Mark Danner interviewed by Harry Kreisler, of U.C. Berkeley’s International and Area Studies Department
Welcome to a Conversation with History. I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest is Mark Danner, staff writer for the New Yorker, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Center on the campus, and also the School of Journalism.
I. Ideas Shaping U.S. Involvement in the Cold War
Thank you very much, Harry.
In our last interview, we talked about writing about foreign policy and your works on Haiti, and a little on your work on Bosnia, which we will talk about more. Let’s talk more about foreign policy, because you have written about NATO and made some telling observations about U.S. foreign policy. Among other things, ideas play a role in the making of foreign policy. In our history, what ideas have mattered?
The United States, of course, is a country founded on idea. An idea of equality. Not only equality in the Americas, but universal equality. One can identify two phases in the history of the United States in foreign policy and ideas. The first is the notion of the United States as an example for the world; what Daniel Webster called “the shining example for the world to view.” I would call that a period of self—sufficiency. The United States — many of its leaders, in any event — thought that the United States should not go off and “seek out monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams wrote most famously, but should, by its own system, by its own behavior, by the perfection of the government that it had created, serve as an example to other nations, and also affect their own development.
This lasted roughly until this century, until what’s known as the Spanish—American war. Then you begin to have the period of the United States as a world power: the U.S. actually taking its role in the world and having a material effect on other countries. You have Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, and the interventions in Spain, as I mentioned, and World War I, in which the United States was absolutely determinative on the Continent in ending the war. But after which, the U.S., following an enormous struggle between Wilson and the Senate, withdrew from the Continent.
Then finally [came] the stage that we remain in now, despite all the discussion about the post — Cold War world, and that is the U.S. as ideological power in the world, as power advancing democracy. Power advancing liberty. The implications of those ideas are very real, because they link to and dovetail with the great problem that has dominated the history of this century: How does a democracy behave as a world power?
And in the second manifestation, Woodrow Wilson is an important figure in, some might say, overstating the case for remaking the world in our image.
I think you’ve summarized that perfectly. When you look at the history of this century, Wilson’s project, of course, was a failure. He failed to integrate the United States into the League of Nations, which was the first large multilateral institution, and in so doing, in retrospect, he really made World War II inevitable. He withdrew American power from Europe, and the power vacuum in the East eventually was filled by the Nazis and the Soviets. The men (and they were entirely a group of men) who put together the postwar system that in many ways we still live under (or perhaps I should say we see it crumbling now), included Dean Acheson; Harry Truman, obviously the key president of the time; George Marshall; George Kennan. All of these men were young men after World War I — Franklin Roosevelt also — who remembered very well the failure of Wilson, and were determined not to repeat it. The question for them came down to: How do we convince the American public?
The United States had a worldwide role to play. Not only because the U.S. reached a point where it was obvious, because of its power and its might, that it must take its role in the world stage, but also to ensure the peace, to prevent another war. They took this for granted. The key question for them was: How do we convince the American public? FDR in particular had great suspicions that the American public was inherently isolationist, and feared that the response after the Second World War would be a return to America. You see this between the years 1945 and 1950, this effort to develop an ideology that would both convince the public and put forward a rationale for U.S. action in the world.
In your article on NATO you focus on this very period, and find the historical turning point in Truman’s speech to the Congress in which he asks for aid for Southern Europe, especially Greece. Tell us a little about that and your elucidation of the way he articulated the need for America to respond to these world events.
To sketch out the actual situation, which is familiar: There were wars going on, particularly in Greece, a communist insurgency, instability in Turkey. The British ambassador came to Dean Acheson and said, to paraphrase: You know this has been our sphere of influence; we have kept control of these things but we’re paid out, we have no more money, we have no more will, we can not take responsibility for this. And this was during a very, very compressed period in the beginning of 1947.
The United Stated could have responded in at least one of two ways. One way was to take on the burden of Greece and Turkey and to give them aid and to try to see to it that they remained in the Western camp. The other way was to do what eventually happened, which was to use the example of Greece and Turkey to set forth a worldwide mission, an ideological mission. And, indeed, when Harry Truman came to the Congress in March of 1947 and made his famous speech, which we now know as the Truman Doctrine, he did precisely that. He set forth a worldwide mission. I’ll read you the quotation, which is rather famous — what Clark Clifford, his advisor who wrote it, called the credo of the speech, speaking in religious language. This is what Truman said:
I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Now, it’s important to realize that this was a universalist project. He spoke much more broadly. And I’ll read a couple of other sentences, if I may:
At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections. The second way of life is based upon the will of the minority, forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and etc. I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
This reaction by Truman was very controversial at the time. George Kennan, for example, Walter Lippmann, and other very famous thinkers in foreign affairs opposed it. They felt it would saddle the United States with a worldwide burden. Essentially, there are no limits imposed at all.
A free people struggling anywhere in the world.
Anywhere. In other words, there was no statement of the zone of influence. No statement that Europe is somewhere we regard as our own backyard, and so on. Nothing. Simply a universalist mission. We can talk about how this had implications and consequences that I think were dangerous for American foreign policy, but at the time, the reason for it was fairly clear. The United States and the Truman administration, officials of the Truman administration in particular, wanted to engage the American public in a mission, to convince the public that the United States had a role to play in the world.
Arthur Vandenberg, a very powerful Republican Senator from Michigan, [met with] the president and Dean Acheson, and Acheson [talked about] a theory of “rotten apples” (this is the early domino theory). He talked about Greece, Turkey, and how they’d infect the whole barrel. All of Europe would be infected. Then Vandenberg said, “You know, Mr. President, you say this to the American people and we’ll get you your money.” Acheson later talked about this speech as making the world situation for Americans “clearer than truth.” Clearer than truth. In other words, it was an attempt to convince people by overstating the case.
This was a very large idea which took the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, which saw America on a worldwide mission to change the world — and also took a bit of what I’ve identified as the nineteenth century’s idea of America as a shining example — and melded it to a geopolitical realist mission to oppose the Soviet Union. So, it actually was perfect. These two things were brought together, knitted together, and worked very well in building a consensus for half a century. Vietnam helped to split it, needless to say.
So Truman, at least in the short term, successfully solved a problem that political leaders have when they make foreign policy in a democracy. He embedded his policy in domestic politics in order to gain public consensus and support for his goals.
Absolutely. I think you’ve summarized it perfectly. Sometimes I call this the Athenian problem, because it certainly goes back at least as far as Thucidides’ account of the Peloponnesian War: How do you reconcile a city—state like Athens, a democratic state which also has an empire? It presents very obvious problems. And the solution here was, in part, the Truman Doctrine: to engage the citizenry in a particular mission. It was very, very successful as a rhetorical argument. Of course, I want to underline the fact that the Soviet Union did exist. A struggle was going on between the United States and the Soviets, [and not simply] a rhetorical struggle. But we are talking here about ideas, and this a certainly the key one.
You write in your article on NATO in World Policy: “In a democracy, words should serve as instruments that people apply to explain and promote interest, not empty slogans that saddle and imprison those that use them.” At some point, down the road, that began to happen, even with the containment policy.
An interesting problem was set up that probably people like Walter Lippmann and George Kennan anticipated: if you set yourself a universal burden to defend peace, to defend democracy wherever it may be threatened, you are guaranteeing that you are going to fail. You are setting yourself obligations that the country cannot fulfill. And it was only two years before the largest, most brutal, and most dramatic example of this came crashing into the American political consciousness: the so—called loss of China. Now, the United States did not “lose” China. The China revolution was an enormous struggle, a phenomenon that the United States could do very little to affect. But partly because the Democrats, in particular, had set forth their worldwide mission to protect democracies, this became a political defeat which could be hung around the neck of the Democrats.
I want to emphasize this is not simply the Truman Doctrine, but it made it much, much worse. It became a political nightmare that was very much in the minds of Democratic presidents in the early sixties, both Kennedy and Johnson, when they confronted Vietnam. This isn’t a supposition; they said it. Kennedy said, shortly before he was assassinated, that if he tried to withdraw now, he’d have a full—scale “McCarthy thing” on his hands, meaning he’d be attacked as “losing China” once again. Johnson said, “If I tried to withdraw, they’d impeach.” They’d impeach a president who tried to withdraw, wouldn’t they? Both of them were very aware, as politicians who’d grown up during the McCarthy period, of the implications of moving backward and seeming to lose, or seeming to throw off the obligations of America’s worldwide mission. So, it’s almost as if this obligation that was put forward by Harry Truman so eloquently came back and bit his successors.
II. Ideas in the Post — Cold War World
Let’s fast forward now to the end of the Cold War. Your article on NATO, which was prompted by the Clinton administration’s proposal of enlargement (and we’ll discuss that in a minute) is informed with history, which is the theme that we discussed in our last Conversation: always looking to history to help us understand what we should do now. It’s the end of the Cold War now. A “new world order,” or a new world disorder, depending on your view. How would you characterize the way our leaders are responding to a statement of goals to deal with today’s world?
It’s incontestable that the burden of replacing the ideology of the Cold War — a rhetorical mission of explaining both to the American public and to policymakers themselves why the United States acts as it does in the world — has been completely unfulfilled. Both President Bush and President Clinton have not been able to develop any successor to the containment Truman Doctrine policy. They failed at that. Many argue that the world being what it is, the Soviet Union having disappeared, such a doctrine is impossible to develop now. I’m not sure that that’s true.
What is obviously necessary, and we can see it now with Kosovo, is a means by which our leaders can talk to the people. At the moment, the entire Kosovo policy, before that the entire Bosnia policy, before that the entire Somalia policy, before that the entire policy in the eighties, were all dominated by an almost phantasmagorical, nightmarish concern to avoid casualties. If one soldier is injured, the policy is ruined, which shows that each of those missions had no political support. Why did they have no political support? I think the leaders involved would probably say that the American people are not willing to support these actions. And indeed Clinton, according to George Stephenopolos’s recent book, believes that the American people are inherently isolationist. Well, I don’t accept that.
If you look at the example of Harry Truman, you see that a political leader must lead. What that means is, they have to put their political capital on the line. The political strength that they might have been planning to use to push forward health care policy, or some other domestic policy, they have to be willing to use to make a speech and build up support for whatever mission they feel is important, whether it’s in Bosnia or Haiti or wherever.
The only example of that recently is George Bush during the months of 1990, between the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s forces and the actual war, in which he spent months arguing and trying to build up political support. You haven’t seen that in any of these other missions. And one of the reasons is that our leaders, including President Clinton, lack or have not developed any means by which to talk to the people to justify what they’re doing.
Why indeed are we in Kosovo? Well, there’s no real justification for it. It changed from a strategic mission — “we can’t have the Balkans breaking apart” — to a humanitarian mission, to “stopping a dictator who’s worse than Hitler.” Back and forth, all these different reasons, without ever settling on one. And because [Clinton is] unable to build any support, the idea of losing a single pilot is absolutely an anathema to the administration. It has a direct effect on the policy: because they’re so afraid of casualties, they’ve not been able to protect the people they’re supposedly there to protect.
Help me understand why this is so. In talking about Truman, you mentioned the cohort of people around him who had been informed by the history that had preceded the Second World War, the history of the failure of the League [of Nations] and which led to the breakdown of Europe and the Second World War. Are our leaders still bearing the burden of the “Vietnam Syndrome”? Are they afraid because they think every situation is another Vietnam? Or are they afraid because they don’t know what they want to do in the world, and therefore they have no way to justify it?
Both of those. That’s not an either/or question. I believe that the answer to both questions is yes. Just the way the formative experience for Franklin Roosevelt (and Harry Truman, for that matter) was World War I, the formative experience for Bill Clinton was the Vietnam War. He didn’t fight in it, but that was the period in which he grew up. The same thing with Colin Powell, who’s been a dominant figure in this era. He’s no longer in office, but his views about military force have been absolutely dominant. He developed those views as an officer — Major, I think, was the highest rank he attained in Vietnam, in the Americal division. The “Powell Doctrine,” which is sort of a corollary of what was called the “Weinberger Doctrine,” is simply that you do not intervene militarily unless you have the powerful support of the people, unless you can use overwhelming force, unless you have a clear exit strategy. All that may sound absolutely reasonable, but, in fact, for a great power it’s not reasonable. It limits a power to taking very specific actions: Bosnia, such as it was, the way it developed. The Bush administration stated at the beginning that we can’t get involved because it would take at least 300,000 troops — which is what General Powell constantly said.
Secretary Baker said “We have no dogs in that fight.”
Well, that’s another very good point as well, which bolsters your second question.
So let me put them both together. On the one hand, you had Powell saying at least 300,000, 400,000 troops, which was a way to say, We don’t want to get involved here. He said, memorably: “When I hear the phrase ‘surgical bombing,’ I head for the bunker.” He was the most politically involved military officer we’ve had since I can’t think when. It was a way, certainly in that instance, to say, “We are not getting involved because we do not see the political side protecting us. It didn’t protect us in Vietnam.”
Now, your point about Baker is absolutely on the mark. The Bush administration made a judgment (why, I have no idea) that a war in Yugoslavia had no effect on U.S. interests. It’s fascinating to speculate about why they made that judgment. They had, at the top, two men — Larry Eagleberger and Brent Scocroft, as Secretary of State and National Security advisor— who had actually served in Yugoslavia and knew it well. This might have meant that they made a lot of mistakes in dealing with it, in that they didn’t take current material from the field too seriously. In any event, they judged that it was not important to U.S. interests. This seems to be, particularly in the present world that we see ourselves, a fantastically mistaken notion. And even now they’re being interviewed in the press everyday, and on the television. People treat them as disinterested experts. Nobody thinks to say, “Well, why didn’t you do something at a time when steps could have been taken with a minimum [of bloodshed], or even no bloodshed at all?”
So, that’s a very good example of the confusion about U.S. national interests, particularly in an administration — the Bush administration — which in general was much more competent in foreign policy than the one we’re living under now. And yet they were able to look at Yugoslavia and say, “Well, this doesn’t involve us.” I think that Mr. Eagleberger and Mr. Scocroft and others believed that “the road burned itself out”: a lot of people would die, but it would not spill over the borders. And indeed they set forth what is known as the Christmas warning. It was one of the last things they did in office, when Bush was actually a lame duck in December, 1992, saying, “If this goes to Kosovo, we will oppose it with military force.” And this is what we’re seeing now, seven years later.
You mentioned that Vandenberg had told Truman and his advisors to scare the people. It is almost as if now we need someone to tell the president, “Don’t let the people scare you.” Because this absolute fear of losing one soldier’s life prevents war from being an instrument of foreign policy.
Absolutely. Yes. Vandenberg said, “Scare the hell out of the American people, Mr. President.” And, indeed, Truman tried to do that. Now, there’s a certain feeling of hysteria in Washington about what’s happening, and the possibility that they may lose control of it.
You know, Harry, in the end, these are matters that have become very complicated. But there’s something morally corrupting about what is happening now with our foreign policy. We now are bombing every night, even as we speak. Tonight we’ll be bombing once again, killing people in Serbia, destroying water mains and ministries and so on, and yet we’re doing absolutely nothing to prevent what’s going on in Kosovo. Now the reason for this is not that we couldn’t. We have a large fleet of A—10, so—called Warthog planes that fly low and attack armor. We have helicopters that are now there and more to come. We have means by which, through air power, we could affect that battle. The United States will not do it because of the danger that a plane will be shot down. And you have to ask yourself, How many casualties in Kosovo, how many dead Kosovars are worth one dead American? It’s [to be expected] that Americans care more about Americans. That’s just a fact, and I don’t flee from it. But the point is, when you guarantee people and take steps which involve their lives very seriously, you do incur an obligation to them. Now, our country goes on. Nothing’s affected here. The reserves are being called up, some of them. But, besides that, nothing is affected here and yet an intensive bombing campaign is going on. An entire country has been sent into refugee camps. And I think there’s something morally corrupting about the idea that we can have not one casualty, we can risk not one casualty. The result of that is, the burden of the battle is placed on the Kosovars, who are dying by the hundreds and, perhaps, by the thousands.
Before we talk more about Kosovo and the breakup of Yugoslavia and Bosnia, which you have skillfully analyzed in a series of articles in the New York Review of Books, I want to go back and talk a minute about your article on NATO that you published a couple years ago. Let’s look at NATO enlargement as an example of the incapacity of our present leadership to formulate goals for our policy in the post — Cold War world. Talk a little about the absurdity, as you characterize it, of what the Clinton administration proposed and, in fact, did.
First of all, this was an enormously important step that was taken with very little publicity, no consultation with the American public, virtually under cover of darkness. The president made no important speech about it. The Senate considered it in a rather desultory manner. Yet it was enormously important. The United States has incurred the obligation to protect, by military and perhaps by nuclear means, if necessary, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. These are [countries] that have no historical resonance at all. Never in our history have we had this obligation, except for [Western] Europe. And those countries bear little relation to us strategically.
Now, my belief at the time was that there were two obvious objections to the policy, and then a broader view. The first objection was that the problem to which NATO enlargement was offered as a solution was a civil one, an economic one. To enlarge NATO is to bring these countries into the West. It’s to make them solid democracies. It’s to bolster their economies. Well, a military alliance is not the best—equipped organism to do that. The European Union would be perfect, economically, governmentally. It was perfectly set up to do that. People would argue and say that the European Union can’t do that because you’d suddenly have Polish farmers competing with French farmers, and this would be impossible, politically impossible. And I would respond that that’s a problem that has to be dealt with, because the European Union itself is a product of the Cold War. It was set up during the divided Europe, and you have to try to balance out those differences, and that will eventually happen.
The second obvious problem with this is that we made a choice. The United States made a choice. Either it can direct its foreign policy toward Russia, or it can direct it toward advancing Eastern Europe. It chose the latter course. And in so doing, it condemned relations with Russia, which have taken on the downward spiral that we see at present. If that enlargement hadn’t happened, possibly Kosovo wouldn’t be happening now, because we would be able to count on Russia’s aid in dealing with Milosevic. Secondly, if [we hadn’t made that choice,] SALT II, which is an enormously important treaty, which cuts the number of nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, by two—thirds on each side, would probably be halfway there by now. Instead, in languishes in the Duma. We forget, to some extent, that the Russians have politics now. By enlarging NATO, we’ve given a lot of strength to nationalist forces, anti—U.S. forces, within Russia. And to me, Russia is still the great problem to the United States, if only by virtue of their weapons.
Now, a broader point, or perhaps two. One of the arguments made for the enlargement of NATO (Henry Kissinger made this, in particular, and many others did as well) was that we have a vacuum in Central Europe. “A vacuum.” He’s talking about the Second World War, and how it happened: you have these weak states in Central Europe; they have to be held in an alliance. Well, to me, that’s fighting the last war. It’s a great example of fighting the last war. In fact, a number of military agreements were concluded between Gorbachev and Reagan, in particular the agreement to reduce conventional forces. During the late eighties we had an amazing number of agreements that changed the military balance. There was the agreement to reduce severely the conventional forces in Central Europe. The agreement to eliminate intermediate nuclear missiles. The agreement — unwritten agreement — to take [away] battlefield nuclear missiles, making it impossible to launch a surprise attack in the middle of Europe. That was the beginning of a kind of entente that would have eliminated that vacuum. So, I wasn’t persuaded by that argument.
A final comment. There is a question, and it’s a theme underlying our entire discussion so far about the creativity of U.S. foreign policy. What sort of force is this country going to be in the world? I’m forty years old, so I’m the next generation of people like Bundy, who are the second generation of the Wise Men. And when I look at the decisions that have been made by this government, by the Clinton administration and to some degree by the Bush administration, the lack of creativity, particularly when you compare it to the late forties, is striking. It’s almost like a wheel, spinning, an inertial force that’s living on the inertial force from the Cold War. Nobody’s thinking. No new planning. It’s one of the reasons I entitled the article that you’ve kindly referred to, “Marooned in the Cold War.” The idea that, in the end, we’re still stuck there. There isn’t a new thought about what the U.S. position should be in the world. About, for example, how the Europeans should take on some of the burdens of their defense themselves. We’re not heading in that direction at all. On the contrary, we’re going the opposite way.
III. The Case of Kosovo
You use the expression that [the administration] “failed to choose to choose.” That’s what’s going on: an evasion, an inability to grapple with their problems and define goals. I hear in our policy two problems: an inability to distinguish primary goals from secondary goals, and an inability to distinguish means from ends, because, as we now move into Kosovo shortly after it became clear that the bombing wasn’t going to succeed, I believe the goal of the bombing became not dealing with the situation but saving NATO.
I agree precisely with what you just said, and I’d add one thing. Whenever you’re put in a position of laying down an ultimatum, you’re giving the freedom of choice to the other side. Generally, if you’re making an ultimatum, you’ve failed in what you’ve tried to achieve. And this is a great demonstration of that. The ultimatum itself became an imprisoning factor for NATO. The question of credibility that you’ve referred to — that word credibility which everyone remembers from the Vietnam War (which everyone, frankly, should be questioning when they hear it) — already came up when the ultimatum was delivered.
And let’s remind our audience, the ultimatum was given to Milosevic by Albright and the Clinton administration.
That’s right. At the conference at Rambouillet. The West, NATO — the nineteen nations, now, of NATO — put forward a plan whereby Milosevic was supposed to withdraw most of his troops from the area of Kosovo, allow an armed force of NATO troops to take their place, and then they would occupy the country for a three—year transition period before there would be a final decision made on the “character of autonomy.” It’s clear that Milosevic took this plan to be tending toward independence, some kind of independence. It’s clear also that NATO put the plan together in a rather ramshackle fashion, because on the one hand they wanted stop the fighting in Kosovo, and on the other hand they did not want an independent Kosovo.
Of course, one of the other problems with the current policy — the current fiasco, you could say — is that it’s almost impossible now to conceive of Kosovo in some way still being under Serbian power, which is still the policy of NATO. After Serbia has “ethnically cleansed” so much of the province, it’s very hard to see how it remains within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. So this is another problem that’s created for U.S. foreign policy and for European foreign policy especially. An independent Kosovo was thought to be, before the bombing started, almost as dangerous as the continuing killing in Kosovo. The idea was that if this small province became independent, it would encourage an independent or greater Albania. It would encourage the splitting up of Macedonia, which has a large Albanian population. And in one way or another, the entire Balkan peninsula would be thrown into instability and conflict. It’s almost as if in several ways the U.S. foreign policy has brought forward, created, what it was attempting to forestall.
In the Balkans, the U.S. and the world are confronting one of the great challenges of our time: How people will live together. The issue of self—determination as Yugoslavia breaks up, and so on. What is most telling is how surprised the administration was by Milosevic’s response to the bombing. You visited the area. In a way it really wasn’t surprising. His goals have been clear all along.
I would say so, although I guess one must be careful to read back into a long and complicated series of events knowledge that we maybe didn’t have at the time. But I certainly agree with your point that what’s happening now cannot be in any way separated from the war that began in 1991. Indeed, one of the problems, I think, with covering this war (and there’s been, of course, blanket coverage) and one of the reasons it’s so confusing for people is that it is an example of an event in which the present is the past. They are inseparable. We’re not talking about history when we talk about [events] since 1991. We’re talking about the same story. We look at the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing that’s so vividly shown in Kosovo. This happened in 1991—92 in the Krajina part of Croatia, the largely Serb part of Croatia. It happened in Bosnia from ’92—’95. It happened in ’95 in the Krajina again, when the Croats threw out the Serbs. And certainly when the Serbs did it, in various places, we saw exactly the same phenomenon. That is, the Yugoslav army would encircle a town, the security ministry or the interior ministry forces would go into the town, kill a lot of people, create another circle around, and finally the paramilitary militias would go in and create terror. They would kill people, they would rape people, do anything that they could do to encourage a mass exodus. And this has been seen again and again and again. What has changed is not the behavior of Milosevic. What has changed has been the reaction of the United States, and the reaction of the West, and what Clinton has said about it, and other Western leaders have said about it. So, I think it’s rather confusing for the American public and other Western publics to understand what’s happening when their leaders have strikingly different comments on what’s essentially the same phenomenon, depending on the time.
There’s another parallel I think we should bring up. I think the bombing came about partly because of assumptions about Milosevic that Secretary of State Albright and other high officials made, because of his behavior in 1995 when the United States bombed Serbia. There was an assumption that “Ah! Milosevic responds to force. If we use force here or even threaten it, he will respond.” But the political situations were entirely different. At that time he wanted to deal. He was starting to lose the war.
On the ground.
Exactly. And also, he was desperate to get a deal, to get détente. Secondly, NATO war planes served as the air force of the Croatian armor, the tanks and other armor, the Croat army, and the Bosnian infantry. So, it wasn’t actually just an air war, it was a complete attack on the ground.
And we had supplied arms.
Exactly. To Croatians and, in a rather roundabout fashion, to the Bosnians. So this is utterly different. And Kosovo is a much more difficult matter for him. The idea that he could give it up without fighting is absolutely crazy. I mean, he couldn’t. It has a political importance for the Serbs which we’ve heard again and again. It goes back seven hundred years.
You just said that the Clinton administration mistakenly believed that the two situations were the same. That is, “If we bomb today we would get the same results as we got before.” Which leads one, in that context and in the context of other things going on, to the conclusion that this administration is not serious about foreign policy. That they lack a professionalism. That it’s almost an “amateur hour.” Which is different than saying, as Clinton does, that the American people are isolationist.
It is very different. I don’t have a high regard for this administration’s foreign policy.
To judge a foreign policy there’s first of all a permanent bureaucracy, and there are people in the U.S. government, always, who are extremely talented, extremely dedicated. There are then political appointees, who, in the case of this administration, have been very unimpressive. They have not appointed people with great experience to the key jobs in foreign policy. And I think that’s true of the very senior positions, frankly.
Finally, though, the president has to be personally involved and has to care about foreign policy. That’s just the way the system works. Otherwise, in the case of Haiti, for example, for a year the security bureaucracies, the Pentagon, the CIA, notably, were at war with the State Department over what policy should be, what the U.S. should be doing in Haiti, whether it really should put Aristide back or not. Until the president took an active role in that, U.S. policy there was just completely trolled along, without any real direction. Similarly with Bosnia: until the president took a very strong role in the summer of 1995, U.S. policy was paralyzed. And partly because of domestic political concerns (the election was coming up) and the realization, the very late realization on the part of President Clinton, that if the Europeans withdrew their humanitarian troops delivering food, because the U.S. had vowed to help them out, the U.S. troops would have to go and help them. So that, U.S. troops would be there in any event. The late realization of this vow that Clinton himself had made led to the U.S. taking a strong role there in 1995. But everything was done to avoid this kind of strong role.
To be fair, in 1990—91, when it was very clear that Yugoslavia was breaking up — and the CIA had given a very full report of what would happen — the Bush administration also avoided any role there. Their diplomacy, aside from a one—day visit by James Baker, was inert. They handed the whole problem to the Europeans who, apart from NATO, have no combined army. [Without an army, and] partly because of the matter we were discussing before (NATO enlargement and the attitude the United States was taking), European diplomacy, when it comes to something like Yugoslavia, is absolutely impotent. And it was shown very clearly in 1991 that they were not able to prevent this [ethnic cleansing]. And it could have been prevented by the Americans, I believe very strongly.
Let’s look at this period, ten years or so, from Baker saying “We have no dogs in this fight” until the present war in Kosovo. By deciding in the beginning not to do the very little we could to possibly stop the deterioration there, we wound up doing a lot more and accomplishing much less in terms of whatever goals we should have had.
That’s a good summary. The only thing I would add is that we have no idea, now, how little we have accomplished. As we speak, bombs are falling. It’s unclear what sort of solution will be arrived at, or what the implications of that solution might be. The one thing we know is that tens of thousands of people have died, or even, depending on the estimates, hundreds of thousands. It’s very hard to know how many have died. But certainly in Bosnia, up near a hundred thousand people died. We don’t have any idea now how many died in Kosovo. We do know that nearly a million of them were displaced. These are all extreme effects of doing nothing.
Now, you could argue very thoroughly that it was not the United States’ business, and, indeed, James Baker did say that. But the years since 1991, when he made his statement, have proved the contrary: we did have a dog in this fight. And in my view, if we had taken action then — and I don’t think it would have necessarily needed to be military action … it’s almost as if there’s a formula: the earlier you do something the less you have to do. And of course, the United States had, at the time, the greatest military prestige and power in its history — the Soviet Union was collapsing, so its opponent during the Cold War was gone. Eastern Europe had thrown off the Soviet yoke and, finally the United States had just defeated, in this extraordinary fashion that no one expected, the armies of Saddam Hussein. So, in that spring of 1991, it had enormous military prestige and therefore power. To think of that as something that’s not power and to say, “Well, we can take no steps unless we are willing to put 300,000 troops in there, and since we’re not willing to do that we can do absolutely nothing,” was, I think, a profound mistake. I thought that at the time, and so did Richard Holbrook and various other people.
You call your article on Kosovo in the current issue of The New York Review of Books “Endgame.” What do you think that endgame would be, and what are the lessons of this experience for the problem of coming up with a foreign policy for the United States?
Well, one of the reasons I was emphasizing the notion of an endgame was the idea that all of the contradictions, all of the hesitations, all of the failures to decide were finally coming home to roost. They couldn’t be avoided. And in this vast exodus, in this horrible scene that was on Americans’ television sets every night, people were finally seeing the results not of what happened a month and a half ago, but what happened in 1991. So, “endgame” is an attempt to emphasize the fact that you can’t escape decisions that you avoid. And that the United States above all is not in a position to avoid those effects.
I’ve always tried to avoid putting myself in the position of being a prophet. Certainly in this particular story, if you know it with any degree of intimacy, you’re foolish to try to make predictions. As we sit here, there is a small degree of diplomatic intercourse going on between Russia, Belgrade, and Washington. It’s clear that the United States government has recognized that Russia is going to be crucial to any sort of solution. It’s also clear that the Clinton administration is frightened. I think it’s very clear that they didn’t think it would work this way. They thought that either Milosevic would fold, or bombing would go on for a couple days and then he would fold. No one anticipated it would continue this long, or that that he would be so successful in clearing out Kosovo so rapidly. Although, frankly, certainly with the ethnic cleansing, one could point to all sorts of examples, as I’ve said. They’ve had a lot of practice at it.
I think the United States and NATO will try for a diplomatic solution. They will hope to overthrow him, but it will be very difficult to do, as it has been. And they will try for some sort of diplomatic solution which will obviate the need to use ground troops. Although, I have to say, the debate, as it’s happening in the United States — which is ground troops or not — is a false debate. The debate should really be about what other means can be used in Kosovo to protect Kosovars. It should be about something other than air power. And there are other things that are not even in the discussion. But I don’t want to make a prediction about what exactly will happen there.
The one thing I would say is that the hope that the administration might learn lessons from what happened there is rather futile now. I think there’s a sense in Washington that, “Oh my gosh! We avoided this horrible impeachment thing for a year only to find ourselves with a real problem.” And they’re very frightened of it, particularly as the election comes along. The problem is that, from the point of view of the American public, a chance for the president to talk to the public, to try to explain obligations that he believes Americans have there, has passed. He won’t do that. And, you know, the more the government emphasizes that if you shoot down one pilot the mission is over (and you know, I don’t like more than anyone else the idea of an American being shot out of the sky or killed or captured) the less position the United States is in to be a real world power. It can be an economic power but it’ll be what President Nixon predicted years ago, after the incursion into Cambodia: “a pitiful helpless giant.”
Mark, thank you very much for being here to share with us your ideas about foreign policy and the present situation in the Balkans. Thank you very much.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.