DENVER – US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent prognosis of a “dim” and “dismal” future for NATO has triggered much debate, but it could well prove optimistic. June, it turns out, marks another milestone on the alliance’s uncertain path: its operation in Libya has now surpassed in length the one in Kosovo 12 years ago. After 78 days in 1999, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic gave up, while Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has yet to get the message – and may in fact be getting the wrong message.
For those of us who were engaged in the Kosovo crisis, the Libya intervention seems like déjà vu. In the skies of Serbia and Kosovo, NATO warplanes attacked target after target, not to support the liberation of territory or in furtherance of a strategic bombing campaign, but rather to change Milosevic’s mind. To be sure, denying Milosevic the means to engage in “ethnic cleansing” was added as a rationale in the days after the campaign began, but the real purpose was to convince him that he had to allow NATO forces into Kosovo. It was a classic strategy/policy mismatch.
No war is without its list of false assumptions, and the Kosovo campaign had its share. Perhaps the most important was the memorable – but erroneous – view that Milosevic would give up after a few days of bombing. Instead, like many a leader in such circumstances, he entered a bunker, both figuratively and literally, and stayed there with little communication. Meanwhile, NATO planners desperately sought to identify targets that would either deny him the means of ethnic cleansing, or, more often, encourage him to reconsider his position.
The intervention had its low points, perhaps none lower than the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, which was misidentified as a building that housed Serbian security assets – instruments of repression against Kosovo. There were also moments of great concern about whether the allies would be willing to stay the course as the days, weeks, and months passed, with no end in sight. Surely, those engaged in Libya today are feeling some of those same pressures.