Following NATO’s launch on 26 March 1999 of the bombing campaign over Serbia, Western countries were faced with a bit of a media dilemma – a dilemma into which last week we gained some more insight when the UK’s Guardian newspaper published excerpts from the diary of Alastair Campbell, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary.
The entire operation was undermined with the Alliance’s inability to decide exactly what kind of message it was hoping to get out to Serbia and to the global public in general. This was particularly troubling to London as it embarked on what the Guardian has called part of the UK’s new phase of “liberal interventionism”.
The whole propaganda campaign was cause for concern, and Wesley Clark was uncertain whether NATO should bomb Serbia with or without warning, while then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was concerned with the progress of the disinformation campaign, according to Campbell.
Following are excerpts from Campbell’s 1999 diary, which ends on 30 April 1999, as published in the Guardian:
Friday 2 April I was very tired still, and starting to get that achy feeling that exhaustion brings. We were losing the propaganda battle with the Serbs. TB called early on, and wanted a real sense of urgency injected into things. He had spoken to Clinton about the timidity of the military strategy. He had spoken to Thatcher [Margaret Thatcher] last night who was appalled that the NAC and Nato ambassadors discussed [with each other] targeting plans. He wanted the message out that we were intensifying attacks. I said we said that on Wednesday.
Tuesday 6 April Family holiday France
The rightwing commentators were in full cry and we agreed to try to get Thatcher and Charles Powell [former foreign policy adviser to Thatcher] out saying the right hate the left fighting wars but they should be supporting what we are doing. Nato might balk but we were going to have to get a grip of their communications and make sure capitals were more tightly drawn in to what they were saying and doing.
Wednesday 7 April We were having some effect with the strategy for the right, eg Charles Powell and David Hart [former Thatcher adviser] were both going up, but the rightwing papers and commentators so hated us that they were determined to do what they could to help anything fail. If this was a Tory war, they would support it every inch of the way.
Thursday 8 April I was finding it impossible to switch off from it, and was starting to map out more changes I felt we should be making to the communications effort. A lot of this was about communication now. Militarily, Nato is overwhelmingly more powerful than Belgrade. But Milosevic [Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia] has total control of his media and our media is vulnerable to their output. So we can lose the public opinion battle and if we lose hands down in some of the Nato countries, we have a problem sustaining this.
Friday 16 April I was up at 5.30 and got the 6.53 train to Brussels. [Nato communications director Jamie] Shea said he had been fascinated how we had changed our approach to the media as New Labour and he was sure there were lessons they could learn. I said we didn’t have much time. I felt we needed more people, better integrated. We needed a strategic approach to communications, greater centralisation, so that all capitals felt involved in what we were saying and doing, and also felt obliged at least to know what the line here was, even if they then felt unable to toe it. I told [NATO secretary general Javier] Solana if he wanted me to come out again, he just had to say. He said he loved the way we had “tamed” the media. I said we hadn’t, we’d just made them think we had. [NATO supreme allied commander, US General Wesley] Clark let me talk for a fair old while. He said “Well, I like a lot of what you’re saying. And I kid you not, we have to get something done, because we are on the brink of a disaster.” It was pretty alarming to hear him say it so bluntly, just as I found it alarming when, as I was leaving, he took me by the arm and said “Good luck, Alastair, we’re all counting on you!” I said “Shouldn’t I be saying that to you?” I found it a bit scary that at the height of a military campaign, I was sitting down telling a general how to run it, or at least run the media side, and complaining that the media campaign lacked the discipline we expected of a military campaign. I also assured him I was no Freedom of Information freak, and indeed felt they were sometimes giving out too much. I said I would not have shown the bombing of the train. It did not benefit us at all. If you are fighting a war, it has to be fought like a war at every level.
GUARDIAN NOTE: As the military campaign dragged on, Blair was determined that Nato should be prepared to deploy ground forces – to the fury of some in Washington. Blair used a visit to Washington for a summit to mark the 50th anniversary of Nato to make the case for ground troops.
Wednesday 21 April The White House TB said we have to generate more uncertainty in Milosevic’s mind re: whether we would use ground troops. Bill [Clinton] said he was not as negative as Sandy [Berger, US national security adviser]. He said it would be irresponsible not to do some planning, but in a way that doesn’t split the alliance.
Thursday 22 April [TB said] if Bill is unsure, and I go all out to persuade him, as this cannot be done without the US, how much are we putting our relations at risk? Jonathan [Powell] reminded him of the time Thatcher told Bush [US president George HW Bush] this was not the time to go wobbly. [They had been discussing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.] The difference, TB pointed out, was that “she had been PM a long time, and I have only been here two years”. But he said he wanted to see BC [Bill Clinton] again and emphasise we could not live with a messy deal. He felt strongly that there was a fresh place in history for BC here that blew away all the rubbish about his personal life. He said repeatedly it was a moral question. He was really fired up and even though he was wearing just socks and underpants, it was hard not to take seriously what he was saying, though I was constantly chivvying him to get dressed. Blair flew to Chicago to deliver one of the most important foreign policy speeches of his premiership in which he established the principle of liberal interventionism. The speech laid down the conditions under which one sovereign state could attack another. TB was getting more and more steamed up at the idea that we were asked to help in an operation that may end in just such a messy deal. If it did, he said he would never again lend our troops to such an operation.
Sunday 25 April Third Way seminar
[German chancellor Gerhard] Schröder asked me how my disinformation campaign was going. I said it would go a lot better if we had a few more Germans in it. TB took Bill into a private room, just the two of them, where he pressed him again on ground troops, saying we really needed a proper fix on where we were heading, that it could only be done if the US were clear they would be there when the time came. He said afterwards Bill was much more amenable. He also said I should basically run the whole media operation.
Tuesday 27 April Car journey and then dinner at chateau outside Brussels used by Nato supreme allied commander General Wes Clark He told me of a bomb they were intending to use that could destroy an area the size of four football fields, and then grenades would go off, and spread further. He said the Serbs don’t know we have it. The question is do we warn them or just use it? Not easy. I said if you do end up using it, make sure we have enough time before you do to have a proper explanation for its use.
Thursday 29 April Downing Street
I pointed out [to TB] in BC’s defence that most of the others were in the same place on ground forces – Schroeder, Chirac, Yeltsin. But the military say it can’t be won without it, he said.