war in europe

madeleine albright

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of madeleine albright
She became U.S. Secretary of State in late 1996 and quickly emerged as the Clinton Administration's chief hawk on Kosovo. Albright identified herself so strongly with the push for intervention that critics have called the conflict "Madeleine's War." Some observers have pointed to Albright's personal history to explain her forceful stance; born in Czechoslovakia, Albright was twice a refugee herself, forced to flee both the Nazis and Stalinism.
. . . In late February, 1998, the Serbs went on an offensive, with a brutal massacre. How did you see that, and what were you thinking?

I had been very concerned about Kosovo for some time. The whole Balkan crisis began in 1989, when Milosevic basically took away Kosovo's autonomy. We had been working all along to try for a political resolution to the issue. But things clearly deteriorated in the beginning of 1998. We were very concerned about that massacre. In a subsequent contact group meeting, I said firmly that we learned a lot of lessons in Bosnia, where we waited too long to do something--that, as foreign ministers, we would be judged very harshly if we allowed something like this to happen again, and that an intervention might necessary a political solution. . . .

Keeping Bosnia in mind, why was force necessary in dealing with Milosevic?

We all knew that he best understood the use of force. He didn't see the light in Bosnia until the NATO bombing, and then he agreed to the Dayton Accords. Unless you're prepared to use or consider using force . . . it's difficult to deal with someone who only understands force. We did also try to develop a viable diplomatic track, and a political solution, all through that period.

By June of 1998, the contact group had a number of meetings. The Kosovo fighting had escalated, and the KLA was on the offensive. What were your concerns, what were you telling people, and what was the urgency of the moment?

It seemed that we were meeting for the sake of meeting, rather than resolving something. The real problem came down to the fact that there were, among the Europeans, those who were prepared to use force. But the force question was wrapped up in legalisms, as to whether there needed to be a Security Council resolution, authorizing the use of force. We believed that we had the authority, and that, in the Security Council, we would not be able to get a resolution authorizing the use of force, because the Russians were opposed to it. . . . I felt greatly frustrated that summer, because as we were tied up with legalisms, people were dying, being driven into the hills, or ultimately, massacred.

During that period, when the KLA came on more strongly, did you know who they were? Did we know who we were dealing with? . . .

When people thought that we'd made a mistake, they called it 'Madeleine's War,' not in a complimentary way.  But I think that we would have been judged very, very harshly had we not stepped up to this. We were concerned by some of the activities of the KLA. We did know that they were involved in some provocative activity. But it was also evident that what the Serbs were doing to the Kosovars was enough to provoke anything.

. . .

In October, the military threat was moving forward, and Europe was pushing further because of the Serb offensive in the late summer. It's again another very bloody time over there. There was one particular massacre of 19 Albanians, and some pretty gruesome stuff. When you first heard about it, and saw the images, what were you thinking?

At the beginning of September, when I was in Sarajevo there was a sense that the Serbs were about to push people out of the cities, and up into the mountains. We were concerned about tens of thousands of people displaced internally coming into the winter. . . . When we saw pictures of massacres, it was like reliving Srebrenica, and the terrible things that had happened in Bosnia. We knew better now, that we shouldn't be allowing these kinds of things to happen. . . .

The foreign policy team met at the White House on the 30th. You were pushing a plan for action that would involve limited air strikes, and also some troops. Do you recall that meeting?

We had lots of different meetings at the time. . . . I can't remember that specific meeting. But in these meetings, we basically argued that it was necessary to make clear that we were willing to use force if Milosevic did not come to a political settlement. However, it wasn't clear enough to Milosevic how much force we would use. He did come to an agreement that Ambassador Holbrooke brokered. . . . But the Serbs cheated on everything in the agreement, and the Kosovars got radicalized. It was clear to me that we'd have to take stronger action. . . .

You went to the Senate to talk about this. What response did you get there?

It was obviously mixed. Some members understood the importance of Kosovo to our national interest, and why we cared about the Balkans at all. Some members thought we had done what we needed to in Bosnia, and why bother about Kosovo. And some members felt that we should support Kosovo independence, and let them fight it out. . . .

You mentioned Ambassador Holbrooke's trip over there to negotiate. He was sent with very specific instructions that no troops would be involved in peacekeeping. Why?

We basically believed at that phase, that we had done enough. . . . That changed in January, when we said that the US would, in fact, be part of a peace implementation force.

But at that time, the decision was . . .

We didn't think it was necessary to make that decision at that time. . . . I didn't want to see something that was like the UN forces in Bosnia, who didn't have any real authority. There was no political settlement.

In a meeting at the White House on January 15, some decisions were made about policy in Kosovo. Milosevic had been shredding the agreement, and there some decisions were made. Could you tell me about that?

I was increasingly frustrated that we were doing this piecemeal. I'd gotten the people together to come up with a comprehensive plan, to try and work toward a political settlement. We needed to keep the military in line for a credible threat of the use of force. . . . Things were getting worse, and we needed to take action, and ultimately, we did, as a result of that meeting.

That meeting was the same day that some Serb troops were busy in Racak. How did you hear about that?

I wake up to that news on the radio. We'd had information that there would be some kind of a Serb spring offensive--they pushed the people out, and in the spring, the Serbs would just move in and mow them down. My first reaction was that they had actually started their campaign of mowing down the Kosovars.

A few days later, at another meeting at the White House about this, what are you arguing, and what do you get?

We got the fact that the US would be part of a ground implementation force. We firmly began to work out a military air campaign. I tried very hard to work on making sure that we would win the peace. The president authorized us to make clear that we were prepared to use force.

He made that decision?


How did he express that?

He was very clear that Kosovo was different from Bosnia, . . . that we had to work with the allies, that we weren't going to do this unilaterally--that it was important for NATO, and for the Balkans. So he came to this decision, and he liked the idea of having a plan for how the Balkans might look in the future.

So it was a tragedy, but also an opportunity?

It was a galvanizing event. . . . Despite all the efforts, something as terrible as Racak could happen. It energized all of us to say that this requires a larger plan, and a steady application of military planning for an air campaign.

What came out of Racak is a decision for Rambouillet. As you went into Rambouillet, were you asking too much of the Serbs? . . .

We were asking the Serbs to simply sign on to keeping Kosovo in Yugoslavia, and having an international force there to ensure that. I don't think that was asking too much. . . . It became clear that the Kosovars were willing to work with the alliance, and the Serbs had decided they would not. It was a very clear choice, which made it clear that the use of force had to take place.

When did you realize that the Kosovars themselves were going to be problematic, and how did you react to that?

Both in Paris and in Rambouillet, the Serb president was very smooth in talking to the western Europeans, and acting as if the Serbs were willing to negotiate. But every time we got anywhere, they would then say no. It's very easy for a dictator to have one person speak for the group.

Then there were the Kosovo Albanians, all from different areas. Some of them had been fighters, and others had been more political. They had a dream--they were trying to develop democratic political forms, and it wasn't always clear who represented whom. I sensed that it would be difficult to get one answer. Finally, they said they wanted to go home to check with the local commanders and with their people.

One last effort was made, with Ambassador Holbrooke, to get that final "yes" from Milosevic. What he was telling you, at the end?

At various phases, the Serbs would act as if they were negotiating, and, in the meantime, they would fight. . . . It was very frustrating. We all wanted a diplomatic solution, but if they were fighting, then we were losing ground. It was evident to me, and to Ambassador Holbrooke, that Milosevic was playing games. . . . We all wanted to solve this diplomatically, and so we were willing to give it a chance. But at a certain stage, it was evident that he was jerking us around.

Did you authorize him to accept something short of Rambouillet? Was there a last-ditch effort to possibly take something less? . . . Another ceasefire?

That was one thing that we wanted. There were accusations that we were inflexible, but I don't think that's so. We were being very logical about getting a situation where the Kosovars could live, and go back to the schools, develop some local institutions, and work towards a more equal relationship with Belgrade. At the same time, how many Serb troops could you allow there, without having them overrun? So, there was that much latitude between what was done at Rambouillet, and what happened later.

Obviously, it didn't work. The bombing campaign began, and you got a late-night call from the president. Would you tell me about that?

We talked about the fact that the bombing had begun. We went over all the different things we did to avoid this point of bombing, and how, if we been able to work out a diplomatic solution, we would have. . . . We talked about our responsibilities to our allies, and our responsibilities to the Kosovars. . . . We assured ourselves that this was the only way that we could bring about the result that we needed.

How long did you expect the bombing to last--a few days?

We all had hoped that Milosevic was, frankly, a reasonable human being, who would not want to see his country bombed. We hoped he would understand that the US and NATO were in this to prevail. People hoped that he would understand that this was not the way to solve the problem for him, that he would take very serious damage, and that we were willing to pursue.

You did make some statements in the first couple of days that it would not go for an overly long time, that the result is achievable within a relatively short period of time. There was a sense there, though, that we've seen this before.

We had discussed in many forums whether this would be another Vietnam-- was this going to take a very long time. I never thought it would be over quickly, but relatively, it was not a long time. It was 78 days. We were dealing with somebody who is genuinely evil, who was committed to overrunning a group of people, and who has control over his country and over his military. Given that, I do think we handled this in a relatively short time.

After the first days, there were some questions about the intensity of the bombing, and whether or not there was a need to go downtown in Belgrade. There was a meeting at the White House on April 2, and the question is, do you bomb downtown Belgrade? What was the conversation like, and what was the decision taken?

I'm not going to discuss internal decisions. We did discuss that this was a phased campaign, and that, at a certain stage, the more lucrative targets were the ones that might bring this to an end. That's what happened. . . .

The specific targets were clearly designed to hit them where it hurt. We tried to take out things that involved their command structure, and things that were dear to them, such as party headquarters. We tried very hard to avoid collateral damage.

At the NATO summit, some people argued that they weren't sure about the air campaign, that maybe ground troops were needed. We'd been told that you were actually arguing about the need to think about a ground option.

They're misunderstanding things. We never took the ground option totally off the table. . . . We all agreed that it was important to have a successful air campaign. And, in the end, we won, because the air campaign was successful. . . . The allies did disagree about the necessity of ground forces. There was more active discussion around the NATO summit.

At the summit, there was fear that this would become a bit of a messy affair, possibly, with people disagreeing about what to do. Was there a real effort to figure out how to handle that, and were you suggesting discussions about the ground troop option? . . .

We discussed whether troops could go into various environments, but it did not dominate the discussions. The administration agreed that we should study the possibilities of using ground forces, but we were all determined that the air campaign should be carried out to a conclusion. And it worked.

At the end of the summit, the president got a call from President Yeltsin, who had a bit of a surprise, wanting to move some diplomatic negotiations forward. How important was that phone call?

It turned out, ultimately, to be quite important. President Yeltsin had a great deal of confidence in a partnership that had developed earlier between Chernomyrdin and Vice President Gore. So Chernomyrdin came over, and, we all met a couple of times. Mr. Chernomyrdin said that he was willing to undertake a negotiation, but that he needed to have a partner, and it couldn't be an American partner, a NATO country. I suggested President Ahtisaari of Finland, because he was very knowledgeable and highly respected. Finland was about to become president of the European Union, so this would be a perfect way of bringing together the Europeans and the Russians, with us in the background. . . .

You played a big role in this. You talked about frustration a couple of times, and the need to push things forward, keep the process moving, and keep the focus on Milosevic. Are you proud of all of that?

I'm very proud. I went through some tough times. When people thought that we'd made a mistake, they called it Madeleine's war, and not in a complimentary way. But I think that we would have been judged very, very harshly had we not stepped up to this. I believe in learning lessons, and I felt, at the time, that we were much too slow in responding to what Milosevic was doing in Bosnia. It is not often that you get a second chance.

I believed that it was very important to make clear that the kinds of things that Milosevic does--deciding that you don't have the right to exist because of your ethnic group--is unacceptable. It is not just a lesson for Kosovo. It is not American to stand by and watch this kind of thing. That doesn't mean that we can be everywhere all the time, but where we can make a difference, with an alliance that works, we should. And so I am very proud of what happened. . . .

Thinking back now, what's your most vivid recollection during this entire process?

The most vivid recollection is actually the night of the bombing. You can talk about the use of force. When you actually use it, you think about the pilots, the people on those airplanes, going into very dangerous territory where there are air defenses. I feel the responsibility. It's one thing to go to meetings and talk. It's another thing when the airplanes go in, and you know that you played a role in this, that there are Americans or allies in those planes, that you are bombing, and that there are people on the other end of it. You keep in mind the larger goal, and that you sometimes have to take difficult steps like that to save lives, and to protect American values in our national interest.

Were you worried about the outcome that night?

Sure, obviously. But I was very sure that our military was the best in the world, and could accomplish this. This is not a science. This is the art of politics, diplomacy, and the military. You never are sure of the outcome, but you have to be sure that your goals are right. And I did not doubt, nor did the president, that our goals were the right ones.

home . interviews . how it was fought . ethnic cleansing . fighting for morals . video . discussion
facts & figures . readings . chronology . links . map
synopsis . press . tapes & transcripts . FRONTLINE . pbs

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation