Lessons from the Kosovo War

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Apart from acknowledging that winning ultimately meant what the Kosovars said it meant, what are we to make of Operation Allied Force? And how exactly does NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, along with its lesser Bosnian cousin, fit into the narrative of America’s War for the Greater Middle East?

Notably, of all the various campaigns comprising that larger enterprise, Kosovo and Bosnia alone found U.S. forces fighting on behalf of Muslims against a non-Muslim adversary. In that regard, the two Balkan excursions stand apart. To some this may suggest that the interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia don’t belong here—that they actually relate to the story of Europe’s post–Cold War reconstitution. In fact, they form part of both stories. To exclude the Balkan campaigns from the narrative of America’s War for the Greater Middle East is to overlook weaknesses in U.S. military practice destined to afflict the larger-scale military campaigns just ahead.

Two weaknesses in particular stand out. The first relates to campaign design and the challenges inherent in aligning military plans with political purpose. In Kosovo in particular, the disconnect between the two was nearly absolute. Responsibility for that failure rests primarily, although not entirely, with General Clark. In place of serious engagement with the complexities inherent in using force to move the Serbs out while keeping Kosovo in, Clark substituted amateur psychologizing of Slobodan Milošević. When he got that wrong, nothing remained but to improvise…

…Allied Force offered compelling evidence to suggest that senior U.S. military officers—even supposedly bright ones—were strategically challenged. Although as the designated fall guy Clark found himself soon eased into retirement, recognition of the deficiencies inherent in his conduct of war escaped broader attention. Yet in the campaigns just ahead, those deficiencies reappeared with troubling regularity. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, U.S. forces continued to post impressive numbers, much as they had in Kosovo and Bosnia. But the generalship required to translate numbers into something approximating permanent and categorical success would prove elusive. By then, of course, Clark was long gone. Yet the flawed approach to wartime command that he represented remained. Operational virtuosity continued to offer a poor substitute for strategic wisdom.

This brings us to the second weakness displayed by Allied Force: the conviction that employing U.S. military power to export universal—that is, Western liberal—values will reduce the incidence of violence globally and holds the best and perhaps only hope for ultimately creating a peaceful world. However imperfectly, this conviction, deeply embedded in the American collective psyche, provides one of the connecting threads making the ongoing War for the Greater Middle East something more than a collection of disparate and geographically scattered skirmishes…

…Yet outside the West, the superiority of cosmopolitan secularism as a basis for organizing societies is not necessarily self-evident. There, imposing on others the West’s multifaceted, ever-evolving rights agenda—universal by no means implying fixed or permanent—is as likely to inflame resistance as to foster harmony. In many (although not all) quarters of the Islamic world, values that the West asserts are universal appear empty at best and blasphemous at worst. Even in the Balkans, with Muslims the putative beneficiaries of the West’s insistence that universal rights should transcend identity, this proved to be the case.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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