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Pitfalls of Pendulum Diplomacy
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Balkans Special Report



Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs
Tuesday, May 25, 1999

Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs was online to discuss the Balkans conflict and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Dobbs recently returned from a four week assignment in the Balkans where he covered the Kosovo crisis.

In his 22 year tenure at the Post, Dobbs has worked as a correspondent in Belgrade and Paris. He was appointed as chief of the Moscow Bureau in 1988, and subsequently wrote a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1997.

Dobbs also covered the Dayton peace conference as a diplomatic correspondent and is now on the investigative staff of The Post. Recently, Dobbs authored a biography about the U.S. Secretary of State titled, Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey.

Read the transcript below.

Montvale.NJ: Do you think the bombing will end soon?

Michael Dobbs: Nobody can tell exactly when the bombing will end. It all depends when a settlement is reached. My own guess is that, in chess terms, we are approaching the endgame. Both sides are beginning to flag, for different reasons. Strains are appearing in the NATO alliance, and there have also been reports of demonstrations/disaffection within Serbia. Getting to the real end will be difficult, however, as there is not much give in the NATO position, in particular.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Michael, I would like to know the real support Milosevic has among the Yugoslavian people. Maria Oliva

Michael Dobbs: Hello Maria Oliva, Milosevic won a series of elections which, by Balkan standards at least, were reasonably democratic. I don't think he is a wildly popular figure in Serbia, but there is no obvious alternative to him at present. Having spent three weeks in Serbia last month, I would say the mood is more anti-NATO than pro-Milosevic.

Belgrade, Yugoslavia: Congratulations for Post's coverage of Kosovo crisis. The unbiased view on Yugoslavia is the best way to help democratic forces here.
Why Mrs. Alright is almost out of present vivid negotiations about Kosovo? Were her earlier moves in crisis estimated in Washington as mistakes?--As everyone in Yugoslavia thinks.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for the nice note. On Albright, I think that she played an important role in the diplomacy prior to the war, and was important in advocating military intervention in the Balkans, but she is not the key figure in the Clinton foreign policy team. I think that national security adviser sandy Berger is closer to the president, both geographically (he sits in the White House) and in terms of his more cautious outlook than Albright.

Peekskill, NY: If the bombing succeeds in bringing the Serbs to their knees, will this bring lasting peace to the region?

Michael Dobbs: Good question. There is a danger that NATO could win the war but lose the peace. The administration has promised a Marshall plan for the Balkans after the war is over, but who knows if they will have the political will to follow through. A lot of money has been spent on bombing. We will see if the administration is ready to spend the same kind of money on reconstruction.

Sterling, Va.: Why, during this conflict, are so many bombs and cruise missiles missing their marks, thus wounding innocent people?

Michael Dobbs: It is true that it is impossible to wage a victimless war. There have been no American casualties, but there have been Albanian and Serb casualties. However much the pentagon might talk about surgical bombing, anyone who has been to Serbia knows that mistakes are inevitable. I think there have been more mistakes than the pentagon is willing to concede.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Given what you have seen and heard in Serbia, do you think the average Serbian civilian would be willing to see Kosovo partitioned and part of it lost to Serbia in exchange for an end to the bombing?

Michael Dobbs: Kosovo is important to Serbs, as the birthplace of their civilization, but a normal, stable life is important to them too. My guess is that there are a lot of people who want to see the end of this war, whether or not NATO troops enter Kosovo.

Washington, D.C.: Yugoslavia was a reasonably peaceful and prosperous -by Eastern European standards anyway- nation for more than thirty years. Are there any lessons to be drawn from the Tito years that might be helpful in stabilizing the region?

Michael Dobbs: I lived in Yugoslavia during the Tito period. Tito was sometimes called "the last of the Hapsburgs". He was expert in balancing one ethnic group off against another. Yugoslavia was at peace during his four decades in power. However, he was also a communist, and had little idea about economics. Had Yugoslavia embraced a real market economy during the Tito period, it might, just might have been able to make a transition to a free market democracy after Tito's death.

Los Angeles CA: How is it that we, the public are not told of the atrocities committed by the KLA against the Serbs?

Michael Dobbs: it is true that the KLA have also resorted to violent, questionable tactics in their campaign for the independence of Kosovo. There is a Serb minority in Kosovo, and they had reason to feel threatened. Having said that, however, the KLA atrocities pale by comparison with what Serb paramilitaries are reported to have done over the last few weeks.

New York, NY: Is it true that NATO intervention in Kosovo has ruined the already weak economies of the neighboring countries?

Michael Dobbs: iIwas in Budapest and it is true that they have been losing tourists as a result of the war. Also traffic on the Danube has been disrupted. Macedonia is in a very difficult situation, both economically and because of the influx of Albanian refugees. But of course the real effects of the war can be seen within Yugoslavia itself.

Belgrade, Serbia: What different between Serbian refugees from Croatia and Albanian refugees from Serbia?

Michael Dobbs: Thank you for your question. This was a question I was asked often when I was in Belgrade last month. It is true that the world paid less attention a couple of years ago when a quarter or so million Serb refugees fled Croatia in the wake of a Croatian offensive. I have frequently addressed this issue in my reporting. Two wrongs do not make a right.

BELGRADE (TARGET?) YUGOSLAVIA: Did you know that Albright was hidden in SERBIA -because we SERBS had protected JEWS from nazi's-for two months in Vrnjacka Banja by one SERB? A question: What SERBS did wrong to Albright? We have received a number of questions regarding Albright's background and whether it colored her decisions regarding Kosovo policy.

Michael Dobbs: madeleine Albright spent much of her childhood in Belgrade, both before and after the war. her father was Czechoslovak ambassador to Belgrade after the war, and had many Serb friends. although Serbs say that Albright is anti-Serb, I think it is more accurate to say that she is anti-Milosevic.

Arlington, VA: Not to take away from the many people who have lost their lives, but the many many mistakes made by NATO forces have become very embarrassing -- how can they continue to make error after error? Aren't they learning from these mistakes? What has the military been saying about this?

Michael Dobbs: NATO has been making a lot of mistakes. in a sense, mistakes are inevitable in war, whether fought in the air or on the ground. it is foolish for NATO to suggest that this is a war that can somehow be fought without real victims. just because the victims are not Americans does not mean that the war is not having real costs. others will have to decide whether these costs are worth the aims that the war is being fought for.

Trieste, Italy: Do you think that negotiating with Milosevic after what he has done is the right thing to do? If so ,is this the failure of NATO and USA?

Michael Dobbs: if NATO wants a solution, and is not prepared to send in ground troops to enforce a solution, inevitably they will end up negotiating with the man in power in Serbia, who is Milosevic. the negotiations may be indirect, via the Russians or some other intermediary, but they will still be negotiations.

Bastrop,TX: Not question, exactly, but your insights to Madeleine Albright were quite astounding. Your book on "Down With Big Brother" was also didactic but picked up some "British Isles" ethnocentricity but since I do not have an angel wing clipping shop for such are pretty good writer for Journalist. How is that, Michael Dodd?

Michael Dobbs: thank you for your backhanded compliment about my writing. Sorry for the britishisms. I have been living here for more than two decades, but might not have entirely got rid of my British accent/writing style.

Chicago, IL: It now appears that NATO is only interested in a negotiated settlement that amounts to total capitulation by Yugoslavia. Do you agree that NATO is not interested in compromise in order to end the bombing sooner?

Michael Dobbs: i think that NATO is not willing to give very much in its position. to relax its conditions significantly would be perceived as a victory for Milosevic, and they are not willing to let this happen. this is what is holding things up right now...

Newark, NJ: Do you think Albright gets more criticism because her background -and maybe her gender---particularly regarding this Balkans mess?

Michael Dobbs: there has been a lot of criticism of Albright, it is true. some people here are calling it "Madeleine's war". that is an exaggeration. it is the administration's war. however, Albright played a key role in the diplomacy that led up to the war. also, I think she draws parallels between her own childhood in central Europe, and the failure of western democracies to stand up to Hitler, and recent events in the Balkans.

Phila, PA: Secretary Albright is not the only Clinton administration official, or staffs that supports the US intervention in the former Yugoslavia. What reasons led them to support intervention in the former Yugoslavia?
What strategic interests does the US have in the Balkans?

Michael Dobbs: the administration view is that the Balkans is the new post-cold-war battleground. the Balkans was the place where World War I started. the administration believes that stability in the Balkans is essential to stability in Europe, and therefore it is worthwhile intervening there, in a way that it might not be worthwhile intervening in Africa, for example. the u.s. has a vital interest in European stability.

Florence, Montana: Why does Madeleine Albright not realize that she misinterpreted the diplomatic outcome of the Rambouillet talks? She mistakenly thought that when the other side would not agree with her it gave "her" the right to bomb them. She apparently thinks that "negotiations" are the same as "agreements". She needs to read the dictionary, doesn't she?

Michael Dobbs: it is true that the administration made a grave miscalculation at Rambouillet. they thought that they could give the Serbs an ultimatum backed up by force, and that would be the end of the matter. It is obvious now that they misread the political situati0n in Belgrade, and the Serb attachment to Kosovo.

Essex Junction, Vermont: It would seem that it is to the Serb's advantage to keep refugees in Kosovo to increase the risk of additional NATO mistakes. Yet it appears that the Serbs are about to empty Kosovo. What is your perspective on this question?

Michael Dobbs: i don't think that the Serbs will ever empty Kosovo entirely. there will always be some Albanians there who could be used as "hostages' in the event of a full-scale NATO attack or ground invasion.

Mount Carmel, PA: If Madeleine Albright is merely anti-Milosevic, how come she never expresses anti-Tudjman sentiments?

Michael Dobbs: I was with Albright in Croatia when she lashed out at the Croatian housing and reconstruction minister for failing to protect the rights of the Serb minority in Croatia. that said, it is true that she and the administration have been much more critical of the Serbs than of the Croats...

Rockville, Maryland: Many places have seen ethnic cleansing in the past. But why is Kosova getting so much press? Places like Rwanda in the 90's or Bangladesh-East Pakistan in 1971- did not get any press until after the genocide was done with.

Michael Dobbs: It is true that successive u.s. administrations have what amounts to a double standard in doing something about genocide. As U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Albright helped to block intervention in Rwanda. the administration position is that Europe is an area of vital interest in a way Africa is not, but I suspect that they might handle the Rwanda case differently now...

Fairfax, Virginia: Last week it was widely reported that 1000's of Kosovar men may have been murdered, and now we find that they have been released. What really happened? Was this merely overzealous speculation by the western media?

Michael Dobbs: having been to Kosovo, I think that everything has happened there. there have been atrocities, and there have also been cases, as we saw, of Kosovar men being imprisoned. there have been many cases of Albanians being driven from their homes and terrorized, but there have also been (fewer) cases of Serbs protecting their Albanian neighbors. We are roughly halfway through our live discussion with Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs. Dobbs recently authored a biography of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Submit questions by clicking the hyperlink below.

Long Beach, CA: By advocating the enlargement of NATO so vociferously and now focusing the US and NATO on a losing policy by attacking a Slavic nation, doesn't Albright endanger future relations with the one nation in the world capable of destroying the US in a single blow and exacerbating distrust in a nation that clearly requires the assistance of the U.S. and the west to prevent a "Weimar Russia" ? In other words, hasn't Albright's failed policy ideas actually endangered the U.S. rather than worked to enhance U.S. security ?

Michael Dobbs: it is difficult to make definitive judgements while the war is still going on. we don't know how it will turn out yet. it is true that Russia has been antagonized by the u.s. policy on Kosovo, and that is another issue that the administration has to deal with. the same applies to china.

Long Beach, CA: Why doesn't Albright and the Administration take the advice of the JCS and implement the recommended military plan to achieve the stated policy goals of the administration ?

Michael Dobbs: anybody who has been in the Balkans recently has to be struck by the contrast between the rhetoric and the reality. so far, the administration has not committed the means that are necessary to finish the job. by the time the war ends, Kosovo will be half destroyed and over a million Albanians will be refugees in neighboring countries. however, the movie isn't over yet. even if the war ends with NATO's conditions being more or less met, we don't know whether the us and its allies will have the stamina and the resources to create a real peace.

Arlington, VA: Without giving too much away, what do you think we'll learn from your book that we might find surprising about M. Albright?

Michael Dobbs: the sub-title of my book is "a twentieth-century odyssey''. I see her story as a personalized version of the history of the twentieth century, encompassing such huge events as the rise and fall of nazism and communism, world war 2 and the holocaust, and of course the social upheavals here in the u.s. after the war, particularly the women's movement. I tried to use her story to give readers an insight into all these events.

Brooklyn New York: The information that the American people are getting from the 4th estate about the Kosovo bombing is quite different from the probing that went on during Vietnam. Why is that??

Michael Dobbs: i don't quite get the point. perhaps you are referring to the fact that we now have reporters on the ground in Serbia and Kosovo, and there were not many American reporters in North Vietnam. if so, I think that more information can only be an improvement. we know more about what is happening in Serbia than we knew about North Vietnam.

San Francisco, Calif.: You spoke about a "Marshall" style-plan for the region post-conflict. But with a war criminal like Milosevic in power, NATO and the West are not likely to begin pouring resources to rebuild what's left of Yugoslavia. What happens next? Who do we negotiate directly with in Belgrade?

Michael Dobbs: I was thinking mainly about a Marshall plan for Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia. a Marshall-style plan for Yugoslavia would presumably depend on what happens in that country after the war...

Arlington, VA: Is it possible that given the President's loyalty to staff--see Lani Guinier et al--that rumors might be true that Madeleine Albright might be sacked and George Mitchell brought in as Sec'y of State? Mitchell seems to follow the career path of his mentor, Ed Muskie, who served as Sec'y of State in the waning days of the Carter Admin. Also, if NATO is not successful, is it possible they could be tried for war crimes along with Serbs? It seems only losers end up in the dock and the way this is going...?
Thanks, a Fan

Michael Dobbs: i doubt if Albright will be sacked, for the simple reason that she represents a very important constituency for the president, namely democratic women.

Montreal Quebec/Canada: What are the prospects for the Serbs living in a post-conflict Kosovo?
Any talks on the future of the historical sites in Kosovo--Serbia's cradle? Will it be as contentious as Jerusalem ?

Michael Dobbs: any fair solution for Kosovo will have to protect the rights of the Serb minority there. NATO says that it will do this. one way might be for Russian troops, who have the confidence of the Serbs, to patrol certain Serb-inhabited areas.

Bloomington, Indiana: When did Albright learn of her Jewish family background? Before the nomination for secretary of state or at the time of the nomination?

Michael Dobbs: i wrote a story in the Washington post two years ago on this subject, having researched her background in Czechoslovakia. when exactly she knew about her family's connection to the holocaust is a controversial subject. based on the research for my new book, I believe that she knew about this matter some years before my story came out.

Mount Carmel, PA:
Do you suppose Madeleine Albright's view of the Balkans is under the -usually heavy-handed- influence of Zbigniew Brzezinski? If not, how would you explain the blind eye Washington has cast towards refugees expelled from -Catholic- Croatia, in contrast to the deep concern it has for refugees from Serbia?

Michael Dobbs: it is true that Albright owes a great deal to Brzezinski who was her professor at Columbia and later her boss at the Carter White House. However, she has a mind of her own, and particularly in the case of the Balkans, I think is following her own ideas, and her own conscience.

Fairfax, Virginia: In your opinion is M. Albright the absolute worst at her position as Secretary of State , if not why not. R.A. Pfisterer

Michael Dobbs: obviously you have made up your mind on this matter. I don't think she will go down in history as a great secretary of state. her precise ranking will depend on a lot of things, including what happens in Kosovo over the next few weeks and months.

Alex. Va: Madeleine Albright seems significantly more hawkish with respect to the Kosovo conflict than any other major participant -with the possible exception of NATO spokesman, Jamie Shay-. What part do you believe she played in the original NATO decision to initiate hostilities and what part do you believe she plays at present? Do you believe that she might represent an obstacle to a negotiated settlement.

Michael Dobbs: i think that Albright was a leading hawk in Kosovo, as she was a hawk in the first term over Bosnia. I think the president came around to her view on Kosovo. that said, I think that she will implement the president's decisions on Kosovo loyally. she is a strong-willed person but ultimately a loyalist.

San Jose CA: Why haven't we heard anything about an errant bomb damaging the Swiss Embassy in Belgrade?

Michael Dobbs: i can't agree with you. there have been several articles in the post about this, and other bombing mistakes.

Austin, TX: Mr. Dobbs:

In your book, you completely gloss over Secretary Albright's numerous lies in public as to when she knew 'what' about her Jewish heritage. Isn't the role of a biographer more akin to that of a journalist than to a truth-stretching dramatist?

Michael Dobbs: i am not sure you have read my book. I go into this matter in some depth, and air it fully.

Washington, DC: Why is the involvement of the United States in the Kosovo crisis necessary? Why aren't Europeans capable of handling this crisis? How will this pattern of almost "mandatory" U.S. involvement in Europe affect our budgetary restraints? Who pays the bill?

Michael Dobbs: Europe is strong economically but weak politically. the Europeans seem to have difficulty forging a consensus on issues like Bosnia and Kosovo without strong leadership from outside. this was one of the lesso0ns of the Clinton first term, when the administration attempted to leave Bosnia "to the Europeans". it didn't work.

Jackson, MS : Why aren't the Serbs shooting back at our planes? I thought they had adequate defense for at least token resistance to air attacks.

If they are not defending themselves, then it is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Michael Dobbs: they do not want to destroy their air defenses. by failing to shoot back, or only shooting back sporadically, they have preserved their air defenses, and made it more difficult for NATO planes to fly lower. tactically, it was probably a sensible decision on their part.

Davis, CA: Having been there, how do you view NATO bombing? What do you think is the best way for NATO to achieve its objectives in the Balkans? Having been there at the Dayton Accords, do you have any predictions for the future of the Balkans?

Michael Dobbs: as a journalist reporting from the Balkans, I try to avoid the moral questions about whether this war is justified or not, or the policy questions. instead I try to describe what is actually happening, in ways that I can see or hear. there are enough people pontificating out there. my job is to provide real information on which other people can base their opinions.

Columbus, Ohio: Are the administrations stated goals reasonably achievable?

Michael Dobbs: they are probably achievable if NATO uses sufficient force to achieve them. whether they are achievable with the limited force now being used is the big question right now. everybody recognizes that NATO is stronger than Yugoslavia and would prevail in a real war. however, u.s. policy is constrained by the fact that the administration is very reluctant, to say the least, to see u.s. soldiers being killed in the Balkans. also it wants to keep NATO together.

Palo Alto CA: With regard to Secretary Albright's low prospects of being sacked on account of her being a Democratic woman, would the same logic not apply -even more so perhaps-to Jocelyn Elders?

Michael Dobbs: She is more prominent than Jocelyn Elders, and the stakes surrounding her position are higher.

Copenhagen, Denmark: Mr. Dobbs, is it realistic to discuss NATO "peace forces" in Yugoslavia in the future. After all, shouldn't peace forces be established by independent, neutral countries, rather than by the aggressor?

Michael Dobbs: NATO wants to avoid the mistake made in Bosnia, when a lightly-armed united peacekeeping force was able to do very little other than observe the carnage.

Goodyear, AZ: What is the connection between the US military and the KLA's new chief of staff, Agim Ceku -a man credited with helping orchestrate Operation Storm and the Medak offensive, which involved the cleansing of ethnic Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia, the deliberate shelling of civilians, rape, and systematic arson-?

Michael Dobbs: it would be interesting to investigate this. short answer, I don't know.

San Francisco CA: If this online session is any indication, electronic polling would give decidedly different results from what we are reading in the newspapers. What is your take on this??

Michael Dobbs: i am not sure how scientific this particular session is.

Washington, DC: Do you feel that the media-administration have exaggerated the difficulty of executing a ground war against the Serbs -see Republican Guard-Gulf War-?

Michael Dobbs: a ground war certainly would not be easy in the case of Serbia, and would lead to many casualties, u.s. included. the terrain is much more difficult than Iraq, and Serbia has a long tradition of resistance to foreign invaders.

Barto, PA: Has all the NATO bombing with its attendant loss of life and property destruction really helped the Kosovars?

Also, I hear prominent US officials talk about "saving face" - what have we come to when this is more important than saving lives?

Michael Dobbs: so far, NATO has not got a lot to show for the war. but the war isn't over yet.

falls church, VA: why is such an important post as secretary of state guided by politics and influence rather than experience? I wonder why they don't call on Jimmy Carter, a wise man and a true negotiator, rather than someone with little experience.

Michael Dobbs: evidently you are not a fan of our present secretary of state. however, as I said, she is not the only one involved in the making of this policy.

Falls Church, VA : What is the view of the war in neighboring countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia? Are they neutral or sympathetic to one side over the other?

Michael Dobbs: i think the neighboring countries are more or less sympathetic to NATO war aims, however they are also a little nervous, and wondering if NATO will do all it promises to do in the Balkans.

washington, dc: We are constantly told by the media that the Serbs have committed genocide and have murdered countless Kosovars and Albanians. Did you personally see any proof of the number of people killed by the Serbs? Has there been any confirmation of the numbers of people killed by Serbs by an independent source?

Michael Dobbs: when I was in Kosovo, I saw plenty of evidence of burned and shelled villages. given the restrictions on reporting, Yugoslavia is not the best place to evaluate these reports. I think we have to be cautious about allegations. at the same time, however it is clear that terrible things have been taking place in Kosovo.

Belgrade, Yugoslavia: Since NATO attacked civilian targets like power plants, it is clear that it was meant to create humanitarian disaster and destabilize Yugoslavia. Now, you have about 6 million people which are very angry about latest NATO actions, and they know that they did it deliberately. If this continues, NATO will create even bigger humanitarian disaster.
What is your comment about this, since this kind of actions even Nazi's did not want to perform ?

Michael Dobbs: Whatever NATO may say about only attacking military targets, it is clear that they have also been striking at what most people would consider civilian targets. the goal, I presume , is to get ordinary Serbs to say that enough is enough. So far, there is little evidence that this strategy is working.

Michael Dobbs: our hour is up. I have enjoyed taking these questions, and trying to give quick answers. for those of you who are interested in the personality of Madeleine Albright, America's first woman secretary of state, I very much hope that you will take a look at my new biography of her, published by henry holt. Thanks and goodbye. We're out of time, so let's bring this discussion to a close. Special thanks to Michael Dobbs for joining us today and to all who participated.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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