Clinton celebrates victory, defends NATO campaign

He calls on Yugoslavs to overthrow Milosevic

War In Yugoslavia

June 11, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two and a half months after he went before the American people to justify a looming air war over a tiny province that few had heard of, President Clinton returned last night to the Oval Office to declare victory over Slobodan Milosevic.

After days of cautious optimism, Clinton reveled in a day-long celebration, calling world leaders with congratulatory messages, joking about Albanian restaurants with the New York Yankees, even offering an olive branch to Republican congressional leaders who never embraced the air war over Yugoslavia.

But in a nationally televised address, the president ended his victory lap with a sober defense of NATO's campaign, a direct plea to the people of Yugoslavia to overthrow Milosevic, and a warning of the "formidable challenges" in guarding the fragile peace.

"Because of our resolve, the 20th century is ending not with helpless indignation but with a hopeful affirmation of human dignity and human rights for the 21st century," Clinton declared. "In a world too divided by fear among people of different racial groups, we have given confidence to the friends of freedom and pause to those who would exploit human differences for inhuman purposes."

In a challenge to the critics who have constantly questioned his prosecution of the air war, Clinton added, "In Kosovo, we did the right thing. We did it the right way. And we will finish the job."

It has been an odd and inconclusive end to what the president called "the stiffest military challenge in NATO's 50-year history." Clinton will fly to Missouri today to thank B-2 bomber pilots who flew bombing strikes out of Whiteman Air Force Base. Next week, he embarks on a European tour.

Yet even he acknowledged the difficulties ahead: rebuilding a shattered land, escorting more than 800,000 refugees back to homes and villages that have been burned and looted, locating the missing, feeding the homeless, demilitarizing the warring factions, and forging an autonomous Kosovar Albanian government from scratch.

Clinton himself confronted one of the most daunting obstacles when he sternly addressed the Serbian people about the man who remains their leader.

"You endured 79 days of bombing, not to keep Kosovo a province of Serbia but simply because Mr. Milosevic was determined to eliminate Kosovar Albanians from Kosovo, dead or alive," the president said, warning, "As long as he remains in power, as long as your nation is ruled by an indicted war criminal, we will provide no support for the reconstruction of Serbia."

But Milosevic is not the only foe who remains undaunted. Domestic critics who questioned U.S. involvement in the conflict have not been silenced by victory. Nor have those who argued that NATO could never win the war with air power alone.

Administration officials finally answered yesterday.

"We always had a clear conviction that the air campaign would work, would achieve our objectives. The sense was, if we were patient and kept at it, we would prevail," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "The difficulty was the pressure mounting on us from the outside."

Even the president acknowledged that pressure, thanking Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and the entire national security team, "who persevered with great confidence and calmness amid criticism and the early rough-going to achieve the victory that they have achieved."

Asked whether the Serbian withdrawal vindicated his policies, Clinton responded: "Our people in uniform, starting with our secretary of defense, are the ones that have been vindicated."

Having apparently proven their opponents wrong, White House aides could not resist a touch of triumphalism.

"The kind of Europe that we have been fighting for throughout the 20th century can now be realized," waxed one senior White House official, "a Europe that is not divided, where principles of liberty are pre-eminent."

But Clinton also offered to compromise with his foes in Congress yesterday, promising GOP leaders that he would seek their express approval for a peacekeeping force in Kosovo and to manage it "without harming military readiness."

The gesture, expressed in a formal letter to all House members, placated Republicans who had crafted legislation that would have cut off all funds for Kosovo after Sept. 30.

Clinton decided to put aside confrontation, knowing that the commitment to Kosovo will be long-term, expensive and badly in need of public support.

"All these challenges are substantial," he acknowledged, "but they are far preferable to the challenges of war and continued instability in Europe. We have sent a message of determination and hope to all the world."

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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