Madeleine's War?

by Stanley Meisler

April 11, 1999

The backbiting and ass-covering erupted in Washington soon after the bombs began pounding Yugoslavia in March. The rush to escape and stamp blame was clear evidence that something had gone awry. The powers in the capital had obviously hoped and expected Slobodan Milosevic to put up no more than a show of resistance before signing with shaking hands any damn paper we would set before him. His defiance and the terrible fury hurled at the Kosovo Albanians surprised President Clinton and his foreign policy mavens. No matter how loud NATO and Washington may trumpet victory at the end, there is no doubt that a grievous miscalculation occurred at the beginning. And most people are blaming Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In many ways, the blame is deserved. Since her days as U.N. ambassador at the beginning of the Clinton Administration, she has been the leading voice both in private and public for a policy that backs up diplomacy with the threat of military force. She was an early advocate of imposing a peace settlement on Bosnia by threatening to bomb the Bosnian Serbs. This led her to confrontation with General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proudly hesitant about using force unless the United States is willing to commit a massive array of troops and weaponry. According to Powell's memoirs, Albright told Powell at a White House meeting, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" This infuriated Powell. "I thought I would have an aneurysm," he wrote in the memoirs.

Albright has long believed she had the last word in this argument. Three weeks of bombing by American and other NATO planes in September 1995 helped push the Bosnian Serbs into the Dayton peace accords. After that, as she told Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times, "I felt some vindication. It wasn't easy being a civilian woman having a disagreement with the hero of the Western world. But maybe he'd want to rewrite that page now."

It is very doubtful that Powell would. The bombing in Bosnia worked in 1995 only after the Croatian army had routed the Serb population from Croatia in a ruthless display of Croatian ethnic cleansing and after the imposition of a French-British rapid reaction force of warriors, not peacekeepers, into Bosnia. Albright, however, had called for bombing long before these moves by the Croatian army and rapid reaction force, and she had kept up the call almost incessantly. She and her spokesman, James P. Rubin, had heaped scorn upon U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his man in Bosnia, Yasushi Akashi, for their refusal to approve more than an occasional pinprick of a bomb. The scorn was unfair for, while it is true that both Boutros-Ghali and Akashi shied from bombing, their reluctance also reflected the reality that both France and Britain, who supplied most of the U.N. peacekeepers on the ground in Bosnia, opposed bombing. The continual Albright-led denunciations of Boutros-Ghali and Akashi led to the eventual marginalization of the U.N. from the Balkans.

Throughout the Bosnian war, Albright insisted that the Serbs would cave in when subjected to bombing. In a little-remembered harbinger of the latest events in Kosovo, Albright demonstrated an embarrassing display of this optimism in May 1995. At a closed-door meeting of the Security Council, she lectured Lt. Gen. Bernard Janvier of France, the commander of the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, that the United States believed that bombing would enhance the safety of the peacekeepers in Bosnia rather than subject them to more danger. Under this pressure, General Janvier approved bombing of Bosnian Serb positions. The Serbs responded in the first hours by shelling Muslim cities, but Albright still expected the Serbs to give into U.N. demands. "Frankly," she told a television interviewer, "it is not unexpected that there would be this kind of retaliation at the beginning. The Bosnian Serbs kind of flex and they often do comply." The Serbs, however, did more than flex and, on this occasion, did not comply. They continued their shelling, killing 71 in Tuzla alone, murdered three peacekeepers, arrested more than 300 other peacekeepers, and chained several to bridges and other potential NATO targets as human shields. The U.N. had to call off the bombing.

Albright and the other Clinton Administration policymakers, however, drew the wrong lessons out of the Bosnian war and persuaded themselves that bombing and, even more important, the threat of bombing worked. This led to bombast as an integral part of American foreign policy. Bombast makes sense only if you are prepared to deal with the consequences of carrying out a threat. The Clintonites have always seemed dumbfounded when tyrants defy a threat. This was most noticeable in Iraq where the U.S. continually tried to threaten Saddam Hussein into cooperating with the U.N. inspectors. There was a palpable sense of relief in Washington in February 1998 when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew into Baghdad at the last minute to sign an agreement with Saddam that allowed the inspectors back. By the end of the year, however, Saddam reneged, and Clinton felt forced to unleash his bombs. The bombs may have punished Iraq, but they failed to pound Saddam into accepting inspectors again. There is very little chance now that the U.N. will ever intrude in Iraq again with tough inspectors. Washington obviously failed to understand the consequences of its bombing.

The Kosovo affair looks like more of the same. Albright will surely lose much of her standing in the administration because of it. But it is a little unfair to blame her alone. This is not Madeleine's war. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, as far as we can tell, did not oppose bombing. And the key decision, after all, was made by President Clinton. Albright, in fact, may have offered her boss the kind of advice that fit his own feelings. If President John F. Kennedy had blindly accepted the advice of his advisors during the Cuban missile crisis, many of us might have been annihilated in nuclear war.

Moreover, the fact that the Clinton Administration failed to measure the consequences of bombing does not mean that the decision to bomb was necessarily wrong. Clinton had little choice if he wanted to avoid a dangerous show of impotence on the eve of NATO's 50th birthday. But he and his advisors surely should have tried to prepare for Milosevic defiance and a possible slaughter of Albanians. That is surely the main lesson that will be drawn by Washington from the affair. The era of blind bombast may be over.

April 11, 1999
Washington D.C.

see also:

June 14, 1999

The Pizzazz of Madeleine Albright
April 27, 1997

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© 1996 - Stanley Meisler. All Rights Reserved.