It was not clear as of the writing of this column what, precisely, was at hand in Kosovo. But assume that the deal wrought in Belgrade holds: that the devil is exorcised from the details; that the forces of Slobodan Milosevic will be expelled from Kosovo; that the wretched masses whom Milosevic expelled will be allowed and persuaded to return; and that a NATO-led army will be installed. What are we to make of this? Is this a great victory?
It is helpful to begin by recalling the purpose of the war, as defined by President Clinton in his speech on March 24: "Our mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose so that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of reversing course; to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo; and, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo."
So, the settlement on the table, if executed, can be seen as a half-victory: NATO will have succeeded in demonstrating the seriousness of its purpose and in causing the Serbian leaders to reverse course, and it will have seriously damaged the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo (or, for that matter, any people).
These accomplishments are not nothing; the Clinton administration and its NATO allies deserve credit for understanding that force was required to change the facts in Kosovo, and for maintaining the application of force in the face of savage and increasing criticism. Moreover, it appears the administration will be proved qualifiedly right on a fundamental question: Could attacks from the air, absent NATO troops on the ground, force a Serb surrender? Yes -- sort of. In the end, it required KLA troops on the ground to make up for those NATO would not send.
But did NATO "deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo?" No. Indeed, it may be argued that NATO, in effect, acted as if it had to burn down Kosovo to save it.
Milosevic took advantage of the air attack against him, and of NATO's concomitant promise to abstain from a ground assault, to launch "an even bloodier offensive." On the day the deal was struck, the butcher's bill in Kosovo stood as follows: 850,000 homeless, abused, destitute refugees had been driven out of the province, with up to another 600,000 displaced internally; an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 (and possibly many more) Kosovar Albanians had been killed by Serb forces, with summary executions reported in at least 70 towns and villages; some 500 Albanian communities had been put to the torch.
Serbs, including many innocent civilians, also suffered greatly at the hands of the righteous warriors of the West. NATO estimates that its bombing has killed at least 5,000 Yugoslavian soldiers and wounded more than 10,000. The inadvertent bombing of civilian targets -- NATO has acknowledged accidentally killing civilians in at least 12 attacks -- has claimed 240 civilians. One estimate of the carnage caused by NATO's bombs places the total number of civilian dead, including Kosovar Albanians, at 1,200. And the bombing has devastated the economic and physical infrastructure of Yugoslavia, guaranteeing years of continued hardship.
These sufferings were in part the result of failures by the planners and politicians of the West. The war over Kosovo did not turn out as expected. It was expected that a limited campaign of high-altitude bombing alone would quickly force Milosevic to back down; wrong. It was expected that Milosevic, under bombing, would not be able to marshal his forces to such terrible swift effect in Kosovo. Wrong again.
Facing evidence of these wrongs, the White House and NATO persisted in them. Only after many weeks -- weeks in which the Serbs largely completed the bloody sweep of Kosovo -- did NATO intensify the bombing to the point where it began to really hurt the Serb military. And even then, the world's most powerful military alliance maintained its refusal to contemplate a ground invasion, or even to fly its warplanes at lower, more effective, altitudes. Too risky for our trained professionals.
These decisions were mistakes of the mind but also of the soul; not only strategic miscalculations but moral. Because the political leaders of NATO feared the political cost that might accrue from the deaths of even a very few of the warriors of their nations, they designed, and persisted in, a war whose manner of execution perpetuated a great deal of preventable devastation and death among the innocents abroad. This is not nothing either.
A New York Times article this week reported an unnamed NATO senior official as saying the alliance had stuck together by stumbling forward rather than by smart decision-making. That seems about right. Stumbling forward is better than falling down, but it isn't anything to boast about either.
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.