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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 25, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

1:50 P.M. EST

MR. BERGER: Let me simply start by telling you that earlier this morning, as you know, the President was briefed on yesterday's operation by Secretary of Defense Cohen and General Shelton. He received a briefing on the situation on the ground in Kosovo from the Director of Central Intelligence, Mr. Tenet, and a briefing on the diplomatic situation from the Secretary of State. That lasted roughly 35 or 40 minutes.

The President was satisfied with the briefing, but I'm not going to characterize, obviously, an ongoing operation. I will try to answer your questions.

Q Mr. Berger, can you confirm that day two of the bombing campaign has started?


Q Why not?

MR. BERGER: Because it hasn't.

Q Sandy, can you give us some specifics on why the United States appears to believe that Milosevic has not stopped his assault on Kosovo?

MR. BERGER: Well, the fact that you assert is true. The operations by the Serbs in Kosovo have continued today. There have been some further burning of villages, further sweep operations, some shelling into Albania, and it's obviously very disturbing to us. But I would not speculate as to what his intent is.

Q Would you say that Milosevic's assault on Kosovo has accelerated because of the NATO air strikes?

MR. BERGER: I think it has increased somewhat over the past day. I think that's the way I would characterize it. There has been a pattern over the past several days of localized, but intense fighting, and I think that pattern has continued and, if anything, has somewhat increased.

Q The President, pressed today on whether Milosevic must come to the negotiating table, has a precondition for the bombing to end, and Mr. Clinton replied, "he knows what he has to do." Can you enlighten the rest of us as to whether that is a precondition, or not?

MR. BERGER: I will answer it this way: I think there are two circumstances under which the bombing will end. One is that Mr. Milosevic embraces peace, and that means ending the fighting in Kosovo and it means a peace agreement within the framework of Rambouillet, which provides for a high degree of self-government for the Kosovars and an international security presence to enforce it. That one path is a path which is entirely in his hands.

The other path, if he does not choose peace, as the President indicated both last night and today, is to engage in military action which will severely diminish his capacity to wage war against Kosovo.

Q May I follow up on that last point?

MR. BERGER: Certainly.

Q If he doesn't choose the path to peace, and the military action continues to diminish his ability to wage war on Kosovo, would there come a point where that had been diminished, so that then the bombing stops?

MR. BERGER: I think that if the military commanders believe that we've achieved that objective, then the mission will have been completed. We would obviously much prefer the first option to the second option.

Q One line of thought is that Milosevic is counting on the resolve of NATO weakening before his military is destroyed. And already, you've got the Italian Prime Minister saying the time to give politics and diplomacy their say is fast approaching. I mean, are we already seeing cracks in NATO, one day into the bombing campaign?

MR. BERGER: Let's put this in perspective. NATO is an extraordinary alliance, now of 19 countries who have come together with extraordinary solidarity to engage in this mission -- a wide range of countries. And I believe that they continue to accept its mission, and accept its purpose.

I noticed in Prime Minister D'Alema's statement that he suggested that the fighting in Kosovo has ended, for example. That's not correct. We'll obviously point that out to him. But there are varying perspectives in any alliance, but I believe that there is clarity and solidarity about this mission.

Q Can Milosevic's ability to wage war in Kosovo be degraded enough just through air strikes? He has the people on the ground already. They talk about 40,000 troops pre-positioned. Doesn't it take some NATO ground force to counter that?

MR. BERGER: We believe, and General Clark I think said this earlier in a press conference in Brussels, the his military capability can be seriously and substantially damaged by air power. And that's what would happen if he does not choose the path of peace. We do not have, as the President indicated, an intention to put ground forces in Kosovo in a combat situation.

Q Primakov, in his statement to the press today, referred to the second discussion he had with the Vice President on the plane when he turned the plane around. He said, first of all, that the Vice President had offered to sign a joint statement cancelling the meeting, which Primakov found unacceptable since it would seem as if he were accepting the fact of this bombing.

And, secondly, he said that the Vice President was talking as if he was reading from a script. I'm just wondering, with regard to that very important second conversation -- (laughter) -- had a decision been made to decide what to tell Primakov in order to put the decision in his court? And, secondly, why was not the visit cancelled at an earlier stage when it was clear we were approaching a critical point where this visit may have had to have been cancelled?

MR. BERGER: Let me say several things. First of all, the Russians had been extremely helpful in the Contact Group, full participants in trying to fashion a peace agreement, bring Milosevic to the table, get him to sign a peace accord. They were very strong and very firm with him.

Second of all, they also made it clear to us from the beginning that they would oppose military strikes. Number three, the interaction between us and the Russians through this period was extraordinarily transparent with respect to where things were in the process -- that is, since we knew that Primakov was coming, we were talking every day -- Secretary Albright to Foreign Minister Ivanov, the Vice President, Ambassador Collins, Deputy Secretary Talbott and others, making it very clear, particularly after Holbrooke's mission failed that military action was likely, it was likely within the time frame that Primakov would be here. So we felt it was our obligation to be clear and honest with him every step of the way.

We also felt it was his decision, not ours, and we accept that decision. But we certainly -- we're not dis-inviting Mr. Primakov. We wanted him to make that choice based on his own judgment. Now, I would say, finally, that today, about 12:00 p.m. our time, the Prime Minister issued some statements from Moscow which, while in no way diminishing their opposition to this enterprise, said that Russia had no intention of going in an isolationist direction and that it needed to remain engaged with the international community. We obviously believe that's true. We're pleased that Mr. Camdessus is going to Moscow this weekend, and this is a very important relationship which we hope to continue to nurture, and do not believe that Mr. Milosevic should be able to tear asunder.

Q The President said that they would move to the end of the phase where you would try to diminish his military capabilities if necessary. Secretary Cohen said essentially the same thing, saying that if he doesn't pull back his forces from Kosovo, that we'd move on to that phase. Is NATO saying that it will escalate the attacks on the Serbian military, broaden its attacks on the Serbian military if forces are not pulled back? And has that been communicated specifically to Milosevic?

MR. BERGER: Well, a great deal -- some of this depends upon decisions he makes. If he embraces peace, it will not be necessary to proceed with the military bombing operation that would severely damage his military operation. We hope that he will do that.

Q But does he have -- if you don't have phased parts of this plan, what incentive is there for him not to just kill every Kosovar in sight, and then come back to the table? Do you have any leverage over him?

MR. BERGER: Because I think, were he, certainly, to escalate from where he is against Kosovo, that would affect the nature of NATO's actions.

Q In what way? In what way?

MR. BERGER: It wouldn't make them lighter.

Q Sandy, you said that he is escalating.

MR. BERGER: He's escalated today. I think what -- the reference here is to a full-scale military offensive. But so long as the fighting continues -- as I say, there are two paths here; one is a path of peace. Peace means stopping fighting, and embracing a peace agreement, within the framework of the Rambouillet agreement. He can do that tomorrow. He can do that, you know, in 10 minutes. If he doesn't do that, we will proceed, and how we proceed, at what intensity, at what pace, will be decisions that we make, that NATO makes, as we go forward.

Q Is there any evidence at all that day one of the bombing has had any impact on Slobodan Milosevic's position in coming to terms with what the NATO allies want?

MR. BERGER: I don't want to speculate about that.

Q What's the answer to your --

Q Sandy, John McCain and others have said that you don't have a plan B, in other words, that you haven't thought through what happens if the bombing does not achieve your objectives. Is that a fair criticism?

MR. BERGER: Well, I have great respect for John, but I don't think it is a fair criticism. Let's talk about end states here. There is one end state if we do nothing. If we do nothing, I think there is widespread belief that he will launch not only the kind of localized offensive that he's engaged in now, but a massive offensive against Kosovo. That's what he's got the 40,000 troops there; that's what he has hundreds of tanks there for. That will cause the kind of death and destruction, refugee flows, instability in the region which will have as its end state either chaos in the middle of Europe, or a wider war.

So that's the end state in one direction. I think you have to compare realities here. The end state in the other direction is either a peace, which we hope to be the case, or a severely diminished military capacity for Kosovo, which we believe can be achieved. And I think -- if some have suggested that we go further than that, and put an American, or NATO ground military force into the region, to invade the region, that is something we do not intend to do.

Q Our reporters are now reporting explosions on the ground right now, Sandy. Has the second day started?

Q Hello --

Q Our reporters are reporting explosions on the ground.

MR. BERGER: Let me do Sam, and then we'll do Scott.

Q No, answer that question. He's insisting. (Laughter.)

Q Our reporters are now reporting explosions on the ground in Serbia, in Kosovo. Is the second day now underway?

MR. BERGER: Let me say this. I don't want to be in an awkward position for either you or me up here. I would say that we certainly intend to continue this operation. As to whether further operations have begun, I would prefer that you get that from the Pentagon.

Q Then may I just now proceed?


Q Thank you, Mr. Berger.

Q Sandy?

MR. BERGER: No -- Mr. Donaldson, then we'll go back here.

Q The point that I wanted to ask you about tied in with what you were saying previously. What's the answer to the argument that by saying that ground forces would not be introduced, it's an incentive for Milosevic to simply ride it out, knowing that there isn't a further crush if he can sustain the air offensive, and then lying low, come back again?

MR. BERGER: Because he will sustain the most serious damage if he thinks he can ride out an air attack.

Q Sandy, the Secretary of State said in her briefing that the U.S. embassy in Skopje was attacked today. Could you discuss what happened there?

MR. BERGER: She probably has better details than I. As I understand it, there was a demonstration of ethnic Serbs in Macedonia at our embassy. I think there was some penetration of the perimeter of the embassy. The Macedonian government provided reinforcements for our folks, and it is my understanding that Ambassador Hill and the people there are now safe and secure.

Q Sandy, when this administration came into office it was full of high praise for the United Nations in its role, even turned over a peacekeeping mission in Somalia to the U.N. What happened? Kofi Annan looked very lonely.

MR. BERGER: You mean, the Somalia operation that was started unilaterally by the -- go ahead --

Q Our policy towards the U.N. -- what happened?

MR. BERGER: Let me say, first of all, the U.N. has spoken to the issue of Kosovo. I would refer you to at least two Security Council resolutions -- 1199 and 1203. Thank you. That's what I keep them around for -- (laughter) -- 1199 specifically says that the situation in Kosovo is a threat to the stability and peace of the region. So the United Nations has expressed itself on this issue.

We always prefer to operate pursuant to a U.N. resolution. But we've also always taken the position that NATO has the authority in situations it considers to be threats to the stability and security of its area to act by consensus without explicit U.N. authority. And that is the case here as well.

We have 19 members of NATO, all democracies, having authorized this action. We have a U.N. resolution speaking to this. We have the Congress of the United States now having expressed themselves about this. So I think there's plenty of authority here.

Q Is the President for intervening in civil wars?

MR. BERGER: Here and then here.

Q Everyone in the administration is using the phrase "embrace the accord that the Albanians signed last Friday." Is there any room for negotiation on that, or is there any way to start dialogue, short of embracing that thing as it is written?

MR. BERGER: Any changes that would be made would have to be accepted by the Kosovars. The Kosovars have signed an agreement. If there were proposed changes in the agreement, that would be something that the Kosovars would have to accept.

Q Has this established a precedent for intervening in civil wars where you fear some sort of humanitarian disaster?

MR. BERGER: I think this is quite a unique situation, and in this sense, on the issue specifically of civil war. As the President, I think, said yesterday -- I guess it was in one of the drafts -- this is a man, President Milosevic, who invaded Croatia, who invaded the independent, sovereign nation of Bosnia, who started a small war against Slovenia and who stripped Kosovo of its constitutional autonomy and is now engaged in a massive offensive or a massive attack on Kosovo.

So I think for Slobodan Milosevic to invoke sovereignty as a defense for the international community saying "enough" I think is a rather weak argument.

Q You're saying that you can engage in preventive wars to avoid ethnic cleansing, to avoid any sort of genocide?

MR. BERGER: I think every situation has to be taken on its own merits. And I think the President has said many times that it depends upon whether America's national interests are involved, as well as our values. I think in this case, both our values and our interests are involved.

Our values are involved in preventing what I believe would be a humanitarian catastrophe. Our interests are involved in avoiding a wider conflict in Southeastern Europe, which I think would most likely involve us at some later point with far greater cost and with far greater risk.

Thank you.

END 2:14 P.M. EST