An Army of One? in the War on Terrorism, Alliances Aren't an Obstacle to Victory. They're the Key to It

By Clark, Wesley | The Washington Monthly, September 2002 | Go to article overview

An Army of One? in the War on Terrorism, Alliances Aren't an Obstacle to Victory. They're the Key to It


Clark, Wesley, The Washington Monthly


A FEW DAYS AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, I HAPPENED to be walking the halls of the Pentagon, the scene of so many contentious meetings during my years as commander of NATO forces in Europe, and ran into an old acquaintance, now a senior official.

We chatted briefly about TV coverage of the crisis and the impending operations in Afghanistan. At his invitation, I began to share some thoughts about how we had waged the Kosovo war by working within NATO--but he cut me off. "We read your book," he scoffed. "And no one is going to tell us where we can or can't bomb."

That was exactly how the United States proceeded. Of course, the campaign in Afghanistan, as it unfolded, wasn't an all-American show. The United States sought and won help from an array of countries: basing rights in Central Asian states and in Pakistan; some shared intelligence from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim states; diplomatic backing from Russia and China; air and naval support from France; naval refueling from Japan; special forces from the United Kingdom, and so on.

But unlike the Kosovo campaign, where NATO provided a structured consultation and consensus-shaping process, allied support in this war took the form of a "floating" or "flexible" coalition. Countries supported the United States in the manner and to the extent they felt possible, but without any pretenses of sharing in major decisions. European leaders sought to be more involved. At the Europeans' urging, NATO even declared--invoking, for the first time, Article V of its founding treaty--that the attack on the United States represented an attack on every member. But even so, Washington bypassed and essentially marginalized the alliance. The United Nations was similarly sidelined.

The first weeks of the Afghanistan campaign against the Taliban went well--an outcome that didn't surprise anyone who has had the honor to exercise command over these magnificent outfits. But the early successes seem to have reinforced the conviction of some within the U.S. government that the continuing war against terrorism is best waged outside the structures of international institutions--that American leadership must be "unfettered". This is a fundamental misjudgment. The longer this war goes on--and by all accounts, it will go on for years--the more our success will depend on the willing cooperation and active participation of our allies to root out terrorist cells in Europe and Asia, to cut off funding and support of terrorists and to deal with Saddam Hussein and other threats. We are far more likely to gain the support we need by working through international institutions than outside of them. We've got a problem here: Because the Bush administration has thus far refused to engage our allies through NATO, we are fighting the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind our back.

All Together Now

That day at the Pentagon, the senior official and I never had the opportunity to complete the discussion. But it was clear that he had totally misread the lessons of the Kosovo campaign. NATO wasn't an obstacle to victory in Kosovo; it was the reason for our victory. For 78 days in the spring of 1999, the alliance battled to halt the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanians being carried out by the predominantly Serb troops and government of then-President Slobodan Milosevic. It was the first actual war NATO had fought in its 50-year history. Like the U.S. war in Afghanistan, it was predominantly an air campaign (though the threat of a ground attack, I believe, proved decisive). America provided the leadership, the target nominations, and almost all of the precision strikes. Still, it was very much a NATO war. Allied countries flew some 60 percent of the sorties. Because it was a NATO campaign, each bomb dropped represented a target that had been approved, at least in theory, by each of the alliance's 19 governments. …

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