Christiane Amanpour covered several major international stories during the Clinton administration and was famous for asking him about his "flip flop" tendencies in Bosnia. In this interview, conducted for the film, she reflects on Bill Clinton's foreign policy.
Producer: Let's set the scene when Clinton comes into office. Americans had just won the Gulf War, end of the Cold War - a big, big change.
Christiane Amanpour: I had been covering the Gulf War and then when Clinton came into office it was almost an overnight switch between focusing on foreign policy and focusing on economic policy. If you remember his big slogan of the first term was "it's the economy, stupid," and not only was that the driving agenda of the Clinton administration, but the driving agenda of news organizations too. So we all felt this shift away from foreign affairs to domestic affairs, but as ever history conspired to shove foreign affairs and foreign policy and catastrophes and challenges around the world right into front and center for the Clinton administration from the day he took office.
Producer: And what was the big one?
Amanpour: When Clinton came into office he was inheriting the end of the Soviet Union. He spent the first couple of years really trying to get to know Yeltsin who was President of Russia then. He was trying to help -- along with his officials -- the economy stabilize in Russia. If you remember, it was a very, very tough economic shock system in the form of Soviet Union and by and large, people think that he did a good job. The Clinton administration was trying to encourage new Russia to be democratic, to be open, to be a market economy -- history will look at it as a 50/50 as to whether it was a success back then, but that's what they were trying to do.
Producer: The end of the Soviet Empire also unleashed a swath of smaller conflicts around the world no one had had to deal with over the years.
Amanpour: Straight after the success of the Gulf War, when the United States pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, came the fall of Yugoslavia and with it the new template for wars and disasters and conflict in the 90s, and we covered Serbia, Croatia, and then Bosnia. Clinton came into office inheriting a philosophy of the Bush administration, which was, famously, 'We don't have a dog in this fight.'
Clinton came into office -- with the Europeans leading the way in Bosnia and the Balkans -- soon discovering that this was leading to further humiliation of the United States and the West. As the Serbs fought their agenda, the United Nations forces -- the peace keeping forces -- were humiliated on a regular basis, and finally in 1995 and we'd been covering this for four years or more, Bosnia became untenable and then the Clinton administration really solidified around the concept of doing something rather than doing nothing or rather than allowing the Europeans to lead because they weren't leading, they were just managing a status quo.
Producer: How bad is Bosnia in '93?
Amanpour: In 1992 Bosnia fell apart. It was the latest of the Balkan Republics to secede from Yugoslavia, but it was the bloodiest. It was the worst. It was the one that captured the imagination of the world and really focused the world on what was going on because you had a group of people, the multi-ethnic mostly Muslim Bosnians in Sarajevo being attacked by the Christian Serbs, shelling, sniping from the hills, killing men, women and children and non-combatants, ethnic cleansing, genocide. Into that the Europeans put a U.N. peacekeeping force, but with no robust mandate, so just to bring food almost to sustain the savagery that was going on in this perceived city of Sarajevo.
Into that comes a new President, Bill Clinton, in 1993 with a disaster on his hands, with the Europeans saying, 'No, this is a situation where all sides are equally guilty.' They were not. 'This is a situation where it's been centuries of tribal warfare, therefore we cannot intervene.' It was not. And in 1995, after two years of daily slaughter which we reported and put in the front pages and in the top of our news broadcasts every single day, it became untenable. Srebrenica, the fall of Srebrenica, the massacre of some 7- or 8,000 men and boys because they were Muslims by the Serbs, focused the world.
Then President Clinton decided that the U.S. had to lead, and therefore gathered allies to lead the bombing campaign against Serbian positions in Bosnia, and very quickly the Serbs folded. It was like a bully, you'd let him be a schoolyard bully for three long years, and finally when you got tough and you said, 'Enough already, we don't accept genocide at the end of the 20th century in our backyard." In the satellite age, they got serious and it stopped, and then the United States, not the Europeans, lead the Dayton Peace Process, and to this day, imperfect as it may be, it has held. To this day there is peace in the Balkans.
Producer: Put us on the ground, your first reports. We're seeing photos in Bosnia that haven't been seen since the second World War: emaciated men, women, the brutal rape of women and young girls. What's it like, viscerally?
Amanpour: Imagine for a young reporter with the first real experience of this kind of savagery. It was appalling to behold, the killing and the deliberate sniping of young children in the streets of Sarajevo which just years earlier had hosted the Olympic games, the Winter Olympics. The killing of women, mothers, teachers, people who just went out to gather wood to be able to cook, this was now a medieval siege going on in this European city. The killing of people who went to gather water from the well because the Serbs had cut electricity from their positions of siege around the city. Old men, not men of military or combat age, being mowed down on a daily basis. And witnessing this tragedy day in and day out, and having to report on the complete ineffectiveness and the collapse of any kind of will by the international community, impotent in the face of what turned out to be schoolyard bullies. The Bosnian Serbs, backed by Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, simply being able to do this because nobody put the brakes on.
I believe strongly to this day that journalists did their duty. That while everything else collapsed around we did our duty because all we did was tell the story. We did not take a side, we did not take a political ideology as seems strange in today's media world, but we did our duty by simply telling the story. And the story was about telling the truth -- we said that all sides are not equally guilty, we showed every day that there was a group of people, Muslims, who were being attacked by another group of people, Orthodox Christians -- bombarded by mortar fire, tank fire, snipers, every single day for three to four years. And I believe that telling that story relentlessly and bearing firsthand witness and telling the truth that finally Western democracies, as well as much of the world, Islamic countries, simply could not tolerate this whole scale violation of fundamental human rights and humanitarian law, and they had to do something. So for us looking back, I believe it was a proud moment in modern journalism, I really do, I believe we did our job just by telling the story.
I had an encounter with President Clinton. I'd never met him before; I did not cover Washington, I did not cover politics from the United States or from any world capital. I was a foreign correspondent in the field reporting on the affects of foreign policy and strategy or the lack thereof, and there was a town hall meeting that CNN put on where President Clinton was giving a major foreign policy address in preparation for running for a second term, and I had to ask him a question because some us CNN reporters in the field were asked to ask him a question. So I asked him a question from the heart, having listened to his speech about what he was doing in Bosnia at a time when things were really not going well. I asked him how could this constant flip flopping, vacillation weakness by the international community, almost deference to the Serbs agenda -- I mean that's how it played out on the ground -- how could the U.S. be taken seriously? And um... he got pretty angry.
Producer: What did you ask him? The famous phrase - "constant flip flop." In your own words.
Amanpour: President Clinton was talking about all that the United States was trying to do and trying to lead to stop what was going on in the Balkans. And I had been covering it for so long... I could see the impotence of real lack of leadership by the United States and Europe at that time. And I was very frustrated and as a reporter. I asked the only question that a reporter could ask. I said, 'You've been saying that you're doing all that you can, and yet all these constant flip flops... and don't you feel that this will make the Bosnian Serbs who have an agenda take you less seriously?'
Producer: Basically it made him look weak internationally.
Amanpour: I asked specifically about why there was no action being taken in Bosnia to really stop the one part that did have an agenda and that was the Bosnian Serbs. Their agenda was to clear out parts of Bosnia, whether it meant mass murder or ethnic cleansing, get rid of people so that they could get that territory for themselves. And I asked why there were so many flip flops, constant flip flops by the United States and Europe on policy towards the Serbs, towards the Bosnia in general, and I asked him whether this wouldn't make him look weak and the United States look weak in the eyes of the world.
He got very angry with me, but afterwards he was very kind and polite. Afterwards, in the space of another year, policy changed radically and they took action, and to this day, having bombed the key military installations of the Bosnian Serbs and having led the Dayton Peace Accords with Richard Holbrooke, our late dear departed friend and colleague at the helm, the peace has held. Imperfect as it might be, the peace has held. That is U.S. leadership. Without U.S. leadership it would not have happened.
And then you had Kosovo just a few years later here in the second term. Madeleine Albright, now Secretary of State, having lived through the humiliation of Bosnia, basically convinced the administration that this Kosovo was potentially another Bosnia, and that they had to act before we saw the same slaughter happening again in Europe. And of course the Clinton administration acted, got its allies, its European allies onboard, delivered a take-it-or-leave-it deal to Slobodan Milosevic. He left it, and so the United States, Britain, allies got a bombing campaign together under the NATO auspices and in 78 days Slobodan Milosevic capitulated and today Kosovo is free. Kosovo is independent. There is peace. That is U.S. leadership.
Producer: You talked about Clinton's deference to Serbia, or that was the effect of his policy. What about domestically? Is there a sense that he was overruled by Powell, who was saying, "you're going to need hundreds of thousands of troops to have any impact in Bosnia, it's a far away place, it's mountains, we just don't want to get caught there"? Echoes of Vietnam, maybe. Is there a sense that he's too deferential?
Amanpour: I wasn't covering the United States or domestic policy back then, but clearly it was politically difficult at the beginning. The United States was trying to focus on the economy... when Clinton first came in. You'd just come off the first Gulf War where the Powell doctrine had been in effect: overwhelming force. There were 500,000 U.S. and allied troops amassed in the deserts of Saudi Arabia to push back what turned out to be the very weak army of Saddam Hussein. But that was massive force that became the doctrine of the United States for several years.
In addition, President Clinton was a new President, [and] like many new Presidents, foreign policy is something that they haven't had to deal with until they become President. So there's always a massive learning curve with any new President and unfortunately this learning curve occurred as ethnic cleansing and genocide was occurring in the Balkans. So for the first few years there was this sense that the United States was deferring leadership to the Europeans whose policy was not to lead, but to maintain a status quo and to try to insert some UN peacekeepers to keep what they euphemistically called the peace. Which wasn't a peace -- I don't know what they were keeping; they were trying to keep human beings alive, but of course for Bosnians, people besieged in Sarajevo, they used to say, 'What are they keeping us alive for, so that we can be slaughtered, so that we can go fat to the slaughter?'
Producer: Between '93 and '95 there are two searing events on the world stage as well, Somalia and Rwanda.
Amanpour: Well, President Clinton inherited U.S. intervention in Somalia. At the end of 1992 with Bosnia in full swing, President Bush decided to deploy forces to Somalia to end a famine. It was a humanitarian intervention and it worked.
The problem came in 1993 and beyond, when the mission got mixed up from ending a famine to trying to rebuild Somalia and then trying to go after Mohammad Farah Idid, the warlords of Somalia. There was not enough hardware on the ground from the United States, there wasn't enough commitment to this nation building process. It wasn't thought out; it was a disconnect between the United States and the UN. And it led to, again, further humiliation and unfortunately after Black Hawk Down it led to almost paralysis in the new Clinton administration about further intervention.
On the occasion of Black Hawk Down, when the United States sends helicopters to try to rescue a mission gone wrong in Somalia, a helicopter was brought down. We all know what happened; it's seared into all our minds how the Somali's jumped up and down on that helicopter how they looked triumphant after dragging Americans' -- both captured and dead -- bodies through the streets of Mogadishu. Total humiliation. This was terrible, a terrible wound to the heart of U.S. confidence, of U.S. prestige and it unfortunately also because of this appalling behavior by Africans against Americans, it put pay to any desire to intervene in Africa. The people of the United States were disgusted by what happened, it put pay to any intervention.
And then a few years later comes Rwanda, a real genocide unleashed in Africa which demanded intervention -- nothing. Because of the shock, the horror of what had happened in Somalia, because of being at the time, still failing in Bosnia, there was no great demand for intervention. There were a lot of op-eds and things written about the horror of what was happening in Rwanda, and to this day Rwanda remains a black mark on the conscience of the world, on our consciences as journalists. We could have done more, and certainly the United States, President Clinton has apologized many times publicly. Kofi Annan, who was then the head of peacekeeping and then became the Secretary General of the United Nations, apologized. I believe had there been intervention it could have been stopped, but it just wasn't happening.
...I wasn't in the White House then, I just know that nothing, nothing happened and there was no sense that the U.S. or other countries were coming, demanding to intervene. The United States did not organize a coalition to intervene in Rwanda and, you know, there are still many arguments amongst policy makers of the time about what they could or should have done. But I think you know the shame, the international shame of not having done anything and seeing 800,000 to a million people slaughtered by old-fashioned, pre-industrial age machetes and clubs in 1994, remains an indelible stain.
...In 1993 the massacres in Bosnia, particularly in Sarajevo, and some other areas were in full swing. Daily rivers of blood -- really it was appalling. At that time the United States inaugurated the Holocaust Museum: President Clinton, Mrs. Clinton went to that, and Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, spoke very, very passionately, he spoke about how wonderful it was that this memorial, this museum had been set up. But at one point he turned around from his position at the microphone and he looked at President Clinton and he talked about Bosnia and Sarajevo and what was happening right now, what we were reporting and he said, 'Mr. President, I cannot not say anything, I cannot stay silent.'
And he urged the President to do something. And the body language is extraordinary, you have this bastion of moral authority, Elie Wiesel, you have a new young President, grappling with what to do, and his head is down as he's listening to this. At the same time the United States is one of the leaders of opening the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, so things were happening, just not enough to stop what was going on on the ground.
The Europeans were in a dominant position at the time... President Clinton famously sent his foreign policy team to Europe to see what could be done and what the Europeans were willing to do in 1993. It basically led to more humanitarian aid, no lift and strike, no lifting of the arms embargo. But as the years went on and we come to 1995 when really Bosnia is going to hell in a hand basket -- the Serbs are getting more and more bold, they're capturing more and more UN peacekeepers, they captured French peacekeepers -- the new French President at that time, elected Jacques Chirac, said, 'Enough, we will not be humiliated.'
President Clinton then started to lead, sending Tony Lake to Europe, saying, 'This is what we're going to do, this is how it's going to transpire.' In July 1995, July 11th, Srebrenica fell. Those chilling pictures of the Bosnian Serb warlord, Radko Mladic, telling those children, 'Don't be afraid; nothing's going to happen to you,' and within minutes women and children separated from the men and boys. To this day they are collecting the cadavers and the bones and the skeletons of some 8,000 Bosnian, Muslim men and boys who were slaughtered, trying to escape from Srebrenica.
It took that amount of death at the heart of Europe -- at the end of the 20th century, daily broadcast via satellite television -- to concentrate the minds of the world, that led to a real plan. Very quickly President Clinton led a plan to attack the military sites of the Bosnian Serbs...
The bombing campaign [was triggered]... by the market massacre in August. Srebrenica was the moment that focused the world's attention and they got their act together, President Clinton leading. And the trigger for the bombing of the Bosnian Serb positions was the second market massacre. One had happened in '94 and then this one in August of 1995 in the heart of Sarajevo, launched NATO air strikes, serious campaign of NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb military positions, and it was over very quickly. They backed down, and after that there were other things [happening] on the ground. The United States and its allies had helped arm the Croats -- they had also come in and they were pushing back Serbs from a lot of the territory that they had grabbed over the last several years.
A confluence of events: the bombing of the Serb positions in Bosnia, the arming and training of Croats, who pushed back Serbs who had taken to much land in Croatia, led to the conditions to be able to now focus on diplomacy and ending the war. So President Clinton nominated Richard Holbrooke, his diplomatic supremo, to lead the Dayton negotiations and it worked. ...With a concerted U.S.-led military campaign, plus a U.S. diplomatic offensive to bring the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbian leader Milosevic to the peace table and to agree to a peace deal, that was a military diplomatic strategy that worked and ended the war. And after that, at the end of 1995, the United States led NATO forces as peacekeepers, peace enforcers and there was no NATO soldier killed in anger. There were accidents, there were deaths, but they kept the peace, and as imperfect as it was, it holds.
Producer: Talk about this transformation -- President Clinton going from being perceived as being weak and somewhat feckless on the world stage to basically leader of the free world, leading NATO, leading Europe. This moment seems incredibly important in terms of his position on the world stage.
Amanpour: It was a huge turning point. U.S. leadership reasserted itself, obviously not willing to stand for being humiliated by tin-pot dictators or warlords around the world. And it did set up President Clinton and his administration for real successes in the second administration, and changed the dynamic of the U.S. being perceived as leading from behind if you like, to leading from the front, and affecting world change by deploying U.S. leadership -- not just military leadership, but diplomatic leadership as well... He faced down Saddam Hussein at one point, they went into Haiti in '94 and after a lot of humiliation there restored Aristide, get rid of Cedras, all of that stuff plays into all of this.
Producer: What was he up against at home? Was this a tough decision in '95, pushing deliberate force?
Amanpour: I don't think it was a tough decision. I was not following or covering U.S. domestic policy at the time, but certainly key members of Congress, key leaders in the United States and the political sphere as well as opinion leaders realized that this was enough already in Bosnia. That it was not just an unacceptable slaughter and a gross violation of all the things that the United States stands for -- human rights, humanitarian law -- but that it was also harming the prestige and the credibility of the United States, so I think there was a willingness to take the bull by the horns and get serious. And you didn't see any serious opposition to the action that took place in Bosnia, which led many people to say, 'Why didn't it happen earlier?' But for all the reasons that we've talked about it didn't happen earlier, and it took something as bad as Srebrenica to concentrate everybody's minds.
Producer: It took World War I of genocide in the heart of Europe.
Amanpour: I had grown up as a young reporter witnessing this genocide, seeing the pictures of those emaciated civilians in the concentration camps near Bana Lucia, witnessing first-hand children and women and old men being slaughtered in front of our eyes. Imagine being in the heart of Europe: these people, they look like us, they were Europeans, and they were cutting down wood in the winter of '92, '93, because there was no heat, because there was no water, because this medieval siege had strangled this European city. They were picking grasses and dandelions to eat. It was catastrophic. And I had learned never again. And never again was happening and it was on our watch -- on our watch as young reporters, and on their watch as new President, as new leader of the free world, and it took time to resolve.
Producer: Can you talk about what drove Clinton [in Northern Ireland], what his impact was?
Amanpour: By the time Northern Ireland came up, Clinton was in full swing of a robust foreign policy. And along with his key ally and... political soul mate, Tony Blair, they really brought all the leadership and influence of the United States and Britain to bear on. On the peace process in Northern Ireland, they also had willing partners, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness had decided diplomacy and to end the war there. And a combination of strategy, of personal politics, of personal relationships and a determination to do the hard work that it took -- endless negotiations, endless interventions diplomatically, personally. To really concentrate everybody's minds and to come up with the Good Friday agreement and all the agreements that followed and again to this day, it's held and there's peace in Northern Ireland.
Producer: It seemed to play to all Clinton's best strengths, this talking and negotiating and just incredibly smart, figuring out a path of how to thread a needle.
Amanpour: These days when you talk to any of the people who were involved in negotiations or diplomacy or just talks with President Clinton, whether they're the Irish protagonists, whether they're the Bosnians or the Serbs, people have a huge amount of respect and wonder and affection for him and his style. And I think people recognize that he is an exceptionally smart person who had a huge capacity to understand the problems and the issues of the world and who had this amazing laser-like ability once he focused on them. And once they became real matters of national interest and national security, he had this ability to cut through and to get the job done. And there are many, many people who talk about how his personal interventions, maybe when negotiations were being deadlocked or they were stumbling or things were going wrong, who talk about him being the clincher. So it is a huge arch, it's a huge transformation over eight years of a President who came into office maybe not expecting all of this, maybe not expecting this huge menu of problems to be on his table, and leaving office with -- I think what many people will agree -- a high mark for foreign policy, particularly in that second administration.
Even the Middle East peace process, and this is fundamental as well, President Clinton managed to get high personal grades from both the Israelis, who believed that the President of the United States was concerned about their security, that he was not going to sell their security down the river, and from the Palestinians, who believed that the President of the United States believed in their fundamental rights and who went to Gaza, who went to the Palestinian Parliament and who really showed that he believed that they had fundamental rights as individuals and as a people. Even though this issue is not resolved to this day, by and large the Clinton parameters form the basis of any settlement. That's it, the plan is there, everybody knows it, but the key is that President Clinton, using personal diplomacy and American leadership, gained credibility from both sides, from the Israelis and from the Palestinians.
Producer: Talk about terrorism. In some sense there's a shadow, some people talk about a shadow cast over it. In 1993, he had the Saudi Bombings, the USS Cole at the end. Did he get terrorism, the rising threat of bin Laden?
Amanpour: Terrorism reared its head on his watch. '93, World Trade Center for the first time, '95, the Khobar bombings, which I covered ...In August of 1998 Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida blew up the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. President Clinton did retaliate, sending in cruise missiles to Sudan, to Afghanistan. He was on a capture-or-kill mission against Osama bin Laden and for the remaining years of his term he and his National Security Advisors, Sandy Berger, the terrorism tsar, if you like, Dick Clarke were working on this. ...This was front and center of what that administration was working on at that time and in fact, famously, as you know, after President Bush came into office we now know that the Clinton administration had told the incoming Bush administration, 'Watch out, this is the real important issue on your plate,' and so he got it.
Producer: You were covering this story at the time, what was your sense of who bin Laden was?
Amanpour: You knew that bin Laden just wanted to humiliate and destroy the United States and everything it stood for and everywhere it was deployed for whatever reason. It's hard to go into the psychobabble of what motivates that kind of terrorist, but it was clear from the beginning that this was a very, very organized, unconventional but organized campaign against the U.S. and its interests.
And he used all sorts of trigger points to try to appeal to a certain group of Muslims around the world -- people who were disaffected with the United States and its policies -- so he would always be talking about the Palestinian rights, for instance, where he had never done anything for the Palestinians, using them as convenient reasons for why he was doing what he was doing... Bin Laden telegraphed practically each and every attack that he was going to do. He was calling journalists, he had a series of interviews often telegraphing what was going to come next, so he tried to use the media. Covering it was difficult of course because terrorism happens; you're usually covering the aftermath of it, it's very difficult to cover the lead up to it. So it's almost impossible. That's where the administration and all its arms come in... I just covered it from the field and obviously post 9/11, but that's beyond Clinton's administration.
Producer: [What is] your take on what were the safe areas in Bosnia, what was the sort of underlying philosophy there?
Amanpour: Well, the safe areas were created when it became clear that the Bosnian Serbs were just looking at these strategic locations and doing everything they could to massacre people there and get people out of there. The problem with the safe area was that they were not safe havens: they were safe areas. ...So you had a safe area, but you didn't have the full will to completely and support it, so you had this mockery of the situation. Let's just take Srebrenica. There was a safe area that was constantly being attacked, with no intervention to stop it. And then denouement happened obviously in July of 1995 when a safe area supposedly maintained and guided by the United Nations was simply overrun to the everlasting humiliation of the United Nations. Of a battalion that was stationed in Srebrenica -- and there have been countless after-action reports and so many mea culpas. It just was a total failure -- half-measure after half-measure after half-measure was enacted. I don't know why -- to assuage guilt, to look as if you were doing something because you didn't believe that there was a real organized campaign by one of the Parties on the ground to slaughter the other Party, an old-fashioned land grab by killing the residents or chasing them out... until the evidence was too stark, and that was Srebrenica July of 1995 when people could not turn their eyes away anymore, and leadership kicked into action.
Producer: Warren Christopher calls this a problem from hell, we touched briefly on his trip.
Amanpour: The late Warren Christopher was an elder statesman but he was also, I suppose, what you might call the pragmatic realist, whereas action on a humanitarian urgent level was required. It is, if you like, that concept which we've just heard of leading from behind, but what does that mean and that's almost playing out in Libya today, what is leading from behind? The United States does not have to be the policeman of the world, but the United States remains the indispensable nation because it alone can gather and lead affective alliances for change and for action. So in that regard the United States remains the indispensable nation but in order for it to be such it has to lead from the front, which again does not mean being the policeman and taking every action on alone, but leading the coalition to affect change and to take action.
Producer: It seems like early on, for whatever reason, Clinton didn't want to go there in terms of America being this indispensable nation.
Amanpour: In the end, events dictate policy. ...I believe it was the Bosnia effect and you know there was a huge CNN effect too. A huge CNN effect. Madeleine Albright said at one point that CNN should be the 16th member of the Security Council. There was a huge CNN effect, the fact that we kept this story alive day after day, week after week, year after year made it impossible for world leaders to turn their eyes for a long, long time. They did for a while but then it was impossible, as Western democratic countries who believe in human rights, who believe in individual freedoms, who have combated genocide before to allow this to continue and that is the advantage of democracy. It can be messy but in the end, in the end if we do our jobs, the media, if they do their jobs, in the end it's unpalatable for our societies to allow this to happen. When we do our jobs right change happens. Bosnia, Kosovo, when we fail, we don't do our jobs right, when the journalists aren't there en masse in Rwanda, when the leadership isn't there in Rwanda, that's when things go wrong. That's when things go catastrophically wrong.