Foreign Policy

When Doves Cry

Wars without ends

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In Washington, they are calling the fight over Kosovo "Albright's war." The secretary of state's biography, it's said, is the reason NATO has gone to war with Serbia. Madeleine Albright was born in Czechoslovakia, the child of a diplomat stationed in Belgrade before and after World War II; the family twice had to flee the continent, to England to escape the Nazis and to America to escape the communists. Albright calls herself "a product of Central Europe" and says she has seen what happens "when you don't stand up to evil early."

Unlike Nazi Germany, however, Serbia is not an expansionist power trying to conquer Europe. It is a barbaric and oppressive state operating within its own borders, which makes opposing it much more difficult both militarily and politically. "Standing up to evil" does not, in this case, provide an obvious military objective, such as repelling or deterring an invasion. What, then, is the goal of the confrontation? How do you know when you've won?

Like Vietnam, this is a peculiar, post-World War II war, conducted by an administration with little interest in foreign policy and way too much belief in its own ability to create reality. The Clinton administration fell into war with Serbia because policy makers overestimated the fear that threatening words would inspire in the enemy (a word they rarely use, lest war seem a matter of us vs. them).

"As we contemplated the use of force over the past 14 months, we constructed four different models," a senior official told The Washington Post. "One was that the whiff of gunpowder, just the threat of force, would make [Slobodan Milosevic] back down. Another was that he needed to take some hit to justify acquiescence. Another was that he was a playground bully who would fight but back off after a punch in the nose. And the fourth was that he would react like Saddam Hussein," fighting back and maintaining power.

These "four" models are actually two: The enemy quickly capitulates, or he fights back for real. The war is a minor confrontation, or a long struggle. Treating the first scenario as though it were three different ones skews the debate. It makes the outlier appear less likely than it is.

Policy makers, to be fair, were misled by their Bosnia experience, when air strikes (combined with effective ground actions by Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces) did make Milosevic come to terms. But the administration seems to have been willfully blind to the differences: The struggle over Kosovo threatens Milosevic's regime and attacks Serbian nationalism; neither was the case in Bosnia.

More to the point, responsible planning would have prepared for all scenarios, not merely the ones policy makers thought–or hoped–were most likely. Yet NATO went to war on the assumption that bombing alone would make Milosevic surrender, with no ground troops necessary, no sudden flood of deportees, and no destabilization of neighboring countries. Having restricted itself to a single tactic, the Clinton administration assumed Milosevic would do the same. Instead, he proved a wily foe, willing to use whatever means at his disposal.

The president apparently gave no thought to what would happen if bombing did not work. Afraid of the implications of inserting ground troops, he publicly precluded that option from the start. When the Italian prime minister asked Clinton what the United States would do if bombing did not convince Milosevic to back down, he had no answer. According to a report in The Washington Post, he had to consult his national security adviser Sandy Berger, who hesitated and said, "We will continue the bombing." That's their plan, and they're sticking to it.

Bombing was, the president told reporters, "the best available option to show aggressive action, to keep NATO's word, to keep our NATO allies together and to give us a chance to preserve our objectives." What exactly those objectives might be–and why the goal is to "preserve" rather than achieve them–is left unexplored. As Post columnist Jim Hoagland puts it, "This is a lawyer going to war." Military action is a matter of words and "show." Chant the right words, put on the right show, and the problem will vanish.

That naive assumption reflects a more general psychology. The war with Serbia is a strange conflict. It is a war conducted by doves who are profoundly uncomfortable with the realities of international conflict, who cannot bear to recognize the clash of powers and interests and, thus, the possibility of real winners and losers. In theory, such discomfort could lead to prudent, restrained foreign policy. Given America's dominant international position, however, it more often encourages ambitious policy makers to misapply military force–to use it for nebulous, altruistic purposes with no clear national interest and no clearly achievable ends.

Like the "got a problem, get a program" attitude that informs so many grandiose domestic schemes, this approach to foreign policy assumes that complex problems can be solved easily, with few important tradeoffs, through the application of strong language, legal niceties, and good intentions. Policy makers engage military force without acknowledging its nature and limitations. They treat the mere threat of force as though it were a magic spell, whose incantation changes reality. Strategy and tactics become extraneous, death and destruction unmentionable.

In their classic, Wilsonian form, such dovish wars are not fought for narrow national interests but to promote broad moral goods. ("This is not my war….This is America's fight for our values," says Albright, defensively.) They therefore lack clear measures of success. How does an army, whose task is to defeat the enemy, "make the world safe for democracy" or, in Bill Clinton's words, for "votes and arguments and disagreements and demonstrations and religious differences and ethnic differences, but recognizing that it is better to work together for a brighter tomorrow."

A goal like that is absurd for a military campaign. To even come close to achieving it would require NATO to conquer, occupy, and indefinitely rule Serbia–a goal Clinton would never conceive, much less articulate and try to sell. (And a goal that, if achieved, seems unlikely to rally the Serbs to the cause of multicultural harmony.) The president could, of course, go for something more militarily realistic and politically acceptable. But acknowledging a limited goal would compromise the grand vision of remaking the world.

Hence the escalation of the war of words. Supposedly, this campaign is simply to achieve autonomy for Kosovo, with NATO peacekeepers to assure the Kosovar Albanians' safety. Personalizing the conflict by demonizing Milosevic has, however, also escalated it. In essence, the administration is demanding unconditional surrender without saying so–and certainly without employing the military means to achieve that objective.

The result is mush: no clear goals at all. True to the habits of the "permanent campaign," the administration treats military strategy as something to be reinvented on a day-to-day, news-cycle-to-news-cycle basis. The main objective seems to be avoiding bad press. Time correspondent Margaret Carlson has gently called this "Clinton's improvisational way of going about it."

This is an insult to improvisation, which is required in all military engagement. "No plan survives contact with the enemy" is, after all, a truism. Adaptation to surprises, failures, and changing conditions is essential. But successful improvisation depends on clear objectives.

The administration has turned that process on its head. The means are fixed–bombing and harsh rhetoric–while the goals fluctuate. The result is escalation by accident, as the stakes grow higher and the end disappears. "The thing that bothers me about introducing ground troops into a hostile situation, into Kosovo and into the Balkans," Clinton told Dan Rather in a CBS interview, "is the prospect of never being able to get them out." The president is right to worry about open-ended commitments. Wars without military objectives have a tendency to go on forever. Unfortunately, he has taken America into just such a war.