The Path to Crisis: How the United States and Its Allies Went to War

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
April 18, 1999

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.

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."


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."


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.

The National Intelligence Estimate issued in November concluded that "the October agreement indicates that Milosevic is susceptible to outside pressure. He will eventually accept a number of outcomes, from autonomy to provisional status with final resolution to be determined, as long as he remains the undisputed leader in Belgrade."

Still, the estimate said, Milosevic would accept a new status for Kosovo "only when he believes his power is endangered" by "insurgents driving up the economic and military costs of holding onto the province, or the West threatening to use sustained and decisive military power against his forces."


U.S. intelligence reported almost immediately that the KLA intended to draw NATO into its fight for independence by provoking Serb forces into further atrocities. Warnings to the rebel leaders from Washington restrained them somewhat, but they assassinated a small-town Serb mayor near Pristina and were believed responsible for the slaying of six Serb youths at the Panda Cafe in Pec on Dec. 14. That served, one U.S. official said, as "the sort of antipode" to Serb violence: "Pec was `bad Albanians.' And one of our difficulties, particularly with the Europeans . . . was getting them to accept the proposition that the root of the problem is Belgrade."

Yugoslav and irregular Serb forces, meanwhile, began violating their numerical limits almost immediately. But Clinton's advisers saw no benefit, one said at the time, "in making a big fuss about their presence. . . . You're not going to get people to bomb over the specific number of troops."

Unarmed European peace monitors reporting to U.S. Ambassador William Walker, meanwhile, were getting the worst of encounters with the Serbs. "We were having our people pulled out of cars and in certain instances being beaten, with a certain brazenness," Walker said in a mobile telephone interview from Macedonia. The Yugoslav army and Interior Ministry Police no longer bothered to invent "a lame excuse" when observers came upon a smoldering village or dead Albanian, he said.

Throughout the late fall and winter, as Clinton moved to the brink and back of bombing Iraq, mid-level policymakers were debating how to save Holbrooke's October deal.

U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill, who served as special negotiator for Kosovo, proposed to beef up Walker's observers with helicopters and bodyguards, and to begin training Albanian police and planning an election to which Milosevic had not yet agreed. But "a lot of these required tacit consent from Belgrade," said a NATO diplomat in Brussels at the time.

These proposals culminated in the Status Quo Plus proposal that remained the highest common denominator among Berger, Cohen, Albright and their colleagues. "Our fundamental strategic objectives remain unchanged: promote regional stability and protect our investment in Bosnia; prevent resumption of hostilities in Kosovo and renewed humanitarian crisis; preserve U.S. and NATO credibility," the classified strategy paper said, summarizing the state of play on Jan. 15.


Late afternoon reports of fighting that day brought a team from Walker's Kosovo Verification Mission to Racak. By nightfall, when it became too dangerous to remain, they had found only one dead villager and several wounded. But the next day Walker accompanied a second team up a snowy ravine cut through hill overlooking the town.

The first corpse they ran across, beneath a bloody blanket, was headless. More bodies lay scattered singly up the hill, "almost all old men, obviously in their work clothes, bullet holes in the eye, bullet holes in the cranium," Walker said. Then came "a pile of bodies," all in a heap. Helena Ranta, a Finnish forensic doctor, later reported that there were 22 bodies in that pile, 45 dead in all. "There were no indications," she wrote, "of the people being other than unarmed civilians."

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Phillips, Walker's chief of staff, dialed the State Department's Operations Center from the scene and began dictating a grisly report. From there the report moved to the White House Situation Room, which passed it before dawn to Berger. Albright recalled in the interview that she first got word of the massacre around 4:30 a.m. Saturday when her bedside clock radio snapped on with the headlines on WTOP radio news.

Austrian intelligence had recently passed NATO its discovery that Belgrade planned a major spring offensive, code-named Operation Horseshoe. Subsequent intelligence alerts gave various estimates, from mid-March to early April. When Albright learned of the Racak massacre, she called Berger. "Spring," she said sourly, "has come early to Kosovo."

"I wished we had moved faster, all of us," she said in the interview Friday. "I thought, `These were the kinds of things we were trying to avoid.' "

James Steinberg, Berger's deputy at the White House, got his wake- up call directly from Racak at 6 a.m. on Jan. 16, Washington time. Walker "called me at home and gave me his firsthand account, just a very kind of graphic, `You need to know about this.' My first reaction is this is precisely what we feared. My second was, that's why we wanted the KVM {observer force} in there, because it was going to be harder for them to cover this up."

Albright had other conclusions. According to confidants, she realized that the galvanizing force of the atrocity would not last long. "Whatever threat of force you don't get in the next two weeks you're never getting," one adviser told her, "at least until the next Racak."

When the Principals Committee met again on the evening of Jan. 19, shortly before Clinton gave his State of the Union address, Albright said it was time to discuss the elements of an ultimatum with the allies. And it was also time, she said, for the United States to stop equivocating on whether it would participate in an implementing ground force if a Kosovo peace deal were reached.

Cohen, according to a participant, said talk of ground troops -- even those invited by Belgrade -- was premature. But neither he nor Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held that view much longer.

Clinton's team swiftly coalesced around several elements of a plan, according to one of those who took part: "One was to make a credible threat of military force. The other was to demand the attendance of the parties at a meeting at which the principal demands would be decided in advance by the Contact Group, including Russia. The basic principles were nonnegotiable, including a NATO implementing force."

Berger brought the new consensus to Clinton. On Jan. 21, the president outlined it to Britain's Blair in a call from the Oval Office. "If we do military action without a political plan, we will have a problem," Clinton told his friend in London, according to an official government account.

Clinton knew that his NATO allies believed the Albanian guerrillas of the KLA were driving the violence as much as Belgrade. He told Blair: "One thing is to go to {the KLA} and say, `Look, if you want us to do any more, you have to help too.' They probably have as many violations of cease-fires as Milosevic, though his are more egregious."

Blair agreed: "One of the dangers is if we go smack Milosevic and find the KLA moving on people who don't agree with them."

Albright spent the last week of January orchestrating the trigger for NATO's threat. In the red velvet anteroom of the president's box at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, over champagne and caviar between acts of Verdi's "La Traviata," Albright looked for some common ground with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Would he not agree, she asked, that an ultimatum to Belgrade might help lead Milosevic to a deal?

Ivanov expressed understanding, though not agreement. Then Albright called the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy -- the remaining members of the Contact Group -- and said she would not agree to another meeting unless they were prepared to commit ahead of time to the ultimatum.


On Jan. 30, NATO ministers approved its second "activation order" to prepare for war. This one, unlike the one Oct. 13, called for no pause between the roughly 50 targets in Phase I and those to come.

On Feb. 1, Clinton met his foreign policy team and the die was cast. According to notes taken at the meeting, described as a paraphrase of Clinton's remarks, the president said he understood from the CIA that Kosovo was more central to Milosevic than Bosnia had been and "he may be sorely tempted to take the first round of airstrikes. I hope we don't have to bomb, but we may need to."

No one spoke of what would happen if the bombing didn't work. "Governments make the decisions that are necessary to make and they leave for another day decisions that are very hard, for eventualities that everybody hopes will never occur," said one official.

Blair's use of the word "smack" and Clinton's "first round" suggested an atmosphere in which the decision-makers anticipated nothing so serious as today's ongoing war. In the final run-up, Albright asked policy planning director Morton Halperin and others to look for unpleasant scenarios that had not been fully considered. They came back with a five-page memo titled, "Surprises." Among the fears: that the Albanians would renege on the agreement; that they would launch military operations; that Milosevic would combine a false peace offensive with continued low-level fighting; that NATO would balk in the end at launching the air campaign; that Russia would mount much more vigorous opposition, perhaps including military aid to Belgrade.

The "hardest one," said one official involved, "was what happened, which was a massive offensive by the Serbs" touched off by the start of NATO bombing. That would leave the administration "vulnerable to the criticism" that it had caused the suffering it sought to prevent. The only answer, the official said, was "to try to get the military resources" to win the war -- "as quickly as we could."

By March 16, the CIA sent an alert to senior decision-makers: "Kosovo -- Serb Offensive At Hand." Two days later, Kosovo's Albanians finally signed the proposed accord. The same day, by intelligence reckoning, marked the start of Operation Horseshoe.

Holbrooke made a last fruitless trip to Belgrade on March 22. Brig. Gen. George Casey, of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, showed Yugoslav Chief of Staff Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic the next morning that NATO knew the names and locations of all his major units. "If we begin to bomb," Casey said, "you'll be known as the guy who let 50 years of Yugoslav military independence be destroyed."

After 23 days of bombing, Albright looked confident and serene in nearly an hour-long interview Friday, convinced, as one confidant put it, that this is "simply the most important thing we have done in the world."

"I think we have shown that this kind of thing cannot stand, that you cannot in 1999 have this kind of barbaric ethnic cleansing," Albright said, face hardening and slashing the air with a hand. "It is ultimately better that the democracies stand up against this kind of evil."

Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.


March 1998

"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," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said on the way to an international meeting on the Kosovo crisis.


Defense Secretary William S. Cohen attended a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels in which military authorities called for air exercises in Albania and Macedonia to increase pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.


A NATO official quoted a bitter Secretary General Javier Solana on how Serbs were mocking NATO's inaction, while village after village was being burned in Kosovo: "A village a day keeps NATO away."


U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, backed by a threat of NATO airstrikes, won Milosevic's approval of a cease-fire and removal of troops from Kosovo.

Jan. 15, 1999

Forty-five ethnic Albanians were massacred by Serbs in the Kosovo village of Racak. The atrocity convinced the White House and its allies that a six-year effort to bottle up the ethnic conflict was doomed.

Feb. 6-17

Kosovo Albanians and Serbs met in Rambouillet, France, for their first, inconclusive, round of talks. The Albanians agreed to a settlement during the next round of talks in Paris. The Serbs refused and peace talks were suspended.


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