war in europe


how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

FRONTLINE 1812 "War in Europe," Part 1
Air date: February 22, 2000

War in Europe

Part One: The Road to War

Produced by Michael Kirk, Eamonn Matthews, Rick Young

Written by Peter J. Boyer

Michael Kirk and Rick Young

Peter J. Boyer, Correspondent

ANNOUNCER: A year ago, the United States was about to go to war in Kosovo, a war designed by politicians.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State: We all would have liked to have solved this diplomatically.

ANNOUNCER: Serbian leader Milosevic was supposed to bend under the threat of NATO bombs, and the allied forces would never really go to war.

Gen. MICHAEL C. SHORT, Allied Air Force Cmdr.: It was very clear this wasn't going to be a three-night war, that Milosevic was digging in.

ANNOUNCER: A year later, Milosevic is still in power, Kosovo in ruins. And the U.S. military will remain for a very long time.

Gen. CHARLES KRULAK, Commandant, USMC ('95-'99): I mean, do you think that if we left tomorrow, it's all okay?

ANNOUNCER: What did the largest military offensive since the Gulf war really accomplish? Tonight FRONTLINE reveals the inside story behind the war in Europe.

NARRATOR: It was here at the State Department, inside the secretary of state's office, that the war in Europe against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had its most powerful advocate. In inscribing this photograph, President Bill Clinton joked that being blind to evil was not Madeleine Albright's problem.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I believe in learning lessons, and I believed that it was very important to make clear that the kinds of things that Milosevic does - which is decide that because you are not his ethnic group that you don't deserve to exist - is unacceptable. And it is not just a lesson for Kosovo, but it is- and it is not American to stand by and watch this kind of a thing.

NARRATOR: In fact, more than any other leader in Washington, Madeleine Albright was driven by a sense of America's role in the world and the chance to use power to rectify the most distant outrage.

Outrage makes its home in the Balkans. There, in a province called Kosovo, deep in the former Yugoslavia, Madeleine Albright saw an opportunity to test her doctrine of virtuous power.

Kosovo is a place heavy with history and foreboding. For centuries the Serbs have revered Kosovo as the sacred ground of their ancestors. In recent history, the ethnic Albanians that live there and believe it is their land have chafed under Serbian oppression.

At the end of the cold war, when Yugoslavia fell apart and nationalism ignited the Balkans, Kosovo seemed a calamity waiting to happen. The Kosovo question worried the Clinton administration, as it had the Bush administration before it.

BRENT SCOWCROFT, National Security Adviser ('88-'92): A number of powers had very strong interests in Kosovo and in that general region. The Albanians did, the Greeks did, the Turks did, the Bulgarians did, as well as the Serbs. And therefore, something happening there could have brought about a wider war, even with the possibility of some of our NATO allies on opposite sides.

NARRATOR: What worried both administrations was the prospect of civil war in Kosovo and the likely response from Europe's most ruthless man, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. For Milosevic, Kosovo was his people's holy land. He could not give it up and stay in power.

But there were stirrings of rebellion in Kosovo. Talk of independence was in the air. By 1998, the ancient hatreds in Kosovo erupted into a cycle of provocation and violent retribution. The result was a plague of ethnic cleansing that threatened to create an international nightmare in the Balkans.

Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian police had begun a campaign to root out and brutally eliminate a rebel band called the Kosovo Liberation Army. They struck a village called Prekaz, determined to eliminate the family of a local rebel leader.

BESARTA JASHARI: [through interpreter] We could hear the sound of gunshots and tanks. Uncle Adem told us not to be afraid, and we went into the basement. We lay on the floor and covered ourselves with blankets. They threw in a grenade. Grandma was blown into the next room. Almost everyone was killed. My sister started begging for water and calling out "Mother! Mother!"

NARRATOR: But her mother was already dead, and so were more than 50 others, nearly the entire family.

The Kosovar rebels were badly outgunned, but now they had the most potent weapon in this kind of struggle, the television images that might engage America and her allies. But Kosovo invites only the most reluctant intervention. In Washington, Secretary of State Albright believed that American reluctance was part of the problem in the Balkans. The massacre at Prekaz would help her to make her case.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: When that massacre happened, we were very concerned about it, and I came down pretty hard, in terms of saying that we had learned a lot of lessons out of Bosnia, where we had waited too long to do something, and that we would be judged very harshly if we allowed something like this to happen again. [www.pbs.org: Read more of this interview]

NARRATOR: A refugee from the Nazis, Albright believed that the West had for too long appeased Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who she saw as a brutal dictator who needed to be dealt with forcefully.

IVO DAALDER, NSC Dir. European Affairs ('95-'97): Albright's view is we are about to face another Munich, which means we will not appease aggressors, we have to be forceful, and this is a clear-cut case of aggression, that you have to stand up to aggression because if you don't do it here, it will happen in other places.

NARRATOR: In Washington, Albright faced a problem in her quest to get the Clinton administration behind her idea of threatening Milosevic with force. Her boss, the president, was fighting for his political life because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [press conference] I want to say one thing to the American people. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

IVO DAALDER: The early part of 1998, the White House is preoccupied with very different things. The Monica Lewinsky story has just broken. The notion that at this point you engage in another foreign adventure, that you start using force in a kind of Wag the Dog scenario, was one that was not generally supported in the White House.

REPORTER: Monica! Monica, did you have sexual relations with the President?

NARRATOR: For more than a year, the Lewinsky matter had consumed the White House. To make the Kosovo problem go away, the Clinton team needed some diplomatic magic. They turned to their diplomatic magician.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Special Envoy - Balkans: Madeleine Albright asked me to go back into the region, to talk to Milosevic and to get involved in the Kosovo issue, and I started what proved to be the first of nine trips to the region.

NARRATOR: Richard Holbrooke was the Western world's resident Milosevic expert. In 1995 he had somehow brought a fix to that other Balkans nightmare with the Dayton peace agreement for Bosnia. The leaders of the NATO alliance believed that their show of force had convinced Milosevic to come to the peace table. This time, trying to forestall disaster in Kosovo, Holbrooke again carried a big stick. He threatened military action.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: His reaction was, "Kosovo's an internal matter." We said, "We accept the fact that Kosovo is inside the Yugoslav national boundary, but that does not give you the right to squash its people."

NARRATOR: It seemed to work. Milosevic agreed to negotiate directly with the other side. The other side, Washington thought, was Ibrahim Rugova, a pacifist leader of the Albanian Kosovars. For nearly a decade he'd worn the mantle of leadership in Kosovo- president of the province, elected by the people but unsanctioned by Belgrade.

Holbrooke managed to get what seemed like a breakthrough. The old adversaries, Milosevic and Rugova, now met for the first time. As a result of the meeting, both sides got something. Milosevic won a reprieve from some of the economic sanctions imposed since the Bosnia war. Rugova received his reward, a sign that he was Washington's man in Kosovo- a personal visit with President Clinton.

IBRAHIM RUGOVA, Kosovo Leader: [through interpreter] This was symbolizing, that meeting. It was a chance for me to meet the president. He was, of course, very preoccupied with what was happening over there. Then he promised a bigger engagement, and secondly he promised he personally will put more effort to find the solution to the crisis.

NARRATOR: But this hopeful interlude soon proved emblematic of the maddening frustrations of trying to solve the Balkan puzzle. While Clinton was bonding with Rugova in Washington, on the ground back in Kosovo events were making Rugova and his pacifism irrelevant. The Kosovo Liberation Army - the KLA - was conducting its own form of diplomacy with guns and bombs, asserting itself as the real force that counted in the Kosovo equation.

HASHIM THACI, Kosovo Liberation Army: [through interpreter] It had reached the level of open confrontation. The dilemma over whether the war was to avoided or not was finished. It was at this time that a face-to-face war between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav army and police started.

NARRATOR: For their part, the Serbian generals justified the retaliation.

Cmdr. NEBOJSA PAVKOVIC, Yugoslav 3rd Army: [through interpreter] Terrorist attacks on the Serbs and the police became a daily occurrence. There came a moment when all the lines of communication in the area, all the roads were blocked, especially around the local army headquarters near the Albanian border.

HASHIM THACI: [through interpreter] It was simply a necessity to free and democratize Kosovo. And nothing happened accidentally, neither the organization nor the beginning of the armed struggle.

NARRATOR: It wasn't accidental. For the KLA, war was all calculation. They wanted what other break-away republics had gained through bloodshed: full-blown independence, not negotiated autonomy.

IVO DAALDER: The failure to deal with Kosovo in Dayton led the Albanians to conclude that the one way in which you get Western attention, in which you get a Dayton-like conference, in which you get the president of the United States to pay attention to you, is to use violence, that violence begets international attention and that therefore one should start violence.

The policy that the Kosovars had been pursuing since 1989 of non-violent opposition all of a sudden became less and less viable. And as time goes by, more and more people realize or come to the conclusion that the way you get the West involved is to start killing people.

NARRATOR: For his part, Milosevic fought back Balkan style. The Serbs drove the villagers into the hills and into the arms of the KLA.

Amb. CHRISTOPHER HILL, Special Envoy - Kosovo: I was pretty up front about saying that if we stayed out of it, the Serbs took that to mean that they could just continue to do what they're doing. And the Albanians just continued to argue that they needed independence, full stop. And so with that- with those sort of ingredients in the mix, we weren't going to get anywhere. We were going to end up with a full-blown war.

NARRATOR: The U.S. had told Milosevic that war in Kosovo would bring American military action. Now Milosevic and the KLA waited. Would the Americans live up to their threat? The answer was no. The Clinton administration had decided it could never sell a fight against Milosevic alone. It had to be part of a European coalition, NATO.

SAMUEL "SANDY" BERGER, National Security Adviser: We believed that it needed to be a NATO commitment, not just an American commitment, because whether we could sustain - unilaterally - action against Milosevic I think was, under these circumstances, an open question.

NARRATOR: Over at the Pentagon, the civilian leaders agreed.

WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: I was absolutely convinced that the United States could not afford to take any kind of unilateral action, from a political view point, and certainly we were not going to recommend that to the president and to the Congress that we intervene unilaterally without NATO consensus and support.

NARRATOR: NATO was a relic of the cold war, a U.S. alliance with Europe constructed to defend against the Soviets, an organization that was reinventing itself. It had never been to war, but now it asked its top general to start planning for one.

Gen. WESLEY CLARK, Supreme Allied Cmdr. NATO: Ministers were grasping for some- what could be done to prevent an outbreak of destabilization in the region. And so they turned to NATO again. NATO demonstrated its effectiveness in Bosnia. And naturally, the first- the first NATO means they sought to use was the means that had proved itself to be effective before, NATO air. And that's why we began with the air planning effort.

NARRATOR: Wes Clark was no stranger to Belgrade. He had been Dick Holbrooke's military aide at Dayton, another American who believed he knew how to handle Milosevic.

Gen. WESLEY CLARK: As far as Milosevic is concerned, I- probably unique among 20th-century commanders in knowing so well the adversarial leadership, the people on the other side- I don't think anybody's had quite the same experience that I've had in terms of knowing your enemy. And so I had a pretty good feel for what he might do and how he might do it.

NARRATOR: The most the coalition decided to do was send a message to Milosevic, maybe even back him down with a little saber rattling. Eighty-five planes were sent to buzz the Kosovo border, and the politicians would talk even tougher.

ROBIN COOK, British Foreign Secretary: This is his last warning. If he continues to cross the line, he should not be surprised by the option that is adopted by the international community to respond next time.

NARRATOR: But in Belgrade, Milosevic's generals weren't fazed by what became known as "NATO's Balkan air show."

Cmdr. NEBOJSA PAVKOVIC, Yugoslav 3rd Army: [through interpreter] As far as NATO's threats were concerned, we didn't have any valid reason to believe them. They had no reason to protect the terrorists. They had no reason to get involved in the internal politics of another country. Because of these reasons, we couldn't believe them.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, in Washington they were waking up to the fact that the KLA was driving events in Kosovo.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: All of a sudden, there clearly were more players involved in this, and people that were not known to everybody. And I think that we were concerned by some of the activities of the KLA. I think one of the hard parts was trying to sort out what they were doing. We did know that they were involved in some provocative activity. On the other hand, it was also evident that what the Serbs were doing to the Kosovars was enough to provoke anything.

NARRATOR: The Pentagon, too, was concerned, worried that the U.S.-led coalition was being maneuvered by a band of insurgents into endorsing its war of liberation.

WILLIAM COHEN: My concern was that if there was going to be any kind of action taken, it must be consistent with making sure that we were entirely neutral, that the KLA was not going to use NATO to serve its own purposes. And for many months I made the statement that we will not be the air force for the KLA, that they must be willing to come to an agreement with Mr. Milosevic and his forces as such, and that we were not going to intervene on their behalf as a military force.

NARRATOR: The alliance stood back. The Serbs followed form and moved in. A bloody summer counteroffensive ensued, and Kosovo fell into its grim, familiar cycle: provocation, brutal Serb retaliation and villages emptying as frightened Kosovars fled into the mountains.

By the end of summer, Albright was calling on a Washington wise man, Bob Dole, for help in keeping Kosovo on the radar. What Dole saw there convinced him that Washington needed to address the Kosovo question with new urgency.

Sen. ROBERT DOLE (R), Kansas ('69-'96): We'd go from village to village. You wouldn't hear anything but a dog barking, no sign of human life, no movement. And it was pretty obvious to us that, you know, this was a tragedy in the making.

NARRATOR: Dole returned to the White House.

Sen. ROBERT DOLE: I told the president that there have been so many empty gestures that I don't believe Milosevic really believes anything will ever happen. That was sort of my message. But let's face it, the president was preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky. And I think it's fair to say, without disclosing what was said, that we talked about that. So I think it was a distraction, I think the whole Lewinsky thing. I've said I think Kosovo was maybe the first casualty of the Lewinsky affair.

NARRATOR: In Kosovo the cycle of violence continued. Near the village of Gornje Obrinje, 14 Serb police were killed by Kosovar rebels. There was a predictably brutal Serbian response. Thirty-five villagers were killed. The victims included women and children.

FATHER: [through interpreter] The oldest child I lost was my 9-year-old son, Yetll. There was Valmir, who was 18 months old. He still had his pacifier in his mouth. Then there was 4-year-old Minda, Gentiana, who was 5, Donyetta, who was 6. And each body that I found looked worse than what had gone before.

NARRATOR: Such television images as these, fixed on scenes of unimaginable brutality and human wreckage, were becoming potent weapons in the war over Kosovo. These images made clear the uncomfortable truth for the U.S. and its allies. The Kosovo crisis was inescapable.

As the pictures from Gornje Obrinje reached Washington, Clinton's foreign policy advisers were gathering at the White House.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Special Envoy - Balkans: That day, there was a principals' committee meeting, which I happened to be attending in person in Washington. The Times sat in the middle of the oak table in the middle of the situation room like a silent witness of what was going on.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: When the pictures showed up of these massacres and there was this sense- the sense that I'd had from the very beginning of the year, that we had- were reliving the stories of Srebrenica and the terrible things that had happened in Bosnia, and that we knew better now, that we shouldn't be allowing these kinds of things to happen.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: And it was one of those rare times where a photograph just kind of- the terrible photograph of that dead person in that village was kind of a reminder of a reality, and it had a very real effect on the dialogue.

NARRATOR: At that meeting, the president's team reached a pivotal decision: If Milosevic didn't pull back in Kosovo, the U.S. and its allies would use military force. In a way, finally reaching that decision was the easy part. Selling that idea politically at that particular moment presented a even more formidable challenge.

Rep. HENRY HYDE (R-IL), House Judiciary Committee Chairman: [committee hearing] On September 18th, the House of Representatives passed a resolution with strong bipartisan support directing the referral from the Office of Independent Counsel to this committee.

IVO DAALDER, NSC Dir. European Affairs ('95-'97): Clearly, when you get in a situation in which the House and the Senate are considering and then starting down the road of impeaching the president, that's not a good time to go to war, particularly in a situation where the interests of the United States are not as clear-cut as they would be in, say, the Persian Gulf, or if the United States or one of its allies was directly attacked.

This is a question about interfering in the internal affairs of a state, that we recognize to be in internal affairs, in which there are large-scale humanitarian atrocities, although not many people have been killed yet. And for the president under those circumstances to consider the use of force, even without impeachment hanging over him, is a difficult issue. With impeachment hanging over him, it's nearly impossible to consider this in a serious manner. [www.pbs.org: Morality of war - the debate]

NARRATOR: Congress was in no mood to consider more American troops in the Balkans. They remembered this president promising to bring U.S. troops home from Bosnia within a year. Five years later, the troops were still there.

WILLIAM COHEN: Congress made it very clear that they were reluctant, at best. And certainly, many were in opposition to any kind of commitment of any peacekeepers to the region. And so the president was very much aware of not wanting to get engaged in a any kind of another long-term commitment.

NARRATOR: Given the president's political constraints, his team arrived at a formula for military intervention in Kosovo. The president promised there would be no ground troops, only surgical air strikes. It was this definition of force that the president's team now had to try to sell to Congress.

Sen. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), Delaware, Foreign Relations Committee: Did not go well, the meeting. They put forward the plan, and it was met with a great deal of skepticism. You had people saying, "Okay, how about if the bombing doesn't work? How about ground forces? What about ground forces? Are you prepared to use ground forces? What's step two, three and four?" And they weren't prepared to say.

IVO DAALDER: What happens, of course, is that the Congress says, "You guys don't know what you're talking about. You don't have a plan B. You don't know what will happen if you use force from the air and Milosevic doesn't stop, he doesn't meet your demands. You don't have a plan B."

NARRATOR: In October, 1998, the predicament in Kosovo was urgent. Milosevic's brutal counteroffensive had driven more than 50,000 Albanians into the hills. Winter was arriving. Holbrooke was dispatched to Belgrade hoping to back down Milosevic with the threat of bombs. He took with him NATO's air commander, General Michael Short.

Gen. MICHAEL C. SHORT, Allied Air Force Cmdr.: We convoyed off to the palace, and there you are- President Milosevic, shaking his hand, eye contact, heart beating a little fast, quite frankly.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: We walked into the room, and Milosevic's opening line to Short was, "So, General, you're the man who's going to bomb us?"

Gen. MICHAEL C. SHORT: Well, I'll be frank and say I was stunned. That was not what I was expecting. And I didn't respond for what seemed like an eternity. I'm guessing it was maybe five or ten seconds. You can see Holbrooke probably thinking to himself, "Boy, you know, this guy I've got with me is letting me down."

He started to lean forward, and my wits came back to me and I said, "Well, Mr. President, I hope that won't be the case. I hope I have a plan to propose to your generals that will prevent your country from being bombed. But in essence, you're right. I have U-2s in one hand and B-52s in the other, and the choice is up to you."

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, yeah, Milosevic said to me at one point, "Are you crazy enough to bomb us over these issues we're talking about in that lousy little Kosovo?" And I said, "You bet. We're just crazy enough to do it."

NARRATOR: They wanted Milosevic to pull back his troops in Kosovo. NATO's supreme commander, Wes Clark, later came to Belgrade to haggle the details.

Gen. WESLEY CLARK, Supreme Allied Cmdr. NATO: We said, "Mr. President, you're going to withdraw your forces that don't belong here, aren't you?" He said, "There are no such forces." I said, "Well, what"- I said, "Have you ever heard of the 211th Armored Brigade?" He said, "No, I've not." And he looked over at General Perisic, the chief of defense staff, and Perisic said, "Oh, yes. That's in there," in Serbian. And Milosevic looked back at us. He says, "Okay! We have such a unit! It will be withdrawn! Now!"

NARRATOR: Milosevic appeared to back down. He would pull back his tanks so the refugees could leave the mountains. It was time for a Belgrade-style celebration and a Balkan history lesson.

Gen. WESLEY CLARK: He was feeling self-assured and confident, and he passed out the pear brandy. And he said in his- in the way that he has come to look at Western military people, he said, "Well, I"- "General Clark," he said, "you understand we know how to deal with these Albanians. We've done this before."

And I said, "Well, when- when was that and where? And how did you deal with them?" He said, "In Drenica in 1946," he said. "They were murderers and bandits and killing their own kind." And "Well, what did you do, Mr. President?" He said, "We killed them. We killed them all. It took several years, but we killed them all."

He then proceeded to sign the promises to NATO saying he wasn't going to use anything but normal policing methods.

NARRATOR: The allies had bought some time, but U.S. intelligence was showing that the KLA was continuing to provoke attacks.

Amb. CHRISTOPHER HILL, Special Envoy - Kosovo: There was a lot of KLA noncompliance. There was a lot of effort to retake roads and to sort of show that that stretch of road was part of a KLA territory. And our point was that the KLA had to stay as far off the road as possible. I mean, we wanted them essentially out of sight. And the more they came on the road, the more the Serbs felt that they had to- had to respond.

NARRATOR: As the fighting in Kosovo escalated, Clinton's top advisers met again at the White House. Albright, ever more frustrated, pushed for decisive action.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I had gotten kind of increasingly frustrated by the fact that we were doing this piecemeal. I think I used the term that we were kind of like gerbils on a wheel, and just going around without resolving anything, and that things were getting worse and that we needed to take action.

IVO DAALDER, NSC Dir. European Affairs ('95-'97): The decision by the principals is, "No, we'll muddle through. Decisive action- we just can't stomach it." After all, January 15th.

Chief Justice WILLIAM REHNQUIST, U.S. Supreme Court: [Senate impeachment trial] The Senate will come to order. The Senate will now resume consideration of the articles of impeachment against William Jefferson Clinton.

IVO DAALDER: The Senate has just started a week before a trial of the president, who has been impeached. This is no time to go to war,

NARRATOR: But on that very day, unknown to those meeting at the White House, the road in Kosovo had turned fatefully toward war. The Serbs had come to Racak with vengeance on their minds. Four of their policemen had been killed by the KLA. Now the village of Racak would pay. Forty-five Kosovars were killed, a new effusion of blood on the world's television screens.

Amb. WILLIAM WALKER, Chief Ceasefire Monitor: [in Racak] This is about as horrendous an event as I've seen, and I've been in some pretty nasty situations.

NARRATOR: The next day, the chief American diplomat monitoring the Kosovo ceasefire visited Racak.

Amb. WILLIAM WALKER: We started up the hill, and every 15 or 20 yards there was another body, all in sort of grotesque postures. All of them were obviously peasants. We finally reached the place where there was a pile of bodies, maybe 17, 18, 19 bodies just helter skelter, in a big pile. There was no sign of uniform. There was no sign of weapons. [www.pbs.org: Reports on atrocities in Kosovo]

[in Racak] He's been beheaded?

VOICE ON RADIO: That's affirmative. Over.

Amb. WILLIAM WALKER: Jesus Christ! Let's give him the dignity of covering him up.

NARRATOR: Within days, the political landscape did indeed change. Racak was, finally, decisive.

SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser: Racak was so brutal that I think there was in Europe and here a much clearer sense that we had to take action.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: That still something as terrible as Racak could happen I think was really energizing to all of us, to say "We can't go on like this. This requires a larger plan."

NARRATOR: But what kind of plan? As it turned out, what was settled upon was a peace plan, but it was a peace plan that was a prelude to war. Washington and its European allies decided to mount a comprehensive settlement conference in France, at a chateau in Rambouillet.

The Serbs would be given no choice but to attend, and then they would be presented with terms they almost certainly would reject: foreign troops on Serbian soil. And if and when they walked away from the peace conference, they would be bombed.

ROBIN COOK, British Foreign Minister: [at Rambouillet] We meet today in a place of tranquility and beauty, but we are here to change a scene of violence and fear.

NARRATOR: The strategy of Rambouillet depended, of course, upon the acquiescence of the Kosovars. Their cooperation was assumed by Washington and its allies.

IVO DAALDER: That's part of the strategy. Get the Kosovars to sign on, get the Serbs to renege, bomb the Serbs, get the Serbs to sign on, deal. That's the strategy.

NARRATOR: But the strategy backfired when events at Rambouillet took a surprising turn. The man heading the Kosovar delegation was a leader of the KLA, which had its own agenda.

HASHIM THACI, Kosovo Liberation Army: [through interpreter] There were very difficult moments. We must not forget that I had 20,000 people armed in Kosovo asking for explanations.

NARRATOR: The KLA didn't want NATO's peace compromise. They wanted independence. Thaci worried that he would pay the price if he delivered anything less.

DUGAGJIN GORANI, Adviser, Kosovar Delegation: We were in toilet, because it was at some point the safest place to discuss. And he said, "You should realize that if I go back with something my people doesn't want, I may get a bullet in the head."

NARRATOR: For NATO it was a humiliating setback. They had come to Rambouillet to force a peace on Serbia but were abandoned by the people whose cause they were championing.

Then, to get things moving, Washington played its trump. Albright herself came to Rambouillet. And now she was freed from the political drama that had distracted the White House for a year. President Clinton had been acquitted of the Lewinsky charges. Full focus was on forcing a Kosovo solution.

IVO DAALDER: Albright is told by her aides that just a bit of a push and the Kosovars will sign on, that the force of her personality, that the fact that she is secretary of state of the largest, most powerful country in the world is more than sufficient to get a deal.

NARRATOR: But at Rambouillet Albright got a rude lesson in the vagaries of Balkan-style statecraft. Some of the Kosovars didn't even know who she was.

DUGAGJIN GORANI: She just showed herself on the door, and one member of the delegation, who didn't realize who was she, and probably thinking she was some cleaning lady because it was after midnight- and he simply said to her, like, "Give us five minutes. And please go away."

VENTON SURROI, Kosovar Delegation: Mrs. Albright started using explicit language which the translators never could translate into Albanian.

NARRATOR: Albright finally found a language the Kosovars understood. She put her case bluntly.

IBRAHIM RUGOVA, Kosovo Leader: [through interpreter] Mrs. Albright asked us, "Do you want this agreement with the U.S. and NATO in Kosovo, or is it that do you not want it, in which case you'll be left under Serbian oppression and at their mercy?"

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: [press conference] Let me say that if the talks crater because the Serbs do not say yes, we will have bombing. If the talks crater because the Albanians have not said yes, we will not be able to support them and, in fact, will have to cut off whatever help they're getting from the outside.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, precious time was being lost. The Serbs were massing 40,000 troops in and around Kosovo. Three weeks would pass before the Kosovars signed the agreement. As expected, Serbia did not.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Once the Serbs had said no and the Kosovars had said yes, it was a very clear choice. And it was- that was what triggered the- made it clear that the use of force had to take place.

NARRATOR: War was coming. NATO had chosen sides. Its de facto ally was the KLA.

On March 20, international monitors, who for months had tried to contain the conflict, were pulled out of Kosovo. There had been fear that they'd be held hostage. But in reality, the Serbs couldn't wait for them to leave.

Amb. WILLIAM WALKER, Chief Ceasefire Monitor: Our last people coming out were saying, you know, right behind us were the tanks, right behind us were the APCs, the armored personnel carriers. And it was obvious that the Yugoslav forces - one - had a plan to move in right behind us - two - wanted us out of the way as soon as possible so they could start doing what they were going to do, and then did it.

NARRATOR: The Serbs moved in heavily against the KLA. It was just as NATO intelligence had predicted.

WILLIAM FILLMAN, NATO Intelligence Chief: We saw clear indicators that large-scale military operations against Kosovo were about to take place. What we were saying was we expect the Serbs to be quite merciless in their treatment of the Kosovar Albanians.

NARRATOR: Holbrooke gave Milosevic his final warning.

Amb. RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Special Envoy - Balkans: I went back alone, and I sat there with Milosevic and I said to him, "You understand that if I leave here without an agreement today, bombing will start almost immediately." And he said, "Yes, I understand that." And I said, "You understand it will be swift, severe and sustained." And I used those three words very carefully after consultations with the Pentagon.

And he said, "You're a great country. You're a powerful country. You can do anything you want. We can't stop you." There was an air of resignation to him. I said, "Are you absolutely clear what will happen when we leave?" And he said, "Yes," very quietly, "You'll bomb us."

NARRATOR: The general who would command the air war was Michael Short. If there was to be war in the Balkans, this former Vietnam combat pilot believed he knew how it had to be fought.

Gen. MICHAEL C. SHORT, Allied Air Force Cmdr.: When the decision is made to use force, then we need to go in with overwhelming force, quite frankly, extraordinary violence, that the speed of it, the lethality of it, the weight of it has to make an incredible impression on the adversary, to such a degree that he is stunned and shocked and his people are immediately asking, "Why in the world are we doing this?"

NARRATOR: In fact, Short and the U.S. air command had secretly devised an air war plan that would hit the Serbs hard and fast. The plan included 1,000 targets throughout Yugoslavia, surely a compelling strategy from a military perspective. But this was coalition warfare, a tricky business in one of the world's trickiest hotspots.

Gen. WESLEY CLARK, Supreme Allied Cmdr. NATO: From the outset, we were trying to structure a military campaign that met the political requirements. No single target, no set of targets, no bombing series was more important than maintaining the consensus of NATO.

NARRATOR: Discord within NATO could cripple the alliance. Losing a Germany here or an Italy there could undo the whole undertaking. So the military plan was tailored to fit the political imperative. No all-out bombing campaign, instead a phased plan of limited strikes. Alliance leaders even convinced themselves it would work.

Gen. MICHAEL C. SHORT: I can't tell you how many times the instruction I got was, "Mike, you're only going to be allowed to bomb two, maybe three nights. That's all Washington can stand. That's all some members of the alliance can stand. That's why you've only got 90 targets. This'll be over in three nights."

Gen. MICHAEL RYAN, Chief of Staff, USAF: I think there were those who believed that you could use slap-on-the-wrist kinds of operations and Milosevic would fold. But we said, "This isn't going to be easy. It isn't going to be short." I mean, that was acknowledged. But the plan that had come forward was almost, "Yeah, it's going to be easy, and it's going to be short."

NARRATOR: NATO was gambling that a brief bombing campaign would bring Milosevic to his knees.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [television address] My fellow Americans, today our armed forces joined our NATO allies in air strikes against Serbian forces responsible for the brutality in Kosovo. We have acted with resolve.

NARRATOR: And as the first aircraft took to the skies, President Clinton doubled the odds. The president took American ground troops off the table.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: [television address] But I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war.

SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser: Had there been introduced at that stage a debate about ground forces, about which there was not a consensus - not then, not later - there would have been disunity instead of a united front. I believe there would have been a great debate in this country about whether or not we were getting sucked into a ground war.

Gen. CHARLES KRULAK, Commandant, USMC ('95-'99): He had not, nor had the Congress, nor had the services, built any kind of constituency within the American people that would cause mothers and fathers to say, "Yes, send my son or daughter into Kosovo." I mean, many of them didn't even know where Kosovo was, much less what this was all about. And I think that was probably one of the reasons why he said no ground troops.

NARRATOR: Taking ground troops off the table was politically expedient, but as far as NATO's generals were concerned, it was a fundamental strategic miscue.

Gen. KLAUS NAUMANN, Former Chairman, NATO Military Committee: I do not hesitate to say all those politicians who ruled out in public the use of ground forces made it easier for Milosevic to calculate his risk, and this may have encouraged him to make the attempt to ride it out, and by this we prolonged the war.

Gen. MICHAEL RYAN: In my mind, you shouldn't, if you can at all avoid it, ever tell the enemy that you're not going to do something. That is militarily bankrupt. That is, to say that we would not use ground forces or that we would not use sea forces or we would not use any subset of our forces just allows him to posture himself for that which we will use, and puts the force at greater risk.

NARRATOR: If the generals were nervous, at the White House the commander-in-chief and his top diplomat were reassuring themselves.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: He called around 12:30, and we talked about the fact that the bombing had begun, and we both went over with each other all the different things that we had tried to do. He said, "I think about this all the time." So we kind of did an inventory of all the things that we had done and assured ourselves that this was the only way that we could bring about the result that we needed.

NARRATOR: Getting results in this war would be up to the pilots flying three miles above their targets.

Maj. DAVID SULLIVAN, Stealth Pilot: I was looking outside because it was quiet, and to me that meant danger, danger. That's when I first started seeing enemy triple-A coming up. The hair started rising on the back of your neck. You could kind of feel "This is getting serious now." I hit the pickle button and stared, essentially, at my T.V. screen. It's kind of a surreal feeling. You see this thing blow up in your screen, but you don't hear it- the big flash, and you smile. I mean, you did what you were trained to do.

NARRATOR: At last the military intervention we'd threatened for so long was underway. What played out on the news was an irresistible display of the moral purpose and technological might of the West. NATO could stop ethnic cleansing and do it with just a few days' bombing. But three days came and went. There was no white flag from Milosevic. That was ominous. The allies had hit all the approved targets on their list.

Maj. DAVID SULLIVAN: We kept flying. Day three came along, the flying was going fine. We still had target sets, but we really didn't have a good plan for night four, night five. And as the beginning of day three happened, we started asking, "Okay, what are we going to do now? We've hit just about everything we're targeted against."

Gen. MICHAEL C. SHORT, Allied Air Force Cmdr.: I do remember on the third night canceling the second wave of 117s because we were out of targets. Of the 91 we had been given, we had struck that target set.

NARRATOR: By day four, NATO was out of approved targets. Milosevic was hanging tough. And another stunning surprise: A mass exodus was emptying Kosovo.

NATO had gone to war to protect the Kosovars, to prevent ethnic cleansing. The multitudes fleeing their homes and villages now revealed the sobering reality. NATO had lost its gamble. Now, with the plight of the refugees and its own viability at stake, the alliance had to find a way to win.

and Channel 4 coproduction

in association with
Mentorn Barraclough Carey
and Kirk Documentary Group, Ltd.

Copyright 2000

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