Bob Woodward, Investigative reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Choice.
June 28, 1996
FLN: How would you characterize the Bosnian policy and what it tells us
Almost formally in the White House the policy was called the "muddle through"
strategy or policy for the first couple of years of the presidency. The horror
got so bad, so much a vivid part of White House life, that Clinton was looking
for a way out. And Tony Lake, his National Security Advisor, saw this and was
his kind of partner in the frustration. And I was able to get and look through
some of the secret or top secret notes of their meetings in 1995. And you see
this frustration mounting on Clinton's and Lake's part. And finally Lake says,
we have to break the pattern. We are in the the cycle of crisis management,
which means dealing with the day's problem and not the whole problem of the
Bosnian horror. Sitting around his office in the West Wing, Lake came up with
the idea we need to think where we want to be in six months. Define that very
clearly, and work our way back, kind of "end game" strategy as he came to call
it. He talked with Clinton about this, Clinton was agitating always, in his
frustration for new ideas, new concepts, wanted to break the pattern himself
and he said ok, let's go ahead and try this. And the notes show a series of
meetings in the summer of '95, where Lake said essentially, let's have a carrot
and stick policy. Let's get the Europeans involved, let's deal with all of the
parties in Bosnia and offer them something, a carrot, and let's beat them with
something, a stick, and laid down a policy that amounted to two prongs. First,
get a peace, a peace process going that's really serious, that people are
committed to, and the second one was a very aggressive bombing program. And he
laid this out in papers to Clinton.
Lake broke his own rule, the first time, normally the National Security
Advisor is supposed to be the honest broker and not the conceptualizer, but he
took his secret paper to Clinton and said this is what I want to do, getting
the State department and the Defense department involved in a very real way.
Having a series of meetings with Clinton and going through. And of course the
essence of Clinton governing, is indecision. And what they realized, and what
Clinton finally realized in Bosnia is that he's going to have to make a series
of decisions about bombing, being very aggressive, lay out the U.S. policy.
And then send Lake, to the Europeans, initially, and say the President has
decided. Now if there's anything you rarely hear in the Clinton White House
that is convincing, it is "the President has decided" because people know that
it's always open for reconsideration or debate. But formally going through
this process, they got aboard, the whole U.S. government, and were able to
execute this policy by getting the Europeans aboard, bombing the Serbs, getting
NATO to agree to do it, kind of capitalizing on the series of events that were
before them. And in fact when the bombing began, when the serious bombing, the
end of August, 1995, and it was finally reported to Clinton, he was elated and
literally whooped, whispering "whoopee." This is the former person who
protested the Vietnam war, somebody who didn't serve in the military. It's
kind of coming to the realization that power had to be used, it couldn't just
be an abstraction, and once in his discussions with Lake, he said "I'm risking
my presidency on this." I believe from my reporting on it, this is the moment
Clinton realized that having the presidency has no meaning unless you're
willing to risk some of it. To risk the political capital you have, maybe even
to risk your re-election to do what is the right thing. Now, the critics argue
that Clinton was too late in coming to it, why didn't he do it in '93, why
didn't he do it in 1994. He said to one of the people involved in this, when
he finally got the bombing going, and sent Richard Holbrook out to negotiate
and achieve the Dayton peace that we now have what is really called the Clinton
peace. And one of these people came to Clinton and said, well why not
sooner? And Clinton said I was decisive when I could be. Which has a lot of
truth in it. That a president may know what's right or what he wants to do,
but if the allies, if the departments in government, the special interests, if
all of those forces that are arrayed out there, that the President has to
manage are not in proper alignment, you can never get there. And he did.
If you look at what happened, the campaign promises of Clinton, and then what
he did in '93 and '94, it illustrates one of the most salient characteristics
of Clinton and the Clinton presidency in the early years. He was not ready for
the job. He had been an Arkansas governor, he had no concept of being
Commander and Chief, what it entailed to direct a foreign policy and a defense
policy. And you look at those little steps in '93 and '94, and they would be
funny if they weren't sad.
And as Tony Lake said to President Clinton, there is a cancer on your
foreign policy. And they discussed and realized, that if he did not solve the
horror, that there would be cancer on his presidency. The very famous phrase
that John Dean presented to Nixon in Watergate, and cancers generally or very
frequently kill. And so the early phase was Clinton not understanding the
presidency, not understanding the power he had. Not understanding a vital
dimension of being President, its moral authority and the necessity to step up
and say here is where I stand up and say here is where I stand, this ground I
will not give.
In all those documents that you had access to, conversations (unintel),
was there anything that could offer some insight that what was happening inside
of him. Was there certain horrors that moved him more than others.....
The notes show at one point in the summer, Clinton in a perfect metaphor.
Said we are just kicking the can down the road. We are getting absolutely
nowhere. When the horror of Bosnia became very personal, Clinton was moved
more than at other times. For instance, in July of '95, he is meeting with his
foreign policy team and Vice-President Gore says, there was a picture on the
front of the Washington Post who had hung herself, one of the refugees.
A nightmarish picture. And Gore said, "My 21-year-old daughter saw that
picture and wondered why the world is not doing something. How can we tolerate
this?" And according to people who were there it was one of these very
chilling moments because Gore was, in talking about the world and his daughter,
was really challenging the President. And Gore paused and after referring to
his daughter, and added words that were over the line for a Vice-President, and
said "And I am too." Clinton said we're trying to do something, we're, you
know we're working on it, and game strategy was being drafted, but here the
Vice-President is pushing Clinton in a very real way. I found in my research
that it's Al Gore who knows the buttons on Clinton's console more than anyone
in the White House, perhaps other than Hillary. That he knows that he's loyal
to the President, he has the President's interests foremost in his mind. And
that he's going to give him, give Clinton, the kind of policy and personal
advice that is unfiltered really. And this is the best I can give you, like a
younger brother in a way. I mean, such an important part of this is the
Clinton/Gore relationship and Clinton solving the Vice-President problem, all
Presidents have Vice-President problems of you know they are out of the loop or
they are Spiro Agnew, or they are Dan Quayle, or the way George Bush was
perceived when he was Vice-President by many people as wimp, weak. One of the
things you never find in the clips ah, at least we couldn't find anyplace, is
the phrase "dump Gore." It' a real partnership. And so Gore was able to, on a
personal level, talk to Clinton like a brother, and somebody who had, who could
challenge him, because the challenge was not other than to "here's my best
advice." And at one point he explained to Clinton that Clinton was going to
have to absorb the searing experience of the presidency itself. Meaning that
it's ugly and it's hard, you're criticized, you are the can that is kicked
around by everyone, and Gore said you're just going to have to learn to take
that in, absorb it, and you're going to have to find a way to discover that
enlarged reserve in yourself, and steel yourself and go forward.
FL: He chose a competitor, someone that could challenge him and now is
challenging him -- what does that tell us about him?
The Clinton/Gore relationship was established back at the time when Gore was
first running for President and Clinton was on the sideline, and Gore went to
Clinton and said, I'm running for President and I want you to support me.
Clinton then Governor of Arkansas. Clinton did not initially, or in fact, did
not at any point. But they clicked, they connected, same generation, what,
about fifteen months younger, Gore is, and ah, it's one of those things that
Gore laid out this philosophy that we, that the successful candidates for
President in the democratic party in modern times come from the south. Lyndon
Johnson, Jimmy Carter, people who actually became Presidents from the
Democratic Party. And Gore said essentially to Clinton, it's you and I. We're
the kind of people who can win. And when Clinton won the nomination in '92, he
met with Gore at great length, realized that picking the kind of mirror image
of himself was exactly what he needed to do. And he was willing to take
interestingly enough that risk.
FL: What does that tell us about Clinton?
Clinton in selecting Gore, selected somebody who is the son of Washington, Gore
knows Washington. But somebody who has brains, who has his own political
ambition in the future, and seemed not threatened by that which is very unusual
in a political figure.
I think in the Clinton/Gore relationship, it's more than a genuine friendship.
I think they are kind of spiritual brothers if you will. In this weekly lunch
that they have that is kind of the secret thing on Clinton's calendar, Gore
goes in with an agenda, one or the other just the two of them, says a prayer at
the beginning. It's not something you necessarily associate with either one
of them. But it's part of the ritual of the brotherhood between the two of
FL: Any other revealing moments in which Clinton speaks and it reveals sort
of the internal drama of his response to Bosnia ....?
One of the things that goes on in the White House when the President talks to a
foreign leader, there are aides that set up the telephone system, and they are
military aides normally. In the summer of '95, Clinton is talking to President
Chirac and Chirac has some bold ideas about what to do in Bosnia and Clinton
realizes that they're insane. And in this conversation where notes were taken,
you see the frustration of Clinton, and after the conversation is over between
Clinton and the president of France, Clinton as if kind of saying what do I do,
how do I get out of this mess, does somebody have an idea--turns to the
military aide and says in earnestness--now this is the Commander and Chief to a
Navy Captain essentially--and saying 'Do you know what we should do in Bosnia?'
The aide, dumbfounded. But it's a measure of Clinton's frustration and it's
also Clinton's world, of reaching out to anyone who might be there.
FL: Any other revealing moments....?
One other key moment in the Bosnia decision making was Screbenica is falling,
I mean, it is the rebirth of ethnic cleansing, thousands of refugees, again,
part of the nightmare is being revisited on Clinton. And two of his aides go
visit him on the White House putting green, on a Friday night, and Clinton is
putting and chipping and he just goes into a rage. We're being slaughtered on
this. What are we going to do? Where are the ideas. I'm so frustrated. The
people who were there felt like they had fallen down the mine shaft right into
his mind. The frustration, the anger, just lashing out. You know, why don't
we have some solution? Where are we? This is wrong. We are, also dealing
with the fact that he was being beaten up very severely on the political front
on this issue, went on and on for forty-five minutes. And these people, and
he's putting, he's not even looking at them, puts the balls, they kick the
balls back to him, he goes into more, you know, where are we going? How do we
fix this? How do we get ourselves out of this mess? Now interestingly enough,
it provides, this anger and frustration, some of the intellectual fire to his
aides, to think strategically and go down the road and develop, formulate and
set in cement this end game strategy.
FL: Can you talk some about what is at the core of his character, his
In the first years of the Clinton presidency, I wrote a book called The
Agenda about inside the White House, passing the economic plan. And what
was fascinating about Clinton in passing his economic plan, which was really
delivering on the pledge of the '92 election to fix the economy, you look at
his economic plan and it almost didn't pass. And Clinton himself in
frustration a number of times said, oh it's a turkey. At one meeting railed
and said we, the democratic President and the democrats, we have become the
Eisenhower republicans. We're interested in the bond market, we're interested
in free trade, we're interested in deficit reduction, normally republican
goals. Some historian's going to write a book called The Republican
Clinton, because Clinton is temperamentally a centrist. Yes he wants to
help people, yes he wants government to do things, when it gets down to the
crunch, Clinton, or a portion of him, is traditionally Republican. So this
makes what happened in election year, up to the in '96, not just selling out to
Republican consultant Dick Morris who has had a big influence on where Clinton
positioned himself. But Clinton's whole argument to his staff is, hey look I'm
a new Democrat, well new Democrat is conservative, more like the Republicans.
There is this side of Clinton and it has its manifestations, it waxes and
wanes in the presidency, but it's one of the core truths of who he is.
FL: Talk about what the choice of Dick Morris says about Clinton.
When Clinton in '94, after, actually before the congressional defeat, started
talking to Dick Morris, it wasn't just turning to somebody who was very
experienced in politics, but it was turning to the past, to the reincarnation,
the reemergence of Clinton back in Arkansas. Morris was the instrument, so he
turned to him and called on him in '94 and he provided the blue print which
Clinton has absorbed. Now much is written about this and I write about his,
but also make the point, which I think is crucial to this, how does Clinton
look at Dick Morris. Clinton tells the people in the White House, well, why
all this attention on Morris, he gets, why is he getting all of this press?
Why are people calling him the chief strategist? Clinton's saying I'm the
chief strategist, I just use these people, they are out there, they provide
ideas, some I accept, some I reject. At one point, when Leon Panetta, the
White House Chief of Staff is confronting Clinton about Morris, why are you
doing this? You essentially have, if you will, a political mistress, somebody
who's not under White House staff control. Why are you doing this? And
Clinton says oh, some of his ideas are brilliant, some of this ideas are wacky.
I, Bill Clinton, know how to separate the good Dick Morris from the bad Dick
Morris. As best I can tell as far as Clinton looks at this, these
personalities, these people are all instruments, and he decides, oh I'm going
to use the hammer now, oh now, I'm going to play a love song here, these are
all arrayed for him to carry out his political will.