the clinton years

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interview: tony lake
I want to come back to Bosnia later in the terms. But moving on to March, when Yeltsin dissolves parliament there is great concern, because no one wants to be tagged with the issue of who lost Russia? What was the president's view when Yeltsin did that? Was there a great upset in the White House?

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

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

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

Was it a good idea...

I'm not a doctor. serve Yeltsin more wine.?

I'm not a doctor. I couldn', we never thought of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In October, in Somalia...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, he was certainly...

...want to retaliate in kind and more?

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

You said....

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

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


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

And Haiti.

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

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

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

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

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

It was--

--retreat for the United States of America.

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

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

Before you went in?

--but we had to find ways not just because it was humiliation here at home, but because the North Koreans, the Iraqis, and other tough neighborhoods, they were watching, and unless we found a way to get tougher, others could start testing us again. That is one reason, before we get to the fall of '94, why I believe it was so important that we succeeded in December and January at the end of '93. And at the beginning of '94, we were successful in convincing our NATO allies to go along with the ultimatum over Sarajevo, forcing the Serbs to pull their mortars back, bombing around Sarajevo until they did pull back, and the result was that for most of the remainder of '94 things got somewhat better in Bosnia.

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