LONDON — This time the critics and skeptics are turning out to be wrong. Conventional wisdom holds that one cannot halt an enemy from the air, let alone force a capitulation. Only troops on the ground can do that. This is supposed to be the overriding lesson from the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Now, armchair military experts are crowding the media to tell the world what a disaster the NATO bombing of the Serbs is bound to be.
But as in so many other fields, the power of onward-rushing technology has been overlooked. Selective punishments are now being delivered against the Serbian nation and its brutal leader, Slobodan Milosevic, that seemed only recently to be the stuff of science-fiction magazines.
Utilities are being paralyzed, communications shut off, broadcasting halted, the day-to-day business of government made increasingly impossible. Camouflaged troops are being exposed and pinpointed tank columns smashed. Supply lines have been pulverized. There is, it seems, truly no hiding place for the Serb forces. Only the clouds, and the determination of NATO forces to minimize civilian casualties (this being, in NATO parlance, “a humanitarian war”), have been the Serbs’ friends, and now the bad weather has rolled away, leaving Serbia defenseless.
These are measures that some military experts urged should have been deployed against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nine years ago in the Persian Gulf War, or against the Serbs a few years back when they were supplying their Bosnian Serb allies in the Bosnian civil war, and when, instead, trade sanctions were applied — to no visible effect.
At that time, the technology to do this was still, apparently, “on paper” and not yet ready for accurate deployment. Now it is up and running. It can only be a matter of time before Milosevic sees that he risks more by remaining defiant or offering feeble compromises than by yielding to the full demands of the international community, as represented by NATO, and withdrawing altogether from battered Kosovo Province.
Of course, this does not solve the underlying problems. The hundreds of thousands of frightened refugees have then to be escorted back to their homes and safeguarded there, possibly for years to come.
This will require protective ground troops in large numbers. This is why, bowing to the inevitable, an additional 8,000 NATO soldiers have been flown into neighboring Albania, which will eventually have to step on to Kosovan, and therefore, strictly speaking, Serbian soil.
At that point Kosovo will become a de facto international protectorate and no longer a sovereign part of Serbia. This will be the final humiliation to which Milosevic will have brought the Serbian nation during his disastrous reign. The sacred soil on which Serbian history was forged, the battlefield of Kosovo Polje, lying just to the southwest of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, will be lost.
The Serb leader will need all his agility and ruthlessness to survive such a debacle. He will also have somehow to wriggle out of the war-crimes charges that will certainly follow. No doubt he will seek to make himself an indispensable part of the negotiations and discussions that will be needed for the rebuilding of Kosovo.
He may or may not succeed. My guess is that, unlike the ever-surviving Saddam, Milosevic is doomed and will eventually stand trial. The Serbs who apparently regard him as a hero will have to face the truth that has been hidden from them — that they elected a monster, that he has led them to destruction, that grabs for territory and ethnic cleansing belong to a past barbaric age and that there really is a new world-policing order thar cannot be defied.
At first glance, this has to be taken as good news, although one needs to pause and remember just what the nature of the authority really is that has been standing behind the NATO action.
It is not, for a start, the United Nations Security Council. That body has been bypassed by the Kosovo crisis for the obvious reason that it contains two key members who were never going to agree to the NATO campaign — China and Russia.
The Russians may indeed have been not just opposing the NATO strategy verbally, but attempting to sabotage it on the ground. The ships they have sent to the region may well be equipped with devices that can track NATO warplanes and give early warning to the Serbs, thus greatly lengthening the time the Serbs have to take evasive action.
Nor can the authority behind the NATO action claim to be the whole membership of NATO itself. There have been plenty of doubters from the outset. Nor is it the European Union, whose members are deeply divided on the issue.
What the situation boils down to is that the United States is the leader of something called “the international community”; that when the Americans decide to act they seek to bring along a group of friendly allies, usually led by the British, to support them; and that these allies in turn then use all their diplomatic efforts to win supporters, or at least avoid blocking tactics, at the U.N. in the NATO Council, in the EU and other international and supranational forums.
In the case of Kosovo, the Arab and Islamic groupings have also been kept “on the right side” for once (in contrast to their position over the attacks on Iraq) for the simple reason that most of the Albanian-origin Kosovars are Muslim.
It is, perhaps, a curious kind of new world order, but this time, in contrast to previous tragic occurrences such as the slaughter in Rwanda, the formula seems to be working. The credibility of this “community,” and of its chosen instrument, NATO, will therefore have been much enhanced.
Whether the next outbreak of barbaric tyranny somewhere in the world can be dealt with so effectively remains to be seen. Perhaps Milosevic’s greatest mistake was to be a European, albeit a fringe one. His actions challenged NATO, not in some remote theater of war, on another continent, but right on its own doorstep.
In these special circumstances, NATO is showing that is has modernized, adjusted to its post-Cold War role as a highly efficient neighborhood policeman and can hit out decisively. It is also once again demonstrating that heavy and willing U.S. involvement is the crucial ingredient whenever the international community wants to achieve results.
For Europeans, at least, this is good news for the future coming out of bad events in the present. There are clear lessons here, too, for the handling of future defense and security problems in other regions, such as ASEAN and the Pacific Rim.
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