The military attacks on Serbia have been portrayed by the Clinton administration as a NATO mission--a true multilateral effort with the European allies. But the reality is much different than the rhetoric.

To pretend that NATO is the driving force behind the military action, the Pentagon has let NATO, indeed almost exclusively European, spokespersons in Brussels take the lead on briefing the world about the ongoing operations. The spokespersons may stand behind podiums emblazoned with the alliance logo and hand out briefing papers that are stamped “NATO,” but the forces in harms way are primarily American. After the current buildup of air power to 1,000 aircraft is completed, U.S. planes will make up about 80 percent of the aircraft conducting the operation. Even before the buildup, an anonymous source from the U.S. Air Force noted that U.S. aircraft were flying 90 percent of the combat missions. (The Pentagon is suppressing official data on the number of missions each NATO nation has conducted.) The U.S. percentage will increase as the forces grow. This lop-sided assumption of burden results from vast U.S. superiority in available aircraft, weapons, battlefield electronics, readiness, and mobile logistics and support assets.

U.S. troops would also make up a disproportionate percentage of the forces for any ground attack on Kosovo or Serbia. According to retired Army Maj. Gen. Edward Atkeson, 50 percent of any NATO ground force would be American because “we’ve got the best stuff”: tanks, communication equipment, and doctrine. More important, the United States has military capabilities--for example, in intelligence and mobile logistics and support assets (for example, trucks, equipment transporters, ammunition handling equipment, maintenance units, combat engineers, military police, and medical units)--in which the allies are sorely deficient. When NATO issued its first post-Cold War strategic concept in 1991, the allies promised to improve the mobility of their air and ground forces so that they could more easily conduct operations outside NATO territory. In the eight years since then, they have made little progress in doing so. As NATO considers revisions to the 1991 strategic concept at the Washington summit, there is little cause for optimism that the allies will accelerate improvements to their forces.

In fact, there is now worry in the alliance that U.S. forces may become so superior to the forces of the other members that NATO forces will no longer be able to operate together. This disparity in capability arises from the wide gap in military spending between the U.S. and its allies: the United States spends about $280 billion a year on national defense while even the largest of its allies each spend a meager $20 to $40 billion a year. The United Kindom spends about $40 billion, France about $30 billion, Germany about $25 billion, and Italy about $20 billion. And given the great disparity between U.S. and allied contributions to the war effort against Serbia, the United States will also bear the bulk of the supplemental expenses required to conduct the war--money to replenish spent missiles, ammunition, fuel, and extra maintenance on equipment. (The Clinton administration has requested $6 billion to fund the war through September, but the total could reach $16 billion if a full ground attack is eventually ordered.)

If the United States continues to bail out the Europeans from even minor security scrapes--for example, small civil wars in remote parts of Europe, such as Kosovo--they will never spend the money needed to provide for adequate military capabilities to handle such situations. As always, the United States cares more about European security than the Europeans do and seems to be willing to pay the costs in blood and treasure when it perceives that such security is threatened. Yet Kosovo is a lot farther away from the United States than it is from the capitals of Western Europe. Although the Clinton administration deliberately raises the haunting specter of another European-wide conflagration arising out of the ashes of the civil war in Kosovo, the situation in the Balkan region is much different than that prior to World War I. Back then some of the great powers were actively seeking gains in the Balkans. In contrast, most of the great powers are now friendly to the United States and seek stability in the region. Despite Russia’s bluster, it is no exception and is currently too weak to aggressively defend Serb interests--even if it wanted too. In short, any wider war in the region would at worst involve smaller belligerents such as Greece and Turkey. If such a scenario troubles the European members of NATO, they should pool their military resources to prevent it.

The United States had no vital interests in Yugoslavia during the Cold War and has even less cause to be concerned about the region after its superpower rival disintegrated. If the United States keeps rescuing its European allies from small brushfire wars, it will be doomed to do so for eternity. The allies will continue to take a “free ride” and not develop the agile military forces needed to put out such small fires.