THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON UNEMPLOYMENT NUMBERS AND ON THE SITUATION IN KOSOVO The Briefing Room
12:23 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to make some fairly brief comments today about the situation in Kosovo and the humanitarian issue, and also about the good news today we received on the domestic economy. Let me make the economic remarks first, and then I will talk about Kosovo and refer to the folks from the administration who are here to my right.
As I think all of you know by now, it was reported today that last month the unemployment rate in the United States dropped to 4.2 percent, the lowest in this long expansion and the lowest monthly employment rate the United States has enjoyed since 1970. This is also an expansion that is widening the circle of opportunity.
We had, among other things in this last monthly report, the lowest Hispanic unemployment rate ever recorded. Now we know also that real wages went up last year at the highest rate in two decades.
Now, these economic indicators are more than just economic indicators; they mean wider opportunity and a better chance for millions of Americans to have stronger families and give their children a better chance. It is a reminder of the gains we have made because we have done the right things economically for the long run. And now we must act to extend that prosperity.
That means, among other things, we have to be very, very smart about how we deal with the question of the surplus. In the coming months, I will continue to insist that a substantial portion of the surplus -- the majority -- as I have outlined since the State of the Union, be set aside in a way that will save Social Security and Medicare and will enable us to pay down the debt, to keep interest rates low, to keep investment high, to keep the economy going.
I hope that today this good news on unemployment will remind us of how we got here and not make us forget how we got here.
Now, let me say a few words about Kosovo, and in particular the humanitarian situation. I am glad to be joined by the folks to my right -- Hattie Babbitt, the Deputy USAID Administrator; Julia Taft, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration; General John McDuffie, the Chairman's Director for Logistics of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Eric Schwartz, who is our Director for Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs at the NSC.
The humanitarian situation, as all of you know, remains grave in Kosovo. Since last year, nearly one in three people there have been pushed from their homes.
I met this morning with representatives of humanitarian organizations that are leading relief efforts in the area. They are doing courageous work under difficult circumstances. We want to support them in every way we can.
I can tell you that I was very impressed that they reported that the refugees coming out strongly support the action that NATO has taken and clearly understand that that action did not provoke the attempt to remove them from their homes, that that is part of an operation that has been going on since last year; that there were 40,000 troops and nearly 300 tanks -- Serbian troops and tanks -- massed in and around Kosovo at the time the peace talks in France broke up. And they are quite clear that what has happened to them was what was planned for quite a log while. And I appreciate the support and the great difficulty of maintaining it of these people who have suffered so much.
Now, what are we doing about this? This week I authorized an additional $50 million in emergency aid to augment our contributions to the UNHCR and to the other relief organizations, and to ensure that our military can do more to help them get aid to the people in need.
Today NATO agreed that its forces in Macedonia should support the relief effort there by providing transport, shelter, and logistical support.
While many people are arriving in neighboring countries, and Macedonia and Albania are especially burdened, with are able to provide help there -- although we need more countries to join us in providing help there. We must be increasingly concerned about the plight of displaced people who are actually trapped inside Kosovo and are under attack or certainly vulnerable to attack by Serbian forces.
That is why our air strikes are now increasingly focused on military targets there. There's no doubt that what Mr. Milosevic wants to do is to keep the land of Kosovo and rid it of its people. We cannot let that happen with impunity.
I said yesterday in Virginia to our troops and I want to say again, we must be determined, we must be persistent, we must be patient if we expect to see this mission through. And I am absolutely determined to do that.
We have to make sure that Mr. Milosevic pays a heavy price for this policy of repression. We have to seriously diminish his capacity to maintain that policy. Ultimately, we want to make it possible for the victims to return home, to live in security, and enjoy self-government.
Let me also reaffirm what I said yesterday about the three Army infantrymen who were seized on Wednesday, as they were carrying out a completely peaceful mission in Macedonia. There was no basis for them to be taken; there is no basis for them to be held; there is absolutely no justification for putting them on trial or displaying them in public, in violation of the Geneva Convention. As long as they are detained, they have the status of POWs and are entitled to all the protections that come with that status.
As I made clear yesterday, we will hold President Milosevic and his government responsible for their safety and well-being.
Q Mr. President, is Kosovo lost, sir?
Q Mr. President, those same refugees you just cited a moment ago are, by and large, also saying that they believe that only NATO ground forces will be able to get them back into their country. Do you still feel the same way you do about ground forces?
THE PRESIDENT: I still believe that we have a good possibility of achieving our mission with the means that we have deployed. Remember, we have been at this for a week. I see all of you, and I don't blame you for doing this because everybody is trying to get their hands around a very complex problem, referring to Desert Storm or other historical analogies. This is like the Persian Gulf; this is like Vietnam; what is it like -- is it like what happened in World War II?
Let me remind you, for those people who talk about ground forces, the ground forces that were deployed in the Middle East were deployed after the objective had been achieved by Saddam Hussein, after he had captured Kuwait. It took, as I remember, maybe more than five months to do the preparatory deployment before any action could be taken.
So this air campaign has been much more rapid in getting up and getting underway than any sort of ground operation could be. And it seems to me we have a real obligation to try to keep the NATO allies together and to vigorously pursue this. We are making the air campaign more intense; we are adding targets; we are keeping the NATO allies together. And I believe we have quite a good chance of achieving our objectives of the return of the Kosovars to live in security with a measure of self-government that they enjoyed under the old Yugoslav Constitution before Mr. Milosevic took it away from them. And I believe that is what we should continue to do. That is what I intend to continue to do.
Q Mr. President, with villages burning, sir, and refugees coming out at a rate of nearly 100,000 a day, is it not unfair to say that Kosovo is already lost? And if it is lost, sir, is it your policy to get it back?
THE PRESIDENT: My policy is to stick with the NATO allies to provide for return of the Kosovars in conditions of security where they have the self -- the autonomy that they had before Mr. Milosevic took it away. That is my policy.
Keep in mind, this campaign of his started last year. There were hundreds of thousands of refugees before the peace talks in France started. Before that happened, there were 40,000 troops and nearly 300 tanks in Kosovo or on the borders. So there has been a lot of speculation -- was this -- I don't think anybody in our military was under any illusion that he did not have the capacity to do what has been done. And what we have tried to do is to gear up this air campaign as quickly as we could, and given the limitations of the weather, proceed.
We have strong allied unity. We have real firm determination today in Europe that these objectives will be achieved. And we intend to stay after them until they are.
I do not believe -- I think that -- I do not believe that anyone should expect, or should have expected -- we recognized when we started that this campaign, this air campaign, would not be a week or two proposition.
Q But, sir, even many of those who advised and represented the Kosovars at Rambouillet say that process is now dead, given what has happened on the ground. Will there have to be some new security and political arrangement beyond what was envisioned at those peace talks? And what will the U.S. --
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think there will have to be some sort of security arrangement in order for them to live safely. And then there will have to be some sort of agreement that entails the autonomy to which they are entitled. That is clearly right.
So the elements that were discussed at the peace talks in France are still elements that have to be resolved before the Kosovars can either stay home or go home, for those who have left, and do so peacefully, and do so with some measure of autonomy. And it seems to me that will require, clearly, for some period of time, some sort of international force that will be able to protect their security.
So the elements, the framework that we dealt with in France is still the framework people are going to have to deal with; whatever label you put on it, the objectives that we seek to achieve will require certain means to realize.
Q Mr. President, what about the deepening Russian involvement? Apparently, we understand they are now going to offer aid, they're sending ships into the Mediterranean. Are they ready for a fight?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't believe so. I believe that -- as I said before and I'll say again, one of the unfortunate side effects of this whole crisis -- and we saw it a little bit in Bosnia, but we were able to resolve it, thank goodness, in Bosnia in a way that brought us together with the Russians in the peacekeeping force there -- is that this whole issue has put great strains on the domestic politics of Russia in the Russian Duma because of the religious and cultural identity and the ethnic identity of the Russians with the Serbs.
But I think that, based on my experience in dealing with this in the last few days, and my experience in dealing with the Russians over the last six years, and what appear to be the facts now, they are looking for ways to continue to oppose what NATO is doing, but to leave open the prospect that they could play a very constructive role in making a peace. I don't think anyone wants to see this conflict escalate, and I certainly don't believe the Russian government does.
Q Mr. President, what do you say to critics who say those troops weren't adequately armed on the border of Macedonia?
END 12:36 P.M. EST