The President goes into a war, expecting a quick victory, telling the American people that we are fighting a tyrant and dictator who could disrupt the region and sow instability. Moreover, the war is to spread democracy and enhance human rights.
Not long after the war began, it started to become clear that real victory in terms of setting up a stable regional order or stopping the slaughter of innocents would be far more difficult than planned. While the President urged the country to “stay the course,” the White House was condemned for poor planning and having no exit strategy. One pundit wrote “the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but muddled planning.” Ethnic violence seemed immune to the super power technology being used to try to bring stability.
Moreover, the Powell doctrine, which required massive power and complete public support, was being ignored. The President did not have the opposition party behind him, and soon was getting tremendous criticism for waging an unnecessary ‘war of choice.’ A long time government foreign policy elite who rose to become Vice President dismissed the Powell doctrine as a “paralysis doctrine.” Senator John McCain criticized those who didn’t want to go all in, saying that “the costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory.” McCain believed that more troops should be sent, surging existing efforts in order to create the prospect of a real victory. Nonetheless, as the White House and its allies strove to find an exit strategy, the human cost of the war rose, with most of the deaths being civilian, caused by ethnic conflict rather than American bombs.
A hawk in the Administration pushed for the use of US power. In one conversation this hawk admonished Colin Powell about being afraid to use power: “what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.” After leaving the administration Powell would later admit that upon hearing those words “I thought I would have an aneurysm.” But the Administration clearly believed it was important to show that the US not only had power, but would be bold in using it in order to shape the 21st century into being one in accord with US values. The war caused dissent within NATO, and severely harmed relations with Russia and China. The low point came when the US, apparently through error, bombed the Chinese embassy.
Yes, I’m describing the 1999 Kosovo war. The quote about the Powell doctrine being a paralysis doctrine came from Joe Biden, then speaking in his role on the Senate foreign relations committee. President Clinton was quoted in Time magazine as urging Americans “to stay the course.” And the hawkish administration official who almost gave Powell an aneurysm was Secretary of State Madeline Albright (though the conversation quoted took place in 1993, long before Kosovo, when Albright was still US Ambassador to the UN).
The differences between the wars are also significant. The Kosovo war dragged out 80 days, not over seven years, and not one American or NATO soldier was killed. It was purely an air war, as NATO politics prevented a ground invasion. And though the conflict created divisions within NATO, it was a NATO effort, led by the US. After the war the government admitted that it had overestimated the power of technology and the ability of to stop ethnic violence. In Time magazine on June 14, 1999 reporting on what top Pentagon brass took from the war, reported “in the next conflict, they fret, a really smart foe won’t fight the US int he skies or on the ground — places where victory is very unlikely. Instead it will be smart and strike far away from the war zone — in the heart of a US city, perhaps — with biological or chemical weapons.” Just over two years later that prediction proved accurate, though hijacked airlines were the weapon the ‘smart foe’ chose to use.
Still, despite the very different natures of the two wars, the similarities are striking. The Clinton Administration had a lot in common with the Bush Administration of a few years later. They believed the war would be much easier than it was, they under estimated the situation on the ground in terms of the power of ethnic tension, they had no exit plan, didn’t really consider what to do if the air strikes didn’t work as anticipated, and going to war created domestic divisions. They also believed that it was important that the US use its military power to spread democracy and human rights, and did not doubt that it was legitimate. The US wanted to force a deal between the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army, which not much earlier had been deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department) and Serbia over the fate of the province of Kosovo in southwest Serbia.
The impetus had been a massacre of 44 people in Recak, Kosovo, in January. When Serbia wouldn’t go along with a deal they felt was a breach of sovereignty in their struggle against terrorism, the US bombed. After the bombing started massive human rights violations against the Kosovar Albanians began, including a mass exodus, rape, and mass murder. The same question haunts the Clinton Administration in Kosovo as does the Bush Administration in Iraq: would the human cost been less if war had not been chosen? In each case they point to Milosevic or Hussein, and note that the dictators had been brutal. But would such atrocities as were later seen have happened without war? Would a different path of pressure been better and more effective in human terms?
Kosovo’s lessons were not learned by the Bush Administration as it planned to invade Iraq. Kosovo was, thankfully, over relatively quickly. The White House and NATO declared it a success, forgot those agonizing months where things were going wrong, and in the public mind the war had been about all those refugees fleeing Kosovo, forgetting that that was a consequence of the decision to bomb. Charles Krauthammer, the neo-conservative who would be important in arguing publicly for war in Iraq dismissed Kosovo’s woes as due to a “reluctant, uncertain” President. A serious President would have gone all in to win decisively, Krauthammer insisted.
Still, the similarities are enough to lead me to three propositions: 1) the Democrats and Republicans were not as different at least within elite circles as it appears to the public. Albright’s rhetoric sounds almost neo-conservative, the belief that power should be used and assumption of success dogged both Clinton and Bush; 2) just as the lessons weren’t learned after Kosovo, it’s very likely that despite the trauma caused by Iraq, many lessons here will be ignored too. Perhaps most likely is that people will again make tactical criticisms, without addressing the real question of what the US role should really be in this post-Cold War and post-9-11 world, and how effective military operations are; and 3) politicians these days seem much more hawkish than the military leaders. Powell reflected general Pentagon opinions for both Kosovo and Iraq; the military was far less keen on these wars than those in the White House. The drumbeat of war was pushed in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations by people with no or very limited military experience.
Moreover, the Pentagon “warning” in the June 14, 1999 issue of Time is still valid — if we take the fight elsewhere, it very likely will be brought back to us here. That’s a lesson the Russians learned today. We now understand the dangers, but are we really ready? Have we learned the lessons of Kosovo and Iraq? And what about Afghanistan and al qaeda? No time today to reflect further, but the similarities between Kosovo and Iraq suggest that our problem is not just that President Bush made some ‘bad choices,’ but is deeper within the US foreign policy/military policy mindset.