Adm. Leighton Smith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Shaping the U.S. Role in Peacekeeping Operations: Conversation with Adm. Leighton Smith; 4/1/97 by Harry Kreisler

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Why Peacekeeping is So Difficult

Should America embrace a peacekeeping-type mission? A lot of it is basically police work. Should we be involved? You mentioned earlier that Canadians are good peacekeepers. When Americans have made war, we've usually been fairly successful, but when we've tried to make peace, we have not been so successful.

Let me try two answers to that question. In the first place, when we went to Bosnia the people in Bosnia welcomed us with open arms, and I would go down the street and people would come up and say, "Admiral, thank you for bringing peace to Bosnia." And my standard answer was this, "I cannot bring peace to this country. Only you can bring peace to this country. I can bring the conditions in which peace can be established, but I cannot bring peace to this country." So the mistake we have made in our country, if we have made a mistake, is that we believe that we can influence or that we can enforce a peace, and we cannot. You can stop the fighting, and we did. And you can put money into a country and you can try to build it up so that the momentum you get from a visible economic engine creates a condition where peace will take hold. But that requires a political will that is not today evident in Bosnia. It was certainly not evident when I was there.

I think we are doing the right thing to put our military into these kinds of operations. No one is better able to do it. Peacekeeping is not a soldier function, but only soldiers can do it, because we've got the organization. We can make things happen in a hurry. As it happened, we spent more than two years planning for this operation. It just happened that we were planning for another kind of an operation. We were planning for the withdrawal of United Nations forces under less-than-benign conditions. And my headquarters had spent months and months and months putting together this plan, a very detailed and elaborate plan. Well, when in September we began seeing this new peace arrangement starting to take shape, it was easy to take the pieces of this initial withdrawal puzzle and put them into the right order, and end up with OP Plan 4105, which was IFOR. We had an organization, communications, intelligence, infrastructure to include logistics and medical and the whole bit.

The first night I was in Bosnia I took in about six people with me and a couple radios and a telephone. Within weeks I had a huge staff, the Ace Rapid Reaction Corps was in place. We had 55,000 soldiers in there, and we were doing our thing. I mean that happened in 60 days. Let's look at the civilian side. First of all, let me tell you that there was a lot of criticism of the civilian side in the early stages because they didn't get up and running fast enough. That is baloney. A lot of those civilian organizations never left to begin with, they were there when we got there. ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) was there, the humanitarian branches of United Nations were there, the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe), they had been there since October trying to set things up. A lot of private volunteer organizations and nongovernmental organizations had been there for years and had never left. The World Food Organization, the World Health Organization, you name it. They just didn't have an ability to pull together in sort of an organizational way. Carl Bildt, who was given the job of pulling all of this together, was given no power. He had a cellular telephone and a staff of about three people.

He was the representative of the United Nations?

Yes. Carl was the former Prime Minister of Sweden. I think he reported to the European Council. He obviously made reports to the United Nations, but I don't know who paid him, I don't know who empowered him. But the problem Carl Bildt had, and he will tell you this if he were here today, is that he had no directive authority. Listen, if I wanted to build a road or a bridge, we built a road or a bridge. If somebody got in my way I'd say, "Here's what the peace agreement says. Get out of my way or you will get hurt because this is interfering with my mission, and if you interfere with my mission, I will take you out." Carl Bildt says, "I want to build a road." Then he pumps $2 million into the top of the funnel and he gets $2.75 out of the bottom and he doesn't get a damn bridge.

Does this explain why we could do what the UN couldn't do?

No. Bertand de La Presle was the Commander of the United Nations forces. His headquarters was in Zagreb. He was the first UN commander that I dealt with, he's French. I have the greatest respect for this man. He is a principled individual. He is brilliant militarily. But he was working for a broken political system (the United Nations). The mandate that he was given, he followed. He had Mr. Akashi there, who was the Secretary-General's Special Representative, and Bertand de La Presle was obligated, as Western militaries are, to follow the guidance of his political masters. So if you've got a problem with the United Nations force in Bosnia you've got to understand two things. One, they didn't have a mandate that even came close to peace enforcement. Akashi said, "We've got this backwards. The United Nations is in here in a peacekeeping role, with a peacekeeping force, in the middle of a war, and IFOR is in here with a peace enforcement role in the middle of a peace." The fact is that Bertand de La Presle did not have an effective army. He had a combination, a coalition if you will, of a lot different nations that put forces in there, and they came with different rules.

And no political agreement about the solution.

Zero. Absolute zero.

Am I to believe then that you're not in great favor of a UN military force?

Not unless they change, make some humongous changes to the United Nations. Now let me just tell you this, you said that the Canadians are good peace keepers -- couldn't agree more. So are the Nordic countries. Now our forces operated down in Macedonia for, first a Norwegian and then a Finn. I will tell you that those officers were very, very professional and they knew a lot more about peacekeeping than you and I are going to learn in our lifetimes. And they knew how to handle their forces. And I felt very, very comfortable that our forces were being very well taken care of. There were a couple of differences that I had to step in and say, "Okay, we're not going to do this, we will do that." But the fact is that they know what peacekeeping is all about. They know how to do that. If you try to say then that the United Nations and peacekeeping is not a good thing, I think it's not always the right way to put it. In certain circumstances the United Nations, with a small force, can do things well. They were outmatched in Bosnia. They were put in there to keep the peace in the middle of a war. And our international community finally woke up, they were galvanized into action, when the Serbs took Srebrenica in July 1995. That was a tactical victory for the Serbs, and it was a strategic defeat.

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