Libyan conflict Kosovo war all over again

April 18, 2011 - 0:0

Militarily, NATO's campaign in Libya reminds me of its 1999 war in Kosovo.

Then, as now, there was a great rush to enter the conflict, largely because of media-driven claims of human rights abuses. A dozen years ago, the allegation was ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by bloodthirsty Serbs. In Libya today, it is threats by Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi to annihilate his enemies, live, as the world watches on CNN.
In Kosovo, claims of genocide proved false. After the war had ended, several attempts were made to find the mass graves of innocent Kosovars that the Serbs had purportedly filled with corpses. Nothing was ever found on the scale described prewar, when Western voters were being sold on the need to intervene.
Investigators from the European Union in particular scoured Kosovo's countryside in vain for years. United Nations prosecutors told their forensic investigators again and again to dip more, to find the bodies they were sure were there. But none showed up. In all, about 5,000 people were killed in the three-month war, but about equal numbers were killed by both sides.
I suspect something similar will be found in Libya years from now when the din of war permits sober analysis: Col. Gaddafi, as evil and cruel as he has been to stay in power for 41 years, was mostly engaging in bravado when he threatened to ""wipe out"" the rebels opposing his regime. The threat that prompted NATO's air war against Gaddafi and his forces was no more real than Kosovarian claims of crimes against humanity inflicted on them by Belgrade's forces.
But the greatest parallel between Kosovo and Libya is the feckless (and, therefore, largely useless) air campaign that is the strategic centerpiece of either war.
Before I go any further, I must confess: If before NATO began its aerial bombardments, you had asked me whether I was in favor of the West establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, I probably would have said yes, do it. But in hindsight that would have been the wrong answer.
I'll admit I was rooting for those Libyans seeking to free themselves from the clutches of a brutal strongman. Who doesn't cheer the freedom seeking underdog? But I forgot that many on the left have no clue how to run a war once they've begun one.
In the spring of 1999, NATO spent 79 days blowing up stuff in Kosovo and Serbia on the premise that enough big, loud explosions would frighten Serbia strongman Slobodan Milosevic into capitulating to Western demands that he free Kosovo.
For at least 69 of those 79 days, the bombing was ineffectual. This was mostly due to the NATO belief it was wrong to destroy land and public works during a war and the hopeless and arrogant prediction Milosevic would be persuaded to give up power by the mere awesomeness of NATO air power. Real war-making would not be needed to change his mind.
Bomb-damage assessments conducted after hostilities ceased, though, showed that for much of the war, the West was bombing barns, tractors and cattle. This might have worked had we been fighting the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture rather than the Ministry of Defense, but Milosevic and his cronies quickly figured out we weren't serious. They then correctly calculated that if they were prepared to sustain some damage -or, more correctly, let their people sustain the damage -they could retain power more or less indefinitely.
This is what Gaddafi has figured out, too: The West is a toothless tiger in this war.
We are not always unprepared to fight seriously. We are fighting very real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And part of us -the French -are fighting an actual war in Ivory Coast while at the same time helping with the phony war in Libya. Yet occasionally, when we don't want to look like Imperialists or bullies or Crusaders, we pull our punches in the hope our gleaming military might will win the day for us and we won't have to resort to total war.
There is a scene from the Kosovo campaign that more than any other typified what I came to believe about that war. On day 44 or 45, ordinary Serbs demonstrated in support of the Serbian president on a bridge over the Danube at night. The remarkable features -at least from a military point of view -were that the bridge was intact six weeks into a ""war"" and it was well illuminated by street lights that, obviously, were still drawing reliable electrical power.
The West wasn't serious about bringing Serbia to its knees. It was only in the air campaign's last 10 days that NATO began targeting power stations, refineries, rail lines, bridges and water treatment plants -facilities whose destruction would squeeze the Serbians and their government.
And the war was not won until NATO inserted troops on the ground.
If the West is now not prepared to blow up targets that matter to Col. Gaddafi and it is not prepared to send troops, then it is not serious enough to have rattled its saber in the first place.