Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat
When the general who fought the Kosovo war is fired six weeks after winning it, it’s a safe bet to assume that the Pentagon and the American military establishment never wanted to fight it in the first place. The end came for Wesley Clark when he was having dinner with the Lithuanian president in Vilnius, on a victory lap tour of European capitals in late July 1999. General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, reached Clark on his cell phone and told him that William S. Cohen, secretary of defense, had decided to replace him with Joe Ralston, a top Air Force general on Shelton’s staff. Clark writes that he “stood there, stunned…. I returned to the restaurant for dessert with President Adamkus. I had my game face on, but it was a dark moment.”
Clark’s book tells the story of a commander who won a war in the field and lost it in Washington. It is a brutally explicit account, by a bitterly disappointed man who strives to maintain a judicious tone, of how a central constitutional requirement of the American political system—civilian control of the military—acts to frustrate a commander in the field. As Clark says, he was “at the waist of the hour-glass.” Above him, everything was political; below, everything military. To hear him tell it, below was never a problem. Above was unmanageable. Officials at the Pentagon thought he wanted too much—too many helicopters, planes, and missiles—and the more he asked for, the more the Pentagon, especially Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was never keen on “Madeleine Albright’s war” in the first place, came to feel that their uppity field commander had to go.
Looking back, Clark should have seen it coming. In late April 1999, after he told the press that his air campaign might be not doing anything much to stop the flow of Serb troop reinforcements into Kosovo, and The New York Times reported, “NATO Chief Admits Bombs Fail to Stem Serb Operations,” Clark received an irate phone call from Hugh Shelton:
The Secretary of Defense asked me to give you some verbatim guidance, so here it is: “Get your f——g face off the TV. No more briefings, period. That’s it.”
This certainly helps to explain another puzzle: why Clark did not appear in public to brief the press from around April 27 until victory on June 12. The attempt to keep Clark muzzled began even earlier. At the Washington NATO summit, on April 23, William Cohen and Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, tried to prevent Clark from briefing the assembled NATO leaders. When Clark forced his way in, using pressure from NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to get him there, he was kept away from President Clinton, and he was firmly told by Cohen that his briefings should take the option of using ground forces off the table: “Nothing about ground forces,” Cohen said. “We have to make this air campaign work, or we’ll both be writing our resumes.”
The duel between Clark and Cohen was fascinating: they were two highly political animals, loners who shared the fact of having Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, both serving a president who was a master in ducking responsibility and passing risk onto others. Cohen believed he had to protect the administration from a cocky commander leading an unwilling president into a dangerous, escalating struggle for dominance in the Balkans. Cohen also believed that he had to keep Clark from making an end run around the Pentagon in order to brief Clinton in the White House. There were rumors in Washington that Clark had a special line to his fellow Arkansan and Rhodes scholar, Bill Clinton. If this memoir is to be believed, however, Clark had no special access whatever to the President. At one summit, Clinton’s discussion of strategy with his field commander was confined to the throwaway question: “I guess the Apaches are too risky to use?” At another point, Clinton strokes Clark with the line, “You’ll be ready to take care of the Kosovars, won’t you?” Even if he did have an Arkansas connection to Clinton, it might not have paid Clark any dividends within the armed services. As Clark pointedly adds, Clinton had almost zero credit with the military, “more or less asking his Pentagon to fend for itself on the Hill.”
Clark’s memoir casts some light on Clinton’s record as commander in chief. It is a study in absence. Clinton appears to have left the selection of targets to Berger and the management of the military to his secretary of defense and diplomacy to his secretary of state. Yet for all this delegation, civilian micromanagement of the campaign was intense. From Clark’s point of view, few lessons had been learned from Vietnam. As a young captain and veteran of Vietnam, Clark had written a thesis on Lyndon Johnson’s Rolling Thunder, condemning it as a “carefully constrained, politically designed bombing [campaign], which avoided seeking decisive military impact.” But this was exactly what he found himself running as a four-star general thirty-five years later. Bill Clinton did not pick targets the way Lyndon Johnson did, but micromanagement by the national security staff at the political level was just as intense. It proved impossible for Clark to act on his basic intuition from the Vietnam era that forcing an enemy to submit to a diplomatic objective may require a punishing use of force. As he says dryly, “The idea of decisive force never quite made it into NATO thinking.” It didn’t make it into American strategic thinking either.
His political masters gave Clark unceasing tactical instructions, target by target, and press conference by press conference, but almost no guidance on overall military strategy. At no time did Clark discuss strategic goals with either the secretary of defense or the President. Norman Schwarzkopf, field commander in the Gulf War, briefed George H.W. Bush directly. Clark never did the same for Clinton. The only strategic orders he had were negative: avoid a ground war at all costs, he was told, and do not appear to be planning one. In late May, with time running out, Sandy Berger was still begging Clark to give him a couple more weeks before making any commitment to ground troops. Clark’s exasperation at this point shows through: “When Sandy Berger wants to work an issue, he really knows how to explore it from all angles.” Beneath this clenched-teeth remark, there was real anger. If the administration had temporized into mid-June and had then authorized a ground deployment, the troops might not have been able to arrive before autumn, when they would have been bogged down in rain and snow. The consequences of such delay might have been catastrophic.
The entire Kosovo operation was bedeviled by a basic lack of strategic clarity. When the air campaign began on March 24, it was designed to get Milosevic to accept the deal left on the table at Rambouillet. But to do this without putting his airmen at risk, Clark had to attack Milosevic’s air defenses. This meant that the campaign against those defenses had to run for at least a week and do significant damage. While this was proceeding, Clark had to keep the military objectives from being overrun by diplomatic ones. His chief concern was to prevent a bombing pause. After the first night’s bombing, Richard Holbrooke rang from Budapest, urging such a pause so that he could go back to Belgrade and close a deal with Milosevic. Clark refused, insisting that Milosevic wouldn’t comply unless he saw real damage was being done to his forces. Yet Clark’s decision had unintended consequences. Once the damage was done, Milosevic couldn’t come back to the table without losing face.
Even more obviously, what kind of deal would he come back to sign? The Rambouillet proposal would have established an international force in Kosovo and given the Kosovars some autonomy; but it would also have left him with a Serbian military presence in Kosovo. This was now completely unacceptable to an alliance at war. By the end of the first week, therefore, military action had changed both the diplomatic and strategic purpose of the alliance: instead of driving Milosevic back to the table, the aim now was to drive him from office. The entire story is an object lesson in the way military means alter, deflect, and transform diplomatic and strategic ends. Had Milosevic not made a strategic mistake of his own—the wholesale eviction of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars—NATO would have been without a coherent objective after the first week of bombing. As it happened, Milosevic gave them the objectives they desperately needed in order to maintain public support: the safe return of the refugees and the eviction of Serb forces.
Clark’s memoir pinpoints this element of strategic drift in the whole campaign. With all the military might at their disposal, Clark and his commanders spent the first two weeks trying to work out the story line of the campaign itself. Clark kept asking Shelton, “What was our objective, to deter ethnic cleansing? Surely, no one could think that Milosevic would now return to Rambouillet.”
Often the field commanders had a clearer sense of the strategic drift than the politicians and diplomats. John Jumper, senior American Air Force general in charge of the campaign, remarked in early April after the US was bombing in and near Belgrade: “Now we’re hitting things and he’s killing people. What we’re doing looks like retribution, and I don’t feel the support at the political level.” In the absence of any clear strategic objective, the air campaign looked like meting out punishment from 15,000 feet.
As Clark tells it, the really decisive impulse propelling the campaign was not Milosevic’s human rights violations in Kosovo before March 1999; nor was it his wholesale eviction of the Kosovars after the bombing began. What mattered most was the need to impose NATO’s will on a leader whose defiance, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, was undermining the credibility of American and European diplomacy and of NATO’s willpower. But if the issue becomes credibility, then the strategic logic becomes circular: NATO has to bomb in order to prove that it will bomb. The message of all this might be: Never use force merely in order to show that you have the political will to use force.
Strategic indecision led to divi-sions over tactics. By late April, Clark reports,
the United States was increasingly committed to the idea of strategic strikes, going after the heart of Milosevic’s power. The Europeans, or at least the French and a few others, were more interested in limiting the strikes to Kosovo, trying to hit the ground forces and avoiding actions that might antagonize or damage Serbia further.
Significantly, the only strategic clarification Clark received was from the bête noire of his own superiors, Madeleine Albright. “So,” she said, “we did diplomacy backed by force and now we’re into force backed by diplomacy.” With her help, Clark got in closer touch with the State Department officials, like Strobe Talbott, who were bringing the Russians in as mediators. It is now clear that without this diplomatic track, bombing alone might not have succeeded; for the decisive event that made Milosevic fold his cards was the effective way in which American diplomacy worked to isolate Serbia from Russia and convince Russia that its long-term interests lay in aligning itself with NATO. Yet the military and diplomatic tracks of the campaign were badly coordinated; the Russians, having cooperated in forcing Milosevic to the table, then dispatched their Bosnian contingent to take over the Pristina airport. The Russians might not have played NATO for dupes, had the left hand of the military actually known what the right hand of diplomacy was doing.
All of this was made worse by visceral hostility between State and Defense. It was, Clark makes clear, a grudge match that went back to Bosnia. In the dispiriting and debilitating debates on what to do about Bosnia, Albright had famously asked, in exasperation, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?,” a remark which made the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, explode: “American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global board game.”1The core problem in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, was Pentagon resentment at the way in which the State Department’s objectives were tying down US forces. Clark’s memoir records the ways the Pentagon resisted: his superiors dragged their feet in response to his requests for more equipment, planes and missiles; they micromanaged his decisions and called him on the carpet when he spoke out.
By mid-April, at a breakfast in Brussels, Madeleine Albright confessed to Clark, “They’ve called it my war, and they’ve turned on me. Now they’ll turn on you.” As Clark adds, it wasn’t necessary “to ask who ‘they’ were: it was too painful.” They were Clark’s own Pentagon bosses.
The difference of approach that plagued US policy in Kosovo still plagues it today. Then it was Cohen versus Albright. Now it is Rumsfeld versus Powell.2 The State Department believes that the Balkans are important and worth military investment. The Pentagon thinks that the Balkans are a quagmire, draining resources from the three principal US strategic objectives—defense of the continental US, Korea, and the Persian Gulf. When Clark demanded extra resources for his campaign, he was often told that the “two war” doctrine—the idea that the US had to be prepared to fight two medium-sized wars in these strategic zones—prevented the allocation of resources to the one place where fighting was actually going on.
Clark’s enemies at the Pentagon suspected—and with good reason—that Clark was closer to the State Department’s objectives than Pentagon ones, because, before coming to NATO, he had been an important member of Holbrooke’s Dayton team. It was this team that had dragged the American military into a permanent imperial watch in the south Balkans. For a significant part of the Pentagon establishment, the Balkans weren’t just a quagmire. NATO itself was a sideshow for a military with a global reach and global responsibilities. For the Europeans, on the other hand, the Kosovo war was a fundamental test of the coherence of their entire postwar security system. Failure in Kosovo would have brought down the Italian and Greek governments and possibly doomed the Blair, Schroder, and Chirac governments as well. In view of this fundamental difference in the stakes, European governments, led by Britain’s Tony Blair, were always more willing to consider the use of ground forces than the Clinton administration. It took time for Clinton to grasp, both in Bosnia and in Kosovo, that his own political reputation could not survive failure in the Balkans.
As supreme commander of NATO and commander of EUCOM, the European Command of US forces, Clark served two masters: the Europeans and the Americans. He clearly understood the Europeans better than his Washington masters did. Clark has nothing but good things to say about Klaus Naumann, his German deputy, and Javier Solana, the Spanish head of NATO. Solana came across in public as a genial and equivocating Spanish politician; but in his meetings with Milosevic, Solana could be frank, unafraid to tell the Serbian leader to his face that he was a liar.
To be sure, Clark had his own problems with the Europeans, culminating in the now famous showdown with his British force commander, Michael Jackson, over how to respond to the Russians’ preemptive takeover of the Pristina airport in June 1999. When Clark ordered him to block Russian trucks, Jackson exploded: “I’m not starting World War III for you.” The key point, however, is that when Clark sought to prevail and to force Jackson to obey orders, his proposal was countermanded by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in Washington. The American-inspired picture of an alliance held back by European timidity falls apart in the face of Clark’s account. In his version, the real reluctance was back in Washington, and the real problems of cohesion were not within NATO but between NATO and the Pentagon.
Some of Clark’s fiercest opposition in the Pentagon came from the Army, Clark’s own service. Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer emerges in Clark’s memoir, along with Eric Shinseki, vice chief of staff, as the most dogged opponents of Clark’s attempts to develop a force capable of attacking the Serbians engaged in ethnic cleansing on the ground. Task Force Hawk, consisting of Apache helicopters and five thousand troops, was deployed by the Americans to Albania from Germany, and preparing them for action took much longer than planned. Two helicopters crashed and there were serious questions about whether the rest were ready for combat. Clark was confident that they could be used.
The real obstacle to their deployment, he writes, was dug-in resistance by the Army hierarchy itself, led by Eric Shinseki and Dennis Reimer, who did not like the idea of going after ethnic cleansers with helicopter gunships, unless in support of NATO ground troops. Since they weren’t in favor of using ground troops either, they weren’t in favor of risking the helicopters. They fought ferociously in Washington, apparently persuading the President himself that the Apaches weren’t ready for combat. Clark’s bitterest feelings are actually directed not at Cohen, but at his own Army classmates and at Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who failed to back up his own commander in the field.
The Apache debacle suggests that the US military still lacks a credible strategy for the prevention or punishment of active ethnic cleansing on the ground. It can use air strikes, but the Serbs taught the Americans tactical lessons in concealment of troops and in protecting installations with sandbags and concrete, as well as in keeping their people out of sight. Helicopter gunships can come in low and close, but they are vulnerable to ground fire, and in the absence of a supporting ground presence they may not be able to stop civilian massacres by themselves. The Kosovo war, far from proving that the American military can stop human rights violations with military power, shows that there is a dangerous lack of effective tactics, strategy, and doctrine that will accomplish that aim. The US can hit from the air, but it cannot stop ethnic cleansing on the ground. The Clark memoir clearly indicates that a significant part of the American military is quite happy to keep it that way.
Clark’s memoir should—but probably won’t—make the American military consider the chain of command needed to link a field commander and his civilian bosses in Washington. Clark makes the field commander’s case—that he should have the autonomy and the resources to do the job; that the power of the secretary of defense to interfere should be reduced; that the service chiefs shouldn’t be allowed to frustrate a regional commander’s urgent claim on service resources. The likely response will be: “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Yet his memoir is not just, or even principally, the revenge of a man who believes he has been poorly used. It is also a scathing account of management failures, which had they been a little worse might have cost NATO its victory. Far from consolidating a consensus behind the idea that military force can be used successfully against egregious violations of human rights, the Kosovo war seems in fact to have undermined support for humanitarian intervention, even though it helped bring about the fall of Milosevic. As Clark recalls, the chief lesson at least one European defense minister drew after the war was: “We never want to do this again.” Clark’s unsparing memoir explains exactly why that conclusion remains a principal outcome of the war.
Colin L. Powell, My American Journey (Random House, 1995), p. 576.↩
Michael R. Gordon, "NATO Plans Only Modest Bosnia Cutback," The New York Times, May 27, 2001.↩