Washington, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An influential U.S. congressman said Wednesday that the only solution to the crises in the Balkans is to get rid of Yugoslav Federation President Slobodan Milosevic.
The remark from Congressman Benjamin Gilman, a Republican from New York, carries weight because Gilman is chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee. He spoke at the outset of a committee hearing on a possible U.S. role in resolving the ethnic violence in Kosovo, the Serbian province that is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians.
Gilman said: "The solution for Kosovo and the long term stability and peace in the former Yugoslavia clearly has to be the removal of Milosevic and the democratization of Serbia. Solutions that stop short of achieving that goal, including new diplomatic agreements, and new peacekeeping operations in the Balkans are nothing more than holding actions because such solutions do not eliminate the underlying problem, which promises to drag on indefinitely at high cost to our own nation."
The U.S. and its NATO allies blame Milosevic and the authorities in Serbia, the dominant republic in the Yugoslav Federation, for initiating a bloody crackdown last year on Kosovars seeking greater autonomy.
The Serbs and a spectrum of Kosovo representatives are meeting outside Paris to try and reach a peace agreement. NATO has threatened to bomb Serb targets unless Serbia comes to some accommodation with the Kosovars on the autonomy issue.
Since last week, senior U.S. leaders from President Bill Clinton on down have been preparing Americans for the possibility that a contingent of American troops, perhaps as many as 4,000, might have to be part of a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo in the event an agreement is reached.
Wednesday's House hearing revealed a sharp split between Republicans, who control both the House and the U.S. Senate, and Clinton's fellow Democrats on the utility of sending more U.S. troops to the Balkans. There are already 7,000 Americans in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia helping to implement a peace accord.
In his remarks to the committee Wednesday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering reiterated the administration's assertion that U.S. troops would be sent only if the peace talks yield a firm agreement.
Pickering also said, "the mission of any NATO operation will need to be carefully defined with a clear exit strategy." He cited a goal of withdrawing the force after about three years.
Pickering also defended the U.S. view that peace and stability in the Balkans are in the U.S. national interest. He said the president and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have made clear the vital U.S. interest in the region.
Said Pickering: "Mr. Chairman, some Americans have questioned the American stake in Kosovo and why we may again need to deploy U.S. forces in the Balkans. President Clinton and Secretary Albright have addressed these concerns directly and have set out clearly the important interests of the United States that are at stake in Kosovo, and they are, in summary, four.
"First, the conflict in Kosovo has no natural boundaries. If not stopped, it could draw in Albania and Macedonia, potentially threaten our NATO allies in Greece and Turkey and thereby divide the alliance and jeopardize the gains which we have made in Bosnia.
"Second, continued conflict in Kosovo would unleash most certainly new waves of refugees and create new opportunities for international terrorists, drug smugglers and criminals as well as for those who support ethnic and religious conflict and seek to exploit that for their own purposes.
"Third, America has a fundamental interest in ending years of repression by strengthening democracy in the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), by upholding the rule of law, including the valuable contribution of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and in protecting human rights.
"And finally, persisting conflict in Kosovo also would undermine NATO's credibility as the guarantor of peace and stability in the Balkans.
Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe told the committee that resolving the crisis in Kosovo "is a test of the credibility and capacity of NATO." He said, "there is a very high risk that without an international military presence, any settlement will quickly break down." Slocombe said: "The Balkans remain the most volatile region in Europe. There is a very real danger that, unless it is checked, the conflict in Kosovo would develop into a wider conflict, a conflict that could involve present or future NATO allies and vital American interests in stability, for our first interest in the region is to ensure regional stability and to reduce the possibility of this sort of destabilizing spill-over into Kosovo's neighbors, including into Bosnia, where we have invested a great deal and made a great deal of progress."
In addition to Gilman, however, several other Republicans on the committee expressed skepticism over sending U.S. troops to Kosovo. Congressman Douglas Bereuter of the midwestern state of Nebraska, said, "I have enormous difficulties with the proposal to send troops to Kosovo." He said it would require an already resource-strained military into "keeping peace in two places in the Balkans."
Another Republican, Dana Rohrbacher of California, said he believed that deploying troops in Kosovo would not be viewed as a policy success but rather as a failure of the Clinton Administration to resolve the issue. Rohrbacher called the U.S. and NATO policy of opposing full independence for Kosovo while threatening the Serbs with attacks a "schizophrenic" approach. However, the Administration's policy was endorsed by another California congressman, Tom Lantos, a Hungarian-born survivor of the Holocaust. He noted that the volatile history of the region needed to be remembered and understood so that, in his words, mistakes of the past are not repeated.
Lantos also said the possible future deployment of a NATO force in Kosovo would provide an excellent opportunity for NATO's prospective new members -- the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland -- to make their first real contribution to the alliance.
The three former communist countries are to become full-fledged members in April. Lantos said that more than a token role for them would show the new members that being in NATO "is not just a ticket to a lot of goodies, but it is the acceptance of a heavy international responsibility."