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. Much of my time as allied commander was spent with various European defense officials, walking them through proposed targets and the reasoning behind them. Sometimes there were disagreements and occasionally we had to modify those lists to take into account the different countries’ political concerns and military judgements. For all of us involved–the president, secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and me–it was a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process. But in the end, this was the decisive process for success, because whatever we lost in theoretical military effectiveness we gained manyfold in actual strategic impact by having every NATO nation on board.
NATO itself acted as a consensus engine for its members. Because it acts on the basis of such broad agreement, every decision is an opportunity for members to dissent–therefore, every decision generates pressure to agree. Greece, for example, never opposed a NATO action, though its electorate strongly opposed the war and the Greek government tried in other ways to maintain an acceptable “distance” from NATO military actions. This process evokes leadership from the stronger states and pulls the others along.
Of course, this wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of the participants. For U.S. leaders during the war, it meant continuing dialogue, frictions, and occasional hard exchanges with some allies to get them on board. For some European leaders, the experience must have been the reverse: a continuing pressure from the United States to approve actions–to strike targets–that would generate domestic criticism at home. There was no escaping the fact that this was every government’s war, that they were intrinsically part of the operation, and each was, ultimately, liable to be held accountable by its voters for the outcome.
In the darkest days before the NATO 50th anniversary summit in late April in Washington, British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to our headquarters in Belgium on very short notice. To be honest, it wasn’t altogether clear why he was coming. But as he and I sat alone in my office, it quickly became apparent. “Are we going to win?” he asked me. “Will we win with an air campaign alone? Will you get ground troops if you need them?” Blair made it very clear that the future of every government in Western Europe, including his own, depended on a successful outcome of the war. Therefore, he was going to do everything it took to succeed. No stopping halfway. No halfheartedness.
That was the real lesson of the Kosovo campaign at the highest level: NATO worked. It held political leaders accountable to their electorates. It made an American-dominated effort essentially their effort. It made an American-led success their success. And, because an American-led failure would have been their failure, these leaders became determined to prevail. NATO not only generated consensus, it also generated an incredible capacity to alter public perceptions, enabling countries with even minimal capacities to participate collectively in the war. As one minister of defense told me afterwards, “Before Kosovo, you couldn’t use the word ‘war’ in my country. War meant defeat, destruction, death, and occupation. Now it is different. We have won one!”
Milosevic was hoping the alliance would crack and the bombing campaign would fall apart. Instead, NATO’s determination increased over time and the bombing intensified. He was hoping that neighboring countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, would not cooperate with the West, and indeed, large majorities of their citizens initially opposed the war. But the power of NATO extended even to these countries, which at that point were non-members. We simply made clear to their leaders that if they wanted to be considered for eventual membership in NATO–and they did, very much–then they’d have to help us against Milosevic, which they did, quickly. Faced with this remarkable unity of effort and determination, even the Russians, who strongly sympathized with the Serbs, also abandoned Milosevic in the end.
Other international institutions helped us tighten the noose. The United States acted under the authority of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1199, passed in the autumn of 1998, and authorizing all available means to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo–language which helped give our military intervention international legal and moral authority. The threat against Milosevic of war criminal charges was additional leverage. When the International Criminal Tribunal indicted Milosevic for war crimes on May 25, 1999, the resolve of our European allies notably stiffened–a fact that today’s domestic opponents of the international court should keep in mind.
In the end, NATO achieved every one of its aims. With the air war intensifying, a ground invasion being prepared, and no other country to turn to for help, Milosevic in early June pulled his troops, police, and weaponry out of Kosovo. A NATO-led international peacekeeping force entered to establish order. Nearly a million Kosovars returned to their homes. Weakened by his defeat, Milosevic lost an election he had tried to rig in his favor. When he still refused to cede power, a student-led uprising did the job for him. Milosevic is now behind bars at The Hague and is being tried as a war criminal. Though Serbia and Kosovo are still struggling with the aftermath of ethnic conflict and autocratic leadership, they are now governed by democratically elected leaders eager for good relations with the West. All this was achieved at a remarkably slight cost, minimal destruction on the ground, no NATO casualties, and relatively few civilian deaths despite the use of some 23,000 bombs and missiles.
What caused this outcome was not just the weapons of war. Forces far beyond the bombs and bullets were at work: the weight of international diplomacy; the impact of international law; and the “consensus-engine” of NATO, which kept all the Allies in the fight. The lesson of Kosovo is that international institutions and alliances are really another form of power. They have their limitations and can require a lot of maintenance. But used effectively, they can be strategically decisive.
Bin Laden, War Criminal
The Kosovo campaign suggests alternatives in waging and winning the struggle against terrorism: greater reliance on diplomacy and law and relatively less on the military alone. Soon after September 11, without surrendering our right of self defense, we should have helped the United Nations create an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism. We could have taken advantage of the outpourings of shock, grief, and sympathy to forge a legal definition of terrorism and obtain the indictment of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as war criminals charged with crimes against humanity. Had we done so, I believe we would have had greater legitimacy and won stronger support in the Islamic world. We could have used the increased legitimacy to raise pressure on Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off fully the moral, religious, intellectual, and financial support to terrorism. We could have used such legitimacy to strengthen the international coalition against Saddam Hussein. Or to encourage our European allies and others to condemn more strongly the use of terror against Israel and bring peace to that region. Reliance on a compelling U.N. indictment might have given us the edge in legitimacy throughout much of the Islamic world that no amount of “strategic information” and spin control can provide. On a purely practical level, we might have avoided the embarrassing arguments during the encirclement of Kandahar in early December 2001, when the appointed Afghan leader wanted to offer the Taliban leader amnesty, asking what law he had broken, while the United States insisted that none should be granted. We might have avoided the continuing difficulties of maintaining hundreds of prisoners in a legal no-man’s land at Guantanamo Bay, which has undercut U.S. legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world.
Instead of cutting NATO out, we should have prosecuted the Afghan campaign with NATO, as we did in Kosovo. Of course, it would have been difficult to involve our allies early on, when we ourselves didn’t know what we wanted to do, or how to achieve it. The dialogue and discussions would have been vexing. But in the end, we could have kept NATO involved without surrendering to others the design of the campaign. We could have simply phased the operation and turned over what had begun as a U.S.-only effort to a NATO mission, under U.S. leadership.
Even winning European approval of the air campaign need not have proved troublesome. The most serious difficulties we had in garnering European support for the Kosovo air campaign concerned bombing the so-called “dual-use” targets: bridges, power stations, TV towers, and government buildings in Belgrade. The United States believed such attacks were crucial to breaking Milosevic’s ability to wage war. The Europeans, deeply concerned about potential civilian casualties, preferred to hit Yugoslav military targets in Kosovo. In the end, we bombed both. But a similar disagreement in Afghanistan between the United States and Europeans would have been highly unlikely, for the simple reason that the American bombing campaign focused exclusively on military targets. The United States concentrated its firepower on Taliban and al Qaeda troops, hideouts, and weapons stores–precisely the kinds of targets the Europeans were most likely to have approved.
Sleepers in Seattle
NATO involvement would probably not have hastened our victory in Afghanistan. But had the Afghan campaign been waged with NATO, I believe we would have been in a stronger position to stay the course in Afghanistan and prosecute the coming stages of the war.
As the president himself has warned, the struggle against terror requires far more than exclusively military actions. Indeed, as time goes on, the most important aspect of the war may be in law enforcement and judicial activities. Much of the terrorist network draws support and resources from within countries friendly or allied with us. Terrorists residing in Western Europe planned the September 11 attack, and the greatest concentration of their “sleeper cells” outside the Middle East is probably in Europe. Yet this is a threat that the American military can do little to combat. What we really need is closer alignment of our police and judicial activities with our friends and allies: greater cooperation in joint police investigations, sharing of evidence, harmonious evidentiary standards and procedures, as well as common definitions of crimes associated with terrorism. Through greater legal, judicial, and police coordination, we need to make the international environment more seamless for us than it is for the international terrorists we seek.
U.S. officials inevitably say that they are getting “good cooperation” from their European counterparts. They say the same, however, about countries like Saudi Arabia, where we know cooperation is minimal at best. Even with the limited information publicly available, it’s clear that the police and judicial measures taken to detect, identify, track, detain, interrogate, arrest, charge, convict, and punish terrorists and their accomplices within friendly countries have thus far been less than fully successful. Since last fall, European governments have arrested, then released, numerous suspected terrorists whom the U.S. government would undoubtedly have preferred to see kept behind bars. In April, for instance, Spanish police arrested a Syrian-born al Qaeda suspect, but let him go, citing a lack of evidence. Yet, at the time of his arrest, he had in his possession hours of videotape of the World Trade Center from every conceivable angle, plus similar surveillance images of other planned al Qaeda targets such as Disney World. Fortunately, the Spanish police rearrested the man in July. But that same month, British courts released an Egyptian wanted in the United States for allegedly aiding a top terrorist leader.
The full cooperation we seek is unlikely without an overall consensus-building mechanism, like NATO, to drive the process. It is hard enough getting the CIA and FBI to share information, even when both answer (in theory) to the president and Congress. Imagine how difficult it is to get cooperation among various U.S. agencies and their counterparts working bilaterally with 20 different European countries, when each agency is competing with others.
The longer the war goes on, the more we are going to need cooperation and support from other nations–not just troops and ships and airplanes, but whole-hearted governmental collaboration. Instead, we seem to be getting less as time goes on. After September 11, the United States gave the United Nations a list of groups and individuals suspected of funding terrorists. European governments responded by freezing their assets. In the spring, the U.S. government provided an updated list with new names. This time, most European governments ignored the list, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing concern that the United States was providing insufficient recourse for those who claim they are innocent.
Last fall, all of Europe understood that the attacks of September 11 had been planned on European soil, that European targets were on the terrorists’ lists, and that Europeans by the hundreds died in the World Trade Center. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder braved a no-confidence vote to win approval for German combat troops to be made available for Afghanistan. Even the French, long openly resentful of American power, expressed solidarity with us. Today, that support is being replaced by growing popular anger at the United States. Instead of focusing on the threat of terrorism, Europeans are focusing on the dangers of American hegemony. Their leaders are free to play to these fears because, without NATO involvement, the war is not seen as theirs, but ours. Not a single European election hinges on the success of the war on terrorism. As a consequence, European elected officials simply don’t have a personal stake in the outcome.
Some Americans seem to take a certain delight in Europe’s outrage. But the fact is that this outrage is undermining our ability to carry out the next stages of the war, including, perhaps, toppling Saddam Hussein. We don’t necessarily need Europe’s full military support for a war against Saddam. But we need its diplomatic support now and its assistance in the aftermath. Without this support, others will have an excuse for not cooperating. This has already begun to happen. King Abdullah of Jordan recently explained to The Washington Post why his country, which borders Iraq, could not be used as a staging area for a U.S. invasion force: “If it seems America wants to hit Baghdad, that’s not what Jordanians think, or the British, [or] the French . . . ”
Right Makes Might
It’s still not too late to enlist NATO in the fight against terrorism–to handle peacekeeping duties in an increasingly chaotic Afghanistan, to deepen its involvement in the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to host the harmonization of judicial and law-enforcement activities. If there is to be a military operation against Iraq, then certainly NATO participation should be sought. Involving NATO more directly and deeply would give European leaders a personal political stake in the war. In particular, bringing NATO into an expanded peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan would go a long way toward convincing the Europeans that the United States is serious about stability in post-war Iraq or other post-conflict situations. That NATO framework can be expanded at the military level to encompass countries that do not belong to NATO, just as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo.
In the twilight of World War II we recognized the need for allies. We understood the need to prevent conflict, not just fight it, and we affirmed the idea that we must banish from the world what President Harry Truman, addressing the founding of the United Nations, called “the fundamental philosophy of our enemies, namely, that ‘might makes right.’” Truman went on to say that we must “prove by our acts that right makes might.” Since September 11, America has been in a similar position: the most powerful nation in the world, but facing a deadly enemy. The United States has the opportunity to use the power of the international institutions it established to triumph over terrorists who threaten not just the United States, but the world. What a tragedy it will be if we walk away from our own efforts, and from 60 years of post-World War II experience, to tackle the problem of terror without using fully the instruments of international law and persuasion that we ourselves created.