war in europe

samuel berger

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of samuel berger
As U.S. National Security Advisor, Samuel "Sandy" Berger is clearly the first among equals in terms of access to the President. A trade lawyer turned global strategist, Berger's caution and political sensitivities informed much of the government's early policy toward Kosovo.
In spring, 1998, the Christmas warning was on the table. Ambassador Holbrooke had said so to Milosevic. Why wasn't it acted on?

The Christmas warning was issued by President Bush in December of 1992. It was a unilateral statement by the United States that, if Milosevic acted on Kosovo, we would respond. It was not very precise. I think we believed that it needed to be multilateral to be meaningful. It needed to be a NATO commitment, not just an American commitment, because whether we could unilaterally sustain action against Milosevic under these circumstances was an open question. So during this period, on one hand, we are trying to see whether we can get a negotiation going that would lead to de-escalation. At the same time, we're beginning to work with our NATO allies to try and gain a consensus for NATO to issue something called the "Act Toward," which is essentially the readiness of NATO to use military force. We were able to achieve that by the fall. . . .

Ambassador Holbrooke is sent over to Belgrade to negotiate. He goes with instructions, among which are: no commitment of US ground troops, even as peacekeepers. Can you explain why?

One reason we ultimately prevailed in Kosovo was because we did it on a multilateral basis. I don't know that we would have had American public support for a unilateral American ground intervention into Kosovo. It was very important to us that this be done as a NATO action. So he went there with guidance and instructions to try to get Milosevic to draw down his forces and stop the fighting, and to get international civilian monitors in. At that stage, that is what the international community was prepared to do.

On January 15, you know nothing about Racak. You have a meeting among the principals, and the question comes up--what are we going to do? It was clear that the agreement was being shredded, and that there were real problems. Secretary Albright is pushing for the use of force. You disagreed?

No. I think that everyone there believed that use of force might be necessary if the fighting didn't stop. Clearly, the agreement reached by Milosevic and Holbrooke in October wasn't holding. Clearly, the fighting was going on. . . .

Racak occurs, and on January 19, you call the principals back together. Why did you do that? What did you talk about, and what decision was made?

Racak had a galvanizing effect on the allies, in Europe in particular. We were ready to move forward on the track of using force in advance of most of the Europeans. But Racak was so brutal. . . . there was a much clearer sense in Europe that we had to take action. In that meeting on January 19, we said that we could no longer accept simply going back to the status quo--that we could no longer accept simple compliance with the October agreement with Holbrooke. Milosevic would have to agree to let the War Crimes Tribunal into Racak to see what happened. He would have to agree to further reduction of his forces.

By mid-June, we had to seriously look at a ground option. General Clark was preparing plans for that. Our allies clearly wanted one final attempt at reaching a peace agreement before we went to the step of using force. Force was the last option, not the first option. As a result, we convened the talks in Rambouillet in an effort to see whether we could bring the Kosovar side together with Milosevic. What happened at Rambouillet was, on the one hand, the Kosovars, who were a disparate group, did come together among themselves, and came very close to reaching agreement. Milosevic and his prime minister stonewalled. Those negotiations broke for about two weeks while the Kosovars went back to see whether they had support. They came back and signed the agreement, and Milosevic refused to sign the agreement. Holbrooke went to Belgrade, and gave Milosevic one last chance to say yes--but he said no. We're on the eve of the use of force. . . .

In international affairs, you never threaten things you're not prepared to do. In a sense, we made the threat back in October, and we were ready to do it then. Now, when it actually came time to go forward, we had extensive conversations with the president, and we went through the military plan. All of us were uncertain as to how long this would take. Most of us hoped and believed that, by using force, we could stop Milosevic's rampage. But I think we all understood that it was quite possible that would not be the case, and that we would have to be engaged in this for some period.

When the decision was made, the president spoke to the American public. He said that he had no intention of putting ground troops in. He must have thought a lot about that before the statement was made. Why did you feel that was necessary?

I think that statement was both accurate and essential to the ultimate outcome of the war. We believed in the air campaign; we believed that we had such an advantage in the air that ultimately, Milosevic would capitulate. We believed that the one way he could win and that we could lose was if he split the unity of the alliance. Had a debate been introduced at that stage about ground forces, when there was no consensus . . . there would have been disunity, instead of a united front. There would have been a great debate in this country about whether or not we were getting sucked into a ground war. By affirming his conviction that we could prevail by the air campaign, he was not only stating what we believed to be true, and what ultimately was true. He was also putting off to the side what could have been a very divisive issue that would have played into Milosevic's hands. . . .

General Naumann has said that he felt those statements prolonged the war.

With all due respect to General Naumann, I think he's wrong. . . . It would have taken three or four months to get a ground option ready, so we would have started for three or four months from the air. We had an advantage of

100-to-1/1000-to-1 from the air. . . . If we were forced to go in on the ground in deep summer, it would have been maybe 3-to-1 or 2-to-1. Milosevic would have been able to be on much more equal grounds with NATO as we came over these mountains, through the caves that Tito had built in Yugoslavia. An equally good school of thought says that Milosevic would have loved to get us into a ground war.

Prime Minister Blair comes to the NATO summit meeting just prior to summer. How important was that meeting?

It was a very important meeting, in the sense of the next day at NATO, these two leaders, of Great Britain and of the United States, looked at each other after a long conversation and said, "We will not lose. We will not lose. Whatever it takes, we will not lose." And that was taken into the meetings at NATO over the next two days. The 19 leaders sat around the table, and they'd all voted yes. They'd looked each other in the eye and they said, "Whatever it takes." They took a kind of a metaphorical blood oath, which I think sealed the unity of the alliance. It took away from Milosevic the one way he could have prevailed, which was to split the alliance.

That evening we talked with Blair about the possibility of a ground campaign. We agreed that we needed to do more quiet planning for a ground campaign. We then spoke to Secretary General Solana. We asked him to intensify the planning in a low-key way, in case that was necessary, because ultimately, the president was going to do whatever was necessary to win.

On January 18, the president and the prime minister have a long telephone conversation. The President's pretty ticked-off at the prime minister and the Brits on the ground troop issue. Tell me why.

The British had spoken publicly about how we would need to have a ground force. . . . and the crossfire within NATO began--precisely what we had tried to avoid. The president and Prime Minister Blair are very good friends. I think the president said something like, "It doesn't do anybody any good to have a debate among ourselves. Let's talk among ourselves privately, and publicly, let's have a unified face." I think Prime Minister Blair accepted that, and from that point on, the ground force discussion took place privately. . . .

On June 2, you called some foreign policy experts in to talk about ground troops. Why?

Before that time, the president answered questions about ground troops a little differently. Now, he began to say that nothing's off the table, that he hadn't ruled out any option. We were heading into this period in early June, and looking ahead to the winter, with large numbers of Kosovars stranded in Kosovo. They were potentially facing a disastrous winter. By mid-June, we had to seriously look at whether or not a ground option would become necessary. General Clark was preparing plans for that. We were beginning to have that discussion internally with our military people, with our Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen, and others.

And how close were you to making that decision when Milosevic capitulated?

The window was a little bit more flexible than a particular date, because there was more than one ground option. There was one plan, but there were other ways to approach this. Certainly, in the month of June, the president and the allies would have to decide whether to go forward with ground forces. . . .

After the capitulation, the Russians move on Pristina airport. You find out about that, and there's a request from General Clark to take action. What was your reaction to them going to the airport? Why did you pull General Clark back?

It was a rather confusing evening. I don't think anybody knew exactly what was happening. General Clark had some information, and the KFOR commander on the ground, General Jackson, had some information. At that point, we had not negotiated the terms for the Russian engagement in what we firmly believed needed to be a unitary force, with NATO-led command and control--a NATO-led force. But, just like Bosnia, the Russians and others are participating in it, without negotiated terms and arrangements. Suddenly, we find out that this unit has gone from Bosnia into Pristina. We worried about what this meant, in terms of whether the Russians truly wanted to participate in KFOR, or whether they wanted to stake out their own area, which would have made it very difficult to have a unified Kosovo. The only issues that night were over what the best way, tactically, was to deal with the Russians. We were obviously talking to the Russians all through the night--Secretary Albright, Secretary Talbott, and others.

You decided that we shouldn't take action. Why?

First of all, I didn't decide. But we decided, based on certain information at that point, that a military confrontation with the Russians was not wise. I think, ultimately, that was the right decision. We wound up sitting down with the Russians a day later, and negotiating the terms under which they participate today in KFOR. I must say, they are doing so very effectively.

We went in to Kosovo to protect the Albanians. We're now in there, probably for a long time, protecting the Serbs. We don't really support the political goals of either party, and both parties have been hating and killing each other for many, many years. We also know that history has not been kind to those who remake the map of the Balkans. What have we accomplished?

I think we've accomplished something fundamental. In the last year of the twentieth century--the bloodiest century in history--a demagogic leader set about to truly eliminate an entire people from his country. And the international community, in the form of 19 NATO democracies, stood up and said, "No, this will not happen. This will not stand." The importance of Kosovo is that, in a situation when our interests were at stake, because of the danger of wider conflicts, and our values as human beings, and as Americans were at stake, the United States and NATO took a stand--had the determination to stick it out--and prevailed.

Is it worth keeping an American presence there?

There needs to be a presence there for some time. It will probably come down in size. Clearly, there is now a certain Albanian violence against Serbs, which is reprehensible, and we need to try to stop it. But I don't think we should equate the two. Killing is killing. The acts of revenge going on now in Kosovo are condemnable. But while they are antithetical to everything we believe in, it's fundamentally different than a government deciding that it is going to systematically expel or exterminate an entire people. And this time, at the end of the twentieth century, the world said no. . . .

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