the clinton years

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interview: tony lake
When the decision is made to broker some kind of an agreement in Haiti, your former boss, Jimmy Carter, heads the delegation. What was the concern in the White House about letting Jimmy Carter go off and freelance some kind of a deal?

Well, he wasn't freelancing. This came after a number of us who had been pushing for an invasion had succeeded, and the president had approved an invasion of Haiti. So we were ready to go, and the president had announced that we were about to invade Haiti, had told the de facto leaders in Haiti that "Your time is up." General Shali and I had been asked by the president to go to Haiti or at least to talk on the phone to the Haitian leaders to tell them that if they wanted to leave peacefully and with some dignity they could do so. But we were coming in, and they could no longer go on killing innocent people and abusing the rights of the Haitian people and creating this flow of refugees that was so difficult to deal with.

Senator Sam Nunn called and President Jimmy Carter had also called to say that they wanted to go down and try to broker something. There was some debate within the White House then as to whether or not to do this. As I recall, the vice president and I said that we really had to let them go. The president had agreed. But we talked with them first, made it clear that there was a bottom line here, and the bottom line was that while they could negotiate on the circumstances of their leaving, the de facto regime had to go.

Afterwards, there was an unseemly argument by some of the spinners on both sides as to who got the credit for their leaving. Whether it was the administration, because the paratroopers were on their way, when Cedras finally agreed to go--literally they were in the air--or whether it was Carter and Nunn and Powell, all of whom I have a great respect for.

I think it was both, and it was a stupid argument. They offered Cedras a more dignified exit, but also it was at the very end when Colin Powell laid out in very strong terms to Cedras what would happen if there was a hostile invasion by the United States, that Cedras finally bent and agreed to leave.

Srebrenica is April of '95. So let's get '94...

April, May--I can't remember.

After the '94 elections, Dick Morris gets a more prominent role in the White House and on several occasions tries to weigh in on national security matters. What was your reaction to that?

I had never heard of Dick Morris before the night that Captain Scott O'Grady was saved in Bosnia, and the president was up very late while I was getting reports from the Pentagon on how the rescue operation was going. It was about 1:00 in the morning when I got word finally that they'd not only had gotten him but that he was out over the Adriatic and safe on an American plane and out of Yugoslav territory.

So I called the president 1:00, 2:00 in the morning to say, hooray, we've gotten him out, our guys did a great job getting him out. I reminded the president of when I had smoked a cigar on the first day of the new administration, on Inaugural Day....the smell had gotten down to the Oval Office, and I believe the first lady had said that there would be no smoking thereafter, and I hadn't smoked since then....but that, by God, since nobody else was down there in the West Wing except me, I was going to light up a cigar. And he suggested, no, I come up to the residence and we'd go out on the Truman balcony and we'd each smoke a cigar, very quietly so we wouldn't wake up the first lady.

When I got up there, there was this guy I had never seen before who was talking to the president, and the president introduced me, and this was Dick Morris. I was struck that as he walked out, he said, "Good night, Bill." It was the only time in four years that I ever heard anybody call him Bill except for the First Lady. Everybody else, including the vice president, of course always did what everybody always does, which is to call him "Mr. President." So I didn't take an instant liking to him then, though what followed wasn't personal.

When I heard that he was more engaged doing daily polling, or however often it was, it struck me that it would be a very bad idea for me ever to talk to him to get his polling results, et cetera, for two reasons. One, you shouldn't make national security decisions based on domestic polls; and, secondly, it would be bad politics because if there were stories that I was making recommendations based on the polling, it would hurt the president, not help him politically.

So with both those arguments, I went to the president and said I don't think I should ever talk to this guy, I don't think I should read his polls, just, you know, keep us in compartments. And he not only agreed, he said that he'd already told him not to have anything to do with me.

I know Morris subsequently wrote that I was naive in believing you could separate politics from foreign policy, (and that there was one occasion when I didn't give him my dead rodent look, i.e., not that I was being a dead rodent, because I must have been in a good mood, et cetera, I don't remember all of that.) But what I do remember is, one, obviously you're never in a democracy going to separate foreign policy and domestic politics; but, two, the best politics are the best policies, and it really doesn't matter what the public opinion is over the next 48 hours or so. What'll matter is 48 days or 48 months later whether your policies are succeeding or not, and, therefore, it would be wrong to make policies based on polls.

One of the things that Morris did weigh in on was Bosnia.

Yes, and that was useful. It was useful because it did push the president--as a number of us, notably Madeleine Albright and I, were doing also--in the belief, which he was increasingly holding, that it was time to go to the Europeans and saying we've got to fish or cut bait here. And we did that in the summer of '95.

In April, Srebrenica is under siege. You have people resigning from the State Department in protest to what is perceived as a lack of action, and there's a time when the president seems to be wavering. There is a report inside the White House that he's going south on American steadfastness about Srebrenica. Do you recall that?

No. I remember it differently. I remember the people resigning from the State Department, and I remember being very conflicted about this because I had resigned once from the White House and the State Department on a policy issue many, many years ago. So I admired them for doing it. But, as I suppose the people I was working for when I resigned many years earlier believed, I didn't think they were aware of the full scope of the dilemma we were facing. Nor were they aware of the fact that beginning in March, Sandy Vershbow--the senior director for European Affairs on the NSC and who deserves more credit for this than he's been given--and I and Sandy Berger, and a couple of others, were working on what we called an end-game strategy. We believed that the time had come to simply go to the Europeans and say, yes, we're aware of your problems, we're aware of the dilemma we're all in with your people on the ground, but it is time to put a stop to this, period, whatever the cost. And we were working that strategy.

The president knew from March on, or whenever we were working it, what I was doing, in holding meetings, trying to develop this strategy, fine-tuning it, trying to convince our colleagues, if not to agree to it, to come up with their own strategies and to work this through. We had to do this in the midst of daily crises of how to deal with Srebrenica, et cetera, et cetera, and it was difficult and complicated but we were doing it. I kept the president informed as we were developing this strategy, which ultimately led to the Dayton negotiations.

In August '95 I traveled around Europe giving the European leaders a very clear message, which was that we believed it was time to allow the UN mission in Bosnia to collapse if it had to, so that their troops would no longer be hostage on the ground. Even though [the mission] was doing good work, humanitarian good work on the ground, we needed a new negotiating strategy, which we laid out, and that we were going to use much more vigorous bombing if necessary.

To my surprise, in August, the Europeans were far more ready to go ahead with us when I said the president had decided we were going to do this, we would be more effective if you come with us. However if you don't, we're going to go ahead and do it, anyway.

There was a sense of abandonment among the Bosnians at the time because the United States had been talking tough, there were these safe havens, and when Srebrenica occurred, there was little response. I remember Elie Wiesel almost publicly scolded the president in his speech at the Holocaust Museum.


What was the president's reaction to that?

It was very painful. There was nobody who didn't want to get it fixed. But, again, we had to fix it in a way that was not going to destroy NATO. Until we got the Europeans to agree to this new approach, as they did finally in August--an approach, in effect, that we'd been pushing for a year and a half--the choice was to do what the Elie Wiesels, to their credit, wanted us to do and largely destroy NATO, or to keep working for some middle ground. Finally the middle ground gave way, and thank God.

Remember that there were peacekeepers in Srebrenica at the time, and remember that we were bombing in the area and trying to preserve the safe haven through bombing, and remember that there was absolutely zero support in the Congress or in our public for sending in our own ground troops to do something about this. Although a number of us had gotten the agreement on a new policy in which if the European troops or all the UN troops within Bosnia got themselves in trouble in the eastern areas, we would go in to help them get out and come to the rescue. And that itself was extremely controversial.

I think a key difference here was that European public opinion changed after Srebrenica, and what changed was that President Chirac in France called for much stronger action. And those two things then helped us sell the new policy to the Europeans that led then to the Dayton Accords.

Did the president have very mixed feelings about the American involvement even after Srebrenica? Because, as you say, on the one hand, there was little appetite in Congress or in the American public opinion polls; on the other hand, he had made sort of a moral imperative that the United States was going to protect the Muslims.

Within the limits of what we could sell the Europeans, we on a number of occasions--the Sarajevo ultimatum, the African lift and strike, et cetera--and I'm not saying that we did this perfectly. We didn't. And this was an agonizing issue for us at the time. It's an agonizing issue still in retrospect.

But I believe we have a fundamental strategic interest in NATO and an expanding NATO that can help bring stability farther and farther East in Europe. And if we were going to do this in a way that didn't blow NATO apart then we had to bring along the Europeans or put the Europeans on sufficient notice about when we were going to act unilaterally that we didn't blow it up. And that finally happened in '95.

Every day of this was agony because this was more than a moral commitment that we had made. It was hurting us very badly, not just here in the United States but around the world, because Bosnia had become equated with America's capacity to project power and to get things done.

Was Dayton then viewed as a remarkable success within the White House?

Yes, of course, it was a success in that we had stopped the fighting. But I think we were all aware that it wasn't a success in the sense that now that Bosnia is fixed, we can go on to something else. It was the beginning of what remains a long and extremely difficult effort to try to heal the wounds and to see whether we can hold together Bosnia as a state. I'm not sure still whether in the long term that will be a success. But Dayton was sure as hell a success compared to a continuation of the war, and Dayton was, I think, certainly the best that we could get at the time given the positions of the parties. Dayton our ability to get that done flowed from two factors: One, our making it very clear to the Serbs that we were prepared to use further military power if they did not ultimately agree; and, secondly, the skill of our negotiators, Dick Holbrooke, Warren Christopher, and others.

In the spring of '96, tensions erupt over the Straits of Taiwan, and the Chinese launch a mock exercise. Obviously it was taken seriously, but to what extent did the president think he had a genuine crisis that might lead to war on his hands? Or did it never reach that level?

No, it reached that level. This was the second most dangerous crisis we faced. I think the worst was in '94 over the North Korean nuclear programs when we were threatening sanctions against North Korea if they would not agree to what turned out to be the Framework Agreement, in which we got their nuclear programs frozen, at a real price. The North Koreans were saying that they would turn Seoul into a sea of fire, that they would attack if we implemented those sanctions. We were absolutely prepared to implement them, and I think we would have gotten some form of sanctions through the Security Council.

We were building up our forces quietly in South Korea and off the coast, and it was as close as we came to what would have been an extremely bloody conflict. We would have won in the end, but there would have been huge casualties, including among Americans. So that was the most dangerous.

Clearly, the Taiwan Strait crisis was very dangerous as well. We went through some considerable planning with the Pentagon on how we would proceed if there were a real attack on Taiwan or even on the offshore islands. I asked my staff to go back and look at what we had ever said before to Beijing as to what would happen if there were an attack on Taiwan.

Then I held meeting with my opposite number from Beijing, who was visiting Washington at that time, as it happened. He had launched the so-called strategic dialogue, a dialogue we then pursued when I went to Beijing to meet with their leaders. Secretary Perry and Secretary Christopher and I told him that an attack on Taiwan would have "grave consequences," which in diplomatic language is a very tough statement. And, of course, we sent the two aircraft carriers at Secretary Perry's recommendation off Taiwan, not actually into the straits.

In the spring of '96, when the president is dealing with the Chinese, what kind of pressure is he under? I mean, he's viewed by some in the military as not a particularly strong commander-in-chief. This is, perhaps, the most serious, genuine crisis of his career, in the presidency. How did he handle it, personally?

Let me argue with your question. During '93 I think there was a lot of suspicion about him in the military. By '96, I think one of the striking things about it was that, in fact, because of Bosnia, because of the hands-on way he dealt with Haiti, et cetera, because we didn't simply turn tail and run immediately in Somalia, and because he developed very close personal working relationship with General Shalikashvili and others, I don't think that was a problem.

And my recollection of our planning, of our decision meetings with the president on the Taiwan Strait crisis were that they were very businesslike, very clear, straightforward and dealt with, with the seriousness as appropriate to a crisis like that.

Did the president, himself, argue that the United States' response was going to be extremely forceful should the Chinese attack?

He approved both what we said and the contingency planning that we were doing. We never said precisely what we would do if there was such an attack and have not done so since. And I would hope the next administration would not do so.

Well, you used the term, the diplomatic term, as you said...

Yes, grave consequences.

"Grave consequences?"

That means that there will be a forceful response. But we haven't said to them exactly what the nature of that forceful response would be. Because if you do that, then you allow the other side to judge very clearly whether an action is in its interests or not. ...And so long as they know that there would be that response, some degree of ambiguity is not just useful, but I believe necessary, so that they can't be too comfortable in any of their own assumptions. And if I were they, I would not be at all comfortable about this one.

Later in '96, the National Security Council got caught up a little bit in the campaign fund-raising issue. And some of the people who made it over to these White House coffees had been vetted by the NSC. In fact, the NSC issued a warning on a couple of them--Johnny Chung and Roger Tamraz. How did you deal with that, as national security adviser, when your own staff had essentially warned the White House "buyer beware" here?

I'm not aware that any national security adviser before or since got deeply into the questions of who enters the White House or who doesn't. Not only am I not aware of it, I've worked previously in the NSC. I'm convinced that was never the case.

The way the process works is that they're going to be invited. If they have foreign connections, it goes through the staff secretariat right to our staff people, who would not do an independent investigation of these people, but instead would go to the agencies and say, "Hey, have you got anything on these people?" If they had anything, then they would convey it back.

So they did their job wonderfully, our staff people. And I can't criticize any of them. They did, in effect, blow a whistle. But, since we didn't have this larger context, it was never the kind of issue in which somebody was saying, "Hey, wait a minute. They're going to make a big mistake here." The issue comes up to me, and I would have to weigh in with the chief of staff or anybody else. I can't remember any of these cases ever working their way up that way because we were doing our job.

Now, you could argue the NSC should become the keeper of the gates at the White House and make decisions as to who should be invited to presidential coffees that are not on national security meetings. I would argue, if you're going to do that, not only should you build up the staff of the NSC to take on this new function, but you ought to fire the people and reduce the staff of those whose function it is.

When you look back...

I thought a lot of the reaction to all of this was near hysterical, frankly.

That's because it was political.

Yes. And that is one reason why, to the degree you can, I think you ought to keep national security issues and politics separate.

The Clinton legacy--we're asking everybody to keep this one brief--if you were in the foreign policy arena to sort of sum up the Clinton legacy, good and bad, in one short sentence, what might it be?

I'm a professor. You've got to give me three sentences.

Three short sentences.

Three short sentences. Two kinds of issues: immediate crises and longer term strategic issues. The immediate crises inherited--Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, North Korea, et cetera--and those we dealt with. We dealt with them imperfectly, and in some cases, as with Haiti and Somalia, we initially could have done a whole lot better than we did. But by '96, those were pretty much out of the headlines anyway.

So that second sentence, we could deal with what I think will be the main legacy, which is broader strategic issues. And here we made a very important beginning on NATO enlargement, on the creation of the Partnership for Peace in Europe, on a number of arms control treaties--which have suffered more recent setbacks on the Hill--but still are very important to our future.

In understanding the connections in this, the president played a central role between economic issues and diplomatic issues and between foreign and domestic issues. So that on something like 200 trade agreements that we reached, we are helping the American economy be so interconnected with the world that it is helping not just the world, but driving the success of the American economy itself.

So it's on the longer term issues, I take the greatest pride, even though we spent most of the time on the crises. Because we did make a beginning, I think it will serve us well in the next century.

You say you spent most of your time on these crises. Is that just a function of the way the White House works in the real world?

It's not just the White House in the real world, it's all of us. You've got an in box. You've got the immediate issues, you've got the important issues. And in any in box, whether it's a business or the government, anywhere, the immediate rises to the top, the important tends to go to the bottom because you can deal with that tomorrow--the immediate today. And one thing I used to tell myself almost every day to remember is to go to the bottom and push. We did it on NATO enlargement, for example, during '93, in the midst of all of these other crises...To push on the strategic issues because that's going to be the legacy, and that's what matters most in the long run, like peace in the Middle East.

I guess did the president worry that [ground troops in Bosnia] was going to be a tough sell?

I think the president did worry that it was going to be tough sell, sending American troops on the ground into Bosnia. And if you look at the images of Bosnia that the American public were seeing, it was a very, very tough place to be, a dangerous place. Never mind, of course, that this is now in the context of a peace agreement and there would not, at least in theory, be hostile forces there.

So a key to getting the troops in and getting congressional support for it--and it was hard work--was to make a commitment that they would be there for one year or 18 months, whatever it was. The reason for that was that, in terms of the military job that we had to do, stopping the fighting, opening lines of communication, et cetera, the military said that's the time period in which we can do it. So we put that out. But I won't pretend it also didn't help sell it.

This is very important in understanding peacekeeping missions, it's the civilian side that is the more difficult and takes a longer time, actually creating development, economic development on the ground, bringing people together, et cetera, et cetera, creating a good police force. That was taking longer, and it was clear by the end of '96 that we weren't getting it done on the civilian side, and therefore were going to have to stay longer. I think that it should have been stated clearly before the election, rather than after it. But the final recommendations on this weren't made until after the election.

It raises a larger point, however, about peacekeeping operations. I think that it is wrong to argue that we simply can turn away from them, that the United States shouldn't be playing even more of a role in peacekeeping missions around the world. Most of the conflicts around the world which affect our interests, as well as tug at our consciences, are internal conflicts that require some kind of peacekeeping to help to resolve them.

However I think the critics of peacekeeping missions are right when they argue that we need to be clearer about our purposes so that we know when we will have succeeded, so that we can tell our soldiers, "Well, done. You've done your job. You can come home."

And I would argue that we must not allow ourselves to get in a position in Bosnia or anywhere else--and this is what we did in Haiti, where there are no American troops now--to say to those societies and governments, we can't build your society, we can't make you reconcile. We can give you a period of time in which you can do it for yourselves. And if you can't do it in some reasonable period of time, whether it's 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, whatever, if you can't do that yourselves, then we have done what we can, and we're going to leave. Otherwise we're going to end up with peacekeeping missions around the world without end.

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