Double Take

How you look at things.
May 1 1999 3:30 AM

Double Take

Who's Miscalculating? NATO or Milosevic?

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Since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia a month ago, American hawks and doves have agreed on one thing: NATO and the Clinton administration have "miscalculated." "The administration completely miscalculated when it launched the air campaign," declared Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, April 19. "They assumed that the Serbs would immediately retreat when the bombs began to descend."

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This critique is well founded, but it's only half of one dimension of the story. In war, there are two players, and each can miscalculate. Furthermore, war has a psychological dimension, in which each side's morale is undermined by its mere belief that it has miscalculated. To win the practical war, you don't have to calculate perfectly. All you have to do is outcalculate your enemy. Likewise, to win the psychological war, all you have to do is make your enemy second-guess his belligerence more than he thinks you're second-guessing yours. The surest way to lose the psychological war is to fret that you have misjudged your enemy's resolve, while failing to entertain the possibility that he will decide he has misjudged yours.

The "miscalculation" critique permeated Wednesday's war debate on the House floor. "It appears that President Clinton and other NATO leaders mistakenly thought that bombing specified military targets in Serbia and Kosovo would send a message to Yugoslav President Milosevic that would cause him to quickly embrace the NATO peace plan. It is obvious this was a gross miscalculation," charged Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., denounced "the tragic miscalculation by President Clinton that Milosevic would back down if we bombed Serbia for a week or maybe two."

Since this way of framing the conflict treats NATO but not Yugoslavia as a rational player susceptible to threats, punishment, failure, and re-evaluation, Yugoslavia is happy to encourage it. Last Friday, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Zivadin Jovanovic warned that a NATO ground invasion of Kosovo "would be yet another miscalculation by those who have already been proved wrong so far," posing "dangers to the whole continent" and drawing the United States into a quagmire that would make Vietnam look like "nothing."

Tuesday morning, NATO's military commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, decided he had heard enough of this critique. Wrapping up his opening remarks to reporters in Brussels, Clark turned the miscalculation argument on its head. Milosevic, said Clark, "may have thought that NATO really wouldn't launch the airstrikes. But he was wrong. He may have believed they wouldn't last after they were started. Wrong. He may have thought that some countries would be afraid of his bluster and intimidation, they would withdraw the use of their bases or buckle under his intimidation. He was wrong. He thought that other countries might rush to his aid. Wrong again."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Clark went on: "He thought that taking prisoners and mistreating them and humiliating them publicly would weaken our resolve. Wrong again. He thought his air defense would be effective against our aircraft. Wrong. He thought his troops would stay loyal. Increasingly he's wrong about that. There are more desertions. Former generals are under arrest. Dissent is growing louder and louder. Military press censorship has been imposed. He thought he could hide the truth from his own people, I suppose, and increasingly he's wrong in that. We're winning, Milosevic is losing, and he knows it. He should face up to this and he should face up to it now."

In recent days, other NATO and U.S. officials have reinforced Clark's campaign to counterframe the miscalculation thesis. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea suggested that the assignment of fresh Yugoslav troops to Kosovo "demonstrates yet again Milosevic's miscalculations. He thought he could defeat the KLA in a short, five-to-seven days' operation. ... [This] was completely wrong and is further testimony to the success of the air campaign." Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., contended that Milosevic "counted, at the outset of this, when he moved his forces into Kosovo, on NATO breaking up quickly--and quite the opposite has happened." White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart predicted that Milosevic "will change his calculation" as his apparatus of power is progressively destroyed.

Did NATO misjudge Milosevic's efficacy and resolve? Absolutely. But to debate that question by itself is already a loaded proposition, because it overlooks the corresponding question of whether Milosevic has misjudged NATO's efficacy and resolve--and whether he, accordingly, can be humbled into reconsidering his belligerence before we reconsider ours. Gen. Clark understands that in war, morale is both vital and relative. He has heard enough pessimism from pundits and politicians on the subject of whether NATO has miscalculated. He is not interested in changing the answer. He is interested in changing the question.

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