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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 24, 1999
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                            JOE LOCKHART 
                         The Briefing Room             

1:43 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, everyone.

Q Are we at war?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me give you a quick sense of the President's day to date. As I told you this morning, he started with a meeting with his national security advisors this morning around 9:00 a.m. He, before going off to the Commerce Department, had about a 35-minute conversation with Boris Yeltsin. I'll give you some details on that in a moment. After the Commerce Department, he came back here and was briefed again by Sandy Berger, his National Security Advisor. And then he had lunch with the Speaker of the House Denny Hastert.

Let me tell you a little bit about the call with President Yeltsin. The President had a candid and open conversation with Yeltsin which lasted about 45 minutes. The President emphasized that that U.S., the Russians and the Europeans have given diplomacy every chance to succeed in this case.

President Milosevic, the President said, rejected the peaceful solution developed by the U.S., the Russians and the other members of the Contact Group, and rebuffed Russian and U.S. envoys, who met with him earlier this week. The President noted that Milosevic was stepping up attacks inside Kosovo, displacing civilians, shedding the blood of innocents, and generating a new cycle of violence that could spill over into neighboring countries. The President said, we cannot allow this humanitarian disaster to continue.

The President noted that Russian opposition to the use of force in Kosovo is well-known and longstanding. President Yeltsin made it clear to President Clinton that he said he opposed NATO's use of force here, but he also did indicate Russia's own frustration with President Milosevic.

The President stressed the importance of a strong and productive U.S.-Russian relationship; it's important for our mutual interests in working together on issues such as arms control, promoting Russia's economic recovery and integration. The President expressed hope that, as in Bosnia, that a credible threat of force would increase chances for Milosevic to accept a lasting diplomatic solution.


Q What is the state of play at the moment?

MR. LOCKHART: The state of play is I don't have anything new to report to you other than where I was this morning. As I said to you yesterday when we were here that if we reached this point where President Milosevic would not engage in a political settlement of the problems in Kosovo, then NATO would be prepared to act. I think since I've spoken to you yesterday you've seen NATO take further steps to be prepared to do just that.

Q Joe, do you expect the President to brief the country later today?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on that. When I do, I'll let you know.

Q Have we seen any signs, Joe, that Milosevic is moving at all?

MR. LOCKHART: There have been no -- I have not seen signs, nor I don't believe has anyone in our government seen any positive signs that he is more interested in a cease-fire, pulling back his troops or entering into a political settlement.

Q Is there any form of diplomatic effort at all to avoid this, or are we just heading --

MR. LOCKHART: I think Ambassador Holbrooke went to Belgrade, spent many hours with President Milosevic, making sure that he understood the clear choice he took between a path that saw peace and protecting the Kosovar people and protecting Serbia's interests in Kosovo. And as Ambassador Holbrooke told you yesterday, he did not leave until he was convinced that President Milosevic understood the choices that he faced.

Q Would you have any quarrel with the reports that many U.S. planes have taken off from the Aviano Air Base in Italy armed, according to a base spokesman?

MR. LOCKHART: As I'm sure you're aware, I have no intention of discussing any operational detail from here.

Q Who gives the green light on this now? Is it the President, himself, or the Supreme Commander of NATO, or what is the --

MR. LOCKHART: The Supreme Commander of NATO acts on the authority of the political leaders of the NATO countries, and he has that authority.

Q Why is Ambassador Holbrooke still in Europe?

MR. LOCKHART: I believe he's in Budapest. I'm not sure what his location means. I'd suggest you put that over to the State Department.

Q Has the President consulted with Clark or Solana today? Has the President consulted with either General Clark or --

MR. LOCKHART: No. I know he made a round of calls yesterday. I know that our national security team is in touch with their appropriate counterparts in NATO. But the President today has not --

Q Joe, I gather from what Solana said that political leaders have already given their okay, NATO political leaders have already said, we're ready to attack. So does that mean that the final go will come from one of the military figures?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as NATO works, they get the authority and then the Supreme Allied Commander will make a decision on when and if to initiate a military action.

Q Joe, the political decision has been made, it's simply a tactical decision about when to begin at this point?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that's what the NATO Secretary General informed you all of yesterday.

Q Joe, is the President briefing congressional leaders right now or soon, and what's he telling them?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into the content of any calls, but the consultation process is continuing with Congress and has through the morning.

Q Who is he speaking to?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into who the President has spoken to, but I can -- hold on, let me finish -- I can assure you that we committed very early on in this process to keep Congress fully informed, to consult with them, to get their views. That effort continues.

Q What leaders has he talked with this morning?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware that besides President Yeltsin he's made any other calls to world leaders.

Q Did Yeltsin indicate anything about sending arms to Serbia?

MR. LOCKHART: No. That subject did not come up. But let me say on that that there is an international embargo that is in place against Serbia, done by the United Nations Security Council, and we expect all members to respect that.

Q Joe, a lot of people want to know what our exit strategy is. Can you shed any light on that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think it may be the wrong way to look at this. Let me talk a little bit about what we believe the objectives to be. I think quite simply -- and I'll talk in a little more detail -- is that our objective is to stop the killing and achieve a durable peace that prevents further repression and provides for democratic self-government for the Kosovar people.

Now, in more detail, I think there are several things that any action would attempt to achieve. First is to demonstrate NATO's seriousness and our purpose in order to make Milosevic understand the imperative of reversing course. Second is to deter Belgrade from launching an all-out offensive against helpless civilians. And third is to seriously damage Belgrade's military capability to take repressive action against the Kosovars.

I think, as I've said very often here, whatever action is taken, we want President Milosevic to understand the consequences of further repression, of further offensive. And if he continues on that, we want to seriously damage his ability to conduct such operations.

Q Related to that, Joe --

Q Is there anything he can do at this point to stop the bombing, anything at all, if he withdrew his forces from Kosovo?

MR. LOCKHART: I think Ambassador Holbrooke made crystal clear what President Milosevic needed to do, and there was nothing in those conversations over those many hours that led Ambassador Holbrooke, nor anyone in our government or in the NATO Alliance to believe that he was serious about withdrawing troops, calling a cease-fire, or signing on to a political settlement that could lead to a durable peace for the people of Kosovo.

Q Would he have to do all of those in order to prevent a bombing at this point, or could he just withdraw?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to at this time get into a -- to draw up a bill of specifics for him. President Milosevic knows exactly what he needs to do. He knows when he needs to do it. And the decision -- and any decision to move forward rests squarely on his shoulders.

Q In the conversation with Yeltsin did the subject of the military shipment that was seized by the Azerbaijanis come up?


Q Why not?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, again, we don't have any credible evidence at this point that indicates where that came from or where it was going. And I believe the subject did not come up at all.

Q And you don't think it was worth raising?


Q You've been criticized for not having a post-bombing strategy. And I know in the past when we've asked you about this you've said you don't want to explain every step of the strategy. But could you at least answer that criticism -- do you have a strategy for what happens after the first round of bombing?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, let me answer in the most broad way I can, which is I think I've just done, but I'll repeat it -- that we need to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's resolve in order to make clear to Milosevic the imperative of him reversing course. We need to deter him from launching some major new offensive, escalating beyond what he's already done. And, finally, if he chooses to do that, we need to degrade his ability to do that.

Q Right, but those are your goals. What I'm asking you is do you have a strategy for what happens after the first round of bombs?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I'm not going to get --

Q I'm not asking you to tell me what the strategy is, just say if you have one.

MR. LOCKHART: You can be well assured that this has been thought through at the highest levels of the government.

Q Well, related to that, several senators said yesterday that their problem is that if the bombing does not work there does not appear to be any plan that they know of. Can you address that for us --

MR. LOCKHART: Let me address it this way: I think, as the President told the American public last Friday and you all, that right now, these are difficult decisions that need to be made, but in his view and in his judgment, the price of inaction here is higher than the potential price of action.

Q Republican leaders are criticizing the President for his intention to travel for three days at the end of this week while bombing is probably going on, or going to be going on.

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into any travel announcements here. If there is a change to announce, I'll announce it. I will say this -- that I think the American public understands and knows that the President comes to work every day and works very hard to protect their interests and to work in the national interest. And I think your question is generated from a statement put out from the Republican National Committee, and, frankly, we don't need the unsolicited advice from Mr. Nicholson.

Q They have a right to say --

MR. LOCKHART: They certainly do. And I have a right to say that if that's all he has to offer to this debate, he ought to stay out of it.

Q Joe, is the President looking at this insofar as his own personal involvement through a prism of months, weeks, days once the bombing begins in Yugoslavia?

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's impossible to answer that, to put any particular time frame on it. We've been working on this issue now for a long time, trying to find a way to return the autonomy to the Kosovar people so that they can live a life that's free of repression, and we will continue to work on it.

Q To follow up, he is ready to devote days of his attention, weeks of his attention, or months of his attention to this?

MR. LOCKHART: The President already has and he will continue. The President's attention is focused on where the --

Q Once the bombing begins, I mean.

MR. LOCKHART: The President's attention is focused on our national interests here at home and around the world, and that's the way it will continue.

Q Joe, in terms of this military operation, how will this administration define success?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I have done that, which is, we've talked about our objectives as demonstrating NATO's resolve at deterring further action against the Kosovar people and degrading his ability to repress the Kosovar people. And ultimately, I think the overall objective is to stop the killing and to achieve a durable peace.

Q Does that mean that Milosevic has no forces in Kosovo -- is that the threshold for success?

MR. LOCKHART: That means that we achieve a durable peace that respects the rights of the Kosovar people, respects their right to live free of repression and respects the autonomy that was stripped from them by President Milosevic.

Q In the telephone call between Yeltsin and Clinton, did Yeltsin offer to undertake any sort of diplomatic initiative with Milosevic?

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

Q Did he ask for time to try that?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think you all have seen the statement that President Yeltsin made on television. So I think his views are known. They're well-known to our government. I think the point that the President made and that I will make again is that we should not allow President Milosevic to drive a wedge between the United States and Russia, it's an important relationship on a wide variety of important issues. We have worked together on a number of areas, including in the former Yugoslavia, worked very positively together. We do have a profound difference of opinion on the issue of the use of force. But the President is committed to working through the differences so the important work that we do with the Russians can continue.

Q Joe, I'm told that air attacks are now underway. Can you comment? Can you find out if they're underway?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information that indicates they're underway.

Q Well, the wire flashes are to that effect and Prime Minister Blair is about to speak in London to confirm them.

Q Can you go check?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know if that wire report is accurate, and I don't rely on wire reports. When I'm told, we'll tell you.

Q Could you answer Scott's question -- the same thing as saying you're going to continue the air strikes until those --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not getting into any of the operational details of any military activity.

Q To follow up on that, because I'm unclear on this, you just said that one of the measures of success for this military operation is the restoration of autonomy for Kosovo. Are you suggesting that the military operation continues until then?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not, and I didn't say that, nor did I suggest that. I suggest you listen to my words carefully. Our overall objective -- and this is something that we've been working on now for a long time -- is to restore a durable -- to get a durable peace that restores autonomy of the Kosovar people.

Q Joe, can you give us a readout on the meeting with Hastert?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have one yet. I was preparing as it was breaking, so -- I can tell you, as I told you this morning, the purpose of the meeting was the President and the new Speaker of the House have expressed an interest in spending some time together to get to know each other better. As I think I've told you in the past, the President had very few occasions before Speaker Hastert assumed his new position to talk to him and to get a sense of his working style and what plans he has for the House of Representatives. So I think they both, after the first meeting, the bipartisan congressional meeting -- what, probably a month ago now -- they both made an effort to try to find a day where they could sit and have what was largely a social meeting, lunch here at the White House.

My guess is, given the situation in Europe, that a large part of the lunch was probably consumed with discussing the latest from the ground.

Q Who requested the meeting?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President and the Speaker, at the end of the bipartisan meeting, agreed that they wanted to get together. I'm not sure who actually issued the invitation.

Q -- The Washington Post today -- the Italian Prime Minister, in recent conversation with the President when he was here, asked what would happen if the bombing didn't work, and according to the story, the President didn't seem to have an answer. Without reference to that story, but I'd be happy to have you comment on it, what does happen if the bombing doesn't cause Milosevic to back down?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm just not going to walk down a speculative road here today.

Q That's an important one.

MR. LOCKHART: It may very well be, but I'm not going to do it.

Q Can you give us an insight on the President's thinking before deciding to move to military action? Yesterday he talked a lot about how -- between World War I and World War II, compared Milosevic to Hitler. How much of that was sort of just for public consumption and how much of that is sort of driving what the President --

MR. LOCKHART: I mean, I think this issued has weighed very heavily on the President's mind in recent days. We have unfolding in front of us purely, just on a humanitarian basis, a catastrophe, and one that -- I think the point the President was trying to make yesterday was we need to learn something from history so that it doesn't repeat itself. We have a dictator bent on repressing the Kosovar people. And we've seen massacres, we've seen ethnic cleansing, and on a scale that one wouldn't expect to see in Europe at the end of the 21st century.

So I think, given the humanitarian basis alone, it's important and has weighed heavily on the President. There are also questions of regional stability that are very important.

Let me stop here and give you a couple things. The President now -- the delayed event that we're doing in honor of Ron Brown will begin at 2:30 p.m. The President will be replaced by the Vice President at that event. The President will be here in roughly 15 minutes to make a statement. That's all I've got.

Q The press room?


Q Is the bombing underway, Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: The President will be here in 15 minutes. That's all I've got. Thank you.

END 2:00 P.M. EST