Peter Tarnoff Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Foreign Policy in a Democracy: Conversation with Peter Tarnoff, former Undersecretary of State and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; 10/13/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Let's look now at the problem of intervention in more detail. Your career covers a very interesting cycle in American diplomacy beginning with your period in Vietnam as an advisor and an aide to Ambassador Lodge, and then in Europe with him. Then when you were assuming roles at the World Affairs Council and at the Council of Foreign Relations, it was a period when America, so to speak, "came back" in the Persian Gulf War. And then in the Clinton administration to Bosnia and a reluctance to intervene, but then intervention and then intervention again in Kosovo. Tell us a little about this landscape and how it has changed, how you changed personally in your thinking, and how you think the American debate changed about our sense of what we could do on these particular issues when we intervened in a place like Vietnam or a place like Bosnia.

During that period Harry, there were four or five critical moments, and let me try to identify them and then go back and talk a little bit about the evolution in my thinking and the general consideration of policy people in this area.

So you've had, over a period of now close to fifty-five years, quite an evolution of peaks and valleys, so to speak. In terms of where we are now: I think that what any president, this one or his successor, has to be ready to do is to have what amounts to a very flexible arsenal of tools at his disposal to intervene.

By the way, there's a tendency -- and I do it as well, so I'm correcting myself more then anyone else -- to think of intervention primarily in a military sense. That's really not the case. We intervene very actively politically and diplomatically, economically, morally. We organize in the UN and NATO and elsewhere international coalitions. And the military arm is the last recourse with regard to intervention, and something that no president will want to use unless he thinks it's absolutely necessary.

But with regard to the intervention doctrines that we're hearing about, [there's] some debate in this country which may become rather intense in the next years about whether the United States should involve itself in what is called humanitarian interventionism, where we don't have a lot of strategic interests, our economic concerns are very small, we don't have a large political constituency in this country pushing the administration to act, but there are thousands or tens of thousands of people who are being either forced to moved or victimized or killed by a regime for its own ethnic reasons. And that's of course what we've been seeing around the world, unfortunately, in recent years.

How much should the United States become involved? I would defend the proposition that we do have an interest in preventing such catastrophes, and therefore it's incumbent upon the United States, as a moral nation but also as a nation with enormous experience in the diplomatic arts as well as military capabilities, to involve ourselves with others in the region as much as possible to try to bring about a cessation of these kinds of hostilities and human catastrophes. Now, how we do it depends a lot on circumstances, and it's obviously easier in places like Europe where you have NATO, where you have the European Union, where you have the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. You've got major institutions, you've got allies with comparable experiences diplomatically and militarily, economically, to our own, to bring about a group of countries willing to intervene. It's tougher in other parts of the world, and there may be places where this is happening where the president and the Congress and the country decide that the cost in terms of lives and resources is too great. But should we in virtually every case at least take a hard look at it? I would say emphatically yes.

One could argue, from Berkeley, not being in Washington, that a volatile mix seems to be emerging in some of these situations, and I would not relate this to a particular case but just a kind of an ideal type. And that is, what we have is a dictator or a human rights violator who is, in essence, turning against his own people systematically, and that we're confronted with a situation where we have to decide whether to act, and, because of the remnants of the Vietnam syndrome, there is a real concern on the part of our political leaders to use the involvement of American troops, and rightfully so. And so what then is added to this volatile mix is weapons of high technology which allow us to essentially fly very high and drop bombs, or, if we don't go the military route, to impose sanctions which then become less a burden on the regime and more on the people, and so on. I'm not faulting any one side, but just saying it's a very complex situation if you factor in domestic American politics, the realities of the situation, and the instruments of high-technology weaponry.

Absolutely. Each of the tools that you mentioned and even some others, the moral tools, are not like laser surgery where you can be sure that you're going to go in and do the job with a very high rate of success (because it's a tried and proven technology as we're seeing in modern medicine today). And therefore you have to learn from experiences. Just to take the two examples that you gave: I think that the rather indiscriminate use of economic sanctions has turned out to be ineffective in many, many cases. And as you also mentioned, and I agree with this, in some cases [sanctions are] more harmful to the population than to the leadership. We've seen this in Iraq. We've seen it to a certain degree in Serbia, where the sanctions are not as drastic but fairly substantial, even before the Kosovo events, and yet the country was not under enormous pressure at all because they found ways to avoid the sanctions. This said, if the sanctions are voted by the United Nations Security Council and pretty well observed by most countries, I think it's not only an economic tool, it's a political and moral tool to get an international statement of concern.

What bothers me more, because they are not effective and sometimes highly provocative, is when the United States indulges in widespread unilateral sanctions where only the United States is imposing them, or when we have adopted what are called extraterritorial sanctions which involve the United States applying its own law to foreign companies and foreign governments overseas, which cause an enormous political wrangle between the United States and those affected countries. So I think that is a major problem.

With regard to the use of military means, I know that we are still, and this is certainly what you had in mind, looking at the consequences of the Kosovo campaign. I must say that I believe that if the United States had gone in on the ground, given the way our very effective and well-trained military has to operate, there would have been not only allied casualties, which we have an interest in avoiding of course, every responsible president or commander in chief would want to do that, but substantially more Serbian casualties than was the case. Because, based on the Vietnam experience and then the Gulf War, the United States military will always want to have overwhelming force in order to defend itself, and that means that there would have been an enormous military effort, concentrating on Kosovo, but also applying to Serbia itself. So while the casualties were high and there was collateral damage, I firmly believe that the military casualties on the other side would have been greater, and you probably would have had even greater collateral damage if the allied forces had gone in on the ground. So the debate is not as simple as some would make it out to be, I'm afraid.

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