Clinton turns up heat on Milosevic

President puts blame for `ethnic cleansing' on Serbian leader

War In Yugoslavia

May 14, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A week after President Clinton suggested he could accept Slobodan Milosevic as a peace partner in the Balkans, the president launched a scathing attack on the Yugoslav leader yesterday, comparing the Serbs' brutal campaign in Kosovo to the Holocaust and placing clear personal responsibility on Milosevic himself.

Sensing Milosevic's increasing isolation, Clinton set out to bolster softening public support for the NATO assault on Yugoslavia even as diplomatic efforts to end it continued apace.

On May 6, Clinton suggested that short of a NATO occupation of Belgrade, the alliance would have to accept Milosevic as a partner in the peace process.

But since then, the Yugoslav president has sent signs that he is feeling the pressure from NATO airstrikes, and White House aides decided it was time to take a harder line.

French President Jacques Chirac and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott resumed peace negotiations with Russian leaders in Moscow, as NATO airstrikes were hitting targets throughout Yugoslavia.

Parts of Serbia's three largest cities -- Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis -- were again blacked out by NATO warplanes last night.

A token contingent of Yugoslav troops paraded out of Kosovo yesterday, smiling and waving to Western journalists in what White House spokesman Joe Lockhart dismissed as "a 150-person photo op at a border checkpoint."

The French newspaper Le Monde, quoting a Russian diplomat and Western sources in Moscow, reported that Milosevic was ready to accept an armed peacekeeping force in Kosovo, provided he would be granted immunity from war crimes prosecution.

While White House officials said they knew of no such offer, Clinton pointed out that evidence against Milosevic was being forwarded to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

White House aides are sensing that the opportunity is ripe for increasing the pressure on Milosevic to capitulate to NATO's demands.

White House advisers billed the president's speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a major policy address, and the president did turn up the rhetorical heat, castigating Milosevic for "inciting religious and ethnic hatred" to acquire and expand his power base, "demonizing and dehumanizing" Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia, and inspiring the knifing of children, the systematic raping of women and the brutal murdering of Kosovar men.

"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," Clinton said.

After citing horror stories related by Kosovar refugees, Clinton concluded, "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."

In another move to sharpen the administration's message on Kosovo, National Security Council aides recruited a seasoned public relations specialist, Leslie Dach, to shape communications strategy and produce fresh messages for the 51-day-old conflict.

`Fresh legs, some fresh eyes'

"It was really a desire to put more strength into an ongoing educational effort than a feeling that something wasn't being done right," a senior administration official said. "They needed some fresh legs, some fresh eyes on the issue."

But critics of NATO's limited air war over Kosovo came away from the day's events more baffled then heartened. Clinton made no mention of changing NATO's military strategy to include ground forces, and he stopped short of calling for Milosevic's indictment by the international war crimes tribunal.

Ivo Daalder, a former Balkans expert at the National Security Council, pronounced himself "flabbergasted" after attending yesterday's speech, quoting Gertrude Stein's famous comment, "There's no `there' there."

"If this was meant to convince me to support the administration, I will say the president's analysis of the origins and nature of this conflict is absolutely on the mark," said Daalder, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But the logic of this is you go in and win, and that was what was missing."

Critics saw no reason to applaud the temporary hiring of Dach, a veteran of Democratic causes who heads the Washington office of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. Paul Williams, a war crimes expert at American University's law school, said the problems are in the administration's policies, not its message.

"They need a policy, not a public relations person," he said.

Even the president's allies appear to be growing frustrated with a message that seems to vacillate between a negotiated settlement that would leave Milosevic a force in the Balkans and a hard-line resolve to either drub him into capitulation or drive him from power militarily.

Former administration officials say the conflicting messages reflect the deep divisions within the administration itself.

Military vs. diplomacy

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