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IT'S FLIGHT OR FIGHT

As planners study a ground war, NATO unleashes ever more violent air attacks

By JOHANNA MCGEARY

April 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:10 a.m. EDT (1510 GMT)

TIME magazine

Monday night, April 12, Bill Clinton made peace with his Yugoslav war. He was nearly three weeks deep into the air campaign by then, but for two hours he listened to participants at a White House conference chew over a familiar topic, "The Perils of Indifference." As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke passionately about Franklin Roosevelt's righteous leadership in a war against evil, Clinton leaned forward, totally absorbed. "You could tell he was thinking about his own war in Kosovo," says a friend who was there, adding, "The President and Hillary really pay attention to Elie." So when Wiesel concluded that he was proud that "this time the world was not silent" about the crimes against humanity in Kosovo, Clinton felt certain that in the 1999 choice between civilization and barbarism, he too was engaged in a just war.

Trouble is, few people disagree with the moral imperative of a war grounded in humanitarian principles. Milosevic's relentless pogrom in Kosovo ensures that. But from Day One, NATO's promise of victory by air power has seemed a limp match for the human costs of the campaign. And as the political leader who got the West into this war, Clinton is charged with the responsibility to make it work.

That's why last weekend's NATO summit loomed as such a defining moment. When Clinton invited the 42 members and partners of NATO to Washington for a 50th birthday party, he envisaged a glittering capstone to his diplomatic legacy, grandly positioning the alliance as the bigger, broader 21st century mainstay of pan-European security. Instead he found himself presiding over a council of war. Those who feared that the decision to forgo ground troops from the start is dooming the allied cause set up a clamor for NATO to reconsider. A month after firing off its first cruise missiles, NATO--and Bill Clinton--faced decisions with profound implications for the mark both will leave on history. Should NATO escalate? Had the time come to get ready for a ground war?

The faint hope that NATO could negotiate a quick way out still beat in some hearts. Clinton "supposed" something useful might come of former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's efforts, but once the terms of Milosevic's summit-eve offer to contemplate some international peacekeeping force emerged, they were no more acceptable than his previous overtures. The allies would still love to have Moscow mediate a settlement as a way to bring it back into partnership with the West.

That left NATO free to concentrate on shaping a new fighting strategy. The moment he arrived, British Prime Minister Tony Blair slapped the central issue on the table. If Milosevic and ethnic cleansing are to be defeated, he said, then NATO had to muster all the military means that it may require. Including ground troops. "All options are always kept under review," Blair repeated over and over. "Milosevic does not have a veto on what we do."

The Clinton Administration does, though, and Washington seems to be creeping up to the ground-troop question only inch by reluctant inch. Before the summiteers set foot in the U.S. capital, the White House colluded with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana to take some steam out of an issue filled with political and diplomatic, not to mention military, perils. Solana leaked word on Wednesday that the alliance would "revise and update" last fall's "assessment" of what forces it would take to enter Kosovo--with Milosevic's consent or without it. Back then the guess was 75,000 soldiers to invade and secure the province, 200,000 to do the same throughout Yugoslavia. Revisiting that plan now, said Clinton, "is a wise and prudent course."

So does that mean a decision is near on using ground troops? Nope, said Clinton a breath later, sticking by his claim that he has "no intention" of introducing soldiers except to keep a peace. Does it mean at least serious preparation will now get under way? No again. The allies are still too divided to take even that baby step. The reassessment will study the size and composition of a possible ground force, but not how and where it would be deployed or what its mission would be. No detailed operational planning has been ordered up, and under the complex consensus rules of NATO, that alone would take weeks--and the actual dispatch of troops and tanks many months. "I've seen no evidence evolving that the 19 countries are going to say, 'Let's do detailed planning for a ground force,'" said Secretary of Defense William Cohen. "There are sharp disagreements about this within the alliance."

White House aides privately hoped the new NATO assessment would call for so many troops to invade--perhaps up to 150,000 in Kosovo alone--that it would scare off ground-war advocates. "The assessment will help burst the bubble," predicted a top Administration official. The hawks, meanwhile, hoped the study would produce a viable plan that would sell with equal ease everywhere from Paris to Peoria. No matter what the outcome, the study probably won't be ready for weeks, giving NATO another excuse to delay a decision on ground troops and continue an air campaign it swears is working.

Even so, the subject of ground troops was Topic A at the fringes of the conference. The British in particular heated up the atmosphere with lots of talk about "permissive" and "nonpermissive" environments, "softening up" and "invasion without consent."

But if Blair and his team are ready for a land assault, Clinton and his are not--at least not yet. In the spectrum of presidential advisers, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is more disposed than most to the use of all means necessary--the code phrase for ground troops. But Clinton is hanging back, and Pentagon officers, who oppose any ground war, will keep advising him against one. Like Clinton, powerful members of Congress believe Americans are not willing to make the sacrifices required by a Balkan ground war.

Perhaps as a result, Washington is determined to squelch rising suspicion that ground troops might well be needed to defeat Milosevic. The Pentagon, the White House and NATO spokesmen spent much of the three-day summit insisting their sustained bombardment of Yugoslavia was paying off. Officials rolled out numbers to tick off progress: after 3,000 target strikes, 16 early-warning radars were gone, half of Serbia's MiG-29s destroyed, two oil refineries eliminated, 25% of stored fuel wiped out, all four vital rail and road links to Kosovo damaged. Never mind that 3 of every 4 bombs were falling on big, empty, static targets already hit. Alliance spokesmen were sure that new strikes on Milosevic's Tito-era villa, on the broadcast studios of state-owned Serbian TV, and on the 23-story tower housing his Socialist Party of Serbia and his daughter's radio and TV stations were going to undermine Milosevic's domestic support. "We are winning," NATO commander General Wesley Clark told the summiteers. "He is losing, and he knows it."

Unfortunately, Milosevic hasn't given any sign of that. So NATO leaders quietly concluded a summit that was more symbolic than substantive. They made solemn proclamations: We will stick together. We will prevail. We will intensify the bombing until Milosevic capitulates to the terms we have already laid down.

But it's not all that easy for NATO to "intensify" the air-only war as it promises. Over considerable resistance, Clinton barely talked NATO into approving plans for a naval embargo to cut off oil supplies to Serbia, and no one wants to hurt Western-leaning Montenegro, where the main Yugoslav port is, in the process. The low-risk, high-altitude bombing cannot grow markedly more effective unless the allies are willing to accept more casualties--theirs and ours. The Apache gunships are dribbling into Albania to begin their closer-to-the-ground war against nearly 400 Serbian tanks and armored personnel carriers and 43,000 troops--more, not fewer, since the bombing began--still vigorously cleansing Kosovo. But refugees report that Serbian soldiers have shed their uniforms to patrol the roads on stolen tractors, disguising themselves as civilian convoys. An Apache pilot will be hard pressed to make the right call on whether to strike a convoy that could contain the oppressor or the oppressed. A footnote: as more Apaches arrive, the number of G.I.s in Albania, 350 a month ago, will soon grow to more than 5,000.

What overshadows everything is NATO's failure so far to stop the slaughter. Washington will call the summit a success simply because the 19 hung together. But the unity doesn't extend much beyond a consensus that the best thing these nations can do is hang together--for now. There are hints of cracks to come. Some of the allies are worried that NATO is dangerously remiss in failing to rev up planning for a ground campaign. Still others--recoiling from the live possibility of putting "our boys" on Balkan ground--are pressing for any negotiated way out. And few in the alliance can yet name the specifics of a peace plan: some nations dread the idea of an independent Kosovo; others embrace it. What Clinton and his confreres have left unsettled is just how they intend to fight this war to the finish--and that, more than any photo-op cheeriness, will determine what kind of alliance 21st century NATO will turn out to be.

Reported by James Graff/Kukes and Jay Branegan, Barry Hillenbrand, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: May 2, 1999

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