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transcript

FRONTLINE

"Give War a Chance"

Program #1715

PBS air date: May 11, 1999

Give War a Chance

Produced by Michael Kirk, Rick Young

Directed by Michael Kirk

Written by Michael Kirk & Peter J. Boyer

Correspondent, Peter J. Boyer

 

PETER BOYER: For any president of the United States, this is the most solemn duty, a call to arms.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: My fellow Americans, today our armed forces joined our NATO allies in air strikes against Serbian forces responsible for the brutality in Kosovo. Kosovo is a small place-

PETER BOYER: President Clinton is trying to explain America's interest in the troubled region of the Balkans. The first television president also relied on props to explain the urgent need for American intervention in a troubled region far away.

Pres. JOHN F. KENNEDY: My fellow Americans, Laos is far away from America-

PETER BOYER: That intervention became the national trauma called Vietnam. It divided the nation and defined a generation. The Vietnam experience cast long shadows that reached across the decades. It imprinted indelible lessons about the use of America's military might: no half-measures, no vague objectives, and always have a way out.

Two Americans who served in Vietnam - one a warrior, the other a diplomat - would one day clash bitterly over those lessons as America made the unsteady journey from Vietnam to the Balkans. Along the way, a generation of leaders whose identity was once protest and resistance learned to give war a chance.

America in 1962 was bursting with the promise of its own possibilities. On the college campus a new generation stirred to a visionary call - with vigor.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, U.S. Special Envoy to Bosnia: I graduated from Brown in 1962, at the high moment of American idealism. And I can remember watching in the student lounge at Brown and the electricity when we heard, for the first time-

Pres. JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Now it's a cliché that you see on MTV, but then it was electrifying.

Adm. LEIGHTON SMITH (Ret.), Former NATO Commander: I marched in President Kennedy's inauguration parade, and I was- I was really proud to be there. I just felt it was a wonderful place to be in time. It was a memory that I shall never forget. And I thought, "Here's a young, energetic guy. He's charismatic. He really seems to have it all together.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: And people joined the Peace Corps. People went on freedom-fighter rides down through the South to integrate, and some of us went into the government. I joined the Foreign Service.

PETER BOYER: Young Richard Holbrooke was lucky. His high school friend happened to be the son of the new secretary of state, and his first posting was just exactly where an ambitious young foreign service officer would want to be- Vietnam.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: We were briefed on Vietnam. I can remember thinking clearly, "I hope the war isn't over before I get there because I want to see what this thing that Steven Crane and Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer have written about, what it's like." And that's something every young man should experience.

PETER BOYER: Getting in on the action wasn't quite so easy for Leighton W. Smith, Jr., the son of a south Alabama pig farmer who was struggling to graduate from Annapolis.

LEIGHTON SMITH: Basically, out of five subjects I had- the best grade I had was a D. So I went and saw every one of my instructors. I talked to my classmates. I said "I need help. I don't want to go home." And we raised pigs, and we had about 60 of them. And every time I thought of quitting or failing, I thought about what I had to go back to. I said, "I don't want to go back to those pigs."

PETER BOYER: The prospect of pig farming focused his mind, and Ensign Leighton Smith made it through Annapolis. And it turned out he was a natural flier. For a hotshot Naval aviator eager to test his stuff, there was only one destination, an aircraft carrier anchored 100 hundred miles off the Vietnamese coast.

LEIGHTON SMITH: We kind of thought that our mission was moralistically right. We'd all been trained to do what we were told to do. You know, the thing I guess, Peter, that I admire the most about that generation, if you will, is that even if we didn't agree with the policy, we did what we were told to do, and in some cases at great personal danger.

Nothing I ever say or can do will be able to describe to you what it's like to be on the business end of a catapult. And you sit there and you say, "Why am I doing this?" And you take the shot, and you go up and you do what you have to do because this is the ultimate test.

And then you've got to come back and land it.

The fun part about flying is doing things with the airplane, being competitive- you know, going out there dropping bombs, shooting guns, air-to-air combat. I mean, I wasn't a fighter pilot, I was an attack pilot. There's this great rivalry between fighter pilots and attack pilots. In the Air Force, everybody's a fighter pilot. In the Navy, you know, you got attack pilots are guys that drop weapons, and fighter pilots are guys who go around making excuses. [laughs] That's not true!

PETER BOYER: While Smith took to the enemy skies over the north, Dick Holbrooke had been getting a feel for life on the ground in the South.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I landed in Saigon. We were met at the airport by a young Foreign Service officer named Tony Lake. The only thing I can remember is him telling me to take my tie off, this was a shirtsleeves kind of place. I mean, what you saw then was a lovely, beautiful French colonial town with tree-lined streets and just the first beginning signs of an American build-up.

PETER BOYER: Holbrooke's job in stopping the communist insurgency was to get out into the country, winning the hearts and minds of the people by dispensing American aid and know-how.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The U.S. Army contingent were extremely nice to me. They gave me rides on their helicopters. They tried to give me a weapon and teach me how to use it, thinking I should defend myself better. But the first week I had it - it was a .45 - I didn't have the safety on. It went off in my Jeep, and went down through the floor and almost shot my leg off. And I gave it back.

LEIGHTON SMITH: As it turned out, my first op, I shot a bull-pup missile. A bull-pup is a- it's a guided missile. The worst part about it is you've got to stay with it. In other words, you shoot the missile, and then you and work it all the way down-

PETER BOYER: So you had to- you couldn't fire the missile and then peel off.

LEIGHTON SMITH: No, no. No, no. You fired it, and you followed it. I mean, you literally followed it down.

PETER BOYER: What was your target?

LEIGHTON SMITH: The target, this particular point, was a small bridge, and when I say "small," I do mean small, very small. Damn! I hit the target. And I was surprised. It really surprised me.

PETER BOYER: But Vietnam was a place that yielded triumph sparingly, a place of unexpected complexity and danger.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I was given quarters in downtown to live in, and we started out. About two blocks away from where we were living, a Vietnamese monk had burned himself.

PETER BOYER: A distant, divided land proved inhospitable ground for America's experiment in nation-building. Our eager intervention became our lasting regret, our most unpopular and fruitless war.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Then it turned out that the situation was not as portrayed. That is, we weren't doing as well as we said we were to ourselves and to the public. That led to the famous credibility gap.

Then it turned out that, no matter how much we tried, that our South Vietnamese allies were not organized enough to do the job, and they were too corrupt, and that the north Vietnamese were just going to keep on coming.

PETER BOYER: If young Richard Holbrooke began to see the Vietnam involvement with a jaundiced eye, imagine the view from the cockpit of Snuffy Smith's attack bomber.

LEIGHTON SMITH: There sort of seemed to be this sense that we had to show some level of damage, and to say that you missed the target was not acceptable. We would go into the intelligence center to debrief our mission. And I recall going in one time, and my target was a bridge. There were thousands of bridges over there.

And you know, the young man was debriefing me, and he said, "What was the result of your bombs?" I said, "I missed." And he said, "Well, I can't put that down." And I said, "What do you mean you can't put it down?" He said, "I'm not allowed to put down that you missed the target. I've got to say you cratered the approaches to the bridge." I said, "I didn't crater the approaches, I put the damn bombs in the water. I didn't do any damage at all. Now you put that down."

He said, "I can't." I said, "Well, don't put my name on it because I'm not going to give you a debrief if that's the way it is." And I walked out.

PETER BOYER: Why was it so important to you? Why did you say no?

LEIGHTON SMITH: I don't know. I just didn't. I hadn't hit the bridge. I was angry because it just seemed like there were a lot of things in those days that were not exactly truthful.

PETER BOYER: While the fighting men like Snuffy Smith tried to hold their own with what they were given, policy-makers began thinking about an exit. Dick Holbrooke moved up and out and became a member of the president's Vietnam advisory circle.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I left in the summer of '66, was assigned to the Johnson White House to work on Vietnam. I was 24 years old, and I was in the presence of the president of the United States for the very first time in my life.

Johnson was an overwhelming person. His earlobes seemed to reach down to his shoulders. His hand enveloped yours when he shook it. He looked down on you with those mournful eyes, and it was both overwhelming and frightening at the same time because Johnson was such a substantial figure, and we had such respect for him. But what he was saying was a little bit - how should I put it? - unreal.

PETER BOYER: Holbrooke was witness to the essential madness of the Vietnam quagmire, political leaders prosecuting the war in a way the military could not possibly win.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The use of force is a political decision at its core, in terms of its objectives. Then the military, as the experts, must be brought in to tell you how to do it. You don't do what Lyndon Johnson did, which is sit in the basement of the White House and personally pick the targets.

PETER BOYER: With the war being measured by the grim weekly tally called the "body count," American policy hit upon a new course, bombing the enemy to the peace table.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The slow build-up of "Rolling Thunder," the air campaign over North Vietnam, was a huge mistake, and it was unproductive. It wouldn't achieve its objective, and it would catch us in a half-way house between greater involvement without success. So I felt that the bombing was unproductive.

PETER BOYER: To Dick Holbrooke, the war was lost. Now it was time to win the peace. The young cold warrior had become a dove..

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I ended up in Paris negotiating with the North Vietnamese, as the most junior member of the small negotiating team, which Governor Averell Harriman and Cyrus Vance were heading, and which was trying to end the war.

PETER BOYER: Sitting across the Paris peace table from the communist Vietnamese offered for young Richard Holbrooke an object lesson in the limits of America's capacity to impose its will even against a smaller, dramatically overmatched opponent.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The bottom line on Vietnam was this: the North Vietnamese were going to keep fighting as long as they needed to to win. And the only way we could have prevented a North Vietnamese victory would have been to stay in Vietnam with what would have amounted to a long-term physical military presence.

PETER BOYER: So Snuffy Smith and those still fighting a war that was already lost took their victories where they could find them.

LEIGHTON SMITH: The Than Hua bridge- it's a mythical thing. I don't know. It's a big bridge. It was built by the guy, I'm told, that built the Eifel Tower. It withstood hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tons of bombs dropped on it. Why I do not know, but it became a sort of a symbol of resistance, and if we actually broke the Than Hua bridge, that the earth would open up and fall apart because this was the latch that held it together.

I was carrying the wall-eye missiles. We called them "fat Albert"- pretty impressive weapon. There's a little bit of planning associated with dropping one of these things because you want to make sure that you set up precisely, and where are you going to get the biggest area contrast so you hit what you want to hit.

And the plan was that we would have all of these weapons hit simultaneously. I'm going to call up, lock off, "Three, two, one, drop." There was just so much smoke and dust and corruption around there, you just didn't see it. You know, we were back on board the ship. And this was hours later, several hours later. I got a call from the head of the intelligence organization on the ship. He produced this picture, and there was the Than Hua bridge broken right in that span. And I mean, it was incredible. It was incredible. What a celebration.

PETER BOYER: So you knew, at the very least, you'd never have to leave on another mission to take out the Than Hua bridge.

LEIGHTON SMITH: Well, that's what I thought, but I got assigned the Than Hua bridge about three days later. And I went down to the intelligence center, and I said, "What in the living hell are you guys doing?" I mean, "How many airplanes do you want to lose? This thing is in the water. Look at this picture. Read my lips. We don't want to go back."

Well, they took it off the target list.

PETER BOYER: And then America staggered out of Vietnam. But Lord knows, Americans could not leave Vietnam behind. [www.pbs.org: Study the lessons of Vietnam]

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Of course, it was the closest thing that we've had to American civil war since the real thing in 1861. It was a tragedy. It tore our country apart. It put a poison into our political system.

PETER BOYER: After Vietnam the American military came home to fresh indignity.

There were no parades, no flag-waving celebrations. Opposition to the war had become opposition to the military itself, and the military culture lost its honored place in American society.

LEIGHTON SMITH: And I must admit to you that I went through a period of time when I really had serious doubts. I called a skipper of a former squadron I was in. I said, "I'm really discouraged. The country just says, `To hell with the military.' There's no sense of appreciation for what's going on. I guess I just need to talk to somebody because I'm discouraged."

And he said, "Leighton, you know, it's been that way before." He said, "It's cycles. There are periods of time when the U.S. and the military sort of part ways. And there's a sense of a lack of appreciation." He said, "It'll pass."

PETER BOYER: For those like Snuffy Smith who chose the military, the decade of the 1970s was low ebb. Out of favor and underfunded, an uncertain American military endured a time that it called the "hollow force" years.

But there came a rebirth, a dramatic new military buildup. And how to use that force became the single most important question facing an America that was about to become the world's only superpower. The military leaders who had been field officers in Vietnam offered a philosophy meant to keep America from repeating the mistakes of Vietnam and of other misadventures that they felt wasted American lives.

For the military, these rules became holy commandment, the military creed- "Stay out unless you mean to win." Snuffy Smith was one of those officers rising through the ranks, and so was another Vietnam aviator, Howell Estes.

Gen. HOWELL ESTES, USAF (Ret.): As a young officer, I literally carried a copy of that for 10 years with me in my briefcase because I thought it was so important, and it had such a dramatic effect on me when I read it, to think, "Holy mackerel, it's really as simple as this." I said, "Finally, there's a realization about what a military can and cannot do for a democracy."

PETER BOYER: The creed put forth these tenets:

The United States should never commit forces to combat unless our vital interest is at stake, and only then with the clear intention of winning. The objectives should be clearly defined, though flexible, and the undertaking must have the likely support of the American people and Congress, and even then force should always be the last resort.

HOWELL ESTES: I can't remember the number of times I thought how critical it is to keep those principles in mind as we ask America's young men and women to go off and do battle for out country. We've got to make sure we're not wasting this resource or getting us into a situation like a Vietnam. [www.pbs.org: Evolution of "Use of force" doctrine]

PETER BOYER: Former Vietnam field officer Colin Powell became America's top soldier, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Under his leadership, the creed got its test in the deserts of the Persian Gulf. The national interest was oil. It had the support of the Congress and of the American people. The objective was clear: evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And the force was overwhelming.

HOWELL ESTES: For the first time, we actually tried to stick with the principles, the rules of the road. The results speak for themselves. You had this tremendous sense of accomplishment that said, "Boy, this worked out just right." All the pieces came together at the right time. It was a tremendously uplifting experience because it just said, "See what we can do if we're allowed the do things the way they're supposed to be done."

PETER BOYER: With the Gulf war won, there were victory parades. There were heroes to celebrate. And just as the military was enjoying its triumph and America was taking its place as the world's sole superpower, a politician of a new generation, the young governor of Arkansas, was grasping the reigns of power.

As a boy, he was enamored of President Kennedy and his idealistic vision of America. As a young man, he fully felt his generation's disillusionment over Vietnam.

President Bill Clinton wasn't much interested in foreign policy. He hadn't run for commander-in-chief. But during the campaign he had gathered around him a foreign policy brain trust, the new best and brightest, including - fresh from Wall Street - Dick Holbrooke.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I became a member of what I'd call the outer fringes of the foreign policy team, which was headed by Tony Lake and Sandy Berger, both of whom were close and good friends of mine.

PETER BOYER: To many in the military, there was decided unease over the new commander-in-chief's resume. He had not served in Vietnam. He'd announced his support for gays in the military. The Clinton team's lack of military orientation was in the air when, in the early days of the administration, it came time to sit down with the military to consider what had to be done about the world's crisis spots.

Candidate Clinton had hated what he had seen in the Balkans. Europe's source of timeless troubles was once again aflame in civil war. This was a foreign policy issue with human dimensions the new president found impossible to ignore. The conflict carried heart-wrenching images of displaced people and a jarring new term for an old cruelty of war, "ethnic cleansing." He put Bosnia at the top of his foreign policy agenda.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I remember saying to my colleagues that I hope he means it because it's not going to be as easy to implement as it sounds.

PETER BOYER: Clinton asked his military what it would take to fix the mess in the Balkans. He ran smack into the military creed in the person of General Colin Powell. Powell believed that the conflicts of nationalism in disintegrating Yugoslavia were of questionable American strategic interest. He didn't see support in Congress or among the American people. And if the U.S. did intervene, doing the job right would require more than 200,000 troops.

This president wasn't about to buck Colin Powell and his military creed, and he wasn't about to send 200,000 troops to the Balkans. But Dick Holbrooke, now President Clinton's ambassador to Germany, fought to keep the issue alive. For him it was political and personal.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I had made two trips to Bosnia at my own expense on refugee fact-finding visits because it interested me. It was a compelling story. I care about refugees all my life. My family were refugees. My wife is a refugee from the Hungarian freedom-fighter revolution of 1956. [www.pbs.org: Read more of the interview]

PETER BOYER: But Washington, consumed by the new President's ambitious domestic plans, had no appetite for the Balkans. Holbrooke, deeply frustrated, thought of quitting.

And then Srebrenica, unspeakable horror, insistent images forcing their way onto T.V. screens in America. It was too much for the president's National Security adviser, Tony Lake. With Vietnam he had become, like the president, a dove. With Bosnia, Tony Lake became convinced that it was time to exercise American power. And he tried to convince the president.

IVO DAALDER, Former National Security Council Adviser: His argument was that Bosnia itself was becoming what he called a cancer on the presidency and that if you didn't go after that cancer early on, it would grow and it would take over the presidency.

Tony Lake was not a man to make political statements. He didn't have to with this president. This president knew that he faced an election on November 4, 1996. And in early 1995, Tony Lake made it clear that unless this Bosnia issue was resolved, this thing could explode in 1996, right in the president's face, and the president was not willing to be hostage to fortune.

PETER BOYER: This group of Vietnam doves now in power discovered there was something that America should fight for, and it was a stark departure from the thinking that governed the cold warriors of generations past.

America and her allies should fight not to conquer territories, but to win hearts. Strategic interest was important, but so was justice. In a way, they fashioned a creed of their own. They were "compassion warriors" engaged in a kind of moral imperialism. The Balkans was the place where they drew their line in the sand.

President Clinton deputized an eager Richard Holbrooke to stop the bleeding in the Balkans. Holbrooke believed force was necessary. He would have to use NATO and NATO, to all practical purpose, meant the American military. He decided it was time to pay a visit to the man who would actually have to do the dirty work in Bosnia, the NATO commander for all southern Europe, an American Naval aviator, now a four-star admiral, the son of a south Alabama pig farmer, Leighton W. Smith.

LEIGHTON SMITH: We got a call that said that he was coming to town. You know, we got all the briefings ready, and we were treated to a couple of hours of Dick Holbrooke on Dick Holbrooke.

PETER BOYER: On what? What subject?

LEIGHTON SMITH: Well, he started out with Vietnam and, you know, how long he had been there, and what a wonderful job he'd done there. And you know, we marched through his career, and I just- I kind of got the idea that he had come to transmit, not to receive.

PETER BOYER: It was plain that Dick Holbrooke had run into a true believer of the creed. He'd do what he was asked, as long as everybody abided by the rules. Give him a clear mission, the means to accomplish it, and he'd get it done, but don't stray from the plan.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: He's an old sea dog. He was 33 years at sea. He's a superb naval officer. This was a situation he wasn't necessarily ideally prepared for. It's tough enough to negotiate with Milosevic, but negotiating with a four-star admiral is even more difficult.

PETER BOYER: Holbrooke represented, in philosophy and style, the antithesis of Snuffy Smith's rigid creed. Holbrooke believed in responding to the moment, the magic of impulse, the improvised shuttle trip, the negotiating point plucked from the air- diplomacy as jazz.

The two men would clash fiercely and often, and the outcome of their personal battle would help determine the nature and degree of America's involvement in the Balkans.

The fuse was ignited in Sarajevo. In August of 1995, another televised bombing shocks the world.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I went over to the ambassador's residence and turned on CNN.

LEIGHTON SMITH: And I was doing some work, and somebody hollered into the office, "Admiral, check out your T.V.," and I looked over.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: And there's a report of a Bosnian Serb mortar attack killing 38 people in the marketplace.

LEIGHTON SMITH: People lying about, blood- you know, it was a replay of the marketplace bombing of February of '94.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The acting secretary of state is Strobe Talbott, and he calls me up and says, "Have you seen the T.V.?" I said yes. He said, "We're going to have to decide what to do." I said, "We want heavy air strikes."

And I was completely aware of the irony, and I even mentioned to Strobe Talbott at the time- I said, "I know this sounds strange," because of where he'd come from as President Clinton's roommate at Oxford, a strong opponent of the Vietnam war as a student at Yale and Oxford. I said, "Strobe, this is very important. This is a critical moment for us personally, our responsibility to the nation and the right thing to do. Give us bombs for diplomacy. Give us bombs for peace. We need the bombing to make our diplomacy effective. And don't hold back."

PETER BOYER: But the White House wasn't going to use the overwhelming force the military creed called for. The compassion warriors wanted to send a message to the enemy that his behavior had to change: a kind of constrained warfare, limited targets struck from a safe distance, a strategy that has been called "immaculate coercion." Responsibility for carrying out the limited bombing campaign fell to Snuffy Smith.

LEIGHTON SMITH: I picked up the phone and called Mike Ryan, and I said, "Go over and refine your target list, and you'll start bombing in 24 hours."

PETER BOYER: And bomb they did. But within 13 days, Smith was running out of the limited targets he'd been given. He wanted to unleash his force, but the administration wouldn't hear of it.

LEIGHTON SMITH: When we began running out of targets, I went to my boss, and I requested that he begin exploring the possibility of releasing more targets to me. And I was told, "You're not going to get them. Don't ask."

PETER BOYER: So military brass told Holbrooke and Secretary of State Warren Christopher the bombing was about over. Holbrooke was stunned. He wanted bombing to use as leverage at the negotiating table.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Admiral Smith and others, who wanted to end it quickly to minimize risks to their forces, began to tell us we were running out of targets. That, I think, was a very critical moment because I believe now that there were plenty of targets and they could have kept the bombing going. And even at the time, Warren Christopher said to me as we left the White House meeting, he said, "I don't really believe they're running out of targets." But we had no way of second-guessing them.

LEIGHTON SMITH: Well, I just- I- first of all, I find it hard to believe that Warren Christopher and Dick Holbrooke would just out-and-out think we were lying. Why in the world would we lie? What possible motive would we have to be lying about anything like that? I mean, Good God in heaven, if we can't be honest with the politicians and have them accept it as a professional military judgment, we are in a sorry state of affairs.

PETER BOYER: But some said, "Well, let's go back and hit old targets."

LEIGHTON SMITH: You know, that's about as dumb as dirt.

PETER BOYER: Why?

LEIGHTON SMITH: Well, I'll take you back to the Than Hua Bridge. "Let's go hit the bridge again." I mean, the damn thing's been down three days. "They might rebuild it." Hey, look, you don't go back and hit old targets. You don't bomb holes in the ground. You lose all kinds of credibility with the forces you lead if you say, "Hey, guys, we got to keep up this charade, this facade. Let's go bomb some more targets. And oh, by the way, don't worry about that exposure out there. That's not a problem."

The problem is that we just keep bombing. That is stupid. And I would have not done that. I would have resigned before- I would have not accepted an order to do that, and I made it very, very clear.

PETER BOYER: That meant there were only a few days of bombing left. Holbrooke believed he had to act fast. He and his team got lucky. The Serbs were for the first time losing the ground war in Bosnia, and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was ready to cut a deal.

But the lasting lesson that Washington took was that the bully Milosevic would break under the pressure of bombs. So Milosevic agreed to come to Dayton, Ohio, where the Bosnian peace accords would be worked out. But first the U.S. had to figure out how they would force Milosevic to hold to his part of the bargain. Obviously, the military would be involved. But how?

Determining what the military would do in Bosnia after the peace was the subject of a contentious and fateful series of high-level meetings at the White House.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Would they also go after war criminals? Would they also assist refugee return? Would they help the civilian agencies? Would they assist in elections? Would they intervene with the use of force to further certain objectives? That was the issue there. The military felt that everything that we were proposing, from the State Department, was mission creep.

I was a maximalist. I wanted the NATO force to do as much as possible. Most of the people in uniform, particularly at the higher ranks, and particularly those who were scarred by the Vietnam experience, were minimalists who wanted to do as little as possible. So issue after issue, we disagreed.

IVO DAALDER: Holbrooke is an imposing presence in any room, and Holbrooke wants the broad mission. And the military says, "You can't tell us how to do our mission." And General Shali, a quiet gentle man of Polish extraction with a Polish accent, he gets flaming mad. And he says, "Wait a minute. You can't tell me how I do my mission. You can tell me what my tasks are, but how I do that, I will do in my own way." And this is the only time that Shalikashvili is known to have ever been angry, certainly in a meeting like this.

But he does give Holbrooke a bone. He says, "You know what? Rather than telling me what to do, why don't we agree that the commander on the ground will have the authority to do anything he thinks necessary to implement this agreement?"

PETER BOYER: Responsibility for keeping the military mission in Bosnia straight and clear fell to none other than Snuffy Smith.

HOWELL ESTES: Snuffy had some very strong views on what could be done, could not be done. You can see the absolute resistance to doing things other than what the military was trained to do, and here they are trying to get us into something. We've been through this in Vietnam, and you can see the connection. "We can't let that happen in Bosnia. We can't let ourselves get involved in something that we know is not going to come out right because we're not trained to do it."

PETER BOYER: To Smith, the mission was clear: separate the warring parties, hold safe ground and keep his troops alive and well. But from the start, there was pressure to expand the military mission, even questions from the commander-in-chief.

LEIGHTON SMITH: I can recall a day in Tuzla when President Clinton came over. There were a lot of people who were pushing us to guard mass grave sites. And the president, in front of a congressional delegation, in front of Madeleine Albright, turned to me, and he said, "Admiral, we have a very sensitive issue, a very emotional issue. It's regarding mass grave sites. Can't you do that?" And I said, "Mr. President, we can do anything you want us to do, but the price is more people. And you got to understand that we're probably on the order of 200 to 250 mass grave sites, and it's not just a matter of sticking a sentry out there."

PETER BOYER: How'd the president take that message?

LEIGHTON SMITH: He kind of nodded, and we went to something else. And as he was about ready to depart, I was standing there, literally by myself, and he walked over, and he took my hand, and he said, "Admiral, I apologize for putting you on the spot with that question in there, but it had to be asked, and the people in that room had to hear your answer. And it was perfect. Thank you."

PETER BOYER: The president said he was satisfied with Snuffy Smith's answer, but Dick Holbrooke and other civilian leaders weren't. They saw the Dayton accords as a blueprint for a new multi-ethnic nation, protecting minorities, arresting war criminals, building a common currency, even new license plates. And Snuffy Smith had the authority to make sure it all happened, but he wasn't obligated to. That wasn't his mission. He didn't have the forces.

IVO DAALDER: And the question then is, "Well, if the military ain't doing it and the civilians can't, you've got this disconnect."

PETER BOYER: Dick Holbrooke's triumph at Dayton, his grand vision for Bosnia, was vanishing. To stop that from happening, he pressed Smith on another front. He insisted the military arrest and detain the Bosnian Serb leaders most responsible for the ethnic cleansing.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The NATO forces had been given the authority to arrest these people. And to leave them at large was a living, walking symbol to the people of Bosnia that the dream of separatism by the Bosnian Serbs was still alive, and its leaders were still at large.

PETER BOYER: Did you ever actually have a face-to-face conversation with Admiral Smith about this?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Oh, one particular case that I remember vividly. I arrived in Sarajevo just after The Washington Post had run an article by John Pomfret describing how he had followed a convoy carrying Radovan Karadzic through four NATO checkpoints. I handed it to Admiral Smith, and I said, you know, "Is this true? Is it possibly true? How could this happen?"

LEIGHTON SMITH: We didn't have checkpoints on that road. If you think for one second - if you think for one second that Karadzic, in a train of limousines- I mean, he drove Mercedes, and he had cars with him. If you think, for one second he would get through an American roadblock- I mean, you've got to be smoking the drapes. This would not have happened.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: All I can say is that they are at large. They are the most wanted men in Europe. There's a reason there are warrants out for their arrests.

PETER BOYER: So even something so seemingly tangential to the larger picture of Bosnia, and therefore to the larger picture of that piece of Europe, as whether or not you're going to arrest these two, three, however many men-

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: It's not- it's not tangential. These two or three men, as you put it, would be like leaving Hitler and Goebbels wandering around the countryside in 1945, heavily protected and looking the other way whenever we think they're coming down the road in convoy. And if you'd done that in Germany after 1945, a lot of German believers in Hitler would have said, "The Fuehrer is still around. Let's hedge our bets. Let's wait for him to come back."

LEIGHTON SMITH: General John Shalikashvili, the chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Joulwan, SACEUR and CINCEUR, my bosses, both of them, were clear and unequivocal: "Soldiers do not make good policemen. This is not a good idea. Don't send these guys on police missions. They are not policemen."

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: The military position on this from the beginning is, "If you order us to mount this operation, we'll do it, but we'll probably take casualties, and those casualties will be on your account." And of course, 1996, the critical year, happened to be a presidential election year, which put us under considerable constraints.

PETER BOYER: It was characteristic Snuffy Smith, voicing the threat of American casualties approaching an election year.

LEIGHTON SMITH: I said this publicly a number of times. In Western militaries, the military follow the guidance of their political leaders, their authorized and rightful political leaders, okay? "If you want me to go after the war criminals - and I do not think that's a good idea right now - if you want me to go after them, give me the order, get the hell out of my way, and stand by for the consequences."

PETER BOYER: But that wasn't going to happen?

LEIGHTON SMITH: Oh, no. And I- you know, it was- I guess I was just too vocal about that. There was some desire to put this issue- "Let's don't talk about this issue, [www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]

PETER BOYER: Snuffy Smith was an impediment to any expansive design of nation-building. He was nearing retirement age. As it developed, his career ended sooner than he had planned.

LEIGHTON SMITH: I guess it was Ken Bacon, who was going back on Secretary of Defense Perry's airplane, and announced that I would retire in a matter of weeks, not months. And that was the first I heard of it. And the way I found out was, I was on my way over to see President Tudjman, and his press secretary called me and said, "Our press corps's over here. They want to know why you're quitting."

HOWELL ESTES: It wasn't just Snuffy, and I would not put this exclusively on his back in any way shape or form. There was a general feeling of the leadership of the military, instinctively, we could see ourselves getting into another quagmire. And we're just trying to hold the line, and it all gets manifested in Snuffy. Don't put the blame on Snuffy. There were a lot of us who felt that way.

PETER BOYER: So in other words, what we're saying is the maximalist view wins?

IVO DAALDER: The maximalist view, in the end, wins.

PETER BOYER: Holbrooke wins.

IVO DAALDER: Holbrooke wins. What happens is we change our goals from ending the war to building a peace. And ending the war was crucial for 1996. Building a peace becomes crucial for the 21st century.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: [to reporters in Bosnia] We are here to insist on full compliance with Dayton-

PETER BOYER: In time, General Wesley Clark, Dick Holbrooke's military aide Arkansas native, Rhodes Scholar and no rigid disciple of the creed, would assume command of the Bosnia mission. That very day, two low-level Serbian war criminals were taken- one arrested, one killed.

The American military force that was supposed to leave Bosnia in 12 months has been there three years. It's unlikely they'll be leaving any time soon. And once we were in the Balkans, that made every Balkans problem our problem. When crisis erupted in the Serbian province called Kosovo, the world's eyes turned inevitably to Washington.

[to Holbrooke] Does our presence in Bosnia in some way not almost necessitate our involvement in Kosovo?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Yes, of course. Of course.

PETER BOYER: How? Tell me.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, because if you succeed in Bosnia and fail in Kosovo, in the long run you'll fail in Bosnia, not because Kosovo will unravel Bosnia, but because Kosovo will spread to Albania, Macedonia, maybe even Greece, Bulgaria, and you'll have another fire. You can't- you know, Bosnia and Kosovo are, in the end, part of the same problem.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Holbrooke would be proven right about Bosnia and Kosovo. New, horrible images of ethnic cleansing flooded the world's television screens in January of 1999. A new crisis, a familiar American solution: Try to impose a plan for a peaceful multi-ethnic society in Kosovo, dispatch Holbrooke to Belgrade, threaten Milosevic with bombs.

But this time Milosevic surprised the White house and did not bend to the threat of air strikes. So President Clinton, who had vowed not to send ground troops to the Balkans, employed the only weapon - bombs - with no ground troops, no overwhelming force and without the blueprint of the military creed.

LEIGHTON SMITH: We're not going to be able to go in there with airplanes and kick up a bunch of dust and destruction and expect anything positive to come of it. We've got to be prepared to put forces on the ground. Does that mean it has to be U.S. forces? Probably so.

And for how long? Beats the hell out of me. But we'd best not put a time limit on it and think we'll be able to walk away from it after that time limit just because that's how long we said we'd stay because these things of trying to get people to go from a situation where they've been carving each other up for about two or three years to loving and hugging each other is going to take a little bit longer. It just doesn't happen overnight.

Pres. JOHN F. KENNEDY: Each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms-

ANNOUNCER: There's more of this report at FRONTLINE's Web site, including a rundown on the use of military force doctrine and how it has evolved over two decades, the debate on the lessons of U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, FRONTLINE's in-depth interviews with Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Leighton Smith. And join our Web site discussion at www.pbs.org.

Next time on FRONTLINE: We know him as the peacemaker, the president of a new South Africa. But there is another Mandela, the bomb-throwing revolutionary who became a skilled politician in prison, the passionate man who sacrificed the love of his life for a country that needed him more. The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela next time on FRONTLINE.

For videocassette information about tonight's program, please call this toll-free number: 1-800-328-PBS1.

 

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