Force Without Force

by The New Republic | April 26, 1999

Last week was the week in which the United States fought a war with Serbia and lost. As of this dejected hour, there are almost half a million refugees around Kosovo's borders, and the magnitude of the slaughter inside Kosovo is unknown, though it is certainly what SeNATOr Nickles would have to call "a very significant massacre"; but NATO is delighted to announce that it has destroyed a second bridge in Novi Sad, and that two significant buildings in Belgrade are in flames. No, wait, the clouds have cleared. An appliance factory in Cacak is also a ruin.

The war aims of the Western alliance continue to be formulated in a language that remains bizarrely unaffected by the agony on the ground. These words that officially defy reality are designed to discourage any discussion of American ground troops, who might get hurt. And so at the Pentagon they speak only of "punishing" and "degrading" Serbia and its army. On March 31, President Clinton articulated "our stated objective" in this way: "To raise the price of aggression to an unacceptably high level so that we can get back to talking peace and security, or to substantially undermine the capacity of the Serbian government to wage war." But the Serbs are not waging a war, exactly. They are expelling people and exterminating people. The only way to punish and to degrade a savage in a ski mask who breaks down the doors of houses in the night and orders the women and the children to leave and shoots the men dead is to capture him or to kill him. Yet the president seeks not to stop aggression; he seeks to raise its price. Hasn't he heard that the Field of Blackbirds is priceless? Somebody should brief the president about unreason. For his own fondest aim for Operation Allied Force is to "get back" to "talking." What a distraction from dialogue evil is!

In Bosnia, a genocide took place in the face of American inaction. In Kosovo, a genocide is taking place in the face of American action. Truly, our capacity for horror is being taxed. NATO's war against Slobodan Milosevic and Slobodan Milosevic's war against Kosovo are being fought alongside each other, in a sickening disconnection. NATO is promising that its war against Milosevic will continue because its "credibility" is at stake; but credibility for NATO is not mercy for Kosovo. If Milosevic finally has his way with Kosovo and NATO finally has its way with Milosevic, then NATO will be credible, except morally. Operation Allied Force originated in a moral impulse, in an impatience with an injustice, and for this it deserves to be supported, or else the United States is just another great power; but it is no wonder that NATO's campaign is increasingly defined more in the terms of realism and less in the terms of idealism, because the struggle against ethnic cleansing has been thwarted in the Balkans for the second time in the annals of the Clinton administration. The work of idealism, once again, has been reduced to relief and rescue, to the aftermath of catastrophe. Where we should have rushed bullets we are now rushing blankets.

We have been witnessing a good fight badly fought. The means have not been commensurate with the ends. Operation Allied Force is Operation Insufficient Allied Force; and the crippling of Serbia from the skies will not alter this. How did this happen? A few early observations are possible.

The Velocity of Evil. In Washington it is said that the fault with Operation Allied Force was not its purpose but its "implementation." This is true, but it is too simple. For the implementation is a reflection of the extent to which the purpose was improperly comprehended. The failure in the planning of this operation was owed in part to a poor understanding of genocide as a military problem.

The preempting of genocide, or the ending of it, has certain peculiarities as a military objective. The use of force against it cannot be satisfied with punishment, because punishment is always tardy. It is right to deny the aggressors the fruits of what they have done; but they have done what they have done. Punishment is just a way of restoring morality to tragedy. Also, it makes no sense to speak of escalation in a war against genocide. Such a war is not a war of attrition, if its aim is to prevent the death and the disappearance of a people. A war against genocide must be fought with a fury, because a fury is what it is fighting.

For the purpose of stopping genocide, the use of force is not a last resort; it is a first resort. The alacrity of the response matters as much as the intensity of the response. In Washington it is said that ground troops must not be "hastily deployed," but a hasty deployment is the only kind of deployment that is appropriate, because the crime, too, is hasty. The president is pleading that we "stay the course," and NATO is promising weeks and weeks of bombing. But Kosovo will soon be still. Less than half the Kosovar population is left in Kosovo. In Belgrade, the stillness of Kosovo will mean victory.

American culture and American politics are drenched in the memory of Auschwitz, but some of the fundamental features of ethnic cleansing, its swiftness and its single-mindedness, appear to have escaped American planners. They have not yet learned to think operationally about the resistance to genocide. Instead they consult and they calibrate. And they boast about the cohesion of the alliance. The good news is that Brussels is holding. The bad news is that Pristina is not.

In and Out. The infirmity of will that has characterized Operation Allied Force is best captured in the concept that has become the centerpiece of all discussion of the use of American force. I refer to the circumscription of American action known as "exit strategy." This dogmatic deadline is really a political concept, not a strategic concept; it allows politicians and planners to beautify their pandering to the polls with the high discourse of strategy. Essentially, "exit strategy" exchanges the maneuverability of soldiers for the maneuverability of politicians. It is a concept borrowed from the world of commerce, which is not a world of sacrifices for principle. A smart investor knows when to get out; so, too, a smart interventionist.

"Exit strategy" became canonical in 1993, in the wake of the clash in Somalia in which 18 American soldiers were killed. President Clinton's response to the incident was not to suggest that the soldiers in Mogadishu had not died in vain, since hundreds of thousands of Somalis were saved from starvation by the American deployment. "Americans are basically isolationist," he explained to George Stephanopoulos. "They understand at a basic gut level Henry Kissinger's vital-interest argument. Right now the average American doesn't see our national interest threatened to the point where we should sacrifice one American life." Since it is an axiom of Clintonism that the president and the average American must at all times be the same, the president brusquely announced on October 7, 1993, that American troops would withdraw from Somalia on March 31, 1994. (Then he remarked that "I hope I didn't panic and announce the pullout too soon.") In 1996, Anthony Lake, his tortured and timid national security adviser, went so far as to codify an " exit strategy doctrine": "Before we send our troops into a foreign country, we should know how and when we're going to get them out." Lake was making omniscience into a condition of the use of American force.

The doctrine of "exit strategy" fundamentally misunderstands the nature of war and, more generally, the nature of historical action. In the name of caution, it denies the contingency of human affairs. For the knowledge of the end is not given to us at the beginning. We cannot completely predict or completely determine the outcome of our best endeavors, though our ignorance of their outcome does not make them less necessary or less just. No great deed, private or public, has ever been undertaken in a bliss of certainty. " Exit strategy" is for American strategy what "closure" is for American psychology: a spurious guarantee that Americans will not have to tolerate a condition of inconclusiveness for very long.

In war, certainly, an adherence to dogma is not strategic wisdom. "The only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper," Clausewitz famously wrote, is the concept of " friction." Among these "effects that cannot be measured, because they are largely due to chance," he added, is "the weather. Fog can prevent the enemy from being seen in time...." It follows that a good commander is a flexible commander: the sort of commander who would send Apache helicopters where F- 117s cannot go, because the cause is too precious to surrender to the clouds; the sort of commander who would wisely order a mission to creep.

America's commitment to NATO would itself have failed the test of "exit strategy." It has been 50 splendid, exitless years. So, too, would other American deployments that have been essential to the protection of our values and our interests: the three American divisions in South Korea, for example. For "exit strategy" is more than a scruple about prudence in the use of force. (Who is for the imprudent use of force?) It is a scruple about the use of force itself. It is an inhibition, an intimidation. It rigs the discussion about military power in a way that makes any ambitious projection of it unlikely. The antithesis of "exit strategy" is courage.

Saving General Powell. As a consequence of the disappointment of Operation Allied Force, the Powell Doctrine is enjoying a revival. "This only affirms the Powell Doctrine," commented SeNATOr McCain. "This is more reminiscent of the gradual escalation and bombing pauses that characterized the Vietnam War." No greater malediction can be hurled at a military operation. (But McCain was speaking critically of the Powell Doctrine; he called for ground troops.) And in an unexpected outburst of Powellism, Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker fretted about "a new military bog." He did not call for the introduction of ground troops; he called for the government to "declare its intent." Gourevitch writes as if he hates Clinton's hypocrisy more than Milosevic's cruelty. But we are fighting the West's own butcher; and it is owing precisely to such platitudes that the administration is restraining itself from doing all that needs to be done to stop him. (A new military bog in Rwanda would have been a godsend.)

Powell himself has been happy to express a feeling of vindication: "The challenge of just using air power is that you leave it in the hands of your adversary to decide when he's been punished enough... So the initiative will remain with President Milosevic." The implication of Powell's remark is that he himself would have visited ground troops upon the Serbian rampage, so as to cut it off and kill it. The notion is grotesque. It was Powell who refused to consider the deployment of American soldiers in Bosnia during the long years of its excruciation. The Powell Doctrine (which also worships exit strategies) was significantly responsible for the military and political climate that has resulted in a half-measure such as Operation Allied Force. It was not formulated to encourage the use of American ground troops as an instrument of foreign policy. Quite the contrary. It promulgated a set of conditions for the use of American ground troops that will almost never be met. Powell is prepared to fight a war, but not a war that will ever be fought. In this way, the general can appear as a man of war and a man of peace. This trick accounts for his absurd popularity.

Powell's criticism of Operation Allied Force is that the war in the Balkans is not being waged like the war in the Gulf. For Powell, the Gulf war is the paradigm of war. It was, after all, a glorious victory. Of course, it was also a war fought with overwhelming force and complete dominance of the air in a featureless landscape where it almost never rains. Strategically speaking, Operation Desert Storm was freakishly easy. It was a victory, moreover, but it was not a glorious victory. America owed its success in the desert not least to the definition of success that Powell propounded. This definition excluded from the war the most difficult and the most urgent objective of all, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.

It was said at the time that this objective would have fractured the international consensus in support of the war, which mandated only the liberation of Kuwait. But this was not the only American anxiety about the inclusion of the political objective among our war aims. There was another American anxiety, and it was that the political objective could not have been accomplished without a ground assault on Baghdad. This would have been dangerous. American soldiers would have been wounded and killed. And so American soldiers left the real trouble where they found it and came home.

If Saddam Hussein ever again makes use of his obscene arsenal, Colin Powell will have a lot to answer for. But there the general stood in his sanctity at the Academy Awards, wrapping himself in World War II and thrilling the young flesh. "Every generation has the potential for greatness," he preached. "Had those men and women failed in that test of their greatness, we would live far different lives today." Then they rolled the clip of Steven Spielberg's recreation of the least Powell-like military operation ever launched. You would not have known that it is Powell who has been instructing this generation of men and women to fail in their own test of greatness. Hitler is not the only test.

In the current crisis, the Clinton administration's euphemism for Powellism is "permissive environment." At the White House they are hoarse from protesting that they will introduce ground troops only into such an environment. They are not offering a definition of "permissiveness," but it is hard to imagine a circumstance of conflict in Kosovo that would fall within such a definition. There are trees in the Balkans, and mountains, and the devil's weather. Perhaps "permissiveness" means only peacekeeping, in which case the United States will dispatch its troops after they were desperately needed. Maybe American troops can police a partition, when it will be in the interests of Milosevic to keep them out of harm's way. They can give the remains of Kosovo, and the remains of NATO, and the remains of American interventionism, a decent burial.

Character Is (Other People's) Fate. Everything that Clinton does is so tiresomely Clintonian. This war is no exception. Its limitations and its inconsistencies are his limitations and his inconsistencies. He believes in the dissociation of actions from consequences. He does not like entailments. Impunity is his ideal. It is no wonder that such a man would kindle to the cruise missile, and more generally to the moral convenience of the technology of precision guidance. It allows the president to believe that America can fight a war and win a war without losing an American life. In all our sorties over Iraq there has been not a single American casualty. Never mind that the air war has left the regime in Baghdad and its instruments of mass destruction intact. The important thing is that there were American actions without American consequences. War without death: an apotheosis of Clintonism.

On March 23, the day before the bombing of Serbia (and the emptying of Kosovo) began, the president treated the members of afscme to a tutorial on America's actions in the Balkans. This was the speech in which he cheerfully confided, on the eve of a war, that "if the American people don't know anything about me--else--they know that I don't like to use military force." But this was not the most egregious of his reflections. He proceeded to pose as the savior of Bosnia. "I know what happened in Bosnia. The United States and our allies, along with courageous people in Bosnia and in Croatia who refused to be subdued and fought back, found the unity and the will to stand up against the aggression, and we helped to end the war."

Clinton's heroic account of his Bosnia policy is outrageous. It is true that he found the unity and the will, but only after years of averting his gaze from those same courageous people. The torments of Sarajevo, Prijedor, Banja Luka, Gorazde, and Srebrenica were an indirect consequence of this man's shallowness, of his politicized view of life. The polls told him to let the cleansing be. At afscme, however, Clinton had the temerity to compare himself to Churchill. "I want to talk to you about Kosovo today, but just remember this: It's about our values. What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? How many peoples' lives might have been saved, and how many American lives might have been saved?" This, from the least Churchillian figure of our time. Surely the important point about the Americans who were killed in World War II is not that their lives might have been saved. (When Hitler came to power in Germany, war became inevitable. It was his reason for being. There are villains with whom there can be no getting back to talking peace and security.) Surely the important point is that their lives were not lost for nothing.

Unfortunately, this is not a point that this president can make. Operation Allied Force asks many things of the American people, and one of the most difficult things it asks of them is to be led into this war by this man. So let us be clear. At this miserable moment, it is a mark of moral and historical seriousness to support this morally and historically unserious man. Clinton's decision to attack Milosevic--or, in the shabby words of Newsweek, his "fail ure to offer Milosevic a face-saving compromise"--was the right decision. He is not admirable, but he is right. I am not sure if he understands why. His prosecution of the war will tell.

After Such Knowingness, What Forgiveness? It is springtime for realism. Idealism died with the cold war, didn't it? But apparently it didn't. The United States certainly has an interest in the stability of Europe and the authority of NATO, but the truth is that Operation Allied Force is an idealist's war. This maddens the realists, who thought that they were rid of such costly moistness. Republicans who swelled with pride during Reagan's war in Grenada and Bush's war in Panama are cool toward Clinton's war in Yugoslavia. This is what isolationism means, in Washington: my party's opposition to your party's intervention. Some conservatives are redescribing the cold war as nothing more than a great-power rivalry. Michael Mandelbaum's heartless old crack that foreign policy is not social work is being fanned back into life.

Thomas L. Friedman is one of the tough guys. He knows how the world really works. He first proved his toughness in 1995. "I don't give two cents about Bosnia," he wrote. "Not two cents." Four years later, he writes: "The question we are wrestling with in Kosovo today is this: How should Americans react when bad things happen in unimportant places?" Friedman still does not grasp that a place in which innocent men, women, and children are being expelled and exterminated is an important place. It is a place that asks about the philosophy by which we claim to live. For this reason, Pristina is a more important place than Davos.

I don't mean to be unfair. Friedman is not altogether unmoved: "I'm glad we're punishing the Serbs now for their ethnic cleansing. It's barbaric." Good. Also, "give war a chance." Also good. But now what? "I want NATO to stop what was bad and get out." So does NATO. But how? Not with ground troops, certainly. "While NATO steps up the air war, it also needs to step up its diplomacy." Friedman wants us to negotiate with Milosevic! He wants "a modified Rambouillet deal that would give the Kosovars internationally protected autonomy in a Kosovo still under Serb sovereignty, or a partition of Kosovo." But Kosovo will shortly cease to exist, except as a ghost. I also wonder whether Friedman would be willing, in the same spirit of realism about what a strong state will permit for a stateless minority in its dominion, to consider a modified Oslo deal that would give the Palestinians internationally protected autonomy in a Palestine still under Israeli sovereignty.

Fareed Zakaria is another one of the tough guys. He, too, is disabused of the sentimental illusion that the foreign policy of the United States must be animated by ideals. Not long ago he observed acerbically that "today it is the idealists who urge intervention--in Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia--while strategists, like Henry Kissinger, urge selectivity, caution, moderation." Idealists cannot be strategists. They are too simple for strategy. "In fact the new interventionists urge American involvement in precisely those areas where Washington has few national interests--this ensures that its motives are pure." Purity is what idealists want. But Zakaria knows that this is an impure world.

He knows, for example, that Slobodan Milosevic "is no Adolf Hitler. He is not even Saddam Hussein." I do not recall Zakaria getting too exercised about Saddam Hussein; but then Saddam Hussein is also no Adolf Hitler. Anyway, it is the responsibility of the realist never to get too exercised: surtout pas de zele and all that. And so Zakaria writes with condescension about Operation Allied Force: " The administration's goal--to stop the atrocities in Kosovo--is a noble effort but a naive one." But Zakaria is not naive. He recognizes that the crisis in Kosovo pales before the crisis in the global financial system. And he recognizes that NATO has "only two choices": to " wage war" or to "negotiate peace." If it wages war, however, "Kosovo will have to be armed and protected by NATO, probably in perpetuity." No exit there.

So Zakaria prefers that we negotiate peace. Since he is not worried about purity, he proposes that "someone could take a message to Milosevic that NATO would be willing to restart negotiations. (The pope's intermediary might be just the person to use.)" Zakaria's own plan for the appeasement of Milosevic is "a slice of Kosovo, to be made autonomous or quasi-independent." And then he, too, takes cover behind Winston Churchill. "As Winston Churchill--hardly shy about using military force--once said, there are certain circumstances in which 'jaw, jaw is better than war, war.'" Jaw, jaw: There speaks the gentleman from the Council on Foreign Relations. This is not realism. This is complacence. But it is not the historical task of the United States to make the world safe for brandy and cigars.

 

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.


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