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Balkans Special Report

  Joint Chiefs Doubted Air Strategy

Gen. Hugh Shelton,AP
Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenged the "domino theory" being pressed in interagency discussions. (AP)
By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 5, 1999; Page A1

In the weeks before NATO launched its air campaign against Yugoslavia, U.S. military chiefs expressed deep reservations about the Clinton administration's approach to Kosovo and warned that bombing alone likely would not achieve its political aims, according to sources familiar with their thinking.

The Pentagon's senior four-star officers, meeting in closed-door sessions in the Pentagon's secure "tank" room, argued that the administration should use more economic sanctions and other non-military levers to compel Belgrade to make peace in the rebellious Serbian province before resorting to airstrikes. They also complained about what they saw as the lack of a long-term vision for the Balkans and questioned whether U.S. national interests there were strong enough to merit a military confrontation.

"I don't think anybody felt like there had been a compelling argument made that all of this was in our national interest," said one senior officer knowledgeable about the deliberations.

Led by Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders challenged in particular the "domino theory" being pressed in interagency discussions by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. "Losing" Kosovo, she and her allies in the discussions maintained, would lead to wider destabilization in the Balkans that sooner or later would damage U.S. interests in Europe so better to act before it was too late.

Ultimately, the chiefs agreed unanimously last month to go along with airstrikes, embracing the administration's view that U.S. leadership in NATO had to be preserved and that the looming humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo had to be addressed, the sources said. But the earlier hesitations had been forwarded to President Clinton and his aides, and reports from the White House have said doubts from the military were weighed in the final decision to go to war.

"I think it's safe to say the Joint Chiefs had reservations," said a senior military officer with direct knowledge of their talks. "But you know, you make your case, and that's why we have civilian control over the military."

Twelve days into the bombing campaign, the military leaders remain doubtful that airstrikes alone can satisfy the larger political objectives put forward by Clinton and other NATO leaders: stopping the violence in Kosovo and driving Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic back to the bargaining table.

They fret that the American public was not adequately prepared to accept a prolonged air operation. But they have been frustrated, too, at the incremental progression of the bombing, which they blame not just on bad weather but also on the requirements of conducting war by consensus among all 19 NATO members.

The chiefs are understood to be wary of recommending ground forces, worried that this would evolve into yet another open-ended commitment of U.S. troops in a foreign trouble spot. At the same time, if a political decision were made to send ground units to combat Yugoslav troops, the service leaders have stressed that the force should be substantial.

"The feeling now is, if you're going to go with the ground option, let's not screw around, let's go with what needs to be done to get the job done," one general said. "This thing about incrementally approaching it and working our way up the ladder and hoping we can get just enough isn't going to do it."

The views of the Joint Chiefs were gleaned from conversations with several officers who know their thinking but declined to be named. In contrast to Shelton and his vice chairman, Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the service heads Army Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, Navy Adm. Jay Johnson, Air Force Gen. Michael Ryan and Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak do not participate in running the war day to day. But they continue to be consulted regularly on its course, and Shelton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen are supposed to relay the chiefs' views to Clinton and his national security advisers.

From the outset, the chiefs reportedly were skeptical of the rationale for U.S. military involvement in Kosovo. Having struggled for the past few years to get out of a NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, the commanders were reluctant to get involved in yet another ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

The argument that instability in Kosovo would snowball into chaos in such neighboring states as Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia and would engender a wider war in Europe struck the chiefs as overdrawn and a poor case for intervening. For the commanders, it carried uncomfortable echoes of the thinking that drew the United States into the ill-fated Vietnam War three decades ago.

The chiefs suggested pursuing other means, short of a military confrontation with Yugoslavia, to wall off the unrest in Kosovo. They urged more aggressive consideration of non-military measures to bring pressure on Yugoslavia tighter economic sanctions, for instance, or the international indictment of Milosevic for crimes against humanity in Bosnia.

"There were other tools that maybe just had not been exploited to the degree they could have been," said a senior officer, reflecting the view of the chiefs.

Asked about the commanders' doubts, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, Navy Capt. Steve Pietropaoli, said that none of the military leaders dissented when presented with the NATO strike plan. "They all agreed that the operation envisioned could achieve the articulated objective," he said.

By then, however, the military mission had been framed narrowly "to degrade Serbian capability to conduct repressive actions against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo." There was no specific requirement to halt the relentless Serb drive to push ethnic Albanians out of the province, nor was there a mandate to bomb Milosevic back to the bargaining table.

Still, the chiefs understood that the military campaign would be judged against these larger political objectives and, very likely, would fall short.

As the Clinton administration and other NATO governments geared up for action, the chiefs warned about the limitations of a campaign restricted to air power. They said Yugoslavia's notoriously foul weather this time of year, rugged terrain and extensive air defense network would complicate the strikes and raise the risks to pilots.

Some of their concerns emerged publicly at a March 18 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, at which the chiefs stressed the likelihood of U.S. casualties. Privately, even the staunchest advocates of air power among the four-star commanders doubted that airstrikes alone could do much to budge Milosevic in the near term. They noted the challenges of sending planes against widely dispersed ground forces that were carrying out door-to-door terror. They spoke about the difficulty of hitting Yugoslav troops and equipment without striking Albanian refugees mixed among them.

"The position of the chiefs was: There was no guarantee that air would do it," one general said. "There were people who felt they knew Milosevic, or knew him better than we knew him that the threat of bombing, or certainly bombing itself, would make him come to the table. But it just hasn't worked that way."

For all their skepticism about air power, the chiefs never gave serious consideration to sending in ground troops, at least not U.S. troops.

"There was no political consensus for it, either here in the United States or in NATO," one senior officer explained. "And the thinking was, if what's happening in Kosovo is more in the vital national interest of the Europeans, shouldn't they be the ones clamoring to put together a ground plan to go in."

Despite reports that NATO now is considering a ground force to establish a protectorate for hundreds of thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians, the U.S. chiefs have yet to review any specific plans for such an operation, the sources said. But the commanders have discussed the general proposition that U.S. ground units may eventually need to enter the fight as part of an expanded NATO force to help root out the tens of thousands of Yugoslav troops in Kosovo.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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