So, What Do We Do Now?

So, What Do We Do Now?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 26 1999 11:00 PM

So, What Do We Do Now?

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Dear Eliot,

We have much in common. We share the same low opinion of the Clinton administration's competence, believe there are no good options available at this stage of the game, and regard as wretched the prospect of a long-term commitment to the Balkans.

As for our disagreements, let's get a couple out of the way. As the Vietnam analogy is offensive to you, and as it threatens to take on a life of its own, let's drop it. And as Eagleburger has always been peripheral to the main argument, let's also drop any further reference to him (though one day you'll have to tell me what idiot trotted out the "next thug will be worse" argument with respect to Hitler and Stalin; I must have been out of the office that day).

On the question of a ground war, you believe it could be a mess but that it is doable, given the great disparity between the quality of the fighting forces. I'm sure that is right as far as it goes, but I would still like to hear from you on the subject of how it is to be done. What, in the first place, will be the alliance's base of operations? The Greeks and Macedonians have already said no. Hungary has the presence of 300,000 Hungarians in Serbia to inhibit it. As far as Albania is concerned, I have just been reading the British military authority, John Keegan, on its gross inadequacy as a launch pad: one poor port, few and inadequate roads, 6,000-foot mountains between it and Kosovo.

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Then there is the question of possible--likely, I would say--civil resistance from the Serbs. How many civilians would the NATO forces be prepared to kill? How many could they kill without producing a storm of protest in their own countries? Even more important, how many casualties could the NATO forces themselves take without a) losing popular support and b) destroying the resolution of its leaders?

You take comfort from the fact that in this case, the United States is acting with its allies, and that it is the British and the French "who seem to be leading the charge on ground forces." Well, yes. You obviously find Tony Blair a more convincing war leader than I do. And you fail to mention that Germany, on the whole a more important country than either Britain or France, is opposed to ground troops and that its coalition government will probably collapse if they are resorted to.

But there are more general points to be made about NATO. On the whole, and in the absence of dire threats, it is better for alliances to be seen but not used. In the case of NATO, for 49 years it thrived by being inactive. As long as it did nothing, its mystique grew and it exuded an air of invincibility. Its whole point was to render its own use unnecessary. Now, on what I still insist is a peripheral issue, one that threatened no NATO member, it is in effect calling its own bluff and insisting on putting itself to the test. In doing so it has already stripped itself of much of its aura and authority--four inconclusive weeks of half-hearted bombing, in which ensuring that none of its brave bombers get hurt seems to take precedence, is hardly impressive.

It is the fate of alliances to sunder once they are put under pressure. My guess would be that unless things are settled pretty soon, France will choose an opportune moment and issue to break ranks.

A last point: You ask me to remember that not merely our credibility but a "concept of international political order" is at issue. The vileness of the Milosevic regime may give this view some support, but it is worth considering the precedent that is being set apart from that. Whether we like it or not, a fundamental principle of international order--respect for the sovereignty of a state--is being violated here, in retaliation for actions conducted within its own border. The justification for this--for example by Blair--is that it was done in response to a "genocide": a gross misuse of a term that should be employed only with proper gravity. As far as a "concept of international order" is concerned, what can we expect next from NATO: an insistence that Turkish persecution of Kurds be promptly ended, under threat of military action? If not, perhaps it would be better to mute grand claims of new "orders," don't you think?

Best,
Owen Harries

Eliot A Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Owen Harries is the editor of the National Interest. To read the essay by Owen Harries that kicked off this debate, click here.