The Case For Losing, Sort Of


Good grief, what a war. Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, slaughters and "cleanses'' Albanians by the thousands in Kosovo, while NATO seriously inconveniences Belgrade. Oops, there goes the Chinese Embassy. Well, war is hell; you can't inconvenience the right people all the time. NATO demands what amounts to a Serbian surrender of Kosovo, yet it applies only enough force to get a deal, all the while insisting that no mere deal will do. Something doesn't compute. I have an idea what.

Back in April, shortly after the first cruise missiles took flight, I began collecting statements of what has been the guiding conventional wisdom of the Kosovo war. Whatever else may happen, NATO must not lose! Losing is "unthinkable.'' A loss would be the end of the NATO alliance, or the end of NATO's effectiveness as an alliance, or the end of the West's credibility against two-bit dictators.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger: "The real question is: Can NATO and the United States afford to fail? Now that we've gone this far, probably not.'' Former Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher: "We--NATO and the United States-- must prevail in Kosovo. We must do so unambiguously.'' Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: "We're in it, and we have to win it.'' The Economist: "Failure will not just ensure a continuation of the brutality in Kosovo; it will ensure that despots everywhere take heart.'' Anthony Lewis of The New York Times: "So far [Milosevic] has won. If he wins again, the price to this country and the Western alliance will be devastating.'' Maureen Dowd, also of The Times: "Looking at hordes of wretched Kosovar refugees on the borders, I think only one thought: Well, Mr. President, we just have to win, then.''

When even Maureen Dowd suspends her existential insouciance to declare in dead earnest that, by God, we must win, you know it's time for a rethink. Telling ourselves that we must win in Kosovo doesn't make it so. And it isn't.

A couple of formalities, starting with a simplifying assumption. "Losing,'' for this article's purposes, doesn't mean that any particular set of military or diplomatic facts obtains over another. It means that NATO and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are generally perceived as having lost. In a war for credibility, if the newspapers say you lost, then you lost. Second, nothing in this article means to imply that winning would be a bad outcome. I hereby bravely declare myself in favor of victory for our side.

So, how bad is losing? The answer depends on your real-life choices. NATO's first choice was to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by threatening Milosevic or by dropping a couple of bomblets on him, so he could capitulate gracefully. That was a good first choice, and in March it looked like a reasonable bet. Unfortunately, it was also NATO's second, third, and fourth choice. And fifth. What actually happened was NATO's 638th choice, approximately.

Losing this war, by contrast, would be NATO's 819th choice, approximately. Between 638 and 819 lie some lives and some credibility, but either way, NATO has already fared miserably. Kosovo is cleansed, the towns are burnt, the border countries are distressed and imperiled, the refugees are brutalized and impoverished and homeless, the dream of an autonomous Kosovo under Yugoslav rule is a cinder in the wind, and stability in the region is many years away.

Given that NATO has lost so much in the beginning, can losing in the end be unthinkably bad? The answer turns not so much upon the facts in Kosovo (where the damage has been done already) as it does upon two worries about credibility. The first is about the credibility of international law against savagery. The second is about NATO's own credibility.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has said that those who have committed the crimes in Kosovo must be made to pay for the rest of their lives. This is a laudable sentiment and, to some extent, a worthy foreign policy goal. Insofar as Western power can reliably and at reasonable cost prevent or at least punish atrocity, it should.

But let's not kid ourselves. Many criminals worse than Milosevic have gotten away with murder, and many others will get away. In Cambodia, precisely one leader of the psychopathically genocidal Khmer Rouge has been arrested, while his colleagues in slaughter enjoy quiet retirements. The United States and the United Nations demand that the sole arrestee, Ta Mok, be tried before an international tribunal; Cambodia refuses, and most likely will sentence Ta Mok to life (he is 72) in comfy quarters.

This is no argument for letting Milosevic get away with his crimes. In fact, keeping him from getting away is one reason that winning would be nice. But it does suggest that it is pointless to regard Milosevic's escape from punishment as unthinkable, intolerable, or even unlikely. The masterminds of mass murder in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, are, disgracefully but not surprisingly, still at large; the rickety Dayton agreement (formally, the Dayton Peace Accords) that brought peace to Bosnia has, in practice, allowed many other barbaric Serbs go on about their business. Every peace in every place is based on some such unjust accommodation. In South Africa, in Latin America, and in the former Soviet Bloc, traumatized but free people pass their former persecutors on the street. Someday soon, with luck, the same will be true in China, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea.

Even if NATO wins, it's hard to imagine any settlement that will not require clinking goblets with some very ugly members of the Milosevic regime, possibly including Milosevic. Watch when today's war criminals become tomorrow's peacemakers, as did Milosevic himself in Bosnia. The West should pretend that the difference between letting Milosevic and his cronies ``get away with it'' and "making them pay'' is clear-cut and large. But, really, it is neither.

The other "unthinkable'' loss of face is NATO's own. In fact, however, when people say that the credibility of NATO might not survive a failure in Kosovo, what they mean is that the credibility of NATO's new mission might not survive. As recently as 1990, NATO declared: "The alliance is purely defensive in purpose. None of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defense.'' The new NATO, by contrast, is a self-appointed continental police force, undertaking to stabilize and, ideally, democratize all of Europe. If the reinvented alliance fails on its first big outing, then its ambitious quest is stillborn.

Stabilizing and democratizing Europe is emphatically a worthy goal. The only question is whether it is also a practical goal. For skeptics, the worry has always been that trying to pacify the continent with threats and bombs would cause more problems than it solved. The Kosovo mess, with its cascade of unintended consequences and its appalling military halfheartedness, is exactly what the skeptics feared.

That is not to say the Kosovo mission should never have been tried. However, trying and failing is an unthinkably bad outcome only if you believe that a NATO retrenchment would also be an unthinkably bad outcome. If Kosovo-style missions are in reality too messy, and too far from the NATO countries' core interests, to constitute a workable raison d'etre for the alliance, then it's just as well to learn the unpleasant truth right away, and rethink NATO properly.

Here, too, the difference between winning and losing is not really so stark. On the one hand, even if NATO "loses,'' whatever that means, it has exploded enough ordnance to make the next Milosevic think twice about poking fingers in NATO's eyes. A losing NATO would get a bad press, but no alliance with 4.4 million men and women under arms will ever be a laughingstock. By the same token, even if NATO "wins,'' whatever that means, it will have been chastened, and it will choose its next "out of area'' mission with a good deal more care and forethought. As Robert E. Hunter, a former NATO ambassador who is now with RAND Corp. in Washington, says, "Nobody wants to go through this again.''

At this point, the main reason to care about winning is that success is more likely to produce a semblance of a humane disposition of the Kosovar refugees. This is not strategically essential--in fact, it is conspicuously inessential--but it is morally important: Having accepted responsibility for the Kosovars, NATO is obliged to do right by them. It should do so even if that means losing some Americans--fewer of whom had died, as of May 7, than had Chinese.

What is pointless, however, is to go on pretending that losing would be even a patch on the calamity that has already occurred. If ever there was a war we could afford to lose, it is this one. NATO, with its white-glove warfare, declares this truth every day.