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Crossfire transcript: Sen. John McCain calls for resolve in Yugoslavia

Aired April 1, 1999

April 2, 1999
Web posted at: 10:02 a.m. EST (1502 GMT)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Milosevic should make no mistake: The United States takes care of its own.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, as three American soldiers remain captive in Yugoslavia, President Clinton issues a stern warning. How far should the United States go to secure their release? We ask a United States senator who was once a prisoner of war.

ANNOUNCER: Live, from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, in Phoenix, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Tonight, the war in Yugoslavia has a human face, three of them. Three American servicemen captured and held by Serbian forces.

The Pentagon says they were part of U.N. peacekeeping forces patrolling the border of Macedonia, not part of NATO attack forces. The Yugoslav army says they were on Serb territory and resisted arrests.

As Yugoslavia prepared to haul the three Americans before a military court tomorrow, President Clinton warned President Slobodan Milosevic he would be held personally responsible.

NATO's military commander expressed his outrage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER, NATO: We have all seen their pictures. We don't like it. We don't like the way they're treated and we have a long memory about these kinds of things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: And the mother of one of the American prisoners made a personal plea for mercy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROSIE GONZALES, MOTHER OF CAPTURED SOLDIER: They're young men with their whole lives ahead of them. And they were put in a bad situation, and we just pray and hope for their safe return, all three of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Capture of the three Americans suddenly ups the ante in Kosovo. Is it time to reconsider why the United States is there and what's being done?

For his views tonight, we turn to one who has been there, former prisoner of war, now Republican senator and GOP presidential hopeful John McCain.

Bob.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Senator McCain, last week one of my Capitol Hill sources told me that he had information from the CIA that there was a strong probability that Serb forces were going to snatch some American troops and take them into captivity. That turned out to be -- on the Montenegrin border. I'm sorry -- on the Macedonian border. That turned out to be the case.

Why was the United States military not prepared for such an eventuality if they had advance intelligence information on it?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Bob, I obviously don't know the answer to that. And as you know, Senator John Warner today after a briefing came out and asked some very, I think, important questions about that. And so it is -- they're very legitimate questions. They need to be answered. And more importantly, have we taken steps so that it can't happen again?

But at the same time, our primary mission now is to get these young men back as quickly as possible and in good health.

NOVAK: You know, these three soldiers were from the big red one, the 1st Infantry Division, and they have certain protocol, I understand. They always are supposed to have a helicopter over a scout car. They're supposed to have two scout cars in sight of each other.

These things weren't done, and I wonder if this is because this was a U.N. mission, not a regular U.S. military command, and maybe that young man Michael Knew (ph), who was court-martialed because he didn't want to serve under U.N. command, had it right in the first place.

MCCAIN: Well, I think that is a kind of interesting scenario. But my understanding was -- and this is probably another aspect of it we have got to resolve -- and that is that this mission was disbanded because of a Chinese veto in the U.N. I think that's your understanding as well. So it shouldn't have been a U.N. mission. They should have been made then part of U.S. forces.

So it -- I think we'll find out about all that.

NOVAK: Senator, we have heard a lot of tough talk today from the supreme commander, General Clark, from the president, and let's take a look at something the president said about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM COHEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There are no plans and no intent to use ground troops. We're carrying forward with our air campaign. And that's something that NATO...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Bill Cohen is not the president yet. Let's take a look at what the president said then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: President Milosevic should make no mistake. We will hold him and his government responsible for their safety and for their well-being.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: With all of that tough talk, Senator, what exactly can the United States do? We're bombing the dickens out of them right now. We have said we're not sending in troops. What is all of this tough talk? Is this just bluster?

MCCAIN: Well, I hope not, because there's a great deal at stake. And Bob, I know your position on this issue and I respect it. But I think you and I would agree there's an enormous amount of stake here now that we're in it.

And for the secretary of defense, who is a good friend of mine and yours and Bill's, to say we're not going to put ground troops in under any circumstances, in my mind is encouraging to Mr. Milosevic, then is contradictory to the words of the president that this whole thing is comparable to the Holocaust, could destabilize the region, et cetera.

If we're in it and we have got to win it, which is my firm conviction, then we'd also better be prepared to exercise every option.

Look, this is not the Wehrmacht. This is an army that got beat by the Croatians, which we is why -- the main reason why Milosevic came to Dayton, as you know.

NOVAK: I just want to just follow up on my previous question, John. I just didn't quite get your answer whether there was...

MCCAIN: OK.

NOVAK: I understand your position on the overall war.

MCCAIN: Sure, sure, sure.

NOVAK: But I just -- what is your position on what can be done -- General Clark is saying we have long memories. Are they going to send in a SWAT team to get Milosevic? What are the options that the United States has in this case?

MCCAIN: I think it's as follows, Bob, increase the intensity of the bombing, recognizing that that entails civilian casualties. That's the reason why war is so terrible. And it may even mean losses of aircraft.

It also means that we should, as quickly as possible, prepare for the ground troops option if necessary. And obviously, that's the last one.

In the meantime, there's a whole lot of things we can do with our Apache helicopters, with A-10 Warthogs and with a number of other assets that we have, and devote it all.

And by the way, do not let our NATO "allies" -- quote-unquote -- veto any targets that General Clark feels are necessary to be struck in order to win this conflict.

PRESS: Senator...

MCCAIN: Which is very disturbing I think.

PRESS: Senator McCain.

MCCAIN: Yes, Bill.

PRESS: I want to ask you about the prisoners as well. But first, let me ask you about your own plans.

You, next Tuesday, you had prepared to make an official announcement about your candidacy in Manchester, New Hampshire. We were told today you have postponed that. Why did you postpone it, Senator? And how long do you intend to hold that position?

MCCAIN: Bill, I postponed it because I thought at this particular time it was inappropriate. We're going through a difficult time nationally. When I announce my candidacy, I want to talk about a broad variety of issues, obviously. But right now, I think the situation does not warrant it.

And I don't know how long I would delay it, but it's got to be until there's some change here I would -- I believe.

PRESS: Senator, especially for you -- I think for all Americans -- especially for you, given your experience, seeing the photos of those three men on television today was heart-wrenching. Is it any reason to rethink what the United States is doing in Kosovo? Is it anytime to make a deal with Milosevic because of their capture? MCCAIN: All of us are gripped -- all Americans, no matter what your past experience -- are gripped with the tragedy of these young men in captivity. And apparently, they have not been treated well, which shouldn't astonish us, to say the least. But the object of the use of military force is victory, and the reason why it's the last resort and not the first resort is because of the terrible tragedies that may ensue.

This plan did not go according to as the administration expected. That's not a reason, even if Americans are killed or captured, to change the ends. It's a reason to change the means to reach that end, which is victory, and there's no substitute for it, particularly at this point.

PRESS: If harm were to come to these three men, if Milosevic were that stupid, Senator, do you think he should be held personally responsible? What are the consequences for Slobodan Milosevic if anything happens to these three men?

MCCAIN: I think he and every single person that ever laid a hand on these young men would be held responsible, and we would do whatever is necessary forever to hunt them down and to give them what they deserve if they do that, because it's not only important for their safety, but we have got to send a lesson to everybody else that that's not the way we treat Americans who are taken prisoner.

NOVAK: Senator McCain, I would like to point out to you some new polling data in the CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll. If U.S. ground troops in Kosovo -- if airstrikes do not work, should ground troops be sent? Only 39 percent favor it; 57 percent are opposed. That's a little better than it was last week. But after all the propaganda from the White House, not much of a gain.

Can you really send in troops, combat troops, granted they're not the Wehrmacht, but they are -- they are some bloody fighters. Can you send them in with that little public support?

MCCAIN: I think you can if the president leads, Bob. You know, before the Persian Gulf War, the majority of American public opinion was opposed to it. And President Bush was able to talk to the American people directly, assemble a coalition, et cetera. So it's a matter of leadership.

But what I hear the administration saying, in all due respect, is that we won't send in ground troops, so therefore it's not surprising to me that the American people shouldn't seek such an event.

NOVAK: Do you think that war can be won without sending in ground troops?

MCCAIN: I am very skeptical because all three of us, being students of history, know that the last time, I think, that air power won was when Zeus used to have an unlimited supply of thunderbolts.

NOVAK: I think the atom bomb on Japan might have...

MCCAIN: True, true.

NOVAK: Now, another polling thing -- one more polling thing, same Gallup poll showed -- asked, "Have airstrikes made the current situation in Kosovo better or worse?" Better, 22 percent; worse, 64 percent.

Now, Senator, you have got to agree that the American people got that one right, don't they?

MCCAIN: I don't know where the 22 percent have been. One of the gross miscalculations here was that they did not expect Mr. Milosevic to carry out this somewhat audacious step of -- of accelerating the ethnic cleansing. And that's why it's puzzling when they say that their object is to degrade their military capability.

What does that mean? Our goal is to stop him from doing that. Our goal is to get him to sign an agreement, and then we could move those people back into their homes and villages, and rebuild whatever has been destroyed, and have a peaceful settlement, and perhaps peace in the region -- but not until that.

NOVAK: OK, Senator, we have got to take a break, and when we come back, we'll discuss whether this issue is driving a stake through the heart of the Republican Party.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Senator John McCain of Arizona is about to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and that puts him in the middle of an internal Republican debate stirred by President Clinton's intervention in Kosovo. Is that intervention too aggressive or too passive? Is the old GOP civil war between isolationists and internationalists erupting again?

Bill.

PRESS: Senator McCain, to say the least, not all of your fellow presidential contenders share your point of view on what's happening in Kosovo. Without asking you to violate the 11th commandment, however, let's just say you're in a debate now with your friends.

MCCAIN: Yes.

PRESS: And here are their arguments. I would like you to respond briefly to each.

Let's start with Pat Buchanan. His quote. "If the Europeans want to intervene, that's their business. But if I were president, I would remove every United States soldiers from the Balkan peninsula."

Isolationism isn't the answer, Senator?

MCCAIN: I would say that -- I would remind Pat that we are the world's superpower, and with that comes great luxuries and also with it comes great obligations, and sometimes those obligations require sacrifice. And if we aren't the world's superpower, then who would he choose to play that role?

PRESS: Next up to the microphone is Senator Bob Smith who says: "500,000 people were killed in Rwanda last year. We weren't firing missiles in Africa. This is outrageous. This is a decision we will deeply regret."

Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: In the case of Rwanda, I would have been eager to intervene to stop the genocide that took place in Rwanda if we could have beneficially affected the outcome of that situation. And that doesn't mean to me that I am ready to go any place in the world. But obviously, if we could stop a genocidal act that kills a half a million people, but there was no way to beneficially affect that situation in Rwanda. And I know of no one who believes that we could. And so to compare them is a bit disingenuous.

PRESS: Not to ignore all the others, but we're short of time, so the next and last speaker is Dan Quayle. Quote: "Bill Clinton said he wanted to stabilize the region and he's destabilized it. It didn't have to get this situation. Once again, we've seen failed leadership when it comes to foreign policy."

MCCAIN: Well, I believe that there has been a degree of failed leadership in the ineffective and feckless foreign policy that has been conducted by this administration, and I have been a severe critic, although I have also supported the administration when I think they're right. But I know of no expert in the region that doesn't believe that Mr. Milosevic was embarked on an ethnic cleansing in the region which would have destabilized the other countries, as well as horrible, inhumane, atrocious acts which we could have prevented or certainly had an obligation to try to prevent.

NOVAK: Senator McCain, on Sunday's -- on ABC Sunday, "This Week With Sam and Cokie," William Kristol, the editor of "The Weekly Standard" and a very important voice in conservative and Republican politics for the last decade, had something really fascinating to say, and let's take a look at it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, I think Republicans have been misled by their dislikes, not to say hatred, of Bill Clinton. But Republicans so dislike Bill Clinton they're unwilling to support him when they should basically be supporting him. And the criticism they should have of him now is that he's likely to do too little, not that he's doing too much.

I am worried about the Republican Party. They so dislike Clinton that they're in danger of becoming knee-jerk neo-isolationists.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Do you agree with that, Senator? That the dislike of Senator (sic) Clinton has led your colleagues into error on this issue? MCCAIN: Well, sometimes some -- certainly not the majority -- but some of my Republican colleagues remind me of Wile E. Coyote who is chasing after the Road Runner. And every time that the Coyote almost catches him, the dynamite goes off or the train runs over him and the truck hits him. And sometimes I sense that frustration.

But I respect the views of my colleagues on this issue. This is a very important issue. And for me to question it or impugn their motives, I just don't think is appropriate.

NOVAK: I just wonder if it helps very much in the Republican Party to every time you disagree with somebody, who has like you, served their country, somebody like Duke Cunningham...

MCCAIN: Sure.

NOVAK: ... who was a top gun, to say...

MCCAIN: Sam Johnson.

NOVAK: ... Sam Johnson -- to say they're isolationists. Is that very helpful?

MCCAIN: No, I don't think so. But I do believe that you and Bill are correct and that there needs to be a debate in our party. Pat Buchanan is probably one of the most spokespersons. And it isn't just about use of force. It's got to do with protectionism and free trade and a number of other issues that sort of symbolize the wings of our party.

It's going to be a healthy debate. I think it's important. And I hope that the majority of Republicans come down on my side. The debate needs to be held.

NOVAK: Just a quick personal...

MCCAIN: Sure.

NOVAK: ... question. Do you get a little embarrassed that so much praise has been lavished on you by left-wing journalists...

(LAUGHTER)

... like Bill Press and my good friend, Al Hunt.

MCCAIN: Yes, but I am so wounded when you criticize me, Bob, that it makes up for all the good feelings I have when they praise me.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESS: And you also know, Senator, any good things we say about you now will be more than matched by the shots we take at you later.

MCCAIN: Absolutely.

PRESS: Senator, this is the ninth day of this bombing. There is a lot of frustration that all the goals have not been met. Was it realistic to think it to happen any sooner and how long do you think it is going to take?

MCCAIN: Well, this goes back to our previous question, which I am glad we revisited, because I was kind of flippant in the answer, which I am from time to time. The fact is that bombing, air power alone has not been decisive in the outcome of major conflicts.

We watched on CNN those wonderful shots and the cruise missiles hitting Baghdad downtown and all of that, but it was General Schwarzkopf's ground troops that won that battle, as you know.

And we seem to have forgotten that a little bit, because we have launched cruise missiles so many times in Iraq and other, you know, against Afghanistan and Khartoum, and then we kind of move on. And I think this conflict is bringing back to us in spades that these conflicts are tough. They don't always go as we plan them. And we have to -- must adjust our strategy and tactics to account for that when it doesn't succeed as we plan.

PRESS: Final question, Senator.

MCCAIN: Sure.

PRESS: Isn't Bill Kristol right when he said that the risk with this administration and Kosovo is not that it do too much but that it in fact do too little?

MCCAIN: Absolutely. If you believe that as much is at stake as I believe it is, including the credibility of the United States of America and the likelihood that others will challenge us if we fail here, then you have to exercise every option and do what it takes to ensure victory. And there is no substitute for it.

PRESS: Senator McCain, thank you very much.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

PRESS: ... for joining us on CROSSFIRE. Good to have you back.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

PRESS: And we'll be seeing you around the track. Bob Novak and I, we'll be back in just a minute with our closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Bob, you have opposed these airstrikes. I've supported them. But wouldn't you agree that the capture of these three Americans really ups the ante, and if anything happens to them, then Milosevic himself is a fair target?

NOVAK: You know, we had just hundreds of POWs in North Vietnam, including John McCain. I didn't find a lot of the people on the left wringing their hands over them. If you have troops in a combat area, they may be captured. I don't -- I think this is a lot of nonsense. My guess is -- I have no information on this -- but I think Milosevic will try them and release them. This has nothing to do with the big issue. But if the Americans get excited about three people, they're not ready for a war.

PRESS: I think it does have to do with the issue, because I think this brings it home to what this guy is all about and why it's important that the United States is part of this NATO operation.

You see those refugees. Now, you see the three American soldiers...

NOVAK: More than 175,000 Albanians? More important, three Americans?

PRESS: No, I am not saying it's more important.

NOVAK: Yes, you are. Yes, you are.

PRESS: I am saying it ups the ante when you see those American faces on television. And you know it. You're just afraid to admit it.

From the left, I am Bill Press. Good-night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: I don't know any such thing. From the right, I am Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


CROSSFIRE VIDEO

CROSSFIRE segment 1: Three U.S. Soldiers captured (4-1-99) video Real: 28K | 80K, Windows Media: 28K | 80K

CROSSFIRE segment 2: Three U.S. Soldiers captured (4-1-99) video Real: 28K | 80K, Windows Media: 28K | 80K

CROSSFIRE segment 3: Closing comments from Bill and Robert (4-1-99) video Real: 28K | 80K, Windows Media: 28K | 80K


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Senate roll call tabling Kosovo resolution


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President Bill Clinton speaks on Kosovo (4-28-99)


VIDEO

John King reports: Clinton says Yugoslav initiatives fall short, but still hoping for diplomatic breakthrough (5-4-99) video Windows Media: 28K | 80K

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