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The Kosovo Precedent

Syria in the Crosshairs

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

I found it truly scary to read that some high officials in the Obama Administration are so disconnected from reality that they consider the 1999 war in Kosovo to be a precedent for justifying limited cruise missile strikes in Syria.

The inestimable Diana Johnstone ably dissected the illegalities and subterfuges of the Kosovo adventure in numerous articles over the years — her latest being “US Uses Past Crimes to Legalize Future Ones” on 26 August in Counterpunch.

Today, I want to address the stupidity of the Kosovo precedent from a somewhat different angle.

Not only was the Kosovo adventure  illegal, it was also a case study in the failure of US precision strike doctrine.  One would think the Obama White House would be sensitive to this, because the reasons for the failure are again evident in the metastasizing targets lists governing the conduct of the drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

To understand why, lets take a short walk down memory lane:

In 1999, U.S. military planners and the Clinton Administration predicted that a “precision” bombing campaign would coerce Slobodan Milošević into resolving the Kosovo Crisis by complying with NATO demands after only two to three days of precision bombardment.  But the air campaign ground on for seventy-eight grueling days.

That Kosovo miscalculation was based on what the Clinton Administration saw as the Bosnia precedent of 1995 — i.e., Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in September 1995.  William Perry, President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, claimed  the damage done in 11 days by the 708 guided weapons striking 48 target complexes coerced Milošević to come to the bargaining table at Dayton. That performance, Dayton negotiator Richard Holbrooke told the annual convention of the Air Force Association in 1996, proved that more bombing leads to better diplomacy.

The Perry/Holbrooke mentality (i.e., the marriage of coercive diplomacy to limited precision bombardment) ignored the decisive effects of Operation Storm, the August 1995 Croatian offensive that cleansed the Krajina of more than 200,000 Serbs and changed the situation on the ground in Bosnia by cutting the Bosnian Serb supply lines. It also fails to consider that all of the belligerents were exhausted and needed a rest.

Nevertheless, US techno-strategists learned the “lesson they wanted to learn,” namely that a weak-willed Milošević would respond predictably to hi-tech, precision-guided coercion.  Thus, self delusion set the stage for inserting the poison pill into the Rambouillet negotiations that triggered the Kosovo War (more below).

The spillover of the Perry-Holbrooke mindset is clearly evident in the intelligence analyses of Milošević’s psychology made during the lead up to the Kosovo war in late 1998 and early 1999.  A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 1998 (quoted in the Washington Post of 8 April 1999) said, “Milošević is susceptible to outside pressure. He will eventually accept a number of outcomes [in Kosovo], from autonomy to provisional status with final resolution to be determined, as long as he remains the undisputed leader in Belgrade.” An interagency report coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency in January 1999 (reported in the 18 April 1999 New York Times) went even further, saying, “After enough of a defense to sustain his honor and assuage his backers [Milošević] will quickly sue for peace.”

Thanks to the industrious reporting of a few intrepid journalists, including especially Ms. Johnstone, we know that the so-call “Rambouillet Accord” was designed explicitly to give Milošević a chance to defend his honor by giving him a deal he had to refuse.

NATO’s demands on Serbia were designed to be unacceptable for the same reason the infamous Austro-Hungarian diktat to Serbia in 1914 was unacceptable: they were blatant infringements of Serbia’s national sovereignty. The Accord’s little-noticed military implementation annex (Appendix B) proposed to give NATO forces “free and unimpeded access throughout the FRY” [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e., Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo], immunity from “arrest, investigation or detention,” and authorized NATO to “detain” Serbian individuals and turn them over to unspecified “appropriate authorities.”

While this language gave Milošević the opportunity to defend his honor by capitulating after a few days of “coercive”  bombing, the Clinton plan backfired.

Milošević did not react like a predictable mechanical thermostat, however.  He chose instead to escalate rapidly–whereupon the “carefully calibrated” limited bombing campaign aimed at changing one man’s behavior exploded into a general war against the Serbian people. NATO had expanded the target list to include the Serbian power grid, chemical plants, Danube bridges, TV stations, and civilian infrastructure, not to mention military targets in Kosovo.  Predictably, the war settled into a grinding siege of attrition, and planners worried about running out of cruise missiles. At war’s end, U.S. forces had flown only 15% as many strike sorties as in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, but had expended 72% as many precision-guided munitions and 94% as many cruise missiles.

Yet no one knows if these expenditures caused Milošević to cave in on 3 June. We do know the Serbian Army left Kosovo intact, spoiling for a ground fight.

In fact, NATO intelligence determined that only minute quantities of Serbian tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and trucks—all high-priority targets—were destroyed, in part because the Serbs fooled our complex surveillance and precision guidance technologies with simple decoys1. There are even reports that they used cheap microwave ovens as decoys to attract our enormously expensive radar homing missiles.  Serbian troops marched out of Kosovo in good order, with their fighting spirit intact, displaying clean equipment and crisp uniforms, and in larger numbers than planners said were in Kosovo to begin with.

Moreover, the terms of the Serb “surrender,” which the undefeated Serb military regarded as a sell-out by Serbian President Milošević, were the same as those the Serbs agreed to at the Rambouillet Conference, before U.S. negotiators led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright inserted a poison pill (in the form of an intrusive Military Appendix B discussed above) to spoil the deal, so we could have what the politically troubled Clinton administration thought would be a neat, short war2.

We also know that General Sir Michael Jackson, NATO’s commander in Kosovo, credited the Russians rather than the air campaign for persuading Milošević to withdraw his forces from Kosovo (The Telegraph, 1 August 1999).

Proliferating Targets

When the Serbs did not collapse as predicted, but put up a stubborn resistance, the target list in Serbia grew wildly, just like target lists grew in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the First Iraq War, the Second Iraq War, and Afghanistan — and like Obama’s kill list of so-called ‘high-value’ terrorist targets has grown exponentially in the drone war. In war, targeting takes on a life of its own.  In fact, some officers in the NATO targeting cell told me that the conduct of the Kosovo bombing campaign was shaped more by the speed with which targets were rammed through the approval cycle than by any strategy linking a particular target’s destruction to a desired tactical or strategic effect. (Shades of Obama’s kill list meetings in the White House?)

Most importantly, the miscalculations at the beginning of the Kosovo War, which as we have seen, were based in large part on a delusional misreading of the Bosnia precedent, proved that the political marriage between coercive diplomacy and limited precision bombardment is a loser.

However, instead of leading to a divorce, subsequent events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have reinforced Kosovo’s lesson not learned, and the result is what is now a clear psychopathic marriage of two fatally-flawed ideas.

1. Coercive diplomacy assumes that carefully calibrated doses of punishment will persuade any adversary, whether an individual  terrorist or a national government, to act in a way that we would define as acceptable.

2. Limited precision bombardment assumes we can administer those doses precisely on selected “high-value” targets using guided weapons, fired from a safe distance, with no friendly casualties, and little unintended damage.

This marriage of pop psychology and bombing lionizes war on the cheap, and it increases our country’s  addiction to strategically counterproductive drive-by shootings with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs.

Consider the last twenty years: What has been achieved by

(1)using cruise missiles to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan and

(2) an obstacle course in Afghanistan, or

(3) the endless attacks on air defense sites in the Iraqi no fly zone in the 1990s, or

(4)  the bombing campaigns of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars; and now

(5) Obama’s ever growing drone campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and god knows where else?

While such precision-guided coercion operations may infatuate the foreign policy wonks, media elites, and feather the nests of defense contractors, the resulting strategy of drive by shootings has failed utterly to coerce the likes of Milošević, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, or the Taliban to behave in ways our pol-mil apparachiks deem to be acceptable. Viewed from the receiving end, the grand strategic result has been to turn the United States into a kind of unfocused Murder Incorporated using techno-advantages to kill and terrorize whomever, wherever, and whenever it chooses.

Is this strategy working?  Just ask yourself a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous question to President Carter in the 1980 election debate: ‘Is our country better off now than it was before this madness shook itself from the moderating shackles of the Cold War twenty some years ago?’

That the NATO alliance of 780 million people eventually prevailed over Serbia, a country of ten million with a gross domestic product equal to two-thirds that of Fairfax County, Virginia, is hardly a precedent to celebrate, particularly since it proved so spectacularly that  the marriage of coercive diplomacy to limited precision bombardment is a colossal failure.

Polls make it clear that a majority of the American people oppose another war in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, the New York Times reports that high officials in the Obama White House now want the American people to believe the Kosovo debacle is a precedent to justify a another drive-by-shooting campaign to coerce Bashar Assad in behaving the way we want him to behave.

When faced with such lunacy, perhaps it is time to ask the question.

Cui bono?

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

NOTES.

1. Timothy Thomas, “Kosovo and the Current Myth of Information Superiority,” Parameters (Spring 2000): 13–29 (http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/vp01.cfm?outf it=pmt&requesttimeout=500&folder=4&paper=471/).

2. An accurate summary of the poison pill can be found in David N. Gibbs, “Was Kosovo the Good War?” Tikkun, June 22, 2009