Military force was either used or contemplated by the United States in myriad settings and for various aims. Actual or would-be interventions occurred in nearly every region of the world, and included punitive raids, coercive or compellent attacks, deterrence, preventive and preemptive strikes, peacekeeping, peacemaking, and nation-building.
Air power can accomplish many things, but not everything. Six weeks of intense bombing of Iraq and Iraqi forces could not liberate Kuwait during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf conflict; it also took 100 hours of ground warfare. Air power can prepare a battlefield, but it cannot control it. Kosovo underscored a related limitation; although aerial bombardment over the course of some eleven weeks did help persuade Slobodan Milosevic to agree to NATO terms, it seems apparent that the threat of introducing ground forces made a greater impact. Regardless, terrible things happened to civilians on the ground when only air power was employed: thousands of innocent people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands lost their homes and became internally displaced or refugees. In the end, Kosovo was not one but two wars: an air war dominated by NATO and a ground war dominated by Serbian military and paramilitary forces.
Air power might have accomplished more in Kosovo had NATO and the Clinton administration observed some of the traditional guidelines for the effective use of military force. Delay can make any intervention more complicated and costly. Hesitation is understandable when only humanitarian concerns are at issue, as it is much harder to marshal domestic and international support in the absence of an overwhelming cause. But delay also exacts a price by squandering the opportunity to act preventively and with less force. In Kosovo, using air power earlier, after the wholesale violation of the October 1998 agreement – in which Serbia agreed to a cease-fire, limits on its forces in Kosovo, and international monitoring – certainly would have proven more efficient.
Decisiveness is almost always preferable to gradualism. Here again, Kosovo was no exception. Starting at a relatively modest pace diluted the psychological and political impact of the NATO action; it also gave Serbia an almost free hand to pursue its objectives using ground forces. The measures to avoid collateral damage insisted on by European members of NATO inhibited operations and limited their usefulness. All things being equal, it is better to err on the side of too much rather than too little force. This is true of air campaigns – the contrast between the Kosovo intervention and the opening days of Operation Desert Storm could hardly be greater – as well as with ground or combined efforts. U.S. capabilities in Somalia were never increased in step with the mission’s widening in early 1993, while the initial attempt to use force in Haiti – the decision in October 1993 to dispatch only 200 U.S. and Canadian soldiers, followed by the decision to withdraw them when mobs rioted on the shore – ended in humiliation for the United States.
Some of the problems encountered in Kosovo were tied directly to the decision to use air power alone rather than in conjunction with ground forces. It is true that American interests in Kosovo were less than vital, and that persuading the American people and their elected representatives of the need to make large sacrifices, including casualties, would not have been easy. But the Clinton administration never tried. The result is that the air-only intervention failed to achieve one of the principal goals the United States and NATO had set for themselves: guarding the people of Kosovo. Force protection to avoid casualties can and should be a consideration – but not the only one.
Adapted from The Use and Abuse of Military Force by Richard Haass, 1999
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