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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Biggest Cowards

If there were a Serb infiltrator in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is exactly the sort of blunder he would be trying to lure NATO planes into committing. But we should not fall for conspiracy theories f the CIA is fully capable of screwing up on its own. (Sudanese aspirins, anyone?)

This latest and most grotesque case of bombing "the wrong people" was only an accident in the narrowest technical sense of the word. It is the 11th such "error" since the air assault on Serbia started, the sixth since the beginning of this month, and it is the direct and well-nigh inevitable consequence of the coward's strategy that NATO has adopted in this war f basically, to sneak up to the other side's house, mostly at night, and throw rocks at it.

These are "precision-guided" rocks, of course, but dropped from so high up or fired blind from so far away that these "errors" are inevitable. And the reason for this strategy is that while it kills lots of other people, most of whom are in no sense NATO's enemies, it doesn't cost any American lives.

Drop your bombs on Kosovo from five kilometers up and you may kill up to 75 Albanian refugees, as in the tractor convoy NATO struck near Djakovica on April 14, but you won't risk getting shot down by Serbian anti-aircraft fire. Run a campaign to destroy key buildings in Belgrade by firing missiles from down in the Adriatic Sea, and you will kill TV make-up ladies (when you hit your intended target) and Chinese journalists (when you don't), but again, no Americans will die.

This strategy is not just morally defective. It also will not work.

It is hard to imagine why Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic should make any concessions so long as NATO concentrates on a bombing campaign against symbolic and economic targets in Serbia, especially since he can see popular and diplomatic support for NATO's war erode with each bombing "error."

If NATO sticks to this bombing-only strategy for another three or four weeks, while shunning all preparations for a ground attack to retake Kosovo, Milosevic will win. Public support for the war will collapse, and a million or more Kosovo Albanians (for the expulsions continue) will face a future of perpetual exile.

Some face-saving agreement will be brokered by the Russians, but it will be clear to everyone that genocide and ethnic cleansing are off the leash for good. And NATO itself will disintegrate slowly over the next few years, for what's the point of belonging if it won't risk casualties in your defense?

Would a U.S. government that doesn't dare commit ground troops to Kosovo, even against a second-rate opponent like the Serbian forces, really risk a thermonuclear war to defend Poland, say, from Russia. Not that Russia has any intention of attacking Poland, but what's the point in paying insurance premiums to a bankrupt company?

So NATO's political deadline for getting serious about this war has become very pressing. And at the same time, by chance, so has the deadline imposed by the weather. Last Wednesday, General Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander who would lead a NATO force into Kosovo, issued a blunt warning that any decision to mount a ground attack has to be taken within weeks.

"The first snows come, depending how high you are above sea level, in early to late October," General Jackson told the BBC. "So that gives you a bit of a timetable where really we ought to be thinking very hard about bringing this conflict to its resolution well before then. ? It's a matter for the governments who form the NATO alliance. But we haven't got very long, it seems to me, if such a change of strategy is decided upon."

If the 900,000 Kosovars hiding in the hills and forests and the 700,000 in camps in Albania and Macedonia are to be back in the ruins of their homes, with food and rudimentary shelter, before the snow flies, then the Serb forces must be driven out of Kosovo by late August or early September. That means a ground attack no later than the end of July.

Given the state of Albanian ports, airports and roads, building up an adequate attacking force of around 75,000 troops would take six to 10 weeks. The minimum of six weeks means a decision by mid-June, a more comfortable 10 weeks would require a decision right now.

It's possible, of course, that just making serious preparations for a ground offensive would frighten Milosevic into accepting NATO's terms, but the alliance would be unwise to count on it. That's the kind of wishful thinking f "Milosevic just needs a few nights of bombing to give him an excuse to withdraw" f that got NATO into this war without any Plan B in the first place.

So the mid-May-to-mid-June decision deadline is quite real, and if NATO jumps the wrong way, it is probably finished. In practice, NATO can only jump where the United States wants it to go, so that means the decision first has to be taken in Washington.

Which way will Washington jump? Well, there is an old adage (I made it up last year) that any foreign leader who can convincingly threaten to kill 20 American troops effectively controls U.S. foreign policy. I would like to be wrong, but my money is on the cowards.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.