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interview: tony lake

photo of tony lake

He was National Security Advisor during Clinton's first term. The president nominated him to be CIA Director in December 1996, but he withdrew his nomination in the face of opposition from Republican senators.

Interview conducted September, 2000 by Chris Bury

I covered the Clinton campaign in '92, and it was very clear that the emphasis was not foreign policy. There were a couple foreign policy speeches and some press releases, but foreign policy was not a focus of the campaign. What implications did that have in the earliest days of the administration?

First let me argue a bit about the campaign. In fact, then Governor Clinton was the only one of the Democratic candidates who went out of his way to talk about foreign policy in one of his Georgetown speeches in December of 1991. And then during the campaign itself in '92, he did speak on just about every issue. One reason why foreign policy was not at the top of the agenda was because the governor cared passionately about domestic issues, as he should. And secondly, because President Bush was backing away from the charge of being the foreign policy president, so he wasn't talking about foreign policy much either.

However, yes, domestic policy was at the top of the agenda. One of the implications was not so much that the president didn't want to talk about foreign policy when he came in, or work on foreign policy, there was never a single time when I wanted to see him about any foreign policy issue that he wasn't available right away. It wasn't a problem with the president.

Frankly, a lot of the people who came in with him on the political side of the house still saw foreign policy as something you don't talk about, and a decent subject. It was very hard to fight through a lot of the opposition from the schedulers and others when trying to set up meetings with foreign leaders, phone calls, et cetera. They saw it as a diversion from the main agenda. But the president himself was always good about it.

Was that your job, to keep foreign policy from distracting the president from his domestic agenda?

Certainly not. No. It was my job to get all the attention we needed on foreign policy issues from the president, but not to take up his time overly when he had a very busy schedule. The most precious commodity in the White House is the president's time, and I always tried not to take any more of it than I needed to.

You say you didn't have trouble seeing the president, but other members of the foreign policy team sometimes did. The CIA Director, James Woolsey, had trouble getting on the president's schedule at times.

We were building up our forces quietly in South Korea and off the coast, and it
was as close as we came to what would have been an extremely bloody conflict.The truth is that almost every morning, the president had a briefing from the CIA briefer, and the Director of Central Intelligence was always welcome to come to those meetings. So he had almost unparalleled access when he chose to exercise it. But, yes, it was often hard to schedule larger foreign policy meetings when you were not only dealing with the president's schedule, but dealing with the schedules of the cabinet officers as well. That was hard. But again, the problem was more with the schedulers than the president.

After about a year and a half, the schedulers decided that we, on the national security side of the house, were being too successful in scheduling these diversionary meetings about war and peace abroad. So they asked somebody or other to do a computer run on the president's schedule over the past year plus, and see whether he was spending as much time on foreign policy as president Bush had in his first year plus. And the startling result was that in fact he had almost identically the same number of meetings, phone calls, et cetera, with foreign leaders as had President Bush. The schedulers used this as evidence that we were getting it wrong. I found it interesting, because at the same time we were coming under assault by reporters and others for spending not enough time on foreign policy. The fact is, that American interests are the same for both Republicans and Democrats, for both presidents who are foreign policy presidents and presidents who are domestic policy presidents. And you have to act on those interests and in defense of those interests. And presidents, whoever the next president is, will spend about the same amount of time as the past president has.

The reason I ask you about the access... David Gergen tells us that when the plane crashed into the White House, the joke going around the White House was that it was Woolsey trying to get in to see the president.

I think that was a reference to a particular case, not to a general problem. Woolsey, I thought was a good DCI, and I was always interested in his getting whatever access he needed.

The general notion that this administration in its early days wasn't focused heavily on foreign policy, is that an inaccurate impression?

God knows for me it was inaccurate. We were working 18-hour days, including Sundays, with a large number of very difficult issues that were very hot that January and February. There was Bosnia, Haiti with refugees streaming out, Somalia where we had inherited a mission that we had to figure out what to do with it, and we didn't do a good job on it, et cetera, et cetera. So it was very busy, and the president spent a good bit of time on it.

Was it his first priority? No. Was it the first priority of the whole White House? No. He was elected largely to deal with some very pressing domestic issues, and that's proper.

One of those early issues was gays in the military. As it turned out, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were opposed to the position that the president had taken in the campaign. And within the White House there was considerable debate, the vice president on one side, you on another. Can you tell us a little bit about that debate, about how far the White House should go in pushing the Joint Chiefs?

It was never the kind of debate in which you have a lot of people on one side and a lot of people on the other side and they were clashing. That happened on some environmental issues and some other difficult issues. On this issue it was more everybody looking for a compromise, something that would work to serve both what the president had said and believed in the campaign, and the justifiable concerns of the Joint Chiefs about military discipline.

The meetings that I can recall between the resident and the JCS--and there were a number of them--were never really contentious so much as trying to work this through. And they were always respectful. I know they weren't happy with it. This was not an issue that we were asking to address right away.

People sometimes ask me, "How come you chose that, of all issues, to address first?" Well, we didn't choose it first. We were wanting to work mostly on Bosnia, Haiti, these other issues, and to set an agenda for the next four years. But it was very clear that, especially on the Hill, they were not going to let go of this issue, and if we didn't come up with some formula, then it was going to be jammed up our noses from the Hill.

What compromise did you offer?

I don't remember offering a compromise myself. This was not the central issue I was working on. I was much more interested in Bosnia and other issues, so I don't recall that there was an...

Stephanopolous writes in his book that you were arguing on the side of compromise, that Gore was essentially saying, "No, we have to stick with what we said in the campaign", and you were basically arguing a middle ground.

I was arguing in support of a middle ground. I think George was designing middle grounds, and others, more than I was. But I certainly felt we needed to find some compromise way to move on and get this issue out of the way so that we could get back to the substance of all these other issues. Frankly, I don't remember that the vice president was taking that hard a position on it. Maybe he was. Maybe my memory is just soft, but the meetings I recall were mostly meetings trying to find a way to resolve this so that we could move on consistent with the principles that the president had laid out.

Is that issue one of the reasons the president had a rough start with the military?

Whether business or  government, the immediate rises to the top, the important
tends to go to the bottom...I used to tell myself ...  remember to go to the
bottom, push  on the strategic issues, because that's going to be the
legacy...I think it's one reason. Vietnam service, of course, was another reason. Another was that many didn't see him as somebody who was deeply interested in national security issues, again something that was wrong. My impression was that he developed very good relationships with the very senior members of the military, who he was working with on a day-to-day basis, especially as we went through a number of these difficult issues over the next two years.

And he had a great relationship with the enlisted personnel. I saw it when we went to the DMZ in Korea and he met with a number of groups of enlisted folks, they were great. His same abilities that we see in relating to people generally, they were in play there. A lot of the middle-level officers were and remained quite hostile to him for personal reasons.

One of the stories that's told in the early days is that some people in the military didn't like the way the president was saluting, and you had to go in and teach the president how to salute.

No, that's not quite right. He had never been in the military. In fact, I wasn't in the military, but in Vietnam I had lived with the military often. And before his first ceremony, he was going to have to salute, and so we went through how to salute. This is not unnatural if you've never been in the military. I don't recall this coming because somebody had complained about the way he was saluting previously.

But George Stephanopolous writes in his book that the president's early salutes looked different, and his fingers drooped, and there was a concern that it wasn't snappy enough, and that they had a discussion about who would teach him how to salute. And George hadn't been in the military. They thought it would be inappropriate for the vice president. And so you were chosen.

I think it was less formal than that. I do not recall any documents entitled "Presidential Salutes, Who Will Do It, Making a Decision, Scheduling an Appointment." I think it was far more informal. I think it came earlier than George remembers, and I don't recall thinking at the time it was a big deal.

How did it go? What did you do in that meeting?

Just saluted, and then we moved on. I never talked to the president about this, and I think we're already making more of this than I would, but I think if you've never been commander-in-chief before, it's hard at first to feel it. Especially as he made hard decisions, which is much more important than how you salute or not, and as he dealt more and more with the military, I think we saw as he became increasingly comfortable with it.

But at the beginning, if you've never done it, and if you've never saluted, I suspect that he didn't want to look too snappy in how he did it, lest he look hooky. You know what I'm saying? Because it would look as if he was pretending somehow. So he eased his way into it. He should have made it more crisp right at the start.

Your first crisis is in March when Yeltsin dissolves the Parliament. Is that an accurate description? Is that your first big...

No. I would have said our first crises were Iraq, where Saddam was pushing the edge of the envelope right during January, so Bush acted before we did. We had to make clear what we were going to do there. And Bosnia, which was a very large crisis, and the one that we concentrated most on right away.

When was Srebrenica? When was the...

In the summer of 1995.

So that was two years later.

Yeah.

We'll get to that.

But Sarajevo was being hit by mortar fire, et cetera.

The problem with the administration was that the president has promised to be much more vigorous in his defense of Bosnia than George Bush.

He had, and we all believed that we should be, the president, and especially the vice president. I certainly did. Madeleine Albright felt strongly about it as well. So the first thing we did was to spend a month or so going back over the records, trying to understand how we had gotten to where we were, holding a series of principals meetings to devise a new strategy.

That new strategy was the so-called lift and strike, in which we would lift the arms embargo, strike against the Serbs if they tried to take advantage of the situation before we could build up the Muslims--the Bosnians to oppose the Serbs in the meantime, during the period when we armed them). We took that to the Europeans. We didn't make the sale, and the Europeans didn't go along.

You didn't make the sale in Congress either, that there was a lot of opposition.

I think that Congress would have gone along with that, with a lift and strike. It was after all very similar to what Senator Dole was calling for at the time. But we couldn't sell it to the Europeans.

This was central to what happened in Bosnia, in which we finally more or less fixed it, but it took longer than any of us wanted. The Europeans had troops on the ground with the UN, and kept saying to us, "Why don't you send some ground troops as well and share the risks with us", which was not thinkable, given the congressional view and the public view. The dilemma was that if we did not sell a policy to the Europeans but simply went ahead and lifted the arms embargo, or simply went ahead and greatly accelerated the bombing--and we did get some more bombing with the agreement of our allies....If we had done what some of us had wanted to do and been much more vigorous still, the Europeans would say to us, "If you do that, if you lift and strike, or if you conduct a lot more in the way of bombing operations, you're going to get a Serb reaction that is going to get our people killed. And if you get our people killed, then there's going to be a crisis in NATO and a crisis in the Alliance."

That was very hard to overcome. It took almost two years, and the horror of Srebrenica helped convince the Europeans that their approach wasn't working and to move to the approach that we were laying out, which succeeded in getting Dayton. However if you turn it around, and suppose in a different case we had American troops on the ground, and the Europeans didn't. If they started taking military actions that were getting our people killed, you can see the strength of their view; and this was a dilemma that was very agonizing for us.

On the one hand, if we did do what we wanted to do on Bosnia flat out, and blow apart the Alliance--and I think it would have done that--it would have been a worse crisis in the Alliance than the 1956 Suez invasion. Or on the other hand, to do what we did, which was to keep trying to push the edge of the envelope with the Europeans until we could get a breakthrough as we did in '95, and got them to come along with us on a more rigorous policy.

The president, according to the books of this time, was personally conflicted on this, because his political advisors were telling him that it was a no-win situation.

Absolutely. Every morning when I walked into the Oval Office--I was the first person he would see in the morning--he would be very polite, and maybe we'd tell a joke or two, and then we'd get to Topic A, and Topic A was always Bosnia. In fact, I felt sometimes as if I had a "B" written on my forehead, and as soon as he saw it, his whole day would get cloudy as he realized he had to deal with this damn issue.

What was his confliction? What was his difficult for him?

The first part of it was the substantive dilemma that I've laid out. Secondly, Bosnia was increasingly becoming synonymous with American foreign policy as a whole, and our inability to fix Bosnia for the first two and a half years was badly damaging not only our ability to conduct our foreign policy, but I think was damaging politically as well. I want to come back to Bosnia later in the terms. But moving on to March, when Yeltsin dissolves parliament there is great concern, because no one wants to be tagged with the issue of who lost Russia? What was the president's view when Yeltsin did that? Was there a great upset in the White House?

I don't know if there was an upset, but there was certainly a lot of concern, and it was clear that we were going to have to work hard to preserve democracy in Russia and preserve our working relationship with Yeltsin. The two presidents, Clinton and Yeltsin, had developed, at their earlier meeting, during the campaign in '92, quite a good relationship. During this crisis then and subsequent ones in October--with the attack on the parliament, and crisis after crisis-- that relationship, that ability of the president to call Yeltsin, and sometimes, frankly, to get Yeltsin to stand by earlier commitments he had made, when some of his subordinates would start to walk away with him, it was absolutely vital.

At the summit in Vancouver, when Clinton and Yeltsin met, Stephanopolous writes that one of the concerns was Yeltsin had been drinking all day. What do you remember about that?

Yeltsin was capable of certainly helping himself through the day from time to time. The summit meeting at Hyde Park in New York, was even more of the case. And this would be disconcerting, but it was never to the point at which he couldn't do business. In fact, sometimes it may have helped because he was talking points that people had written out for him, and then the president could draw him into more personal exchanges, which is hard with Russian leaders, to think with more flexibility, and sometimes we could make progress. So, oddly enough, maybe it helped.

Was it a good idea...

I'm not a doctor.

...to serve Yeltsin more wine.?

I'm not a doctor. I couldn't...no, we never thought of that.

The first time that the president has to act as commander-in-chief is after the intelligence comes back on the Iraqi intelligence involvement in the plot against former President Bush. Tell us a little bit about the dynamics of that decision.

When we heard about this, all of us were extremely concerned. A plot against a former president of the United States is a plot against the people of the United States. The evidence, when we first got it, was fairly but not completely conclusive, so we asked the CIA and the Justice Department to investigate, because the FBI had forensics capacities the CIA doesn't have. Here we ran into a problem that remains a problem to this day, which is what level of proof are you going to use before you react? Frankly, I thought that a sufficient level of proof was that we would be morally certain that it had happened, but it would not necessarily be in sufficient detail that it would stand up in an American court of law. The Justice Department brought to it that latter standard, that you had to in their domestic cases, to be able to stand before a jury and absolutely, conclusively prove it.

So there was a delay of--I've forgotten now--about a month or so while the FBI did its more exhaustive investigations and finally reached the conclusion that, yes, they too were convinced that the Iraqis were behind it.

In the meantime, Sandy Berger, then my deputy, not the National Security adviser, and I worked with the Pentagon in putting together various options for what a retaliatory strike would look like. They had come up with the options, and we had been discussing them in a series of meetings with the president. So when we got the proof, and the Justice Department could say that they were convinced, we were able to move reasonably quickly.

The president, to his credit in those meetings, from the start said, "Yes, we have to do it." He was also concerned about civilian innocent lives being lost in a strike, so we had to choose the target, both on the basis of the punishment fitting the crime, which led us to looking for the intelligence ministry or others who would have been involved in this. It had to be strong enough to send a message to the Iraqis, but it had to be done in a way that would not take unnecessary life. So we chose to hit the intelligence ministry after midnight. We had to wait until after the Muslim holy day to strike. And then we went ahead and did it.

At the last minute, a couple of the president's political advisors were concerned about what it could look like on television if there were any civilian casualties of any kind. I remember walking out into the garden off the Chief of Staff's Office, and the president was sitting there with a few of his political advisors, who were expressing those doubts. As I recall, I argued that, yes, people were going to get killed, but even more people would get killed in the future in terrorist incidents if we didn't deter the Iraqis from such behavior. They agreed. The president was, in any case, inclined to go ahead. He had made a decision, so we went ahead and did it.

That night then, I remember two things. Both of them flowed from the fact that we were shooting off the missiles. It was at night. Therefore, we were not going to have pictures right away of the effects, and since these were missiles, not planes, we wouldn't have immediate reporting on whether the strike was successful or not. The two things that I recall about that at first that some of the networks, of course, as soon as they knew that missiles had gone off, had to start reporting on it. So I remember watching lots of discussion on television about what all this meant--and I'm sympathetic, they had to fill the time--before anybody knew whether it had succeeded or not. And, secondly, of course, the president wanted to know what had happened.

We had assumed that we would immediately get some reports from CNN. There are no Americans there to report. But as it happens, CNN's crews were not in Baghdad at the time, so CNN was unable to tell us at least on camera what was going on.

I was talking to the CNN people in Atlanta, and that a member of their crew who was then in Amman, Jordan, had a relative in Baghdad, would be talking on the phone. They talked on the phone, called us back, and gave us some preliminary readout, but it was just from this relative. The president, when I reported this, he said, "Well, can we be certain about this?" And I said, "We only have relative certainty." He was about to go and address the nation, and didn't laugh very much.

This is one of several times where a news organization is going to give you information more quickly than the CIA can.

Of course. News organizations, first of all --contrary to what many abroad believe--have better coverage than the CIA does in many areas. And secondly, you get the picture on the camera, it goes immediately back to New York or wherever. It's on your screen within a few minutes now through the miracle of satellites.

When you're working information through the intelligence system-- either through the Pentagon or through the CIA or the State Department-- it has to go through layers because people are trying to turn the information into intelligence, which is to say, not only give you raw data, but also what it means. I used to press, unsuccessfully---and maybe I should have made a higher priority of this--for the establishment, either through the CIA or through our embassies, of a kind of a government form of CNN. [A system] in which you could have some junior officer go out on the street, try to see what was going on, take a photograph if necessary, and simply report it back to Washington, without going through other layers of people giving more mature opinions as to what this information might mean. I never did convince the CIA or the State Department that they had to do this.

In September, the White House is preparing for the Rabin-Arafat meeting, and there's all kinds of choreography for this handshake, and you play the role of the president. What was your mission there?

Well, the night before, we were thinking about the choreography in some meeting, and the president had said, "What do I do if, as is customary in the Middle East, Arafat embraces me?" This is not the photo that we were looking for. It could be embarrassing. I watched Rabin's face as he forced himself to shake Arafat's hand, even. After all, the PLO had been on our terrorist list earlier, and this is early on in Arafat's emergence as a peacemaker.

So the president said, "What do I do if he wants to embrace me?" And we just took the question on board, all of us. That night I thought about it, and then the next morning volunteered to suggest a way in which he could avoid it without looking as if he was trying to avoid it. And the president said, "What is it?" So I wasn't chosen to act as the president, but I just demonstrated. He stood up being Arafat, I stood up being him, and showed him, which was to shake his hand with one hand and then to grab his elbow somewhere near the funny bone, if possible, with the other hand and hold it so tight that it would look like a limited hang-out embrace. But that actually he could hold [Arafat] off in case he was moving towards more of a clinch. There was then, of course, some joking around with it. I was serious in doing it, but it also helped to break a something of a tense mood as we were worrying at the very last minute about whether all of this would be pulled off right.

The picture you didn't want seen in Israel the next morning was Arafat giving a big bear hug to the president.

Yes. It was hardly going to be balanced, first of all; and, secondly, this was the beginning of Arafat's emergence from the leader of an organization that had been responsible for terrorist action into his emergence as somebody who has played a vital role in the peace process.

In October, in Somalia...

If I could go on just for a moment about the Middle East... It was also fairly early on in the president's relationship with Yitzhak Rabin. And I think if there was any foreign leader that the president relied on, learned from, got more confidence from in dealing with foreign policy issues early on--when he was still feeling his way, for about the first year or so-- it was Rabin.

They had an extremely close relationship, and looking back on the four years, I'd say one of the two or three absolute worst things I had to do was to go out to the White House lawn-- the same lawn that they had celebrated the handshake on--to tell him that his friend had died, had been killed. It was as if I'd punched the president in the stomach.

In October '93, 18 Army Rangers die, 70 are injured in Somalia. The pictures that are broadcast worldwide are the dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. What was the president's gut, instinctive reaction to that?

I think his first reaction was, of course, horror at what had happened and dismay at it. This was at the same time as the crisis in Moscow, the same days. It was absolutely the bottom of the four years on national security issues generally.

And the second reaction was: So what do we do about this now? It was very difficult, and we had some very intense debates. The president didn't, as I recall, have a first reaction, a first decision. He wanted to hear from his advisers and from congressional leaders on what we should do. And there was very, very vigorous debate.

The first reaction overwhelmingly in the Congress was we shouldn't be in Somalia and to get out right now. And a number of senior, very senior members in the Senate were saying, in a week or two just get out of there.

I felt very, very strongly, and as did the people in the Defense Department and State Department, that we couldn't do that; that if we got out immediately after there had been these terrible pictures, we were simply going to put a bull's-eye on every American around the world. The message would be: You kill Americans, America withdraws from that situation.

So after some very difficult negotiations with the Congressional leadership, that the president conducted, and others of us conducted also, we reached an agreement with the Congress. ...We could build up for a while so that we could do it right, then gradually withdraw not only American forces but then help others get out. And by the following spring we had completely withdrawn.

But it was a close call, and I still believe that if we had immediately turned tail in Somalia, there would have been other similar tragedies around the world.

George Stephanopolous writes that the president believed that the United States had to be almost brutal in its response. He quotes the president in a rage saying, "I can't believe we're being pushed around by these two-bit jerks."

He probably said that at one of the meetings. George took notes and I didn't, so I defer to his memory. But...

But was the president angry about this and did he...

Oh, he was certainly...

...want to retaliate in kind and more?

As I said, he was angry. I'm not sure about his making an immediate decision on what to do. No, I think he was listening, and I think it's wrong to say that his immediate reaction was to retaliate. I think he knew that this was a serious situation, that we had a serious problem on our hands, and I recall more than one meeting in the Oval Office as we debated what to do.

You said....

But there is no question that he was angry and upset... As he should have been.

You say...this was the sort of bottom of the barrel...

Absolutely.

As far as you were concerned. You had Russia going on that day. You had demonstrators you were worried about. Then you had...

And Haiti.

And Haiti, and you had Somalia. Did this become a metaphor for the failure, the foreign policy failure in the early part of the administration?

Yes. Clearly, we inherited a Somali operation with no endpoint and no clear purpose, and we didn't make it better. I think it was a mistake to believe that we could do more in Somalia, so-called nation building. And then when Pakistani soldiers were killed there, we had to respond. We should have responded both through the kind of military actions we were taking, but also more in trying to find a diplomatic solution. It was hard to convince the UN to move more on the diplomatic side as well. It was our fault, UN's fault, everybody's fault.

Russia--not our fault, but a very serious crisis that we came through. And in Haiti, where we were trying to find a different diplomatic arrangement, we thought we had an agreement with the very tough, to put it mildly, government then in Haiti who were killing people for voicing their beliefs about democracy, et cetera. We thought we had an agreement with them for a diplomatic solution and we could send in a group of unarmed Canadian and American soldiers to help them implement that agreement.

When the government in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian Government, then went back on their word and refused to allow the Harlan County to dock and to let the soldiers go on shore, we were stuck because they couldn't fight their way on shore. They weren't a combat force.

Stop just for a minute, because this is a day that I remember very well. I mean, the Harlan County is sitting out there. All the cameras are trained in it, and it turns tail and sails back. This is a pretty humiliating--

It was--

--retreat for the United States of America.

Absolutely. It was a humiliation. It was a few days, before it left. And then there was a retreat.

The argument that we went through, and especially the people who were most concerned about images were arguing that the longer it stayed there, the more the humiliation was going to be. So we had to cut our losses, get out. We brought some destroyers to cruise around on the horizon so that people in Haiti could see that we were still there as we went back to diplomatic bargaining. But we were humiliated. I think it was a mistake. I remember feeling after Somalia, Haiti, and, to some degree, Russia that we had to get tougher. And so by early the next year, I was recommending that we go in military force in Haiti rather than continue to try the sanctions. We didn't right away. We didn't until the following fall. I think it was the right call to go in then--

Before you went in?

--but we had to find ways not just because it was humiliation here at home, but because the North Koreans, the Iraqis, and other tough neighborhoods, they were watching, and unless we found a way to get tougher, others could start testing us again. That is one reason, before we get to the fall of '94, why I believe it was so important that we succeeded in December and January at the end of '93. And at the beginning of '94, we were successful in convincing our NATO allies to go along with the ultimatum over Sarajevo, forcing the Serbs to pull their mortars back, bombing around Sarajevo until they did pull back, and the result was that for most of the remainder of '94 things got somewhat better in Bosnia. When the decision is made to broker some kind of an agreement in Haiti, your former boss, Jimmy Carter, heads the delegation. What was the concern in the White House about letting Jimmy Carter go off and freelance some kind of a deal?

Well, he wasn't freelancing. This came after a number of us who had been pushing for an invasion had succeeded, and the president had approved an invasion of Haiti. So we were ready to go, and the president had announced that we were about to invade Haiti, had told the de facto leaders in Haiti that "Your time is up." General Shali and I had been asked by the president to go to Haiti or at least to talk on the phone to the Haitian leaders to tell them that if they wanted to leave peacefully and with some dignity they could do so. But we were coming in, and they could no longer go on killing innocent people and abusing the rights of the Haitian people and creating this flow of refugees that was so difficult to deal with.

Senator Sam Nunn called and President Jimmy Carter had also called to say that they wanted to go down and try to broker something. There was some debate within the White House then as to whether or not to do this. As I recall, the vice president and I said that we really had to let them go. The president had agreed. But we talked with them first, made it clear that there was a bottom line here, and the bottom line was that while they could negotiate on the circumstances of their leaving, the de facto regime had to go.

Afterwards, there was an unseemly argument by some of the spinners on both sides as to who got the credit for their leaving. Whether it was the administration, because the paratroopers were on their way, when Cedras finally agreed to go--literally they were in the air--or whether it was Carter and Nunn and Powell, all of whom I have a great respect for.

I think it was both, and it was a stupid argument. They offered Cedras a more dignified exit, but also it was at the very end when Colin Powell laid out in very strong terms to Cedras what would happen if there was a hostile invasion by the United States, that Cedras finally bent and agreed to leave.

Srebrenica is April of '95. So let's get '94...

April, May--I can't remember.

After the '94 elections, Dick Morris gets a more prominent role in the White House and on several occasions tries to weigh in on national security matters. What was your reaction to that?

I had never heard of Dick Morris before the night that Captain Scott O'Grady was saved in Bosnia, and the president was up very late while I was getting reports from the Pentagon on how the rescue operation was going. It was about 1:00 in the morning when I got word finally that they'd not only had gotten him but that he was out over the Adriatic and safe on an American plane and out of Yugoslav territory.

So I called the president 1:00, 2:00 in the morning to say, hooray, we've gotten him out, our guys did a great job getting him out. I reminded the president of when I had smoked a cigar on the first day of the new administration, on Inaugural Day....the smell had gotten down to the Oval Office, and I believe the first lady had said that there would be no smoking thereafter, and I hadn't smoked since then....but that, by God, since nobody else was down there in the West Wing except me, I was going to light up a cigar. And he suggested, no, I come up to the residence and we'd go out on the Truman balcony and we'd each smoke a cigar, very quietly so we wouldn't wake up the first lady.

When I got up there, there was this guy I had never seen before who was talking to the president, and the president introduced me, and this was Dick Morris. I was struck that as he walked out, he said, "Good night, Bill." It was the only time in four years that I ever heard anybody call him Bill except for the First Lady. Everybody else, including the vice president, of course always did what everybody always does, which is to call him "Mr. President." So I didn't take an instant liking to him then, though what followed wasn't personal.

When I heard that he was more engaged doing daily polling, or however often it was, it struck me that it would be a very bad idea for me ever to talk to him to get his polling results, et cetera, for two reasons. One, you shouldn't make national security decisions based on domestic polls; and, secondly, it would be bad politics because if there were stories that I was making recommendations based on the polling, it would hurt the president, not help him politically.

So with both those arguments, I went to the president and said I don't think I should ever talk to this guy, I don't think I should read his polls, just, you know, keep us in compartments. And he not only agreed, he said that he'd already told him not to have anything to do with me.

I know Morris subsequently wrote that I was naive in believing you could separate politics from foreign policy, (and that there was one occasion when I didn't give him my dead rodent look, i.e., not that I was being a dead rodent, because I must have been in a good mood, et cetera, I don't remember all of that.) But what I do remember is, one, obviously you're never in a democracy going to separate foreign policy and domestic politics; but, two, the best politics are the best policies, and it really doesn't matter what the public opinion is over the next 48 hours or so. What'll matter is 48 days or 48 months later whether your policies are succeeding or not, and, therefore, it would be wrong to make policies based on polls.

One of the things that Morris did weigh in on was Bosnia.

Yes, and that was useful. It was useful because it did push the president--as a number of us, notably Madeleine Albright and I, were doing also--in the belief, which he was increasingly holding, that it was time to go to the Europeans and saying we've got to fish or cut bait here. And we did that in the summer of '95.

In April, Srebrenica is under siege. You have people resigning from the State Department in protest to what is perceived as a lack of action, and there's a time when the president seems to be wavering. There is a report inside the White House that he's going south on American steadfastness about Srebrenica. Do you recall that?

No. I remember it differently. I remember the people resigning from the State Department, and I remember being very conflicted about this because I had resigned once from the White House and the State Department on a policy issue many, many years ago. So I admired them for doing it. But, as I suppose the people I was working for when I resigned many years earlier believed, I didn't think they were aware of the full scope of the dilemma we were facing. Nor were they aware of the fact that beginning in March, Sandy Vershbow--the senior director for European Affairs on the NSC and who deserves more credit for this than he's been given--and I and Sandy Berger, and a couple of others, were working on what we called an end-game strategy. We believed that the time had come to simply go to the Europeans and say, yes, we're aware of your problems, we're aware of the dilemma we're all in with your people on the ground, but it is time to put a stop to this, period, whatever the cost. And we were working that strategy.

The president knew from March on, or whenever we were working it, what I was doing, in holding meetings, trying to develop this strategy, fine-tuning it, trying to convince our colleagues, if not to agree to it, to come up with their own strategies and to work this through. We had to do this in the midst of daily crises of how to deal with Srebrenica, et cetera, et cetera, and it was difficult and complicated but we were doing it. I kept the president informed as we were developing this strategy, which ultimately led to the Dayton negotiations.

In August '95 I traveled around Europe giving the European leaders a very clear message, which was that we believed it was time to allow the UN mission in Bosnia to collapse if it had to, so that their troops would no longer be hostage on the ground. Even though [the mission] was doing good work, humanitarian good work on the ground, we needed a new negotiating strategy, which we laid out, and that we were going to use much more vigorous bombing if necessary.

To my surprise, in August, the Europeans were far more ready to go ahead with us when I said the president had decided we were going to do this, we would be more effective if you come with us. However if you don't, we're going to go ahead and do it, anyway.

There was a sense of abandonment among the Bosnians at the time because the United States had been talking tough, there were these safe havens, and when Srebrenica occurred, there was little response. I remember Elie Wiesel almost publicly scolded the president in his speech at the Holocaust Museum.

Yeah.

What was the president's reaction to that?

It was very painful. There was nobody who didn't want to get it fixed. But, again, we had to fix it in a way that was not going to destroy NATO. Until we got the Europeans to agree to this new approach, as they did finally in August--an approach, in effect, that we'd been pushing for a year and a half--the choice was to do what the Elie Wiesels, to their credit, wanted us to do and largely destroy NATO, or to keep working for some middle ground. Finally the middle ground gave way, and thank God.

Remember that there were peacekeepers in Srebrenica at the time, and remember that we were bombing in the area and trying to preserve the safe haven through bombing, and remember that there was absolutely zero support in the Congress or in our public for sending in our own ground troops to do something about this. Although a number of us had gotten the agreement on a new policy in which if the European troops or all the UN troops within Bosnia got themselves in trouble in the eastern areas, we would go in to help them get out and come to the rescue. And that itself was extremely controversial.

I think a key difference here was that European public opinion changed after Srebrenica, and what changed was that President Chirac in France called for much stronger action. And those two things then helped us sell the new policy to the Europeans that led then to the Dayton Accords.

Did the president have very mixed feelings about the American involvement even after Srebrenica? Because, as you say, on the one hand, there was little appetite in Congress or in the American public opinion polls; on the other hand, he had made sort of a moral imperative that the United States was going to protect the Muslims.

Within the limits of what we could sell the Europeans, we on a number of occasions--the Sarajevo ultimatum, the African lift and strike, et cetera--and I'm not saying that we did this perfectly. We didn't. And this was an agonizing issue for us at the time. It's an agonizing issue still in retrospect.

But I believe we have a fundamental strategic interest in NATO and an expanding NATO that can help bring stability farther and farther East in Europe. And if we were going to do this in a way that didn't blow NATO apart then we had to bring along the Europeans or put the Europeans on sufficient notice about when we were going to act unilaterally that we didn't blow it up. And that finally happened in '95.

Every day of this was agony because this was more than a moral commitment that we had made. It was hurting us very badly, not just here in the United States but around the world, because Bosnia had become equated with America's capacity to project power and to get things done.

Was Dayton then viewed as a remarkable success within the White House?

Yes, of course, it was a success in that we had stopped the fighting. But I think we were all aware that it wasn't a success in the sense that now that Bosnia is fixed, we can go on to something else. It was the beginning of what remains a long and extremely difficult effort to try to heal the wounds and to see whether we can hold together Bosnia as a state. I'm not sure still whether in the long term that will be a success. But Dayton was sure as hell a success compared to a continuation of the war, and Dayton was, I think, certainly the best that we could get at the time given the positions of the parties. Dayton our ability to get that done flowed from two factors: One, our making it very clear to the Serbs that we were prepared to use further military power if they did not ultimately agree; and, secondly, the skill of our negotiators, Dick Holbrooke, Warren Christopher, and others.

In the spring of '96, tensions erupt over the Straits of Taiwan, and the Chinese launch a mock exercise. Obviously it was taken seriously, but to what extent did the president think he had a genuine crisis that might lead to war on his hands? Or did it never reach that level?

No, it reached that level. This was the second most dangerous crisis we faced. I think the worst was in '94 over the North Korean nuclear programs when we were threatening sanctions against North Korea if they would not agree to what turned out to be the Framework Agreement, in which we got their nuclear programs frozen, at a real price. The North Koreans were saying that they would turn Seoul into a sea of fire, that they would attack if we implemented those sanctions. We were absolutely prepared to implement them, and I think we would have gotten some form of sanctions through the Security Council.

We were building up our forces quietly in South Korea and off the coast, and it was as close as we came to what would have been an extremely bloody conflict. We would have won in the end, but there would have been huge casualties, including among Americans. So that was the most dangerous.

Clearly, the Taiwan Strait crisis was very dangerous as well. We went through some considerable planning with the Pentagon on how we would proceed if there were a real attack on Taiwan or even on the offshore islands. I asked my staff to go back and look at what we had ever said before to Beijing as to what would happen if there were an attack on Taiwan.

Then I held meeting with my opposite number from Beijing, who was visiting Washington at that time, as it happened. He had launched the so-called strategic dialogue, a dialogue we then pursued when I went to Beijing to meet with their leaders. Secretary Perry and Secretary Christopher and I told him that an attack on Taiwan would have "grave consequences," which in diplomatic language is a very tough statement. And, of course, we sent the two aircraft carriers at Secretary Perry's recommendation off Taiwan, not actually into the straits.

In the spring of '96, when the president is dealing with the Chinese, what kind of pressure is he under? I mean, he's viewed by some in the military as not a particularly strong commander-in-chief. This is, perhaps, the most serious, genuine crisis of his career, in the presidency. How did he handle it, personally?

Let me argue with your question. During '93 I think there was a lot of suspicion about him in the military. By '96, I think one of the striking things about it was that, in fact, because of Bosnia, because of the hands-on way he dealt with Haiti, et cetera, because we didn't simply turn tail and run immediately in Somalia, and because he developed very close personal working relationship with General Shalikashvili and others, I don't think that was a problem.

And my recollection of our planning, of our decision meetings with the president on the Taiwan Strait crisis were that they were very businesslike, very clear, straightforward and dealt with, with the seriousness as appropriate to a crisis like that.

Did the president, himself, argue that the United States' response was going to be extremely forceful should the Chinese attack?

He approved both what we said and the contingency planning that we were doing. We never said precisely what we would do if there was such an attack and have not done so since. And I would hope the next administration would not do so.

Well, you used the term, the diplomatic term, as you said...

Yes, grave consequences.

"Grave consequences?"

That means that there will be a forceful response. But we haven't said to them exactly what the nature of that forceful response would be. Because if you do that, then you allow the other side to judge very clearly whether an action is in its interests or not. ...And so long as they know that there would be that response, some degree of ambiguity is not just useful, but I believe necessary, so that they can't be too comfortable in any of their own assumptions. And if I were they, I would not be at all comfortable about this one.

Later in '96, the National Security Council got caught up a little bit in the campaign fund-raising issue. And some of the people who made it over to these White House coffees had been vetted by the NSC. In fact, the NSC issued a warning on a couple of them--Johnny Chung and Roger Tamraz. How did you deal with that, as national security adviser, when your own staff had essentially warned the White House "buyer beware" here?

I'm not aware that any national security adviser before or since got deeply into the questions of who enters the White House or who doesn't. Not only am I not aware of it, I've worked previously in the NSC. I'm convinced that was never the case.

The way the process works is that they're going to be invited. If they have foreign connections, it goes through the staff secretariat right to our staff people, who would not do an independent investigation of these people, but instead would go to the agencies and say, "Hey, have you got anything on these people?" If they had anything, then they would convey it back.

So they did their job wonderfully, our staff people. And I can't criticize any of them. They did, in effect, blow a whistle. But, since we didn't have this larger context, it was never the kind of issue in which somebody was saying, "Hey, wait a minute. They're going to make a big mistake here." The issue comes up to me, and I would have to weigh in with the chief of staff or anybody else. I can't remember any of these cases ever working their way up that way because we were doing our job.

Now, you could argue the NSC should become the keeper of the gates at the White House and make decisions as to who should be invited to presidential coffees that are not on national security meetings. I would argue, if you're going to do that, not only should you build up the staff of the NSC to take on this new function, but you ought to fire the people and reduce the staff of those whose function it is.

When you look back...

I thought a lot of the reaction to all of this was near hysterical, frankly.

That's because it was political.

Yes. And that is one reason why, to the degree you can, I think you ought to keep national security issues and politics separate.

The Clinton legacy--we're asking everybody to keep this one brief--if you were in the foreign policy arena to sort of sum up the Clinton legacy, good and bad, in one short sentence, what might it be?

I'm a professor. You've got to give me three sentences.

Three short sentences.

Three short sentences. Two kinds of issues: immediate crises and longer term strategic issues. The immediate crises inherited--Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, North Korea, et cetera--and those we dealt with. We dealt with them imperfectly, and in some cases, as with Haiti and Somalia, we initially could have done a whole lot better than we did. But by '96, those were pretty much out of the headlines anyway.

So that second sentence, we could deal with what I think will be the main legacy, which is broader strategic issues. And here we made a very important beginning on NATO enlargement, on the creation of the Partnership for Peace in Europe, on a number of arms control treaties--which have suffered more recent setbacks on the Hill--but still are very important to our future.

In understanding the connections in this, the president played a central role between economic issues and diplomatic issues and between foreign and domestic issues. So that on something like 200 trade agreements that we reached, we are helping the American economy be so interconnected with the world that it is helping not just the world, but driving the success of the American economy itself.

So it's on the longer term issues, I take the greatest pride, even though we spent most of the time on the crises. Because we did make a beginning, I think it will serve us well in the next century.

You say you spent most of your time on these crises. Is that just a function of the way the White House works in the real world?

It's not just the White House in the real world, it's all of us. You've got an in box. You've got the immediate issues, you've got the important issues. And in any in box, whether it's a business or the government, anywhere, the immediate rises to the top, the important tends to go to the bottom because you can deal with that tomorrow--the immediate today. And one thing I used to tell myself almost every day to remember is to go to the bottom and push. We did it on NATO enlargement, for example, during '93, in the midst of all of these other crises...To push on the strategic issues because that's going to be the legacy, and that's what matters most in the long run, like peace in the Middle East.

I guess did the president worry that [ground troops in Bosnia] was going to be a tough sell?

I think the president did worry that it was going to be tough sell, sending American troops on the ground into Bosnia. And if you look at the images of Bosnia that the American public were seeing, it was a very, very tough place to be, a dangerous place. Never mind, of course, that this is now in the context of a peace agreement and there would not, at least in theory, be hostile forces there.

So a key to getting the troops in and getting congressional support for it--and it was hard work--was to make a commitment that they would be there for one year or 18 months, whatever it was. The reason for that was that, in terms of the military job that we had to do, stopping the fighting, opening lines of communication, et cetera, the military said that's the time period in which we can do it. So we put that out. But I won't pretend it also didn't help sell it.

This is very important in understanding peacekeeping missions, it's the civilian side that is the more difficult and takes a longer time, actually creating development, economic development on the ground, bringing people together, et cetera, et cetera, creating a good police force. That was taking longer, and it was clear by the end of '96 that we weren't getting it done on the civilian side, and therefore were going to have to stay longer. I think that it should have been stated clearly before the election, rather than after it. But the final recommendations on this weren't made until after the election.

It raises a larger point, however, about peacekeeping operations. I think that it is wrong to argue that we simply can turn away from them, that the United States shouldn't be playing even more of a role in peacekeeping missions around the world. Most of the conflicts around the world which affect our interests, as well as tug at our consciences, are internal conflicts that require some kind of peacekeeping to help to resolve them.

However I think the critics of peacekeeping missions are right when they argue that we need to be clearer about our purposes so that we know when we will have succeeded, so that we can tell our soldiers, "Well, done. You've done your job. You can come home."

And I would argue that we must not allow ourselves to get in a position in Bosnia or anywhere else--and this is what we did in Haiti, where there are no American troops now--to say to those societies and governments, we can't build your society, we can't make you reconcile. We can give you a period of time in which you can do it for yourselves. And if you can't do it in some reasonable period of time, whether it's 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, whatever, if you can't do that yourselves, then we have done what we can, and we're going to leave. Otherwise we're going to end up with peacekeeping missions around the world without end.



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