The Independent

26 March 1999


Gerald Segal


As the missiles land, the credibility of Nato is at stake



Now that the cruise missiles are striking Serbian targets, it is vital, especially in democratic countries at war, that we ask: what comes next? Armchair strategists will talk in terms of target lists and gee-whiz weaponry, but what we really want to know is: what are our objectives and how shall we know when we have achieved them? In truth, Nato has set off with little more than a strategy of "suck it and see".

Of course, Nato strategists do not admit to such pragmatism: they claim to have a well-thought-out plan "systematically and progressively" to "attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately destroy" Serbia's ability to wage war in Kosovo, as Nato's supreme commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, put it yesterday afternoon. Nearly identical language was used to describe the purpose of attacks on Saddam Hussein in December, and we now know that even the most clinical destruction and degradation do not necessarily achieve political objectives.

Nato bombing will go on for days and will no doubt destroy a range of targets in Serbia and Kosovo, but Nato has no clear sense of what it expects to see when the smoke clears. Only the most glibly optimistic will expect President Slobodan Milosevic to say, "Oops, sorry, we did not realise you were serious. yes, of course we will sign your agreement; that is likely to lead to independence for Kosovo."

Like Saddam Hussein, Milosevic assumes that Nato is still pulling its punches. He appreciates that Nato does not really want an independent Kosovo, because the notion of self-determination for small statelets will lead to the unravelling of the Dayton accord on Bosnia. Milosevic will assume that as our television screens show dying children in damaged Serbian hospitals or when Nato pilots are lost, the alliance will at least settle for a bombing pause. Round one to the dictator!

Subsequent days are harder to anticipate. The bombing pause that is likely to come before 4 April (Easter Sunday, and the 50th anniversary of Nato) could offer Milosevic the opportunity to invite Russia to reopen negotiations with other members of the Contact Group. His intention would be to arrange for a peacekeeping force with a substantial Russian role and a political deal significantly less odious to Serbia than that which Nato seeks to impose. Nato might just welcome what would be the barest camouflage for defeat. Richard Holbrooke would be called back to negotiate, and his "unattributable" briefings would blame defeat on weak-kneed Europeans.

Milosevic may also assume that while Nato concentrates on bombing less tricky targets in Serbia, he can get away with intensive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo designed to make possible the partition of the province, creating a Serb sector, much as was done in Bosnia. By washing his hands of a rump Kosovo swamped with refugees, Milosevic might calculate that he would be left alone by a Nato unwilling to have a sustained bombing campaign, or to deploy tens of thousands of ground troops to roll back Serbian forces. Round two to the dictator?

Perhaps, but it is at this stage that Nato has some really tough choices to make. Consider the humiliation that Nato will suffer if it marks its glorious 50th anniversary with a defeat by a country minuscule in comparison to the Soviet Union that Nato was designed to defeat.That this vision of the first days after the bombing seems so plausible is the most powerful argument for why it should not and probably will not be so. Nato has other options, but they are unpleasant and are unhelpfully ruled out at the moment by Western leaders. Until Nato leaders talk about a tougher strategy in Kosovo, they cannot hope to win against a man like Milosevic.

Nato has to be prepared to escalate its campaign. By denying that it will use ground troops to roll back Serbian forces, Nato ensures one form or another of humiliation. Modern Western military professionals like to exaggerate the requirements for such a ground operation, much as they exaggerated likely casualties before the war against Iraq in 1991 and the air strikes against that country in December. Remember , too, that all the service chiefs told Mrs Thatcher that it was too risky to retake the Falkland Islands.

One suspects that risk-averse Western politicians do not trust their people to agree to taking casualties in fighting the good fight. The American humiliation in Somalia is often cited as the rationale, but an operation by the world's strongest alliance acting against unambiguous inhumanity in Europe in an area the size of Cornwall may well have grudging popular support.

The West may fear a spreading Balkan war, but the best way to prevent that is by demonstrating its credibility as the defender of international order. A largely alienated Islamic world would welcome Nato troops defending Muslims. Fear of the Russian reaction is certainly no reason to pause for long. A Russia that has to come cap in hand to Washington and Brussels for financial bail-outs, and whose rusting armed forces were defeated in Chechnya, is in no position to stop a determined Nato.

As the bombing campaign against Serbia unfolds, it will not be easy for Nato leaders to contemplate such a drastic escalation. If they are very lucky, Milosevic will make it easy by escalating himself. He could be foolish, and attack Nato troops in Bosnia or in Macedonia. But even Saddam Hussein did not attack Saudi Arabia after invading Kuwait, and Milosevic's porcupine strategy is more likely to mean that he hunkers down to fight another day.

Escalation could come in other ways. While Russia will not put any substance behind the rhetoric about "Slav solidarity", there may be rogue elements willing to fly in Russian arms. If Nato shoots down Russian aircraft smuggling arms, the risks of escalation must grow, but probably not uncontrollably.

Despite the tendency of many to see modern Balkan history in terms of a past that triggered the First World War, in 1999 all the potent European powers are on one side, and even in one alliance. If, after the first few days of inconclusive aerial attacks, our leaders continue to tell us that we do not have the power to defeat an isolated and bankrupt dictator in our own backyard, then they will have to forgive us if we cease to believe in their credibility in defending our interests and international order.

The author is director of studies at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London