Bombing Iraq Like It's 1999

01/30/2007 05:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a few months, Kosovo will make a bid for independence after eight years of UN governance. In light of the horrific failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war in Kosovo seems worlds away. However, it's worth looking back to American involvement in Kosovo to understand the deadly misconceptions that led to disaster in Iraq.

Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999 after a 70-day NATO bombing campaign designed to blunt Slobodan Milosevic's efforts to ethnically "cleanse" the province's ethnic Albanians. The province was then placed under UN authority and forgotten for the next eight years.

Despite the words of the first President Bush, it was Kosovo, not the Gulf War, which (temporarily) kicked the "Vietnam syndrome." The American-led NATO militarily imposed a political solution on a divided and unstable region, all with minimal losses and broad public support. For many, Kosovo is the best modern example of the positive use of American power.

The second Bush administration and its enablers exploited the unconscious collective memory of Kosovo to make his case for war in Iraq, predicting an easy and painless victory. This contention made sense to anyone who had witnessed NATO's precision-guided fireworks extravaganza over the skies of Belgrade. By incessantly reminding the public of Saddam Hussein's many crimes, Bush also tapped into the memory of Kosovo by casting his war as a humanitarian intervention. Even after Iraq descended in chaos following the invasion, the general public still held out hope for an Iraq free of "rape rooms and torture chambers," an Iraq very much like Kosovo.

Yet Kosovo and Iraq have nothing in common. Unlike Iraq, Kosovo was a relatively limited military operation, an air campaign focused on liberating a single province, not invading Serbia proper. NATO forces did not even set foot in Kosovo until Milosevic had capitulated. Kosovo was also not the unqualified military and nation-building success many believe it to be. NATO encountered problems roughly similar those faced by American soldiers in Iraq--a steep ethnic divide and determined enemies who were unfazed by high-tech weaponry.

After the Serbian withdrawal, the UN failed to protect the Serb minority from the vengeance of the ethnic Albanian majority. Today, Kosovo remains bitterly divided and plagued by continuing ethnic violence. Corruption and poverty are pervasive, and only the presence of international troops prevents a wider outbreak of violence. Even if the UN agrees to its request for independence, Kosovo will stay in a state of "supervised independence" for the foreseeable future. As a state it will have aspects of sovereignty, such as the ability to enter into international organizations and sign treaties, but ultimate authority will still rest with a European Union representative. Special EU police will also monitor Kosovo's justice system. It remains to be seen if Kosovo will ever become anything more than a ward of the international community.

Ultimately, NATO bombing did not annihilate Serbia's forces in Kosovo nor put an end to the ethnic cleansing. A post-conflict RAND briefing noted that the low-tech Serbian military used a number of clever tactics to confound the stronger, more technologically advanced NATO forces, including the use of shoulder-fired missiles and Cold War-era anti-air artillery to force NATO jets to bomb at higher altitudes with less accuracy. Serbs also employed McGuyver-esque improvised decoys to confound NATO radar and heat sensors, and concealed mobile troops under the cover of inclement weather and mountainous terrain.

Internal disagreements over strategy within NATO also contributed to the problem, but the embarrassing fact still remains that Serbian paramilitary thugs confounded the mighty NATO air force. In the end Milosevic capitulated due to the threat of losing power--either at the hands of elites angry at bombs falling on their assets or an expected NATO ground invasion.

Despite these troubling problems, the illusion of an unqualified success in Kosovo cemented in the minds of many the limitless superiority of American power. Bush's claims that brute American force could "secure and reconstruct" Iraq and Afghanistan evinced little skepticism, as conservative and centrist pundits had learned the "lessons" of Kosovo.

The real learning experience was the failed humanitarian nation-building mission in Somalia; a mob armed with cheap AK-47s, RPGs, and shoulder-fired missiles downed multimillion-dollar aircraft, killing 18 Americans in urban combat. The humiliating televised spectacle of a Third World militia standing up to the most powerful army in the world and desecrating its soldiers was the catalyst for American withdrawal from Somalia--and a harbinger of what was to come.

Whether one calls it "asymmetrical warfare," "fourth generation war," or "netwar," one thing is certain: the era of unquestioned American military power is over.

As defense intellectual Fred Charles Ikle notes in his recent study Annihilation from Within, technological power is diffusing from centralized states to decentralized non-state forces. Today, insurgents and terrorists destroy expensive military hardware with cheaply made explosives and shoulder-fired missiles, use the internet to rally public opinion, and carry out attacks that inflict massive human, financial, and psychological damage. With decentralized command structures, a reliance on open source (public domain) intelligence, and financing derived from illicit trade, terrorists and insurgents now stand on equal footing with even the most advanced militaries. As suicide bombs continue to wreak havoc in Baghdad markets, it has become clear that Kosovo was not the dawning of an age of quick, painless, and guilt-free war--it was its twilight.