THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART The Briefing Room
2:05 P.M. EDT
MR. LOCKHART: Afternoon, sorry I'm late. Let me just go, bring you up to date on a couple of things the President's been doing since I saw you last. President Ahtisaari a couple hours ago met with Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott in Germany. That was a brief and preliminary meeting, but off of that meeting the President, Strobe Talbott and Madeleine Albright talked on the phone. The President was brought up to date on what Strobe Talbott had been briefed on in Germany.
The President then did a phone call, which I think lasted about 15 minutes, with Chancellor Schroeder of Germany. I can tell you that based on the briefings and the phone calls that the President has made, there are indications, now, that Milosevic is willing to accept the conditions that NATO and the international community have put forth to bring this campaign to a suspension.
But I think the President made the point with Chancellor Schroeder that we are quite cautious here. We need to clarify the information that's been made available. We need to figure out the details and the implementation. So I think from the President's point of view, I think he will say as much when he speaks in the Rose Garden in a short time is, there are indications here that are positive, but we need clarity, we need details, we need implementation and for now we'll remain cautious.
Q Joe, you seem to have moved quite a bit from where you were this morning when you were just studying the reports. Are you willing to admit that this is a victory for NATO?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I'm not. I'm willing to say we are looking at this cautiously. We're dealing with someone who has made promises before and has not kept them. We do have a memory here that it stands back through this administration. I think we've had a chance to talk to Deputy Secretary Talbott who, in turn, has talked to President Ahtisaari since we last spoke this morning.
Again, these are just indications. I'm not willing to make any -- to speculate down the road, but we are quite cautious here.
Q Can you quantify how suspicious you are?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there are a number of areas where we will seek clarity. I think Deputy Secretary Talbott will speak again to President Ahtisaari sometime in the next 24 hours. There are details to be worked out and then beyond that, there is implementation of any agreement that may be made. So I think, for now, our view is that it is prudent to be cautious. Again, we need more clarity, and we do have a history of promises that haven't been kept.
Q Two questions, Joe. First of all, this statement, though, that you've just made goes even farther than Jamie Rubin went, because he basically said, if these reports are true. You're essentially saying, we now believe that he has struck a deal.
MR. LOCKHART: No. I think -- what I'm saying, and let me be clear, here, that there are indications based on -- and the conversation when Jamie briefed, the meeting with Ahtisaari was ongoing with Strobe Talbott. So I've had the benefit of being briefed on that, talking to the Deputy Secretary and the rest of the team.
As far as I'll go is to say that there are indications that he may accept the NATO conditions. But I emphasize that we need clarity. We need to understand the details. We need to understand how implementation, how we'll see implementation.
Q Joe, what specifically are we looking for? Clarity on what points?
MR. LOCKHART: At this point, I'm not going to get into the details of, you know, what the exact conversations were between President Ahtisaari and Strobe Talbott. But they will be talking again, and there are details and issues that there needs to be further discussion on.
Q An international peace force will be led by NATO? Is that not negotiable?
MR. LOCKHART: The conditions have been clear, precise and consistent, and one of them is a NATO-led force.
Q Joe, could you tell us, short of suspending the NATO air campaign, are the NATO allies prepared to modify the game plan, the air strikes, in advance of verifiable withdrawal?
MR. LOCKHART: I have not, for some 70 days, not discussed operational details, and will not start today.
Q Joe, do we have any indication when Milosevic may begin withdrawing troops or whether he has already started?
MR. LOCKHART: I have no indication to either question.
Q Do we have to see proof before there is a withdrawal before you can suspend the bombing?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if you go back to the Washington communique, you'll see the language that says it has to be verifiable and there has to be a timetable.
Q Do you have an idea for how implementation would actually work? Do you have an idea for sequencing that he would have to abide by?
MR. LOCKHART: There are a number of procedural things that will commence on issues like that, but I'm just not going to go into them from here.
Q But are those things, things that NATO decides, or do we negotiate with Milosevic -- the actual implementation, the procedural way this works?
MR. LOCKHART: These are -- the conditions that were put forward were put forward by NATO and embraced --
Q -- implementation mechanics?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there are a variety of mechanical ways as far as the discussions go, and I can't speculate down the road whether it's something that's military to military or other ways. But at this point, I don't have any information on that.
Q To use your term, "indications," do you have indications that Milosevic accepts the fact that this will be a NATO-led peacekeeping force?
MR. LOCKHART: I can't go beyond saying there are indications that he is willing or may be willing to accept what NATO has laid down, that these are issues that we will be pursuing, but I don't have anything beyond that.
Q Have the Russians accepted NATO command for their troops, or are they still pushing for some kind of Russian sector?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me leave it to the Russians to speak for themselves. I think what we've said on this is quite clear.
Q Can I just clarify that point, Joe?
Q If, in fact, this conflict is drawing to a close, what happens now to Milosevic? He is an indicated war criminal; will NATO go after him? Will they --
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not willing to speculate on the rest of the afternoon, so I'm not going to go speculate on the rest of the millennium.
Q Did Ahtisaari come out with a timetable? Is there a timetable written on paper for retreat?
MR. LOCKHART: If there is, I'm not aware of it.
Q There are indications, Joe, as you say, that there may be a deal that President Milosevic has accepted, the NATO conditions. How will that affect the President's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff this afternoon, the game plan for going forward?
MR. LOCKHART: I think if you listen to the important part of what I'm saying here about a cautious -- being cautious and understanding, that the need for clarity, the need for details, the need for seeing implementation, you will also understand that the meeting will go forward. We have had a very aggressive air campaign, which has clearly hurt Milosevic and his ability, gone after his instruments of repression. The President will get an update on that at the meeting this afternoon.
He'll also talk to them about general issues of military readiness and then they will go through the updated plans on a KFOR implementation force, and the updated assessment for force in a non-permissive environment.
Q Joe, do you, in terms of you want to pursue these things, you want to get clarity and details, do you do that all through Ahtisaari and Chernomyrdin, or is there now some other kinds of communication that goes on between NATO and --
MR. LOCKHART: Well, there certainly will be that line of communication. I expect there may be others, but I'm not willing to go into that from here.
Q Does that mean NATO communicates directly with Yugoslavia?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to go into what lines of communication may or may not be open.
Q Joe, you keep using the word "cautious" --
MR. LOCKHART: Yes.
Q -- but you're standing here saying there are indications, and the way you're presenting it, there are strong indications. How can you justify the continuation of air strikes when you have indications --
MR. LOCKHART: Because I think we have some words which need to be more fully clarified. They are only words; they are not actions. We've seen words before. The campaign that has been effective will continue until we've seen what we've laid out over the last 70 days for what we need to see to bring it to a halt.
Q For you to stand there, though -- I mean, you've never done this before, saying that there are strong indications before. But you --
MR. LOCKHART: I said there are indications. Others in the room have said strong.
Q Okay. Well, but it's still a serious situation when you say, indications, and you're still talking air strikes. But you're cautiously looking at ending this thing. How can you seriously sit here and say "indications" and "air strikes" in the same breath?
MR. LOCKHART: Because we've made very clear what we need to see to bring this conflict to an end. And that has been clear to President Milosevic and his government for some time, and we will continue moving forward with the campaign until we see what we've said we need to see.
Q President Ahtisaari was asked about when there might be a bombing pause and he said just a few minutes ago, when that process of Serb troop withdrawal started it could lead to a pause in the bombing. Is that the U.S. and NATO view as well?
MR. LOCKHART: The NATO position, if you, again, go back to the communique issued at the NATO summit here in Washington, was very clear that bombing could be suspended when there was a verifiable withdrawal on a precise timetable.
Q Just to clarify, the beginning of a troop withdrawal would be sufficient?
MR. LOCKHART: I think our position is clear -- when we see and can verify a troop withdrawal and it's ongoing as part of a timetable, then NATO would look at a suspension.
Q Do you also want a signing of a peace deal --
Q If I could just press the point -- it would just have to start, it doesn't have to be --
MR. LOCKHART: NATO's position I think is clear, that we need to see and verify withdrawal. There needs to be a timetable that we can -- that it can be measured against. And then there could be a bombing suspension.
Q So you're saying that you could foresee a circumstance where Serb forces might be beginning a withdrawal from Kosovo, but NATO would continue to bomb?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me talk about what I know and not speculate on what I don't know, which is I think NATO's conditions are quite clear on that subject about what needs to bring about a suspension.
Q Joe, pending clarity and detail and implementation, are Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari singing from the same page, they're both saying exactly the same thing? Would Russia have any variations on what is agreed on?
MR. LOCKHART: I think both of them have done a good job of speaking for themselves, and I think they went, as I've told other of you, with a common script of the international community's views and have come out. I think as you all know, President Ahtisaari's speaking as I speak, and I assume Mr. Chernomyrdin will speak from his position in Moscow.
Q Two questions, Joe. The agreement that the Serb parliament approved does, in fact, apparently have a timetable for withdrawal -- air defenses in a certain area gone within 48 hours and seven days for total withdrawal from Kosovo. Is this not accurate?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to speculate on any particular timetable. I will speak in general terms when we say there are issues on details on implementation that we are still seeking some information on.
Q Just to clarify, Joe, is it our understanding that Slobodan Milosevic actually put his name to a piece of paper on this, signed some sort of agreement?
MR. LOCKHART: If he did, I'm not aware of it.
Q Are the NATO allies and Russia in full agreement now on the chain of command for a Russian and non-NATO participation in a peacekeeping force?
MR. LOCKHART: I will let the Russians speak for themselves, and we have spoken on what we need to see as far as a NATO-led force that could bring in others, a la the Bosnia operation.
Q Joe, the President's gotten a lot of criticism for his handling of the Kosovo confrontation. I wonder if you think today's events amount to a vindication.
MR. LOCKHART: Listen, let me stick with the fact that we view this very seriously. I'll let others do -- play that game, get into that business. We are cautious for a reason. We are skeptical for a reason. We will continue working through this process, it's a very important process. You have more than a million people whose lives depend on what NATO's doing, and as we move forward to try to bring them home safely, and with autonomy. So I think there's plenty of time to answer those questions in the future.
Q Joe, would KFOR be ready to go in pretty quickly, if all goes well?
MR. LOCKHART: I think General Clark has made clear, privately and publicly, that NATO is ready for success and could move very quickly.
Q Would American troops be among the first in, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to get into operational details, but I think American troops are ready to play their role, and to play a leading role.
Q Joe, what would be an acceptable level of Serb forces be, to the White House? The Serb forces that would remain behind in Kosovo?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, what we're talking about now is all Serb forces out, so --
Q But then there's some talk about allowing some --
MR. LOCKHART: There are some, but I'm not going to get into what "some" means.
Q Joe, could you explain why the administration and NATO insist on NATO-led forces, as opposed to U.N.-led forces? Is it because you fear that with U.N.-led forces there could be partitioning in k?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, we believe, and NATO has said from the beginning, that that's the most effective force as far as command, and it's the most effective as far as giving the Kosovar Albanians the security they need to return home.
Q Joe, you stressed today that the next step is to try and clarify exactly what Milosevic has agreed to. What can you tell us is the next step in that? And given that no representative of a NATO state has actually been to Belgrade yet, would that not be the next likely step?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to go in to try to predict each and every step. I can tell you that I believe Strobe Talbott will meet again with President Ahtisaari, as part of the ongoing effort that's now been in the works for weeks. And beyond that, you know, we'll just have to wait and see.
Q Where will that meeting be? Where will that meeting be?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll have to let you know.
Q Joe, are you concerned that we haven't heard from President Milosevic himself on this? That he hasn't said, I accept these terms, I surrender?
MR. LOCKHART: I think we, right now, our focus is on getting the kind of information, clarity, details, that I've been mentioning here, and that's our number one priority.
Q Would it be helpful if he made a public declaration, Joe?
MR. LOCKHART: Sorry?
Q Would it be helpful if he made a public declaration?
MR. LOCKHART: It's up to him whether he wants to speak publicly. He's obviously spoken with the two envoys that came in. That's the process that's ongoing, and we'll continue to work with President Ahtisaari, Mr. Chernomyrdin, in this process that I've laid out.
Q Joe, does the agreement call for the disarming of the KLA? Does the agreement call for the disarming of the KLA?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm just not going to get into details here, of what -- of statements that we're seeking more information on.
Q Joe, Strobe's talks with President Ahtisaari, will they follow more talks between Ahtisaari and Milosevic? In other words, will the envoys return to Belgrade and so forth?
MR. LOCKHART: That I don't know, and my guess is someone will probably ask that directly of the President.
Q What I'm trying to get at is whether Strobe needs more clarification from Ahtisaari, or whether NATO needs more clarification from Milosevic, through Ahtisaari.
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there's an ongoing effort here, and, for, I think, justifiable reasons, I'm not going to go into the details and lay all of the details out. But just be assured that the process continues and Strobe will continue to talk with President Ahtisaari.
Q President Goncz of Hungary will be paying an official state visit in a few days to Washington, D.C. Do you expect anything useful to be coming out of this event, besides the symbolism? However, this is the first -- ever by a Hungarian head of state to Washington. Actually, Hungarian diplomats and reporters believe that the First Lady initiated that visit, saying that President Havel is a great hero and playwright. So is President Goncz. So they need to get the same treatment.
MR. LOCKHART: You're not going to get me to dispute the last part. (Laughter.) But I think symbolically, both symbolically and the real importance that is the first state visit -- so that in itself is a milestone and very important. We enjoy strong relations with the people and the government of Hungary and we will celebrate those both in the meetings and in the traditional events of a state visit. And I think we will also talk about the developments, the cooperation that we've received from Hungary in the ongoing campaign in Kosovo.
Q Joe, on China, there was a story in The Financial Times today that said that China is about to test launch a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. Given that we still don't know exactly how much military secrets the Chinese may have stolen from us, is this something the administration ought to be concerned about?
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not familiar with the story; I didn't see that this morning. But obviously, we remain very concerned and vigilant on other countries' ballistic missile programs, and on the other countries' attempts to acquire sensitive information from the United States. It is something we'll watch closely.
Q Joe, when is the President going to sign the ballistic missile defense bill?
MR. LOCKHART: I'll have to check. I'm not sure if it's come down here. They did that just before they went out, right, Thursday? So I don't even know if it's come down, but we'll check.
Q Joe, on NTR for China, given the recent difficulties, do you expect problems on Capitol Hill on that?
MR. LOCKHART: I think that as we say in our statement, it is very much in the interest of American business workers, families, to have normal trading relations with China. I think it's also in the interest as part of our policy of engagement, because we think trade fosters openness, reform, which is all benefits to the positive.
I think the atmosphere on Capitol Hill is somewhat more charged that it has been in other years, but I think ultimately, the Congress will see as their leaders, I think, Mr. Hastert and Mr. Lott, have indicated that this should be dealt with as a trade issue and I think we'll get a positive result.
I'm told the President's ready to come out, so I'm sure you don't want to see me.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:24 P.M. EDT