THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release May 13, 1999
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
TO VETERANS GROUPS ON KOSOVO
11:00 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you,
Commander Pouliot. I am grateful to you and to Veterans of Foreign Wars
for your support of America's efforts in Kosovo.
General Chilcoat, Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen, Secretary
West, National Security Advisor Berger, Deputy Secretary Gober, General
Shelton and the Joint Chiefs, and to the members of the military and
members of the VFW who are here. I'd also like to thank Congressman
Engel and Congressman Quinn for coming to be with us today.
I am especially honored to be here with our veterans who have
struggled for freedom in World War II and in the half-century since.
Your service inspires us today, as we work with our allies to reverse
the systematic campaign of terror, and to bring peace and freedom to
Kosovo. To honor your sacrifices and fulfill the vision of a peaceful
Europe, for which so many of the VFW members risked your lives, NATO's
mission, as the Commander said, must succeed.
My meetings last week in Europe with Kosovar refugees, we allied
leaders, with Americans in uniform, strengthened my conviction that we
will succeed. With just seven months left in the 20th century, Kosovo
is a crucial test: Can we strengthen a global community grounded in
cooperation and tolerance, rooted in common humanity? Or will
repression and brutality, rooted in ethnic, racial and religious hatreds
dominate the agenda for the new century and the new millennium?
The World War II veterans here fought in Europe and in the Pacific
to prevent the world from being dominated by tyrants who use racial and
religious hatred to strengthen their grip and to justify mass killing.
President Roosevelt said in his final Inaugural Address: "We have
learned that we cannot live alone. We cannot live alone at peace. We
have learned that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of
other nations far away. We have learned to be citizens of the world,
members of the human community."
The sacrifices of American and allied troops helped to end a
nightmare, rescue freedom and lay the groundwork for the modern world
that has benefited all of us. In the long Cold War years, our troops
stood for freedom against communism until the Berlin Wall fell and the
Iron Curtain collapsed.
Now, the nations of Central Europe are free democracies. We've
welcome new members to NATO and formed security partnerships with many
other countries all across Europe's East, including Russia and Ukraine.
Both the European Union and NATO have pledged to continue to embrace new
Some have questioned the need for continuing our security
partnership with Europe at the end of the Cold War. But in this age of
growing international interdependence, America needs a strong and
peaceful Europe more than ever as our partner for freedom and for
economic progress, and our partner against terrorism, the spread of
weapons of mass destruction, and instability.
The promise of a Europe undivided, democratic and at peace, is at
long last within reach. But we all know it is threatened by the ethnic
and religious turmoil in Southeastern Europe, where most leaders are
freely elected, and committed to cooperation, both within and among
Unfortunately, for more than 10 years now, President Milosevic has
pursued a different course for Serbia, and for much of the rest of the
former Yugoslavia. Since the late 1980s, he has acquired, retained, and
sought to expand his power, by inciting religious and ethnic hatred in
the cause of greater Serbia; by demonizing and dehumanizing people,
especially the Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims, whose history, culture and
very presence in the former republic of Yugoslavia impede that vision of
a greater Serbia.
He unleashed wars in Bosnia and Croatia, creating 2 million
refugees and leaving a quarter of a million people dead. A decade ago,
he stripped Kosovo of its constitutional self-government, and began
harassing and oppressing its people. He has also rejected brave calls
among his own Serb people for greater liberty. Today, he uses
repression and censorship at home to stifle dissent and to conceal what
he is doing in Kosovo.
Though his ethnic cleansing is not the same as the ethnic
extermination of the Holocaust, the two are related -- both vicious,
premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic
hatred. This campaign to drive the Kosovars from their land and to,
indeed, embrace their very identity is an affront to humanity and an
attack not only on a people, but on the dignity of all people.
Even now, Mr. Milosevic is being investigated by the International
War Crimes Tribunal for alleged war crimes, including mass killing and
ethnic cleansing. Until recently, 1.7 million ethnic Albanians -- about
the population of our state of Nebraska -- lived in Kosovo among a total
population of 2 million, the others being Serbs.
The Kosovar Albanians are farmers and factory workers, lawyers and
doctors, mothers, fathers, school children. They have worked to build
better lives under increasingly difficult circumstances. Today, most of
them are in camps in Albania, Macedonia and elsewhere -- nearly 900,000
refugees -- some searching desperately for lost family members. Or they
are trapped within Kosovo itself, perhaps 600,000 more of them, lacking
shelter, short of food, afraid to go home. Or they are buried in mass
graves dug by their executioners.
I know we see these pictures of the refugees on television every
night and most people would like another story. But we must not get
refugee fatigue. We must not forget the real victims of this tragedy.
We must give them aid and hope. And we in the United States must make
sure -- must -- make sure their stories are told.
A Kosovar farmer told how Serb tanks drove into his village.
Police lined up all the men, about 100 of them, by a stream and opened
fire. The farmer was hit by a bullet in the shoulder. The weight of
falling bodies all around him pulled him into the stream. The only way
he could stay alive was to pretend to be dead. From a camp in Albania,
he said, my daughter tells me, "Father, sleep. Why don't you sleep?"
But I can't. All those dead bodies on top of mine.
Another refugee told of trying to return to his village in
Kosovo's capital, Pristina. "On my way," he said, "I met one of my
relatives. He told me not to go back because there were snipers on the
balconies. Minutes after I left, the man was killed -- I found him.
Back in Pristina no one could go out, because of the Serb policemen in
the streets. It was terrible to see our children, they were so hungry.
Finally, I tried to go shopping. Four armed men jumped out and said,
we're going to kill you if you don't get out of here. My daughters were
crying day and night. We were hearing stories about rape. They begged
me, please get us out of here. So we joined thousands of people going
through the streets at night toward the train station. In the train
wagons, police were tearing up passports, taking money, taking jewelry."
Another refugee reported, "The Serbs surrounded us. They killed
four children because their families did not have money to give to the
police. They killed them with knives, not guns."
Another recalled, "The police came early in the morning. They
executed almost a hundred people. They killed them all, women and
children. They set a fire and threw the bodies in."
A pregnant woman watched Serb forces shoot her brother in the
stomach. She said, "My father asked for someone to help this boy, but
the answer he got was a beating. The Serbs told my brother to put his
hands up, and then they shot him ten times. I saw this. I saw my
Serb forces, their faces often concealed by masks, as they were
before in Bosnia, have rounded up Kosovar women and repeatedly raped
them. They have said to children, go into the woods and die of hunger.
Last week in Germany, I met with a couple of dozen of these
refugees, and I asked them all, in turn, to speak about their
experience. A young man -- I'd say 15 or 16 years old -- stood up and
struggled to talk. Finally, he just sat down and said, "Kosovo, I can't
talk about Kosovo."
Nine of every 10 Kosovar Albanians now has been driven from their
homes; thousands murdered; at least 100,000 missing; many young men led
away in front of their families; over 500 cities, towns and villages
torched. All this has been carried out, you must understand, according
to a plan carefully designed months earlier in Belgrade. Serb officials
prepositioned forces, tanks and fuel and mapped out the sequence of
attack: what were the soldiers going to do; what were the paramilitary
people going to do; what were the police going to do.
Town after town has seen the same brutal procedures -- Serb forces
taking valuables and identity papers, seizing or executing civilians,
destroying property records, bulldozing and burning homes, mocking the
We and our allies, with Russia, have worked hard for a just peace.
Just last fall, Mr. Milosevic agreed under pressure to halt a previous
assault on Kosovo, and hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were able to
return home. But soon, he broke his commitment and renewed violence.
In February and March, again we pressed for peace, and the Kosovar
Albanian leaders accepted a comprehensive plan, including the disarming
of their insurgent forces, though it did not give them all they wanted.
But instead of joining the peace, Mr. Milosevic, having already massed
some 40,000 troops in and around Kosovo, unleashed his forces to
intensify their atrocities and complete his brutal scheme.
Now, from the outset of this conflict, we and our allies have been
very clear about what Belgrade must do to end it. The central
imperative is this: The Kosovars must be able to return home and live
in safety. For this to happen, the Serb forces must leave; partial
withdrawals can only mean continued civil wars with the Kosovar
There must also be an international security force with NATO at
its core. Without that force, after all they've been through, the
Kosovars simply won't go home. Their requirements are neither arbitrary
nor overreaching. These things we have said are simply what is
necessary to make peace work.
There are those who say Europe and its North American allies have
no business intervening in the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans. They
are the inevitable result, these conflicts, according to some, of
centuries-old animosity which were unleashed by the end of the Cold War
restraints in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. I, myself, have been guilty of
saying that on an occasion or two, and I regret it now more than I can
say. For I have spent a great deal of time in these last six years
reading the real history of the Balkans. And the truth is that a lot of
what passes for common wisdom in this area is a gross oversimplification
and misreading of history.
The truth is that for centuries these people have lived together
in the Balkans and Southeastern Europe with greater or lesser degree of
tension, but often without anything approaching the intolerable
conditions and conflicts that exist today. And we do no favors to
ourselves or to the rest of the world when we justify looking away from
this kind of slaughter by oversimplifying and conveniently, in our own
way, demonizing the whole Balkans by saying that these people are simply
incapable of civilized behavior with one another.
Second, there is -- people say, okay, maybe it's not inevitable,
but look there are a lot of ethnic problems in the world. Russia has
dealt with Chechnya, and you've got Abkhazia and Ossetia on the borders
of Russia. And you've got all these ethnic problems everywhere, and
religious problems. That's what the Middle East is about. You've got
Northern Ireland. You've got the horrible, horrible genocide in Rwanda.
You've got the war, now, between Eritrea and Ethiopia. They say, oh,
we've got all these problems, and, therefore, why do you care about
I say to them, there is a huge difference between people who can't
resolve their problems peacefully and fight about them, and people who
resort to systematic ethnic cleansing and slaughter of people because of
their religious or ethnic background. There is a difference. There is
And that is the difference that NATO -- that our allies have tried
to recognize and act on. I believe that is what we saw in Bosnia and
Kosovo. I think the only thing we have seen that really rivals that,
rooted in ethnic or religious destruction, in this decade is what
happened in Rwanda. And I regret very much that the world community was
not organized and able to act quickly there as well.
Bringing the Kosovars home is a moral issue, but it is a very
practical, strategic issue. In a world where the future will be
threatened by the growth of terrorist groups; the easy spread of weapons
of mass destruction; the use of technology including the Internet, for
people to learn how to make bombs, and wreck countries, this is also a
significant security issue. Particularly because of Kosovo's location,
it is just as much a security issue for us as ending the war in Bosnia
Though we are working hard with the international community to
sustain them, a million or more permanent Kosovar refugees could
destabilize Albania, Macedonia, the wider region, become a fertile
ground for radicalism and vengeance that would consume Southeastern
Europe. And if Europe were overwhelmed with that, you know we would
have to then come in and help them. Far better for us all to work
together, to be firm, to be resolute, to be determined to resolve this
If the European community and it's American and Canadian allies
were to turn away from, and therefore reward, ethnic cleansing in the
Balkans, all we would do is to create for ourselves an environment where
this sort of practice was sanctioned by other people who found it
convenient to build their own political power, and therefore, we would
be creating a world of trouble for Europe and for the United States in
the years ahead.
I'd just like to make one more point about this, in terms of the
history of the Balkans. As long as people have existed there have been
problems among people who are different from one another, and there
probably always will be. But you do not have systematic slaughter and
an effort to eradicate the religion, the culture, the heritage, the very
record of presence of the people in any area unless some politician
thinks it is in his interest to foment that sort of hatred. That's how
these things happen -- people with organized political and military
power decide it is in their interest that they get something out of
convincing the people they control or they influence to go kill other
people and uproot them and dehumanize them.
I don't believe that the Serb people in their souls are any better
-- I mean, any worse -- than we are. Do you? Do you believe when a
little baby is born into a certain ethnic or racial group that somehow
they have some poison in there that has to, at some point when they grow
up, turn into some vast flame of destruction? Congressman Engel has got
more Albanians than any congressman in the country in his district.
Congressman Quinn's been involved in the peace process in Ireland. You
think there's something about the Catholic and Protestant Irish kids
that sort of genetically predisposes them to -- you know better than
that, because we're about to make peace there, I hope -- getting closer.
Political leaders do this kind of thing. You think the Germans
would have perpetrated the Holocaust on their own without Hitler? Was
there something in the history of the German race that made them do
We've got to get straight about this. This is something political
leaders do. And if people make decisions to do these kinds of things,
other people can make decisions to stop them. And if the resources are
properly arrayed it can be done. And that is exactly what we intend to
Now, last week, despite our differences over the NATO action in
Kosovo, Russia joined us, through the G-8 foreign ministers, in
affirming our basic condition for ending the conflict, in affirming that
the mass expulsion of the Kosovars cannot stand. We and Russia agreed
that the international force ideally should be endorsed by the United
Nations, as it was in Bosnia. And we do want Russian forces, along with
those of other nations, to participate, because a Russian presence will
help to reassure the Serbs who live in Kosovo -- and they will need some
protection, too, after all that has occurred.
NATO and Russian forces have served well side-by-side in Bosnia,
with forces from many other countries. And with all the difficulties,
the tensions, the dark memories that still exist in Bosnia, the Serbs,
the Muslims, the Croats are still at peace, and still working together.
Nobody claims that we can make everybody love each other overnight.
That is not required. But what is required are basic norms of civilized
Until Serbia accepts these conditions, we will continue to grind
down its war machine. Today, our allied air campaign is striking at
strategic targets in Serbia, and directly at Serb forces in Kosovo,
making it harder for them to obtain supplies, protect themselves, and
attack the ethnic Albanians who are still there. NATO actions will not
stop until the conditions I have described for peace are met.
Last week, I had a chance to meet with our troops in Europe --
those who are flying the missions, and those who are organizing and
leading our humanitarian assistance effort. I can tell you that you and
all Americans can be very, very proud of them. They are standing up for
what is right. They are performing with great skill and courage and
sense of purpose. And in their attempts to avoid civilian casualties,
they are sometimes risking their own lives. The wing commander at
Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany told me, "Sir, our team wants to
stay with this mission until it's finished."
I am very grateful to these men and women. They are worthy
successors to those of you in this audience who are veterans today.
Of course, we regret any casualties that are accidental, including
those at the Chinese Embassy. But let me be clear again: These are
accidents. They are inadvertent tragedies of conflict. We have worked
very hard to avoid them. I'm telling you, I talked to pilots who told
me that they had been fired at with mobile weapons from people in the
middle of highly-populated villages, and they turned away rather than
answer fire because they did not want to risk killing innocent
That is not our policy. But those of you who wear the uniform of
our country and the many other countries represented here in this room
today, and those of you who are veterans, know that it is simply not
possible to avoid casualties of noncombatants in this sort of encounter.
We are working hard. And I think it is truly remarkable -- I would ask
the world to note that we have now flown over 19,000 sorties, thousands
and thousands of bombs have been dropped, and there have been very few
incidents of this kind. I know that you know how many there have been
because Mr. Milosevic makes sure that the media has access to them.
I grieve for the loss of the innocent Chinese and their families.
I grieve for the loss of the innocent Serbian civilians and their
families. I grieve for the loss of the innocent Kosovars who were put
into a military vehicle that our people thought was a military vehicle,
and they've often been used as shields.
But I ask you to remember the stories I told you earlier. There
are thousands of people that have been killed systematically by the Serb
forces. There are 100,000 people who are still missing. We must
remember who the real victims are here and why this started.
It is no accident that Mr. Milosevic has not allowed the
international media to see the slaughter and destruction in Kosovo.
There is no picture reflecting the story that one refugee told of 15 men
being tied together and set on fire while they were alive. No, there
are no pictures of that. But we have enough of those stories to know
that there is a systematic effort that has animated our actions, and we
must not forget it.
Now, Serbia faces a choice. Mr. Milosevic and his allies have
dragged their people down a path of racial and religious hatred. This
has resulted, again and again, in bloodshed, in loss of life, in loss of
territory, and denial of the Serbs' own freedom -- and now, in an
unwinnable conflict against the united international community.
But there is another path available -- one where people of
different backgrounds and religions work together, within and across
national borders; where people stop redrawing borders and start drawing
blueprints for a prosperous, multiethnic future.
This is the path the other nations of Southeastern Europe have
adopted. Day after day, they work to improve lives, to build a future
in which the forces that pull people together are stronger than those
that tear them apart. Albania and Bulgaria, as well as our NATO ally,
Greece, have overcome historical differences to recognize the
independence of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Romania,
Bulgaria, Macedonia and others have deepened freedoms, promoted
tolerance, pursued difficult economic reforms. Slovenia has advanced
democracy at home, and prosperity; stood for regional integration,
increased security cooperation, with a center to defuse land mines left
from the conflict in Bosnia.
These nations are reaffirming that discord is not inevitable, that
there is not some Balkan disease that has been there for centuries,
always waiting to break out. They are drawing on a rich past where
peoples of the region did, in fact, live together in peace.
Now, we and our allies have been helping to build that future, but
we have to accelerate our efforts. We will work with the European
Union, the World Bank, the IMF and others to ease the immediate economic
strains, to relieve debt burden, to speed reconstruction, to advance
economic reforms and regional trade. We will promote political freedom
and tolerance of minorities.
At our NATO Summit last month we agreed to deepen our security
engagement in the region, to adopt an ambitious program to help aspiring
nations improve their candidacies to join the NATO Alliance. They have
risked and sacrificed the support the military and humanitarian efforts.
They deserve our support.
Last Saturday was the anniversary of one of the greatest days in
American history and in the history of freedom -- VE Day. Though
America celebrated that day in 1945, we did not pack up and go home. We
stayed -- to provide economic aid, to help to bolster democracy, to keep
the peace -- and because our strength and resolve was important as
Europe rebuilt, learned to live together; faced new challenges together.
The resources we devoted to the Marshall Plan, to NATO, to other
efforts, I think we would all agree have been an enormous bargain for
our long-term prosperity and security here in the United States -- just
as the resources we are devoting here at this institution -- to reaching
out to people from other nations, to their officers, to their military,
in a spirit of cooperation are an enormous bargain for the future
security of the people of the United States.
Now, that's what I want to say in my last point here. War is
expensive; peace is cheaper. Prosperity is downright profitable. We
have to invest in the rebuilding of this region. Southeastern Europe,
after the Cold War, was free but poor. As long as they are poor, they
will offer a less compelling counterweight to the kind of ethnic
exclusivity and oppression that Mr. Milosevic preaches.
If you believe the Marshall Plan worked, and you believe war is to
be avoided whenever possible, and you understand how expensive it is and
how profitable prosperity is, how much we have gotten out of what we
have done -- then we have to work with our European allies to rebuild
Southeastern Europe, and to give them an economic future that will pull
The European Union is prepared to take the lead role in
Southeastern Europe's development. Russia, Ukraine, other nations of
Europe's East are building democracy -- they want to be a part of this.
We are trying to do this in other places in the world. What a
great ally Japan has been for peace and prosperity, and will be again as
they work to overcome their economic difficulty. Despite our present
problems, I still believe we must remain committed to building a
long-term strategic partnership with China.
We must work together with people where we can, as we prepare --
always -- to protect and defend our security if we must. But a better
world and a better Europe are clearly in America's interests.
Serbia and the rest of the Balkans should be part of it. So I
want to say this one more time: Our quarrel is not with the Serbian
people. The United States has been deeply enriched by Serbian
Americans. Millions of Americans are now cheering for some Serbian
Americans as we watch the basketball play-offs every night on
television. People of Serbian heritage are an important part of our
society. We can never forget that the Serbs fought bravely with the
allies against fascist aggression in World War II; that they suffer
much; that Serbs, too, have been uprooted from their homes and have
suffered greatly in the conflicts of the past decade that Mr. Milosevic
But the cycle of violence has to end. The children of the Balkans
-- all of them -- deserve the chance to grow up without fear. Serbs
simply must free themselves of the notion that their neighbors must be
their enemies. The real enemy is a poisonous hatred unleashed by a
cynical leader, based on a distorted view of what constitutes real
The United States has become greater as we have shed racism, as we
have shed a sense of superiority, as we have become more committed to
working together across the lines that divide us, as we have found other
ways to define meaning and purpose in life. And so has every other
country that has embarked on that course.
We stand ready, therefore, to embrace Serbia as a part of a new
Europe -- if the people of Serbia are willing to invest and embrace that
kind of future; if they are ready to build a Serbia, and a Yugoslavia,
that is democratic, and respects the rights and dignity of all people;
if they are ready to join a world where people reach across the divide
to find their common humanity and their prosperity.
This is the right vision, and the right course. It is not only
the morally right thing for America, it is the right thing for our
security interests over the long run. It is the vision for which the
veterans in this room struggled so valiantly, for which so many others
have given their lives.
With your example to guide us, and with our allies beside us, it
is a vision that will prevail. And it is very, very much worth standing
Thank you, and God bless you. (Applause.)
END 11:35 A.M. EDT