Good morning. I want to talk with you today about the conflict in Bosnia and the United States policy with regard to it for the last 2 1/2 years since I've been President.
Let me begin by saying that I know all Americans join with me in sending their prayers to the family and loved ones of an American pilot who was shot down yesterday while doing his duty flying over Bosnia.
When I became President, we found a war going on in Bosnia that was fueled by ancient, bloody divisions between Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. The United Nations had a mission there whose purpose was not to fight the war but to help prevent the slaughter of civilians, to deliver humanitarian assistance, and to try to limit that conflict as much as possible while the peace process moved forward to end the conflict diplomatically and to preserve the Bosnian state.
I determined that the role of the United States should be to vigorously support the diplomatic search for peace and that our vital interests were clear in limiting the spread of the conflict. Furthermore, our interests were in doing what we could, short of putting in ground forces, to help prevent the multiethnic Bosnian state from being destroyed and to minimize the loss of life and the ethnic cleansing.
I determined that we certainly should not have ground forces there, not as a part of the military conflict nor as a part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, but that instead we should do everything we could to limit the conflict to its present parameters and to support our other objectives.
In our efforts to limit the conflict, we have stationed some troops in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to make sure that we don't have a Balkan-wide conflict. We must remember that the Balkans are a troubling area and that it was trouble in the Balkans that sparked World War I.
Secondly, we have used our air power in three ways in Bosnia. First, we have conducted the longest lasting humanitarian airlift in all history, and we've saved a lot of lives doing it. Second, we have enforced the no-fly zone in order to stop the bombing campaign and at least take the war out of the air. That has saved a lot of lives, too, and that is what our brave young pilot was doing yesterday when his plane was shot down. And thirdly, with our NATO allies, we have made our air power available to maintain a fire-free zone around Sarajevo and other populated areas and to support the collection of heavy artillery. This, too, has largely been a successful effort, which has minimized the fighting and the killing and the dying.
This policy has not only worked to minimize the loss of life but also to maximize the chances for peace in a very troubling area. I know it's frustrating to everyone, as it is to me, that we can't completely solve all the world's problems and that more progress toward peace hasn't been made in Bosnia. Sometimes we have to do what is appropriate to minimize disasters that we confront, while we work over the long run on resolving them through diplomacy.
But let's look at what has been done. In 1992, the year before I became President, some 130,000 people were killed in the Bosnian conflict. In 1994, because of the policies that our allies and the United States have pursued together, including the presence of the United Nations troops in Bosnia, the casualties have dropped from 130,000 in 1992 to about 2,500 in 1994, still tragic but dramatically reduced. And all of this has been accomplished without any involvement of American ground forces in combat or peacekeeping missions. The British, the French, the Dutch, the Canadians, and others have carried that burden.
This has not been a perfect peace. Recently, after the peace in Sarajevo broke down and 1,000 or more shells were dropped on the city, the United Nations asked for air support, as they have in the past, with success. We gave it, and unfortunately, the Serbs captured U.N. personnel. I have made it very clear to the American people all along that actions like this could occur because of the vulnerability of the U.N. peacekeepers who are spread out in small numbers all across the country. Now we are doing everything we can to secure the release of the U.N. personnel.
But let's not forget this policy has saved a lot of lives. And in the end, the conflict will only be resolved by diplomacy. Now, the United Nations faces a choice: It can either get out, or it can strengthen its forces in order to fully support the mission.
If our allies decide to stay, we want to support them, but within the very careful limits I have outlined. I want to make it clear again what I have said about our ground forces. We will use them only if, first, if there is a genuine peace with no shooting and no fighting and the United States is part of policing that peace. That's exactly what we've been doing in the Middle East since the late 1970's without incident. It's worked so well that I imagine most Americans don't even recall that we still have forces there.
Second, if our allies decide they can no longer continue the U.N. mission and decide to withdraw, but they cannot withdraw in safety, we should help them to get out with our unique capacities. They have borne the risk for the world community of working for peace and minimizing the loss of life. And I think that's an appropriate thing for us to do.
The third issue is the remote, indeed highly unlikely event that Britain, France, and other countries, with their considerable military strength and expertise, become stranded and could not get out of a particular place in Bosnia. The question has been raised about whether we would help them to withdraw as a last resort. I have decided that if a U.N. unit needs an emergency extraction, we would assist after consulting with Congress. This would be a limited, temporary operation, and we have not been asked to do this. I think it is highly unlikely that we would be asked to do it. But I do believe that these people who have put themselves at risk are entitled to know that the U.S. will stand with them if they need help to move to safety.
Now, as this conflict continues and as the diplomatic efforts go on, we must remember that our policy in Bosnia has reduced the level of violence, has reduced the loss of life. In the last several days, our allies, in the face of their hostages being taken, have said that they expect those people to be released but that they do not want to give up their efforts to bring peace to Bosnia. They do not want us, they do not expect us to put American ground troops into Bosnia. But we do have an interest in doing what we can short of that to contain the conflict and minimize and eventually end the human suffering. I believe this is the appropriate, acceptable, proper policy for the United States.
Thanks for listening.