Now That We're In, We Have to Win

The cost of failure is much greater than the price of victory

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When the president of the U.S. threatened to use force to coerce Serbia into accepting a negotiated settlement for the Kosovo crisis, he should have been prepared for that contingency. Presidents should plan for war before they threaten war.

Evidently, having previously survived the consequences of empty threats and photo-op foreign policy and accustomed to casualty-free cruise-missile conflicts, the President thought a stern talking-to would be sufficient to get Milosevic's cooperation. Whether or not the President ever genuinely believed that NATO could win a Balkan war exclusively from the air, it seems clear that he did not expect the alliance would have to try.

Now the American people are told that Administration officials fully expected the Serbs to accelerate their campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo once NATO bombs began to fall. They might have told us that before we began the campaign. Surely they should have warned the Kosovars, who were persuaded to sign the Rambouillet pact on the implied condition that NATO would guarantee their safety.

In December 1992, Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger--on behalf of outgoing President Bush and with President-elect Clinton's permission--warned Serbia that the U.S. was prepared to use military force against the Serbs, in Kosovo and in Serbia proper, if the Serbs started a conflict in Kosovo. Less than a month after his Inauguration, Clinton repeated the warning. From that moment, the President should have begun preparing the country and our allies for the possibility of war by speaking plainly and honestly about why it might be necessary and what it might require of us. But he chose not to. So, first in October and again in January, when the President threatened NATO air strikes if Belgrade wouldn't negotiate in good faith and halt its aggression in Kosovo, Milosevic didn't take him seriously, for good reason. The President let both deadlines pass without comment.

But when the Serbs intensified their atrocities against ethnic Albanians early last month, the President was surprised to find himself obliged to lead a NATO air war in the Balkans. He acceded to the wish of some of our allies to conduct a phased, gradually escalating campaign (complete with anticipated bombing pauses) that was McNamara-esque in its foolishness. The prospect of bombing Milosevic into abandoning his ambitions is remotely plausible only if you plan to use, from the start, overwhelming force that punishes the Serbian regime and nation. This is all the more important given the short time Milosevic apparently needs to complete his destruction of Kosovo.

Why, when our allies prevailed on us to participate in the anticipated Kosovo peacekeeping force, did the President not insist that the U.S. set the strategy and tactics for an air war? Now, after our initial tactics have made the situation worse, our allies for too long refused to grant General Wesley Clark's request to hit strategic targets in Serbia.

The President and his advisers have repeatedly assured us and Milosevic that no American infantryman would set foot in Kosovo until the guns were silent. We all have reservations about a land war in the Balkans. The costs, in blood and treasure, would no doubt be exorbitant. But you must never start a war by mapping for the enemy the limits of your resolve.

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