How Clinton Coped
At times of conflict, he relied on his advisers but made the tough choices himself
Former President Bill Clinton didn't wage a full-fledged war during the eight years he was in office. But he did order American troops into harm's way on several occasions. From his home in Chappaqua, N.Y., Clinton offered his views, in an E-mail conversation with U.S. News's Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, on what it takes to lead during times of conflict and at times of peace. Excerpts:
On the most difficult decisions he faced regarding use of military force during his presidency. When we used the military in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, most Americans, most Republicans in Congress, and many Democrats were initially opposed to it.
On directly supervising the military and the issue of "micromanagement" during a crisis. Generally, it is best not to micromanage military operations, though in some cases it is unavoidable. For example, after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade because of outdated maps, I had daily meetings to go over the proposed targets for the next day. On a few occasions, I disagreed with the military's choices, but wherever possible I tried to set policy and let them decide how best to carry it out.
On the challenges of being commander in chief in today's world. In the modern era, leadership involves dealing with the 24-hour news cycle and responding to the concerns of allies, international organizations, [and] at least the neutral countries that are well disposed to America. It's important to respond as quickly as possible to events and legitimate questions but not to be stampeded into actions or words that will compound events or create new problems.
The toughest part of the job as commander in chief. The hardest thing is knowing young Americans and innocent civilians in the theater of conflict might be killed or badly injured.
On whether presidential leadership is different in times of war and times of peace. In a military conflict, successful leadership requires clear objectives, a strategy to achieve them, a clear understanding with the military of the tactics to be used, and an ability to explain the decision to use force in terms of our interests and our values to people at home and around the world. These skills are also significant in pursuing proactive objectives. But during a conflict, clarity, consistency, concentration, and a willingness to evaluate and, if necessary, alter tactics are even more essential.
On how much he relied on his senior military advisers. I relied heavily on my military advisers for tactical advice. On the question of whether to use force, I sought their advice but made the final decisions myself, sometimes disagreeing with them, as in Kosovo and Haiti.
On the concerns of Pentagon planners. Our military leaders did not voice concerns about public opinion but did want a clear definition of military success including an exit strategy.
An example of contingency planning inside his government. In Kosovo, my senior advisers believed, as I did, that our air power would prevail but also had plans to introduce ground troops in the event it did not.
On his feelings about sending troops into harm's way. In making life or death decisions, I leaned on the power of prayer, the example of my predecessors, the support of my cabinet and staff, the vice president, and, of course, Hillary.
This story appears in the January 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.