THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release March 24, 1999
STATEMENT BY THE PRESIDENT
TO THE NATION
The Oval Office
8:01 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: My fellow Americans, today our Armed Forces joined
our NATO allies in air strikes against Serbian forces responsible for
the brutality in Kosovo. We have acted with resolve for several
We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a
mounting military offensive. We act to prevent a wider war; to diffuse
a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in
this century with catastrophic results. And we act to stand united
with our allies for peace. By acting now we are upholding our values,
protecting our interests and advancing the cause of peace.
Tonight I want to speak to you about the tragedy in Kosovo and why
it matters to America that we work with our allies to end it. First,
let me explain what it is we are responding to. Kosovo is a province
of Serbia, in the middle of southeastern Europe, about 160 miles east
of Italy. That's less than the distance between Washington and New
York, and only about 70 miles north of Greece. Its people are mostly
ethnic Albanian and mostly Muslim.
In 1989, Serbia's leader, Slobadan Milosevic, the same leader who
started the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, and moved against Slovenia in
the last decade, stripped Kosovo of the constitutional autonomy its
people enjoyed; thus denying them their right to speak their language,
run their schools, shape their daily lives. For years, Kosovars
struggled peacefully to get their rights back. When President
Milosevic sent his troops and police to crush them, the struggle grew
Last fall our diplomacy, backed by the threat of force from our NATO
Alliance, stopped the fighting for a while, and rescued tens of
thousands of people from freezing and starvation in the hills where
they had fled to save their lives. And last month, with our allies and
Russia, we proposed a peace agreement to end the fighting for good.
The Kosovar leaders signed that agreement last week. Even though it
does not give them all they want, even though their people were still
being savaged, they saw that a just peace is better than a long and
The Serbian leaders, on the other hand, refused even to discuss key
elements of the peace agreement. As the Kosovars were saying "yes" to
peace, Serbia stationed 40,000 troops in and around Kosovo in
preparation for a major offensive -- and in clear violation of the
commitments they had made.
Now, they've started moving from village to village,
shelling civilians and torching their houses. We've seen
innocent people taken from their homes, forced to kneel in the
dirt and sprayed with bullets; Kosovar men dragged from their
families, fathers and sons together, lined up and shot in cold
blood. This is not war in the traditional sense. It is an
attack by tanks and artillery on a largely defenseless people,
whose leaders already have agreed to peace.
Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative. It is also
important to America's national interest. Take a look at this
map. Kosovo is a small place, but it sits on a major fault line
between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at the meeting place of
Islam and both the Western and Orthodox branches of Christianity.
To the south are our allies, Greece and Turkey; to the north, our
new democratic allies in Central Europe. And all around Kosovo
there are other small countries, struggling with their own
economic and political challenges -- countries that could be
overwhelmed by a large, new wave of refugees from Kosovo. All
the ingredients for a major war are there: ancient grievances,
struggling democracies, and in the center of it all a dictator in
Serbia who has done nothing since the Cold War ended but start
new wars and pour gasoline on the flames of ethnic and religious
Sarajevo, the capital of neighboring Bosnia, is where
World War I began. World War II and the Holocaust engulfed this
region. In both wars Europe was slow to recognize the dangers,
and the United States waited even longer to enter the conflicts.
Just imagine if leaders back then had acted wisely and early
enough, how many lives could have been saved, how many Americans
would not have had to die.
We learned some of the same lessons in Bosnia just a
few years ago. The world did not act early enough to stop that
war, either. And let's not forget what happened -- innocent
people herded into concentration camps, children gunned down by
snipers on their way to school, soccer fields and parks turned
into cemeteries; a quarter of a million people killed, not
because of anything they have done, but because of who they were.
Two million Bosnians became refugees. This was genocide in the
heart of Europe -- not in 1945, but in 1995. Not in some grainy
newsreel from our parents' and grandparents' time, but in our own
time, testing our humanity and our resolve.
At the time, many people believed nothing could be done
to end the bloodshed in Bosnia. They said, well, that's just the
way those people in the Balkans are. But when we and our allies
joined with courageous Bosnians to stand up to the aggressors, we
helped to end the war. We learned that in the Balkans, inaction
in the face of brutality simply invites more brutality. But
firmness can stop armies and save lives. We must apply that
lesson in Kosovo before what happened in Bosnia happens there,
Over the last few months we have done everything we possibly
could to solve this problem peacefully. Secretary Albright has
worked tirelessly for a negotiated agreement. Mr. Milosevic has
On Sunday I sent Ambassador Dick Holbrooke to Serbia to
make clear to him again, on behalf of the United States and our
NATO allies, that he must honor his own commitments and stop his
repression, or face military action. Again, he refused.
Today, we and our 18 NATO allies agreed to do what we
said we would do, what we must do to restore the peace. Our
mission is clear: to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's
purpose so that the Serbian leaders understand the imperative of
reversing course. To deter an even bloodier offensive against
innocent civilians in Kosovo and, if necessary, to seriously
damage the Serbian military's capacity to harm the people of
Kosovo. In short, if President Milosevic will not make peace, we
will limit his ability to make war.
Now, I want to be clear with you, there are risks in
this military action -- risks to our pilots and the people on the
ground. Serbia's air defenses are strong. It could decide to
intensify its assault on Kosovo, or to seek to harm us or our
allies elsewhere. If it does, we will deliver a forceful
Hopefully, Mr. Milosevic will realize his present
course is self-destructive and unsustainable. If he decides to
accept the peace agreement and demilitarize Kosovo, NATO has
agreed to help to implement it with a peace-keeping force. If
NATO is invited to do so, our troops should take part in that
mission to keep the peace. But I do not intend to put our troops
in Kosovo to fight a war.
Do our interests in Kosovo justify the dangers to our
Armed Forces? I've thought long and hard about that question. I
am convinced that the dangers of acting are far outweighed by the
dangers of not acting -- dangers to defenseless people and to our
national interests. If we and our allies were to allow this war
to continue with no response, President Milosevic would read our
hesitation as a license to kill. There would be many more
massacres, tens of thousands more refugees, more victims crying
out for revenge.
Right now our firmness is the only hope the people of
Kosovo have to be able to live in their own country without
having to fear for their own lives. Remember: We asked them to
accept peace, and they did. We asked them to promise to lay down
their arms, and they agreed. We pledged that we, the United
States and the other 18 nations of NATO, would stick by them if
they did the right thing. We cannot let them down now.
Imagine what would happen if we and our allies instead
decided just to look the other way, as these people were
massacred on NATO's doorstep. That would discredit NATO, the
cornerstone on which our security has rested for 50 years now.
We must also remember that this is a conflict with no
natural national boundaries. Let me ask you to look again at a
map. The red dots are towns the Serbs have attacked. The arrows
show the movement of refugees -- north, east and south. Already,
this movement is threatening the young democracy in Macedonia,
which has its own Albanian minority and a Turkish minority.
Already, Serbian forces have made forays into Albania from which
Kosovars have drawn support. Albania is a Greek minority. Let a
fire burn here in this area and the flames will spread.
Eventually, key U.S. allies could be drawn into a wider conflict,
a war we would be forced to confront later -- only at far greater
risk and greater cost.
I have a responsibility as President to deal with
problems such as this before they do permanent harm to our
national interests. America has a responsibility to stand with
our allies when they are trying to save innocent lives and
preserve peace, freedom and stability in Europe. That is what we
are doing in Kosovo.
If we've learned anything from the century drawing to a
close, it is that if America is going to be prosperous and
secure, we need a Europe that is prosperous, secure undivided and
free. We need a Europe that is coming together, not falling
apart; a Europe that shares our values and shares the burdens of
leadership. That is the foundation on which the security of our
children will depend.
That is why I have supported the political and economic
unification of Europe. That is why we brought Poland, Hungary
and the Czech Republic into NATO, and redefined its missions, and
reached out to Russia and Ukraine for new partnerships.
Now, what are the challenges to that vision of a
peaceful, secure, united, stable Europe? The challenge of
strengthening a partnership with a democratic Russia, that,
despite our disagreements, is a constructive partner in the work
of building peace. The challenge of resolving the tension
between Greece and Turkey and building bridges with the Islamic
world. And, finally, the challenge of ending instability in the
Balkans so that these bitter ethnic problems in Europe are
resolved the force of argument, not the force of arms; so that
future generations of Americans do not have to cross the Atlantic
to fight another terrible war.
It is this challenge that we and our allies are facing
in Kosovo. That is why we have acted now -- because we care
about saving innocent lives; because we have an interest in
avoiding an even crueler and costlier war; and because our
children need and deserve a peaceful, stable, free Europe.
Our thoughts and prayers tonight must be with the men
and women of our Armed Forces who are undertaking this mission
for the sake of our values and our children's future. May God
bless them and may God bless America.
END 8:15 P.M. EST
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