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Beginning in 1962, Holbrooke worked in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. foreign service. Later a staff member in the Johnson WHite HOuse, he attened the Paris Peace talks on Vietnam as a member of the U.S. delegation. From 1994-1996, he was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, and acted as the chief U.S. negotiator during the Dayton peace talks on Bosnia.


Part of what we want to know, of course, is the lessons that derived from Vietnam: policy ideas, practical notions that have been applied, subsequently. And, interestingly to me, and maybe surprisingly to many, you were actually in Vietnam. So if you'd take me back to that moment. You went to school at Brown. You graduated what year? And what happened?

ambassador holbrookeI graduated from Brown in 1962, at the high moment of American idealism. I was in college, a sophomore, when President Kennedy delivered his inaugural. And I can remember watching [in] the student lounge at Brown. And the electricity when we heard, for the first time, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Now it's a cliché that you see on MTV. But then it was electrifying. People joined the Peace Corps, people went on freedom fighter rides down through the south to integrate drugstores and soda fountains. And some of us went into the government.

... I joined the government because of two people: President Kennedy, whom I never met; and Dean Rusk, whom I knew because his son had been my high school classmate, and who was Secretary of State, and talked about public service. This connection led me to take the foreign service exam. And just a few weeks out of college, I find myself in Washington. And because I'm a bachelor, and because I speak French, or allegedly speak French, I'm sent to Vietnam, after a year of Vietnamese language training.

The lessons of Vietnam are going to be as difficult to sort out as was Vietnam itself. ... Sometimes you take positions which are the opposite of where you were in Vietnam. But one must not be imprisoned by Vietnam.  Let's learn from it, but not be dominated by it. During that year, we were briefed on Vietnam. And I can remember vividly the briefings. And I can even remember wondering if the war would be over before I got there, so optimistic were the briefings. I can remember thinking clearly, I hope the war isn't over before I get there, because I want to see what this thing that Steven Crane and Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer have written about. What it's like. And that's something every young man should experience. ...

What is that like, then, in 1963 [when] you went over there? 1963, you don't really know what to expect. ...

I land in Saigon with a friend of mine, who was also assigned. We were met at the airport by a young foreign service officer, who was a very close friend, who had been sworn in with us under the foreign service and who was already there, named Tony Lake. ... The only thing I can remember is them telling me to take my tie off, this was a shirtsleeves kind of place. Well, I mean, what you saw, then, was a French colonial city. A lovely, beautiful, French colonial town, with tree-lined streets, and just the first beginning signs of an American build-up. ...

What was your job?

holbrooke with anthony lake in saigonWell, I had two different jobs. The first half of my three and a half years in Vietnam, I was in the Mekong Delta, living with the military, as a civilian, carrying out the so-called Pacification Program; dispensing cement, and barbed wire, and so on, through a disbursement system to the Vietnamese authorities, who were supposed to build schools and ditches, and defend themselves. So it was a shambles of a program, and it didn't really work. I was twenty-two, and I didn't know what I was doing.

Did you know that it wasn't working?

I knew that areas we were reporting to Washington were under government control were not. And by the simplest of methods. I would say to the province chief, "Let's drive out to this hamlet, or this village." And he'd say, "Well, I can't do that until I get a company, or a battalion of troops to escort you." I'd say, "Well, then, it isn't very safe, is it?" And yet we were reporting it as under government control. And it was dangerous. I mean, you got shot at.

But then, the second half of my tour was entirely different. I was in the embassy as a staff assistant to the ambassador. First Maxwell Taylor, and then Henry Cabot Lodge. ...

[What is your memory of] how you and your sorts were received, and therefore perceived, by your contemporaries in uniform?

Well, the U.S. Army contingents ... were extremely nice to me. They gave me a place to stay, if I couldn't find a place in town. I ate with them a lot. I watched movies with them. I think I watched "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" seven times. They gave me rides on their helicopters. They tried to give me a weapon and teach me how to use it, thinking I should defend myself better; but the first week I had it--it was a .45--I didn't have the safety on, it went off in my Jeep, and went down through the floor and almost shot my leg off. And I gave it back. They were wonderful. And I made some enduring friendships at the major, lieutenant colonel, colonel level down there. They were terrific guys.

You had no antipathy toward the military?

Not at all. I was fascinated by them. I'd never seen the military before. I studied them. I read their history. I got to know their jargon. I have great admiration for the military. ...

[Can you reconstruct the evolution of your thinking on U.S. actions in Vietnam over the time you were there?]

It's impossible for me to reconstruct now the stages of my evolution and my thinking about Vietnam. ... I can remember when the bombing started. ...

And I remember thinking how inconceivable it was that we were going to be bombing North Vietnam. But when we started bombing North Vietnam, we got ourselves caught immediately in a trap. And here is where the hawks and the doves, the liberals and the conservatives, can both agree: the policy that was followed, primarily the policy calibrated by the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was a disaster. It simply doesn't matter whether you were a hawk, or a dove. The calibrated bombing was wrong. You're either going to not bomb at all, draw a limit on your involvement, and then defend your strategic interests in another way, globally, negotiate some kind of deal; or, alternatively, you're going to bomb at a very high level. And I believe that's what people like General Powell and General Shalikashvili, and others, have in mind when they confront issues today. If you're going to do it, do it right. ...

But when you were [there], especially in your role in the embassy as a young foreign service officer, you were then part of this policy; and presumably on some level, if not an advocate, one of the executors of this, what you came to see as a terribly flawed, and, indeed, failed policy.

It was a flawed policy. There's no question about it. Whether one was a hawk or a dove, this policy was a mess. ... I was given a very privileged position, as were some of my colleagues. As very junior officers, we were given access to the highest level policy-makers, because the normal accumulation of professional expertise was non existent for Vietnam. A lot of it, there just weren't any Vietnam experts in the government. The China hands had been pretty well either been cleaned out during the McCarthy period, or else they'd gone underground. They didn't want to repeat the whole drama in Vietnam. So a lot of the junior officers--Frank Wisner , Peter Tarnoff, Les Aspin, Tony Lake, John Negroponte, a lot of others--all of whom rose to very senior positions in the government in the last decade, all were given a chance to talk directly to senior policy-makers. And we spoke up. ... I told people what I thought. ... I was not questioning the objectives in Vietnam at the time, I was questioning the method. The objective was to save the southern part of Vietnam from a communist subversion aggression. That was a legitimate objective to us, when we went over in the early '60s. Then it turned out that the situation was not as portrayed. That is, we weren't doing as well as we said we were, to ourselves and to the public. That led to the famous credibility gap.

Then it turned out that no matter how much we tried, we couldn't stop the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, and that our South Vietnamese allies were not organized enough to do the job, and they were too corrupt. But the North Vietnamese were just going to keep on coming. And that led, inevitably, to the sequence that unfolded between 1965 and 1973, with the bombing of the North, the negotiations, more bombing, more negotiations; and, finally, the Nixon/Kissinger agreement of 1973, which inevitably led to the loss of South Vietnam. There was no question that that agreement was the end of South Vietnam.


Tell me about what happened in '66? What was a young kid like you doing in the highest councils of government?

Well, I wasn't in the highest council of government. ... [but] I was the youngest man in the room, on some rare meetings. I was the youngest person in the White House working in Vietnam. That was just a function of the fact that there were no senior Vietnam experts left. So when Lyndon Johnson formed a separate Vietnam group to work in the White House, independent of the National Security Council, I was asked to join them. And so I came back from Vietnam and was assigned to it.

Had you known LBJ?


... Do you remember your first encounter with him, in a policy context?

... Johnson was an overwhelming person. His earlobes seem to reach down to his shoulders. His hand enveloped yours when he shook it. He looked down on you with those mournful eyes. But he, I must say, with all due respect, he wasn't a very good listener that day. He'd gotten a report in the morning that the price of pork had shot up in Saigon because the Viet Cong had cut the road from the Mekong Delta to Saigon. So he started a rather long explanation of how when the price of pork goes up in Texas, it's always bad for the political leaders.

And he turned to our boss, his special assistant for Vietnam ... and he said, "Bob, you get the price of pork down in Saigon." ... And [he]'s saying, "Yes, sir. I'll do that." And I'm not sure how he's going to do it. We're sitting in Washington, and the road is closed, you know? And you have to re-open the road. And you can't just do that. You have to mount a military operation. And it was that kind of discussion.

I was very young. I was twenty-four years old. And I was in the presence of the President of the United States for the very first time in my life. ... And it was both overwhelming and frightening at the same time, because Johnson was such a substantial figure. And we had such respect for him. But what he was saying was a little bit--how should I put it?--unreal. And I had just come from the field, so to me this was really lunacy. ...

I didn't know what was going on. So, finally, after several of these comments--more than several, after about forty-five minutes of this--the President began to talk about how we ought to get some colonels, who had been in Japan during the occupation, re-activated, so they could go out and take over the administration of South Vietnam. Had I known more about Lyndon Johnson, I would have just never said anything, because I learned later that that was just the way he talked. But this was my first day in the White House. The President of the United States was making a suggestion; which, to me, left an image of aging colonels, probably in their sixties by now, or seventies, going out there and trying to teach the Vietnamese how to run their own country. And so I said, very timidly, something like, Mr. President, with all due respect, there are limits to what Americans can do in this field in Vietnam. And LBJ looked at me for the first time in the meeting and said, "Well, son, your job is to get rid of those limits."

That was my lesson.


[What do you think were the lasting lessons of Vietnam for the American military?]

... The current generation of leaders of the U.S. military, have almost all been in Vietnam. General Michael Short, for example--my military advisor during the October, 1998 drama with Milosevic over whether we'd bomb Yugoslavia because of Kosovo or not--he flew two hundred and forty missions over Vietnam. He was never captured, but his plane was shot out from under him, and he ejected with his plane upside down at three thousand feet. And that shapes his life. And he doesn't want to send his pilots up unless he knows why he's sending them.

General Boyd, one of the great American heroes, seven years in a POW camp in Hanoi; two and a half years in solitary. Tortured, comes back, becomes a four star general, deputy commander-in-chief of all U.S. forces in Europe. He's a man who is ready to fight. He's risked his life. But he doesn't want to send people out on a mission unless he knows what they are. Colin Powell has best expressed that doctrine. And that is a core point for them. To these people, the lesson of Vietnam was: Don't accept the mission, unless they give you the resources to do it, and it's doable. ...

The battle over the lessons of Vietnam will continue, as long as our generation of Americans--military, civilians, politicians, journalists, academics--who lived through it are alive, and it will be well into the next century. ... But we can come together over the concept that, if you're going to engage, you engage for a clearly defined purpose. And you don't try this micromanagement, which was the hallmark of Robert S. McNamara.

And that's where you would agree with those military men, who had service in Vietnam...?

Well, some of my closest friends and associates in the government are in uniform. The current NATO commander, General Wes Clark, General Boyd, General Shalikashvili, Admiral Crowe, General Powell, and many, many others who are less well known. These are wonderful men, and great American heroes and patriots. We argue, but I argue with my civilian colleagues, too. People in uniform are not sacrosanct. They don't have all the answers. The use of force is a political decision at its core, in terms of its objectives; then the military, as the experts, must be brought in to tell you how to do it. You don't do what Lyndon Johnson did, which is sit in the basement of the White House and personally pick the targets.


You were against the bombing in Vietnam. ... Cut to 1995 [in Bosnia], you're literally begging, "Give us bombs for peace." That's an extraordinary turn.

It's important to be specific about Vietnam. My views evolved over the seven and a half years I worked on the problem. From full support for the policy; secondly, questioning the reporting; third, the tactics; fourth, the strategy; and only near the end, the objective. I don't want to leave you with the sense that as a twenty-two year old in Vietnam, I saw the future and I knew what it was. We didn't know anything in Vietnam.

But you were quite right, [I felt] that the bombing ... increasingly ... didn't make much sense. It wasn't achieving a tactical objective, of significant interdiction of North Vietnamese supply. It was creating an international crisis for us, without producing an on the ground result. And the ally we were backing up, the Saigon government, wasn't getting any better. In fact, the more we helped them, the worse they got. So I came to the conclusion--as did almost everyone I knew, whether they were hawks or doves--that either we shouldn't be doing it, or we should be doing it more effectively. People went in different directions at that point, but that was clear.

On the other hand, by the time we got to August 29, 1995, and I got to the American embassy in Paris, on the second round of our negotiations, after three of our four colleagues had been killed the previous week, in our first attempt to get into Sarajevo, because we were on the road and we couldn't fly in. And we had lost for the first time in the war, we had lost treasured close colleagues, senior officials, people of great stature. And at that moment, we get the word that the Bosnian Serbs have lobbed one more mortar into the marketplace in Sarajevo. Killed another thirty-eight people. I'd always thought we ought to bomb, but the bombing hadn't been part of the original plans of the administration for the negotiations.

So when the acting Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, called me that morning, and said, "We're going to have to decide what to do. And the recommendation of your group is going to be critical." I said, "You put us down as unanimously asking for bombing. Put us down as people who want bombing for peace." I was completely aware of the irony. And I even mentioned to Strobe Talbott at the time, I said, "I know this sounds strange," because of where he'd come from as President Clinton's roommate at Oxford, a strong opponent of the Vietnam war as a student at Yale and Oxford. I said, "Strobe, this is very important. This is a critical moment for us personally. A responsibility of the nation. And the right thing to do. If the negotiations fail because of the bombing, so be it. Bombing is the right thing to do."

... And in the next fourteen weeks, after two and a half weeks of very heavy bombing, we got the siege of Sarajevo lifted, a general cease fire, some political principles; and then we took the people off to Dayton for those extraordinary twenty-one days that ended the war. So I felt, from the beginning, that the bombing was legitimate, politically, strategically. And although nobody wants to see bombs fall, because people get hurt and killed, it was morally defensible. ...

You say there's a great irony. How so?

I think for most of the people of my generation, people in their 50s, who grew up and came to political maturity in the 60s and 70s, Vietnam was at some level a seminal event, either if we were there, like I was, and like many of my military colleagues were, or if you were a civilian in the United States as part of the movement to oppose the war or to support it.

So, for Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, neither of whom were in Vietnam, it carries different messages. For Vice President Gore, who was in Vietnam, and myself, it carries a different messages. Some military say it proves that you should never get involved. Others say it proves that if you get involved, you should give the military the mission and then they'll tell you how many resources they want. Some military say that the war was lost because of the journalists and the Congress and the American people. I don't buy that at all. The American people and the Congress supported the war longer than any other war in American history, and at a greater cost than anyone ever imagined. Some people think it proves that American imperialism is evil, the left wing critique which I think is now pretty well gone. But, the only thing I'm clear on is that the lessons of Vietnam are going to be as difficult to sort out as was Vietnam itself. And that as long as the generation that was growing up when Vietnam was taking place is in positions of importance and authority and influence, that they will be debating these issues. They'll be debating them as long as they're alive. And then gradually the shadows will lengthen, and Da Nang and Saigon ... will fade into history like Guadalcanal and Hiroshima and Normandy, but not yet, and we're still sorting it out, and it is a legacy. And it creates ironic overtones. Sometimes you take positions which are the opposite of where you were in Vietnam. But, one must not be imprisoned by Vietnam. Let's learn from it, but not be dominated by it.


I'd like for you to take me to the 1992 time frame, post Gulf War: the New World Order is taking shape, and Bosnia is simmering there on the horizon. What was your awareness of it, your interest in it, then?

Well, at the time, I was a private citizen, the Bush Administration was in Washington, and I had maintained, throughout the Republican years, a very active interest in refugee affairs, which had started when I was Assistant Secretary for East Asia, under Carter, and I had played a big role in saving the boat people, a lot of whom were drowning in Indochina, and bringing a lot of Indochina refugees to the United States.

I was on the board of the International Rescue Committee, a big refugee organization based here in New York, and, meanwhile, I was watching Bosnia on television. And when I saw this extraordinary event happening, and the West not responding adequately, I called the Bosnia Ambassador to the U.N., Muhamed Sacirbey, whom I'd never met. I just cold called him, and I introduced myself, [and] I said, "I'd like to help." And we met and we talked a bit. And then, a few weeks later, Winston Lord, who was then the vice chairman of the International Rescue Committee, said to me they were sending a refugee fact-finding mission to Bosnia, would I like to go?

So, a week later, in August of 1992, shortly after the so-called death camps were found in Western Bosnia--and they were really awful death camps--I was on my way to Bosnia, with a group of five or six people, to travel through that country. I had not been there since I was a teen-ager, when I'd hitchhiked through Yugoslavia, and this was my return to the region--never dreaming, of course, that I would end up negotiating, and that Sacirbey, the man who I had first called, would end up being more or less my opposite number on the Bosnian side. ...

In August, '92, we drove from Zagreb to Banja Luka, across the no-man's lands, across minefields, through checkpoints, through areas where the fighting was going on around us. Our car was seized by a drunken Serb militia man wearing Reeboks and carrying an AK-47. We were held at a police station. We saw a mild form of ethnic cleansing in Banja Luka. It was a terrifying trip none of us were ready for. ... A very ugly situation. Houses blown up everywhere. I had been in Vietnam for three and a half years, but I had not seen anything like that in Vietnam.

So, August of '92, there is a presidential campaign going on. You have a president running for reelection, a president whose own policy regarding Bosnia was pretty much hands-off, at least not the pronounced involvement that you later came to advocate. And the candidate on the other side, Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas. Had you known him well enough to suggest, at that point, any policy points regarding Bosnia?

No, I didn't know Governor Clinton very well, but I was attracted to him immediately. I thought he was the most extraordinary new generation politician in the Democratic Party. And when the opportunity came to support him, I gave him my support, and became a member of what I'd call the outer fringes of the foreign policy team, which was headed by Tony Lake and Sandy Berger, both of whom were close and good friends of mine. Everyone agreed that the Bush Administration policy in Bosnia was insufficient, and Governor Clinton did in fact, as you suggest, criticize that policy and say that if he became president he would take a more active policy. I strongly supported what Governor Clinton said. But I remember saying at the time, to my colleagues, that I hope he means it because it's not going to be as easy to implement as it sounds.

When he became President, he ran up against very strong opposition to an aggressive policy from the Europeans, who were very ambivalent about air strikes against the Serbs because they had already put thousands of their own people into Bosnia under the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Now there was no peace to keep, and the people were getting shot at, but the Europeans, the British, French, and so on, were afraid they'd end up with their people becoming hostages.

So, that was the first problem. The second was, many members of Congress were reluctant to see us get involved. And the third was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were openly opposed to involvement. General Powell was then the Chairman, the most impressive and formidable figure in Washington at that time, and still, today, I might add; and Colin Powell, a man I have enormous regard for, had made very clear that he thought an involvement was a big mistake.

... The Administration's inability to move more decisively in 1993, which is documented, and everyone involved in it admits it and knows it, has to be understood in the context of the extraordinarily severe constraints in policy that existed, for political and bureaucratic reasons, at that time. That is not to excuse it, but since you want to understand it, that's how to understand it.

So, time passed. By the end of that year, you become, of all things, Ambassador to Germany [in] late '93. ... In '94, the crisis in Bosnia is deepening. By '95, you have returned to the Department of State, and Bosnia is now, more or less, on your plate.

Totally on my plate. I was brought back from Germany specifically for Bosnia, and NATO enlargement, which were clearly related. You couldn't expand or enlarge NATO and bring in new members, on one hand, while NATO failed to deal with the fire right in the middle of its area. ...

There was, at the time, and, as you know, still is the argument that we have absolutely no inherent interest in Bosnia. You can make the argument that it's not directly of strategic importance, that Bosnia is the Balkans, what does America have to do with the Balkans? You've felt otherwise. Why? ...

I would not want to suggest to you that whether Bosnia ends up being one, two or three countries, or what its exact boundaries are, or what the shape of its government is, is in and of itself of direct national security interest to the United States. That's not the way the world works. However, an unchecked aggression, which destabilizes all of Southeastern Europe, which slaughters over 200,000 people in the most barbaric way, and which could spread to neighboring countries, left unchecked, at the end of the century, would bring us in, just as we had been brought into three other crises in Europe earlier in the century: World War I, World War II, and the cold war. We could not remain aloof from this. For larger strategic reasons, for historical reasons, and for humanitarian and moral reasons, American leadership was still needed in Europe, and that leadership was essential, because, left to themselves, the European Union members could not deal with the problem. ...


You were formulating American policy when what you have called the worst, and what I guess is the worst, European massacre since World War II, took place, at Srebrenica. Recall for me, if you will, where you were, how the actual news of that event came to you, and its impact on you.

Well, it unfolded bit by bit. Srebrenica was one of three Muslim villages, or towns, swollen with refugees, in Eastern Bosnia, in an area where they were completely surrounded by Serb troops ... . They were so-called U.N.-protected areas, or U.N. safe areas. A handful of lightly armed U.N. troops were in those towns, providing the illusion of protection but not its actuality.

In July of 1995, the Serbs attacked Srebrenica. The Dutch peace keepers were trapped, and the Serbs carted off most of the men, took them into a soccer field, and butchered them. The ICRC, the International Red Cross, estimates that over 7,700 people were butchered. That is why we call it one of the great war crimes of modern Europe, and the worst since World War II.

Our own awareness of this came in stages. We had been assured, publicly, by various European intermediators that this wouldn't happen. That word was broken. Then, the Dutch were trapped. I remember vividly begging for air strikes, the Europeans saying, not until the Dutch have been pulled out of the area. General Mladic, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bosnia army, and the most dangerous man in Europe, the murderer himself, a hands-on murderer, not just a guy who issues orders, was in the area. He slit the throat of a pig in front of the Dutch commander, to make the point of what he would do to the Dutch if they interfered.

... Once they were trapped, airstrikes, which was the right thing to do, and what I advocated, [were] not possible because the Europeans would not bomb until the Dutch were safely gone. And the British didn't want to bomb until their own forces ... were removed, and so on. So, we sat there and watched this go from a low point to an absolute disastrous low point. ...

In fact, Srebrenica, one must recall, came only a few weeks after General Mladic had chained over 500 U.N. peace keepers to telephone poles and trees. ... [as] human shields, and held them hostage, and held the whole world hostage. And that was the absolute low point, that and Srebrenica.

Give me a sense what the nature of the to and from in Washington, inside the administration, was at this point. You're advocating airstrikes. Is anybody at the White House applying pressure to the North Atlantic Council at this point? ...

Well, people heard it, but the energy had gone out of the international system, between the 550 U.N. peacekeepers chained to telephone poles, the human shields ... and Srebrenica. The energy had left the system, and we had hit rock bottom. President Chirac, the French President, came to Washington the week after Srebrenica and proposed that if the United States did not now get actively involved, the French would move to pull out. And I think that was a very useful reality check, which had a tremendous impact on senior policy makers.

He met with the President?

He met with the President alone, while the rest of us milled around in the cabinet room for over an hour, and they had a very intense discussion.

And did you see the President afterwards?

Yeah. We had dinner with the President and Chirac that night, a small dinner, about 18 people, and we talked to the President. The President began to focus on it. And it was only a few weeks later that our diplomatic mission began. ...


[In late August, 1995, a Serb mortar attack struck a Sarajevo marketplace, killing 38 people. The assault triggered NATO's largest military operation in its history.].

The issue [of continuing the NATO air strikes], ... came to be debated between three star General Wes Clark and Commanding four star Admiral Snuffy Smith. What was the occasion for that debate?

The most memorable conversation to me was one when General Clark and I sat together in the back of a car, at Cologne Airport in Germany, about to take off for a meeting of NATO, and I remember he and Admiral Smith having a really tough time, and I could hear Smith yelling into the cell phone. And I took the phone away from Clark, because I was genuinely worried for his career--it's not safe for a three star Army officer to argue with a four star Commander in Chief who's carrying both a NATO and an American hat.

And I talked to Admiral Smith, and I said, "Look, you know, we've got a real difference of opinion here." And he said, "Well, I follow my chain of command, don't you give me instructions through yours. You're an American negotiating team, I am a NATO commander." And I said, "No, Admiral, I'm not trying to give you any instructions; I'm just telling you that we need bombing resumed in order to get peace." And he was pretty--he's an old sea dog. He was 33 years at sea, he's a superb naval officer. This was a situation he wasn't necessarily ideally prepared for. ...

But is it not the appropriate role, for someone in Snuffy Smith's position at that moment, to make a political decision?

No. Smith should make no political decisions. He is a field commander, he is not making political decisions, he is controlling the assets; "the assets" is a euphemism for airplanes and cruise missiles; and he should do what he's told, and he should not get into those issues.

Were you able to convey that to him that day, on that telephone call?

No. He was pretty worked up. But I think that we have to understand that Admiral Smith was wearing two hats. He was the Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. Naval forces in Europe, but he was separately the NATO Commander of the southern flank. ... It's a very complicated chain of command, that's grown up through the cold war and subsequently. And his orders did not come to him from Washington, they came to him from the NATO headquarters in Brussels.

So, when he said, "I don't take orders from you guys," he was, of course, correct. And when we said, "We're not trying to give you orders, we're trying to work together for a common goal," I think we were correct. In any case, it was one of those moments. This was a very tense situation: planes on the runway ready to resume bombing, a great argument going on, several very senior military commanders, particularly the Frenchman who headed the U.N. military forces in Zagreb, General Bernard Janvier, opposing the resumption of bombing. General Rupert Smith, the British General in Sarajevo, wants the bombing resumed. General Clark and myself begging for the resumption of bombing. General Joulwan, the NATO Supreme Commander, right on the fence between different people. General Shalikashvili, our senior military officer, an extraordinarily subtle and brilliant man, trying to figure out how to handle it. Secretary Perry and Secretary Christopher and the President deciding for the United States. And then, the British, the French and the others. ...

But, ultimately, Snuffy Smith, Admiral Smith, was the man on the ground controlling the assets. He was the man who had to say yes to the resumption of airstrikes.

No, he wasn't. He was the man who had to follow his orders. It was not his decision as to whether the airstrikes would be resumed or not. The decision should come from the chain of command. But because of some highly obscure delegations of authority it was not entirely clear whether the authority to resume bombing was delegated to Smith or determined by his Commanding Officer, the NATO Commander, General Joulwan. Because of that confusion, we had this constant tension. ...

In fact, Admiral Smith did get his orders, [they] came down through his chains of command, and bombing did resume. ... There was another call for another halt in the bombing within what, a week, two weeks?

What happened was after the bombing resumed, it was only authorized for level I bombing, certain kind of targets and if you went up to level II, you would need a new authorization. Level II would be a more intense set of targets where you would start going after the troops instead of just the installations. Admiral Smith and others who didn't want the bombing to begin with, or wanted to end it quickly to minimize risks to their forces, began to tell us we were running out of targets. That I think was a very critical moment. We were pushed by this statement, that we were running out of targets, into stopping the bombing earlier than we should have. And that is one of the moments in this process I was most deeply concerned about in retrospect, because I believe now that there were plenty of targets and they could have kept the bombing going.

And even at the time, Warren Christopher said to me, as we left the White House meeting, I think it was September 11th, if my memory is correct. He said, "I don't really believe they are running out of targets." But we had no way of second guessing them, so we had to accept the fact that they had about three days more of bombing and then they were going to stop anyway whatever we did. ... I am, in retrospect, sorry that we did not stretch out the bombing for a few more days, but once the military said they had about three days more of bombing, we made a decision that our team should get on the plane the next day and go back to Belgrade and negotiate with the Serbs to get something in return for the cessation of bombing, since it was likely to run out anyway. So we got on the plane and went immediately to Belgrade and had our decisive 13-hour negotiation with Milosevic and Mladic.

holbrooke with yugoslav leader slobodan milosevic I want to be clear on this. That negotiation did result in the lifting of the siege of Sarajevo. Within 24 hours after that negotiation, the roads were open and they have been open from that day on and the city has been rebuilding. So I don't feel that we have failed, but, could we revisit it again--I would like to have a few more days of bombing. That is not so difficult. And I am sure that the military would still take the same position, which is, 'it is time to bring this bombing to an end. '...

[Did you ever speak] to Snuffy Smith directly about the target issue?

... I did call Smith. And Smith said that we could go back and hit the same targets again, "clean up a few stray cats and dogs," as he put it in his best Navy old sea dog style. But, he would not have any new targets without authority for NATO. Because NATO had authorized a certain type of target called Phase One or Level One targets. And the next phase, Phase Two or Level Two, would require a new NATO authorization, which was not at all clear that could be obtained.

Speaking of Snuffy Smith, when did you meet him?

I met him first in 1994 when I was Ambassador to Germany, and he was the NATO commander in Naples. And I went down there to visit him. And he showed me the target book for Bosnia, and told me how they were ready to bomb if given the order. And talked about the general command. We had a very long and very valuable day together. ...

Was it a meeting in any way that anticipated, in your recollection, any antipathy?

No, not at all. He was a straight shooting, very rigorous, tough commander. Good naval officer. And I want to stress that there were two areas of disagreement that I had with Admiral Smith later. The first concerned the duration of the bombing, and there we had a technical difference between different missions. And he was worried about minimizing casualties, and about his responsibilities. And I was concerned with the opposite, which was to maximize the pressure on the Serbs. It was not a major difference.

The second issue, and the really serious one, came when he was given an entirely new assignment, the largest land-base command any naval officer had in the history of the U.S. Navy. An admiral commanding 60,000 ground troops. Which was so remarkable that he used to joke that he was called General Smith, and he was wearing an army-colored uniform, and it was quite a remarkable thing. And he interpreted his assignment in a greatly different way than those of us who had written the Dayton Agreements envisaged. Not just me, but Secretary Christopher and our entire team.


I'd like to have you take me, if you will, to those moments, those meetings when you all were conceiving the role of IFOR, the military forces [in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreements.] What did you believe, in essence, the military would need to do?

There was a tremendous range of opinions within the U.S. government over what the NATO-led force in Bosnia would do. I was a maximalist. I wanted the NATO force to do as much as possible. Most of the people in uniform, particularly at the higher ranks, and particularly those who were scarred by the Vietnam experience, or had been involved in Somalia, were minimalists who wanted to do as little as possible. To them the operative words were two famous phrases: "slippery slope," as in slippery slope to Vietnam, and "mission creep," as in you give the military a mission, which is what happened in Somalia, and then it creeps upward. So, issue after issue we disagreed. ...

I was a maximalist. I wanted the NATO force to do as much as possible.  Most of the people in uniform, particularly at the higher ranks, and particularly those who were scarred by the Vietnam experience or had been involved in Somalia, were minimalists who wanted to do as little as possible. We went into the final meetings just before Dayton with a key issue unresolved, which was, would the military have to do certain things, other than protect itself and separate the forces? Everyone agreed on those two missions, which I thought would be quite easy, but they thought would be quite difficult. Would they also go after war criminals? Would they also assist refugee return? Would they help the civilian agencies? Would they assist in elections? Would they intervene with the use of force to further certain objectives? That was the issue there. The military felt that everything that we were proposing from the State Department, was mission creep. ...

I felt that their fears were gravely exaggerated. And if we were going to send troops in, we would find that they had very little to do, because separating the forces wouldn't be that difficult. And I didn't believe there'd be much of a threat to them. But, they were concerned. ...

Was the conflict ever resolved? Did one side win?

The resolution to this argument came with a very creative, verbal acrobatics suggested by General Shalikashvili, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Shali, who was a very sophisticated and subtle person, who combined great personal courage and a personal history which was extraordinary with political skills, proposed a distinction which is very meaningful to the military. And that was that they would accept certain obligations. And then once they would fulfill their obligations, we would grant them the authority to do other things, but not obligate them to. And, for example, capturing war criminals fell into the authority area. In other words, they wouldn't be obligated to go out and capture war criminals, but they were the authority to do so if they wished. I agreed, as did Warren Christopher, to this compromise.

What did you think you were agreeing to?

Warren Christopher and I agreed to this compromise proposal, because we did not realize at the time that in its actual implementation, the authority granted to the commander of the NATO forces in Bosnia would never be used in any significant way. And this hit home with a fantastic impact in March of 1996 when the Bosnian Serbs, on the day that Sarajevo was supposed to be unified under Muslim control, burned down the Serb suburbs. And the NATO forces, with the authority to step in and capture the arsonists and put out the fires, left the arsonists alone and left their own NATO fire trucks in their fire houses. And the Serb parts of Sarajevo burned. And so did part of the dream of a multi-ethnic Bosnia on that day. ...

The fires, explain that to me. There were houses burning down, and what, there were no local firefighting--

Under the Dayton Agreements, 90 days after Dayton was put into force, which would be around the 18th or 19th of March, Sarajevo would be unified under Muslim control. This was a tremendous achievement, oh, I think probably the most important specific outcome of Dayton. As the day approached, the Serbs began to leave Sarajevo in droves, driven away by propaganda coming from the Bosnian Serb radio telling them they had to leave and burn and blow up their apartments behind them. ... They issued very specific instructions on the radio that you were to pile all your furniture in the middle of the room, put all the newspapers there, turn on the oven ..., pour kerosene on the floor, go to the door, throw a match in and get out, blow your own house up.

And they beat up people. Bosnian Serb thugs went around the Serb parts of Sarajevo and beat up old Serb families who didn't want to leave. NATO forces stood there, within a hundred yards of these incidents, Italians and French--there were no Americans in Sarajevo, but it was an American commander--and did nothing. NATO fire trucks stayed in their fire houses and did nothing for days as this escalated. And the dream of a multi-ethnic Bosnia was severely hurt, almost died that day. And it took us a year to recover from that. And even to this day the consequences of that remain. ... If 100,000 or even 60,000 Serbs had remained, then we could have created a much stronger multi-ethnic capital for Bosnia. ...

One of the things you urged upon Admiral Smith in the implementation phase of the peace was the criminalization of Bosnian Serb leaders. And you urged that Admiral Smith basically go hunt these guys down, find them and turn them over to the international court. Two questions: What was the importance to the process of making war criminals of these men? The second part is, why the resistance to do so?

It was important to bring the leadership to justice, because leadership had been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal. And the NATO forces had been given the authority to arrest these people. And to leave them at large was a living, walking symbol to the people of Bosnia that the dream of separatism by the Bosnian Serbs was still alive, and its leaders were still at large putting out the same propaganda and garbage on a television channel they still controlled. The reason the military were reluctant to do it was that they thought they would get into fire fights and take casualties, Somalia style.

Did you ever actually have a face-to-face conversation with Admiral Smith about this?

I had many talks with the military about this. One particular case that I remember vividly, I arrived in Sarajevo just after the Washington Post had run an article by John Pomfret describing how he had followed a convoy carrying Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and the most wanted man in Europe, through four NATO checkpoints. I think there's one Italian, one British, two American. And this article came out the day before I got to Sarajevo. I handed it to Admiral Smith, and I said, "Is this true, is it possibly true? How could this happen?" And he looked at the article and acted like he'd never seen it before, even though it was 24 hours old, and kind of threw it contemptuously to one of his assistants and said, "These know nothing interfering journalists. They don't know what they're talking about." And he was just completely dismissive.

Now, he had the authority to stop Rad[ovan] Karadzic, but he didn't have the obligation to do so. And he chose not to. Why he did not go after these people is something you'll have to ask him. I never knew whether it was his own reluctance, or whether he'd been given advice through private channels from higher authorities to stay away from fire fights of this sort. All I know is that the chance to capture Karadzic was higher three years ago than it is today. ... Karadzic and Mladic were much more vulnerable in 1996 when they were virtually unprotected, particularly Karadzic, who was by far the more important of the two to capture, than they are today. ... In early 1996, you could have practically picked them up with a couple of policemen and an arrest warrant. Today, they're heavily defended and very difficult to find. We drove them underground and hardened their defenses. ... They should be brought to justice, not simply for justice's sake, although that in itself is justifying the action, but also because their physical removal from Bosnia is essential for the long term success of a multi-ethnic country.

So, even something so seemingly tangential to the larger picture of Bosnia, and therefore to the larger picture of that peace of Europe, as whether or not you're going to arrest these two, three, however many men, can have a real--

It's not tangential. These two or three men, as you put it, would be like leaving Hitler and Goebbels wandering around the countryside in 1945, heavily protected and looking the other way whenever we think they're coming down the road in convoy. And if you'd done that in Germany after 1945, a lot of German believers in Hitler would have said the Fuhrer is still around, let's hedge our bets, let's wait for him to come back. This is an easy issue. These aren't harmless people. They're highly powerful people in political terms. They are murderers, but they also have a certain amount of political charisma. They're very dangerous people. ...


Yesterday I read all the papers, I saw the wires, I watched the nightly news shows. There were some Republicans urging caution [about sending ground troops to Kosovo] but nobody was standing up and saying, "Over my dead body we're not sending any troops--"

The reason people have switched, there's several reasons. One is they recognize that without troops Albanians and Serbs will tear each other's eyeballs out continually. ... Secondly, we have the experience of Bosnia. In going into Bosnia, everyone thought we were going to die in substantial numbers. ... They had casualty estimates. The actual casualties had been zero, no killed, no wounded. That is a strong argument for the strength of American-led NATO forces. So, between you've got no alternative, plus the casualty rate in Bosnia was very low, it comes down to two other issues--costs and the so-called exit strategy. And that's why we're trying to keep our number low.

So, there is such a thing now as the lessons of Bosnia.

Oh sure, of course. This is all about the success of Dayton. ...

Does our presence in Bosnia in some way not almost necessitate our involvement in Kosovo?

Yes, of course ... because if you succeed in Bosnia and fail in Kosovo, in the long run you'll fail in Bosnia. Not because Kosovo will unravel Bosnia, but because Kosovo will spread to Albania, Macedonia, maybe even Greece, Bulgaria, and you'll have another fire. Bosnia and Kosovo are, in the end, part of the same problem. ...

When we talk about the possible peace in Kosovo, the role of the military will be something more expanded?

holbrooke with gen wesley clarke and slobodan milosevicNot necessarily. First of all, the American component in the Kosovo force, if there is one, will be much smaller. It was 37% in Bosnia. The numbers being talked about in Kosovo are half that percentage. Secondly, the actual force size being discussed is much smaller than it was in Bosnia. But, all this is hypothetical as we talk now ... .

However--and this is the important point--whatever happens in Kosovo, there is a new sense of cohesiveness and focus in the military and in military/civilian relations within the U.S. government because of the positive experiences in Bosnia. And even the Congress has been more supportive because they've seen that their fears about casualties have not borne out. ... The military has learned how to make these things work from its Bosnia experience. And, therefore, the dialogue between the military and the civilians that we've been having over Kosovo has been less contentious and more constructive and more creative than the ones we had over Bosnia. But, nobody, myself included, can be enthusiastic about sending young American men and women, and other NATO forces into a hell hole like Kosovo.

The only reason we might consider it is because there's no other way to keep Albanians and Serbs from killing each other in the near term, and we need to establish calm on the ground to create the environment for a peaceful political solution. That would be the only rationale. I don't like the idea of having to support the idea of a ground troop presence in Kosovo. I'm not a wide-eyed imperialist who wants to see Americans manning outposts all over the world. Not outposts to freedom in the cold war cliché, but islands of stability and seas of ethnic strife. That is not what anyone should feel comfortable seeing Americans doing. However, if it is unavoidable--that is, if an international force is necessary to keep it from breaking out and spreading, if the Europeans will not participate without the Americans because it has to be under NATO, and if a small number of Americans can enable a larger number of Europeans to do the job--and I stress that all this is hypothetical--then it's something that it is appropriate for the United States to consider. ...

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