excerpts from

The Rise of the Proconsuls

from the book

American Empire

The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy

by Andrew Bacevich

Harvard University Press, 2002, paper


Kosovo qualifies in equal measure as a "proconsul's war," with the proconsul in this case being General Wesley K. Clark, then serving both as chief of United States European Command and as NATO's supreme allied 'Commander.

... To Clark and to senior officials of the Clinton administration, the chief obstacle to peace in the Balkans was Slobodan Milosevic, the ultranationalist Serb and president of what remained of Yugoslavia. During his service with Holbrooke, Clark had met with Milosevic on many occasions. As a result, he was supremely confident that he knew what made the Serb president tick. Clark "had learned his fear"-the prospect of attack by American air power. In his capacity as a strategic commander, he intended to exploit that fear, maneuvering Milosevic into ending his repression of the Kosovar Albanians while also coaxing him to embrace democracy-the only sure way to guarantee Balkan stability.

Well before NATO initiated Operation Allied Force in March 1999, Clark was hard at work selling his "strategic vision" to Washington. Modeling his tactics after Hoibrooke's in Bosnia, Clark favored what he called a "carrot and stick approach." The stick-the threat of bombing-would bring Milosevic to the negotiating table. The carrot would come once serious talks were under way: Clark wanted "subtly to embed in the negotiations measures to promote the return of democracy to Serbia."

In short order it became clear that Clark-though not he alone-had miscalculate . A defiant Milosevic did not fold. The first several days' bombing succeeded only in stoking the fires of Serb nationalism and in providing Belgrade with the excuse to accelerate its ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian refugees poured out of Kosovo into neighboring Macedonia and Albania, a development that caught NATO flatfooted. Despite this evidence of a full-fledged war, high officials in Washington continued to characterize the operation as a "humanitarian intervention," launched in response to Serb-perpetrated genocide.

His own bluff called, Clark needed to make good on his threat to disrupt, degrade, devastate, and destroy Milosevic's army. But the 366 aircraft assembled for Allied Force-the majority provided by the United States-proved inadequate to the task. Hampered by bad weather and difficult terrain, deprived of lucrative targets as Serb units dispersed or hid in Kosovar villages, allied aircrews proved unable even to impede Yugoslav operations on the ground, much less to destroy the forces conducting them.

Having blundered into an open-ended conflict against an unpredictable, surprisingly defiant foe and with the future of NATO hanging in the balance, the United States found itself face to face with the limitations of the Clinton doctrine. Unlike the periodic post-Gulf War confrontations with Saddam Hussein or the retaliation for the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa, in this instance the United States could not lob a few pieces of ordnance, declare the operation a success, and call it quits. Nor, apart from the remnants of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)-a battered and unsavory insurgent group known to be engaged in drug trafficking and terror-were there any readily available proxies to throw into the fray. Simply trying harder was not an option: as the number of refugees streaming out of Kosovo mounted with each passing day, the inadequacy of the initial limited bombing became obvious.

Clark's job was to find a way out of this predicament. In practice, only two alternatives existed. One course of action was to acknowledge that the war actually was a war and to prosecute it accordingly. Doing so implied bringing the full weight of allied military power to bear on Milosevic to force him to submit-destroying his army, invading his territory, and, if need be, occupying his capital. In practice, of course, "allied power" meant for the most part American power.

Liberating Kosovo would entail serious fighting and held the almost certain prospect of U.S. casualties. But the Clinton administration-however misleadingly-had justified intervention primarily on humanitarian grounds, and Mogadishu had seemingly showed that Americans would not accept casualties incurred during humanitarian operations. Furthermore, organizing such a large-scale campaign would make it difficult to sustain the grand conceit of the global age, namely that war itself had become obsolete.

The second course of action called for NATO to forgo any goals of liberation while intensifying and recasting its bombing campaign. Even as it expressed continuing sympathy for the plight of the Kosovars and maintained a pretense of going after Yugoslav forces in the field, the alliance would shift the weight of its air effort to Serbia proper. Targeting government facilities, communications networks, the electrical grid, oil refineries, factories, and infrastructure, allied aircrews would wreak whatever level of havoc was required to convince Milosevic that he had had enough. Put simply, instead of searching ineffectually for Serb forces scattered among the villages of Kosovo, NATO would go after downtown Belgrade. People might die as a result, but few if any of them would be wearing the uniform of a NATO nation. Furthermore, by averting the necessity of fighting on the ground, this approach would help sustain the tissue-thin fiction that this latest Balkan unpleasantness was not really a war, but simply an action by the "international community" to enforce the rules of a global age.

Yet Clark opted for the first alternative. By the beginning of April, the general who had long touted Milosevic's susceptibility to a little bit of bombing was pressing Washington and Brussels to begin considering a possible invasion by ground forces. As a first step in that direction, he urged the immediate deployment of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and rocket artillery-stationed in Germany and already assigned to his own U.S. European Command. In Clark's view, the firepower of these potent weapons would exact a heavy toll on Yugoslav formations operating in Kosovo. If there was some risk involved, he was willing to take it.

Militarily, Clark's preferred course of action qualified as at least plausible. Morally, it was eminently defensible. But politically, it was a nonstarter. Having become a proponent of possible ground operations, America's proconsul in Europe revealed himself in Washington's eyes to be a naïf and a liability. With that, the jackals began to converge.

As SACEUR, Clark expected to be accorded the respect and deference due to a supranational military figure. As the successor to supreme commanders like Eisenhower, Alfred M. Gruenther, and Lauris Norstad, whose influence at least approached that implied by their magniloquent title, Clark expected, especially in the midst of hostilities, to exercise real command authority over the forces at his disposal. If nothing else, as a regional CINC in the midst of a sticky situation, he expected that the longstanding American tradition of backing field commanders to the hilt would guarantee him the full support of his fellow four-stars back in the Pentagon.

He was disappointed on all counts. To his political masters in Washington, Clark's support for a proposition so wildly at odds with the president's stated policy was unacceptable. Moreover, they were adamant that the White House and the Pentagon would make the key decisions. Nor were Clark's military peers in the Pentagon sympathetic: an advocate of using "military power to back diplomacy" had stumbled into a full-fledged shooting war-in their view an unnecessary one. Now Clark seemed determined to make things worse by enmeshing U.S. forces in a ground campaign of unknown cost and duration. They were determined to prevent him from doing so.

In essence, Washington opted for the lesser evil: a strategic bombing campaign to bring the Serb regime and, if need be, the Serb nation to its knees.

By the first week of June, strategic bombing-that is, attacks designed to inflict maximum pain on the Serb economy and the Serb people-began to take its toll. Since mid-May 85 percent of Serbs had been without electric power. Russia, the closest thing that Serbia could claim as a meaningful ally, signaled Belgrade that it was time to quit. For its part, NATO quietly backed off from elements of the Rambouillet formula that Serbs had found most offensive. A resurgent KLA, with indirect American encouragement and support, began operating out of base camps in Albania to harass Yugoslav units in Kosovo proper. By no means least of all, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, most hawkish of NATO's European leaders, was on the verge of going public with plans to invade Kosovo, if need be without the Americans. And the White House announced that Bill Clinton had invited the Joint Chiefs of Staff to consult-the president's first session with the JCS since the hostilities had begun. According to press reports, the purpose of the meeting was to provide cover for Clinton to announce that he, too, now accepted the necessity of preparing a ground option.

At this juncture, Milosevic indicated through intermediaries that Yugoslavia sought an end to the hostilities. Over a period of several days, after much wrangling, Yugoslav and NATO officers signed off on an agreement paving the way for the introduction "in Kosovo under UN auspices of effective international civil and security presences." Implicit in this stilted phrasing was that the peacekeeping operation would not be exclusively a NATO one, a major concession to the Serbs. Prominent among the non-NATO nations scheduled to participate was Russia.

On June 9-after seventy-eight days, just over 38,000 sorties, and the expenditure of 28,236 weapons amounting to 12,000 tons of munitions-the bombing ceased. In the days that followed, Serb forces, showing surprisingly little wear and tear, affected an orderly, at times almost impudent, withdrawal from Kosovo.° As the Serbs departed, the lead elements of KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, entered the province. The deployment became the occasion of Clark's final and most public humiliation.

Clark's plan for occupying Kosovo divided the province into five sectors, each assigned to a NATO member nation. Irked at the prospect of its own contingent's reporting to a subordinate NATO commander, Moscow took matters into its own hands: it would get its own troops into Kosovo first and carve out a distinctive Russian sector. With that end in mind, the Russian peacekeeping brigade in Bosnia dispatched a small armored column toward Pristina with orders to seize the main provincial airport there. If Russian troops could gain control of the airport, others could pile on to reinforce, presenting the allies with a fait accompli.

Viewing Moscow's move as a "strategic challenge" to NATO, Clark ordered the commander of KFOR, Lieutenant General Sir Michael Jackson, to beat the Russians to Pristina by whatever means necessary. When the Russians won the race anyway, Clark ordered Jackson to block the runways to prevent the arrival of reinforcements. Jackson bluntly refused. "I'm not starting World War Hi for you," the British general told Clark in an emotional outburst that captured the attention of the press. More telling, however, is Clark's own account of the exchange. Jackson asked by what authority Clark was issuing his order.

"By my authority, as SACEUR."

"You don't have that authority."

That Jackson spoke the truth soon became evident even to Clark: wary of a confrontation that could derail the ongoing occupation, senior Pentagon officials, starting with Shelton, sided with the British three-star against the American four-star. There would be no blocking of runways. As a gauge of Clark's impoverished standing as SACEUR, a more telling incident could scarcely be conceived. The proconsul had been hung out to dry.

If in the post-Cold War era the ideal conflict is one in which no Americans get hurt and every American gets rich, then the war for Kosovo, in its own perverse way, approached perfection. In the end, the United States and its allies prevailed-albeit over a pint-sized nation whose entire gross national product amounted to one-sixteenth of the Pentagon's budget-without losing a single soldier killed in action. During the air campaign, critics had lambasted the Clinton administration for its lackluster conduct of the war. But this amounted to just so much hot air. As long as there were no body bags coming home, the administration's actual control of policy was never seriously called into question.

No less noteworthy, the war came and went without causing Wall Street more than passing anxiety. Indeed, Operation Allied Force coincided with a stock rally of epic proportions. During the first week the Dow Jones industrial average closed above 10,000 points for the first time; barely a month later, with the bombs still falling, it surpassed 11,000. Never during U.S. involvement in a war had American stock portfolios fattened so generously and so quickly. President Clinton himself received scant credit for his Balkan victory-his standing in the polls actually dropped a bit-but he had seemingly stumbled into a formula enabling the United States to fight wars without engaging the passions of the American people. For a self-indulgent democracy in a postheroic age eager to maintain its global preeminence but disinclined to sacrifice, such a formula was likely to find future application.

The legal and political consequences of Operation Allied Force were more problematic. With regard to international law, the intervention qualified in at least two respects as a Precedent-setting event. In going to war over Belgrade's treatment of Kosovo, the United States and its allies demolished any lingering notion about the claims of sovereignty rendering internal matters off-limits to outsiders. Russia and China numbered among the nations viewing that precedent with alarm.

In addition, although NATO had justified its resort to force as an action undertaken on behalf of the entire "international community," the body normally considered to represent that community had by no means given its approval. Indeed, given its inability to get the United Nations to authorize intervention-in the Security Council neither Russia nor China would concur-the alliance had in fact arrogated to itself the authority to act. That the world's only superpower could henceforth use a regional organization that it dominated to legitimate its own use of force did not find universal favor.

Politically, the war left relations between Washington and Moscow strained and between Washington and Beijing on the verge of a complete rupture-largely as a result of an errant U.S. bomb that pulverized the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. The successful conclusion of the war also did little to enhance NATO's own solidarity. Although nominally the alliance had demonstrated a hitherto-untapped capacity to venture "out of area" and even "out of charter," in the eyes of many observers, the war's chief lesson was never, ever to risk another such enterprise. A second such stressful event could well mean NATO's dissolution.

To make matters worse, with Operation Allied Force having demonstrated anew how far allied military capabilities lagged behind those of the United States, the European Union began talk of creating a separate defense identity, enabling it, if necessary, to act independently. Whether Europe possessed either the collective political will or the resources to reconfigure and modernize its forces remained to be seen, but the mere prospect did not bode well for American claims to leadership on that continent.

But all of this was as nothing in comparison with Kosovo's moral and ethical implications. Indeed, on these matters, the events during and after the conflict left a long skein of confusion trailing in their wake. Problems began at the moment of the war's conception. The United States and its allies publicly justified intervention as a necessary response to the horrors of ethnic cleansing. But once the shooting began, they took no meaningful action to protect the Kosovar Albanians, whose plight actually worsened as NATO proceeded with its attack. It was as if America actually had entered World War II to save the Jews and then still abandoned them to their fate.

Throughout the campaign, the American aversion to casualties remained acute. Combined with an unbridled infatuation with technology, this preoccupation yielded morally insidious effects. With airmen recycling old theories of strategic bombing, now larded with expansive assurances that precision weapons released from afar could achieve remarkable results at minimal risk to Americans, the principle of noncombatant immunity received short shrift.

The essence of war is a bloody interaction. Traditionally armies interact with-that is, wage war against-other armies. But in Kosovo the U.S. government was, for all practical purposes, unwilling to countenance the loss of a single American soldier. Since making war on the Serb army meant putting soldiers in harm's way-whether by sending troops in on the ground or flying aircraft at lower operating altitudes-every American in a position of authority (except Clark) understood the necessity of recalibrating the terms of the interaction. In essence, the United States needed to wage war in ways that deprived the enemy of any real opportunity to shoot back. The role assigned to military forces in Allied Force was not to fight battles but to deliver ordnance.

Thus did it become expedient to target the Serb political and economic infrastructure, and inevitably Serb civilians. This shift in priorities showed in the results achieved. In contrast to their predecessors during Operation Desert Storm, the aircrews who conducted Operation Allied Force showed themselves markedly less efficient in killing enemy soldiers and more efficient in killing noncombatants. To enemy observers, such an outcome was anathema. Others-fired with the conviction that the cause was just-disagreed. In any war, according to David Rieff, a journalist of progressive bent, regrettable incidents occurred: "you send your F- 15 to help the Kosovars and what it does is it blows up a bunch of children in a hospital. It is inevitable. That's what war is. We've made a lot of claims for ourselves, for our societies and for our moral aspirations. But without force or the threat of force, they're hollow ideas."

The disparity between professions of humanitarian concern and the actual results achieved also pervaded the peacekeeping phase of the operation. For KFOR, Clark laid down four new 'measures of merit," chief among them a requirement to stop any crimes of revenge or Serb ethnic cleansing." In the event, Kosovar refugees returned home thirsting for revenge and wasted little time slaking that thirst. A savage process of reverse ethnic cleansing ensued, which KFOR did little to impede. '° Expectations that a Kosovo purged of its ethnic Serb minority might become placid did not materialize. Despite having agreed to disarm, a resurgent KLA began agitating violently to unify all nearby ethnic Albanians into a "Greater Kosovo." Albanian insurgents infiltrated into Serbia and Macedonia, triggering border skirmishes that KFOR found itself attempting ever so gingerly to suppress.

In the meantime, cautious American commanders in Kosovo kept their well-armed troops battened down in Camp Bondsteel, a sprawling, heavily defended base soon to be equipped with gymnasiums, recreation centers, and a shopping-mall-style food court. Unlike in Bosnia, no one even pretended that the mission would end anytime soon: the troops settled in for a protracted stay. And whatever Clark's stated intent, the paramount concern for each U.S. unit that rotated through Kosovo, outweighing every other consideration, became "force protection," keeping the troops from harm.

Whatever the moral justifications for plunging Belgrade into darkness and for turning a blind eye as the persecuted turned on the persecutors in Kosovo, these developments left the very concept of a military professional ethic reeling. Even the most sympathetic observer was hard pressed to find in the allied assault on Serbia or in the peacekeeping efforts that followed evidence of gallantry or derring-do or fraternal self-sacrifice-any of the virtues that warring nations cite to imbue an otherwise squalid business with a modicum of dignity. Critics, viewing these events from afar rather than, say, from the cockpit of a fighter-bomber streaking across the night sky toward Belgrade, expressed concern that present-day soldiers appeared less eager to die for their country than earlier generations had been. Less than a decade after the high-water mark of Desert Storm, American military professionalism, they lamented, showed unmistakable signs of decay.

The debates provoked by these moral and ethical complications raised issues of profound importance to a democratic and, in many respects, God-fearing society. For those fancying that a star-spangled fist ought to enforce the rules of a globalized world, the moral complications lying in wait appeared formidable. Yet at the political center of things, these concerns barely registered. At the center, the war's architects understood that from the outset Operation Allied Force had never actually been about doing the right thing in the right way. Its purpose had been to sustain American primacy on a continent of vital importance to the United States, one that had advanced the furthest toward the openness and integration defining the ultimate goal of J American grand strategy. The United States fought over Kosovo not to protect Kosovars but to forestall the intolerable prospect of Europe's backsliding.

Viewed from this perspective, the workmanlike demolition of Serbia might not qualify as a feat worthy of comparison with Gettysburg or the Normandy invasion, but it was what a great power did to fend off perceived threats to its preeminence. If Operation Allied Force did not rise to the level of a great moral victory, it was a necessary strategic one, an example of the work that goes along with running an empire.

Within the foreign policy elite, the relevant lessons of Kosovo concerned not issues of conscience but practical matters. By the end of the 1990s it became apparent to even the most enthusiastic booster of globalization and of American "leadership" that the enterprise to which the United States had committed itself was proving to be an arduous one. If the forces of globalization might one day perhaps render beggar-thy-neighbor politics obsolete, that day had certainly not yet arrived. Whatever the hopes that one day all the nations of the world would converge on the ideals of pluralistic democratic liberalism, for the moment at least, ethnic identity and cultural particularism remained ferociously and disconcertingly alive.

Furthermore, if the United States undoubtedly ranked as the greatest military power the world had ever seen, its capacity to overawe fell far short of being absolute. Keeping America's armed might in reserve would not suffice; using it necessarily entailed new obligations and commitments and in some quarters stoked greater opposition. With American citizens evincing little eagerness to shoulder the burdens of empire (while accepting its benefits as their due), innovative methods of imperial management were needed. The alternative-allowing the nation's own cultural maladies to circumscribe the exercise of American power-was simply unacceptable. If, in the particular case of Kosovo, the American proconsul had failed to fulfill his responsibilities, then the appointment of a more responsive and capable replacement was in order.

At the end of the 1990s, with the United States at the zenith of its influence, Kosovo served as a reminder that the obstacles to openness remained formidable. Overcoming those obstacles was proving less easy than Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright had expected. Yet despite periodic posturing about America's imminent slide back into isolationism, virtually no member of the policy elite dissented from the proposition that the United States had little choice strategically but to press on. The anticipated consequences of doing otherwise-greater disorder abroad, diminished prosperity at home, and, inevitably, retribution at the ballot box-were simply too awful to contemplate. The consensus in favor of "global leadership" remained firm.

On June 2, with the outcome of Operation Allied Force still at issue, but with patience wearing thin and criticism of the administration's handling of the crisis approaching flood stage, President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, summoned a group of "wise men" to the White House. To counter the perception that the president lacked the mettle to see things through, Berger outlined for his listeners "four irreducible facts": "One, we will win. Period. Full stop. There is no alternative. Second, winning means what we said it means. Third, the air campaign is having a serious impact. Four, the president has said he has not ruled out any option. So go back to one. We will win.

The national security adviser did not speak idly. In Europe, NATO aircrews ratcheted up the punishment visited upon the Serbs. In Washington, the White House girded itself for the prospect of mounting an invasion. There would be no backing down. At the end of the day, the United States would do whatever was necessary to win.

Berger's crisp presentation serves as a fitting end point for an ostensibly humanitarian intervention that willy-nilly transformed itself into a full-fledged shooting war. But it serves just as well to capture the irreducible bottom line of U.S. grand strategy during the 1990s. Faced with opposition and under duress, the United States would do whatever was necessary to achieve its purposes. Period. Full stop.

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