How a ‘Splendid Little War’ Failed

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

With loud congressional complaints over the Kosovska Mitrovica shambles a daily reminder of what victory has wrought--a costly and misgoverned colony--and with the Pentagon’s admission that crucial war plans were indeed leaked to the Serbs, it is hard to recall now that Kosovo was to be NATO’s splendid little war. By taking on the brutal but weak Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic on behalf of the endangered Albanians of Kosovo, by winning a swift and clean victory after a few days of precision bombing, NATO would prove that it still was indispensable. That way the purely defensive alliance built to resist the Soviet Union could survive by acquiring a new role as the active instrument of European security.

There is a colossal irony in this unconscious repetition of history: In 1914, the decaying Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs tried to prove that it was still a great power by defeating Serbia in the prototypical “splendid little war.” Instead, it started World War I, which wrecked Europe for two generations, destroying the Hapsburg empire with much else. By those standards, the Kosovo war must be judged a great success, because it did not start a world war, although it did provoke much enduring hostility in Russia as well as a contrived tantrum from China.

But for NATO as the embodiment of strategic solidarity between Americans and Europeans, the outcome of attacking Serbia in 1999 is no better than the attack of 1914 was for the Hapsburg empire. The gap between American and European military strength was much too great. It left the Americans contemptuous and the Europeans thoroughly humiliated. For the first time, the French have found an audience for their long-standing opposition to the American military role in Europe, and more than that: all sorts of European politicians, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now tacitly agree with what Gen. Charles de Gaulle enjoyed saying out loud: Oui to American help if we ask for it, but non to American strategic direction through NATO.

That is not how things were supposed to turn out when NATO’s civil and military leaders agreed to start the Kosovo war. By then, the fall of the Soviet Union had long since removed the great force that had kept the Americans in Europe, while imposing solidarity on all the European members, even Greece and Turkey. Military alliances naturally dissolve once they no longer face a powerful enemy, but NATO seemed to defy that fate.

One reason for this reversal of strategic logic was the particular enthusiasm of the Clinton administration for anything that was multinational. At first, Clinton’s people even believed that the United Nations could be effective in keeping the peace. That illusion did not outlast the Somalia fiasco. At the same time, the U.N.'s disastrous failure in Bosnia was reaching its climax with the Srebrenica massacre, featuring pusillanimous Dutch troops on the spot and irresponsible U.N. officials above them, all the way to Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York (he was then in charge of peacekeeping, as his admirers have contrived to forget).


The Clinton administration reacted by transferring all its multinational enthusiasm to NATO. By then the administration had ensured that NATO troops would take over responsibility for Bosnia and also had decided to enlarge the alliance by admitting the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, ignoring strenuous Russian objections.

But more than high politics was involved. NATO is not just an alliance, it is an organization--with an elaborate structure of multinational military commands, its own civilian bureaucracy and a variety of venues for the diplomatic and military representatives of each member state. They all offer highly valued positions for military officers and civilian officials alike, with rapid career advancement in many cases and excellent monetary rewards. For citizens of several member states, pay and allowances on NATO duty are five or six times higher than at home. Thus the strategic logic that dictated a diminishing role for NATO once the Soviet army disappeared was powerfully resisted not only by political leaders but also by the military and civilian bureaucracies of every member state.

By 1999, when the Kosovo war started, more than half of the American forces in Europe had been withdrawn, while continuing budget cuts were reducing European forces, never strong to begin with.

That of course was the first weakness exposed by the war. Once it turned out that Milosevic would not surrender after a whiff of precision bombing, the only alternative to a ground war was a strategic bombing campaign of many thousands of strike sorties. That left the European air forces totally outclassed and even the U.S. Air Force and Navy strained mightily to bring in enough fighter bombers, tankers, electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft from all over the world.

By then another weakness had been exposed. NATO was acting as an offensive coalition to attack Serbia, but it still was organized as a defensive alliance, governed by slow and stately consultations between the representatives of every member state. With no fighting on the ground and nothing much at sea, war plans were essentially bombardment plans, and everyone’s approval was needed for every target category and any sensitive individual target before orders could be sent off. At first, there were so many objections and so few approvals that the initial target list hardly could have intimidated the most timid of enemies, let alone Milosevic, who was not impressed because he somehow realized that only some 50 mostly inconsequential targets such as radio relay antennas on remote mountains would be attacked.

We now know that it was not just his intuition that reassured Milosevic. When NATO Secretary-General George Robertson flatly denied last Thursday that anything was leaked to Serbia, he was importing the standard response of British officialdom to any security leak: bluff and bluster and deny--until the tell-all book is published 10 or 20 years later. This time, however, the Americans embarrassingly contradicted Robertson within 24 hours. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon admitted that there were “security problems in the first two weeks” and that “the Serbs somehow gained access to portions of the air tasking order.” It is useless to speculate about a Serbian spy high up inside NATO, because when there is no security to begin with, there is no need of spies or traitors.

The strength of military alliances is always a mirror image of the power of their enemies. For NATO, that enemy once was the Soviet Union, making it formidable. With Serbia as its only available enemy, nobody should be surprised if NATO is becoming weaker day by day.