You came into the Kosovo negotiations with a great deal of experience with
Milosevic from the Dayton process. What was your thinking about Milosevic and
how he responded to force? What kind of diplomatic language did he
In 1995, diplomat Richard Holbrooke urged NATO to drop "bombs for peace" in Bosnia -
and thereby pressure the Bosnian Serbs, and their protector Slobodan Milosevic,
to come to the bargaining table. Holbrooke's success in the ensuing negotiations
led the Administration to call upon him again in Kosovo. In 1998, Holbrooke concluded
the October Agreement with Milosevic, allowing roughly 250,000 Kosovar Albanians
to return home and establishing a short-lived cease-fire monitoring regime.
In the final days before the war, NATO turned to Holbrooke once again for a last-ditch,
and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to negotiate with Milosevic. Holbrooke is currently the
United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
I regret to say, but it is obvious that Milosevic only responds to force or the
absolute incredible threat of the use of force. This was clear in Bosnia, and
it was clear in Kosovo.
And it was clear from your past experience that, for Milosevic, Kosovo was
different than Bosnia. How so?
Kosovo was different, not only to Milosevic, but to the international
community, and that's why it was such a uniquely troubling issue. The
international community always supported the independence claims for a separate
independent nation of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The
1995 NATO bombing in Bosnia was in support of an independent state being
jeopardized by its neighbors, who refused to recognize its independence, and
which led to the success at Dayton.
Kosovo was entirely different. Kosovo was viewed by the international
community--rightly or wrongly, but officially--as part of Yugoslavia. Now,
from an ethnic, or cultural, or an historic point of view, you could argue
that. In fact, the Albanians of Kosovo and the Serbs of Yugoslavia are more
different than the Serbs, Moslems and Croats in Bosnia, all of whom in Bosnia
had the same language, the same culture, the same background and substantial
inter-marriage. In Kosovo, none of that applied. The religions were usually
different, but most importantly, they had a different language, different
culture, different history and a formidable irreconcilable dispute. In Bosnia,
the ethnic hatred was manufactured by racists, demagogues and crooks.
But yet, the international community did not accept Kosovo's claim to
independence. The late Bush administration started on December 25, 1992, with
President Bush's famous Christmas warning, telling Milosevic that he should not
abuse the human rights of the Albanians of Kosovo, but that Kosovo was part of
Serbia. This was a very complicated equation. But it was the position of the
Clinton administration, and the Europeans inherited and held to it.
You, yourself, spoke with Milosevic about the Christmas warning at Dayton,
and even after. Tell me about that, and about his reaction.
I repeatedly reaffirmed the Christmas warning of the Bush administration on
instructions, as did the rest of the Clinton administration. His reaction was
that Kosovo is an internal matter. We said we accept the fact that Kosovo is
inside the Yugoslav national boundary, but that does not give you the right to
squash its people.
The Christmas warning basically suggests that the US would take unilateral
action, that Kosovo is the red line. The question of the use of force comes up
in the spring of 1998. What's the decision on that? What's Washington
thinking about that, and what are you advising?
My advice and position on Kosovo, from the beginning of my involvement in the
spring of 1998 on, was basically that the Serbs and the Albanians would never
be able to settle their problems unless there was an outside international
security presence on the ground. The hatred between Serbs and Albanians in
Kosovo was far, far greater than any of the so-called ethnic hatreds of Bosnia,
which had been grossly exaggerated by the crooks, and the mafioso demagogues in
the ethnic communities of Bosnia. This was the real thing in Kosovo between
Albanians and the Serbs. Different cultures, different languages, and
different histories, but a common obsession with the same sacred soil. And,
therefore, it was going to be essential for us to recognize that the situation
would require an outside involvement.
What about the application of force at that time?
In the spring of 1998--I cannot remember if it came up explicitly at that
time--but it was always in the air. By the time the Serb security forces
launched their pillaging and rampaging in the summer of 1998, it was absolutely
clear to Secretary Albright and myself that it had to be on the table.
So you go to see Milosevic in May of 1998. Tell me about that meeting. What
kind of state of mind did you find him in? What mood was he in?
He expressed an immediate willingness to meet with the Albanian leadership,
provided the meeting took place in his palace in Belgrade. Chris Hill and I
then went down to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. We talked to the Albanians,
to Rugova and his colleagues, and they agreed to the meeting. And so that
first trip in May of 1998 resulted in the first face-to-face talk ever between
the Serb leaders and the Kosovo Albanian leaders. This was a promising start,
and it was supposed to be followed up by weekly meetings at the staff level, at
the working level in Kosovo, to discuss the practical issues to avoid a
Prior to the second of those meetings, Dr. Rugova and his team met with
President Clinton in the White House on May 29, 1998. On that same day, the
Serb security forces attacked a town in western Kosovo. One of the Albanian
delegation members called me up and said, "I don't think that our side can
continue these talks with the Serbs in light of this." I said that I
understood. From that point on, the summer rampage of 1998 was set. The talks
broke down after two sessions, and they never resumed again. . . .
When did you first realize that you needed to talk to the KLA, and why talk
to a group that was practicing violence?
Well, it was obvious to me from early on. I had already met with senior KLA
representatives in secret, with no publicity, weeks and weeks earlier. And I
had been in steady contact with them, because they were a legitimate part of
the process. Whether they espoused a violent solution or not, you couldn't
ignore them, because they were imposing their presence on the relationship.
But Rugova, the acknowledged leader of the Albanians--the man who preached
non-violence, who has photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in his
house--was the person we dealt with publicly.
And what were you trying to do with the KLA in these secret negotiations?
What was the purpose?
We were trying to get them to work with Rugova in a united front that would
negotiate in a non-violent situation. That proved to be impossible, because
the Serb security forces endlessly provoked them with actions that, in effect,
made Milosevic the KLA's best recruiting officer. In fact, I told Milosevic
this. I said, "You know, you are the best thing that ever happened to the KLA.
You are making a monumental error by not negotiating with the moderates."
In late September, there is a massacre at a village, Obrinje, that makes the
front page of the New York Times on September 30. What was the
significance of that?
I recall it vividly. That day, there was a principals' committee meeting,
which I happened to be attending in person in Washington. The Times sat
in the middle of the oak table in the middle of the situation room, like a
silent witness of what was going on. It was one of those rare times where a
photograph just . . . The terrible photograph of that dead person in that
village was kind of a reminder, a reality, and it had a very real effect on the
That was the meeting in which it was decided that I should go to Belgrade, and
begin what turned out to be a kind of a mini-Dayton. It was a 12- or 13-day
negotiation with my team, including General Mike Short, the NATO commander and
southern commander, who was going to be in charge of the bombing, Chris Hill,
and Jim O'Brien, from Secretary Albright's staff. We shuttled between
Belgrade, Pristina, Brussels, and London endlessly, while Strobe Talbott went
to Moscow in the middle of it, to keep the Russians on board.
The decision that day, though, was also to use the threat of force--the
ultimatum that we were behind it.
The decision was to go to NATO and ask them for an activation order to put the
planes on ready alert on the runways, and to prepare to release them into
General Clark, the supreme commander's control, for bombing. The threat was
credible. I made clear to President Milosevic, as did General Short, that this
was real. When General Short joined me in the middle of the negotiations, we
walked into the room, and Milosevic's opening line to Short was, "So, General,
you're the man who's gonna bomb us?" General Short, who was a Vietnam vet of
240 missions, a very brave, no-nonsense pilot, said a line that he and I had
actually rehearsed on the plane coming in. "Mr. President, I have B52s in one
hand, and I have U2s in the other. It's up to you which one I'm going to have
to use." It had its effect, and combined with a unified position from the
contact group and the Russians willing to let this happen; they had blocked it
all summer long.
The threat was credible, and it resulted in an agreement that allowed over
100,000 Albanians to come out of the woods and forests just before winter,
where there would have been massive deaths from exposure, starvation, and
freezing. . . .
In the immediate pre-Congress election period, and given the mood of Congress
and the situation in Washington, it was clear that Congress would not support a
deployment of NATO ground forces similar to the one in Bosnia, which both
Secretary Albright and I had argued was essential to keep any cease-fire
viable. So our negotiating instructions were to threaten the use of force, but
to introduce only unarmed civilians into the Kosovo area.
Milosevic had never allowed a significant international presence in Kosovo. In
October, we got him to agree to over 2,000 people from the OSCE--the
Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe--headed by an American,
Ambassador William Walker. It was a very significant concession for a man who
had previously said he'd never let the outside world in. We also got a
withdrawal schedule. The refugees began to return. The United Nations Refugee
Commission came back and helped the people come back, and things began to calm
down. But at the time, we predicted that if we didn't have a security force to
enforce this, it would fall apart by the spring. In reality, the falling apart
began before spring even arrived, because both sides provoked each other.
Nonetheless, a tremendous number of lives were saved by this October agreement.
One cannot look back on it without a feeling that it was worth doing. It's a
shame we didn't do it more aggressively, but that was not possible, given the
mood of the congressional/executive branch dialogue on that week before I left
He must have wondered whether you, or we, would be crazy enough to bomb
Yes. Milosevic said to me at one point, "Are you crazy enough to bomb us over
these issues we're talking about in that lousy little Kosovo?" And I said,
"You bet, we're just crazy enough to do it." . . .
Do you remember hearing about the Racak massacre, and what was your
Ambassador Walker called me after he had been on the hillside. In fact, if my
memory's correct, he called me from a cell phone from the village to describe
it. His voice was shaking, saying, "I was the ambassador in El Salvador, and
this is the worst thing I've ever seen," describing how the people had been
herded up the hill, their throats slit, with bullets in their heads. He said
he was about to call it a crime against humanity.
So you knew he was going to go public with this?
What was your sense of how that would change things, if anything?
You have to call them as you see them. He was the OSCE man on the ground.
Bill Walker, a very experienced senior diplomat, is standing on the hillside in
the presence of bodies that had been massacred after a military engagement. If
he wishes to call it a crime against humanity, no one should second-guess him
from Washington or New York.
I believe he did speak afterwards with General Clark and Secretary Albright.
They were even talking about refining targets. How close were we to actually
bombing for non-compliance?
Racak clearly would have justified an immediate military response, based on the
October agreements, but it also would have required a NATO consensus to do
that. It's hard to achieve a NATO consensus for military action here,
particularly one with no historical precedent, because it's about the treatment
of a group within a sovereign state. We had the consensus in October, but it
was strained by January, and had to be re-established. This is the point at
which I think Prime Minister Blair became most critical again. Blair and the
president, working together, jointly made the decision that Racak and the
sequence that it set off required a response.
The decision was then made, rather than bombing the Serbs immediately for
Racak, to summon both sides to Rambouillet.
Did you think Rambouillet was a good idea at the time?
It was a very legitimate attempt to bring the parties together to force them to
agree. The dilemma at Rambouillet was that one of the parties was not actually
there--Milosevic. And the people he sent to Rambouillet did not have the
authority to do anything, and that was a core difference. The other problem
with Rambouillet, which everyone recognized, was that the other side, the
Albanians, had no leader. It was 18 different people who spent most of their
time arguing with each other. So Rambouillet was a very tough negotiation from
You're sent again to talk to Milosevic, after the Albanians finally agree,
at least in part. What happened in that March meeting, just before the bombing
Secretary Albright and the president asked me to go back for one last meeting
after the signing in Paris. I went back with our team, Chris Hill, the general
and some other people. We presented the ultimatum to Milosevic that if he
didn't sign the agreement, the bombing would start. And he said, "No." We
stayed in Belgrade overnight. In the morning, I went back completely alone to
see him, because I was very conscious of the fact that, in August of 1914 in
that part of the world, a huge war had started through an avoidable
misunderstanding. World War I was not inevitable, as many historians say. It
could have been avoided, and it was a diplomatically botched negotiation. I
didn't want to have a repetition of that, even at a lower level. So I went
back alone, and I sat there alone with Milosevic. I said to him, "You
understand that if I leave here without an agreement today, bombing will start
almost immediately." And he said, "Yes, I understand that." I said, "You
understand it'll be swift, severe and sustained." And I used those three words
very carefully, after consultations with the Pentagon. And he said, "You're a
great country, a powerful country. You can do anything you want. We can't
stop you." There was an air of resignation to him, and we sat alone in this
big, empty palace, surrounded by these inherited Rembrandts and other art left
over from earlier regimes. I said, "Yes, you understand. You're absolutely
clear what will happen when we leave?" And he said, very quietly, "Yes.
You'll bomb us." . . . I told him that the White House and the state
department are waiting for a report, and that I've got to go. I asked, "Is
that it? And one more time, you understand what happens?" He said, "Yes." So
we left, and that was it. I want to stress that there was no misunderstanding
in his mind. He knew the bombing would start immediately after our departure,
and it did, less than 30 hours later.
The sense of the moment was very clear. We were having a conversation on whose
outcome would determine what would happen in a much larger terrain. It was the
moment at which diplomacy was going to have to yield to the use of force.
There was no longer any other option, and he, Milosevic, was choosing his own
fate. He had turned down a deal much better than what he got after 77 days of
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