Banal and Dubious

Banal and Dubious

Mini Teaser: Pedestrian books can sometimes serve salutary purposes.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000) 246 pp., $23.

Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), 246 pp., $23.

Even bad books can serve salutary purposes. Unpacking the conventional wisdom of the day and expounding on it respectfully and at length, they unwittingly expose its defects. (Think of Frances FitzGerald on Vietnam, Jonathan Schell on nuclear war, or Paul Kennedy on American decline.) For such efforts, the conscientious student of world affairs, bending under a continuous assault of finely spun "news", may be grateful. The two books reviewed here offer a case in point. They are deeply flawed, but their defects imbue them with a certain estimable, if inadvertent, value. Offering two very different perspectives on Kosovo, they show the extent to which the prevailing understanding of this war that was not a war, fought for human rights and won by air power, is fraudulent.

Winning Ugly is a quintessential Washington think tank product: thoroughly researched, well organized, timely, judicious and utterly unoriginal. Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, situate the war for Kosovo in a framework identical to that advanced by the Clinton administration and NATO and then replay the arguments vented during the war by the administration's many critics. The authors offer the equivalent of one of those comprehensive recapitulation/critiques that the Washington Post or New York Times publishes a month or six weeks after a major crisis-except that Winning Ugly appears a year late and is a couple hundred pages too long.

The book's main argument is that "nato's cause was worthy but that the strategy it chose to pursue that cause was deeply flawed." The flaws for which the authors take NATO and the United States to task include the following: a tendency to issue threats without the means or the will to back them up; a preference for political expediency over military efficacy, manifested above all in the decision to renounce a ground option at the outset of the conflict; a theory of "coercive diplomacy" based on the employment of air power largely for demonstrative purposes; and the inexplicable failure to have on hand a robust "Plan B" when expectations that "a bit of bombing would do the trick" proved mistaken.

Fair enough. But when Messrs. Daalder and O'Hanlon venture beyond the obvious, the results are either banal or highly dubious. A concluding chapter that purports to identify the larger "lessons" of Kosovo, for example, includes the pronouncement that, "When force is used, military means must relate to political ends." Or this: "Airpower alone usually cannot stop the killing in civil wars." Amen.

Other observations inspire less confidence. As a principle of generalship seemingly derived from the Robert McNamara-McGeorge Bundy school of war studies, Daalder and O'Hanlon urge that "when using military power, one must be prepared for things to go wrong and be ready to escalate." Alternatively, when things go wrong, one might want to think. Similarly, the authors conclude from the experience of Kosovo that, "Interventions should occur as early as possible." Yet might it not at times be the better part of wisdom to forgo intervention altogether?

That, it turns out, is the authors' worst fear. At the close of a decade in which the United States intervened twice in the Balkans, and with the use of force elsewhere occurring with such frequency that it barely qualifies as newsworthy, Daalder and O'Hanlon detect worrisome signs of resurgent American isolationism. The great danger they see looming on the horizon is the bugaboo of "American disengagement."

Portraying Kosovo as a success in which "the world's greatest alliance in history . . . proved its capabilities and its continuing relevance" just might help keep the benighted forces of isolationism at bay. Yet making that case obliges the authors to ignore a multitude of larger questions posed by facts scattered throughout their own narrative. For instance, they note that:

Alliance cohesion was maintained only by adhering to a lowest common denominator military strategy. As a result, prevailing over a puny, but moderately obstinate adversary became a near thing. Question: When it comes to "out of area" responsibilities, what are the practical limits of NATO's capabilities? How many more Kosovos is the alliance capable of fighting?

NATO prevailed not by destroying Yugoslav military power-the bombing of Serb forces in the field was ineffective-but by attacking TV stations, refineries and power plants, along with "cigarette factories, fertilizer plants, and chemical industries"-in essence, making war on Serb civilians. Question: Given the availability within NATO of alternative military means, what is the moral justification of such a bombing campaign?

An action initiated to defend the principle and the possibility of multi-ethnic democracy concluded with NATO and the United States presiding over a process of reverse ethnic cleansing and partition, creating the likelihood that Kosovo "will one day be independent." Question: What are the implications of this outcome for the aspirations and legitimacy of other separatist movements in Europe and elsewhere in the world?

The death toll resulting from Milosevic's campaign of repression against Kosovar Albanians was "far less than those of about two dozen civil wars around the world in the 1990s." Question: According to what criteria do the United States and its allies determine that some humanitarian catastrophes demand attention, while others-usually involving people of color-go unattended?

Authors rightly claim the prerogative of choosing to write about matters that interest them. These particular questions apparently do not interest the authors of Winning Ugly. Yet it should be noted that only by ignoring such concerns can Daalder and O'Hanlon prop up the fable that Kosovo somehow "demonstrated that Western peoples . . . care enough about suffering in the world to support efforts to reduce or end it."

The list of titles involving the high-tech term of art "virtual" is nearly endless: Virtual History, Virtual Learning, Virtual Leadership, not to mention the titles pairing that term with College, Government, Selling, Faith, Light, Teams, Equality, Addiction, Vandals, even Tibet. Now Michael Ignatieff, a London-based journalist, offers us Virtual War. What exactly does he mean?

Ignatieff professes to find the war for Kosovo not so much ugly as baffling. His interpretation relies less on comprehensive research than on one reporter's anguished personal impressions. Virtual War consists of a series of loosely related and uneven essays capped by an angst-laden if muddled conclusion. Ignatieff travels with diplomats attempting gallantly but futilely to avert conflict. He interviews and takes stock of the commander who wages it. He debates a prominent Western opponent of the war and exchanges phone calls and emails with Serb friends actually enduring NATO's bombing. And in Kosovo itself he trails behind an international magistrate who visits the site of a gruesome massacre and vows to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Putting all these impressions together, Ignatieff finds that Kosovo qualifies as the "first postmodern war in history." Everything about the conflict strikes him as novel and at least slightly surreal. Ignatieff prefaces his work with a quotation from General Wesley K. Clark, the NATO commander: "This was not", remarks Clark in connection to the hostilities, "strictly speaking, a war."

Of course, Clark's assessment is not, strictly speaking, accurate. Kosovo was not a war only in the sense that Korea was not a war: the president of the United States could not bring himself to acknowledge it as such. But Clark's comment serves Ignatieff's purposes nicely.

A virtual war, writes Ignatieff, is one in which events are perfectly transparent and in which spectacle trumps reality-to observers it is more akin to a sporting event than a serious armed struggle. In such a conflict, one side exploits its technological edge to attack with impunity. Preserving the lives of one's military professionals is the paramount operational priority-even if that means sacrificing "enemy" civilians. Since it is a contest in which image matters more than truth, virtual war is fought in large part to win the hearts and minds of the journalists who portray events to the general public. Himself a member of the media in good standing, Ignatieff reaches the self-gratifying conclusion that in such wars "the media becomes the decisive theater of operations."

Yet Ignatieff's war appears unreal only because his perspective is skewed. As it is, much of what he reveals suggests, inter alia, that there was precious little about the battle for Kosovo that was, in fact, "virtual." The victims of Serb atrocities did not think so. Nor did the Yugoslav forces who did Milosevic's bidding or the Kosovar Albanian guerrillas who resisted them. Nor did the citizens of Belgrade, despite Ignatieff's bizarre assertion that getting killed by precision weaponry "has a peculiar unreality even to its victims." How about the airmen flying strike missions against Belgrade? Ignatieff does not record their experience. The only NATO soldier he observes in action is Clark, who fought the war from behind a desk in Belgium.

Ignatieff supported NATO's intervention in Kosovo as a moral imperative. After the fact, he professes to be troubled-and rightly so-by the "disconnection between the high moral language of the cause and the limited character of the war itself." He probes the wreckage left in the war's wake-the un ignored, constitutional processes subverted by "linguistic subterfuge", vast suffering inflicted and absorbed, and an outcome in Kosovo not of justice but of revenge. As a result, he finds himself entertaining second thoughts.

Ignatieff wants enlightened members of the "international community" to use their power-mostly that means American power-to put a stop to evil. But to satisfy his desire to right the world's wrongs, ends and means command equal attention. Not only must well-intentioned nations be willing to fight for righteous causes; they must conduct the war in a way that is itself morally satisfying. This is a tall order.

Sensing that technology itself does not guarantee moral conduct in war, Ignatieff worries that virtual war "is a dangerous illusion." If anything, he writes, in high-tech warfare "the means we select may betray our ends." This is especially the case when the interests at stake are less than vital and where the notion of actually dying in battle "has become implausible or ironic." He notes correctly that, in the case of Operation Allied Force, "military superiority, rather than conscience alone, dictated restraint" and preserved Serbia from more severe punishment. Indeed, the record shows clearly that as NATO's frustration grew, restraint diminished.

Ignatieff consoles himself with the expectation that the technological edge (again, mostly American) that today makes virtual war possible cannot be sustained. As adversaries acquire comparable capabilities, virtual war will become a thing of the past. Ignatieff welcomes that prospect since it promises the return of "real" war. "Only then can we get our hands dirty", he concludes. "Only then can we do what is right." Who is the "we" that will fight and die to do the right thing in the morally acceptable way? Ignatieff breaks off his account without engaging this question.

That aside, there is considerable irony here. It has been, after all, confidence in the transforming potential of advanced technology that has inspired the Clinton administration to discover myriad new uses for American military power, always with the expectation of minimal costs, whether political or moral. Kosovo proves that expectation false, says Michael Ignatieff, quite correctly. But in imagining that a level technological battlefield will magically eliminate the sort of complications that Kosovo revealed, he falls prey to his own brand of nonsense. The chief obstacle separating us from utopia is not technology, but the intractable nature of politics and of humanity itself. To imagine otherwise is pure fantasy-not virtual, but real.

Essay Types: Book Review