April 5, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Calling Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic a "dictator who would rather rule over rubble, than not rule at all," U.S. President Bill Clinton said Monday the plan in the Balkans is for NATO to "persist until we prevail."
Clinton said the weather was now on NATO's side and the allies were "striking hard at Serbia's machinery of repression." The president also dismissed criticism that his administration didn't heed military concerns about the likely success of using airstrikes to stop Milosevic.
"I would far rather be standing here answering these questions," Clinton said, "than I would to be standing here having you ask me why we are permitting wholesale slaughter and ethnic cleansing and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and not lifting a finger."
Clinton also said that while diplomacy was everyone's first choice, peace talks at Rambouillet, France, failed and that made the NATO air campaign the "best available option."
When the president was asked at the afternoon news conference if the U.S. military was "with him," he deferred to Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
Cohen said the armed services, and especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recognized the problems of a military mission in Yugoslavia, including difficult weather, tough geography and the very robust Yugoslav air defense system.
"They came to the conclusion, unanimously, that the only option available, other than sitting on the sidelines, was to pursue the air campaign, given its limitations," Cohen said.
Clinton's spokesman reaffirmed the administration's resistance to the use of ground troops in Kosovo on Monday, telling reporters that soldiers would enter the province only as peacekeepers.
"We will not use ground troops in anything but a permissive environment," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said.
Lockhart's comments followed those of Cohen, who said earlier that the Clinton administration and NATO remained committed to a strategy of just airstrikes in Yugoslavia. Their statements come amid growing congressional calls for the use of ground troops in the Balkans.
Lockhart said the United States and NATO still want Milosevic to accept the requirements laid down in the Rambouillet peace accords before the allied bombing campaign in Yugoslavia will end.
The Rambouillet agreement called for the withdrawal of soldiers and special police units from the Serbian province of Kosovo; autonomy for the province, which was about 90 percent ethnic Albanian; and the establishment of a NATO force to keep the peace there.
Some key members of Congress took to the airwaves over the weekend to make their case that air power alone cannot end the conflict in Kosovo.
"It's time for him (President Clinton) to stop saying he won't put them on the table," Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition." "It's time for him to say that ground troops are a possibility."
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) told ABC's "This Week," "I hope if the Congress returns that we convince him to do his job -- to be commander-in-chief -- to win the war."
Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was joined by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D- Connecticut).
"The world and the Balkans will look very different when we return to the Senate next week than it did when we left last week," Lieberman said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"Last week, there was no support for American or NATO ground forces. Next week, I think there may be, because we understand more," said Lieberman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Cohen also said the decision to send U.S. helicopter gunships and short-range missiles to the region is an escalation of the existing allied air campaign, not a move toward putting troops into the field.
The 24 Apache gunships, along with support crews and a rocket artillery battalion, will be based in Albania and pitted against Yugoslav army units in Kosovo.
"We have started to hit many of the rail lines, the bridges, the petroleum storage and ammunition depots," Cohen said in an interview on CNN.
"Now we're starting to take the air campaign directly to the tanks, the heavy artillery, the types of gatherings of armed forces and police forces in the field."
Not only is the United States unwilling to commit combat troops to ground action in the Balkans, but NATO is unlikely to consider such a move, he said.
"This is a NATO operation. It's not a unilateral action by the United States. The NATO countries are committed to waging an air campaign," Cohen said.
First Kosovo refugees flown out of Macedonia
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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