From the Trenches: Multilateralism in US Military Interventions

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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. People say that there has not been anything like this since the Roman Empire. What difference will these forces make? They are like the genie that popped out of the lamp; they will do anything commanded. The problem is not if they have the power; the challenge is whether they can use it well and wisely.

There were many differences between the campaigns in Kosovo and in Iraq, such as the presence of ground troops in Iraq to complement other military operations. Do you think that air strikes alone can be effective, or does the recent example of Iraq show that it is necessary to have ground troops as well?

I would have preferred to use ground troops in Kosovo. It was not my strategy not to use ground troops, but that was the strategy that was approved. It all depends on the circumstance. I believe the Kosovo campaign was successful not just because of the precision air strikes but also because of the threat of ground troops. It was made very clear to the Russians and through the Russians to the Serbs that ground troops were coming. There was not any mystery about that. I think that had a decided impact. The trouble with air power alone is that it tends to be a depreciating asset. The best targets are usually picked off early in the campaign, and after that, the ability to strike at critical targets fades. The remaining targets at the end of the campaign tend to have higher collateral damage and also tend to be more problematic in terms of vulnerability.

How did the presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Kosovo affect or alter the operation?

In mid-to late April 1999, the Greeks had their Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) coming in, and this made it more difficult to bomb. We could no longer strike trucks because we did not know who was in them. It made the use of air power virtually impossible. We never struck the grand hotel in Pristina because there were NGOs there. NGOs generally do not like to cooperate with military operations because they then become complicit with governments and their objectives. They prefer not to cooperate. The mentality later was that if some organizations could enter to block us from bombing, some NGOs probably would have preferred to do that.

Both US President Bill Clinton in 1999 and US President George Bush in 2003 bypassed the UN Security Council when deciding to take action first against Serbia and now against Iraq. Why was there a more negative international reaction in the case of Iraq?

In the first place, there truly was an immediate and direct crisis in Kosovo in the spring of 1999 that had been building for a year. If action had not been taken, ethnic cleansing would have been the immediate result. And second, we had been trying diplomacy for a year, and the use of force was clearly not the desired result, but was the reluctant last choice. I think that in the case of Iraq there were many in the international community who did not see the immediacy or the urgency of going after Saddam Hussein. He might have been a bad guy and had some of these capabilities, but why now? There was also the impression, rightly or wrongly, given by the United States, that diplomacy was intended as a masquerade. Some felt that the Bush administration was not serious about the use of diplomacy and that the administration had already made up its mind to use force.

Returning to the role of NATO, you have written that NATO should be involved in the war on terrorism. Should NATO expand its role to take on conflicts outside its traditional European sphere?

Yes, certainly. NATO needs to be relevant and move toward current security problems, and those are terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. In order to have allies, a temporary coalition is not the right structure. That is very convenient if you just want to brag to the US people that you have allies, but it is not enough if you want the allies to be really committed to you. You have to make the allies contribute to the success of the operation, which means you have to get them politically committed by having governments sign up. To accomplish this, there needs to be a mechanism like NATO that operates on the basis of consent and unanimous agreement. That is why NATO is a consensus engine. Differing national perspectives are inserted, a problem is fed in at the top, the crankshaft is turned, and out pops a consensus policy. Sometimes it is noisy and squeaky, clattering, and clanking when the crank is turned, but eventually with US leadership on the vital and important issues, it will produce a consensus if it is well oiled and maintained. When the United States is trying to work elsewhere, it still needs that kind of a consensus-building alliance because it creates international legitimacy and facilitates burden sharing. It also prevents one country from becoming the focal point for all resistance.

Considering that a lot of the European leaders had difficulty drumming up popular support for the war or Iraq, do you foresee problems for NATO expansion into different spheres?

There is nothing wrong with NATO as a structure, provided that the United States wants the alliance. If the United States wants allies--allies who are democracies--then it needs to listen to the opinions of its allies. In this case, it failed to carry the proof to the allies. Initially, I argued that the United States should have brought in the United Nations and NATO earlier for the Afghanistan mission. If the United States had done that, it would have been more likely to achieve allied consensus on Iraq.

How important is it for the United States to run a public relations campaign internationally and domestically in conjunction with a military campaign?

I do not think that international public relations campaigns are very effective. As a matter of pragmatic performance, they run afoul of the problems with other competing forces--local political forces, local media, national perspectives. The international campaign is a distant trumpet trying to play a tune that does not resonate with local ears, so the campaign is not likely to be effective. Domestically, public relations campaigns have been extraordinarily effective.

But this is also an exceptional period. On September 11, 2001, the dialogue died in the United States about national security issues. It became a chorus of one voice in the US Congress. The US citizens lined up behind their president, and at times it has been very hard for some people to look objectively at policies. There is still an enormous amount of fear in the United States as a consequence of September 11.

What should be the role of military leaders outside of the military in both international and domestic spheres?

The role of the currently serving, active duty military is to follow the orders of the commander-in-chief, and that is what they do. They support the administration's policies and testify to those policies in public and in governmental counsel. Only when those policies are under formulation and consideration is the military in private going to speak out about them. Once the decision has been made, the military has no other voice in the policies. They can be called on as expert witnesses; they can be asked for opinions such as, "How long would it take you? How many casualties? Would you do this?" But do not ask them, "Should you?" That is a political decision.

Would the campaign have been more challenging if Iraq had pursued a different defensive strategy?

I was not predicting a more difficult war. I consistently predicted a two- to three-week war. I figured it was about a week to get to Baghdad and about a week to reduce it, based on the fact that as soon as the Iraqis stood and fought they would be destroyed by air power. Air power does not work instantaneously, but it does work.

With the ground forces moving against the Iraqi troops, it was only a matter of time until the ground forces cornered them and the air power destroyed them. That is what happened to the Iraqi Republican Guard. It only took two to three days, and their resistance was broken. Early on, the resistance was a resistance of the fedayeen--soldiers taking off their uniforms and fighting inside built up areas. It was not really a resistance to the movement because the soldiers just moved around the built up areas.

The people who got caught in there were the US Marines who were trying to clear Nasiriyahand, and then later on they were trying to move toward Al Kut, because they were in built up areas and the army just went around them and ended up in Karbala. It was only when the Iraqis chose to make a stand with armored forces that they were going to be defeated. They did not have any capacity to operate on the land against the extraordinarily effective US airpower capabilities.

There was also a certain degree of anxiety surrounding the possibility of a seige of the Iraqi capital; some commentators feared more intense street fighting than in other Iraqi cities. Did you expect a more difficult battle for Baghdad?

If the Iraqis had been well organized and prepared, and had they had control over the population, it might have been a tougher battle. But the US forces had technology and training advantages that no other force in history has ever had. They had a continuous overhead view of Baghdad; they could see everything. They had the M1N1 tank, which is damn near impossible to knock out except by first-line Soviet armor, and the United States was using mobility against the Iraqi's built up area.

When the Iraqis tried to put up obstacles, they did a poor job of it. The tank units quickly bypassed the obstacles and kept moving. The US tank groups were moving far more effectively than the Iraqi attempts at counter-maneuvers against them. The US tanks had the advantage on the thunder runs when they broke down the resistance and then let the Iraqis come to them.

The war began with strikes against "targets of opportunity." Are these the same surgical strikes tried against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and how likely are they to have succeeded?

Only time will tell if they were successful. In general, the United States has capacities now that it did not have in 1991. First, the military has the ability to go through cloud cover, at night, and in conditions of poor visibility with precision-guided bombs. In 1991, they were using laser-guided bombs, but today they are using bombs guided by Global Positioning Satellites. The bombs are highly accurate, and it is not possible for clouds over a city to obscure the targets. The bombs will go right where they are supposed to go, whether there is a cloud there or not. Also, they are designed to go deeper and hit bunkers, so they are much more effective then they were in 1991.

At the beginning of the war, there was worry about Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction. Are there military reasons for why they were not used, or does it indicate that the Iraqi weapons were not capable of being used?

There are three possibilities. Possibility number one is that Saddam Hussein could not use them. The US forces did not stay long enough in Kuwait to give him a really good target. Once the war started, they moved. Once they entered the so-called "Red Zone" around Baghdad, the troops were not bunched up as targets, and Hussein did not have much of his combat potential left, nor really any opportunity. Possibility number two is that he may have decided all along not to use them, simply to say that realistically he could not beat the United States. If the United States had to fight against weapons of mass destruction, it probably would not have made that much of a difference, so he might have decided not to use them. The third possibility is that he did not really have those weapons. He might have had some, but they were not fully or properly weaponized.

Even more than Kosovo, the war against Iraq has been recognized as a turning point in international affairs. What lessons should be taken from the war in Iraq, and what effect will alliances have on the reconstruction period?

The first lesson is that coalition forces have to be able to have a plan that is flexible and integrated with diplomacy. This plan was. The second lesson is that the war is won not by the plan, but by the execution of the plan, which should be adaptable. There are key elements in the execution, such as the skill of the individual soldiers and the pilots. The United States had very good and strong unit skills. The United States is scrambling right now to get other states to go into Iraq and bear some of the burdens. But some of these countries will resist unless they get a say in what policies will be implemented.

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