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Tony Blair

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In the war in Kosovo, British Prime Minister Tony Blair emerged as the most hawkish of NATO's leaders. As he explains in this interview, he was concerned that NATO's air war against Milosevic might not succeed and he pushed hard to keep the option of a ground invasion alive.
At one point, you wrote about the war in Kosovo being a moral crusade. What did you mean by this? Why was this a war worth fighting?

There were big strategic interests that would have justified intervention in their own right. But I felt that this was the closest thing to racial genocide that I've seen in Europe since the Second World War. I didn't feel that we could simply stand aside from that if we had the means, which we did, to intervene and to stop it.

Did that moral imperative stay stayed with you all the way through it?

Yes, it did. These situations are always really tight and difficult decisions, and there were points in time when it looked quite difficult, but I was convinced that once we started it, we had to finish it. If we hadn't done so, it would have really given encouragement to dictators everywhere. Once you're in a situation like that, you have to see it through, which we did. If we stood aside and let those people be displaced in that way, with many of them brutally murdered and killed and just done nothing, it would have made our whole job a lot more difficult in a whole series of different ways.

I was quite struck afterwards by the number of people from different parts of the world who said to me, "Look, it was important that you did that." It was important--not just that NATO delivered a series of demands, said it would back them up with force, delivered those demands, and the realization of them--but also that that type of ethnic cleansing was not allowed to continue unchecked.

Was there a specific moment when it dawned on you that Britain and the NATO allies generally were going to be deeply involved in something that could turn out to be a shooting war?

That feeling came upon us more gradually. Even throughout the Rambouillet process, I thought it was still possible that we could get Milosevic to see sense. I didn't quite see what the point was from his point of view, in getting into a battle with NATO that in the end he was bound to lose, if we had the will to see it through. So I thought it was possible that we could negotiate a deal. There were times when I thought that, really, although we were deeply committed to this, it was going to be possible to avoid conflict.

Let's go forward in 1998, to the Holbrooke initiative. The president sends Dick Holbrooke over to Belgrade. A deal is done, and the unarmed OSCE mission goes in. What did you think about that at the time? Did you think it would hold?

There were some hopeful signs there. Richard Holbrooke put together the deal, and people came back down off the hills from Kosovo, and returned to Pristina and the other towns in Kosovo. It looked as if it was possible that that would hold. We knew there were some more steps of this to be worked through. We were hopeful that negotiations might succeed, and we were going to give them every chance of succeeding. Certainly, from my perspective, I was doing everything I could, to try and get a negotiated settlement, because I knew what it would be like if we didn't. But at the back of our minds was the thought and, in a sense, the obligation, to use force if we had to.

What was the significance of the massacre at Racak?

Racak was important because it was a gross act. It was an indication that Milosevic was prepared to use methods of ethnic cleansing. It suggested that this could become part of a pattern. We sent a very strong signal after that, and I remember having conversations with other leaders at the time, saying that as far as we're concerned, if there is repetition of this, we've got to go in.

Can you characterize some of those conversations?

There was a sense of shock as a result of that, at the barbarity of it, and recognition that this might not be negotiable. Obviously, we carried on trying to reach an agreement, but people had a very clear understanding that if Racak was repeated, or if that became a pattern, then we were going to act.

So it was a true pivotal moment.

I think it was pivotal, yes.

What are your memories of the day that the bombing started? You spoke to President Clinton. Did you know, incidentally, that he was going to say what he said about not intending to use ground forces? What were your thoughts? To this day, there are doubts that this administration would ever have been prepared to commit ground forces to Kosovo.

People in the administration should answer that question. I believe that President Clinton was determined not to lose this thing.

If the only way you couldn't lose was to use ground troops . . .

In the end, it never came to that choice, but if it had, then the consequences of losing were very, very serious indeed. Bill Clinton was very, very clear that we would never allow Milosevic to succeed. It was a question of making sure that we kept the planning and the option for ground troops open, so that if we really needed to, we could. But in any event, you'd need a prolonged air campaign before you went in.

If we didn't act, then what?  Then he ethnic cleanses Kosovo, and the whole region  is  totally destabilized. Europe and NATO are shown to be powerless.  ... Those are some pretty major consequences. Everyone, all the way through, was very conscious of the fact we had to keep the NATO alliance together, and we had agreed on a strategy. President Clinton was simply speaking to the strategy that we had agreed on. But at the time, obviously, our thoughts were full of the fact that we had started military action, and as I said in the House of Commons when we announced it, this wasn't going to produce an overnight result. We had to prepare people for that.

It was unclear as to exactly how Milosevic might react. I always knew that, if our armed forces are engaged in any form of action, you feel a very great sense of responsibility, and a great sense of apprehension. There is nothing worse, as a political leader, than taking those types of decisions. . . . You don't take these types of decisions out of some sort of macho knee-jerk reaction. It's not the feeling you have at all. I was clear that it had to be done.

After three days things looked pretty rocky. By the weekend, particularly by the Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the refugees were really streaming out. The F17s had been down north of Belgrade. Can you remember your thoughts that weekend?

They were anger and determination, in about equal quantities. It was an appalling thing to do to people. Had there been any doubt in mind up to that point, it would have been removed at that point. It's important that people realize, however, that this process of displacing people had been going on for a long time before that. It was accelerated by Milosevic's decision. But the year before, there had probably been 300,000 people displaced. And it was apparent at a later time that, though Racak was a particularly bad event, in fact there had been smaller incidents of a similar nature going on continually.

The next few weeks were still pretty rocky. Some things went wrong, and you know in modern politics that you need public support for anything that puts peoples' lives in danger. Some of those early mistakes, such as the bombing of the convoy of refugees . . . Did that hurt?

Yes. I felt two things very strongly. First of all, when you fight an action like this in modern politics in our modern media world, you're fighting it on television. It's an extraordinary thing. But if you look back at any military action in history, the idea that things happened that shouldn't, or that weren't meant to happen--errors and mistakes of this sort--it's a small miracle that there were so few of them. And of course it was a frustration to us, too, which is the second point. Milosevic, in a sense, had charge of the media agenda, and that was difficult for us.

But I did not for one instant feel that those events meant that the action was wrong. . . . I tried so hard to bring about a peaceful negotiated settlement, because if you start military action, people die. That's what happens in wars, and the innocent die as well as the guilty. You hope there is more of the latter than the former, but that is what happens. I also felt, for our public opinions, what was tremendously important was that we, as leaders, went out there and really told people why we were doing this. The more that we did that, the more that people hung with us through it.

Preserving a consensus among 19 NATO members, among the members of the alliance--how difficult was that?

I think, in retrospect, it was easier than it would have been reasonable to imagine. But obviously, from time to time, it seemed difficult, and the difficulty was over this issue of ground troops. To put it bluntly, that was a problem for people. Two contradictory things happened when the mass exodus of refugees occurred. One, the situation became far more difficult for us, because you had this mass expulsion, therefore you had to deal with the possibility of destabilization in Macedonia and Albania. You had to deal with refugee camps, and sorting all that out. At the same time, contrarily, it became easier for us to tell our public that this is why we've got to go and stop this guy doing these things, because, as you can now see, if you had any doubt that he was a bad man, you've got no doubt now. So, in a way, our task became easier in terms of public opinion. Some of the leaders of countries were less enthusiastic, shall we say, about the action. And it became easier for them to say to people, "Come on, we really can't allow this to happen."

Everything is proceeding. We've had three or four weeks of tricky conditions. You're all literally about to arrive in Washington for what was going to be a great party for NATO's 50th anniversary, but which is essentially going to be a Kosovo summit. What was the ground troops debate like in Washington?

There was a huge reluctance and hesitation, of course, to make such a big commitment, and that's perfectly natural. It is immensely to the credit of the United States of America that they were providing about 80% of the assets in the air campaign for a dispute that was on our doorstep in Europe. It was never surprising that people were reluctant to commit ground troops. In the wrong set of circumstances, that would have been a very big commitment to make indeed, and in any event, it was obvious you needed the air campaign first.

So you and President Clinton could find common ground.

We never found uncommon ground, if you like, at all, but there was something that he stressed rightly throughout--the need to keep NATO together. If NATO fractured, obviously that would help Milosevic. But part of the difficulty in this is that all of us were giving interviews, and people would ask about ground troops. Now, there are three things you can do. You can say we're definitely going to do it. You can say we're definitely not going to do it, or you can say it's an option, and it's on the table. In the end, I think that was the sensible thing to say, and it's really what Bill Clinton said.

By the middle of May, the press actually is creating a bit of a problem. The British press reports that you and the foreign secretary really want to start planning for ground troops, and possibly for moving in. The Washington Post and the New York Times both do stories saying that the British are pushing for quicker and faster action in terms of planning for ground troops. You have a much-talked-about long phone conversation with President Clinton on the night of May 18. What was that like?

When these things are put out in the papers, positions are far more rigidly described than they really are. It was important, in my view, to keep the option open, and to plan for the possibility of ground troops--even though we wouldn't want to do it--but to leave that possibility open. On the other hand, it was also important to make sure that the NATO alliance kept together. We had to make sure those things stayed together, which I think Bill Clinton did with remarkable skill, really.

We are sufficiently friendly with each other, and know each other well enough, to have a frank conversation about it. But it would be wrong to think that he was sitting there saying, "Oh, I'm never going to use ground troops." That wasn't his argument at all. His argument was that it's important that we handle this issue in a way that keeps the alliance together, and I was sensitive to that, too. The only time I would have been really agitated is, although this didn't happen, is if people said, "Let's remove that option from the table," because that would have sent all the wrong signals to Milosevic. He had to know that we were prepared to do whatever it took to win, and we had to be prepared to do whatever it took to win. As I used to say throughout to people, what's the bottom line here? And the bottom line for me was that we can't lose this.

Did you see it as kind of part of your personal mission--making sure that the use of ground troops was out there as a possible option?

It would have been very presumptuous of me to do that. But what I did think was that we had to do the actual planning, because of the time it would take to put a force in place. I was worried throughout that Milosevic was stringing us along, dragging this out without sufficient time for us to get troops in before the winter. The winter there is a tough affair. It was obviously important that we didn't allow him to out-maneuver us in that way. I would have been perfectly happy if there had never been any public discussion of ground troops at all. But it was not possible to do that, because it was an issue, and it was there on the agenda. My real anxiety was to make sure that if we needed to, we could physically do it.

Was there a moment when you thought that we might really have to use ground troops, and get ready for a summer campaign?

Yes, I thought that was possible. I thought it was more possible. . . if Milosevic thought that we stop at the point where we had to use ground troops. In the end, he settled for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was the Russian involvement. I don't take that away at all. But I think it was important that he understood that our bottom line had crystallized around not losing.

A number of people have said to us that you and the president, at various moments, had this conversation, in which one of you said to the other, "Let's be clear about one thing. We're not going to lose," and the phrase that you just used--"crystallized." Is that shorthand for "We'll do everything it takes to win?"

Yes. You had to decide what the consequences of losing would be. The consequence of losing would not just be appalling for the people in Kosovo. Those refugees would have stayed, and heaven knows what would have happened to the region. But NATO's credibility would have been incredibly damaged. Then the next time, say, if Saddam gets out of his box, or somebody like that, and we say we're going to take action, people would say, "Well, prove it."



After that period in the middle of May, you had the NATO summit, and bombing, bombing, bombing. There's another terrible horror show--the Chinese embassy. Was there a moment when you really started thinking to yourself, "Good God, this isn't going to be over until the fall, and may go into the winter?"

I thought that was possible, yes. I was aware of the fact that I had really tied quite a lot into it. I believe that once you take these types of decisions and decide you're in for it, you may was well just get on with it, and the rest is in the lap of the gods, and your own determination to see it through. One thing that you have to be very careful with, in any issue like this, is at the very beginning, you've got to know what you're getting yourself into, in the worst-case scenario. I recognized, from the very beginning, that this might be a very long, drawn-out and difficult affair. What's important is to always get back to first principles in situations like this. I always used to go back to question, if we didn't act, then what? Then he ethnic cleanses Kosovo, and the whole region really is then totally destabilized. Europe and NATO are shown to be powerless, and a terrible act of barbarity has taken place with nothing happening from the international community. Those are some pretty major consequences.

Let's follow what you were saying about the consequences of not acting.

Were you quite convinced that if the Strobe/Ahtisaari/Chernomyrdin initiative had run into the sand--and there were times when it looked as if it was going to--that the American administration would have been prepared to move to the next step towards using ground troops?

I believe that President Clinton was prepared to see the thing through, yes.

And seeing the thing through would have . . .

I believe he was prepared to contemplate using ground troops, if there was no other way that we could do this. But that's not to say that he wouldn't have done so with a very great deal of reluctance, for very obvious reasons. I think that bottom line about not losing was indeed the bottom line for people.

Because the consequences were beyond a small corner of Europe . . .

Yes, I think the consequences would have been really immense, on the credibility of NATO, and on world stability. In fact, my view is that what has happened over the past few years is that politics is becoming increasingly globalized, along with everything else, such as international finance, technology, mass communication. When these big issues arise, it's very hard for them now to remain localized. It's very hard for the international community to stand apart. The position of America is obviously absolutely central to that. We haven't yet worked out exactly how a doctrine of how the international community should operate, or how the institutions of the international community have to be adjusted. But this is a very, very big part now of a debate that is necessary to have. It's a debate in where it's very important that America engage all the way through its system, because in the end, these things can't work without the US, and we need to be thinking these things through. Kosovo was just an illustration of that. It could happen again in a different way, in a different place--East Timor very nearly did.

Right at the beginning, you said this in your statement to the House of Commons: "We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from imminent humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by brutal dictatorship. We must act to save the Balkan region, where we know that chaos can engulf the whole of the European community. We have no alternative but to act, and act we will, until Milosevic chooses the path of peace." Do you think that the war achieved those goals that you set out when you started?

Yes, I do, taken as a whole. Yes, thousands of people still died. Yes, disaster still befell many parts of that area. But if you went and talked to people in Kosovo today, they would think it was worth it. In the end, the test was those three-quarters of a million people going back, and they did go back. That's not to say there aren't still great problems still there. Milosevic is still there, which is a problem all in itself. It is a tragedy for the area whilst he remains. But the ethnic cleansing was stopped and was reversed.

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