result of such a settlement. Anyone seen a groundswell of popular opposition to US forces in Bosnia yet?

This conflict has been anything but botched, a stumble, or an end to an era. It has been a reasonably successful example of how the US will have to conduct future wars like Kosovo. The conflict represents some fine tuning of what American leadership — civil and military — have been learning about limited war since the end of the Cold War. Kosovo is one more evolution of a technique, not an end, for US participation on the global stage.