Into the fire
The U.S. leads NATO's ferocious assault against the Milosevic regime--and finds itself tested in the harsh crucible of combat. In the bid to halt ethnic slaughter, has the alliance ignited a new Balkan tinderbox?
By Bruce W. Nelan
March 29, 1999
If there was a single moment that captured both the fear and the optimism in NATO's shatteringly violent assault on Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic last week, it came after the second wave of attacks, when British Air Commodore David Wilby played an astonishing "bombsight" video. The snippet--about eight seconds long--showed a NATO bomb streaking into an ammunition depot in Kosovo. Milliseconds after the bomb strike, the video showed a large explosion. And then an almost imperceptible snake of flame sneaked outward to a nearby building and triggered a blast so bright and hot it turned the infrared video image from night to day. In pilot jargon, the big bang was a "secondary"--a sign that targeters had picked a site loaded with combustible stuff.
But the video was also a worrisome metaphor for the strike itself. In the days after last Wednesday night's initial air attack, the anger and determination that brought NATO and Yugoslavia head-to-head seemed to snake out like that tiny flame in the video, triggering all kinds of "secondaries." On Saturday night the combat came home to Americans, who had their television shows interrupted by images of an F-117A Stealth fighter in flames on the ground inside Yugoslavia--and the astonishing story of the rescue of the downed pilot. Earlier in the week U.S. embassies from Moscow to Paris were besieged by furious Serbs, American allies like Italy and Greece nervously waffled on their support for the bombing, and neighboring states from Albania to Macedonia were convulsed by the prospect of ethnic violence. Inside Yugoslavia, in what may come to be regarded as the worst of the secondary effects of the strike, Serbian troops stepped up their campaign against Kosovo's Albanian citizens, squeezing the province in a pincer movement that stabbed south from Belgrade and north from the Macedonian border. The offensive produced thousands of refugees and inspired terrifying reports of mass killings.
For more than a century, the world has worried that the Balkans were a tinderbox. Last week NATO went in with a big match--and by week's end it was impossible to see if they had started a brush fire or, for the third time in 100 years, a conflagration. "Look," President Clinton told his wound-up crisis team in a Saturday morning Oval Office meeting, "this is not a 30-second commercial."
That was abundantly clear Saturday night as the world ogled the burning wreckage of the F-117A, a plane that more than any other symbolized the nation's technical and strategic superiority. Before the attack, Pentagon planners estimated NATO would lose 10 planes in the initial wave of strikes. President Clinton warned the nation that the conflict was not without risks. But NATO skated around those risks so effortlessly at first that it was possible to hope for a war without costs. Even amid the relief at the pilot's rescue, it was difficult to retain that illusion.
It's hard to overstate how remarkable and surprising to most people this war in the name of peace is. On the eve of its 50th birthday, NATO, a defensive alliance founded to protect Western Europe from Soviet invasion, has struck hard at a sovereign state that is not a threat to the allies. Without a specific U.N. Security Council authorization, NATO is intervening in a civil war, a war of secession, to halt the cruelty with which it is being fought--especially by the Serbs. In the process, the allies run the risk that their attacks might increase the level of killing in Kosovo, drive the conflict into neighboring countries and make a negotiated peace less likely.
And this is only the start of a three-stage campaign that could last several weeks. As allied bombs continue to fall on the Yugoslav air-defense network, NATO will increasingly go after the tanks, artillery and armored vehicles the Serbs are using to demolish villages in Kosovo. In Phase Two, the allied pilots will focus on hitting the Serb forces spreading carnage inside Kosovo and staging just north of the province.
If the campaign continues into the third phase--and the allies will have to vote on that--NATO planes would attack military targets in every part of Serbia. How the adventure turns out hangs precariously on the decisions of Milosevic. Will he buckle under or hunker down? Or will he lash out with his carefully hoarded missiles and planes to fracture the still fragile NATO alliance? The bombing would stop if he were to phone in his agreement to a truce and enforceable autonomy for Kosovo. If he doesn't, no one is quite clear about how this drama will end.
Paving the way
For all the satisfaction and can-do spirit coming from NATO headquarters and the Clinton Administration, there are signs that even Phase One did not go as well as the planners had hoped. The main objective in the opening round was to destroy as many as possible of Serbia's 1,000 surface-to-air missiles and almost 2,000 antiaircraft guns, making the air safer for the planes that will later go sniffing after tanks and artillery. Milosevic's air-defense system is, as NATO commanders keep insisting, "state of the art." But he and his lieutenants have not been cooperating with plans for its destruction. They have kept most of their missiles hidden in thick forests, their radars turned off so they remain invisible to NATO's missiles. The Pentagon is particularly interested in rooting out the 30 or so most sophisticated missile launchers--Russian SA-6s--but it admits that it hasn't found a "large slice" of them. No one in the Pentagon knows for sure why the Serbs are holding back, but there is one fear: "They're just waiting for us to fly a little lower and a little slower," says an officer.
Part of the problem for allied planners is that they are under strict orders to avoid "collateral damage"--the famous euphemism that means killing civilians or blowing up things you aren't aiming at. Much of that restraint has political roots: public opinion in NATO countries, tepid at best, could turn if the evening news starts delivering pictures of dead and maimed innocents. A TIME/CNN poll last week indicated less than massive support in the U.S., with 44% of respondents approving the air strikes. Another 40% disapproved. Asked if the U.S. has a moral imperative to stop Serb actions in Kosovo, 50% said yes and 41% no. The targets were reviewed with great care at the White House, where Secretary of Defense William Cohen and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Hugh Shelton, sat down with President Clinton to go over the list. Some important ones were struck off because they were too close to civilian buildings.
American officers also grouse that they sometimes have to use smaller bombs than usual to reduce the blast area. "About 1 of every 5 bombs we dropped last night from F-117s were 500-pounders," grumbled a colonel, "and not the 2,000-pounders we have always used." Smaller bombs mean there's less certainty about destroying the target in one attack. And if the pilot has to come back, that increases the risk to him in order to lessen the risk to civilians on the ground--a kind of Disneyland idea of customer service that rankles many war fighters at the Pentagon. Some planes are returning to their bases carrying bombs because crews are under orders not to drop them if they don't have a clear, confident shot. "We are taking every precaution," insists NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, "to ensure the highest possible degree of accuracy against exclusively military targets."
The end of Powell
Precautions in a war? There was a kind of disjunction in this approach that was nervous making. With the meanest of faces--in the person of special envoy Richard Holbrooke--NATO was telling Milosevic that a failure to comply with alliance wishes meant it would hit him with everything. And there, in the next breath, were NATO commanders confessing to all the world on CNN that everything really meant almost everything. If the U.S. Senate and the American people felt uneasy about Kosovo, it wasn't simply unfamiliarity; the Administration's confusion of ends and means was worrisome as well.
Last week's NATO raids were more than just a slap at the Serbs. They also represented a fundamental and dramatic shift in the way the U.S. has mixed military policy with foreign affairs. For the better part of the past decade, ever since U.S. troops stumbled in Somalia, American thinking has conformed to the so-called Powell doctrine, named after former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. His doctrine had two tenets: first, the "biggest s.o.b. on the block" rule, that America should enter fights with every bit of force available or not at all. Second, that the U.S. should never start a fight it didn't know how to end. Powell's doctrine was designed as a kind of notional vaccine against slow-build, slow-burn conflicts like Vietnam. But last week's action exploded both principles: America was not only moving in with less than blinding violence, it was also moving in without knowing how exactly it was supposed to get out.
Senator Joseph Biden, who helped Clinton craft his approach to Kosovo, explains that Powell had become "a paralysis doctrine." Military operations today have to be conducted in murky regions like the Balkans, where there are no precise exit strategies. Presidents, said Biden, have to be able to use force not knowing exactly what the outcome or consequences may be. "That's the nature of the world today," Biden told Clinton.
There was something else: it was impossible for many in the White House--particularly Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--to avoid the feeling that their credibility was on the table. The Administration has settled on a foreign policy driven largely by ultimatums, and the price of such absolutism is that you must deliver on your threats. The U.S. had said it would bomb; therefore, it had to bomb. There is still hope in some corners of the Administration that NATO will somehow bomb Milosevic back to the bargaining table. But there is also gnawing fear that it will never happen. History argues that even massive air attacks cannot force enemy infantry units to pull out of territory that they are determined to hold.
For now the official objective is to smash Milosevic's war machine so badly that it will be unable to continue its genocidal onslaught against the Kosovo Liberation Army (K.L.A.) and Kosovar villages. But so far at least, NATO's onslaught wasn't doing much to release the pressure. As strikes against air-defense systems continued, Kosovar Albanians were struggling against a quickly escalating ground war. Serbian troops, who had been massing on Kosovo's borders for weeks, began to squeeze the province, forcing many units of the rebel K.L.A. to fight for their lives. "We are encircled," a K.L.A. commander told TIME in a hurried phone call during a break in the shooting. "All around us are Serb forces and at least 30,000 troops and more than 200 vehicles. We are not in a very good position."
Kosovar civilians appeared to be in even more jeopardy. On the Kosovo-Macedonia border, refugee flows sped up. "We walked 21 hours through the snow," Jrfete Jdrizi, 20, said as she stood near the border with her 75-year-old aunt. "I was almost crawling at the end." But reports trickling out of the province from aid workers and refugees described a horror show of massacres, forced marches and destroyed villages. The tales were hard to confirm, but early CIA findings seemed to buttress the allegations. News of the possible atrocities set off the spin machine at the White House, where officials were worried that Americans might start to believe the air strikes had somehow precipitated the killings. Milosevic would have carried them out regardless of the air strikes, the staff members insisted.
But already the allies seemed to be adjusting their attacks to help take pressure off Kosovo. NATO, which had planned for a "pause" between the first two phases of the campaign, decided instead to roll smoothly into new attacks. Officials had hoped that Milosevic would accept a cease-fire after the initial bombings, but his strike into Kosovo--which was widely anticipated inside the U.S. intelligence community--seemed as clear a gesture of defiance as the three-fingered Serb salute his thugs were waving to photographers in Belgrade.
There was another problem: holding NATO together. The alliance includes 19 member nations and makes decisions by unanimity. The U.S. worries some allies may be wavering under local pressure. As the campaign rolls forward, Albright and her staff are launching an offensive of their own to keep nervous allies on board.
The country most violently opposed, outside Yugoslavia, is Russia. Moscow has been arguing against using force for months, and Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov was in the air bound for Washington last week when the decision to bomb was made. As his plane headed across the Atlantic, Primakov got a call from Vice President Al Gore, who said the air strikes were now inevitable and proposed a joint statement postponing the meeting. Primakov curtly refused and headed home.
Then Clinton had to pass the word to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who went ballistic on the phone for 45 minutes--putting Clinton in a testy mood for most of the day. Yeltsin later lashed out at the U.S. and talked vaguely of radical measures he had considered and rejected--presumably sending arms and volunteers to Serbia. "On the moral level, we are above America," Yeltsin said. Moscow's desperation for influence and anger at the U.S. are partly the result of humiliation, reflecting Russia's plunge from superpower to pauper in just 10 years. Says former President and friend of the West Mikhail Gorbachev: "We are sliding toward a new cold war."
Any better ideas?
Top Clinton Administration officials often tell critics not to carp but to offer alternatives to the policies they disagree with. Clinton himself was saying that last week. In a speech to a convention of union members, he admitted he didn't like to use force but said that he had to do it. Americans would have to decide, he said, whether they agree with him that the nation, as the only superpower, "ought to be standing up against ethnic cleansing." And again in his formal speech from the Oval Office on Wednesday night, he put the humanitarian issue first. Sooner or later, he said, the U.S. would have to get into the fight, and probably at a higher cost, because other countries would be swept in too, possibly NATO allies.
Kosovo began glowing on the radar screen of Clinton's foreign policy at the start of 1998. The province has a complicated genealogy: it is populated mostly by Albanians, but for 600 years it has been a lantern of Serbian passion. Serbs venerate the land because it is home to several important monasteries, and in 1389 their ancestors lost a decisive battle with the Ottoman Empire there, setting off 500 years of Turkish rule. The day of the battle is a national holiday--something that last week caused observers to note that understanding the Serb outlook meant understanding a country that memorializes defeats instead of victories.
One of Milosevic's early goals when he came to power was to tighten his control over Kosovo. In 1989 he revoked the province's self-government--something it had enjoyed since 1974--and instead demanded local Albanians follow orders from Belgrade. Every year the noose got tighter, and by last year Kosovo was home to a nascent guerrilla movement. Occupying Serbs had become targets. On Feb. 28, 1998, an Albanian hit squad killed two Serbian policemen working in Kosovo. Milosevic, in a typical response, unleashed his security police and paramilitary units in a brutal reprisal that left 300 dead and 65,000 homeless. From Washington the killings looked like Bosnia, Part Two. No one--particularly not Albright and Holbrooke--wanted that on his conscience.
The task of stopping the killing fell to Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton peace accord. Holbrooke, the Administration's point man on the Balkans since 1992, is currently the ambassador-designate to the U.N., with his nomination in the hands of the U.S. Senate. He flew to Belgrade in October of last year and hammered out an awkward deal: Milosevic agreed to begin negotiations on Kosovar independence and also to accept 1,800 "monitors" on Kosovo's soil as a way of stopping the killing. It was an imperfect deal, but Washington pols hoped it would hold up long enough to let tensions cool.
In fact, it began to collapse almost immediately. The unarmed monitors sat by helplessly as the killings in Kosovo continued. And overseas Albanians poured millions of dollars into the province to help arm the growing K.L.A. The K.L.A. was anything but an efficient killing machine, yet its consistent pattern of knocking off one or two Serbian cops a week was enough to infuriate Milosevic and to increase Serb pressure for a reprisal. On Jan. 15 it came: a massacre of 45 ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb security police outside the town of Racak. Furious, Albright engineered an ultimatum that NATO delivered to the Serbs and the Kosovars: sit down and sign a three-year autonomy agreement. To back it up, she would put 28,000 NATO peacekeepers, including 4,000 Americans, on the line. After weeks of talks in France, the Kosovar Albanians signed on March 18. Milosevic refused, saying he would not even consider allowing alien soldiers onto the sacred soil of Kosovo. And the U.S. prepared its war machine.
There was one last-ditch attempt to stave off this madness, one that was frustrating to the participants but emblematic of the problems of dealing with Milosevic. Last week Holbrooke, who had talked Milosevic into two major deals before, zipped into Belgrade with a "final, final" warning. In an ornate reception room with a Rembrandt on the wall, Holbrooke settled into the sofa on which he had sat for hours on other diplomatic shuttles, his back to a window that looked out onto a garden. Milosevic settled into his usual armchair.
Three things struck Holbrooke during his Monday meeting. First, there was a grim fatalism in the air. He also noticed a total lack of interest on Milosevic's part in a rational exchange of views and a total refusal to discuss Washington's positions. And finally, there was a sense of unreality in some of Milosevic's own views, as he insisted over and over that the Serb offensive the Western media were reporting in Kosovo simply was not taking place. "Yeah, there's a little bit of fighting down there, but it's just police actions against criminals," Milosevic told a stunned Holbrooke.
Tuesday morning, Holbrooke returned to the White Palace. "I want to go back over this," Holbrooke said as the two men sat. "You understand our position?"
"Yes," Milosevic answered.
"Is it absolutely clear what will happen when we leave, given your position?" Holbrooke continued.
"Yes, you will bomb us," Milosevic said as if the answer were obvious. "You are a big and powerful nation. You can bomb us if you wish." Holbrooke stared at Milosevic in total disbelief. It was a maddening negotiation. After two hours, Holbrooke stood up.
"Will I ever see you again?" Milosevic asked, in a dry, flat voice. Holbrooke answered, trying to mimic the same emotionless tone, "That depends on your actions."
A tragic circle
A week later, little has changed. The outcome of NATO's Balkans adventure still remains in Milosevic's hands. What most officials in Washington hope will happen is, by definition, wishful thinking. They hope he will now agree to something like the autonomy deal the Kosovars have already signed and will simply blame NATO for forcing him into it. (Oddly, one thing NATO and Milosevic do have in common is a belief that Kosovo should not be an independent state.) But few people think that is about to happen.
A second, very bad possibility is that Milosevic resolves to become the Saddam Hussein of the Balkans, riding out the air attacks and agreeing to nothing. "He may be willing to suffer for a lot longer than a couple of days," an intelligence expert says. Milosevic, an adept at propaganda, could send out pictures of civilian casualties and wait for the more hesitant members of NATO to peel off.
Perhaps the most likely outcome is a grudging agreement, after Serbia has taken its lumps, to return to negotiations. But no one believes Milosevic will simply sign on to the agreement that the Kosovars have accepted. No, there would have to be new conditions about the terms of autonomy for Kosovo and how the peace would be kept. Any changes made at Milosevic's behest would predictably give the Kosovars furious fits. And if Kosovo has turned into a killing field, as some aid agencies last week were insisting it has, then stability may be a 10- or 15-year project.
Even that may be tricky. John Hillen, a military scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says NATO's actions "need to add up to some sort of sustainable end state"--something he believes is lacking. "They're counting on everything falling into place here," says Hillen, a former Army officer who served in the Gulf War. "Even if they prevail, the best result is a 10-to-12-year peacekeeping mission, serving between two parties whose ambitions are totally unrequited."
Hillen likes to quote an old professor of his. "The United States should recall historian Sir Michael Howard's three rules for intervening in civil wars," he says. "First, do not. Second, if you do, pick a side. Third, pick the side that will win and make sure that it does." Flaunting those rules, NATO began to see last week, could become costly.
--Reported by Massimo Calabresi/Vienna, Anthee Carassava/Skopje, James L. Graff and Thomas Sancton/Brussels, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington and Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow
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