WASHINGTON -- President Clinton set the stage yesterday for airstrikes against Serbia, saying that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had "crossed the threshold" by massing tens of thousands of troops against the province of Kosovo.
Hours after the Kosovo peace talks in Paris collapsed, Clinton said failure by the United States and its European allies to act could result in more massacres like the one in the village of Racak in January, which left 45 people dead.
"They have massed their troops. They have continued to take aggressive action. They have already leveled one village in the recent past, killed a lot of innocent people," Clinton said.
"I do not believe that we ought to have thousands more people slaughtered and buried in open soccer fields before we do something. I think that would be unfortunate, if we said we have to have a lot more victims before we can stop what we know is about to happen."
Clinton used his first full-fledged news conference in nearly a year to continue laying the public groundwork for airstrikes. A few hours previously, he had met with about 30 members of Congress.
Many of the lawmakers emerged convinced that airstrikes were imminent, a belief underscored by the start of a withdrawal of the 1,400-member observer force in Kosovo and departure of Western diplomats.
However, Clinton refused to give a timetable. Although administration officials denied it, next week's visit by Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov poses a tough dilemma for Clinton, who has made a top priority of supporting the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Russia, which has close historical ties to the Serbs, opposes the use of force in Yugoslavia. Launching airstrikes next week would be a severe blow to Primakov's prestige at home.
One possibility is a quick mission to Belgrade by the foreign ministers of Britain and France to try to pressure Milosevic.
However, a NATO diplomat said some form of military action could indeed come this weekend if Serbs interfere with the withdrawal of the observer force. In that case, a French-led "extraction" force, based in Macedonia, would be sent in to assist the monitors.
Clinton cited two reasons for force. He gave the most stress to the threat posed by the Serbian army to the civilian population of Kosovo, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian.
"We should remember what happened in the village of Racak back in January -- innocent men, women, and children taken from their homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with gunfire, not because of anything they had done, but because of who they were."
He went on: "Make no mistake, if we and our allies do not have the will to act, there will be more massacres. In dealing with aggressors in the Balkans, hesitation is a license to kill. But action and resolve can stop armies and save lives."
The other reason is the collapse of peace talks between the Yugoslav government and leaders of the Kosovo Albanians.
Yielding on their goal of independence, the Albanians signed a Western-drafted peace plan Thursday that would grant them substantial autonomy but put off a determination of the final status of Kosovo for three years.
Yugoslavia continued balking, however, because the agreement calls for a NATO-led peacekeeping force of 28,000 troops to be sent into Serbia to prevent new outbreaks of violence in Kosovo.
Clinton reminded his audience of the large-scale brutality that persisted in Bosnia before airstrikes forced the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table in late 1995. This time, he said, NATO should act before the fighting gets out of control.
He repeated warnings that the Kosovo fighting, if allowed to continue and spread, could create a refugee crisis and reignite regional animosities, threatening violence into the next century.
Invoking the fate of European security, he said that "a part of my responsibility is to try to leave to my successors an environment in Europe that is stable, humane and secure."
One result of yesterday's White House meeting with lawmakers was a delay in plans for a Senate vote Monday on a proposal that would bar funding for U.S. troops in Kosovo until the operation is authorized by Congress. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott hinted that no vote may be taken at all on the issue.
According to Lott, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told lawmakers that U.S. national interests were at stake, including "our relationship with NATO, the humanitarian question, the sight of hundreds, thousands of people perhaps being slaughtered, and the potential destabilization of the region there."
"Those are valid points," Lott said. "The question is, is that sufficient?" But on the question of the president's willingness to resort to force, there seemed to be little doubt.
"We're on the brink of a very grave situation," warned House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, predicted it would be the most significant and perilous military action since the Persian Gulf war.
"I think this meeting added momentum towards the Senate supporting the president and NATO in this action," Warner said. "Credibility of NATO is on the line. The credibility of the United States working with its European partners in NATO is on the line. And equally important, the credibility of the U.S. military to perform a task as directed by the commander in chief."
But lawmakers were far from united in their support for military action, with some fully backing Clinton and others calling airstrikes dangerous acts of aggression against a sovereign power.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican whip, said he told the president, "I don't think that we should begin bombing unless and until the Serbs really begin a very significant massacre against the people of Kosovo," and even then, he would oppose sending in American ground troops.
"The president is absolutely correct. We must, we must do as we committed, move forward with a bombing campaign," said Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Briefing lawmakers earlier this week, U.S. military leaders warned of the risks in engaging the Serbs.
Gen. Michael Ryan, an Air Force chief of staff who commanded U.S. airstrikes in Bosnia, said the Serbs' "very substantive air defense capability" included three different Soviet missile systems, including radar-guided surface-to-air missiles.
In Bosnia, he said, "they were good, but these guys are very good. It will take a very serious campaign against those systems if we want to penetrate and lower the risk. There's no assurances that we won't lose aircraft."
Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant, warned, "It is going to be tremendously dangerous. The systems are, in many instances, mobile. The terrain is very tough. And the weather cannot be underestimated. That can be a show-stopper in many ways."
Pub Date: 3/20/99