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Knee deep in the big muddy

International | "If I were president of the United States and I wanted to start World War III, I would do exactly as this president has done [in Yugoslavia]." That is the stark assessment of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the few elected officials to oppose the NATO war. Sen. Inhofe, just back from a trip to visit American troops, says the debate over ground forces is over. The question is no longer whether, he says, but when.

Issue: "Columbine: Teenage martyr," May 8, 1999

From the beginning, Western leaders have framed the war in Yugoslavia in Nintendo-like, air-war-only terms; they have downplayed the prospect of committing ground troops in the conflict over Kosovo. But last week ground-war gossip reached a fever pitch during the NATO summit in Washington. Behind closed doors, frustrated that Yugoslav leaders were still not blinking after a relentless month of air attacks, NATO leaders were discussing ways to "update strategy." As British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, "We must assess all options." By the end of the meeting, all the options seemed to come down to one: ground troops. Alliance members also agreed to enforce an oil embargo on Mr. Milosevic with a naval blockade, if necessary. When Russian officials, who boycotted the NATO ceremonies, replied that they would continue to ship oil to Yugoslavia, the prospect of a confrontation on the high seas with Russia emerged. "For all practical purposes, the debate about ground troops is over," said Sen. James Inhofe, an opponent of the NATO deployment. The Oklahoma Republican, just after returning from a trip to Albania to visit American soldiers, told WORLD that his predictions about a long war in Yugoslavia seem to be coming true. Given the escalation by NATO forces since this campaign began, the signs of imminent ground-force deployment are everywhere:

  • When the White House first agreed to provide Apache helicopter units to the NATO war effort, the number of troops accompanying them was to be just over 2,000, still far more than normally accompanies an attack helicopter battalion. When the last of the 24 Apaches arrived in Albania in late April, U.S. troops attached to that operation numbered 5,300.
  • Two weeks ago, President Clinton called for $6 billion in emergency appropriations to cover U.S. costs in the operation. By the time the bill came up for consideration last week, lawmakers and the White House had kicked the appropriation up to $12.9 billion.
  • Reserves are being readied. The president put into motion last month an order that could activate up to 33,000 National Guard and other reservists. Pentagon officials, who began calling up reservists last week, acknowledged last week also that Special Forces units-dedicated to search and rescue and surveillance-are already in place in the region.
  • In a little-noticed executive order last month, President Clinton declared Albania and other areas surrounding Kosovo an official "combat zone" for pay purposes. The designation means that any U.S. service member deployed in the region receives "imminent danger pay" of $150 per month above usual compensation, along with combat-zone tax exclusions. The designation includes land, sea, and air forces.
  • The forces attached to the U.S. Army combat units of Apache helicopters include land-based Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple launch rocket systems, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, and the support troops. An Apache crash in Albania on April 26 highlighted the risks of the new deployment. The crash occurred during a training mission near Tirana, the capital, and two pilots were evacuated to a mobile army hospital. Despite the risks, if ground forces are the only way to successfully conclude the operation, why not use them? That is the argument of many hawks, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who wants Congress specifically to authorize widening the war. Mr. McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, says the restricted air campaign and repeated declarations by Mr. Clinton that NATO would not deploy ground troops show "willful ignorance of every lesson we learned in Vietnam." Not all with hawkish tendencies agree with a key McCain presupposition: "The war against Serbia is necessary, and winning the war against Serbia is necessary as well." Mr. Inhofe, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on military readiness, unambiguously disagrees. "I have come to the conclusion that the strategic interests of our country are not there," he told WORLD. "We have no more strategic interest there than Europeans have in Haiti." He also believes the broadening war in the Balkans threatens key military operations against our "real enemies"-primarily Iraq and North Korea-at a time when U.S. force strength is half its level at the outset of the Persian Gulf War. "When people realize how thin we are right now, and then we have a contingency where we have serious strategic interests and we are unable to respond, then it is too late. My job on the committee is to make sure we do not get to the position where it is too late." Under present circumstances, U.S. commanders in Germany tell Mr. Inhofe, support units remaining after a ground force was deployed to the Balkans could not mobilize for a ground assault in Iraq, nor could they protect the 36,000 American troops in South Korea. Unlike most members of Congress, Mr. Inhofe closed his Capitol Hill office during the NATO summit. Rather than toast NATO officials in Washington or Brussels, he visited the newly arrived Apache helicopter battalions in Albania. In doing so, the senator pointedly boycotted an official NATO trip for lawmakers, after learning it would include only visits to NATO headquarters and consultation with NATO heads, rather than an opportunity to see the widening war up close. Mr. Inhofe instead accompanied a C-17 cargo sortie from a U.S. base in Germany to the newly minted U.S. posts in Albania. There, he said, he found soldiers "up to their knees in mud" as the last of the armored vehicle units was unloaded. Mr. Inhofe told WORLD: "If the Serbs sent in one mortar in the middle of our troops in that tent city-which they have the capacity to do-there is nothing there to protect them, no infrastructure," he said. Of perhaps greater concern, according to Mr. Inhofe, are reports he received from military sources in Germany that targets in Yugoslavia are being chosen, in effect, "by committee," including officials in Brussels and at the White House, rather than following a traditional command structure, as in the Persian Gulf War. "If I were president of the United States and I wanted to start World War III, I would do exactly as this president has done," said Mr. Inhofe. "This is how WWI started-the powers of the day took sides in a civil war. We are pushing Russia.... And of course our natural enemies are out there too." Some Republican presidential candidates are raising questions. "Is it in America's vital national security interest to be involved in a civil war in Yugoslavia?" asked former Vice President Dan Quayle on CNN's Crossfire. "I would say the answer to that question is no." Sen. Robert Smith and Pat Buchanan also oppose the mission outright, while Rep. John Kasich says he wants to give diplomacy another chance. Steve Forbes is against sending ground troops, but he and Lamar Alexander say NATO should arm and train Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. The objections of the skeptics, however, have gained little traction so far. Dovish members of Congress, mostly Democrats who under other circumstances would oppose military intervention in a sovereign nation that had not attacked the United States, are strangely silent. "Democrats are not opposed because they will not oppose Bill Clinton," ventured Mr. Inhofe. They have also long campaigned to use military might for humanitarian purposes-a key to Mr. Clinton's long-term strategy in the Balkans. Character counts here, as elsewhere. "People are petrified of this president because he can lie with such incredible conviction," said Mr. Inhofe. Hawks are encouraging the NATO campaign because they see an aggressive dictator in Mr. Milosevic, one who ought to be met with force. Mr. Inhofe says most of his colleagues are wrong: "Hawks should be opposed to this because we have got to be able to fight a real war, if that happens. Hawks don't want to waste our forces on humanitarian missions." The debate has also begun about whether NATO's humanitarianism is the real deal. So far, NATO's war has made life worse for the Kosovars, and unless NATO forces are willing to fight all the way to Belgrade and then maintain forces in the Balkan tinderboxes for years to come, it seems unlikely that life for the Kosovars will improve much. While many of Mr. Inhofe's conservative colleagues want to press forward with pragmatic, face-saving measures that will lengthen U.S. presence in the Balkans, Mr. Inhofe favors an honest pulling out. He argues that the United States can help its European allies by "softening up" key targets with continued air strikes, but he then wants American attention to turn to larger, more strategic foes. He also favors having civilians rather than soldiers supervising refugee resettlement. "I am on the wrong side," Mr. Inhofe confessed. "I'm seen as totally stupid." But he is not dismayed by his minority status. "If not one member of the leadership, or not one other member of the United States Senate agreed with me, I would be just as adamant. I consider that maybe I am the only way to keep this country out of war at this time," he said. In floor speeches and press statements, Mr. Inhofe repeatedly acknowledges that he is likely to lose the debate (although the House voted April 28 to bar ground troops without congressional approval). He told WORLD he believes the McCain resolution authorizing greater troop commitment will pass Congress. His strategy then? "I will continue to oppose sending troops in until the president sends his troops in. Once that happens, the most important thing we can do militarily is support our troops."

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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