State Dept. Miscalculated on Kosovo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 1999; Page A1
As the clouds of violence darkened over Kosovo throughout 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright argued repeatedly that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would respond to the threat of force.
That conviction underlay U.S. negotiating tactics last fall, when Milosevic appeared to back down from a campaign of repression in the province of Kosovo under the threat of NATO bombing. It was a basic assumption driving the peace conference at Rambouillet, France, in February, when Albright and her colleagues expected Milosevic to accept a U.S.-brokered deal rather than face a NATO bombardment.
And it was reflected in the belief at the State Department that when airstrikes began Milosevic would probably back down after a few visible targets were hit.
These miscalculations about the efficacy of the threat, and a collective underestimation of Milosevic's defiance, have led the United States and its allies into an air war in Europe that has produced some of the same negative consequences they said they were trying to head off, and forced the NATO alliance to modify its political goals.
State Department officials dispute the notion that Kosovo is "Albright's war," as one said it has been called. Nevertheless, the NATO pounding of Yugoslavia embodies bedrock principles of Albright's view of the world. Born in Czechoslovakia and twice a refugee as a child, Albright believes that the United States and its allies must unite to check aggression, especially in Europe, because they will be drawn into wider conflicts if they do not. She also has said many times Milosevic represents a last vestige of a nondemocratic Europe that was plagued by war for much of this century, and that his record shows he will destabilize a large swath of the continent unless bottled up.
That view has been embraced by the alliance and has framed NATO's deliberations about Kosovo. At the same time, the Yugoslav leader's defiance, and the mass deportation of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population by Serb security forces, represent the response to NATO bombing that Albright and her advisers had calculated as least likely.
Albright and her closest aides expected Milosevic to behave like a "schoolyard bully," as one senior official put it, backing down after a few punches were thrown. They admit they were unprepared for the scope and speed of the deportation campaign. By contrast, senior Pentagon officials expressed doubts before the war that Milosevic could be moved by air power, and CIA Director George J. Tenet warned that the Serbs might respond with a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
While administration officials have argued that the bombing was necessary to try to stop a campaign of ethnic cleansing that began a year ago, they also said that nobody predicted that Milosevic would respond by forcing civilians onto trains and deporting them, a scene not witnessed in Europe since the depths of World War II.
"As we contemplated the use of force over the past 14 months, we constructed four different models," one senior official said. "One was that the whiff of gunpowder, just the threat of force, would make [Milosevic] back down. Another was that he needed to take some hit to justify acquiescence. Another was that he was a playground bully who would fight but back off after a punch in the nose. And the fourth was that he would react like Saddam Hussein," the president of Iraq, who hunkered down through Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and still holds power.
"On any given day people would pick one or the other," this official said. "We thought the Saddam Hussein option was always the least likely, but we knew it was out there, and now we're looking at it."
Albright's thinking about Milosevic, aides close to her said, has been driven in large part by events of half a century ago in Europe. "Madeleine Albright, more than anyone else in this administration, is driven by her own biography," said one senior U.S. diplomat. "Time and again, she raises the sights to the moral and historic issues." She believes deeply that Adolf Hitler and other tyrants could have been deterred if confronted early, and has applied that view to her diplomacy in Yugoslavia.
Albright's conviction that Milosevic could be persuaded by the threat of force was strengthened by his initially promising partial compliance with a cease-fire agreement brokered in October by special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke an agreement Milosevic accepted after NATO's initial decision to use force if necessary.
"Today," she said on Oct. 27, "the alliance is able to report that the President Milosevic is in very substantial compliance [with U.N. Security Council resolutions on Kosovo] . . . and that this compliance is sufficient to justify not launching airstrikes at this time. This is an important and welcome development. It would not have happened if we had not combined diplomacy with the threat by NATO to use force."
That experience, combined with the memory of how NATO airstrikes and a ground offensive by Croatian troops had induced Milosevic to accept a peace agreement in Bosnia, reinforced the belief that Milosevic would back down rather than fight, or at least retreat after a few missile strikes, officials said.
"What happened in Bosnia and in October showed that the threat of force can work, not that it will work, and therefore it was worth trying," an aide to Albright said.
Given the outcomes of those earlier confrontations, administration officials said they are still baffled by Milosevic's refusal to accept the U.S.-sponsored peace agreement that was offered to him at Rambouillet.
While it would have required an end to repression of the Kosovo Albanians and promised them wide-ranging political and administrative autonomy, it would also have allowed some Serb troops and security forces to remain in the province, maintained Serb sovereignty for at least three years guaranteed by NATO and provided security for the province's minority Serb population.
It also would have required the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army to disarm, and U.S. officials said Milosevic was promised that the United States would take steps against the ethnic Albanian group, such as freezing its bank accounts, if he accepted the agreement and the KLA refused.
"We walked right up to the edge of appeasement" at Rambouillet to craft a peace plan Milosevic could accept, one senior official said.
The only conceivable reason Milosevic would have rejected that deal even after a last-minute effort by Holbrooke to convince him that force was imminent unless he signed is that "he's detached from reality. His mind just can't process new inputs," another official said. "He never even asked Holbrooke for any changes in the text."
The Kosovo rebels and representatives of Milosevic participated at Rambouillet because they were, in effect, ordered to do so by Albright and the foreign ministers of the five other countries in the so-called Contact Group: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia.
Milosevic and the rebels were not to arrive at Rambouillet with delaying tactics or plans for drawn-out negotiations, according to Albright's scheme. They were to arrive prepared to accept the peace plan within two weeks, subject only to minor modifications. "Showing up is not going to be good enough," Albright said.
State Department officials now say they had to have a detailed peace plan because the European allies said they would carry out the threat of force only if the Serbs were clearly refusing a reasonable offer that the Kosovo representatives had accepted. At the time, though, Albright's aides offered a different reason for the ultimatum and the tight timetable: They said she was tired of fighting the same fires over and over again, and wanted the Kosovo issue resolved well before NATO's 50th anniversary celebration this month.
In an appearance at the Brookings Institution yesterday, Albright declined to reflect on what she might have done differently in the past few months.
"We will have plenty of time to go back and look at what we did or did not do," she said. "I am completely focused on what we are doing now and what we have to do in the future."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company