There are some striking similarities between Clinton’s Kosovo campaign and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq four years later. Both were wars of choice, waged against tyrannical regimes that did not immediately threaten the United States. Both wars provoked strong public opposition in Europe and elsewhere and criticism that insufficient ground forces were being brought to bear against the enemy. Both wars ended with sudden U.S. victories. And both defined the national security visions of their respective administrations.
Yet it is the differences between those wars and how the diplomacy surrounding them was conducted that is most striking. In the case of Iraq, the Bush administration ignored NATO; belatedly demanded, briefly gained, and ultimately lost the support of the United Nations; and went to war over the expressed opposition of much of the world. Bush’s war has divided the United States from Europe, split Europe itself, and left the future of the United Nations and NATO in doubt. In Kosovo, by contrast, the Clinton administration worked through NATO, keeping its shaky coalition together in the Western alliance’s first war. Clinton’s war brought Europe and America closer together and invested NATO and trans-Atlantic relations with a renewed sense of purpose. That unity of purpose proved invaluable in post-war Kosovo, where U.S. and European troops secured the peace and U.N. administrators sponsored a difficult, but so far reasonably successful, transition to democracy. How helpful–or welcome–our allies will be in rebuilding post-war Iraq remains to be seen.
Sidney Blumenthal, who served as assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton in his second term, was a participant in the Kosovo War events in the White House and a liaison to several European leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In his forthcoming memoir, The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal recounts the 78 days of the Kosovo campaign, adding important new details to the story of that victory: how Clinton combined the use of force with diplomacy in a delicate balancing act; his true view on the deployment of ground troops; how Germany became part of the “coalition of the willing”; and Clinton’s strategic commitment to the U.S.-European alliance.
In mid-February 1999, one day after his trial in the United States Senate ended, President Bill Clinton delivered his weekly Saturday radio address. The subject was Kosovo, and his attention on this particular Saturday to an obscure corner of Europe, a rebellious province of Serbia, seemed almost like a return to tranquility after the tumult of the impeachment drama.
But the latest turn in the Balkan wars that had plagued the West for a decade was about to confront Clinton with the gravest foreign policy crisis of his presidency and the first war fought by NATO forces in its 50-year history. Like Joseph Stalin, Slobodan Milosevic–the president of Serbia–was a mediocrity with the soul of a mass murderer: the man without qualities as tyrant. Like Stalin, he manipulated nationalism to promote his atavistic power. He was ruthless in his corruption, which was a family enterprise, in his brutality, and in pitting his enemies against each other. In 1989, as communist regimes began to crumble across Eastern Europe, Milosevic, a former party apparatchik, had harnessed the power of ethnic grievance to launch his new career as a Serbian nationalist leader. During the early 1990s, Milosevic and his military had waged a bloody irredentist war across the former Yugoslavia, one aimed at the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian territory that the Serbs deemed their own. It ended only during the summer of 1995, when NATO bombs forced Serbia to the negotiating table at Dayton, Ohio, ending the war in Bosnia.
By the late 1990s, however, Milosevic had launched a new campaign in Kosovo, considered by Serbs to be the cradle of their civilization and culture. In 1998, Milosevic promulgated a virtual law of apartheid against Kosovo’s overwhelmingly Albanian population, denying them employment, health care, and rights–the first step in a plan to drive them from their land and occupy it solely with Serbs. That January, the Serb army staged a massacre, precipitating U.S. involvement in trying to work out a peace agreement. While the negotiations proceeded, Milosevic massed 40,000 troops, 300 tanks, and 1,000 pieces of artillery at the Kosovo border. His campaign had already created 250,000 refugees.
The Kosovo crisis, as dismal and obscure as it must have seemed to many Americans, threatened to discredit the leadership of every government in Western Europe, set Russia against the United States, and undermine Clinton just as he was freed from the constitutional crisis at home. The Kosovo war would require all of the president’s deft political skills to sustain a strained international coalition. His entire foreign policy rested on his ability to carry out a campaign that faced intense opposition from both right and left, from his familiar enemies in the Republican Congress and a rising chorus of discontent about his strategy and motives. When Clinton sat down to deliver his radio address that cold February day, he knew he was about to face the next great challenge of his second term. “Bosnia taught us a lesson: In this volatile region, violence we fail to oppose leads to even greater violence we will have to oppose later at greater cost,” he told the audience. “We must heed that lesson in Kosovo.”
The Clinton of 1999 was a more toughened, more experienced, and shrewder president than the Clinton who had taken office in 1993. He had entered the office naively believing that the world could be held at bay, or that he could subcontract international affairs to his foreign policy team while he himself dealt with domestic policy. Now he knew that he could not repeat that mistake and that his own persistent leadership was needed. He had learned the harsh lesson of Bosnia: Diplomacy without the threat and use of force would not work in the Balkans.
In the earlier phase of dealing with the crisis in the Balkans, Clinton had been captivated by the idea that eternal, unyielding ethnic antagonisms, about which the West could do very little, had driven the conflicts there. But in his instinctive search for practical answers, Clinton’s political sense reasserted itself, and he eventually grasped that it was politics above all that was behind the Balkan conflagration. Clinton peered into Milosevic’s heart and saw a politician–an evil one, but a politician nonetheless. For Clinton, on the Balkans, this was the beginning of wisdom and recovery.
Clinton realized that passivity and fatalism in foreign policy were self-defeating. In both Bosnia and Rwanda, the United States, with its preponderance of power, had made a statement to the rest of the world by its inaction. Being the indispensable nation put added burdens on the United States to assume a greater, more varied responsibility for international stability. Clinton had never been hesitant about the use of force, but by his second term he felt thoroughly comfortable using it, having ordered the U.S. military into action many times. The success in Bosnia, more than anything else, had established a precedent.
After the Bosnian war, he recognized that he had to persuade the NATO allies to join in action in Kosovo from the very beginning. In Bosnia, President George H.W. Bush had left the allies to pursue their own self-serving interests; the British and French played treacherous games with Milosevic and then connived to confound the Americans. And just as Clinton had eventually learned lessons from this inherited disaster, different leaders in Britain, France, and Germany had also learned from the failures of their predecessors. Clinton was no longer dealing with British and French governments undermining his intentions. On the contrary, he was enthusiastically supported. He had also strongly advocated the expansion of NATO, so that it now included Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, bordering on the Balkans. Kosovo would test this expanded Western alliance.
Kosovo was the central challenge remaining to full European integration after the fall of the Soviet Union. If the crisis there were allowed to fester and ethnic cleansing allowed to succeed, Europe would be inundated with refugees. The human tragedy would be appalling. This might well demoralize the center-left political parties, but right-wing ones would seize on the developments to gain influence, exploiting fears about increased immigration and asylum seeking. NATO would seem a feckless, purposeless organization: If it could not be mobilized to ward off this new threat in Europe, what use was it? The incentive for former Warsaw Pact countries to join it would be drastically reduced; NATO expansion would become an empty exercise. Moreover, the absence of U.S. power would trigger traditional rivalries among the European countries and hamper Britain’s influence, given its link to the United States. Reform in Russia would be slowed down or derailed, as conservative political forces there would be galvanized by Serbian defiance of the West. And without the Balkan puzzle solved, Turkey and Greece might also be propelled into renewed conflict.
President Clinton was attempting to carve a path between the left, which advocated an international system upholding the rule of law but was leery of the use of force, and the right, which believed that U.S. strength should compel the rest of the world to line up behind it. The weakness of the first was matched by the arrogance of the second. Both, Clinton and his advisers felt, corroded the international alliances needed for collective security and action in the long run.
In the United States itself, if Clinton’s new internationalism seemed merely the impotent gesture of a Democratic president, foreign policy would be viewed as the projection of narrow national interest rather than as the means to create an expansive community of nations, as Clinton believed it was. Isolationism, unilateralism, and protectionism would gain ground. New global initiatives for international labor standards, environmental protection, and women’s rights–putting “a human face on the global economy,” as Clinton described the Third Way between command economies and laissez-faire policies–would be radically set back.
Clinton was no longer the junior figure among the Western powers that he had been when he became president. Now he was a senior statesman, the one in office longest and the most experienced, and the political role model for a new generation of center-left leaders. Across Europe, leaders of entrenched social democratic parties looked to Clinton as a political trailblazer–reforming his party, the welfare state, and global economics all at the same time. He was the most sophisticated, knowledgeable, innovative–and European–American president in their lifetimes. Kosovo was a crisis for them all. If they succeeded in there, they would gain a strengthened platform for the Third Way and for their new ideas about globalization and interdependence. Clinton himself well understood the stakes.
On March 24, after Milosevic rejected negotiations, the bombing of Serb positions in Kosovo started, and Clinton addressed the nation. Thus began NATO’s first war, the first war ever fought to reverse an act of genocide.
Milosevic took the bombing as a signal to accelerate his ethnic cleansing. His army swept into Kosovo and drove nearly one million Kosovar refugees from their homes. But while the world’s media broadcast pictures of the effects of NATO’s bombing, Serb tank battalions were not credentialing CNN correspondents to ride with them as they massacred Kosovars, and public support in most of Europe was fragile and shaky. (Only later, when television pictures began to show trains bearing the refugees fleeing from their countryside–images reminiscent of trains bearing Jews being shipped to concentration camps by the Nazis–did European public opinion begin to change.) In late March, Bodo Hombach, an aide to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, delivered a discouraging briefing in my office at the White House. In western Germany, support was at 60 percent, but in eastern Germany, only about one-third. A majority of Greens, the Social Democrats’ coalition partner and the party of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, were opposed to the use of force in the Balkans; only 28 percent of all Germans believed that Milosevic would be forced to admit defeat. In Italy, public opinion was even shakier, and in Greece, an overwhelming majority were opposed. “We need to win quickly,” Hombach told me.
On March 30, after a political strategy meeting in the Yellow Oval, the president took me aside to discuss the war. His approval ratings, after less than a week of bombing, were beginning to slip. “I feel quite comfortable, even if it takes weeks and weeks,” he said. “Building up popularity is for this. If the popularity isn’t for this, what’s it for?” Great Britain, Clinton believed, was firm and would be staunch to the end. British Prime Minister Tony Blair had declared that the Kosovo war was a humanitarian war “in defense of our values, rather than our interests,” and Clinton relied on him to keep the alliance together and avoid being “nickel and dimed.” It was Blair who took on the task of asking Javier Solana, then defense chief of NATO, to approve broader bombing targets, which Solana did. Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema of Italy had asked for a bombing halt, but Clinton talked him out of it, and in return, helped D’Alema with his political efforts to win public support for the bombing campaign as it widened. Schroeder, who also faced a difficult domestic political situation, was supportive. Milosevic had tried, with Russian help, to wrangle a cease-fire, but Schroeder had conferred with Clinton and then told Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov that any such deal would be rejected. The Germans were checking the Russians. The alliance was holding.
But the bombing did not stop Milosevic. After a week, the political stresses on the NATO coalition grew exponentially, and within the U.S. administration debate continued on the proper strategy for conducting the war. In his speech on March 25, Clinton had said, “I do not intend to put our troops into Kosovo to fight a ground war,” a line that national security council speech writers, with the approval of National Security Advisor Samuel “Sandy” Berger, had inserted and that Clinton did not question at the time. Clinton felt he needed to maintain national and international unity at all costs; otherwise, he felt he would be playing into Milosevic’s hands. He didn’t want to set off a debate about ground troops with the Congress. Equally important, he didn’t want to spark a debate among the allies. Even if ground troops had been planned at the beginning, it would have taken two to three months to deploy them, and Milosevic would have rolled through Kosovo in any case. Clinton hoped the bombing might force Milosevic to concede within days, but as a practical matter, in the short run, it didn’t make a difference.
That early calculation, however, could not last over time, and he came to regret the line about ground troops. In private, he railed about it having limited his options, and in April, Berger went on television to say that all options were open. But there were problems with the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs resisted a ground war that might well produce many casualties and that had no clear exit strategy, one of the stipulations of the Powell doctrine, the military codification of the Vietnam syndrome. Nightmarish visions of Somalia danced in the generals’ heads. When it began to seem that the war would be prolonged, Gen. Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), pressed for the deployment of the deadly Apache helicopters. But the Pentagon opposed this suggestion, seeing it as a cloaked effort to commit American troops to a ground war. Its planners told the White House that the Apaches would suffer perhaps a 50 percent loss ratio–an utterly contrived figure intended to destroy the option, as Clark saw it. Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eventually agreed to the deployment of a symbolic force of Apaches in Albania, but these were ultimately withdrawn and never committed to combat.
Meanwhile, Clinton was on the phone every day with his counterparts, and he and Blair worked as a tag team, dividing up the allies to speak to them. “We need to ramp up operations,” he told Blair on April 1. That same day he told Schroeder, “Milosevic needs to understand that we are prepared to escalate this campaign for the next couple of weeks. We have no timetable or deadlines.” Schroeder agreed. But Clinton found it difficult to convince French President Jacques Chirac to agree to a targeting strategy that included Milosevic’s military and communications infrastructure within Serbia proper. So far the bombing had been restricted to targets in Kosovo. Wary of the United States as the “hyperpower,” France was hesitant to expand the war. Clinton went on trying to cajole Chirac, but he also used others to get Chirac’s agreement for the new targets. When President Jose Maria Aznar of Spain visited the White House in mid-April, Clinton talked of his problems with Chirac, and Aznar took on the task of persuading Chirac, which he did. After a civilian convoy was mistakenly hit by NATO bombs on April 16, Clinton swayed Chirac not to walk out on a NATO leaders’ meeting, arguing that his abrupt departure would be interpreted as a sign of open disunity. “We must be upbeat, resolute, and not defensive about our mistakes,” Clinton pleaded with him.
The humanitarian crisis within Kosovo, meanwhile, was becoming a greater and greater nightmare. Refugees were flowing by the hundreds of thousands into camps in Macedonia and Albania. And the war went on without conclusion, bringing harsh criticism from the right and left. “A colossal failure,” railed George Will on ABC’s “This Week.” Others argued that ground troops should have been put into the field at once, that NATO’s failure to do so showed cowardice, perhaps even a special generational cowardice, a desire to achieve results without sacrifice but with politically clean hands. In The New York Review of Books, the liberal writer Mark Danner suggested that “Perhaps one day there will be a method to calculate how many Kosovars had to be displaced, how many had to die, for the West to prosecute its ‘perfect’ war.”
The president was planning the 50th anniversary summit meeting of NATO to be held later in the month in Washington. “Blair and Schroeder and I could ride into the sunset, but we’ve got to do this with NATO intact, having done this as an alliance,” he said to me on April 7. “Either it comes out right or we get cremated.” But even weeks later the war was still not going well; progress seemed stalled. Criticism was growing and Clinton’s popularity continued to drop. He seemed strategically boxed in by his early statement against ground troops, for which Blair was now agitating. Within the administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright supported Blair’s position. Gen. Clark, too, favored the use of ground troops, but the Pentagon was blocking him.
The night before the NATO summit, on April 22, Blair and Clinton met at the White House. Blair argued in favor of a ground force short of an invasion force that could be deployed in what the military called a “semipermissive environment,” that is, in areas where they would not be required to seize territory from an entrenched enemy. Clinton was insistent that the issue of ground troops not be raised in the context of the summit meeting for fear that it would blow up the entire event. None of the other allies were as aggressive as Blair, and if the United States joined the British position, the alliance might fall apart. Blair agreed not to bring the matter up and Clinton agreed that Clark should draw up contingency plans. This was not a commitment to ground troops; it was a decision to have the option on paper. They pledged to each other that the war must be won on NATO’s terms: The strategy was open-ended. Clinton was determined that the allies must plan a more intense bombing campaign in Serbia itself, targeting Milosevic’s military, his communications, his bridges, and even his and his cronies’ homes, and must leave the summit reaffirming the war’s aims. In this, he succeeded.
On April 28, the House of Representatives voted a resolution on the air war in the Balkans. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had assured the White House that he could secure a majority in favor, but the true power within the Republican Party unmasked Hastert once again as a figurehead. Republican whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) ensured that there would be no positive vote for President Clinton. The final vote in the House was a carefully stage-managed tie, 213-213. “Shame! Shame!” chanted the Democrats in unison. But DeLay gloated. He saw Kosovo as “act two of impeachment,” according to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). DeLay believed, as he told Republicans, “When the sun rises following the election of 2000, I think we will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue because of it.” “I don’t respect the president, but I don’t agree with the president, either,” he explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on May 16.
In early May, the bombing ramped up with devastating effect, the raids now penetrating into Belgrade. Serb surface-to-air missile batteries and radar sites, armored units, governmental buildings, and safe houses for Milosevic’s mafia were systematically taken out. Serb soldiers started to desert. A mutiny was reported. Then, on May 7, a precisely targeted missile hit the new Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing two people. The truth, not publicly acknowledged, was that the CIA had been operating with an old map drawn before the construction of the new building, and had assumed the strike was against a Serb target. No one in the CIA or in any of the armed forces thought to seek information from any American who had recently been in Belgrade. The Chinese persisted in believing that the hit had been deliberate. It was a public relations disaster. Clinton called Blair and vented his frustration: “If we had one TV picture of the 15 [Kosovar] men being roped together and burned alive [by the Serbs], they would be demanding that we bomb the hell out of them. People would be wondering why we haven’t leveled the place.”
Clinton used a press appearance with King Abdullah of Jordan to shift his position on ground troops while making it appear that his policy had never been set in concrete at all: “I don’t think that we or our allies should take any options off the table, and that has been my position from the beginning.” The Pentagon almost instantly issued a statement saying that the use of ground troops was not an option, but the president was, in fact, moving toward authorizing precisely that.
In Germany, already precarious public support for the war plummeted by 25 percent. After nearly imploding at their annual conference, the Green Party had voted to support NATO (after a bravura speech in which Fischer told the delegates that if they did not vote in favor of the war they might as well elect Milosevic as their party leader). But Blair’s push for ground troops prompted Schroeder to declare that such an option was “unthinkable.”
On May 24, Fischer came to Washington to confer about the war, and that night at a dinner held in his honor at the German embassy, I was seated next to him. We had an intense conversation about the German position, particularly on ground troops. We were two members of the generation of ’68, easily recognizable to each other politically, trying to find common ground. Fischer, the son of a Hungarian immigrant butcher and a German mother, had been a scruffy oppositional militant in Frankfurt; was a former roommate of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Danny the Red,” with whom he had organized a group called Revolutioner Kampf, or Revolutionary Struggle, and had been arrested in street demonstrations. By the 1990s, his left-wing associates were accusing him of being a changeling, trading in his black leather motorcycle jacket for an establishment Armani suit in an act of surpassing opportunism. But in the German Foreign Office, he was respected as capable, strong, and very well prepared for his work. His odyssey and political predicament paralleled in an especially dramatic way that of American and British activists who had undertaken their own journeys from the 1960s to the center-left of the 1990s. The charge against Fischer that he was a hollow opportunist was a kind of German echo of the “character issue” that conservatives raised about Clinton. Fischer, of course, had been a true radical, which Clinton never was, but the accusation was similar: Fischer’s idealism and his character must be false because he had power, because he had fought for it, and because he used it.
Fischer was morally and politically serious as he worked through the German question of “the ghosts of the past,” as he put it to me, the ghost of war and the ghost of the Holocaust. Fischer’s generation had been imbued with the idea that “no more war” and “no more Auschwitz” were complementary. But the Kosovo war confronted Germans with a choice: to be pacifist meant to accept genocide. And now the choice was becoming even more difficult. What would it mean for NATO to let Milosevic win? Shouldn’t all the options be pursued to end the greater evil? Couldn’t Germany support a “coalition of the willing” that would deploy troops, if by a given time the air war had not turned in NATO’s favor? Germany would not have to join that coalition, but couldn’t it support it? At the end of the conversation, Fischer said he was coming to the conclusion that he could agree to such a formulation, and he soon held a press conference announcing it.
On April 25, the last day of the NATO summit meeting, President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin had a 90-minute telephone conversation. In the face of allied unity, Yeltsin had decided to cut himself loose from the Serbs, whose cause was alienating Russia from its larger interests with the West. He appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister and a close ally, as his special envoy to the Serbs. “I don’t care what you have to do, just end it. It’s ruining everything,” Yeltsin said to him. After initial conversations with Vice President Gore, with whom Chernomyrdin had conducted productive joint U.S.-Russian communications on various issues for years, Strobe Talbott was sent as the U.S. negotiator. And–an American suggestion–a neutral party was brought in to buttress Chernomyrdin, Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. The three became an effective team, working together for weeks to bring Milosevic to his senses.
On June 2, Sandy Berger submitted a new options memo to the president, saying that ground troops would be necessary if negotiations should fail. The next day, at Milosevic’s palace in Belgrade, when Ahtisaari spelled out for him the havoc that would be wrought on him if he persisted, Milosevic turned to his fellow Slav, looking for support, but Chernomyrdin was a blank wall. He told him to sign the Russian draft of an agreement that called for “all Serb forces out.” Milosevic crumbled.
Within hours of receiving the news, Clinton held a long-scheduled cabinet meeting. “The agreement may be great, but we don’t know that yet,” he told his cabinet. Albright spoke next: “Yes, there are a lot of moving parts.” “We got into Kosovo immediately compared to Bosnia,” the president reflected. “This is not just about beating Milosevic, but [about] reversing ethnic cleansing. That’s the ultimate test.” Secretary of Defense William Cohen offered congratulations: “There are two successes here: the success of the air campaign and the diplomatic success.” But Berger the pragmatist jumped in: “Put your pride in a lockbox. There’s still no better than a 50-50 chance. Less is more here.” Clinton emphasized the politics of the allied coalition as essential to victory: “NATO never had to wage a war for 50 years. This is the first operation this alliance has had to engage in for 50 years. The best thing Bush did in Desert Storm was to get Arab countries to go along. Bosnia took four years. Running a campaign by committee is a challenge. There was second-guessing from the moment it began. But our crowd maintained a positive frame of mind. I will go to my grave grateful we hung together.” The president then discussed the war’s tactics, first referring to the air campaign and then to ground troops: “There was a gross underestimation of the damage we have done [in the air campaign] to the Serb army–and we kept all options open.”
Seamlessly, without a stop, he linked this foreign crisis to his domestic politics: “We haven’t allowed the White House to become paralyzed. Under the most adverse circumstances, we have got a lot done.” Some Democrats believed that if he flatly rejected dealing with the Republican Congress, it would “rebound to the Democrats’ credit,” he noted. But “those Democrats who believe that are wrong,” and he had managed to “get the Republican Congress to get a good deal of what we want.” Not only did he have faith in his political ability, but he also argued that producing results was essential for the Democrats: “If you’re progressive, you always have to legitimize the government enterprise. We need to do those things that we can do. We won’t get everything we want, but we need to push for them. Stay upbeat. We’ll get good results. There’s always going to be an adverse environment. We have to have a multi-front war here we’re waging for the American people.” And he launched into a discussion of his latest education bill.
In 1999, two weeks after Milosevic’s defeat in the war in Kosovo, President Clinton traveled to Cologne, Germany, for the G-7 Economic Summit. The summit had loomed as a potential danger point if by then the Kosovo war was not concluded. On President Clinton’s national security staff and among the allies, much anxiety was fixed on that meeting. But Cologne was suffused with the glow of the allied victory and the success of Clinton’s leadership. Now the president led the other six nations in approving an initiative that slashed the debt of heavily indebted poor countries by 70 percent–a reduction stipulating that the funds would go instead to social expenditures in education, children’s health care, and AIDS prevention. Clinton also led in creating with the Europeans a stabilization pact for the Balkans, a diplomatic instrument for establishing the mechanisms and financing for reconstruction. He polished an agreement on international financial stabilization. And he met for the last time with Yeltsin, an exhausted volcano, who agreed to the last touches on the peace agreement with Serbia.
The Kosovo war would be the last war fought on European soil in the “century of total war.” Conflict ended in the Balkans except for spasms in Macedonia. Both the European Union and NATO continued to expand without disruption. On Oct. 5, 2000, the last revolution toppling a remnant regime from the communist era took place in Yugoslavia: A beleaguered Milosevic announced an election and then tried to void its results when he lost it; instead of succeeding in imposing his rule, however, he provoked his overthrow. He was arrested and placed on trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague before the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal.
After the Kosovo war, other world leaders regarded Clinton with a deference that extended beyond his role as the chief of state of the number-one power. They considered him a first among equals because of who and what he was, not only because of the country he represented. They knew that he understood in depth their own countries’ economics and history and politics like no other U.S. president before him. Because of their implicit trust in him, U.S. prestige reached a zenith it had not enjoyed since perhaps the presidency of John F. Kennedy, when the Western leadership had not been so close. “Because of his empathy and understanding, the world felt included and not resentful of America,” a British cabinet minister told me.
But Clinton’s vision of international relations in the 21st century was not a rhetorical trope. He did not peer through a hazy lens into a nebulous future. Rather, he saw sharply defined problems requiring constant engagement to achieve practical solutions. He assumed nothing, not least eternal American preeminence, nor did he believe that the world was there for the taking or the ordering. And in his organization of the center-left leaders who gathered strength and numbers after the Kosovo war, he encouraged the new forces of hope.
Later that June, President Clinton visited the Stenkovic refugee camp in Macedonia, just across the mountainous border from Kosovo. About half its inhabitants had already left to go home, but about 20,000 people remained in the sea of tents and mud. Upon our arrival, children surrounded us, many of them speaking English and asking to meet with the president. As was his wont, Clinton spent more than an hour sitting with groups of families, listening to their harrowing stories. Then he climbed atop a wooden crate to address the thousands assembled before him: “We’re proud of what we did because we think it’s what America stands for, that no one ever, ever should be punished and discriminated against or killed or uprooted because of their religion or their ethnic heritage.” They chanted “Clinton!” and “U.S.A!” It wasn’t long before all the people at Stenkovic were returned to their villages, and the camp disappeared.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant to President Bill Clinton, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus, Giroux: May 2003) from which this article was adapted.