At War Over the Balkans

Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark fought and won two wars for NATO in Kosovo in 1999. The first concluded, after 78 days of air strikes, with the withdrawal of Serb forces and the return of nearly 1 million Kosovar refugees to their homes. That victory—won without a single NATO fighter killed—also led to the fall, 15 months later, of Europe's last dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Not bad for two months' work.

Clark's second victory, somewhat shakier, was overcoming the mulish resistance of his Army superiors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense, to the notion that the United States and NATO were in a real war over Yugoslavia, that it was important, and that, heck, it might be nice if Washington did everything it could to win.

Both conflicts, as Clark describes them in Waging Modern War, were difficult. But the second war was far more frustrating for the now-retired four-star and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and far more revealing of the contradictions in Pentagon thinking. In the best parts of Clark's book, he struggles to be a good soldier, but can't quite pull it off. He uses unfailingly polite prose about his higher-ups, and tries to explain away their reluctance to fight with dispassionate analysis of the pressures they were under. But he just cannot cover up his slow seethe over the timid warriors back at his five-sided headquarters, repeatedly blocking his efforts to crush the Belgrade tyrant.

One of the more stinging moments for Clark came when, after weeks of resistance from his own service, he finally got his chance to lay out his case to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, and the Joint Chiefs, for using Apache attack helicopters against Serbian ground forces. Clark had to make the presentation from Europe at midnight his time, via video teleconference, and he says it was more like a court appearance than a war council. After making his argument, Clark was bombarded by skeptical questions, ranging from the important and easily handled, to the ridiculous and impossible to answer. The greatest skeptic, he writes, was Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki (who now is head of the Army). Clark summarized it this way: "When a service doesn't support the use of its own assets in combat—assets developed over two decades and at a cost of billions of dollars—there's no end to the detail of the questions that can be asked. I had been forewarned, but to listen to the Army's questions was still painful.... It was, for me, the most difficult moment of the war thus far."

Ultimately, Clark got permission to deploy the Apaches to Albania. And there they sat for the duration of the conflict. He never got permission to actually use them in combat—despite weeks of target planning and extra hours of training for their crews. But the Apaches are just one metaphor for the consistent reluctance of the Pentagon to take the Kosovo war, or the Balkans, seriously.

Clark, who helped negotiate the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in neighboring Bosnia, knew the Balkans well. When he assumed his job as commander of NATO forces in Europe, in July 1997, he was determined to make sure the Dayton Accords were implemented, and aggressively, if necessary. As he put it, he wasn't afraid to use his troops to get the parties to adhere to their promises and avoid more ethnic violence. Shots were rarely fired in Bosnia by the NATO Stabilization Force, but Clark used the peacekeepers often to prevent Serb-inspired "rallies" that were meant to turn into riots, to arrest war criminals, or to put a damper on nationalistic sentiments. President Clinton, the State Department, and the Europeans were solidly behind Clark's new aggressiveness in Bosnia. The Pentagon, and Cohen, were not. In Clark's words, they "sought to keep the mission as limited and as risk-free as possible."

Unfortunately, his hard charging in Bosnia undermined his relationship with Cohen, and led to distrust and suspicion of Clark within the Pentagon during the Kosovo conflict.

The cautious Pentagon brass seemed to think this was a war only about the Balkans, a place not terribly important to U.S. interests. But Clark regarded it as a war about the future of Europe, and about America's commitment to its most important alliance—and ultimately about NATO's credibility. The alliance had just admitted three new members—Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. To let southeastern Europe disintegrate, and possibly invite armed reaction by Greece and Turkey, was untenable, if for no other reason than to reassure the new members that NATO would live by its promise to ensure peace and stability everywhere on the continent. "Credibility is the ultimate measure of value for states and international institutions," Clark notes.

That credibility, he maintains, can be easily strained when America sends mixed signals. And what do we see in Europe today? George W. Bush talks admirably and expansively about a larger NATO of the future—right up to the Russian border—yet is parsimonious with the NATO of the present. His Defense Secretary is trying to pull more troops out of a still-unstable Bosnia, and is refusing to commit more troops to help defuse the near-civil war in Macedonia. Clark argues that the United States cannot have it both ways. European countries "will expect us to share in their risks, and to help carry the burdens, even when our interests may not be affected as directly as theirs.... 'Shared risks, shared burdens, shared benefits'—it's not only a good motto for NATO, it's also a good prescription for America's role in the world."