In This Review

Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat
Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat
By General Wesley K. Clark
PublicAffairs, 2001, 479 pp.

As NATO's Supreme Commander during the air war over Kosovo, Wesley Clark should have been the most supreme commander ever. In theory, he controlled history's biggest and broadest alliance in its first venture into combat. In fact, however, his command was compromised by more conflicting pressures -- political, diplomatic, military, and legal -- than any other in history. Given these constraints, keeping the enterprise from flying apart was no mean feat, and Clark has a right to be proud of the victory he helped to achieve. But the story he tells in Waging Modern War makes one wonder how much that victory owed to luck -- despite the utterly lopsided balance of power between the West and Serbia. As Clark's account suggests, we have reason to worry if NATO ever has to maintain solidarity and combat effectiveness in a fair fight.

Many of the problems Clark confronted were typical of any war. Others, however, were unprecedented. The Kosovo air war was waged by a 19-member coalition operating by consensus, making it the most multilateral campaign ever. Clark's position in the resulting maelstrom was also unique: he was the nexus of American and European demands and of civilian and military authorities. From this vantage, he observed a slew of serious problems in NATO's approach. In less diplomatic terms than Clark uses to describe them, these problems included making war without admitting that it was war, and a clash of confused notions of how to use force effectively. Clark also faults the American military for failing to support the war properly. His accounts of the straitjacket that NATO legal advisers put on tactical options are laughable -- but only because Serbia's inability to fight back kept such restraints from endangering NATO forces.


Clark cites Karl von Clausewitz's dictum that sane people should not start wars unless they have plans for how to finish them. Clark does not mention Napoleon's more adventurous view, which turned out to characterize NATO's approach to Kosovo: "On s'engage et puis on voit" (you engage and then you see). After half a century of unprecedented institutionalized cooperation in peacetime planning for war, NATO's first actual war was initiated, fought, and ended with no agreement among its members -- or within the councils of its single most important member, the United States -- on objectives, strategy, or limits of action.

Clark notes that Clausewitz's dictum was a lesson that Vietnam burned into the minds of his generation of military officers, but he rejects it as "an unreasonable standard." A Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford two years before Bill Clinton, Clark makes clear that he is not representative of his military cohort, which reacted to failure in Vietnam by becoming "much more combat-focused, much less academically inclined." That difference was only magnified when Clark assumed the dual role of supranational commander of NATO and national commander of U.S. forces within NATO, responsibilities that often seemed to conflict.

The disastrous results of incremental escalation in Vietnam instilled in U.S. officers the conviction that if force is used at all, it must be used decisively from the outset to overwhelm and crush enemies -- not in gradual doses, with the hope that opponents can be prodded into changing their minds. When attempting coercion, restraint is self-defeating, signaling to the enemy not how much it should fear, but how little. A crushing conquest imposes the attacker's will; limited coercion gambles on the target's weakness of will.

Clark, however, proved unwilling to admit the necessity of making a choice between strategies to crush Yugoslavia and strategies to prod it. Thus he describes the planned first phase for the air campaign against Serbia as deliberately restrained -- leaving many assets unstruck, "held hostage" as "incentives for the Serbs to halt." This is straight out of the 1965 playbook for the air war against North Vietnam. Yet in the same breath Clark describes why he felt good about the plan: "No half measures. No Vietnam."

It would not have been hard to crush Serbia had the West been willing to make any significant effort. But NATO did not want a real war, and refused even to call its aerial assault by that name. Nato started the campaign with the expectation that it would be short, and with no exit strategy if President Slobodan Milosevic turned out not to be a pushover. Clark was uneasy about the European preference for indecisive force but did not dig in his heels against it. As he puts it, if NATO countries "wanted to fire a few cruise missiles to make a political statement, did I have the right to say they couldn't?"


Clark's contradictory embrace of both decisive force and limited coercion as strategies reflects the position he held as the link between American and European preferences. Before Kosovo, when Americans thought about war, the model they tried to avoid was Vietnam. For Europeans, however, it was World War II, which had a much more devastating impact on the continent than it did on the United States. The Cold War reinforced this European aversion to decisive force, because NATO doctrine during that period relied on the threat of deliberate nuclear escalation to deter Soviet conventional attack. That reliance made it almost impossible to contemplate the actual resort to force that a failure of deterrence would require. Thus "the idea of decisive force never made it into NATO thinking," Clark found, and this made Europeans profoundly ambivalent about combat over Kosovo.

Rhetoric aside, many on both sides of the Atlantic proved averse to using decisive force against Serbia. To make matters worse, politicians undercut the effectiveness of coercion by announcing publicly just how limited military pressure would be. After President Clinton put all of NATO's strategic eggs in one basket -- airpower -- by announcing that he did not intend to use ground forces, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana undermined the coercive potential of the air campaign by suggesting that it would last "days, not months." Given this one-two punch against NATO's own strategy, it is little wonder that Milosevic thought he could outwait the bombing.

On the strategy for the air war, Clark was pulled in opposite directions by American military hawks and European civilian doves, and he tilted to the Europeans by acquiescing to a limited campaign. Yet on strategy in general he felt undercut by his military colleagues at home. As Clark saw it, U.S. officers and Secretary of Defense William Cohen resisted his efforts to move toward combat on the ground, undermined his attempts to get Apache helicopters into combat, subverted his command by conferring directly with his subordinates, and contradicted him in diplomatic consultations with allies. As Clark complains, despite the fact that the Goldwater-Nichols legislative reforms of 1986 were supposed to have made regional commanders like himself central figures in the U.S. chain of command, "somehow I had become just a NATO officer who also reported to the United States."

The orthodox view among professional officers is that U.S. military leaders failed in Vietnam by their supine complicity: the Joint Chiefs of Staff went along with irresponsible strategic decisions made by the civilian leadership, thereby supporting a limited intervention that was bound to fail. Some top officers in Washington sought to avoid repeating this mistake in Kosovo by dragging their feet to prevent large-scale involvement. Yet by doing so, ironically, they ended up supporting the use of indecisive force. To Clark, some of his colleagues "seemed determined to resist their obligation to win." To his dismay, they also resisted making the maximum effort in the Balkans for fear of diminishing the readiness of forces for Iraq or Korea: "The Chiefs were seriously considering withholding forces to be ready for two ... hypothetical major theaters of war elsewhere, even if it caused the United States and NATO to lose the actual war in Europe."

Beginning with his assumption of command for the occupation of Bosnia, Clark became persona non grata in Washington. At one point he even heard that General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was saying that Clark "had one foot on a banana peel and one foot in the grave." Several days into the air war, Clark reflected ruefully on how odd it was that he had never been invited into strategy discussions with either the secretary of defense or the president. As he plaintively recalls, throughout the war "I always flashed back to the television footage of General Schwarzkopf going with General Powell to Camp David to brief President George Bush on the Persian Gulf [War]."

Cohen and Shelton even tried to prevent NATO's supreme commander from attending the NATO summit held in Washington during the war. Clark went anyway, and he reports a poignant scene that took place at a reception hosted by the American leadership. As he approached a receiving line that included Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Cohen, and Shelton, several of them glanced at him. "'Stay away' was the clear message from the body language. It was jarring." But once Europeans entered the room, Clark was soon surrounded by a respectful group of ministers and heads of state, "making me almost the center of a second receiving line." If not a prophet, Clark was a commander without honor in his own country. Indeed, after victory the supranational commander received the ultimate snub from his national superiors -- they booted him from office several months early to make room for a top Washington player, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Ralston.


The most bitter objection that has been leveled at U.S. civilian leaders for the air war against North Vietnam was that they micromanaged the campaign by picking bombing targets themselves. By 1999, however, neither the Clinton administration nor the Europeans seemed concerned about this criticism. Clark had to have every target approved not only by President Clinton but by Solana as well, along with American and European lawyers.

One of the most striking features of the Kosovo campaign, in fact, was the remarkably direct role lawyers played in managing combat operations -- to a degree unprecedented in previous wars. Clark does not rail against this phenomenon, but his matter-of-fact reporting of how the process unfolded is enough to shock any student of wartime command. The role played by lawyers in this war should also be sobering -- indeed alarming -- for devotees of power politics who denigrate the impact of law on international conflict. It may be reassuring, on the other hand, for those opposed to the long-standing NATO doctrine that relies on the first use of nuclear weapons. Judging from the standards applied against Serbia in the only war NATO ever actually fought, it is obvious that no U.S. commander will ever receive permission to launch a nuclear weapon. After all, as strategists used to joke during the Cold War, European towns are only a kiloton apart.

The hyperlegalism applied to NATO's campaign made the conflict reminiscent of the quaint norms of premodern war, when merchants on each side would continue to trade with each other at the same time that their militaries were bloodying themselves in the field. In the Kosovo campaign, no Western trade embargo was levied against Yugoslavia, even while NATO planes bombed Belgrade. The laws of war did not fully apply because NATO had not formally declared war, and some allied countries could not legally prevent their firms from exporting oil to Serbia. As Clark complained pathetically at the NATO summit, "it made little sense to bomb Milosevic's petroleum storage facilities and at the same time let him import oil."

Meanwhile, NATO lawyers constrained even the preparation of options for decisive combat. Clark could not effectively plan for the use of Apaches in Kosovo "because the Army lawyers were interpreting new federal law to mean that until Congress was notified of the impending deployment, we were not permitted to spend any funds preparing for it." Once the Apaches were finally deployed to the region, they could not even rehearse their mission because they lacked the legal authorization for the supporting artillery and rocket fires that would have been needed to suppress enemy defenses in the path of the helicopter attacks. Without understanding the operational problems that made such requirements impractical, NATO lawyers insisted that all targets had to be directly observed shortly before firing. Carried to this extreme, NATO's lawyers thus became, in effect, its tactical commanders.


The reason that these unusual tactical inhibitions were placed on NATO forces was the fear of collateral damage -- inadvertent killing of civilians. Yet accidents there were, and each one increased the diplomatic pressure from European governments to rein in the bombing campaign. This situation highlighted the fundamental contradiction between NATO's strategy and its politics, giving the clearest example of the Europeans' intent to wage a painless war. A strategy of coercion that forswore conquest on the ground logically depended on maximizing the punishment imposed on Serbia from the air. The targets with minimal risk of collateral damage, however, were used up in the early part of the war. To keep the pressure on Milosevic, Clark had to struggle constantly for the authorization to hit targets that involved more risk of hurting civilians.

Yet the Europeans continued to resist, and the game almost came undone as diplomacy to end the war reached closure. Converging cold feet threatened to undermine the application of military pressure. Due to the political restrictions, Clark was left with few targets to strike anywhere in the country. On top of this, Germany wanted to stop bombing Serbia's cities, Americans worried about bombing within Kosovo, and France wanted to stop the bombing in northern Serbia. Instead of worrying that a letup in bombing would encourage Belgrade to hold out even longer, the Europeans feared that continued attacks would derail final negotiations. It was only through luck that Milosevic caved in just at the point that Clark saw the air war "slipping away."

Many speculate that Milosevic capitulated because he feared an impending NATO attack on the ground. Even if this was so, it was not thanks to NATO's strategy. Allied governments, in fact, did all they could to prevent credible moves toward a ground war. Clark could not even get permission to plan for such an attack. He scrambled frantically to get the necessary authorization before June 1, when the window would close for a land attack before winter. But in the White House, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger refused permission, saying he needed more time to lay the political groundwork. In retrospect, this decision is even harder to understand than President Woodrow Wilson's refusal in 1914 to let the U.S. military make contingency plans after the outbreak of war in Europe. Even after many months of preparing for the Kosovo air war, after making the decision to attack Yugoslavia, and after many weeks of the war itself, NATO's civilian leaders were still not ready to prepare the option of assuring victory.

The civilians wanted it both ways. When officials in Washington finally got around to considering whether to invade, they then demanded details from the military -- details they had not allowed the military to develop. "Surely you've been doing covert planning," one official then said to General Shelton. In the end, all Clark ever got permission for was to move some combat engineers to Albania, thus barely keeping the option of an invasion alive. On s'engage et puis on voit.


It all worked out in the end, however. Or did it? After 78 days of absorbing NATO bombing, Milosevic came to terms -- although he did not accept all the conditions of the original allied ultimatum issued at the February 1999 talks in Rambouillet, France. Whipsawed by Washington and European governments, limited in the instruments he was allowed to use or even plan for using, Clark, using NATO's air forces, still got Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo. Mission accomplished, more or less. Considering how potentially disastrous the war looked for NATO in the middle of those 78 days (and I confess to being one of those "experts" who did not believe at the time that the allies would get out of it as cleanly as they did), it would be petty to quibble too much with Clark's pride in the outcome. If loose ends remain, these should be blamed more on the political authorities who determined the objectives of the war than on the commanders who prosecuted it.

The main loose end that remains today is the indefinite occupation duty that has been imposed on NATO and the U.N. Nato ended the war by precluding independence for Kosovo, agreeing to the province's remaining under Yugoslav sovereignty. It is not clear, however, how the West will ever end its occupation without betraying either the peace agreement with Belgrade or the Kosovar Albanians for whom it fought the war. Perhaps when the time comes, NATO lawyers will become as permissive with alliance policy as they were strict in wartime, and will invent a legal fig leaf either for granting Kosovo independence or for certifying that a reformed Serbia is now safe enough for Kosovo to submit to its writ. But however either sort of betrayal is rationalized, this step will not be a proud epilogue to the aggressive moralism of NATO's first venture into war.

As NATO's supreme commander during the war, Clark himself is not totally free of responsibility for its political outcomes. For example, he has little to say in Waging Modern War about the damage the war did to relations with the only potential strategic adversaries that matter: Russia and China. In the final stages of the war he lobbied energetically against a peace agreement that would allow the Russians their own occupation zone in Kosovo, lest that create a de facto partition of the province. But are we really better off having prevented partition, now that U.S. occupation troops are the ones who have to struggle to keep Albanians from cleansing Serbs from the province, just as the Serbs tried to cleanse them before?

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Clark responded to the Russians' seizure of the Pristina airfield by seeking to oust them. After his subordinate on the ground, British General Michael Jackson, told him, "I'm not starting World War III for you," London ordered Jackson not to comply with Clark's order to block the airfield's runways. The British action averted any potential crisis, something about which Clark was apparently not concerned. His attitude toward containing the Russian role was consistent with the general confidence about NATO's hegemony in Europe and America's hegemony in NATO that was implicit in the whole enterprise.

But even though Clark's prose reveals a sharp sensibility about most things, he has a tin ear for Russian interests. He reports how Russian General Viktor Barynkin told him during the Dayton negotiations, "We know what you Americans are up to. ... You are coming into Bosnia because it's in our part of Europe and you want to be there. And you say you will be gone in a year, but you won't be; you will stay." Clark reflected that the Russians "saw the peace plan in Cold War terms ... to establish spheres of influence," as if the Russians were hidebound reactionaries. Yet nothing that has happened in the six years since proves Barynkin wrong. What are the Balkans now if not an expanded sphere of influence for NATO -- one nudging Russia's front door?

In most ways, NATO's story has been one of unparalleled success. The alliance hung together for half a century, fulfilled its original objectives completely, and won its most important struggle (the Cold War) hands down, without firing a shot. Instead of retiring after that victory, however, the alliance expanded its ambitions and within no time wound up killing people and breaking things for humanitarian purposes. Was it all for the best? Much of the verdict will hinge on how the alliance extricates itself from the two areas over which Clark's command presided, Bosnia and Kosovo. On that we must await some other leader's memoir, Waging Modern Peace.

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  • Richard K. Betts is Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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