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Yugoslavia: Clinton Explains Why U.S Must Act In Kosovo

Washington, 24 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says American military involvement in Kosovo can be justified on historical, practical, and moral grounds.

In a nationally televised speech Tuesday, Clinton spelled out the reasons why he thinks the United States has no choice but to get involved in a conflict far away from its shores.

In doing it, Clinton got down to the basics in explaining to the American people -- historically hesitant about sending their sons and daughters in harm's way -- "the big picture" about Kosovo.

Clinton talked about geography, history, ethnic conflicts, trade, the price of pursuing policies of isolation and the immorality of standing aside while people are killed or driven from their homes at "NATO's doorstep."

Methodically and going back to World War I, he made his case of why U.S.-led NATO air strikes may be necessary to force a political compromise over Kosovo. The settlement would consist of autonomy within Serbia, though not independence, for the ethnic Albanians who would be protected by international peacekeepers, including American troops.

The proposed peace accord, outlined in France earlier this month, has been accepted by the Kosovars. Belgrade has rejected the deal, saying it cannot tolerate the presence of NATO troops in Serbia.

Clinton's detractors, including some members of Congress, have been often critical in the past of what they see is the president's failure to explain to the American people in clear terms of U.S. interest in Kosovo.

The president said he does not like to use military force and was prepared to rely on diplomacy to achieve American aims in the Balkans.

But if force has to be used, Clinton said, Kosovo is clearly worth it.

Clinton said: "If our country is going to be prosperous and secure, we need a Europe that is safe, secure, free, united, a good partner with us for trading, (people who are) wealthy enough to buy our products, and someone who will share the burdens of taking care of the problems of the world."

The president said he has worked hard to promote such a Europe.

"I've supported the union of the European countries economically (and) the union of Germany. I've supported very strongly the expansion of NATO. Next month we're going to have all these countries come here. We'll have the largest number of world leaders ever assembled in Washington, D.C., next month for the 50th anniversary of the NATO summit, and we're bringing in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. And I supported the idea that the United States, Canada and our European allies had to take on the new security challenge of Europe of the 21st century"

NATO admitted the three former Soviet bloc countries as full members this month in the face of Russian objection.

One of the challenges, Clinton said, is building a partnership with Russia.

"We have got to help them come back economically. They have kept their democracy alive. They are suffering terribly, economically. We have got a big stake in that. They have got 40,000 scientists who were part of their Cold War arsenal. We would like them to be doing peaceful good things, not bartering their services to other countries to cause trouble. So it's in our immediate interest. And they could be great partners for us economically and otherwise."

The crisis over Kosovo has complicated U.S.-Russian relations. Shortly after Clinton spoke, U.S. officials announced that Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was postponing his trip to Washington because of impending NATO military action against Serbia.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Primakov's plane turned around while over the Atlantic Ocean. Primakov had been scheduled to arrive in Washington late Tuesday.

Lockhart said U.S. Vice President Al Gore had told Primakov on the telephone that NATO is prepared to use air strikes to stop the Serb military offensive in Kosovo. He said Primakov decided to turn around and fly back to Moscow.

Russia has opposed the use of force against the Serbs.

NATO Secretary General Javier Solana said in Brussels Tuesday night he has directed the alliance's Supreme Allied Commander to initiate military action in Yugoslavia to a humanitarian catastrophe" in Kosovo.

Solana did not specify when the action would begin or how NATO would carry out the action.

He said action is necessary because all diplomatic efforts have failed to bring peace to the Serb province. He said the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.

Solana said NATO is not at war with the Serbian people.

In his speech, Clinton also emphasized the humanitarian reason why he believes the U.S. must take a stand in the Balkans -- he talked about the killings of civilians and the tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing Serb troops.

Clinton said: "There is a practical reason -- if we don't do it now, we'll have to do it later, and more people will die, and it will cost more money -- and there is a long-term strategic reason for the United States: Our children need a stable free Europe."

The president said the United States and its NATO allies have warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to honor the commitments he has made. He said that by carrying out a military offensive against Kosovo, Milosevic has gone back on his word.

"NATO is now united and prepared to carry out its warning. If President Milosevic is not willing to make peace, we are willing to limit his ability to make war on the Kosovars."

The president made his remarks after last-minute talks by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke failed to persuade Milosevic to give ground. The U.S., Britain and other NATO allies ordered their embassies to close in Belgrade late Tuesday and all diplomatic personnel were asked to leave the country.

Toward the end of his speech, Clinton looked into the television cameras and asked Americans to "say a prayer for the young men and women in uniform, who are going to be there to do what I, as their commander in chief, order them to do."