"Oftentimes when a proposed course of action is unpopular, it's not exactly like the voters are telling you not to do it. It's basically like a giant, blinking yellow light," Clinton said Tuesday at his presidential center in Little Rock during a symposium on the Bosnian conflict.
Clinton rallied U.S. allies to support airstrikes to end ethnic killings in the region in the 1990s. But even that wasn't an easy sell, according to some of the more than 300 declassified documents that the CIA recently released.
Bosnia's 1992-1995 war following the breakup of Yugoslavia left more than 100,000 people dead. Bosnia remained independent after the war ended with the Dayton Accords, but it divided into two autonomous regions: one for the Christian Orthodox Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats.
Clinton and others, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, spoke about the conflict during Tuesday's symposium called, "Bosnia, Intelligence, and the Clinton Presidency."
The former president also praised the CIA's quick release of the previously classified documents, calling it "a big deal."
"I believe this is an important part of maintaining the public trust," Clinton said. "People have sense enough to know that you have to collect information that you don't want to broadcast but they know they're paying for it, too. And they have also sense enough to know that as soon as the danger is past, we ought to give them the information so people can figure out whether we did the right thing with it or not and what we can do better in the future."
During the Bosnian war, Clinton rallied U.S. allies to support airstrikes to end the ethnic killings. He didn't have the support of the United Nations, with Russia — closely aligned with Yugoslavia — wielding its Security Council veto powers of U.S. appeals. But Clinton did have NATO on his side, which provided broad North American and European support for military missions in bombarding Bosnia in 1994 and 1995.
That's a contrast to President Barack Obama's recent efforts to gain international support to intervene in Syria.
And yet, the newly released documents show that it wasn't an easy sell for Clinton. At a February 1993 "principals" meeting at the White House, then-White House National Security Adviser Tony Lake cautioned that if they went ahead with airstrikes "at the end of the road, we would be under great pressure to help implement a settlement including with forces on the ground."
Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the group that "deciding to use American forces in Bosnia would be crossing the Rubicon. But we should think about whether sweeping the problem under the rug creates more problems," according to recently released notes from the meeting.
When Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked her what she suggested the U.S. should do, she replied: "NATO action."
Powell expressed some skepticism. "The military will do anything that is decided, but we need to know what 'it' is that we are being asked to do," Powell said.
"We can use air power but ultimately must go in and separate the parties," added Powell, who would be named secretary of state himself under the subsequent administration of Republican George W. Bush.
Clinton later asked Powell directly for his advice, according to notes from the meeting.
"We can perform this mission," Powell told the president. "But it would be expensive and could be open-ended with no promise of getting out. But if we start down the road of diplomatic engagement, we must be willing to help enforce a settlement."
At the symposium on Tuesday, Albright said it was OK to disagree.
"We all argued, and that's actually what it's supposed to be about," Albright said. "Principals committees, you shouldn't have everybody there saying, 'Yes, sir. Yes, sir.'"