Clinton Urges Patience With NATO Bombing Campaign
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 1999; Page A28
President Clinton appealed for patience yesterday from the American public, vowing that the allied bombing campaign against Yugoslavia will eventually bring President Slobodan Milosevic to heel.
"We are not drifting," Clinton fired back at a questioner at a news conference held in conjunction with the NATO 50th anniversary summit here. "We are moving forward with a strategy that I believe strongly will succeed – one that we have reaffirmed here and intensified. I think the important thing for everyone to understand is that in order for this strategy to succeed, we need two things. One, vigorous execution, and two, patience."
Facing domestic and foreign reporters, in a session devoted to Kosovo-related issues, Clinton acknowledged in his most direct language to date something other U.S. officials have been loath to admit: NATO air power cannot effectively halt the Serb soldiers and police who have rampaged through Kosovo for the past month.
"From the air," Clinton said, "you cannot take every Serbian body and uniform on the ground in Kosovo and extract them from Kosovo and put them back in Serbia. That, I think, is self-evident to everyone."
Instead, he said the United States and its 18 NATO allies this weekend reaffirmed a different logic for their bombing campaign: "We will either break down his military capacity to retain control over Kosovo, or the price of staying there will be far greater than the perceived benefits."
Under the second of the scenarios Clinton laid out – Milosevic effectively says "enough" and yields to allied power – U.S. and other NATO countries would send troops to enforce a peace settlement. But Clinton did not answer, and this weekend's summit did not resolve, what would happen if bombing effectively laid waste to the Serb military but Milosevic refused to assent to a peace settlement.
British officials have suggested that under such a "semipermissive" environment NATO should send ground troops in anyway. While Clinton said he supported a NATO "reassessment" of how many ground troops might be needed to invade Kosovo, he said the alliance's current "position" against ground troops unless Serb authorities agree to their insertion remains "the correct one."
Repeatedly, Clinton cautioned against judging the air campaign prematurely. "I would remind all of you that this may seem like a long time. [But] I don't think that this air campaign has been going on a particularly long time," he said.
He noted that in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, "there were 44 days of bombing before there was any kind of land action. And the land was flatter, the targets were clearer, the weather was better."
The implications of that analogy for NATO strategy are a subject of debate. Military analysts say the allied air campaign destroyed only 1 percent of Iraqi armored forces for each day of bombing. And that effort was followed by a massive ground operation to evict Iraq from Kuwait.
The NATO summit for the first time clarified the circumstances under which the bombing campaign would cease: once Serb forces begin withdrawing, even if they are not all out. U.S. officials said they persuaded other allies to insist that Milosevic also agree to a precise timetable for withdrawal. Clinton said NATO's clarification was not a concession: "We have not weakened our conditions, nor will we. If anything, I think this meeting has seen not only a reaffirmation, but an intensification of our determination to see the refugees back in, the Serb forces out, and an international force to protect them, and a movement toward self-government for the Kosovars."
Clinton also defended tactics the United States is pushing to make the air campaign more punishing. He said he supported NATO bombing of Serb television stations, despite criticism from some NATO allies who believe these are civilian targets. "Serb television is an essential instrument of Mr. Milosevic's command and control," Clinton said. "He uses it to spew hatred and to basically spread disinformation. He does not use it to show all the Kosovar villages he's burned, to show the mass graves, to show the children that have been raped by the soldiers that he sent there."
Clinton portrayed himself as passively accepting the recommendations of NATO military commanders – "That was a decision they made, and I did not reverse it" – but administration sources said he actively lobbied other foreign leaders to build political support for hitting these targets.
And he said blocking Serbian petroleum imports was essential, despite French skepticism over using military force to stop ships, and Russian opposition. "We sent our pilots into the air to destroy the oil refinery and supply systems of Serbia, and they did so successfully," Clinton said. "They risked their lives to do it. How can we justify risking the lives of the pilots to go up and destroy the refinery and the supply capacity of Serbia and then say but it's okay with us if people want to continue to supply this nation and its outlaw actions in Kosovo in another way?"
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