Kosovo: A Time For Congressional Leadership

Robert Alt

April 1, 1999

The futility of NATO’s politically hamstrung bombing of Yugoslavia becomes more apparent with each passing day and with every horrific image beamed from Kosovo. Even so, the Clinton administration remains opposed to taking the painful steps necessary to achieve victory–including the deployment of ground forces–because such action seems politically unpopular. With the lives of thousands of ethnic Albanians, the long-term credibility and standing of the United States in Europe and in the world, and the very existence of NATO hanging in the balance, Congress must assume the leadership role the President has neglected by calling a special session this week to authorize the deployment of ground forces.

The military operations in Kosovo have been limited to date to high-altitude bombing and cruise missiles assault. This strategy, while effective on fixed sites (such as bridges and government buildings) and useful for creating strangely fascinating fireballs for the evening news and morning paper, is nonetheless a grossly inadequate way to counter the immediate threat to the Kosovars: small armored units and infantry. Far from solving the problem, the NATO assault has precipitated more killing and the expatriation of tens of thousands of refugees. CIA and military analysts predicted that limited air attacks could worsen the plight of the ethnic Albanians, but the Clinton administration chose to gamble that Slobodan Milosevic would back down when the bombs started falling. When Milosevic attacked with greater vigor thereby triggering a Kosovar diaspora (as was also predicted), the U.S. and NATO were caught woefully unprepared. That the administration miscalculated so badly is tr
agic, but that it continues with the same policy at the expense of human lives and strategic objectives is indefensible, and points to a vacuum of leadership and judgment in this administration.

The President’s limited engagement policy is motivated by two factors: his reliance on the polls and his uneasy relations with the military. Much has been made of Clinton’s use of the polls for setting policy, which is epitomized by his decision to "win" the Lewinsky scandal based on polling numbers provided by Dick Morris. With the majority of Americans registering disapproval for ground troops, it comes as no surprise that President Clinton also opposes deployment. Policy by polls is a poor way to handle domestic policy, but it is even more disturbing when the questions concern immediate life and death. Solving the Kosovo conflict may require acting outside of public opinion for the public good. Clinton has yet to show this capability.

As for military discomfort, the President queasiness for military action is heightened when casualties are involved. While his concern to limit collateral damage is admirable, he nonetheless seems ill prepared for the harsh reality that war is hell. He is looking for victory without pain, and for war without death. This administration has been relatively lucky in the past (with the notable exception of Somalia) at launching attacks that do not result in U.S. casualties. This mission, however, is not only about hitting fixed facilities, but involves the resettlement of villages and the possible removal of a petty despot. These objectives simply cannot be met without ground troops, and ground troops cannot be deployed without the serious risk of U.S. casualties. For a risk averse President, such a loss is not an option, even if it means sacrificing strategic objectives.

It is a grave act to send Americans into harms way. Many in Congress have argued that the reasons offered for U.S. involvement do not meet that high threshold. There are, however, substantial U.S. interests that recommend action.

The first, and perhaps most obvious reason, is the humanitarian desire to stop the ethnic cleansing. The U.S. does not have an obligation to address every humanitarian crisis, and indeed does not have the resources to do so. When the U.S. can halt ethnic cleansing, however, its actions reflect the character and principles of its people. More than simply halting a grave injustice in Kosovo, firm military action sends the message that these kinds of atrocities will not be tolerated in the future, thereby contributing to global stability.

Second, a stable, free, and prosperous Europe is in the United States’ best interest. Those who suggest otherwise suffer from delusions of America as an economic and geo-political island, a view contradicted by the interconnectivity of the modern world. This is not to say that a butterfly flapping its wings in Europe will cause the DOW (or Tao, for that matter) to crash, but is a recognition that instability in Yugoslavia impacts Europe, which in turn impacts America.

Third, America’s position as a leader in Europe and around the world will be threatened if we fail in Kosovo. Milosevic undoubtedly learned how to negotiate with the United States by watching how the U.S. has mismanaged relations with Saddam Hussein. If the U.S. loses to or stalemates with Milosevic, it will promote the image of American military impotence, thereby emboldening petty thugs around the world to thwart U.S. authority. If the U.S. is to maintain its stature in the world–not as the world’s policeman, but as the last remaining superpower–we cannot afford to lose.

Finally, defeat in Kosovo would mean the end of NATO. NATO is America’s best strategic alliance of this century, and should not be allowed to wither. The Cold War is over, but as Mr. Milosevic so plainly reveals, the world is not necessarily a safe place. NATO should be maintained to assure European security, which is in the long-term interest of the United States.

For these reasons, America should devote the full and unmitigated power of its armed forces to winning the war in Kosovo. This will require ground forces now and a military presence in the region for the foreseeable future, but the need for a stable Europe requires this sacrifice. The President will be unwilling to make this kind of commitment for fear of political repercussions. Therefore, the leaders of the House and Senate should convene special sessions this week to pass a resolution granting the President the authority to carry out the mission in Kosovo, including the use of ground troops. The resolution should expressly designate the goals of U.S. intervention to eliminate the ambiguity that has prevailed to this point. While such a resolution would not be binding, it would establish boundaries for U.S. involvement, and would give the President the political cover to act in the country’s best interest.

America is in dire need of genuine leadership. Being a leader in a Republic means more than shifting to the whims of the people, but rather requires politicians to shape public opinion and to direct individual impulses toward a common good. Congress should take that mantle–the future of Kosovo, NATO, and America’s position as the last great superpower depends upon it.

Robert Alt is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and the Deputy Senate Liaison at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.