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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 23, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                             JOE LOCKHART 
                           The Briefing Room    

1:53 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Hello, good afternoon. Sorry for the delay. Let me just give you a sense of what the President has been doing today. As I told you this morning, the President met first, at about 9:00 a.m., with his foreign policy team that gave him an update of the situation on the ground and the situation with Ambassador Holbrooke in Belgrade. The President then, starting at about 10:00 a.m., met with 40 or congressional leaders from both Houses and both parties. There was a good discussion. They put forward a lot of ideas, both -- and the President continuing the consultation, and members raising a number of ideas and raising a number of questions that the President and his team were glad to address.

I think you've heard from most of the members coming out, so you have some sense of where Congress is going. I think the President made clear that we want congressional support in the event of military action. It appears from the statements that were made outside and from the conversations that we've had that the Senate is working toward finding some way to express support for our men and women that may find themselves in harm's way in the coming days.

And from Belgrade, as we told you, Ambassador Holbrooke has left. As he said before he left, he is satisfied that President Milosevic fully understands the consequences of his refusal to stop the offensive action and to continue to resist a political settlement.

We believe at this point that diplomacy has been exhausted. As we've made clear in the past, if we arrived at this point NATO would be prepared -- if we arrived at the point where the Kosovar Albanians had signed the peace agreement and President Milosevic refused to sign the agreement and continued his military action against the Kosovar people, NATO would be prepared to act.

Beyond that, I'm not going to get into operational matters, decision-making, or timetables. I can tell you, for the rest of the afternoon the President now will be meeting shortly with Chairman Arafat. And I expect him to continue his consultations with the allies and potentially with congressional leaders.

On the question of the visit of Prime Minister Primakov -- let me get that statement for you and we'll come back.

Q That's the piece of paper you're waiting for.

MR. LOCKHART: That's exactly right. It's not here.

Q Is he coming or not coming?

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you. Let me read the statement from the Vice President. Thank you, P.J.

I spoke twice this morning with Russian Federation Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The second time when he was on his plane over the Atlantic Ocean en route to the United States. I informed him that Milosevic had rejected our efforts to reach a peaceful outcome in Kosovo and that Milosevic was launching escalated offensive actions against the men, women and children of Kosovo.

After discussing the worsening situation in Kosovo, Prime Minister Primakov decided to return to Moscow, and we agreed that we would postpone this week's meeting of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission.

The Prime Minister and I are both committed to a strong bilateral relationship. And we are both convinced that the work of the Commission helps strengthen that relationship. We will take up the important work of the Commission at a time when both sides can better focus their attention on the issues before us.

That's a statement from the Vice President, which we will put out as soon as this briefing is done.

Q What are the ideas put forward with Speaker Hastert, who suggested the President address the Congress and/or the nation? What are you going to do?

MR. LOCKHART: There was a series of ideas that included both of those things you've mentioned, Sam, as well as a number of other ideas. We will be considering them, and I will make an announcement on those when we make a decision.

Q Well, does it follow, though, that you will find some avenue, some course for the President to further talk to the American people about this policy?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President over the last weeks has been talking, has dealt with this issue repeatedly, both in consultations with our allies, consultations with Congress, and speaking directly to the American public, and I expect that to continue.

Q Yeltsin has now replied, is that right? To the letter from President Clinton?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't seen a reply. If it has, it's come in and it hasn't been reported to me.

Q Just to nail this down, the reason that Primakov decided not to come is because of the imminent nature of NATO air strikes, which he opposes?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, as you know and as I've spoken from here, we've worked very positively with the Russians to date on this issue, and sending a clear signal to President Milosevic. As you also know, the Russians have historically opposed any use of force here.

Now, as far as the decision, this was a decision that Prime Minister Primakov made, and it was made after the Vice President informed him that the efforts of Ambassador Holbrooke had essentially failed, and that he would be leaving Belgrade to go to Brussels, and eventually to come back home.

Q So Primakov was in the air over the Atlantic, and just turned around?

MR. LOCKHART: That is correct.

Q Joe, the President -- you said the President made clear that he wants congressional support in the event of military action. Is that because he believes it is constitutionally necessary, politically necessary? Why does he want congressional support?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't think he believes it's constitutionally necessary, because we don't believe that. But we believe that it's important, when you're putting men and women in our service in harm's way, that we send from all of our political institutions a united message of support.

Q But the President hasn't previously suggested that he needed some sort of congressional vote, up or down, before he took military action.

MR. LOCKHART: I don't believe he thinks he needs to, but I think we support the idea of Congress finding a way that they can express their support for such an action.

Q Is that a change in the view from a few days ago?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. I think we've moved to this -- this has been a process that, for a number of weeks, focused on the idea of a post-implementation force, but has moved quickly over the last few days with the breakdown of the peace talks and then the lack of any progress by Ambassador Holbrooke -- we said all along that if we got to this point NATO would be prepared to act. And I think the President and the administration believes that any expression of support for what the men and women of the service may face is something that would be a positive element.

Q -- you always wanted a congressional vote?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not saying that we wanted a vote. What I'm saying is that we view in a positive light an expression of support here.

Q Senator Robert Byrd is circulating a resolution in the Senate which specifically authorizes air operations, supports the President, but also specifically forbids the introduction of any ground troops without congressional authorization. On that point, would the President support this kind of resolution?

MR. LOCKHART: I think there are a number of ideas out there, a number of resolutions. We're working with the leadership to see what they'll bring to the floor. So I'm not going to get into debating the finer points of all of them. We'll see what they put on the floor, and I'll be glad to respond specifically to anything that gets put on the floor.

Q We ask because past Presidents have specifically insisted they have the right to deploy U.S. forces -- except for the War Powers Act, and they don't like that -- without authorization. But this resolution would say they couldn't do it without authorization.

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I'm not planning to get into a constitutional debate here. We're working with the leadership. We'll see what they put on the floor. And if we have any objections to what's put on the floor we'll let you know.

Q Would you take a resolution in support of the troops as support for the administration's policy?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we'll see what the resolution says, but we take any expression of support for what our service men and women may be involved in as a positive development.

Q When you say that diplomacy has been exhausted, you're referring to U.S. diplomacy, I take it. Do you know of any other diplomacy that's underway in trying to convince Milosevic to --

MR. LOCKHART: I am not aware at this point of any other diplomatic avenue that is being pursued.

Q Can you tell us a little bit more about this administration's reaction to Mr. Primakov's decision to turn around in midair? Was the President or the Vice President relieved that he wouldn't be here and, therefore, you would avoid the awkwardness of him being here at a time when you might --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think the Vice President appreciates the decision that -- and the factors that went into the decision of Prime Minister Primakov. We have important issues. We have broad bilateral relations with the Russians, issues on economic front, on nonproliferation front. The Gore-Primakov Commission has been doing important work. And at a date to be scheduled in the future, they will continue that work.

Q But the primary purpose of the visit was to get $4 billion --

Q -- or did they disagree?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me do one at a time.

Q Did the President and the Vice President agree with his decision to turn around or did they disagree? Could you tell us that?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I said we appreciate the factors that went into his decision, but it was his decision to make.

Q But your concern was getting an IMF commitment --

MR. LOCKHART: They will continue -- my presumption is the Russians will continue to work with the IMF. We will, for our part, continue to urge them to get their fiscal house in order to make the tough decisions they need to make for true economic reform.

Q Joe, on this subject, the same subject -- the fact that Mr. Primakov found it necessary to literally turn around in midair and return to Moscow is certainly -- humiliating appearance and will undoubtedly be used as ammunition by forces, political forces in Moscow who are not friendly to the West. Is the President concerned that the sequence of events here may be undermining the government --

MR. LOCKHART: It should not, and I would reject your characterization of how it should be interpreted.

Q But certainly it will be interpreted that way --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know that it certainly will be.

Q There's no concern that we've undermined Mr. Primakov's political standing --

MR. LOCKHART: I am not aware that we have in any way undermined his political standing. This is a decision he made based on circumstances in a fast-moving situation.

Q Sticking with this Russia question, the first thing the President detailed today when talking about U.S. interests in Europe was, number one, Russia; number two, Greece, Turkey; number three, the Balkans. So our efforts in our number three category, Balkans, are clearly adversely impacting our relationship with our most important concern, Russia, right?

MR. LOCKHART: David, I think that's an overly simplistic view, trying to put a scorecard on important and complicated relationships. We will take the steps that we believe that we need to take in our national interest and that NATO believes that we need to take in our national interest. And as the President said last Friday, the price of inaction here is much higher than the price of action.

Q If I could follow up, Joe, what do we make of these six Russian MiGs supposedly destined for Yugoslavia?

MR. LOCKHART: I know that we are looking into that, but we have not been able to determine where they came from or where they are going.

Q So do we believe that the Russians are now trying to rearm the Serbs?

MR. LOCKHART: As I just said, we are looking into those reports, but we have been unable to confirm where the shipment originated from, and where it was destined for.

Q If it came from Russia, as the Azerbaijanis say, how worried are we about that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, you're asking me a hypothetical. The Russians have said that's not the case, and we haven't been able to determine both the origin or the destination. So I'm not going to get into a hypothetical.

Q Joe, does the President see the need for, or the value in, as some congressional leaders suggested this morning, addressing the American people directly about our interests in Kosovo?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President, as I've said, sees the value in talking directly to the American people. He's done that over the last several days. He spoke yesterday to this; he spoke Friday to this. He sees the value of fully consulting with Congress. He will continue to do that, as well as fully consulting with our allies.

I think there were a number of ideas put on the table in the congressional meeting. We're looking at them, and when we have some decisions, I'll be glad to announce them.

Q Joe, there are some commentators, including General Brent Scowcroft, the former National Security Advisor, who are saying that the President should have made the speech that he made today two, or three, or longer, weeks ago, because he had failed to explain in these kinds of terms, until now, why he wants to go ahead with this kind of policy. Does he believe he should have done this earlier?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President has spoken directly to this issue over the last year, a number of times.

MR. LEAVY: Dozens of times.

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, yes. Wolf, you know quite well, from following the President and watching his speeches, that this is a theme he has returned to over and over again, our national interest in this part of the world. For those who may not have been paying attention, today is just a reminder of things that he has talked about in the past.

Q Those are usually foreign policy speeches. What members of Congress were saying this morning, they came out with that he needed to in some clear fashion explain it to the public. And his explanation today was far different from all the speeches he's made in the last year. It was entirely different kind of thing.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President responded to some of the things that were said to him this morning about delineating this and describing this in historical terms and in terms that related to domestic concerns here at home. But I don't think -- it's certainly not the first time, I've heard this speech before. So again, I think he has spoken to this in the past and I believe that he's done a good job of keeping the respective audiences, whether it be Congress or allies and the American public, informed on our decision-making process.

Q Joe, are you suggesting that he's pretty much said what he's going to say, that he's pretty much made the effort he's going to make to explain why we might be taking military action --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think what I suggested before is that there are ongoing efforts both to consult with our allies and congressional leaders and to talking to the American public.

Q Just to follow up on that. I mean, he's started out this long passage in AFSCME today by saying he's going to try to do something that he can't usually persuade the American people to do, that he's failed in the past, which is to connect domestic and foreign policy, and understand why something in some obscure part of the world is important to them. It seems like he asked -- if he's going to break through he's going to have to do a lot more of that. Is that what you --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. I think what the President was talking about is we -- in the broadest possible terms here, we are sometimes -- the American public is sometimes disengaged with foreign policy because they see it as something separate and apart from the domestic policies that are probably more often talked about around the kitchen table. And the President has made an effort over the last six years with mixed results to tie the two together in a thematic way, which goes to the heart of how he views his role as President and our role in the world, both from a domestic point of view, on a foreign policy point of view.

Q Hey, Joe, several senators talked about the possibility of arming and equipping the Kosovar Albanians. Is that an option that's alive within the administration?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think our efforts have been concentrated on finding a political settlement that will restore the autonomy that the Kosovar Albanians had before it was stripped from them in 1989. And that has been through the peace talks that were ongoing, that ended last week and, in many ways, the discussions of Mr. Holbrooke had over the last 24 hours. It was important. We think we have a political settlement that is in the interest of both the Kosovar Albanians and the Serbs that serves the interest of regional stability, serves the purpose of avoiding a humanitarian crisis. And we have in every way we know how delivered that message to President Milosevic.

Q In light of this Primakov decision, how would you characterize U.S.-Russian relations?

MR. LOCKHART: We have a strong bilateral relationship with the Russians. We are engaged with them on a series of issues on economics, economic reform in Russia, nonproliferation around the world. We have been in strong agreement and been consulting them on a daily basis on bringing pressure to bear on President Milosevic to sign on to the political settlement. We have a disagreement on the potential next steps.

Q Do you think it's any less strong, our relationship, as a result of this?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think we have found a way with the Russians to work through disagreements and to focus our attentions on where we work together.

Q Joe, some of the congressional leaders this morning raised a concern about the possibility of U.S. ground troops getting involved. How did the President address those concerns?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't have a specific from the meeting because I didn't ask that particular question. But we've said -- our policy is well-known and it's been articulated many times that we have no intention of putting ground troops -- of involving ground troops except for in a post-implementation force where a political agreement has been signed by both sides and they're there to help implement the political agreement.

Q Joe, could you give us a little better reading of the meeting this morning and explain what the President said that seemed to turn so many Republicans around?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think what the President did was he gave the members some sense of the Holbrooke mission, the fact that, as we all know now, that he could not persuade President Milosevic to take the steps that we believe were manifestly in the Serbs' self-interest. And then he gave the members a sense of what was going on on the ground, and repeated something what I've said to you today, which is that we are at the point where the Kosovars have signed on and said, yes, and the Serbs and President Milosevic stood in the way by saying, no, and by escalating violence, NATO had to be prepared to act.

Q Joe, you gave us an idea earlier today about the President's mood. Can you give us more detail on his mood, especially after the congressional meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President was encouraged by the meeting he had with members of Congress. It was a good session, where he had a chance to brief them on the latest. They had a chance to raise questions about what the next steps will be.

He will spend the rest of the day engaged in this. He's got a meeting, after the meeting with Chairman Arafat, with his foreign policy team. I expect he'll be on the phone after that. So the President is very engaged in moving ahead, and discussing with our allies what the potential next steps are.

Q Joe, to follow up on my question, but his own personal mood, the gravity of this particular situation --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes -- I don't think it should be a surprise to you that any President takes moments like this lightly. This is very serious and, I think as he has said, the possibility of putting American men and women in harm's way is very serious, and something that is impossible for a President to take lightly.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the dedicated diplomats, of Ambassador Holbrooke, in getting the message to President Milosevic, that message isn't being heard. And as we've said, given the state we now find ourselves, we said NATO has to be prepared to act.

Q Joe, even some of the President's supporters, like Senator Biden, say he's still uncertain what the exit strategy is, even after hearing the President this morning. Is there an exit strategy? What is -- in other words, what are the goals that have to be achieved before the bombing stops?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not going to get into the operational details. I mean, I'll tell you what I repeated yesterday, which is, we are trying to deter an offensive operation against the Kosovars. We're trying to degrade the Serbs' ability to launch such an operation. Our ultimate goal is to find a political settlement that restores autonomy to the people of Kosovo, and allows them to live their lives free of repression.

Q Joe, on Friday the President said that Milosevic had crossed a threshold. And since then, Milosevic has gone a lot longer towards his goal than we've gotten towards ours. In other words, his ability to subjugate the Kosovars hasn't been degraded or deterred. As a matter of fact, he's succeeded in wiping out a lot of the headquarters of the Kosovar Albanian separatist movement. So I'm wondering, what's the point of doing this after he's already achieved his goal?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me deal with the questions -- I wouldn't necessarily say that we share the same assessment as some assessments that have appeared in the newspaper. But on the broader question, the President said directly that he believed that President Milosevic had crossed the threshold on Friday. We have to take a number of steps as far as removing monitors, a number of steps as far as things at our embassy. We also, as I said yesterday -- and the President believes strongly -- had to make sure we had exhausted all diplomatic avenues.

We greatly prefer a peaceful solution to this matter. We think a political settlement is in the interests of both the Serbs and the Kosovars. And that is the preferred route. And we needed to make sure that all avenues had been exhausted, and we needed to make sure -- and that's, as Ambassador Holbrooke said earlier today, one of the reasons he went back this morning. He needed to make sure that President Milosevic understood the stark choice he faced, and the consequences of making the wrong choice.

Q Just to follow up on that, I mean, you said yesterday that the President didn't trust Milosevic. Well, he trusted him enough to take his word in October and put in international monitors that ended up being a pretty big obstacle to swift action on your part, right -- you had to wait to get them out?

MR. LOCKHART: No. Again, we're talking about several factors here and you're singling out one. And I'm not willing to except that as a --

Q Do you think that the practical effect of what you did in October by putting in the monitors and trusting Milosevic has tied NATO's hands --

MR. LOCKHART: Mara, it's not a question of trusting Milosevic. If we trusted him, why would we put in monitors? We put in monitors to verify the agreements we've made. And in recent days he has not lived up --

Q -- take the monitors hostage --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I can't argue with that kind of logic.

Q Is this campaign a short-term or a long-term campaign?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into operational details or timetables.

Q There are only about 300 tanks and 3,000 soldiers. Are you trying to degrade the forces of Milosevic. How long will it take you to --

MR. LOCKHART: The same answer to the previous question.

Q As we prepare for military action in Kosovo are you troubled by a CIA counterintelligence report that says Russia is recruiting spies, collecting technology and sabotaging international peacekeeping in the Balkans?

MR. LOCKHART: I think as you well know, I'm not prepared to talk about intelligence matters from here.

Q Just to be clear, is there nothing that Milosevic can do now to avert a NATO action? I mean, if he turned on the dime and said that --

MR. LOCKHART: I think that President Milosevic knows what he needs to do. I think Ambassador Holbrooke gave him ample opportunity to indicate that he was willing to pull back his forces and agree to a political settlement that included a NATO-led post-implementation force.

Q Is that opportunity gone now? You said he gave him ample opportunity --

MR. LOCKHART: From everything I can tell, he's made his decisions and I can only comment on the information I have.

Q Both the President and the Vice President used the phrase that he is now killing innocent civilians in cold blood. Are there new incidents that we're not aware of? To what are both of them referring when they talk about --

MR. LOCKHART: I think there are incidents over the last few days that you'll find that they have been going village to village, and there are incidents that have appeared in the press where people are being rounded up and summarily executed.

Q Joe, is he sticking with his plans for the trip out west this week, or is he changing those travel plans?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any announcement to make on a change in travel plans.

Q Joe, because of his involvement in this crisis, is there any chance the President might cancel his political events tonight?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I was answering that one, so I think that --

Q Tonight.

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, tonight, I'm sorry --

Q This evening.

MR. LOCKHART: I thought that you meant -- not that I'm aware of.

Q Raise the cash here.

Q Joe, there's obviously support within NATO for this decision, but there were emergency meetings in most of the European capitals yesterday, and the Europeans are not exactly happy campers over this result. I was wondering if Milosevic decides to tough it out -- to accept the bombing, to wait it out as much as he can -- if the Europeans, if that support that you now have in Europe will not quickly dissipate.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I would suggest that your characterization of them not being "happy campers" is a result of what President Milosevic is doing, not as a result of any split in the unity. I think the NATO allies are unified in their view that condemns President Milosevic and the actions they've taken.

Q Joe, did the President bang some heads this morning? Senator Kerrey came out and said that the mood was particularly more prickly than it was on Friday. Can you explain what he meant by that?

MR. LOCKHART: I think they all looked okay when they came out.

Q Joe, on another subject, on the NAACP police brutality situation -- what is the President's comments and concerns about what Kweisi Mfume is saying now about reviewing police brutality cases, and for the Justice Department to take a proactive stance?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the Justice Department is taking a proactive stance. I think, as the President talked about in his radio address, and as I'm sure the Justice Department officials who met with some civil rights leaders yesterday acknowledged, there are hundreds of civil rights cases involving alleged police misconduct, and there are probably only a few that get national attention, for whatever reasons. But this is something the Justice Department has long been interested in, and has long been proactive -- using your phrase -- in looking into, if there are what they believe are civil rights abuses.

Q So is he now advocating opening old cases?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think that's a different issue, and as far as I know, I haven't heard any resolution one way or the other on that. But there are certainly a large number of ongoing cases that the Justice Department has taken an active role in.

Q And has Reverend Jesse Jackson talked to anyone here about possibly running for the Oval Office?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.

Q On that subject, Joe, how do you respond to those who say that this is part of an effort to drive down Giuliani's numbers?

MR. LOCKHART: I'd say that the fact that we've been doing this for six years shows amazing, amazing preplanning on the part of lawyers at the Justice Department. (Laughter.)

Q Can you tell us whether officials can now say if, in fact, there have been instances of Chinese espionage during the Clinton administration?

MR. LOCKHART: I can't tell you anything more than I've told you on previous days. There are ongoing assessments and views; I think it's appropriate to leave those until they're completed and we'll report on them then.

Q And the President indicated the other day that he might not have gotten the full sense of what was going on and he was going to check on that. I understand that he's been busy with other things, but does he stand by a pledge to check into these things --

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have anything to say differently than when you asked me that yesterday.

Q Joe, do you have any sense of the tenor of the sessions between Holbrooke and Milosevic? I mean, is he belligerent?

MR. LOCKHART: I think Ambassador Holbrooke addressed that directly. I mean, I can tell you what I watched him say, which is that he's had a -- over the last four or five years he's had a series of conversations with President Milosevic that have ranged from high decibel sessions to productive, collegial sessions, and this one he thought was on the low end of the spectrum.

Q -- is that the same thing he told the White House?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't checked, but I'm certain that what he reported to the news media is the same that he's reported to us.

Q Joe, you said earlier that in the AFSCME speech the President was responding to something that came up in the session. I assume he was ad-libbing a good part of that speech. Could you elaborate any more on --

MR. LOCKHART: I think that some of the members said that they'd like to see him put it in more personal terms, in more terms that relate to things -- our history -- that Americans recognize as important, whether it be World War I or World War II, and put it into some sort of context so that people could understand why this was so important to our national interest. And I think he made an effort to do that.

Q Joe, on Arafat, is the President going to make clear to him today that the U.S. wouldn't recognize any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state -- not only just in May, but anytime down the road?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President will reiterate our long-held position that a Palestinian state is a subject for final status talks.

Q Is he also prepared, willing to offer any incentive to Arafat to not make that unilateral declaration?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 2:25 P.M. EST