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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 17, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                             JIM STEINBERG 

The Briefing Room

12:45 P.M. EST

MR. LEAVY: Good afternoon. Welcome to the White House. In honor of St. Patrick's Day and the President's meeting with the leaders of the Irish peace process, we have a rare, but, oh, so special briefing by the Deputy National Security Advisor James B. Steinberg.


MR. STEINBERG: Let the record be clear that that is James Brady Steinberg -- (laughter) -- the "B" on this particular occasion ought to be spelled out. And welcome to the O'White House.

Let me just give a brief rundown on the President's schedule today and a word or two about the purpose of the discussions, and I'll take your questions.

The President now is having lunch on the Hill at the traditional Speaker's Lunch. He'll come back, and at 2:00 p.m. he will meet with the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and we will have the traditional presentation of the Shamrocks ceremony, which I know you all look forward to so much every year.

Later this afternoon he will meet with a number of the party leaders in separate meetings -- first with Seamus Mallon, who is the Deputy Prime Minister -- Deputy First Minister of the new Irish Assembly and one of the leaders of the STLP; then with David Trimble and some of his colleagues from the Ulster Unionists; and finally, with Gerry Adams and several other members of Sinn Fein.

Following that, the President will meet with a broader group of the leaders, just before the evening's festivities, and then will go out to the tent for the presentation of the Presidential Medal to Senator Mitchell, followed by remarks and a musical performance, including Phil Colter and James Galway. And I think one of the most fitting parts of that will be Clare Gallagher who is a woman who was blinded in the bombings, will also perform at the musical reception.

I'll just say a word about where we are now in the Irish peace process and what we look forward to in the coming days. It's almost exactly a year since the Good Friday agreement was reached, and I think that this year, as last year, the fact that the parties are all here in Washington just before is an important part of helping to sustain the momentum for the peace process.

A lot has happened since the agreement was reached in April of 1998. It was approved overwhelmingly by the voters both in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Since that time, the parties have agreed on setting up the departments that will make up the new government in Northern Ireland. They've agreed on the cross-border institutions that will carry forward the work of the North-South bodies. The two governments have reached four treaties, four international treaties that will help bring these to life. The Human Rights Commission has been created. Chris Patton is now moving forward with the Policing Commission. We've had a significant reduction of the British security presence in Northern Ireland, and we've had a very significant number of prisoners released, which was part of the understanding associated with the agreement.

So it really is, I think, important to recognize how much has been done and how much the parties have been working together. We've had a chance over the last day or two, as Sandy and I have met with a number of the leaders to hear a little bit about the day to day work that's being done to set up the assembly. And I think it really is remarkable that the parties are now beginning to take on sort of the ordinary tasks of governing and thinking about how they can organize themselves to do it.

A year ago, it was almost unthinkable that leaders like Mr. Trimble and Mr. Adams would sit down together to try to work out their problems, but just last week we saw another example of the two of them meeting together. While there are important issues that still need to be resolved, I think it is important to see how much the landscape has changed.

I think the main message that the President will be giving to the parties, both in public and in private, is that they need to take account of what they have achieved and not put that at risk by failing to sustain the momentum, that there are still obstacles to be overcome, but the peace process is a process, it needs to be moved forward step by step, and all of the elements of the process need to go forward.

The parties need to work with each other to reach solutions that meet all of their needs and allow them all to see that making this process work benefits both communities in Northern Ireland. And so this is clearly not a negotiating session. This is not the role that the United States plays as part of the peace process, but it is an opportunity to remind them of what they've achieved, to remind them of how they worked to overcome differences and obstacles in the past, and to exhort them to that kind of effort in the coming weeks as we try to take an important step in bringing the political institutions of the Good Friday agreement to life.

So let me stop with that and I'll take your questions.

Q Where is Mr. Lockhart? (Laughter.)

MR. STEINBERG: Mr. Lockhart is in his office, but I'm sure he'll be out here to see you, and I'd get him right now if you'd like to turn to that. (Laughter.)

Q Jim, what does the administration make of the movement of Serbian armor around Kosovo?

MR. STEINBERG: We're obviously very concerned about what we're seeing in terms of military movements by Serbia. It's a matter of serious concern to us, and it's something that the Serbs have heard directly from us about our concerns. The President has made it very clear that if Serbian intransigence and continued aggression causes this peace effort to fail that there will be consequences. And we're watching it very closely.

Q Well, is it clear that the Serbs do not want the peace process to succeed? I mean, they're not making any movements that would suggest that they're interested in a deal.

MR. STEINBERG: We want to have the process move forward in Paris. There are discussions going on. I think in the first instance, if the Serbs are serious about it they ought to demonstrate it by getting down to business in Paris.

Q Just to follow up on that if I could. If Milosevic took the American threats and the NATO warning seriously, why would he be massing his forces?

MR. STEINBERG: David, I'm not going to try to judge what his motives are in massing his forces. He just needs to understand very clearly that if he continues to use massive repression against the people there, that NATO has authority to act and Secretary Solana made clear when he was here that NATO will act if necessary.

Q There are new reports now that the Serbs are, in fact, refusing to negotiate implementation. Have you come to any conclusion like that yourself? And how much of a time frame are you going to give them?

MR. STEINBERG: I think, in the first instance, we want to look to the negotiators to get their judgment about that. The talks began on Monday; there obviously appears to be very little movement on the Serb side. And I think we will be talking to our negotiators to get their judgment about whether they think that there is productive work to be done.

We clearly believe that a peace agreement, particularly a peace agreement along the lines that the Kosovar Albanians have agreed to, is in the interest of all the parties. And we clearly would like to try to achieve that. We don't want to short-circuit this process, but we also are not going to continue a process if there is no point in going forward.

Q You just said that they've just been told. Have they had some new message from --

MR. STEINBERG: We have been in touch -- not directly from the President, but we have been in touch through our mission in Belgrade to make clear about our concerns about these troop movements.

Q Jim, you just said a peace agreement "along the lines of" -- are you suggesting that the peace agreement will change substantially?

MR. STEINBERG: What we have said is that the only changes that would be acceptable in the agreement are changes agreed to by both of the parties. So that if the Albanians themselves were prepared to entertain changes, that that would be acceptable. But there would be no changes unless the parties themselves agreed to it.

Q Is NATO holding its fire because of any concern that once NATO action commences, the Kosovars might just declare independence and go on from there?

MR. STEINBERG: Well, I think that the judgment that NATO is making is looking at the situation on the ground and also trying to determine whether and what steps can be taken to make the peace process go forward. That's our objective. If we can achieve a peace process, if the package that was tabled at Rambouillet and agreed to by the Albanians comes to a peace agreement, that's in our interest. We don't want to try to short- circuit that process, but we also are not going to -- we're also going to watch very carefully what Milosevic is doing. And we've made clear that if his aggression undermines the prospects of peace, that we are prepared to act.

Q The KLA said they would sign on Monday, in a letter to Albright. They still haven't. Would that preclude you from acting against the Serbs if they still don't sign, and why do you think they're not signing?

MR. STEINBERG: I think that we take the letter from -- it's not just from the KLA, but it's from the whole delegation -- as an acceptance of the agreement. I don't think that the technicalities of precisely how it's to be signed is a barrier to our drawing the conclusion that they have indicated very clearly -- I think that both the chairman of the conference and the negotiators believe from their discussions with the delegation that they are signed up in full; they understand what the obligations for them would be. And so we take this as a yes.

Q But they haven't signed it. Is that not important to you anymore?

MR. STEINBERG: They have sent us a letter indicating their acceptance and they have indicated their willingness to sign. I don't think that sort of the technicalities of whether they put their name on the paper when the other side has not been willing to do it -- we believe we have the commitment from them that we sought which was an unequivocal indication that they would sign the agreement that we proposed to them.

Q But if they don't sign, and the Serbs are still the main obstacle, does that stop you from taking action against the Serbs?

MR. STEINBERG: Again, I'd say I'm trying to be as clear as I can. The issue is not the technical question of whether they have put their name on that piece of paper. They have sent a letter, unequivocally signed letter, they have signed this letter saying that they're prepared to sign it without reservations.

And what we have said is if Serb intransigence and aggression is the cause for this peace not going forward, then we're prepared to take actions.

Q Back on the this meeting today. You said that this is clearly not a negotiating session. Is this just kind of a pep rally and you don't expect anything substantive to come out of it?

MR. STEINBERG: It's clearly more than a pep rally, because I think that while it's important to remind the parties how much they've achieved and to kind of make them feel -- to take cognizance of what they have done, because it's often very difficult when you're in the day to day negotiations to sort of remember, gee, we really have gotten a lot done -- take that look back. I think the President can help get that perspective on the work that they've done. But he also wants to help them carry their work forward.

The sense that it's not a negotiating session is, the President is not going to be carrying proposals back and forth between the two parties, he's going to try to understand better what their approach is, what their strategies are, and to try to indicate and demonstrate, as we always have, that we're prepared to work with them to the extent that we can be of assistance as they try to work it out between them.

But I think the important development, perhaps one of the most important developments since a year ago is that the parties are talking to each other. And if this process is going to work, it's going to work because the parties themselves begin to solve their problems together. And I think there has been real progress in that, and I hear it even in our discussions in the last couple of days that the parties are beginning to see that they don't need to have third parties solve their problems. We can be supportive, we can indicate that we will be there in the various ways that we support with political support, with economic support, as we have through the Fund for Ireland, and we can help them think through their problems.

But if this is going to work over the long run, it's going to be because there's a real politics for the first time in Northern Ireland where they have their own institutions and their own political processes that reach agreements, understandings and compromises and move forward.

Q But he's not suggesting a direction, a specific, anything in particular?

MR. STEINBERG: Again, I think that one of the reasons the President has had the kind of impact that he has is that he is seen by all the parties as somebody that they can talk to, that they can look to for support and advice. We aren't taking sides, we aren't trying to give our own solutions to these problems, but we're trying to help them think it through. I think the other way in which the President is very helpful is his own experience in dealing with multiple peace processes can help them see how others have dealt with problems before and maybe bring that into their own thinking about how they can deal with their problems.

Q To what extent is the U.S. concerned that the problem of IRA decommissioning may bring about a collapse in the peace process?

MR. STEINBERG: I think it's important that all of the parts of the agreement be implemented. I think it's a point the President has made, that this is a process, that there are multiple obligations, that each of the parties built into the Good Friday Agreement that were important to them.

So if the parties are going to feel that all the various balanced elements are being achieved and they have a stake in going forward, then all of the elements need to be part of it. There's been a lot of focus on decommissioning; that is clearly part of the process, but it's not the only part. And I think the President is going to be stressing that if you look at what we have done -- or what they have done -- over the last year, many of these things have moved forward. We need to make sure that all the pieces move forward.

Q Is that an issue the President will raise today?

MR. STEINBERG: I think this President will, again, focus on the fact that all the pieces of the agreement need to be implemented. I think the various parties will probably, themselves, raise concerns about one or the other elements of the agreement. I'm sure that all the pieces will come up in one way or the other. And his point is going to be that you can't separate it all out, that everybody has to have a sense that all the different pieces are moving forward, all of the different agendas that are embedded in the agreement.

Q Why did the White House drop its objections to a missile defense plan?

MR. STEINBERG: We did not drop our objections to a missile defense plan. We're very pleased that the Senate adopted an approach which is fully consistent with the approach that we have advocated. We've always said that we're prepared to support missile defense if it dealt with four particular areas of -- or criteria -- the threat, the feasibility, the cost, and arms control considerations.

All of those factors have now been built into the legislation, and so this was now -- I think the Senate took a very constructive step in adopting an approach which is consistent with the one the administration has advocated.

Q Jim, going back to Ireland, you say that the President is meeting with all three groups. But if I heard you right, there's no point today when everybody will be in the same room, is that right?

MR. STEINBERG: There's no -- in the working meetings, that's correct. There will be, just before the main reception the President will host a very small reception for all the party leaders plus the government officials from the British and Irish government who are here. So there will be a time -- I think it's around 6:30 p.m. -- today, just before they go out to the South Lawn where all of them will be together.

Q That's the pep rally?

MR. STEINBERG: That's correct. Well, it's more than a pep rally, because it will be a private session and they will all be there. The President will have a chance to talk to them as a group. But in terms of working meetings I would say that the working meetings are with the Taoiseach and then with the three party leaders.

Q If what needs to move the process forward is that everyone has the feeling that all of the pieces of the agreement are moving, and why aren't they all?

MR. STEINBERG: Well, the President is going to have a chance to address them all on multiple occasions today. He will address them all in what he has to say at the Shamrock ceremony, where he is going to talk about the process. He will talk to them privately as a group just before the reception. And then, obviously, he'll have multiple opportunities to talk at the reception.

So I think there are two -- he's sort of operating in two dimensions, which is, one, a public message, and two, private work with the individual parties just to both for him to get a better understanding of how they see it and what their concerns are and how they would like to see the process move forward, and for him to give any insight that he can in terms of how we would like to support them in taking it forward.

Q How much time is he spending with each one, and is there an order --

MR. STEINBERG: The order is the order I gave you, which is he meets with the Taoiseach mid afternoon and then later, Mallon, Trimble and Adams. It's sort of scheduled for 20 minutes each; we'll see how that goes. And I will come back afterwards just to give a little readout on the meetings.

Q Jim, can you tell us -- an Iraq related question -- can you tell us what Ken Pollack is going to be doing for the NSC? And given that he's described removing Saddam Hussein as a fantasy, does that signal the administration is no longer committed to a change in regime in Iraq?

MR. STEINBERG: Let me say a couple of things. First, Ken Pollack will be coming as the Director in the -- I guess we call it the Near East and South Asia Directorate -- NESA. Ken is a very distinguished analyst of the region. He's worked the government before, he's worked in the NSC before. We're extremely excited to have him here. He's a powerful intellect and a guy who has tremendous knowledge of the region.

I think, first, we very much encourage people, we bring people from both the inside and the outside to work at the NSC. We are not in a position of sort of censoring the writings that they do before or after they come in. The question is whether they have the kind of skills and background to help us do the work. The judgments about policy are the judgments that are ultimately made by the President and his foreign policy team.

I also don't agree with your characterization of the particular article. I think the article analyzed some of the difficulties of the various strategies, but let me be perfectly clear that the policy that we have, which is that the only long-term solution to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is a change of regime, is very much a commitment of this administration. We've been moving forward very aggressively -- the appointment of Frank Ricciardone is just one of the important elements of what we've been doing. We've been working very closely with the groups that are outside of Iraq; we are working closely with the governments in the region and others. And I have absolutely no doubt that Ken will be a terrific asset in helping us pursue that agenda.

Q Jim, it's been stated that the possibility of NATO air strikes would be contemplated in the event of aggression or atrocities in Kosovo. Was there any contemplation of sending NATO in after the market bombing over the weekend, and if not, why not?

MR. STEINBERG: Scott, I think in terms of the market bombing, this is something we're obviously still investigating. There are a lot of charges and countercharges. I think one of the advantages that we have had because of what happened in October is, like before, we now have international observers on the scene. And so I think that there is a reasonable opportunity now to find out the facts, just as we're hoping as we get the finished pathologist report on Racak that we will have more facts. So I can't really characterize precisely what took place there. There were obviously people who were killed and it's a matter of great concern.

There is fighting going on and we are continuing to follow this very closely. We have made clear that we want to get a peace agreement. If we could get that, that would be the best for all of the people of Kosovo. But if that can't be achieved, and if Serb aggression continues, then we'll have to draw the consequences.

Q What is aggression? Define aggression.

MR. STEINBERG: I think that this is a judgment. The authority to move forward has been given to the Secretary General, he's been following the situation very closely, and I think we can see very clearly what is a pattern of activities. If we see that there is an offensive being launched that's a significant offensive by the Serbs, we will draw the consequences.

Q Is there any regret at the White House that you didn't more aggressively pursue this idea of a missile defense earlier, that maybe at this point there could have been more progress toward that end, considering some of the developments throughout the world in terms of missile technology?

MR. STEINBERG: I think if you look at the funding profiles and the activities, that we have spent a lot of money on the missile defense research. It's been a very aggressive program. It's a very difficult problem. You've all heard about using a bullet to hit a bullet, and the technical difficulties. This is a program which has been limited by technical limitations, largely, and not by a lack of aggressiveness about pursuing it. We would like to have an effective program that meets the criteria that we've designed, but it has been the technical limitations up to now that have been a principal barrier.

Q Are you saying there's been no change in the last six months in the White House posture towards a defense initiative -- missile defense initiative?

MR. STEINBERG: That's correct. We said several years ago that when we laid out the basic three plus three approach that we would look at a period where we examined the technological feasibility, we followed that out. It's been a consistent pattern over the last several years.

Q Can you comment on the situation in Ecuador and say if the President has tried to talk to the government there?

MR. STEINBERG: You know, obviously we have a great deal of interest in the stability of the government of Ecuador, concerned about the economic situation there. We've worked very closely with them and we very much hope that they find ways of dealing with the economic crisis that they're now facing.

Q Has the President tried to talk to them?

MR. STEINBERG: We are in touch with the Ecuadorans. I don't know of any specific plans for the President to talk to them.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:05 P.M. EST