Reprinted from the Weekly Standard, May 31, 1999
In 1990 a British prime minister sought to stiffen the spine of an American president trying to decide whether to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Margaret Thatcher's famous injunction -- "George, this is no time to go wobbly" -- helped give President Bush the moral courage to take Americans to war against Saddam Hussein. Nine years later we see history repeating itself, but unfortunately only on the British side.
For the past few weeks, Tony Blair has been trying to convince Bill Clinton that the air campaign in Yugoslavia cannot succeed and that preparations must be made to send ground troops into Kosovo to drive the Serbs out. So far, Clinton has essentially told his good friend Blair to shut up.
Before the NATO summit in Washington on April 23, Blair and his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, sought Clinton's support for taking up the ground war issue with the rest of the alliance. Clinton said no. Last week, Robin Cook visited Washington again to make the case that NATO at least needs to prepare for the possibility of ground forces. But Clinton officials rebuffed him, again. Clinton's declaration last week that no options had been taken "off the table" seems to have been aimed chiefly at getting Blair off his back.
Blair's Thatcherite gutsiness is proving an annoying embarrassment to the president, who so far lacks the stomach to match it. Last week Clinton officials grumbled to reporters that Blair's constant pressure for ground troops was making Clinton look weak by comparison with John McCain. True enough.
Senator McCain embarrassed Clinton when he offered a resolution two weeks ago authorizing the president to use "all necessary force" to win the war in Kosovo. Clinton lobbied furiously to defeat McCain's resolution. He wanted McCain to shut up, too. So for the past two months, we have had this situation: A U.S. president who has been a lot friendlier to those who want us to lose this war, like the Russians and the Chinese, than he has been to allies and members of Congress who want to win. Sorry, Mr. Blair, your American friend has indeed gone "wobbly."
The disastrous consequences of the president's wobbliness become more apparent with each passing day. Nine weeks into the air war, the NATO alliance is showing signs of weariness. German chancellor Gerhard Schroder is publicly sniping at Blair, and allied political leaders are quarreling over military and diplomatic strategy. The Italian government has called for a bombing pause.
Schroder himself, after beating back a challenge from the Green party -- which also wants a bombing pause -- sounds as if he is desperate for a diplomatic solution. That evident desperation, along with all the international-alliance squabbling, has probably emboldened Milosevic to hold out for a diplomatic settlement on his terms, not NATO's. Whatever punishment NATO is inflicting on Milosevic's forces -- and that punishment does not seem to stop Serb forces in Kosovo from doing just about whatever they please -- the big question is who will give in first: Milosevic or NATO? Right now, it's by no means clear.
All this disarray is a consequence of the badly planned and badly implemented air campaign. But it is also, more importantly, the result of Clinton's unwillingness to rally an alliance that depends on clear and vigorous American leadership. The president, with an ever-watchful eye on the polls, clings desperately to the hope that Milosevic will buckle under the air attack.
Clinton's own military commanders and his own closest allies in NATO have become convinced that only a ground attack can drive Milosevic from Kosovo and secure a victory on NATO's terms. And it is the obvious inadequacy of the air campaign that has created the recent disunity in the alliance. But Clinton officials, cynical to the core, use the disunity as an excuse for not pressing ahead for a ground attack.
Can NATO allies be brought around to support a ground war in Kosovo if necessary? The answer is yes. Right now the British and French want to win this war, no matter what it takes. If President Clinton ever summoned the will to lead, it is highly unlikely that a ground option favored by the three most important allies in NATO would be blocked by the likes of the Italians, the Greeks, or even the Germans. We suspect that the German government's chief objection is to the use of German troops in a ground action. Fine. With British, French, and American forces available, NATO doesn't need German forces on the ground in Kosovo.
Late last week, General Wesley Clark bluntly told his superiors that unless the United States began to move ahead with the deployment of ground troops soon, the possibility of having a ground force ready before winter in the Balkans would be foreclosed. In other words, unless the president starts to prepare for a ground war in the very near future, there is a real chance that we will fail to achieve our basic objectives. Such failure should be unacceptable.
The war can be won. The war should be won. And the main obstacle to winning it isn't Slobodan Milosevic. It isn't our allies. It isn't the weather in the Balkans. It's Bill Clinton.