Clinton: Containing Milosevic Is Goal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 1999; Page A1
President Clinton told the nation last night why he commenced the bombing of Serb targets in Yugoslavia, but he was less specific on when and how the airstrikes and U.S. military involvement in that Balkan region might end.
If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "will not make peace, we will limit his ability to make war," Clinton said in his 13-minute televised speech. Citing Serb atrocities against Kosovar civilians, the president said, "ending this tragedy is a moral imperative. It is also important to America's national interests. ... Our children need and deserve a peaceful, stable, free Europe."
Despite pressure from members of Congress and others to specify an exit strategy in the Kosovo conflict, Clinton kept his options open. The goal, he said, is to halt or deeply damage Milosevic's ability to attack Kosovar Albanian guerrillas and civilians. Beyond that, however, the president and his aides refused to be pinned down on how long the airstrikes might continue and what they might do if Milosevic's forces show a surprising ability to absorb the blows and keep fighting.
Ever since U.S. troops became ensnared in politically ambiguous wars in Korea and Vietnam, skeptics of military intervention have pressed the nation's leaders to outline strategies for ending offensive missions. Presidents, meanwhile, have learned that optimistic forecasts sometimes come back to haunt them, as Clinton discovered in 1996 when he prematurely predicted U.S. troops would end their peace-keeping mission in Bosnia within a year.
In addressing the nation twice in the TV speech and a brief afternoon statement Clinton said Serb atrocities against Kosovar civilians had justified the U.S.-led NATO airstrikes against Milosevic's forces. "Kosovo's crisis now is full-blown," Clinton said in his afternoon statement, which he dramatically delivered with barely 15 minutes' notice to White House reporters and camera crews. "And if we do not act, clearly it will get even worse."
Clinton refused to take reporters' questions, and his aides fended off queries about how long the airstrikes might last. Press secretary Joe Lockhart, asked if Clinton was prepared to deal with the new stage of action for months, weeks or days, replied: "I think it's impossible to answer that, to put any particular time frame on it."
Even as bombs were falling on Serb targets, some congressional leaders again pressed the administration to explain how it will avoid an open-ended military commitment in which objectives and exit plans become murky. "Everyone wants to know what Plan B is . . . and so do I," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely presidential candidate who voted Tuesday to authorize the airstrikes.
Clinton did not speculate on possible actions should his main goals be only partly achieved. "Our mission is clear," he said last night, repeating nearly point by point the arguments he has been making since his news conference Friday: "To demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose so that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of reversing course; to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo; and, if necessary, to seriously damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo."
He said this country could not afford to delay responding to such acts of tyranny, as has been the case with western powers in the past. "We've seen innocent people taken from their homes, forced to kneel in the dirt and sprayed by bullets," Clinton said. "By acting now, we are upholding our values, protecting our interests and advancing the cause of peace."
In his televised speech, Clinton twice turned to color-coded European maps showing Kosovo's proximity to numerous nations, trying to explain the U.S. stake in Kosovo to a public that is largely unfamiliar with the Balkan region. "Kosovo is a small place," he said, "but it sits on a major fault line between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, at the meeting place of Islam and both the Western and Orthodox branches of Christianity. ... Eventually, key U.S. allies could be drawn into a wider conflict a war we would be forced to confront later, only at far greater risk and greater cost."
When he finished speaking and the camera was turned off, Clinton sank back in his chair and puffed out his cheeks as if relieved.
Nick Dowling, former director for European affairs for Clinton's National Security Council, said the administration is wise to keep its military and political options open because events in Yugoslavia could take unexpected turns.
"It's unlikely that Milosevic will simply give in or that he will hold out forever," said Dowling, now with the National Defense University. "The administration certainly has a strategy and objectives in mind, but it doesn't necessarily work in its favor to publicize its endgame at the beginning."
White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said NATO forces hope to stop Milosevic cold, or at least "seriously damage his military capability," doing enough harm to "deter him from launching a full-scale offensive in Kosovo." This second scenario, Berger acknowledged, "is an end-state that is not perfect, in that there continues in those circumstances to be instability in Kosovo." But it's preferable to doing nothing, he said.
Moments after Clinton announced the bombing had begun, the White House canceled a scheduled three-day presidential trip to Ohio, Nevada and California. The trip, to have begun today, mostly involved fund-raising for Democrats.
On Capitol Hill, the House voted overwhelmingly last night for a resolution supporting the armed forces.
Staff writers Helen Dewar and John F. Harris contributed to this report.
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