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  •   Text of Clinton's Remarks to Newspaper Editors

    The Associated Press
    Thursday, April 15, 1999; 4:29 p.m. EDT

    Text of President Clinton's remarks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday in San Francisco, as transcribed by the Federal Document Clearing House:

    CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Seaton, distinguished officers and members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the crisis in Kosovo, why we're there, what our objectives are, how this fits in with our larger vision of the future.

    Since I'm here I can't help noting that one of the truly striking aspects of this moment is the stark contrast it illuminates between a free society with a free press and a closed society where the press is used to manipulate people by suppressing or distorting the truth.

    In Belgrade today, independent journalists are being persecuted. This week, one brave editor was murdered in cold blood. Meanwhile, the government-run press has constructed an alternative reality for the Serbian people in which the atrocities their soldiers are committing in Kosovo simply don't exist.

    Under those conditions, decent people can remain in denial, supporting policies that lead them to political and economic ruin. Thank goodness our press and free press throughout the world have tried to get at and get out the truth to ensure that words like ``refugees,'' ``displacement,'' ``ethnic cleansing,'' don't become stale and lifeless but remain causes for action.

    The tragedy in Kosovo is the result of a meticulously planned and long premeditated attack on an entire people simply on the basis of their ethnicity and religion -- an attack grounded in a philosophy that teaches people to dearly love a piece of land while utterly dismissing the humanity of those who occupy it.

    That is what Mr. Milosevic has been doing ever since Yugoslavia started breaking up in 1989. For a decade he has been trying to build a greater Serbia by using military force to rearrange the ethnic character of the nations which emerged from Yugoslavia. That is what he did for years in Croatia and horribly in Bosnia -- what he is doing in Kosovo now.

    Last year, he drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes into the frigid mountains and let them back only after NATO threatened to use force. He is now determined to crush all resistance to his rule, even if it means turning Kosovo into a lifeless wasteland.

    As these difficult days proceed, it is important to remember that we have no quarrel with the Serbian people. They were our allies in World War II. They have often been our allies. In a sense, they are victims of this tragedy, too. And we must understand the anguish of Serbian-Americans, who like Albanian-Americans are worried about their loved ones back home. Americans should not blame Serbs or look down on Serbian-Americans because we disagree with the Milosevic government. We must not let his ethnic cleansing provoke us to ethnic bias.

    We and our 18 NATO allies are in Kosovo today because we want to stop the slaughter and the ethnic cleansing, because we want to build a stable, united, prosperous Europe that includes the Balkans and its neighbors, and because we don't want the 21st century to be dominated by the dark marriage of modern weapons and ancient ethnic, racial and religious hatred.

    We cannot simply watch as hundreds of thousands of people are brutalized, murder, raped, forced from their homes, their family histories erased, all in the name of ethnic pride and purity. NATO was pivotal to ending the killing and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. We can do so again and this time we have responded more quickly.

    Were we to stand aside, the atrocities in Kosovo would go on and on. Neighboring democracies, as you see, would be overwhelmed by permanent refugees and demoralized by the failure of democracy's alliance. The Kosovar Albanians would become a people without a homeland, a burden to host countries, a magnet for radical ideologies, a breeding ground for unending warfare in the Balkans.

    NATO would be discredited -- yes, because it made promises not kept, but more important because its values and vision of Europe would be profoundly damaged. Ultimately, the conflict in Kosovo would spread anyway, and we would have to act anyway.

    Now, when we decided to launch the air campaign after Mr. Milosevic rejected peace, we believed there was at least a possibility that our readiness to act would deter him from moving forward, as it had in the past. But we also understood clearly that with 40,000 troops and over 250 tanks massed in and around Kosovo, he might intensify his repression and go on with his planned attack, as I made clear in my address to the nation the night the airstrikes began.

    There was only one possibility that we and our NATO allies were not willing to entertain: that the international community would look the other way in the face of this brutality. Now, the NATO air campaign has been underway for three weeks, often interrupted or limited by bad weather. This is, however, a good time to assess what has been accomplished and where we're going.

    Mr. Milosevic's strategy has been to complete the ethnic cleansing, then break the unity of NATO by taking the bombs and offering phony concessions. But NATO is more united today than when the operation began. Whether they are conservatives in Spain, socialists in France, New Labor in Britain, or Greens in Germany, the leaders of Europe and the people they represent are determined to maintain and intensify our attacks until Mr. Milosevic's forces leave Kosovo and the refugees return under the protection of an international force, or until his military is weakened to the point when he can no longer keep his vice-like grip on Kosovo.

    At the beginning of the operation, we focused properly on Serbia's highly developed air defenses to reduce the risks to our pilots. There are still significant air defenses up, and therefore there is still risk with every mission. But we have degraded the system to the point that now NATO can fly 24 hours a day, not simply at night. We've struck at Serbia's machinery of repression, at the infrastructure that supports it. We've destroyed all of Serbia's refineries, half of its capacity to produce ammunition.

    ####

    When the weight of communist repression was lifted, these tensions naturally rose to the surface to be resolved by statesmen or exploited by demagogues. The potential for ethnic conflict became perhaps the greatest threat to what is among our most critical interests: the transition of the former communist countries towards stability, prosperity and freedom.

    We are in Kosovo because we care about saving lives and we care about the character of the multiethnic post-Cold War world. We don't want young democracies that have made the right choices to be overwhelmed by the flight of refugees and the victories of ethnic hatred.

    We don't want to see Europe refight with tanks and artillery the same battles they fought centuries ago with axes and arrows. And because stability in Europe is important to our own security, we want to build a Europe that is peaceful, undivided and free, a Europe where young Americans do not have to fight and die again to deal with the consequences of other people's madness and greed.

    Who is going to define the future of this part of the world? Who will provide the model for how the people who have emerged from communism resolve their own legitimate problems? Will it be Mr. Milosevic with his propaganda machine and his paramilitary thugs who tell people to leave their country, their history and their land behind or die? Or will it be a nation like Romania, which is building democracy and respecting the rights of its ethnic minorities? Or Hungary, which has accepted that ethnic Hungarians can live beyond its borders with security and freedom? Or Macedonia, which is struggling to maintain a tolerant, multiethnic society under the unimaginable pressures of the human and economic costs imposed by Mr. Milosevic's policies?

    Now after our recent experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, it's easy to forget that despite all the violence and turmoil they have experienced, the people of this region have in fact found ways to live together through the years. If the nations of the Balkans had truly experienced 1,000 years of unceasing ethnic cleansing, their ethnic makeup wouldn't be anything like what it is. They would be utterly homogeneous, not so diverse. Today, most of those countries are democracies. Most are trying to resolve their problems by force of argument, not force of arms. We cannot allow the Milosevic vision, rooted as it is in hatred and violence and cynicism, to prevail. But if we truly want a more tolerant, inclusive future for the Balkans and all of southeast Europe, we will have to both oppose his efforts and offer a better vision of the future, one that we are willing to help build.

    Now what does all this mean for the future of Kosovo and the region as a whole, starting from where we are right now? What many Kosovars want is independence. That is certainly understandable. After what they've been through, it's only natural that they should equate sovereignty with survival.

    But I continue to think it is not the best answer. Kosovo lacks the resources and infrastructure to be viable on its own. Moreover, Yugoslavia's long-suffering neighbors fear that an independent Kosovo would be unstable, and that the instability itself would be contagious.

    Finally, we must remember the principle we and our allies have been fighting for in the Balkans is the principle of multiethnic, tolerant, inclusive democracy. We have been fighting against the idea that statehood must be based entirely on ethnicity.

    Some people think the best way to solve Kosovo's problems, and Serbia's and Bosnia's, is to redraw their borders and rearrange their people to reflect their ethnic distinctions. Well, first of all, a lot of people who say that haven't looked very closely at the maps. It is a problem of staggering complexity. Once it starts, it would never end. For every grievance resolved, a new one would be created. For every community moved to a new place, another community would by definition be displaced.

    If we were to choose this course, we would see the continuous fissioning of smaller and smaller ethnically based, unviable states, creating pressures for more war, more ethnic cleansing, more of the politics of repression and revenge. I believe the last thing we need in the Balkans is greater balkanization.

    The real question today is not whether Kosovo will be part of Serbia. The real question is whether Kosovo and Serbia and the other states of the region will be part of the new Europe.

    The best solution for Kosovo, for Serbia, for Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and all the countries of southeast Europe, is not the endless rejiggering of their borders, but greater integration into a Europe in which sovereignty matters but in which borders are becoming more and more open and less important in a negative sense. It is to affirm the principle that Milosevic has done so very much to undermine, that successful modern states make a virtue, not a blood feud, out of ethnic and religious diversity.

    That is the solution southwestern Europe -- excuse me -- that is the solution that western Europe accepted not too long ago really when you think of it, after Europe had been consumed by two of the bloodiest wars in all of human history, after the Holocaust almost erased an entire people from the face of the Earth.

    It is hard to visualize today, hard to remember when you drive across Belgium and Holland or cross the border between France and Germany, that twice in this century millions of people spilled blood fighting over every inch of that land.

    It is hard to imagine the immediate postwar Europe Winston Churchill described as a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate. But because of the changes which have occurred, it is not unimaginable today that the nations of southeastern Europe will choose integration and peace, just as their Western neighbors have.

    To achieve that future, we must follow the example of the World War II generation by standing up to aggression and hate and then by following through with a post-conflict strategy for reconstruction and renewal. If we don't want people to remain mired in the miseries of yesterday, we must give them a better tomorrow to dream of and work for.

    ####

    Even as we fight this conflict, we must look beyond it to what the Balkans, southeastern Europe, indeed the whole continent of Europe, should look like in 10 or 20 years. We should try to do for southeastern Europe what we helped to do for western Europe after World War II and for central Europe after the Cold War: to help its people build a region of multiethnic democracies; a community that upholds common standards of human rights; a community in which borders are open to people and trade, where nations cooperate to make war unthinkable.

    That is why my request to Congress for supplemental funding for our military and humanitarian operation in Kosovo will also support emergency assistance to Yugoslavia's neighbors, which do not want their dreams of democracy and integration undermined by a flood of refugees and the fear of violence.

    That is why we've been working to help the countries of the region consolidate democratic reform and build professional armed forces under civilian control. We need to intensify these efforts and to work with the European Union and the international financial institutions to mobilize more support for these countries. And we need to condition this help, just as we did with western Europe 50 years ago, on closer cooperation among the beneficiaries and a new understanding of their sovereignty. This will take constant, steady American engagement together with our European allies, old and new.

    It will demand keeping institutions, including NATO and the European Union, open to new nations who make the right choices. It will take money in the form of investment and aid. It will require a willingness to provide material and moral support to people and leaders across the region who are standing up for multiethnic democracy.

    Realistically, it will require a democratic transition in Serbia, for the region's democracies will never be safe with a belligerent tyranny in their midst.

    It will demand from us a recognition that there is no easy way out of the region's troubles, but there is a solution that advances our interest and keeps faith with our values, if we are ready to make a long-term commitment.

    Of course all of this will take time and effort. In the meantime, the people of Kosovo should have protection, security and self-government. That can only be assured by an international security force with NATO at the core. As in Bosnia, this force should also include members of NATO's Partnership for Peace that represent the whole range of ethnic groups in Europe.

    This is precisely the kind of mission we envisioned for the Partnership for Peace when it was created five years ago, and the kind of mission I very much hope Russia could join as well, just as it did so constructively in Bosnia. In the long run, our goal for Kosovo should not be independence, but interdependence. Our watchword for the region should be integration, not disintegration.

    The ultimate answer for Kosovo, for Serbia, for Bosnia, Croatia -- all the Balkans -- is not to withdraw behind barriers of mistrust and insecurity, but to join a Europe where borders unite, rather than divide; to build a richly textured fabric of civilization that lifts all God's children and resists those who would tear it apart by appealing to the dark recesses of the soul that lead only to dead ends.

    The Balkan war that began in Kosovo 10 years ago must end in Kosovo. It should be the last conflict of the 20th century. It should not be the defining conflict of the 21st century. The United States has the opportunity and the responsibility to make that decision come out right for our children and our grandchildren.

    We can help to lead to a new day for the people of this long-suffering region, a more peaceful time for Europe, and a better future for the United States.

    Thank you very much.

    MODERATOR: The president has kindly agreed to take questions. You must be an ASNE member to ask a question. I invite you to go to the floor, as I see you're doing. Please identify yourself and your newspaper.

    Q: Rich Oppel, Austin American-Statesman. Would you help us sort out what happened yesterday on the road from Prizren to Kukes? According to press accounts -- you had your choices, I guess -- NATO aircraft either bombed a convoy that included refugees, or the Serbs attacked the Albanians in response to our bombing.

    Did we screw up? Can the prosecution of this war be sustained -- can it sustain the support of Americans if the newspapers of this country are publishing front-page stories showing dead civilians? And what word went out from you and Sandy Berger today to the Pentagon and to the NATO high command about yesterday's events?

    CLINTON: Well, first of all, what we believe happened is that the pilot thought it was a military convoy and that there were apparently civilians in the convoy who were killed.

    That is regrettable. It is also inevitable in a conflict of this kind, with planes traveling at high speeds, doing the best to fulfill their mission. And if the requirement is that nothing like this can ever happen, then we're saying it's OK with us if Mr. Milosevic displaces over a million Kosovars, kills and rapes thousands upon thousands of them. And keep in mind, in Bosnia there were more than 2 million refugees and a quarter of a million people killed.

    You cannot have this kind of conflict without some errors like this occurring. This is not a business of perfection. I ask you to think about the hundreds and hundreds of sorties which have been flown in the last three weeks and the small number of civilian casualties.

    It should be obvious to everybody in the world that we are bending over backwards to hit military targets, to hit security targets, even to hit a lot of targets late at night where the losses in human life will be minimized. These efforts have been made and they have been remarkably successful.

    So certain regrettable things will happen. We will do our best. The military will evaluate this incident as it does every other one. So will the NATO command.

    But I have to tell you, if anyone thinks that this is a reason for changing our mission, then the United States will never be able to bring military power to bear again, because there is no such thing as flying airplanes this fast, dropping weapons this powerful, dealing with an enemy this pervasive, who is willing to use people as human shields, and never have this sort of tragic thing happen. It cannot be done.

    I believe when the scales are weighed, it will be obvious that this is a result of Mr. Milosevic's policies. If he doesn't want this to happen, he ought to get out of Kosovo, let the Kosovars come home and let people come in there who can protect them. That is the answer to this.

    ####

    I can only tell you what I have tried to do. I have tried to lead America into a new century and into a whole new era in the way we work and live and relate to each other and the rest of the world. And I have tried to help build a world that was more peaceful, more prosperous and more secure.

    I think that among the things that people will say this administration did and made progress on was we gave the United States a modern economic policy and got out of 12 years of horrible deficit spending during which we quadrupled the debt.

    I think that the work we did to support the solution to social problems in reducing the welfare rolls by half and reducing the crime rate and putting 100,000 police on the street will be important. I think the work we did in education will be important. I think the systematic effort we made to promote reconciliation among people of different racial groups will be important.

    I think the work we have done from the Middle East to Northern Ireland in promoting peace will be important. I think the work we've done in Latin America through the Summit of the Americas and the work we've done with our other allies in Central America will be important. I think there are a lot of things that will altogether add up to preparing America for the 21st century, building a stronger American community, and repairing the social fabric.

    And let me just say one thing. I just left -- when I got off the airplane today, there were a bunch of young people who are AmeriCorps volunteers. That's a program, you know, we started back in the second year of my presidency. And one young woman said to me: I'm 30 years old. You're the first president I ever voted for. I've kept up. You did what you said you'd do. And it's worked.

    And her saying that to me meant more than just about anything any American could say. When I was in New Hampshire for the seventh anniversary of the New Hampshire primary, there were schoolchildren along the highway waiting in the cold rain.

    And person after person said to me: You had to come to these little town meetings in 1991 and we listened to you, and you've done what you said. So what I think will also happen is people will see Americans can solve their problems, government has a role to play and it can produce.

    So I think there's a sense of possibility, a sense of optimism, a sense of eagerness about the future that the present difficulties in Kosovo cannot begin to overshadow. And I think the country is clearly better off than it was six years ago.

    Q: Part of -- a little known function of this convention is to help train young journalists. There are some journalists here who produce the ASNE Reporter. I'd like to ask them to stand because they gave me this question. If you all would stand, please?

    Their question was, and you made an indirect reference to this in your speech. You didn't mention the Marshall Plan by name, but that seemed to be what you were talking about as a way to resolve this later. And their question was: Could a greater effort have been made after the fall of the Berlin Wall to do more along the lines of a Marshall Plan, particularly in the Balkans? And might that have prevented something like we're facing today?

    CLINTON: Perhaps. I don't know. You know, I wasn't president then. And I don't know -- I don't say that in a blameworthy sense. I just wasn't. And I don't think it's fair for me to make judgments that I, where I don't have all the facts and I can't say. I don't mind saying that, you know, that I missed the boat somewhere if I know it or if I know enough about somebody else to say that, but I don't know the answer to that.

    Let me say it in another way. I'm convinced that after communism fell, that the work that -- we had -- we had a chance after the Berlin Wall fell, after the end of communism, to build a Europe that was united, democratic and at peace for the first time in history. You go back since the rise of nation-states on the continent of Europe, that had never been true before. There had always been some conflict, there had always been some division, there had always been some absence of democracy. Never before possible.

    At that moment, there were three great challenges, I would argue, to that vision. One is, what happens to Russia? Does Russia become a democracy? Does it become stable? Can it be prosperous enough in the painful transition? The other was, what happens to all the states around that were communist -- the non-Russian states, which is basically the Balkans and central Europe and southeastern Europe? Second question.

    Third question is, would there be a conflict between Islam and the orthodox branch of Christianity manifest most obviously in the tension between Greece and Turkey, but also up in the Balkans?

    If those three things could be resolved in a satisfactory way, then we could build a Europe that was united, democratic and at peace. Now what happened? The Germans took on East Germany in an act of patriotism and generosity and costliness of staggering proportions. They are still paying the economic price today, but it was a brave and good and generous thing to do.

    The major countries in Europe supported the European Union. NATO took in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. There was a massive effort made to try to deal with Russia. The United States put a lot of money into the denuclearization program and other things.

    After that's said and done, where are we? And we dealt with the Balkans in a more halting way. I think everyone would have to admit that. And we've continued without great success to resolve the difficulties between Greece and Turkey, but they haven't gotten worse either. And we may have some Americans of both heritages here today that could have some ideas about that.

    So where are we today? Today we're concerned that Russia has maintained its democracy, but its economy has been so burdened it's caused all kinds of other problems, and that takes a lot of time for us. We're working on that, and we're trying to maintain our strategic partnership with them, even as disagree about the conflict in the Balkans.

    ####

    Central Europe is in very good shape: Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, a lot of other countries, Slovenia, are doing better than most people would have imagined they would do.

    But the Balkans are in trouble, and the trouble in the Balkans has exacerbated the tensions with Russia, at least in the short run, and all I can tell you -- I don't know whether we could have done more before. And I always prefer to look to tomorrow. I'm not blaming anybody for what happened before. I can't do that. I don't know enough to know. Everybody had their hands full, and there were so many changes going on at once, I'm not sure anyone could have figured out more to do.

    But I can tell you that -- if you want to think about what you want your children to live like, you imagine -- what do you want to happen in Asia? How are we going to work out our relationships with China and deal with the remaining security threat in North Korea, and try to bring, help Japan and the other countries to come back? How are we going to have the strongest possible alliance in Latin America? What kind of new partnership can we have with Africa?

    But it all could come a cropper unless we have a united, democratic and free Europe, and the three things of what I said: our relationship with Russia, what happens in the Balkans and southeastern Europe, and how -- will Islam and Christianity be able to coexist in a positive way in the underbelly of Europe?

    And so I would say, maybe it could have been -- maybe more could have been done. I don't know. I just know now -- right now, all those people are fighting over smaller and smaller pieces of land. It's like life is a zero-sum game. You kick me out of my village, I'll kick you out of your village.

    If, the Bible says wisely that where there is no vision, the people perish. We need to have an alternative vision. They need to be brought into the vision of a prosperous Europe. They need to have more to gain by working together than they do by having constant fights with one another. They need to have -- and we need to reach out and lift up there.

    So, however this conflict ends, or whenever it ends -- I think I know how it's going to end -- but whenever it ends, we have some building to do. They have to have something to live for.

    You just can't tell people what they can't do. They've got to have something to be for, something to dream of, a future to build. And we ought to be a part of it.

    Thank you.

    © Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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