Observer - Inertia in Washington: how the peace was lost

Sunday July 18, 1999

The massacre that lit the touchpaper of the war with Yugoslavia was, by the standards of recent conflicts, a small one. It was no My Lai with its 500 Vietnamese dead. By the benchmark of the Rwandan civil war, it would barely rate a mention.

But Racak would begin the process that led to Europe's most serious bombing since World War Two, and to the preparations for a land invasion that would finally - when Milosevic got wind of it - lead to his capitulation. It was the moment, as Ministers and officials would reiterate, that the 'scales fell from our eyes'.

Nato's war, its first in its half century history, would transform the international landscape. A victorious Nato would ultimately emerge as a strengthened and invigorated alliance. America's reputation as the 'world's policeman' would be weakened by a catalogue of hesitations and indecision, while Tony Blair, by contrast, would emerge as a figure of international authority who would be remembered for keeping a tough line against Milosevic's excesses.

But despite the victory, the same process would expose the faultlines in international diplomacy: failures of political imagination and military intelligence, the sidelining of the UN Security Council, and - perhaps most seriously of all - a fatal underestimation of Milosevic's capacity for evil. Through it all, the memory of Racak would be twisted like a bloody thread.

In Washington the first news of the Racak massacre presented a grotesque headache. The ghastly images had put the administration of President Bill Clinton - head of the world's only remaining superpower - under pressure 'to do something'. But for a President still mired in the embarrassment and political paralysis of his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair there was a wider concern.

Typically for this administration, the issue that fixated Clinton's officials in the days after Racak was not a humanitarian one, but one of presentation: the thought that a looming crisis in Kosovo might overshadow the summit in Washington on 22 April to celebrate Nato's fiftieth anniversary.

But Racak was also an embarrassment for Clinton and his advisers for another reason: it was the culmination of a period of fumbled foreign policy decisions by an administration that had seemed to sleepwalk through the previous 12 months of the Kosovo crisis. Racak cast that period in a sharp light.

The assessment by US intelligence officials and diplomats at the time of the massacre had been optimistic. The Holbrooke-negotiated ceasefire, secured under the threat of Nato air raids following two earlier Serb massacres in September, had finally given the impression that the international community had lost patience with Milosevic and had the will to act.

Despite clear evidence of serious violations by both sides, US officials had been blithely predicting that there would be no resumption of fighting until the spring or early summer. When US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright heard of the Racak massacre, she commented bitterly: 'So. Spring has come early.'

But if the administration had its eye off the ball over what was happening on the ground in the immediate build-up to Racak, that was little different from its attitude in the preceding months. As US officials later conceded, at times it had appeared the administration was only paying 'sporadic' attention. And what attention the US and the rest of the international community did pay to Kosovo was mired in contradictions that would paradoxically increase the risk of Nato joining the conflict.

It was not only in Washington that officials were concerned over how seriously Clinton was grappling with the crisis. It had also been noted in the European capitals, including London, which had been struggling, without success, to reach a political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo since the winter of 1997. 'How focused was the administration?' asked a British official last week. 'I think it was some time before they really engaged with the problem.'

Among those who now accept that important opportunities for peace were missed is Richard Holbrooke, the man twice handed the mission of talking Milosevic down from his ledge over Kosovo - in October, and on the eve of the Nato bombing.

'We made numerous mistakes,' Holbrooke admitted in June. Most serious, he intimates, was the lack of support from his own government in his negotiations to end the conflict in October. It had declined to endorse his efforts to place armed peacekeepers in the province.

'I was not able to negotiate armed international security forces in Kosovo in October because it was not possible to do that under the instructions I was givenů ' complained Holbrooke. 'I have stated repeatedly that Albanians and Serbs would not be able to live together in peace in Kosovo until they'd had a period of time with international security forces to keep them from tearing each other to pieces.'

'We were prepared to put in ground forces in October,' confirmed a British official. 'But Holbrooke did not have US backing.' And Holbrooke was not alone in believing serious opportunities for peace were missed last summer and last autumn. There are those who believe mistakes were made at almost every turn.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told The Observer: 'There was for months and months an international policy of mounting pressure on Belgrade, with a mix of carrot and stick. If you carry on the repression in Kosovo the sanctions will get tougher. If you stop, you can lead your country out of isolation. We were all in agreement on this, even if there were complicated discussions on the balance between the proportion of carrot to stick.'

But as a senior US diplomat who helped administer the policy admitted last month: 'At every point, the match between what we were ready to do and what was required to stop the conflict was one notch out of sync.'