war in europe

william cohen

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of william cohen
When he served as a Republican Senator from Maine, William Cohen criticized the Clinton Administration's policy in Bosnia, and the lack of an "exit strategy" for US peacekeepers there. As Secretary of Defense, Cohen cited the lack of consensus at home and within NATO for his resistance to the deployment of ground troops in Kosovo.
In the early-to-mid part of 1998, as fighting broke out in Kosovo, what concerns did you have about the United States getting sucked into another Bosnia-like commitment there?

I was concerned about it. I was responsible for going to Capitol Hill to persuade my former colleagues to continue supporting our peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. It's not inexpensive--it runs almost $2 billion a year. It has always been controversial in terms of the length of stay, and at what point do we depart. The notion of becoming involved in Kosovo certainly presented a number of challenges in terms of readiness of resources, the manpower that would be involved, the commitment of our troops for what length of time, and how we pay for it. Those are all issues that certainly were in my mind in addition to what was taking place over there.

One of my biggest concerns was whether or not the NATO allies were willing to invest in any kind of a campaign. I was absolutely convinced that the United States could not afford to take any kind of unilateral action from a political point of view, and certainly we were not going to recommend to the president and to the Congress that we intervene unilaterally without NATO consensus and support. There was a long debate for months, beginning in 1998, over whether NATO had any legal authority to take action.

I spent a considerable amount of time dealing with my colleagues at the defense minister level, who were concerned about potential instability spreading, with an influx of refugees coming into their countries--then they'd have to be willing to take action to defend the integrity of their own borders. At that point, the overwhelming majority said they couldn't take any action without a UN Security Council resolution. My point was that if that's the argument and that's your position, in all likelihood, no action would be taken. It's probably unreasonable to expect the Security Council to authorize any kind of military action to prevent what is taking place. So it became a debate over the issue of legal authority. I tried to prepare my colleagues in NATO that if they're going to take action, they must be willing to take strong action, and consider all of the options. That started way back in the spring of 1998.

That took place over the course of the summer of 1998. And the situation on the ground was changing dramatically. The Serbs had actually pulled back a little bit. The KLA was moving in, growing in numbers, and growing in strength. What concerns did you have about the changing dynamics with the KLA coming on and building its force? What concerns did you have about their agenda?

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

By September, you were personally pushing, fairly forcefully, for the preparation of air strikes. How big a concern or motivation was NATO and US credibility?

It was at the heart of it, to the extent that NATO was constantly telling Milosevic he could not do what he was doing. I was cautioning not to make empty threats, without the ability to back up those threats. We had to be prepared to back threats up with military force.

My concern was that NATO not be seen as the air force of the KLA ... making sure that we were entirely neutral, and that the KLA not use NATO to serve its own purposes. We spent several months debating the issue in terms of the legal authority to take any action. Also, we were trying to get what's called an "act toward," which is an action order giving the secretary general of NATO the authority to take action on a limited strike, and then for a phased air campaign.

In connection with an "act toward," at the end of September, there was a meeting after a particular massacre of 14-or-so Albanians. It was very horrendous, and it was on the front page of the New York Times. So the principals met about what to do. Secretary Albright was pushing fairly forcefully for the use of force--that basically, it was time to put an ultimatum to Milosevic. You were arguing against the commitment of US ground troops, even as peacekeepers, at that moment. Help me understand why that was your position.

No, actually I argued to my colleagues that we should consider all options, including the ground option. Throughout the summer months when we were talking about this, I said we should not rule anything out. It became clear to me that there was no consensus, and we needed unanimous support for doing this. When it became clear that we were not going to have that consensus, I was not going to advocate that the United States commit ground forces to such a conflict.

You have, obviously, a lot of friends up on the Hill. What were you hearing from them at that time about another military adventure in the Balkans?

There was great reluctance on the part of most members of Congress to commit American forces, even on a peacekeeping mission.

In January, there is a series of principals' meetings, on January 15 and 19. Racak occurred between those two. It seems like an important turning point. Could you take them one at a time? On January 15, there's a gathering at the White House to talk about Kosovo policy. The Holbrooke agreement had been falling apart, and the discussion is about what to do. What was your thinking at that point in time?

At that time we were, again, trying to hold the coalition together. We wanted to make sure that if we were going to threaten to take military action, that we'd be prepared to carry it through. Along with the chairman of the joint chiefs and General Clark, we put together planning options. We had to make sure that we had support here at home to go forward, and we also had to hold the coalition together. The Racak massacre really galvanized the decision to take action ultimately, and to tell Milosevic that either he should negotiate, or face the real prospect of having an air campaign launched against his forces.

How did the massacre at Racak affect your thinking? How did it affect the dynamic of the decisions that were being made at that time?

The Racak massacre served as a galvanizing and rallying point for the NATO allies, saying we've had enough of Milosevic lying and misrepresenting himself to NATO, and to the world--that this could not stand. So it was sort of the galvanizing event.

Did it have an effect on you personally, on your own thinking about what should be done in this situation?

It didn't change my thinking. I felt that military force should be the absolute last resort. Everything else has to fail before you turn to the military. And if you do turn to the military, you must be very clear on what the objectives are, measuring those political objectives, and how military action can be consistent with carrying out and furthering those goals. I want to be very clear that we have domestic support before we ever commit our forces to combat. It's always important to get the support domestically before you go into battle, rather than trying to seek it afterwards. Also, we must have the support of the allies.

I tried to press the point all the way through that, if you're going to take action, if you take Step A, you must be willing to go to all the way through to Step Z, until you are successful. That took a lot of nurturing and a lot of phone calls, almost daily NATO meetings, and personal relationships to make sure that we continued to solidify those positions.

As we went to begin bombing, what were you telling the president?

I told the president exactly what I'm saying now--that this was going to be a difficult campaign. Due to the nature of the targets that needed to be attacked, the weather was going to be a great impediment. Out of the 78 days, we had only 24 or 25 with an absence of cloud cover, so that we could have action missions carried out without calling back some of our forces. You had very mountainous regions, heavily defended, with bad weather, and we were going to have to operate basically at night. This was not going to be easy.

But how do you square your thinking with the intelligence you were receiving, which was telling you that we had only planned a limited number of targets--that, in fact, by the third night, General Short had to call back the 117s?

That is not exactly accurate. We had a vast array of targets from the very beginning. We looked at the phased air campaign, going from within Kosovo, into the former Republic of Yugoslavia, and all the way to Belgrade. We had many targets laid out. There were political constraints that precluded the air force from carrying out and attacking those targets in a certain time frame. But we had the targets set. The problem was the political restraints that were exercised by the various members of the alliance.

Let me ask you about the constraints, as they relate to the plan itself. The US Air Force, with General Short and other theatre commanders, had actually put together a different air plan--a sort of a secret US plan. It was a much more extensive, classic air campaign in the sense of what they wanted to accomplish. What did you think of that, and did you talk to the president about that?

Acting unilaterally, I would say that's precisely the kind of air campaign that you'd want--hit fast and hard, and cripple Milosevic's forces as soon as possible. The difference here, of course, is that we're acting as an alliance. This had never been done before, not really even in Desert Storm, which basically was a US operation, even though you had many countries that were participating. In this particular case, you had to have a consensus of all 19 countries. Therefore, it was not possible to carry out the kind of classic air campaign that the professionals wanted. If I had to act unilaterally, we would have used that type of campaign. But you have to have the support of all of the allies. You need basing support, bedding down of the aircraft, and supplies and logistics flowing through their countries. Given that they had a different historical, cultural, economic or religious tie to the former Republic of Yugoslavia, it made it that much more difficult. So, from a classic point of view, if we were to carry out and act unilaterally, we would have used a much more robust, aggressive, and decapitating type of campaign. But under the circumstances, we were trying to hold that consensus together, because without the consensus, there could be no air campaign.

Did you and the president try to push the allies and say, "This is the way we're going do it. These are our planes, and our airmen, so this is the way we've go to do it. Either you're on board, or you're not on board?"

We tried to be as aggressive as we could in trying to move as quickly as we can to get these various targets. But it was hard to get that consensus until after the summit. NATO has never done this before. So it was a real learning experience, in terms of getting the consent, the consensus, and running various targets by the leadership. Finally, when the summit came about, we said we have to get much more authority to our military planners; we could not have micromanagement and oversight of a military campaign if we're going to be successful. It was after the summit that things really started to change. We started to have a much more aggressive air campaign coming from 360 degrees, and really starting to pound the strategic targets belonging to Milosevic.

Was there a moment when you came to the realization that this has got to change--we absolutely have to intensify the air campaign? Was there a moment where you spoke to the president and said, "We've got to make this change?"

All during that first month, we talked about this. My position was we had to intensify it, and to be aggressive as possible. I tried to urge that particular course of action within the alliance. The president certainly was supportive of our recommendation to him. But one thing that we were absolutely convinced of is that we could not afford to fail. We had to succeed, and at all costs, so there were differences of opinion at that point. A number of members started to say, "Well, you should have planned for a ground campaign." That's true; ordinarily, you would have planned for a ground campaign. But if you don't have a consensus for it, you don't want to offer something up that you know can't be performed.

Also, if you start planning a ground campaign, you have to start preparing for it. You don't want to have a plan on the shelf, yet say "We don't make preparations for it." Preparations would have meant 150,000-200,000 troops, most of which would have come from us. We had a lack of enthusiasm for even a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. So it became very clear to me that it was going to be a very hard sell, if not impossible, to persuade the American people that we were going to put up 150,000 or 200,000 American troops to go in on the ground.

But there's a bit of a Catch-22. You can't plan because you can't prepare. If you can't prepare, then you'll be short-handed.

And if you don't have a consensus for a ground campaign, then you shouldn't try to hold out the illusion that you have one. And that was exactly what we found ourselves with. There was an assessment back in September of 1998 of what a ground campaign might look like. There was no consensus to follow through on that assessment. So in the spring of 1999, we asked General Clark to start to update that assessment. We went to the secretary general to get his authority for General Clark to update the assessment. But the fact remains that a ground campaign would have taken months to put together, and would have required the consensus of the allies, which it didn't have, even as late as April or May.

And the consensus that was not there was not just NATO, but was back here, as well?

There was a split of opinion. The majority was opposed to the land campaign. But there were some members of the Senate and the House who said we at least ought to have a land option. They didn't ask for a commitment of land troops, but simply said you should have the option. Again, if you have a land campaign as an option, as a plan, you really have to start preparing for it. Otherwise it's an empty gesture, and empty gestures don't persuade your adversary that you're serious. So that's the situation we found ourselves in.

How concerned were you about deployment of the Apaches leading to a long-term ground commitment?

I supported General Clark when he requested the Apaches. We found ourselves in a situation where the weather was so sucked in that our aircraft couldn't get at Milosevic's tanks and heavy artillery. So when General Clark requested it, I approved it, and recommended to the president that he also agree. Both the chairman and myself made that recommendation. We did not realize at the time that it would take almost a month for the Apaches to get down to Tirana, because the airstrip at that point was pretty rudimentary, to say the least. It took considerable effort--brilliant effort--on the part of our military forces to upgrade that strip, and to turn it into something that the Apaches could operate out of. So all of that combined took about a month's time.

But what about the idea that we're headed down this road now? Was that a concern to you?

It was a factor. But I felt that the commander in chief for the operations should have every asset available that he felt was necessary. What changed was the weather started to break. We made the determination that it was an undue risk to the Apache pilots under the circumstances, where we could use unmanned aerial vehicles that could loiter over the area. Milosevic had changed his tactics. Instead of massing his tanks, he had dispersed them up against civilian areas. So, we made the determination that Apaches can't loiter--they have limited fuel supply--they have to go in, attack and get back up. You could actually put the Predators and others up there. They can loiter and pick out targets, which they then call back to our air force, and the air force would go in. Once they spotted a tank or heavy equipment, they'd go in and zero in on it. We felt that was a much more responsible course of action. So the weather changed, the circumstances changed, the tactics changed and, therefore, we decided not to go forward with the Apaches.

On May 19, General Clark came back and briefed on some ground troop planning, at that point, a review of the assessments and planning that was going on. What was the reception, and what was your personal thinking about that? What did you tell the president?

I told the president that General Clark had made an updated assessment-- where the troops would have to operate from, how many there would be, how long it would take to get them prepared, and the fact that there was no consensus within the alliance for such a land campaign. All of that weighed very heavily on him. He certainly was aware that we had to succeed. He also supported us in saying, let's stay the course, given the options in some of the updated assessment. I did make a quick visit over to Europe to meet with several of my counterparts. Again, it became clear, even during that time frame, that there was absolutely no consensus for a land campaign. So . . .

And the chiefs here were not exactly . . .

The chiefs were split. There was strong opposition within the ranks as such. If you look at the terrain, you can understand why. I have seen it, and I think it would have been a very difficult campaign. There were bridges where they could have been dropped, with Milosevic's forces up in the hills just zeroing down on our forces. There could have been substantial casualties. And if we had started to suffer substantial casualties, I am convinced it would have turned into quite a contentious issue up on the Hill. At that point, holding the support of Capitol Hill as well as within the coalition would have been quite a challenge.

You mentioned that you went secretly to Bonn. What was that purpose of that meeting, going in secretly? What was it like there, and how did it affect your thinking? What did you come home with?

I was asked to stop and visit with several of my colleagues who were meeting in Bonn at that time. That was preliminary to another meeting of the European members, and they asked me to come over and just kind of review to that point--where were we, what needed to be done, and was there any consensus for changing the game plan. And there was none. It was "stay the course"--that we had to intensify the air campaign, that we had to succeed, and we would do whatever was necessary to succeed. The purpose of the meeting was to solidify the relationships. What became critical during this period of time were the personal relationships that I had established with each of the defense ministers of the key countries. It was the defense ministers of my NATO allies that I was on the phone with, and they're the ones who were most actively engaged in the combat missions almost on a daily basis.

The president was facing a deadline on making a decision.

If you were going to have a land campaign, then you had to start preparing for it. The preparation would have taken several months. We were looking at when the winter would start to set in Kosovo, and what would that have done in terms of moving heavy vehicles, et cetera, into the region. So there was a timeline. If you were going to have a land campaign, this is when we would have to start to move. It became fairly close in that time frame.

How close?

It was close. But in terms of whether you could meet the timeline, it was not close. It was never a close call in getting a consensus to put land forces in. There may have been one or two countries that said they'd be supportive. But out of the 19 total, I doubt very much whether we could have gotten the consensus. I'm convinced we could not have.

Some people would suggest that if the United States had led, had stepped forward and said this is what we need to do, others would follow.

They were not in the meetings that I attended, dealing with my colleagues at that time, nor in the meetings that Secretary Albright had with her counterparts, or in the conversations the president had with heads of state. I think it's easy to sit on the sidelines and say, if only we had led, they would have followed. But none of those people were part of these conversations. We found strong opposition. I point out again that there were vast differences in cultural, historical, religious, and economic ties to that region. It would have been very difficult to get the support of countries that were under enormous domestic pressure to not even participate in any way in Kosovo, and we'd want to shut down their ports, their airstrips, to deny bedding down rights, et cetera.

Those who said if we had only led, others would have followed, fail to appreciate the intensity of the opposition within those countries. We were able to hold the consensus for the air campaign under very trying circumstances for many countries. It's a great tribute to them, but also a great tribute to the leadership of the president, and the national security team.

In the September-October time frame, why were you concerned about committing US ground troops--even as peacekeepers?

As peacekeepers, I was concerned that we were, once again, going to involve ourselves in an area where a peacekeeping mission would be lengthy in duration, and very costly. We'd find ourselves in a situation where we have a smaller force, because of the reductions in force structure at the end of the Cold War where people were looking for a peace dividend. Understandably, we had cut the size of our force by nearly a third. We had cut our procurement by two-thirds, and we are now in the process of trying to rebuild that back up. But I did not want to add additional strains.

Did the president agree with you at that point in time? You obviously spoke to him about the concern of getting sucked into this kind of long-term commitment. What that meant for him, as you described the force structure? What was his thinking?

He was sensitive to this because, after all, the president made a commitment initially in Bosnia for a year. Then I came in and said, well, another 18 months. Then we found that, again, the situation had not evolved to the point where we could justifiably remove our troops, and not face a situation where Bosnia started to collapse. We'd made great progress in Bosnia. We've come from 20,000 troops down to below 5,000. We're down well below that. But it's taken more years, four or five years now. So the president was very much aware of not wanting to get engaged in another long-term commitment.

Your friends on the Hill were well aware of the whole Bosnia experience, and that's what you're hearing from them, I presume, back in October? . . .

Exactly. It was strong concern about getting involved. They were concerned about the prospect of up to 400,000 people being driven from their homes with the clothes on their back and no food, and NATO sitting on the sidelines saying, "That's their tough condition, but it's none of our business." They were concerned about that, in terms of the implications for NATO itself, and for our own sense of responsibility--not to sit on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands of people starved to death or froze to death. So there was a mixed emotion there, saying we had to do something. But there was general apprehension about possibly getting involved in another long-term commitment.

How did you hear about the Russian column moving into Kosovo? What was your immediate reaction?

Initially, we got a call from General Clark, who indicated that they had departed and were on their way into the airfield. The question surfaced: what do we do about it? We considered blocking the runway so they couldn't be reinforced. The commander on the ground objected to that. So it became something of a dispute over what action should be taken. The conclusion was that, with no logistical supply, they couldn't be sustained. They arrived without food or water to sustain them. So the judgment was made at that time that we can handle it, it's not that important, let's not raise it to a confrontational level with the Russians. It worked out satisfactorily. When they got there, they could not be supplied. They had to get food and water. I think the Germans had to supply them at that time. So we were able to work our way through it. But initially, it was unclear exactly what their motivation was--whether others would follow, whether this was just a spearhead of a larger Russian force coming in, and what action, if any, would we take if that followed.

There's concern about where the orders came from. Did you satisfy yourself that you knew where they came from, and what did you find out?

One can never be entirely sure about this. But then-President Yeltsin indicated that he had given authority to the military to take action. It was unclear whether they were anxious to be a part of it when they rolled into the airfield. They had KFOR printed on their vehicles, so it was unclear whether that was real commitment to KFOR, and they wanted to be part of the action--whether they felt that they were being shunted aside, and not being allowed to play a role. I think they had felt neglected in terms of their role in Kosovo, and wanted to play an active role. So we accepted that.

How prepared were we, and what were the expectations? We understand the alliance concerns about building consensus for a full attack. I think, for some people, it's hard to understand, particularly if there is some indication that Milosevic may not cave as we think. But General Short has said to us, "I can't tell you how many times I got instructions to only to bomb two, maybe three nights--that that's all Washington can stand, that's all some members of the alliance can stand, and that's why you've got only 90 targets. This will be over in three nights."

There were some that felt that it would be a very short campaign. But from the beginning, I said, "We can't count on that. We have to prepare an entire panoply of targets. In fact, target sets were developed from the very beginning that would have allowed our aircraft to go all the way from Kosovo to Belgrade. The constraints were political constraints. They were imposed so that even though sets had been developed, our pilots were not allowed to carry them out, because of the political objections within the alliance itself. It took about a month to work through that, and it did, in fact, extend the campaign, and increased the risk to the pilots who were flying. From an ideal point of view, we should have taken a different course of action, namely, much more aggressive, and much more intensive in going at the heart of the matter, rather than on the periphery. But we had to hold the consensus, otherwise we'd have no campaign, and Milosevic's forces would have achieved their objectives. As it was, we achieved ours. His forces were out, the Kosovo Albanians are back, and they are now going through the process of establishing their political autonomy.

It raises the larger question about war-by-committee. If we are going to be putting our people at risk--we're flying most of the aircraft--does this mean that, by necessity, we are buying into incrementalism, and gradualism? Is that the new military doctrine now?

No. As a matter of fact, the lesson's just the opposite. Incrementalism should not be the chosen course of action--just the opposite. In this particular circumstance, since NATO had never really acted in an offensive way as opposed to a defensive alliance, it took some time to sort out the responsibilities and how the air campaign should be conducted. This is not a lesson for the future on how to conduct an air campaign. We were very good, and we were very lucky. But this is not a game plan that should be followed in the future. If you're going to take coalition action--and our policy should be that we are always willing to work with our allies wherever possible--we must reserve the right to act unilaterally whenever it's necessary. In this particular case, we could not have carried out an air campaign unilaterally. It was simply impossible. So we had to make the compromises we did. We were successful ultimately, but there were lessons to be learned from all of this.

Tell me about your visit to the troop encampment at Bondsteele. Give me a sense of what that's like. We now own 700 acres, basically, on this hilltop. In reality, it represents not only our presence, but also an open-ended commitment here in Kosovo. That's something that you were worried about here from day one.

I certainly hope it's not going to be an open-ended commitment. The encampment does represent a significant commitment for the housing of the troops that are there. We want to make sure that we provide as much of a quality of life while the forces, both active and reserve, are deployed to that region. But I don't want to see an open-ended commitment to Kosovo.

The fact that we've built this thing to last--by necessity, we have to. We've learned a few things. This superstructure there--does it represent the ending you would have liked to see?

As far as I'm concerned, it shouldn't be seen as a permanent commitment. Whatever facilities are there may be taken over by others in the future. But it certainly will provide the kind of care for our forces that will be necessary during this interim period. How long it's going to take remains to be seen. But I'm hoping that we can accelerate the reduction of the size of that commitment.

You've mentioned observations of Winston Churchill about victory. Could you recollect that for us now? . . .

In essence, Churchill always said that victory is certainly far more agreeable than defeat, but doesn't necessarily provide any satisfactory answers. In this particular case, we still see a situation in Kosovo where we achieved a victory over Milosevic's forces. Yet, we can see also the animosities and the ethnic hatreds. I've said in the past that the people would rather dig fresh graves than heal old wounds. So we've given the people in Kosovo an opportunity to return to a level of self-government and autonomous action. Whether they take this and build upon it--or whether they squander it--remains to be seen.

Is that our responsibility now? Is the United States the sole superpower, the moral imperialist of the twenty-first century?

Our goal was to do exactly what we did--stop the killing, get the Serb forces out, and get the Kosovar people and Albanians back into Kosovo to their homes, with an opportunity for self-government. Those were the stated political objectives. We have achieved that. The question is whether or not they will take that and build upon it. We've achieved our military objective.

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