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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The "Vietnam Syndrome" and Other Lessons

Lessons of Vietnam led to the "Vietnam Syndrome," which in turn led policy-makers to come up with the Weinberger Doctrine about the circumstances under which we would intervene. We're now in a new world. You played an important role in two operations that are setting the mark for how we are to respond in the world. Now the other thing out there was the Somali intervention which, in a way, proved the negative case, the case which we didn't want to follow. So, drawing on your experience, what do you see as the new doctrine that will emerge to define when we will intervene? What does the President of the United States have to give you in the way of public support, support in resources, and so on?

I was both a victim of and a participant in the Vietnam War, so I understand exactly what you are talking about. I learned a lot about honesty. I learned a lot about the necessity for candor in the dialogue between politicians and the military. Let me tell you, one of the greatest benefits that I had in Bosnia was a young political advisor who had spent time in Brussels, Belgium, on the North Atlantic Council as a deputy Permanent Representative. And he came to me and as we sat around talking about military operations during my first several days with him, I got so angry I wanted to choke him. Where did I get this naive guy who knows nothing about the military? And suddenly it dawned on me, this is the biggest benefit I've got because now I know how I've got to explain operations to the politicians so they will understand them.

That's why I think we were able to get the air cleared between Brussels and Sarajevo, using this political advisor as a conduit, because clearly we expected that they would understand more than they did. So that was a gap that had to be closed. And I was proud as heck when, in April of 1996 I ran into some of the Perm Reps up in Brussels and they said, "Admiral, you are really keeping us well informed. We have no further guidance for you, you're doing a grand job." Let me tell you that for a politician to tell a military guy that, that's a big deal. I think the first thing is that the political folks have got to come out with a good, solid strategic objective -- what is it you want to accomplish in the end?

Now, let's take the military and make sure we understand that they are only one piece of a puzzle. Military, economic, diplomatic, political, and others. Now what do you want the military to do? This was a very important part of Bosnia, and that's how we came up with Annex-1, military annex to the Bosnia accords. What do you want the military to do? Give me a mission that I can operationalize into an order that a 19-year-old soldier carrying a gun around can understand. Once I get that, then as a military man it's up to me to do what we call a "troop to task." What's it going to take and what's it going to cost? Then I've got to feed that back to the politicians. That's called candor. "All right, you want me to do this, this is the price." Remember what I said about the war criminals? "You want me to do that, it's going to cost you lives. We're going to get people killed doing this. I might have to go to Kansas and tell Johnny's mama that he got his head blown off trying to arrest Mladic in a coffee shop somewhere. Or better, in a bunker."

So you tell what it's going to cost. Now the politicians, understanding that, have got to commit. They've got to commit resources. Resources means time, equipment, money, and lives. And you've got to be willing to understand -- listen, if I tell you it's going to cost you twenty lives and then when we lose eight it's time to go home, that ain't going to work. Once you get that dialogue established, and that's a two-way street, now give the military man what he needs -- give him the rules of engagement. What he then wants to know is what are measures of effectiveness? How do we know we're getting from here to the end state? And in my personal view you do need an end state. And then you stick to it.

The other thing you hope, and this has nothing to do with the military, it's a political evaluation really, you hope that the conditions you have established by the use of the military will have some permanence after the military leaves. Otherwise, why the hell should you go in there to begin with? If you want to shorten that up, just say, "Okay, what is the strategic objective, what's the military part of that, what is the cost commitment, end state, exit strategy, permanence?" If I were going whip these out in hurry, and I just did without thinking a whole lot about it right now, that's what I'd want to see.

What happened in Somalia? We had a very clear mission statement. We were going to go in there and we were going to establish an environment in which humanitarian aid could be distributed. That was the mission. The military said fine, no problem. Then the mission changed. Suddenly a warlord feud erupted. You know, some people's warlords are other people's George Washingtons, and that's exactly what Aidid was. And as soon as we put a price on his head and said, "We're going to come get you," that whole equation changed. The mission changed, the environment changed, the threat changed, the risk changed. And we saw the results. That's why I fought like crazy every time someone wanted to hang a new mission on me or interpret my mission statement for me. I said, "No, this thing says right here that the commander of IFOR is the one that decides what is and is not my mission. Now if you want to lengthen that mission list, if you want to tell me to, go right ahead. But you better put it in writing."

Apply that to Bosnia right now. We don't see the end. Just "another six months or so."

No you don't. We don't see an end to Cyprus, do we? Well, what do you have in Cyprus? You've got the Turks (Muslims), and you've got the Greeks (Orthodox). You've got people who have claims on both sides to ancestral homes. In Bosnia, as in Israel, you've got exactly the same problem. You've got ultra-nationalists, you've got religious fervor that you just simply can't understand unless you're there to see it. You've got Orthodox, you've got Muslims, and you've got Catholics. You can take Northern Ireland, you can take the Middle East, you can take Cyprus, you can take a lot of other places, and what you come away with is the inescapable conclusion is that this is not a problem we're going to solve in a year or a year and a half. It's going to take time. Does that mean the United States has got to be there the full time? No it does not.

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