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  • Balkans Special Report

  •   Slaughter in Racak Changed Kosovo Policy

    By Barton Gellman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page A1

    Relatives mourn over the bodies of the ethnic Albanians who were shot to death near the town of Racak on January 15. (AFP)
    On the afternoon of Jan. 15, with Washington paralyzed by an ice storm, President Clinton's top foreign policy advisers straggled into the Situation Room. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was pressing – and losing, for the moment – a campaign to scale up U.S. and NATO intervention in Kosovo.

    Everyone in the White House basement that day agreed that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was "shredding," as one participant put it, his promises of restraint against rebellious ethnic Albanians. Albright said muddling through was not working, and the time had come to tie the threat of force to a comprehensive settlement between Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, and Kosovo, its secessionist province. Her Cabinet peers in the so-called Principals Committee, no less frustrated than Albright, were not yet ready to take that risk. They approved a 13-page classified "Kosovo Strategy" that policymakers referred to informally as "Status Quo Plus."

    "We're just gerbils running on a wheel," Albright fumed outside the meeting, convinced that no incremental effort would keep stop Kosovo's pent-up civil war from exploding.

    Even in the satellite age, White House decisions can be obsolete at birth. What the principals did not know as they met is that 4,700 miles away, in a Kosovo village called Racak, nearly four dozen civilians lay freshly dead in a Serb massacre that would change everything.

    A reconstruction of decisionmaking in Washington and Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, suggests that Racak transformed the West's Balkan policy as singular events seldom do. The atrocity, discovered the following day, convinced the administration and then its NATO allies that a six-year effort to bottle up the ethnic conflict in Kosovo was doomed. In the next two weeks, they set aside the emphasis on containment that had grown over the years from a one-sentence threat delivered Dec. 24, 1992. Instead they steered a more ambitious course: to solve the Kosovo problem instead of keeping it safely confined.

    National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger called the meeting on the Racak massacre. (AP)
    By the time national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger called the principals together again Jan. 19, Albright "was pushing on an open door," an associate said. Within two more days Clinton aired the plan with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and by the end of January the die was cast for NATO's first war and the most consequential conflict in Europe since World War II.

    "In dealing with Kosovo, you were dealing with the crucible of the problem," Albright said in an interview Friday in a formal seventh-floor reception room, referring to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Milosevic's nationalist politics were founded on the issue of Kosovo, and only by going to its roots could the West stop him from "playing the very card that was designed to create chaos," Albright said.

    Still, in its first three weeks, a military campaign whose central objective was saving the lives and homes of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians has greatly accelerated their slaughter and dispossession. Interviews and internal documents describing the run-up to war suggest that a number of calculations and choices by the Clinton administration over the course of the last year contributed to these unintended effects:

    Although policymakers considered the possibility that bombing would spur Serb forces to harsher violence on the ground – Albright considered it among other potential "surprises" gamed out in a classified memorandum last month – they misjudged Milosevic's ambition. Policymakers generally assumed the Serb leader would try to eradicate the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, as he boasted he could do in five to seven days. They did not foresee Serb efforts to depopulate Kosovo of its 1.6 million ethnic Albanians, some two-thirds of whom are now homeless and many thousands believed dead, and therefore made no military plans to halt them.

    While recognizing that Milosevic regarded the loss of Kosovo as a threat to his power in Belgrade, the administration made the crucial tactical decision to seek accord with Kosovo's Albanians first and Milosevic second. Only that way, policymakers believed, could they hold back the guerrillas from a major offensive and persuade NATO partners to threaten use of force against Belgrade.

    At the same time, the allies took several decisions that undercut the threat of "sustained and decisive military power" that a November 1998 National Intelligence Estimate, the last broad and formal assessment by the U.S. government, described as the West's only lever to budge Milosevic. Later spot intelligence assessments ranged widely in their predictions about Milosevic's likely reaction to Western pressure.

    "He may assume he could absorb a limited attack and allies would not support a long campaign," the CIA's National Intelligence Daily, distributed to several dozen senior decision-makers, said Jan. 27. But one Feb. 6 scenario supposed Milosevic might "accept a major NATO ground force [to implement peace], but only if he is given a face-saving formula that would allow him to portray this as keeping Kosovo within Serbia." Another, the same month, said "Milosevic will seek to give just enough to avoid NATO bombing."

    The constraints of alliance and domestic politics pressed simultaneously on Clinton in opposite directions: to raise the stakes of intervention while limiting the available means. Washington's four key European partners – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – were unwilling to use force over Kosovo without a plan for a comprehensive settlement, but they ruled out what one U.S. official called "the only certain means of reaching that objective, which was ground troops prepared to invade."

    Convinced that the United States had to offer ground troops to help implement any peace accord, Albright felt obliged to limit the proposal in ways that some policymakers saw as self-defeating. "Our assumption was that we had to find ways to minimize the percentage of American troops and emphasize a 'permissive environment' if there was any hope of getting the Pentagon and the president and Congress to buy it," said one adviser involved in crafting Albright's plan. By similar logic, for fear of a divisive congressional and allied debate, Clinton declared as bombing started March 23 that "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war."

    The assurances on ground troops, and the conspicuous difficulty the alliance had in authorizing more than a limited Phase I of a three-phased air battle plan, convinced not only Milosevic but much of the U.S. intelligence community that NATO would not hold together even as long as it has. A policymaker added: "Our own intelligence community may have assumed, as Milosevic seems to have, that we would bomb as we had just done in Iraq – hit them for three days and then stop, whether we accomplished the mission or not."

    Clinton and his senior advisers describe themselves as more convinced than ever that they are doing the right thing. Asked how he will be able to find success in a war that brought the refugee catastrophe it tried to avert, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott replied in an interview: "Very simple. They're going home. They're going back to a Kosovo that is safe and secure and self-governing. That's our answer."

    A Policy Founded on Threats

    "In the event of conflict in Kosovo, the U.S. will be prepared to employ military force."

    The image of Kosovo as Europe's tinderbox, where war could bring not only humanitarian but strategic consequences, preceded the Clinton administration. President George Bush, whose Secretary of State James A. Baker III had famously said of Bosnia, "We don't have a dog in that fight," felt otherwise about Kosovo. Fighting there would certainly complete the violent breakup of Yugoslavia that began in 1991, he believed, and could easily draw in neighbors from Bulgaria to Turkey to Greece.

    In Bush's final days, Baker's successor, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, sent a classified cable to Belgrade with instructions that the acting U.S. ambassador read it to Milosevic – verbatim, without elaboration, and face to face. The Dec. 24, 1992, text, which has been widely described but not quoted before, read in its entirety: "In the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian action, the U.S. will be prepared to employ military force against Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper."

    That single sentence became the basis for six years of U.S. policy: an unspecified threat, of unspecified certainty, to prevent unspecified acts of escalation by Serbia. Asked what might have triggered U.S. punishment, and how far Bush might have been prepared to go with force, the undersecretary of state for political affairs at the time, Arnold Kanter, replied in an interview recently: "To tell you the truth, that's a very hard question. I really don't know."

    Twice in Clinton's first year in office – in February and July 1993 – Secretary of State Warren Christopher ordered the reiteration of that warning to Milosevic.

    But the warning was permitted to dissipate. By the time Milosevic launched his first serious offensive in Kosovo – beginning near Drenica on Feb. 26, 1998 – two things had changed. The first was the rise of a guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, that not only fought Serb army and Interior Ministry Police but gunned down civilians, killing Serb mail carriers and others associated with Belgrade. "We weren't in a situation where there was a Serb crackdown on an unarmed, peaceful Albanian populace," one policymaker said. More important, the intervening years had brought an accord in Bosnia and a largely European ground force to implement it.

    "The idea of us using force over the objection of allies who have troops on the ground, subject to retaliation, is fantasy-land," one policymaker said. "Allies do not do that to each other."

    When defense planners met a year ago in the Joint Staff and the office of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, one of them said: "The first question we had to ask was whether the Christmas warning was still on the table. And the fact is the Christmas warning was not on the table. We were not prepared for unilateral action."

    Leading Through Rhetoric

    "We are not going to stand by and watch."

    Albright, who used her seat at the Cabinet table as U.N. ambassador to press unsuccessfully during Clinton's first term for earlier intervention in Bosnia, saw Kosovo as a chance to right historical wrongs.

    "I felt that there still was time to do something about this, and that we should not wait as long as we did on Bosnia to have dreadful things happen; that we could get it ahead of the curve," Albright said in Friday's interview.

    By the first days of March 1998, the secretary of state had begun a conscious effort, as one aide put it, "to lead through rhetoric." Her targets were European allies, U.S. public opinion and her own government.

    On a stopover in Rome March 7, 1998, en route to a meeting of the six outside powers known as the Contact Group on the Balkans, she declared alongside a discomfited Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini: "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia."

    That "engagement of American prestige," as another adviser put it, went somewhat beyond the consensus of her Cabinet peers, as did her statement that "we have a broad range of options available to us."

    In the London conference room in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where the six nations' foreign ministers had wrung their hands so often over Bosnia's dismemberment in 1992 and 1993, Albright asked them whether they wanted the same legacy for themselves. "History is watching us, and we have an opportunity to make up for the mistakes that had been made four or five years ago," she said, according to a government account. Her aim, one U.S. official said, was to "put these ministers back on their heels, to put them under pressure to show some spine."

    In Washington, a defense policy official said Albright's remarks reverberated with some anxiety in the Pentagon. "Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves in terms of making threats," he said of the atmosphere. Berger, at the White House, was described by colleagues as worried about damaging U.S. credibility by appearing to promise more in Kosovo than the president was prepared to deliver.

    United Nations Security Council Resolution 1160 laid economic sanctions on Belgrade on March 31, and Clinton froze Yugoslavia's assets in the United States. But the spring and summer brought greater carnage, and a quarter-million Albanians were left at least temporarily homeless.

    At NATO's June gathering, Cohen urged his fellow ministers to authorize the military committee to begin conceptual planning for intervention in Kosovo. When the defense ministers gathered again in Portugal three months later, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana told the closed-door gathering that Serbs were mocking the alliance with a slow-motion offensive aimed at keeping NATO in its torpor. Solana said one Serb diplomat, whom he did not name, went so far as to joke that "a village a day keeps NATO away" – a phrase that Solana repeated often in months to come.

    Washington, throughout this period, spent the bulk of its political-military capital on the ongoing confrontation with Iraq. But the period between the two NATO gatherings saw a furious internal debate on whether the alliance could act militarily without explicit authority from the Security Council. On Sept. 24, a day after a carefully ambiguous Security Council resolution, Washington finally persuaded its allies to issue an ultimatum to Milosevic to pull back.

    Oct. 13 brought the first "activation order" in NATO's history, a formal agreement to authorize the bombing of Yugoslavia. But unbeknown at the time, the governing North Atlantic Council approved only Phase I of the three-phase air campaign, amounting to about 50 air defense targets. The real punishment of Belgrade would come in Phase II, with "scores of targets," and Phase III, with "hundreds and hundreds of targets," according to a senior White House official.

    Armed with the NATO threat, U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke persuaded Milosevic to accept a cease-fire in Kosovo and to withdraw the troops and special police who had not been there before 1998. "So you're the one who will bomb us," Milosevic said in a can't-scare-me voice to Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short, who accompanied Holbrooke. "I have U-2s [observation aircraft] in one hand and B-52s in the other, and it's up to you which one I'll use," Short replied.

    With winter already arriving, the cease-fire came just in time to avert the death by exposure of many thousands of Albanian villagers in the hills.

    Continued on page 2

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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