Washington, 21 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The celebratory flyovers by military jets have been canceled, the U.S. Post Office's commemorative stamp issue has been shelved and the mood is more somber than jubilant as Washington prepares to host NATO's 50th anniversary summit.
This was the summit when alliance leaders expected to congratulate themselves for a job well done and reaffirm their commitment to collective defense while setting the stage for bolder initiatives beyond NATO's frontiers.
But the stage has already been set. And ironically, NATO leaders will gather here on Friday with the alliance waging war beyond its borders, in the most serious military crisis of its history.
NATO's air campaign against the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has absorbed the attention of alliance leaders and the world for weeks. Officials and analysts agree that it will also dominate the summit.
When NATO's air campaign began last month, alliance leaders said the bombing would lead to either of two results: it would either convince Milosevic to withdraw his troops from Kosovo and end atrocities against the province's ethnic Albanians or it would destroy his army to such a degree that the same outcome would be achieved.
So far, neither has happened. And questions about the effectiveness of the alliance's Yugoslav operation and the wisdom of limiting its scope to an air campaign from the outset, are being raised increasingly frequently.
Paula Dobriansky is a former advisor to U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. She was the director of European and Soviet affairs on the White House's National Security Council -- the top presidential advisory board for foreign policy. Dobriansky says NATO must win in Kosovo -- whatever the cost -- or else suffer a fatal blow to its credibility.
"NATO's future is very much linked to what will take place in Kosovo. If there's not a victory in Kosovo, this will have repercussions for NATO's credibility, its operability as well as its effectiveness. This clearly is the most significant challenge confronting NATO in the post Cold War environment. If NATO fails in Kosovo, this will, I believe, irreparably damage its credibility and effectiveness."
Dobriansky, like NATO's current leaders, believes the alliance was right to become involved in the Kosovo conflict. She says NATO has always had an abiding interest in preserving European security. And in this case, she notes, there was no time to wait for the Washington summit and a planned revision of the alliance's strategic concept. But Dobriansky says the alliance's hesitation and repeated empty threats last year to carry out military action, contributed to this current crisis.
This can be explained by the alliance's need to obtain a political and military consensus among its members before a decision is taken -- a cumbersome process which did not matter when NATO was a purely defensive alliance, but which has great repercussions in an offensive operation.
Andrew Pierre, an analyst at the United States Peace Institute, says NATO's decision-making mechanism poses serious problems and he contrasts the Yugoslav campaign with the successful Persian Gulf War in 1991.
"In the Persian Gulf situation in 1991, that was not a NATO alliance, 19-nation consensus. That was America-led with and almost wholly-American ground forces with a number of allied countries, most of whom had some direct stake in the outcome in the Persian Gulf. So that, putting together that coalition was easier to do. It did not require the NATO decision-making process."
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen reiterated on Tuesday that NATO has no other plans beyond its air campaign. That is what was agreed last Autumn by the alliance and so far, there is apparently no consensus for waging a ground war. But several U.S. military officers now retired have expressed public doubts that the campaign against the Yugoslav military can be won through an air war.
Retired U.S. Army Major General Edward Atkenson, who headed U.S. military intelligence operations in Europe in the 1980s, shares the view. He compares it to sending a one-armed boxer into the ring and is critical of the political decision being made in the alliance.
"I'm not at all sure that it's winnable through a bombing campaign. As a matter of fact I think that's rather improbable. It's not impossible, and so those who are engaged in it can legitimately say: 'well, let's go ahead and see if the opposition will break.' But I don't think that's likely. I think it's more likely that a few weeks or months from now we'll ask ourselves about where we are now."
Although the manner in which NATO's political leadership formulates policy is not up for discussion at the Washington summit, Atkeson says he is sure that NATO's decision-making process will be altered as a result of this crisis. In Atkeson's view, the alliance, at a military level, is functioning well. But politically, there is no unanimity and that could potentially be crippling.
Ultimately, there are other important factors to consider, such as NATO's special ties with Russia and Ukraine, as well as its relations with other Partnership for Peace countries. All these were to be showcased at the summit. But key plans have been scuttled by the Kosovo conflict. Russian attendance is in doubt and Ukraine's representatives are expected to mute their earlier enthusiasm for NATO, due to domestic considerations.
Analysts say misgivings about further expanding the alliance may also be more strongly expressed due to the Kosovo crisis. After all, if reaching consensus on policy with 19 members is proving difficult, there may be little enthusiasm for trying with even more.
Defense Secretary Cohen and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Washington on Tuesday that the summit's original agenda will largely remain unchanged. Terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, a new European defense identity, more flexible military forces and a blueprint for prospective members will be discussed, as will the alliance's new strategic concept. Indeed, they emphasized, the Kosovo crisis has only reinforced the need to discuss these issues.
But General Atkeson, for one, takes a dimmer view and doesn't believe the summit will accomplish much.
"I would expect that there will be more heat than light coming out of this. It's been an enormous disappointment for the entire alliance to have this indeterminate campaign going on right at our 50th anniversary -- so it's like raining on the parade and it's going to be very difficult to get any kind of communiqu that is meaningful and have everybody enthusiastically support it. A serious restatement of the objectives and goals will require a far more quiet diplomacy among the participants than anything that will happen here in Washington. I think this is mostly balloons and mirrors and cheers - to try to buck up our spirits from not doing too well so far."
As Washington prepares to host the largest political event in its history, much fanfare will likely be heard. But actions still speak louder than words. As one of America's great military commanders, General Douglas MacArthur, said in Washington in 1951 when NATO was just in its infancy: "In war, there is no substitute for victory."