Antidotal
A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Monday, September 15, 2003
 
CLARK AND PRISTINA AIRFIELD: I'm disappointed to note that Katrina vanden Heuvel decided to introduce her Nation audience to the hyperbolic allegation that Wesley Clark advocated a dangerous assault on a small group of Russian forces who broke an agreement with NATO by unilaterally occupying Pristina Airfield just after the conclusion of the Kosovo conflict. With all due respect to vanden Heuvel (and I have a lot--there's a reason she's on the blogroll), she seems to be missing crucial elements of the context and as a result has gotten the timeline of the incident wrong. I don't blame Ms. vanden Heuvel personally, as the version of the story she presents in her article has been repeated by many respectable journalists who should also know better. This reason this version gets more play not because it fits the facts, but because it fits Gen. Jackson's infamous quote in his confrontation with Clark, which is evocative mainly because it contains the phrase "World War III."

Unfortunately, this more dramatic account mixes up the order of the events and can only be plausible to people who are largely unaware of the context. Although the West was indeed shocked that the Russians occupied Pristina Airfield, the Russians could not have simply dashed into the airport out of nowhere on June 12. Instead, NATO noticed early on June 11 that something might be up when a Russian battalion with the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia had left its positions on June 10 and was headed toward Serbia. As NATO's political leadership had already been well aware that the Russians were unhappy with how the political negotiations were happening and that some members of their military were advocating moving unilaterally into Kosovo, these movements prompted NATO to began considering a variety of responses to the Russians' troop movements.

As such, Clark received authorization from NATO chief Javier Solana as well as U.S. Joint Chiefs Vice-Chair Joe Ralston to devise a plan to occupy the airfield in advance of the Russians' arrival. However, the planning was shelved because the politicians ended up believing Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's assurances that the battalion would stop at the Serbian border--including a promise he had personally given Madeleine Albright that morning. It remains unclear to this day as to whether Ivanov was lying or outside of the loop. Meanwhile, Russia's diplomatic struggle to obtain overflight rights from Hungary and the Ukrane had already begun and they ended up losing to NATO. So the Hungarians' denial of overflight rights was already in effect before the Russians were in place at the airfield (see The Kosovo Conflict: A Diplomatic History Through Documents for Albright's June 11 statement about Ivanov's promise and other official pronouncements).

When the Russians actually occupied the airfield on June 12, NATO initially wanted to place troops and armored carriers on part of it to block it--not to storm it--because there was a relatively low risk of a confrontation at the airfield--which was large and occupied by only a token force--whereas there might be a very serious risk if the Russians decided to force their way through Hungarian airspace. Then the Hungarians and NATO would be faced with deciding whether to shoot down Russian transports. Much better, Solana and U.S. leaders had reasoned, to avert such a grave situation by making it impossible to land Russian reinforcements in Kosovo. As SACEUR, Clark's job was to develop and implement this plan. However, because NATO is an alliance that work on consensus, every nation possesses a de facto veto over how its troops can be used (also known as a "red card"). In this case, the bulk of the available forces were British, and Jackson decided that he disagreed strongly enough with the policy that he wanted to exercise London's veto. When the two generals consulted their political masters, Washington reversed course--probably more as a result of a desire to placate London and the rest of NATO than out of a fear of provoking Moscow.

Who was ultimately correct here? You might argue that Jackson was correct because they ended up resolving the situation diplomatically without needing the particular operation Clark had ordered. But we have empirical evidence that nothing close to a serious confrontation would have occurred had Clark's orders gone through: several days later, with the situation at Pristina still pretty much the same, both Clark and Jackson authorized French and British units to take positions at the airport. The troops got there. The Russians denied them access. Everyone stood around and radioed back to their commanders for further instruction. Then the NATO units left. Lo and behold, no one got shot. No massive diplomatic crisis. No World Wars began.

Whether the Pristina Airfield story repeated by right-wing Clinton/Clark haters, extreme leftists who still insist that Milosevic was a just and democratic leader, or mainstream journalists eager to present a dramatic story but unwilling to do the legwork to check the facts, it's clear that the only reason it has any legs is because of Jackson's pithy but entirely hyperbolic quote. I was heartened to see that Ms. vanden Heuvel at least made reference to Clark's side of the story, but given what we know about the actual history of situation, her choice to give the dramatic but implausible alternative top billing is surely incorrect. Furthermore, I am perplexed that she would use this incident to characterize Clark as someone who needs learn how to build alliances rather than risk showdowns. Considering that Clark's well-known support for NATO and international institutions have grounded his consistent and thoroughgoing critique of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, and have made him a target for conservatives, vanden Heuvel's angle of attack seems very odd indeed.

I can only assume that vanden Heuvel hasn't been following Clark closely and isn't aware of his foreign affairs positions, and is simply running with a meme that The Nation picked up along with its general opposition to the Kosovo intervention. The Nation is a publication that has an honorable history, and I have confidence that it and its normally very capable editor will have the integrity to investigate both Clark and this story a little deeper and to develop positions that have a better grounding in the facts.