war in europe

richard holbrooke

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of richard holbrooke
In 1995, diplomat Richard Holbrooke urged NATO to drop "bombs for peace" in Bosnia - and thereby pressure the Bosnian Serbs, and their protector Slobodan Milosevic, to come to the bargaining table. Holbrooke's success in the ensuing negotiations led the Administration to call upon him again in Kosovo. In 1998, Holbrooke concluded the October Agreement with Milosevic, allowing roughly 250,000 Kosovar Albanians to return home and establishing a short-lived cease-fire monitoring regime. In the final days before the war, NATO turned to Holbrooke once again for a last-ditch, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to negotiate with Milosevic. Holbrooke is currently the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
You came into the Kosovo negotiations with a great deal of experience with Milosevic from the Dayton process. What was your thinking about Milosevic and how he responded to force? What kind of diplomatic language did he understand?

I regret to say, but it is obvious that Milosevic only responds to force or the absolute incredible threat of the use of force. This was clear in Bosnia, and it was clear in Kosovo.

And it was clear from your past experience that, for Milosevic, Kosovo was different than Bosnia. How so?

Kosovo was different, not only to Milosevic, but to the international community, and that's why it was such a uniquely troubling issue. The international community always supported the independence claims for a separate independent nation of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The 1995 NATO bombing in Bosnia was in support of an independent state being jeopardized by its neighbors, who refused to recognize its independence, and which led to the success at Dayton.

Kosovo was entirely different. Kosovo was viewed by the international community--rightly or wrongly, but officially--as part of Yugoslavia. Now, from an ethnic, or cultural, or an historic point of view, you could argue that. In fact, the Albanians of Kosovo and the Serbs of Yugoslavia are more different than the Serbs, Moslems and Croats in Bosnia, all of whom in Bosnia had the same language, the same culture, the same background and substantial inter-marriage. In Kosovo, none of that applied. The religions were usually different, but most importantly, they had a different language, different culture, different history and a formidable irreconcilable dispute. In Bosnia, the ethnic hatred was manufactured by racists, demagogues and crooks.

But yet, the international community did not accept Kosovo's claim to independence. The late Bush administration started on December 25, 1992, with President Bush's famous Christmas warning, telling Milosevic that he should not abuse the human rights of the Albanians of Kosovo, but that Kosovo was part of Serbia. This was a very complicated equation. But it was the position of the Clinton administration, and the Europeans inherited and held to it.

You, yourself, spoke with Milosevic about the Christmas warning at Dayton, and even after. Tell me about that, and about his reaction.

I repeatedly reaffirmed the Christmas warning of the Bush administration on instructions, as did the rest of the Clinton administration. His reaction was that Kosovo is 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.

The Christmas warning basically suggests that the US would take unilateral action, that Kosovo is the red line. The question of the use of force comes up in the spring of 1998. What's the decision on that? What's Washington thinking about that, and what are you advising?

My advice and position on Kosovo, from the beginning of my involvement in the spring of 1998 on, was basically that the Serbs and the Albanians would never be able to settle their problems unless there was an outside international security presence on the ground. The hatred between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo was far, far greater than any of the so-called ethnic hatreds of Bosnia, which had been grossly exaggerated by the crooks, and the mafioso demagogues in the ethnic communities of Bosnia. This was the real thing in Kosovo between Albanians and the Serbs. Different cultures, different languages, and different histories, but a common obsession with the same sacred soil. And, therefore, it was going to be essential for us to recognize that the situation would require an outside involvement.

What about the application of force at that time?

In the spring of 1998--I cannot remember if it came up explicitly at that time--but it was always in the air. By the time the Serb security forces launched their pillaging and rampaging in the summer of 1998, it was absolutely clear to Secretary Albright and myself that it had to be on the table.

So you go to see Milosevic in May of 1998. Tell me about that meeting. What kind of state of mind did you find him in? What mood was he in?

He expressed an immediate willingness to meet with the Albanian leadership, provided the meeting took place in his palace in Belgrade. Chris Hill and I then went down to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. We talked to the Albanians, to Rugova and his colleagues, and they agreed to the meeting. And so that first trip in May of 1998 resulted in the first face-to-face talk ever between the Serb leaders and the Kosovo Albanian leaders. This was a promising start, and it was supposed to be followed up by weekly meetings at the staff level, at the working level in Kosovo, to discuss the practical issues to avoid a catastrophe.

Milosevic said at one point, 'Are you crazy enough to bomb us over these issues in that lousy little Kosovo?'  And I said, 'You bet, we're just crazy enough to do it.' Prior to the second of those meetings, Dr. Rugova and his team met with President Clinton in the White House on May 29, 1998. On that same day, the Serb security forces attacked a town in western Kosovo. One of the Albanian delegation members called me up and said, "I don't think that our side can continue these talks with the Serbs in light of this." I said that I understood. From that point on, the summer rampage of 1998 was set. The talks broke down after two sessions, and they never resumed again. . . .

When did you first realize that you needed to talk to the KLA, and why talk to a group that was practicing violence?

Well, it was obvious to me from early on. I had already met with senior KLA representatives in secret, with no publicity, weeks and weeks earlier. And I had been in steady contact with them, because they were a legitimate part of the process. Whether they espoused a violent solution or not, you couldn't ignore them, because they were imposing their presence on the relationship. But Rugova, the acknowledged leader of the Albanians--the man who preached non-violence, who has photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in his house--was the person we dealt with publicly.

And what were you trying to do with the KLA in these secret negotiations? What was the purpose?

We were trying to get them to work with Rugova in a united front that would negotiate in a non-violent situation. That proved to be impossible, because the Serb security forces endlessly provoked them with actions that, in effect, made Milosevic the KLA's best recruiting officer. In fact, I told Milosevic this. I said, "You know, you are the best thing that ever happened to the KLA. You are making a monumental error by not negotiating with the moderates."

In late September, there is a massacre at a village, Obrinje, that makes the front page of the New York Times on September 30. What was the significance of that?

I recall it vividly. 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. It was one of those rare times where a photograph just . . . The terrible photograph of that dead person in that village was kind of a reminder, a reality, and it had a very real effect on the dialogue.

That was the meeting in which it was decided that I should go to Belgrade, and begin what turned out to be a kind of a mini-Dayton. It was a 12- or 13-day negotiation with my team, including General Mike Short, the NATO commander and southern commander, who was going to be in charge of the bombing, Chris Hill, and Jim O'Brien, from Secretary Albright's staff. We shuttled between Belgrade, Pristina, Brussels, and London endlessly, while Strobe Talbott went to Moscow in the middle of it, to keep the Russians on board.

The decision that day, though, was also to use the threat of force--the ultimatum that we were behind it.

The decision was to go to NATO and ask them for an activation order to put the planes on ready alert on the runways, and to prepare to release them into General Clark, the supreme commander's control, for bombing. The threat was credible. I made clear to President Milosevic, as did General Short, that this was real. When General Short joined me in the middle of the negotiations, we walked into the room, and Milosevic's opening line to Short was, "So, General, you're the man who's gonna bomb us?" General Short, who was a Vietnam vet of 240 missions, a very brave, no-nonsense pilot, said a line that he and I had actually rehearsed on the plane coming in. "Mr. President, I have B52s in one hand, and I have U2s in the other. It's up to you which one I'm going to have to use." It had its effect, and combined with a unified position from the contact group and the Russians willing to let this happen; they had blocked it all summer long.

The threat was credible, and it resulted in an agreement that allowed over 100,000 Albanians to come out of the woods and forests just before winter, where there would have been massive deaths from exposure, starvation, and freezing. . . .

In the immediate pre-Congress election period, and given the mood of Congress and the situation in Washington, it was clear that Congress would not support a deployment of NATO ground forces similar to the one in Bosnia, which both Secretary Albright and I had argued was essential to keep any cease-fire viable. So our negotiating instructions were to threaten the use of force, but to introduce only unarmed civilians into the Kosovo area.

Milosevic had never allowed a significant international presence in Kosovo. In October, we got him to agree to over 2,000 people from the OSCE--the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe--headed by an American, Ambassador William Walker. It was a very significant concession for a man who had previously said he'd never let the outside world in. We also got a withdrawal schedule. The refugees began to return. The United Nations Refugee Commission came back and helped the people come back, and things began to calm down. But at the time, we predicted that if we didn't have a security force to enforce this, it would fall apart by the spring. In reality, the falling apart began before spring even arrived, because both sides provoked each other. Nonetheless, a tremendous number of lives were saved by this October agreement. One cannot look back on it without a feeling that it was worth doing. It's a shame we didn't do it more aggressively, but that was not possible, given the mood of the congressional/executive branch dialogue on that week before I left in October.

He must have wondered whether you, or we, would be crazy enough to bomb him.

Yes. 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." . . .

Do you remember hearing about the Racak massacre, and what was your reaction?

Ambassador Walker called me after he had been on the hillside. In fact, if my memory's correct, he called me from a cell phone from the village to describe it. His voice was shaking, saying, "I was the ambassador in El Salvador, and this is the worst thing I've ever seen," describing how the people had been herded up the hill, their throats slit, with bullets in their heads. He said he was about to call it a crime against humanity.

So you knew he was going to go public with this?

Yes. Sure.

What was your sense of how that would change things, if anything?

You have to call them as you see them. He was the OSCE man on the ground. Bill Walker, a very experienced senior diplomat, is standing on the hillside in the presence of bodies that had been massacred after a military engagement. If he wishes to call it a crime against humanity, no one should second-guess him from Washington or New York.

I believe he did speak afterwards with General Clark and Secretary Albright. They were even talking about refining targets. How close were we to actually bombing for non-compliance?

Racak clearly would have justified an immediate military response, based on the October agreements, but it also would have required a NATO consensus to do that. It's hard to achieve a NATO consensus for military action here, particularly one with no historical precedent, because it's about the treatment of a group within a sovereign state. We had the consensus in October, but it was strained by January, and had to be re-established. This is the point at which I think Prime Minister Blair became most critical again. Blair and the president, working together, jointly made the decision that Racak and the sequence that it set off required a response.

And Rambouillet?

The decision was then made, rather than bombing the Serbs immediately for Racak, to summon both sides to Rambouillet.

Did you think Rambouillet was a good idea at the time?

It was a very legitimate attempt to bring the parties together to force them to agree. The dilemma at Rambouillet was that one of the parties was not actually there--Milosevic. And the people he sent to Rambouillet did not have the authority to do anything, and that was a core difference. The other problem with Rambouillet, which everyone recognized, was that the other side, the Albanians, had no leader. It was 18 different people who spent most of their time arguing with each other. So Rambouillet was a very tough negotiation from the outset.

You're sent again to talk to Milosevic, after the Albanians finally agree, at least in part. What happened in that March meeting, just before the bombing begins?

Secretary Albright and the president asked me to go back for one last meeting after the signing in Paris. I went back with our team, Chris Hill, the general and some other people. We presented the ultimatum to Milosevic that if he didn't sign the agreement, the bombing would start. And he said, "No." We stayed in Belgrade overnight. In the morning, I went back completely alone to see him, because I was very conscious of the fact that, in August of 1914 in that part of the world, a huge war had started through an avoidable misunderstanding. World War I was not inevitable, as many historians say. It could have been avoided, and it was a diplomatically botched negotiation. I didn't want to have a repetition of that, even at a lower level. So I went back alone, and I sat there alone with Milosevic. 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." I said, "You understand it'll 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, a powerful country. You can do anything you want. We can't stop you." There was an air of resignation to him, and we sat alone in this big, empty palace, surrounded by these inherited Rembrandts and other art left over from earlier regimes. I said, "Yes, you understand. You're absolutely clear what will happen when we leave?" And he said, very quietly, "Yes. You'll bomb us." . . . I told him that the White House and the state department are waiting for a report, and that I've got to go. I asked, "Is that it? And one more time, you understand what happens?" He said, "Yes." So we left, and that was it. I want to stress that there was no misunderstanding in his mind. He knew the bombing would start immediately after our departure, and it did, less than 30 hours later.

The sense of the moment was very clear. We were having a conversation on whose outcome would determine what would happen in a much larger terrain. It was the moment at which diplomacy was going to have to yield to the use of force. There was no longer any other option, and he, Milosevic, was choosing his own fate. He had turned down a deal much better than what he got after 77 days of bombing.

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