From the Trenches: Multilateralism in US Military Interventions

Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

From the Trenches: Multilateralism in US Military Interventions


WESLEY CLARK is former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and former Commander-in-Chief, US European Command.

During your experience as commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces in the NATO operations in Kosovo, were there any structural hindrances to the allied campaign? How efficiently did NATO operate?

There were many structural hindrances because alliances are all about structure. But what one person views as a hindrance, another person views as an essential safeguard. The most important structural impediment to the operation was the lack of a secure NATO intelligence system. Because there was no NATO planning system for targeting, in the day-to-day work of the military campaign, NATO was integrated as an adjunct through the US intelligence and targeting systems. We used US communication channels and US planning headquarters. That is the structure of NATO.

There were several NATO countries that wanted to see and approve the targets themselves, but there were many that knew better and just said, "We do not want to see. We just want that guy to bomb better so this is over with." So the greatest impediment for NATO was from the United States. The nature of the system was that the US President was approving every target himself. Approval also had to come through the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they were rejecting targets. I was operating in a NATO command position as a US commander, but I was simultaneously responsible to 18 heads of government for the duration of the campaign. At one time I would have the Vice-Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff call me and ask, "Do you have enough tankers to do the job?"--a detailed, purely military question. No one wanted to jump into or undermine my command, but someone was asking the question. The next minute I would be welcoming the ambassador of Hungary who would be saying to me, "Please do not lose this war because Hungary twice before in this century joined alliances and went to war right away, and both times we lost and both times Hungary was dismembered." The range of issues I confronted was amazing.

On the whole, did the multilateral nature of the operation contribute to or detract from the long-and short-term planning?

Overall, the multilateral coalition contributed a lot to the planning process. When you stack international law with the strength of diplomacy and military power, it allows decisive strategic results to he achieved without decisive military force.

Many continue to view Kosovo as a pivotal moment in military history. What are the primary lessons that should be learned from that intervention?

One important lesson is this: in modern war, there will always be the restraints of diplomacy and the media. Officers need to be taught and weapons systems must be built to work within those constraints. For example, in the case of Iraq, it was necessary to avoid civilian causalities as long as possible. The US coalition needed precision weapons, and for the weapons to work they needed precision intelligence. Now that bombs can be targeted with a high degree of precision, there is little tolerance for dropping a bomb in a general area and randomly hitting something valuable. Specific targets must be known.

How much, if at all, do you think the development of precision-guided munitions will allow the United States to expand its global role?

I think that what the world saw in Iraq was not just precision-guided weapons. It was also the incredible power of the forces on the ground with precision skilled infantrymen and better tankers. The casualty rates were incredibly low in Iraq, and the battles were incredibly lopsided. There is a reason for that. These new weapons, training, and tactics are like the genie that came out of Aladdin's lamp. The United States is so powerful that there is no country that has anything comparable. The US armed forces will change the nature of military possibilities, and they will drive US foreign policy. …

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