June 26, 2000

Gumpline: War in Europe

Part 1: The Players

Prior to the NATO airstrikes, there was already a significant number of Kosovars who had been displaced by the conflict between Serb security forces and the KLA. As at 23 March 1999, UNHCR estimated that there were some 260,000 Kosovars internally displaced within Kosovo, some 69,500 refugees or internally displaced in immediately neighbouring countries/provinces (this accounts for the figures you obtained from the OSCE, which are reflected in the attached chart), together with some 100,000 Kosovo Albanians who had applied for asylum in European countries.

Once the airstrikes began on 23 March, the movements to neighbouring countries/provinces did not entirely cease, but did abate somewhat -- probably due to the dangers of travelling, the expectation at the time that the whole thing would probably be over in a matter of days, and the fact that the Serb regime had not yet begun its intensive deportation campaign. March 27 was the date when the very large movements of [refugees] started, in particular to Albania.
(Kirsten Young, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Senior Liaison Officer, South-East Europe Operation, response to author's query. Emphasis added.)

The media and government in the United States are such sprawling banyan trees that the view of bothersome foreign events can't be identical from all of their branches. America's principal storytellers save themselves from the confusing effects of parallax by compiling observations, criticizing but following each other's selections like spouses recounting a vacation. As reporters' fascination with Allied fetish weapons grew during the recent war in Serbia, their interest dwindled in the strategy that had left NATO the choice of losing prestige or throwing a torch into a gas leak to save people from the fumes. By the time that the Allies moved in their troops, there was only a flicker of media interest left in the wisdom of the ultimatum that the Alliance would strike if Milosevic refused NATO occupation of Kosovo.

NEWSHOUR: Did you question this strategy from the beginning, whether or not this was really the way to do this?

GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK, USMC: I -- I questioned not the strategy, because it wasn't a strategy, and that was the whole point of my comments. I did not believe we were at the strategic level. We were talking about the tactical and operational level of war: Should we drop bombs, should we not drop bombs, should we put in forces, should we not? And I kept on wondering, where is the debate about what the end state is -- not necessarily three years from now, but what about ten years from now?
(PBS Online NewsHour, June 25, 1999)

Having allowed General Krulak his moment of dissent, American analysts resumed hashing the merits of Taking the War Downtown and Sending in Ground Troops as contentedly as puppies chewing a favourite pair of shoes. Frontline: War in Europe adds to U.S. folklore the tale of American Might and Virtue, personified by Air Commander Michael Short and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, betrayed by mewling European allies reluctant to bomb Belgrade and a groping President who publicly excluded a ground assault. The adoption of the "tactical errors" story by PBS, the U.S. broadcaster least likely to assume that its audience is armed, confirms that American media have resolved not to dwell on the State Department's strategic virtuosity. While Frontline credits the Secretary with tenacity, the program only hints at the elegance of the steely diplomacy that pushed the Russians, the Yugoslav army, and the Serbian people into Milosevic's corner.

Albright and General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, spent the year that preceded the air war guiding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization toward what Frontline called "an irresistible display of the moral purpose and technological might of the West." The plan to threaten Milosevic with force relied on the assumptions that NATO could control him without Russian assistance and train the Kosovo Liberation Army to heel on command. Frontline takes a few pokes at the second premise before concluding that Albright broke the balky rebels with her forceful language and fearsome hats. But the axiom that America can pressure any tick by firing enough bullets into the host's body receives hushed reverence, and the writers show a religious lack of curiosity about why Milosevic retained power in Belgrade.

As a key element of his hold on power, President Milosevic effectively controls the Serbian police, a heavily armed force of some 100,000 officers that is responsible for internal security. Serbian police committed numerous serious and systematic human rights abuses.
(U.S. Deptartment of State, Serbia-Montenegro Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998)

Frontline offers an aerial view of the April 3 1999 strike on Interior Ministry Police (MUP) headquarters in downtown Belgrade, General Clark's attempt to neutralize the police by destroying their office furniture. While "the vivid results of the military success" did give the Allies at least one hit that was plausibly related to Milosevic's power, the narrator grieves that it led European politicians to demand vetos over target selection.

An unlamented problem was that the police relied on Milosevic for the relative generosity of their paycheques, so there wasn't much the Alliance could have done to him with bombs unless it caught the 100,000 officers stacked inside the building like clowns in a circus car. NATO's generals were left with the dilemma that consumes Frontline. Was it more effective to use the Alliance's explosive power against an army that didn't care about Milosevic but wanted to keep Kosovo, or against a population that didn't care about Milosevic but wanted to keep Kosovo?

Frontline lauds Lt. General Short in the muscular dialect that U.S. reporters tend to affect around military officers. "The Allied Air Commander wanted to take the war straight to Milosevic in Belgrade," purrs the narrator, "hitting him with savage intensity." Short is an understandable choice for the role of action hero, as he is the only one among the principal players who speaks his mind without checking to see if admirers are chiseling his words into stone. During the campaign, he was one of the few Allied voices frank enough to admit that civilian misery was a tactic in this as in any other war.

LT. GENERAL SHORT: If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, "Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?" And at some point, you make the transition from applauding Serb machismo against the world to thinking what your country is going to look like if this continues.
(Washington Post, May 24, 1999)

Serbia's curiously ungrateful citizens seemed more inclined to protest against the bombing, hoping perhaps that the Allies might ask themselves how wrecking bridges or power stations would leave anyone in a position to challenge the MUP. In his Frontline interview, Short explains that such targeting was merely the Alliance's attempt to "go after the head of the snake." NATO would teach these backwards people the folly of Serb machismo, not by actually apprehending Milosevic, but by firing missiles at Serbian cities to show disapproval for citizens' reluctance to get their heads cracked by his police.

The narrator presents General Clark, the war's mastermind, as a more classic hero complete with tragic flaw. Clark had written the part of the Dayton Peace Agreement that provided for NATO troops in Bosnia, and his conviction that the Alliance had demonstrated its effectiveness there made him "another American who believed he knew how to handle Milosevic."

GENERAL CLARK: As far as Milosevic is concerned, I'm probably unique among 20th century commanders in knowing so well the adversarial leadership - the people on the other side. I don't think anybody's had quite the same experience that I've had in terms of knowing your enemy, and so I have a pretty good feel for what he might do and how he might do it.
(Frontline, Feb. 22, 2000)

For Frontline, the clearest sign of Clark's overconfidence was his willingness to give Europeans a say in which parts of Serbia got levelled. Short's view, which the program endorses with the subtlety of a home shopping barker, was that using air power to decrement the Yugoslav Army (VJ) one tank at a time let Belgrade escape the comprehensive flattening that is America's specialty. The writers didn't point out that in addition to this tactical objection, Clark had been with NATO long enough to know the strategic hole in the idea that weakening the army would weaken Milosevic.

Milosevic, who relies on the Interior Ministry's well-paid police force to protect him and to repress opponents, is not well liked in the Yugoslav Army; it is underpaid and has lost all the battles that he sent it into in the last eight years. This feeling was surprisingly evident in remarks last week by the army's chief of staff, Gen. Momcilo Perisic, who rose through the ranks during the glory days of Marshal Tito.

"Many leadership members have subjected everything to their own interests," Perisic said in what seemed a veiled reference to Milosevic. "The Serbs have been at war since 1991 and we still don't have an ally. We were never this isolated and we were never without allies."
(New York Times, October 25, 1998)

What united Short and Clark was their faith that if some bombs didn't squeeze Milosevic, more bombs would, even if they landed on his rivals. The amount of excavation needed to establish Allied control of Kosovo was so modest that Frontline limits its debate to whether this amount could have been compressed into a shorter time.

LT. GENERAL SHORT: When the decision is made to use force, then we need to go in with overwhelming force, quite frankly, extraordinary violence - that the speed of it, the lethality of it, the weight of it has to make an incredible impression on the adversary, to such a degree that he is stunned and shocked and his people are immediately asking, "Why in the world are we doing this?".
(Frontline, Feb. 22, 2000)

Short appears to understand that the secret of a successful vaccine is its resemblance to the disease it is supposed to prevent. The hearty welcome Frontline gives to the Air Commander's prescription presumes that the 1998 conflict would have grown worse if the Allies had set aside their air inoculation plans and made use of Russian desires for a more important role in Europe. Secretary Albright summarizes the official prognosis of the time, recalling "the sense that I'd had from the very beginning of the year that we had - were reliving the stories of Srebrenica and the terrible things that had happened in Bosnia."

When Clark's face is on the screen, the narrative tiptoes toward the heresy that experience in Bosnia did not imply expertise in Kosovo. In the lady's presence such impertinent scepticism scuds away, and with it vanishes any doubt that the tally of civilians killed would have been higher if NATO had not used a military threat and a bombing campaign to put Milosevic, the MUP, the KLA, and the Russians in their proper places. "We had learned a lot of lessons out of Bosnia," confides Albright, proud that she hadn't wasted time on frills like using Russian insecurity to contain Milosevic or maintaining a credible threat of dropping the KLA.

"Madeleine Albright believed that America had the opportunity and the obligation to exercise power with moral purpose," croons the narrator, to the melody of America the Beautiful. "Her doctrine of virtuous power was being tested in the most vexing corner of Europe: the Balkans." Only the giddiness of new love prevents the Frontline writers from noticing that their heroine's actual doctrine - "limited use of force" - was the same policy they were blaming for the war's duration. Answering questions in Atlanta on Dec. 3 1998, Albright defended her thesis that limited force would make Serbia into an integrated democratic country like the one NATO had produced on paper in Bosnia.

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: ...there are those who believe that if you use force, you can only use it in massive numbers. And I had an argument, actually - not an easy one for a woman to have, or a civilian to have - with General Colin Powell. And he writes about it in his book, so I think that I can talk about it freely.

I believed for a long time that it was important for us to threaten the use of force and/or use force in Bosnia. I had made that quite clear, that I thought it had gone on too long and that we needed to use force earlier. And General Powell is a believer in the massive use of force, which worked in the Persian Gulf War. And I have believed that it's very important to be able to apply the limited use of force, and that it works. And it did work in Bosnia; when we finally decided to bomb, it did work, and it happened after the disasters at Srebrenica.
(Rosalynn Carter Distinguished Lecture Series, U.S. Department of State transcription)

Albright didn't mention the limited NATO bombing that had preceded the disasters at Srebrenica, but her remarks do reveal her spunky reliance on her own and Clark's analyses over the back talk of meddling local brass. In Bosnia, NATO air strikes had helped the groups with fewer weapons win back some territory and NATO soldiers had guarded the resulting ethnic borders. Why not create a similarly multicultural society in Kosovo?

"For Milosevic, Kosovo was his peoples' holy land," says the narrator, providing the answer without asking the question. "He could not give it up and stay in power" - at least, not without Allied assistance. Albright, like Clark, was afflicted with the certainty that she knew how to budge the troublemaker, and she shares with the camera her observation that Milosevic "best understood the use of force." He unfortunately seemed to understand it well enough to know that unless the Allies had a magic bomb to vaporize the MUP, he could keep his office by fighting whether the VJ won control of Kosovo or NATO bombed the VJ and the Serbian population until they were willing to part with it.