David Halberstam
David Halberstam; drawing by David Levine


David Halberstam’s account of the policies and the wars that preceded the conflict in Afghanistan brings into sharp perspective the painful lessons of the post–cold war decade. If generals are said to be prepared to fight the last war, one can only hope that they have learned from their mistakes as they now try to eradicate terrorism from Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and who knows where else.

In his tale of the Gulf and Balkan wars Halberstam presents a portrait gallery of heroes and—if not villains—ditherers and skeptics. The heroes are Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords that brought a troubled peace to Bosnia; and General Wesley K. Clark, the NATO commander and victor in the Kosovo war. The ditherers include, preeminently, President Bill Clinton; his first national security adviser, Anthony Lake; his secretary of defense in the second administration, William S. Cohen; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially under the leadership of General Hugh Shelton. Colin Powell is portrayed as both a hero in the Gulf war and a skeptic on the use of US military power in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans.

Bush père had no intention of intervening in Yugoslavia when the federation was disintegrating in the summer of 1991. Although the Serb president Slobodan Milosevic had shown little interest in Slovenia’s breakaway, he coveted the Krajina, a region of eastern and central Croatia inhabited by a great many Serbs. Taking it over was to be his first step in trying to create a greater Serbia.

The fall of 1991 was probably the last chance to prevent the cruel war that broke out in Bosnia in March 1992. The fatuous statement of Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg, that “this is the hour of Europe,” implying that the European powers could deal with Yugoslavia on their own, only reinforced Bush and Baker in their desire to avoid any American involvement in the Balkan wars. Moreover, General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gave both Bush and Clinton an excessively high estimate of 200,000 troops that would be needed to quell the fighting.

The Persian Gulf War was far more to the taste of an American superpower than getting involved with the feuding peoples of the Balkans. The American national interest there was clear: no one country, and particularly Iraq, should be able to dominate the Gulf, which would then give that country the power to disrupt the flow of oil at reasonable prices to the rest of the world. That Saddam Hussein had commenced a war of unprovoked aggression against the small, oil-rich state of Kuwait provided additional, Wilsonian reasons for US intervention.

The devastating images of a beaten and bedraggled Iraqi army, their prisoners of war stretching out across the desert in a seemingly endless line, gave most Americans the impression that the victory belonged to American ground troops led by General Norman Schwarzkopf. But these impressions conceal two very important issues: an intelligence failure that allowed the elite Republican Guard to escape being encircled and decimated by American troops1; and the advent of new American precision-guidance munitions and sophisticated delivery systems.

Halberstam is especially good at describing the quality and range of the new weaponry, which would later play such a central part in the Kosovo intervention in 1998 and in the recent air attacks on Afghanistan. The high-technology air campaign against Iraqi troop and air defenses in the first five weeks of the Gulf campaign ensured that the war was effectively over before the 500,000 ground troops that Powell believed were needed had even joined the battle. In Afghanistan the strategy of using American spotters on the ground to identify targets for bombers turned out to be successful in driving the Taliban out of its strongholds.

The military culture Halberstam describes had an initial bias against heavy reliance on the precision-guided weapons. Air Force officers from the Tactical Air Command (TAC) believed that air power was to be used almost solely in support of troops on the ground rather than to diminish enemy forces. But when General Schwarzkopf called for an air plan during the Gulf War, the request fell into the hands of a maverick Air Force strategist, Colonel John Warden. He believed that precision-guided bombs placed in a new delivery system, such as the F-117 Stealth fighter, which was really a small bomber, could inflict lethal damage on the enemy’s power grid, communications systems, transportation network, and fuel supplies. Warden believed, Halberstam writes, that you could “paralyze an enemy and bring him to the table without destroying his people.” In World War II, it had been a question of how much aircraft was needed to take out one target; in 1990, “it was a question of how many targets one plane with precision-guided weapons could take out.”2

Drawing on his experience in Vietnam, Powell hesitated to use American troops in Iraq, preferring instead to sacrifice Kuwait and draw a line around Saudi Arabia that the Iraqis would not dare cross. He was determined to push his civilian superiors to state precisely what it was they wanted to do and the price in American lives they were willing to pay. At one point, irritated by his cautious approach, Bush’s secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, told him, “Colin, you’re chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You’re not secretary of state. You’re not the national security adviser anymore. And you’re not secretary of defense. So stick to military matters.”


Military matters for this four-star general were embodied in what became known as the Powell Doctrine—that “sufficient” (read: overwhelming) military force should be used to achieve defined political ends, and should have the requisite public support and moral stamina to win. In addition to clear rules of engagement there must also be a well-defined exit strategy.

That strategy worked in the Gulf War, helped by the decision of Bush and Baker to leave Iraq intact as a counterweight to Iranian power in the region. Powell’s insistence on the way in which the Gulf War was to be fought—with half a million troops, to be sent into action only after heavy bombing—affected the Bush administration’s next intervention in Somalia as well as Clinton’s vacillating performance as commander in chief in the Bosnian war.

Somalia, riven by civil conflict as different clans contended for power and profit, did not involve a clear American national interest. The Bush administration would probably never have intervened had it not been for the so-called CNN factor when television cameramen showed the horror of mass starvation and roused America’s humanitarian impulses. As images of starving children increased, in mid-August 1992, only months before the presidential election in which Bush’s popularity was swiftly evaporating, the administration declared that it would fly UN peacekeeping forces to Somalia for humanitarian purposes. Powell apparently believed that as many as 500,000 Somali lives could be saved if America sent in two divisions, and as quickly as possible turned over the job of feeding and organizing their country to the United Nations. This was, according to Halberstam’s sources, “Powell’s way of doing something humanitarian but, equally important, of not sending troops to Bosnia, a place that, as far as he was concerned, was far more dangerous.” (It must be noted here that Halberstam’s book contains few footnotes; there is a formidably long list of people he interviewed, but rarely can the reader trace who was interviewed for what purpose.)

Everything seemed to be going well: food was delivered, US military power held sway, the Americans and the chief warlord, Mohammed Aidid, seemed to get along. Clinton took office with the expectation that the United Nations would soon take over the mission. And then everything went wrong.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian Copt from an old and aristocratic family, had no small opinion of his own intelligence and judgment. He was determined to end the power of Aidid, whom he loathed. How this was to be done was never clear, however, and as UN troops began to replace the Americans, Aidid became alarmed. On June 5, Aidid struck at Pakistani patrols in the capital of Mogadishu. In New York UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright called for the overthrow of Aidid and help for Somalia to become an “emerging democracy.” Meantime, back in Washington Powell and Defense Secretary Les Aspin believed that the United States should get out. By late August, both men reluctantly approved a request from the UN deputy commander on the scene, Major General Tom Montgomery, for a battalion of Rangers and a Delta Force unit of commandos. As Halberstam tells it, at a dinner for Richard Holbrooke, then about to ship out for his new job as ambassador to Germany, Aspin, “looking terrible, drained of energy and absolutely gray in the face,” told Holbrooke, “We’ve just made a fateful decision. We’re sending the Rangers to Somalia. We’re not going to be able to control them, you know. They’re like overtrained pit bulls.” Aspin said he was having trouble getting any guidance from the National Security Council adviser, Anthony Lake; nor was the President giving him any clear direction.

A tragedy took place in October when the Rangers and the Delta Force were trapped in the center of Mogadishu and had to be extricated. Hordes of Somalis, armed with Russian-made AK-47s, opened fire on the Americans, and by the time the battle was over, eighteen Americans had died, two helicopters had been shot down, and perhaps as many as one thousand Somalis were killed. That evening, video clips showing a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets by a cheering mob were beamed to American television.


In his account Halberstam leaves out a critical fact: that the US Rangers and Delta Force soldiers, while formally part of the UN peacekeeping mission, acted on their own. Although the UN deputy commander General Montgomery was also the commander of most US troops, the Delta and Ranger forces that attempted to abduct two lieutenants of Aidid in Mogadishu took their orders not from the UN but from US central command in Tampa, Florida. No one in the UN headquarters knew exactly what the Rangers were up to. When the disaster occurred, the Americans had to be rescued by a UN force led by Malaysians and Pakistanis. Although the UN headquarters had not planned the Rangers’ attack, the UN was widely blamed for the death of the Americans, and its peacekeeping efforts were unfairly discredited.3 Neither Halberstam nor the widely viewed film Black Hawk Down makes clear this fatal divergence in command.4

Clinton was enraged by the attack: he believed he had never been told of the change in policy that involved hunting Aidid down. His anger finally focused on Aspin, though privately Clinton was deeply critical of Powell, who escaped all blame for the escalation of the US role, and Tony Lake, who had never made clear to him the consequences of what was happening. Aspin, however, took the fall, especially after a Senate investigation revealed that he had failed to send in the tanks and armored personnel carriers that commanders in the field had requested.

Clinton had evaded the draft during the Vietnam War, and during the campaign had promised to end discrimination against gays in the armed forces. He never had a good relationship with the military. After the Somalia debacle, the senior officers distrusted him more than ever. The lesson of Somalia, in Holbrooke’s view, was that support was likely to be fragile for American intervention in a foreign country where American security was not involved. A few lives lost could mean the end of the policy. The abortive Haitian intervention the following year seemed to bear this out.

As Halberstam makes clear, domestic politics dictated the need for intervention in Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest who had been defrocked by the Church for espousing a radical liberationist theology, achieved the presidency through free elections in December 1990. Eight months later he was overthrown by a military junta headed by Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras. No high official in the Bush administration wanted to send US troops to Haiti. The last time the United States had intervened in Haiti was in 1915, and the marines had stayed for nineteen years.

But throughout the election year of 1992, the harsh repression of the Cedras regime yielded an ever-increasing number of “boat people” fleeing the island in barely seaworthy vessels to seek freedom and a new life in Florida. In contrast to its treatment of Cubans, the Bush administration had often sent back the Haitians who had succeeded in making the hazardous voyage; in the presidential election that year, Clinton promised he would reverse the Bush policy. The refugees took him at his word: his election to the White House set off a new wave of boat-building. Thousands of Haitians sailed for American shores.

Although Clinton backed away from his campaign pledge, fearful of the consequences of allowing too many nonwhite refugees into a swing state like Florida, he also had the Black Congressional Caucus to deal with. First, the administration put into place an international boycott against Haiti, but this simply worsened conditions on the island without ridding the Haitian people of their despotic rulers. By early 1993, Washington was pressing hard for Aristide’s return, and in negotiations with Cedras an agreement was actually signed to return the former priest to power on October 30.

In late September about two hundred American soldiers and twenty-five Canadian engineers sailed for the island where they were to work on a “nation-building” project under a UN agreement. According to Halberstam, President Clinton did not participate in any of the critical decisions to send the expedition. What occurred was an astonishing humiliation for the United States. The US soldiers, lightly armed, arrived at Port-au-Prince aboard the USS Harlan County, and were greeted by a howling mob of about one hundred Haitians, many of them armed, shouting anti-American slogans; among them was “Somalia! Somalia!” As the ship lay at anchor in the harbor, the administration back in Washington debated what to do. Finally, on October 12, the Harlan County pulled away to the jeers of the Haitians on the shore.

Clinton blamed Lake for the fiasco, and the return of Aristide was not accomplished until the summer of 1994 when John Shalikashvili (often called “Shali”), the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was prepared to send in military force. By mid-September the plans for an invasion of the island were complete. Then former president Jimmy Carter stepped in and offered to negotiate with the Haitian junta. Clinton was delighted at the possibility of not using force, but he didn’t trust Carter. He therefore asked Carter’s fellow Georgian, Senator Sam Nunn, and Colin Powell, now retired, to join the negotiating team.

On September 17, Carter, Nunn, and Powell arrived in Haiti at midday. They had thirty-six hours to persuade the junta to go peacefully. The meeting went badly until Powell explained that the Cedras regime would soon face the might of two aircraft carriers, 20,000 elite US soldiers, plus tanks and helicopters. The deadline for the invasion was 12:01 AM on September 19. At the last minute, the junta faced up to reality and agreed to a date for Aristide’s return, thus permitting the American troops to arrive peacefully. Although Aristide turned out to be both arrogant and incompetent, the Clinton administration at last showed some guts. It was high time, too, for between the debacle of the Harlan County and the successful Carter-Nunn-Powell negotiation the genocidal conflict in Rwanda had taken place, and the Clinton foreign policy team had failed dismally to halt the horror that was taking place in central Africa.

What Philip Gourevitch has called the most “pure and unambiguous genocide since the end of World War II” took place in Rwanda.5 At least 800,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi tribe, were killed in only one hundred days. The Clinton administration not only did nothing to stop it, but, according to Halberstam, made “a deliberate attempt…to suppress the issue at the higher level so that the president would not be seen rejecting any option that included sending troops on an errand of mercy. Even the word genocide was to be muted in all public discussions.” From April to mid-July 1994, after the Hutu president who had sought a peace settlement with the rival Tutsis was shot down in his plane by Hutu extremists, the mass killing began.

When the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) cabled New York that the massacre was underway, “New York swept the news under the carpet and announced publicly that this was an internal matter, merely a breakdown in the cease-fire.” The UN commanders on the scene were convinced that a small number of well-trained soldiers could easily have halted the killing and rounded up the leaders. Although France, Belgium, and Italy did send troops to Rwanda, they did so not to stop the massacre but to bring out their own nationals. In the meantime, Clinton reassured the country that Washington was doing all it could to protect the 225 Americans there. Soon the UN decided to withdraw almost all its troops.

As for the report that genocide was taking place, on April 28 a journalist asked Christine Shelly, a spokesperson for the State Department, if the department viewed what was happening in Rwanda as genocide. As Halberstam reports, she said in Orwellian language, that “the use of the term genocide has a very precise legal meaning, although it’s not strictly a legal determination.” As the evidence of genocide began to be more widely reported, the UN sent in a larger force and the Americans were supposed to help out with supplies, while the debate in Washington went on: the new line was that “acts of genocide” had taken place, but not genocide itself.

By the middle of July the Rwanda war was over. The Tutsi forces had entered the country and defeated the Hutus, but by then perhaps one million Tutsis were dead. Five years later, Bill Clinton flew to the Rwanda capital, Kigali, to offer a sort of apology. He did not say that he was sorry for what had happened, but he offered the president of Rwanda a plaque honoring the dead, and used the word “genocide” eleven times in his speech. As Halberstam tellingly notes, Clinton did not leave the airport; nor did the pilots flying Air Force One turn off the plane’s engines.


Clinton was not well served by the foreign policy team of his first administration. Halberstam’s account of the bureaucratic politics of that period reveals a national security adviser, Tony Lake, and a secretary of state, Warren Christopher, who did not make forceful recommendations to the chief executive. Perhaps their diffidence reflected the wishes of a boss who hoped to keep foreign policy matters from becoming prominent in his administration. Clinton may well have chosen Christopher as an able attorney who would keep things under control. As for Lake’s moralizing, that was all too reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson’s; indeed, when once asked to define the administration’s foreign policy approach, Lake called it “pragmatic neo-Wilsonianism.”

During the nine months Colin Powell presided over the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a national security staff member told me that at the meetings of the National Security Council Powell was well briefed and argued his case forcefully. Christopher and Lake did not voice their disagreements with much conviction, and Powell usually carried the day. Powell himself has characterized the meetings as meandering, “like graduate-student bull sessions.” The general consistently displayed great reluctance to use military force, because he believed that the administration did not present a clear goal that would match “our military commitment to the goal.”6 In Bosnia many lives were surely lost as a result of Washington’s inability to back up diplomacy with arms.

After Bush had rejected a French suggestion in 1992 that peacekeepers should be sent to Bosnia before war broke out there, the Bosnian Serbs had begun an offensive that threatened to exterminate vast numbers of Bosnian Muslims and incorporate much of Bosnia into Milosevic’s Greater Serbia. After three years and hundreds of thousands of dead, Bill Clinton faced an untenable situation. The Europeans’ efforts at humanitarian assistance, which included sending their own troops as peacekeepers, had indeed prevented Milosevic from achieving a final victory, but by mid-August 1995 the Europeans were fed up. Clinton’s offer to use air power but no American ground forces was rejected by the Europeans as endangering their troops.

The Clinton administration was caught in a dilemma. Existing NATO plans, which the United States had signed on to, committed Washington to send in ground forces if the UN decided to withdraw. The President, according to Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, seemed to be unaware of his pledge to assist in a withdrawal plan with 20,000 American soldiers. This was the last thing Clinton now wanted to do.7

In June 1995, however, Jacques Chirac, the newly elected French president, arrived in Washington. He was fed up with the humiliations inflicted on French troops in Bosnia by remaining passive in the face of Serb hostility; at one point, photographs were published of French peacekeepers held hostage by the Serbs, some of whom had been tied to trees, others chained to artillery pieces. Chirac now wanted far more aggressive rules of engagement; otherwise, the French would pull out. If the Europeans left because Clinton had refused to send in ground troops, paradoxically the European withdrawal would trigger the very use of American soldiers that Clinton so feared.

With Chirac’s threats pushing the President to act, a new strategy was worked out. John Shalikashvili, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs, proved to be an important factor in turning policy around. Halberstam writes, Shali was “more likely to be amenable under certain conditions to the civilians, whereas Powell was more likely to be arbitrary“; Holbrooke at State and Albright at the UN were also pushing for American engagement. Lake therefore came up with a new strategy on Bosnia aimed at bringing about a diplomatic solution. Pressure on the ground would be buttressed by American air power, and the Europeans must not be allowed to block this air power because of its danger to their own troops.
With the fall of Srebrenica on July 11 (soon to be followed by the slaughter of some seven thousand Muslim men), Chirac spoke out at a Bastille Day press conference three days later. He talked about the weakness of the West, comparing it to the appeasement of Hitler in 1938, and hinted publicly that France might have to pull out of the UN peacekeeping force. “We can’t imagine that the UN force will remain only to observe, and to be, in a way, accomplices in the situation,” he said. “If that is the case, it is better to withdraw.” Halberstam writes that this was “the ultimate insult to the president, another Western leader speaking of the impotence of Clinton’s leadership and accusing the allies of being appeasers.”

Shali decided that a strong air campaign to take out the Serbs’ air defenses would send a message to Milosevic. It had to be systematic so that the Serbs would be seriously damaged. Of equal importance, Halberstam writes, the Allies agreed to put the mission into the hands of NATO and thus take command away from Boutros-Ghali and his people at the UN. At the same time the Croats wanted to begin their own offensive to drive the Serbs out of their country. On August 4, encouraged by Holbrooke and Peter Galbraith, US ambassador to Croatia, the Croats struck the Serbs in the Krajina; the Serb forces disintegrated. Milosevic made no effort to save the Krajina, leaving the Croatian Serbs to their fate.

By mid-September the success of the offensive by Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces, combined with the major use of air power against the Bosnian Serbs, turned the tide. The Serbs, who had once expected to get 70 percent of Bosnia, now held only 45 percent of it. At this point, Washington called a halt to the Croat-Bosnian offensive. This prepared the way for the Dayton negotiations. Richard Holbrooke, with his energy and his fixed sense of purpose, was the obvious choice to deal with the collection of people from the Balkans, and, in particular, with Slobodan Milosevic. As Halberstam quotes President Clinton saying in a farewell toast to Holbrooke at a dinner in December 2000, “After all, everyone in the Balkans is crazy and everyone has a giant ego. Who else could you send?”

During the three-week conference Bosnia was divided, with 49 percent going to the Serbs and 51 percent to the Muslims. It was the best arrangement the Muslims could have gotten, even though they considered it a bad deal. The settlement also required that the Americans station 20,000 soldiers on the ground as peacekeepers. Although the White House decided to put a time limit of twelve months to the troop commitment, the American soldiers are still there, none have so far been killed, and an imperfect peace still holds.


Kosovo, the last of the Clinton wars, revealed a new resolve on the part of the civilian commanders, while the Joint Chiefs once again were determined not to send in US ground troops. After Dayton Milosevic had his eye on Kosovo, a province of the former Yugoslavia that remained part of Serbia. Kosovo’s population was 90 percent Kosovar Albanian Muslims, who had been denied a large measure of autonomy by the post-Tito Serbs. In 1997, two years after Dayton, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began to form into a movement that rapidly became an effective guerrilla force. The Serbs brutally struck back, which inevitably brought the West into play.

In Washington, a new set of advisers were in place. At State, Madeleine Albright had been named secretary instead of Richard Holbrooke, whom the President did not consider a team player. At Defense, former senator William Cohen had replaced William Perry. The new national security adviser was Samuel (Sandy) Berger, a former Washington trade lawyer whose views closely reflected Clinton’s political concerns.

By May 1998, when Milosevic started to retaliate in earnest against the KLA, Albright argued for a hard line against the Serbs. Cohen and the Joint Chiefs, on the other hand, were reluctant, and Clinton and Berger were in the middle. But another major player who actively supported using military force against Milosevic was General Wesley Clark, who had been on Holbrooke’s negotiating team at Dayton and now headed NATO. Clark, aggressive and driven, whose cocky self-confidence often antagonized his peers, was named to the NATO post by Shalikashvili, the retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over the objections of the Army chief of staff. The new chairman was General Hugh Shelton, who showed himself extremely uneasy dealing with the politics of the White House.

Meanwhile, in July in Kosovo, the Serbs were striking back with ever greater fury, machine-gunning Albanian Kosovars, burning crops, destroying villages. In the Pentagon, Halberstam tells us, the Joint Chiefs were still reluctant to use American force, but by mid-October, under Clark’s prodding, Washington finally agreed to threaten Milosevic with NATO air strikes unless he backed off in Kosovo. Lieutenant General Michael Short, who was to manage the air campaign against the Serbs, met with Milosevic in Belgrade in October and warned the Serb leader that the high technology that had been developed in the seven years since the Gulf War would be devastating. “Why don’t you go out now and drive around your city and take one last look at it as it is today, because it will never look that way again,” he told Milosevic. “Our air might is far greater and far more lethal and accurate today. Iraq was just the beginning.”

As the Clinton administration moved toward another confrontation in the former Yugoslavia, Colin Powell was not on hand to slow things down. Instead, Albright and Clark pushed for action. In Bosnia, the Srebrenica massacre had been the turning point that forced the West to strike; in Kosovo in the late fall of 1998 the village of Racak was the scene of a brutal Serb reprisal for the killing of four policemen by the KLA. A group of about thirty Albanian men were hiding in a cellar when a heavily armed Serb unit entered the town. After finding these men, the Serbs decided to kill all Albanian adult males. When William Walker, who was heading the Kosovo Verification Mission, arrived in Racak, he found the corpses riddled with bullets, and immediately held a press conference, describing what happened in Racak as a crime against humanity. In Halberstam’s view, “Racak finally mobilized the West…and made it much harder for the doves to oppose action.” After an essentially failed conference at the French château at Rambouillet in February 1999, when Albright hoped to get a last-ditch agreement between the KLA and the Serbs, the scene was set for NATO action.

At the Pentagon the Joint Chiefs accepted the idea of an air war because ground troops were being excluded. But there was no Plan B—“As Powell had often asked, what if the bombing does not work?” When the bombing did begin on March 24, Clinton inserted one critical sentence into his announcement: “I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war.” This was precisely the wrong signal to send to Milosevic. In Halberstam’s view, it implied that the White House thought the war would be a short one, and the bombing would put a quick end to the conflict, as it had in Bosnia. It also crippled the military campaign by removing at the outset the most effective threat the US could make.

Clinton’s statement ignored that in Bosnia it was the successful Croat-Muslim offensive combined with the bombing that did the trick. Instead, the Kosovo war went on much, much longer than Albright predicted. She had been given the impression by US intelligence that it could be over after four days of bombing.

Air power, restricted to a narrow target list, could not in itself win the war. Both Wesley Clark and Mike Short found there was a wide difference between the targets NATO military people wanted to hit and what the NATO political people permitted to be hit. Clark “had wanted to hit the traditional optimum targets to make the Serbs suffer: the power grid, the sources of energy, oil and gas and the refineries, and the communications network.” The NATO politicians resisted this strategy. Halberstam writes that Clark kept asking Short to go after the Serb Third Army in Kosovo. Short thought that was a waste of air power; the “center of gravity,” in his view, was Belgrade.

Clark, too, wanted more targets, as well as ground forces. He also knew that there was no way NATO was going to lose this war. If the narrow targets allotted Mike Short did not bring Milosevic to withdraw, then Clark would eventually get what he wanted to win—if not ground troops, then greater air power. By April 1999, faced with the prospect of defeat, the strategy did indeed change. At a NATO summit that spring, Tony Blair put new pressure on Clinton to authorize the use of ground troops. A deal was struck. The British would say less about ground troops, and in return the Americans would start planning for their use, as well as an escalation in the bombing of Belgrade.

On May 7, the full force of NATO air power blasted the capital city. The high-technology weapons that Short had advocated were proving themselves in the use of B-2 Stealth bombers, in which pilots could take off from their base in Missouri for the fourteen-hour trip to the Balkans, penetrate Serb skies unobserved at night, and return to sleep back in the US. The bombs they were dropping were precision-guided, and could hit their targets with an amazing accuracy of a few feet. (This did not prevent some disastrous errors, such as bombing the Chinese embassy.)

As the target list expanded, the KLA, with perhaps as many as ten thousand men under arms, was also on the move, and NATO was now hitting some of Milosevic’s armored units. While the White House was preparing to ship ground troops to Kosovo, Albright and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott had been working with the former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on a strategy to persuade Milosevic to give up the game. At Albright’s suggestion, a neutral figure, Finland’s president Martti Ahtisaari, accompanied Chernomyrdin to Belgrade on June 3 to meet with Milosevic. When Milosevic realized that the Russians had gone over to the other side and would give him no help, he agreed to pull all Serb troops out of Kosovo.

The British military historian John Keegan wrote a few days after Milosevic capitulated,

There are certain days in the history of warfare that make real turning points…. Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar: June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone.

Halberstam endorses this view. But this is not quite accurate. Milosevic was beaten as well by the threat of ground troops and the realization that the Russian mediators he had counted on would no longer protect him. In the American search for a war without fatalities, air power alone was not the decisive weapon, either in Bosnia or Kosovo.8

Sophisticated air power weaponry was used once again in Afghanistan. But there is a difference: the Balkan wars were begun by the leader of a Serbian state against breakaway republics and provinces. Belgrade was a modern European city, so heavy air strikes could indeed cripple the capital, destroying rail and communications networks to the rest of the nation.

In Afghanistan, air power has been used effectively against elusive Taliban targets in combination with US target spotters on the ground. But bombing by itself cannot bring victory over a terrorist organization. In Afghanistan only troops on the ground that were willing to accept casualties could succeed, whether they came from the Northern Alliance, from Pashtuns who opposed the Taliban, or from the US or other countries. The soldiers that Bush had once said he would withdraw from the Balkans are still on guard there. Any campaign to eradicate terrorist organizations throughout the world will require troops on the ground.

In Bush’s State of the Union address, January 29, 2002, the President labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an “axis of evil” that would threaten “the peace of the world” with weapons of mass destruction. To counter such a buildup, Bush said that he would not “wait upon events while dangers gather,” or “stand by as peril draws closer and closer.” This declaration implied the use of conventional forces in preventive strikes against any nation that might be developing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons as well as missile launchers and other facilities that might contain such weaponry.9

Such a crusade would mean that the United States is prepared to initiate military action against states as well as terrorists who may or may not be protected by the governments of those states. Already the Bush administration seems to be embarking on an endless series of interventions—Afghanistan and the Philippines now, perhaps Indonesia next, then Iraq, and who knows what will follow. Under an unlikely commander in chief, the mission the United States has set for itself requires, if it to be seriously carried out, that the US become the world’s policeman, the no longer reluctant enforcer of a Pax Americana.

This Issue

March 28, 2002