Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
1:42 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: The only thing I want you to be on alert for is that British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind may or may not be walking out with the National Security Advisor following their meeting which I think has yet to begin because the Foreign Secretary is running a little bit late. He was over at the State Department earlier today and had a discussion with Secretary Christopher earlier.
Q: Is it true that the President and President Chirac and Prime Minister Major have agreed to defend Gorazde at all costs?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's accurate to say, based on the calls the President had, both with the British Prime Minister and --allies to work together to address the problems and the conflict in Bosnia and also address the need for a more robust defense of Gorazde.
I can say only that they have agreed that it's important to agree, but I think they are also simultaneously working through the details of how to do that in a way that would be militarily effective. I think all three leaders are determined to rely on the best advice from military planners as to what steps would help protect the safe area of Gorazde.
Q: So there's no agreement yet?
MR. MCCURRY: There's no recommended course of action that the three leaders are announcing publicly.
Q: Did the three discuss specific options in their conversations this morning?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, they did. As we've indicated for the last several days, a variety of options that have been under discussion and a variety that were discussed today.
Q: Are there any we would rule out?
MR. MCCURRY: Are there any --
Q: Aside from the use of ground troops?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the United States has clearly ruled out dispatching ground forces to participate as combatants as part of the UNPROFOR force.
Q: But other than that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're at a point now -- that's an idle question, given that they're discussing some specific ideas. I guess it's more accurate to say that they've narrowed the range of ideas that they're looking at, and they're seeking some common ground so they can forge a common position as they go into a series of discussions with other countries that are participating in the U.N. protection force in Bosnia towards the end of the week.
Q: So they have ruled some things out?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't -- I didn't say they've ruled anything out. I've said that they've now, in their discussions, narrowed their choice of options to some ideas that they are actively pursuing and that we are consulting closely with.
Q: What would be the argument for the use of more aggressive air strikes since that seems to be something the U.S. is advocating? How would you avoid the hostage situation --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, I don't want to comment on the justifications for one idea as against another idea. It might imply that I'm indicating that one or another is preferable. We have good, active discussions underway. It's clear that all three of these leaders believe that the current situation in Bosnia as it relates to the U.N. force is unacceptable, and they are actively discussing the ways in which they could make the presence at the United Nations more effective and do it in a way that is both militarily effective and would represent the best chance of success in dealing with the contingencies that now exist on the ground.
Q: At what level have the agreed to meet in London? What level, ministerial?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the tentative notion as announced by the United Kingdom was at ministerial level, defense ministers and foreign ministers, and they will formally constitute that meeting as they get closer to Friday and get closer to a more complete agenda. Certainly, we've indicated our willingness to have our two Secretaries participate at that level, and I suspect they will, given the conversation that the President had today with Prime Minister Major which was very useful, and, I believe, as I said earlier, began to help gel the positions, at least that we would share with the British and, we hope, with the French as well .
Q: Did they agree on the urgency and can they afford to wait until Friday to have a meeting and do something?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the situation is urgent, and with each passing day, there are more lives that are lost and more tragedy that unfolds in Bosnia. So each passing hour is important to these leaders. But at the same time, they have to be in agreement on a course of action that will have the best likelihood of success and that will represent a commitment that the alliance can carry out in a determined fashion.
Q: Whose agreement is this, Mike? Is it an agreement that will be reached between the British, French and -- among the British, French and the U.S, and then handed as a fait accompli to the U.N.? How is that going to work?
MR. MCCURRY: The British, French and the United States are discussing these ideas now. Clearly, they would expand that in dialogue with other members of the Contact Group, the United Nations and the North Atlantic Council as appropriate.
Q: But is it the feeling that once the three allies agree on a course of action that it's going to be take it or leave it when presented to the other members of UNPROFOR and the U.N.?
MR. MCCURRY: In don't believe that we would do anything so undiplomatic as to provide a take-it-or-leave-it solution, but I believe the agreement between these three key allies on a question of that importance, and, given the important role of the British and French are playing as troop contributors in UNPROFOR would be compelling.
But there are other national interests that certainly would be at stake in governments that we will consult the Canadians and the Dutch, just to mention two. But there would be others as well.
Q: And to what extent are they included now in this --
MR. MCCURRY: We've had a number of diplomatic discussions with those governments, including, I believe, most of the UNPROFOR troop-contributing countries.
Q: Mike, is there any U.S. interest in Bosnia beyond the humanitarian consideration? If there is a vital interest, what is it?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has spoken directly to that point on numerous occasions, and I can refer you back to what he said in the past. But, certainly, the importance of an alliance that has kept the peace Europe for decades is a paramount interest. Our interest in preventing the spread of this conflict throughout the Balkans so we don't jeopardize key allies, such as Greece and Turkey, with the prospect of a much wider Balkan war is an interest that suggests itself. There are others as well that go beyond the humanitarian interests.
But the President has spoken to that publicly, and I believe his analysis of our interest and those that are at stake remains fairly much the same.
Q: Mike, the comments by the French today were not very -- they didn't sound very pleased with an air strike option. Is President Chirac giving the same message or is he perhaps more warmly disposed to that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I am not going to, you know, repeat a conversation that occurred between the two Presidents, but I will say that they are working together to find common ground. I believe the President was encouraged by the call he had with President Chirac, but it is accurate to say that there's more work to be done on the ideas that they have under discussion. And they both agreed that they would continue to do that work, and, most likely, talk again soon.
Q: Is there any possibility of an option to bomb the command and control areas in Serbia, which would widen the war?
THE PRESIDENT: No chance on earth that I would speculate on operational details of anything that might be under discussion. That was a trick question to see if I'd be dumb enough to do that, right?
Q: It was not. It was real. (Laughter.)
Q: Mike, forgive me if you've already answered this. Is air strikes an alternative to the French proposal or a supplement?
MR. MCCURRY: As the Secretary of State indicated yesterday, they are among a range of things being discussed. He was asked: Are you considering the French idea for reinforcements at Gorazde? Are you considering air strikes? Are you considering, I think, the questioner asked, a series of things, and the Secretary indicated that those were under discussion.
Q: Right. But what's not clear was whether you're offering, you're pushing the more vigorous air strikes as an alternative to getting more troops to Gorazde or as part of that effort. Could you just enlighten us?
MR. MCCURRY: Am I doing a good job of making that less than clear?
Q: You're doing a great job.
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you. All right, Mr. Harris.
Q: Yesterday you said the U.S. has many questions about the French plan. Have any of those questions been answered since yesterday.
MR. MCCURRY: Some have, but I think we continue to have some questions.
Q: Is the idea still that the three allies want to have a plan ready to go before they meet in London?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that that's certainly the view of President Clinton. I don't want to speak for the other two governments.
Q: But why is that?
MR. MCCURRY: Because I believe a meeting of this nature, an international conference, as it's been designed and called by the United Kingdom, would profit most if there was some agreement between the three key NATO allies on how to proceed.
Q: -- sense that if there's not an agreement that the other people who are there might start to muddy the waters?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have any way of knowing the answer to that. But, clearly, more could be accomplished if there was a common position that had been forged by those three governments.
Q: Will the President walk in on the Rifkind-Lake meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe that will be necessary, given the President's call with Prime Minister Major. I'm not aware of any plans for him to do it.
Q: How long was that call this morning?
MR. MCCURRY: It went -- I, actually, to be honest with you, don't know when it finally ended because I ducked out early so I could meet with all of you. But it clearly went more than 20 minutes.
MR. MITCHELL: Thirty-five minutes.
MR. MCCURRY: Thirty-five minutes. So it went just about as long as the call with President Chirac.
Q: Mike, was it Bosnia matters that kept the President from leaving on time for the affirmative action speech?
MR. MCCURRY: It was, Mark. He had intended to do some work on his speech this morning. Obviously, it was an important speech, but the urgency of the conflict in Bosnia, as it often does, entered into his schedule. He had these two very important calls to make, following up on that with his National Security Advisor. And because of that, he got delayed. And, certainly, we apologize to the guests that were kept waiting, but I think they understand the urgency of the situation in Bosnia as well as the President does.
Q: Let me make sure I understand the timing of Friday. Must you have an agreement between the three parties to hold a successful meeting in London on Sunday?
MR. MCCURRY: No. No, it's not a requirement for the meeting in London. I'm suggesting that the meeting in London, I think, would be more constructive and produce a better sense of shared objectives if there were some agreements in advance between the major troop contributors and, certainly, the United States, as leader of the alliance.
Q: Do you have more information on the 2:30 p.m. meeting with members?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't. Someone suggested that there was something in flux on that meeting.
Q: Is it happening.
MR. MITCHELL: It is still happening.
MR. MCCURRY: It's still happening at 2:30 p.m.
Q: Do we know who? We must know by now.
MR. MCCURRY: It's about 17 members, correct? Is it all members of the Senate as far as we've seen? All members of the Senate. Both sides of the aisle. A variety of people that we hope are not yet firmly decided in their position on the Dole-Lieberman resolution.
Q: Is he going to say anything at the top of that or not?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's going to talk to them, but we're not going to have coverage of that, no.
Q: Presumably, it doesn't include Senator Lieberman.
Q: Is Lieberman coming?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe so. I didn't see his name on the list. We'll put out a list of those who attend so we don't have to guess about who the participants are.
Q: Does the President intend to brief them on the latest round of talks with Chirac?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he's going to tell them that we are at a very sensitive and important moment in our dialogue with our key European allies, that we are looking for a way to be more effective in the use of NATO military resources in Bosnia, and that we want to find ways to strengthen the United Nations mission itself. And I think, given that and given the sensitivity of these discussions, it is not a good time to be considering the resolution that's now on the floor in the Senate. He will certainly make that point. But I think he will also make in very vigorous terms the argument against the resolution that would require the United States to enter into this conflict by unilaterally lifting the U.N. arms embargo.
Q: At the same time, will he be providing them such detail about the options that are now being discussed where this could qualify as consultation if he should need congressional support for anything he might want to do?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that he will not be in a position to share precise mission plans or anything of that detail, but he will generally give some indication of what the preferred U.S. course of action is. And I certainly believe the President would see this as an important aspect of our consultation with Congress some indication of what the preferred U.S. course of action is. And I certainly believe the President would see this as an important aspect of our consultation with Congress.
Q: Michael, you asked them to put off a vote until next week or some weeks after, or what, on the arms embargo?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that he's going to make that specific request. I think he knows that Senators know the Senate schedule best themselves but I think he will point out the delicate point that we are at in our diplomatic context with our allies on the issue.
Q: Mike, in the past the Russians have entered the diplomatic picture. Have the allies given up completely on the -- and also is the Yeltsin illness in any way affecting the --
MR. MCCURRY: The Russian Federation plays an extraordinarily important role in events related to the Balkans. They have historic ties to the region. They have been a very important and valued member of the Contact Group. We will certainly -- one purpose of the meeting in London on Friday is to continue the work of the Contact Group itself, the five nations that have worked together including the Russian Federation, and we certainly will be in active contact with them.
Q: Mike, can you talk about the President's reference to the good old boy roundup today? When it came to the White House attention and if there's any consultations here between Treasury which is investigating it and ATF which is investigating it?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe Secretary Rubin has reported on his own determination to pursue that matter from time to time and it is under active inquiry now at the Treasury Department. So, I don't want to go beyond what the President said himself since it's something that could conceivably result in personnel actions over at Treasury that would be protected.
Q: Mike, to get back to Bosnia for just a second. Radovan Karadzic of the Bosnian Serbs today had some very tough talk about threatening to shoot down any aircraft, presumably U.S. aircraft that came in. Does that influence at all our preferred course of action?
MR. MCCURRY: It does not influence the President's determination to pursue the right and best military course of action. And his comments are not unlike the type of comments that he is known for in the past.
Q: Mike, is he still doing the law enforcement chiefs speech tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe he is. We can do a schedule later. I'll give you some sense of it. I think he wants to address some of the issues that certainly have been raised by the Waco hearings. And I think he will want to talk about the very important role that these law enforcement officers have played at a time when there are some that seem to be trying to castigate entire institutions through the inquiries that they're making.
Q: So this will be a calculated response then to the groups, the militia groups and others that have been bashing federal --
MR. MCCURRY: It will be to address the importance he attaches to effective work to fight crime in this country and the important work that is done by federal law enforcement officials.
Q: Mike, what's the impact, if any, of reports that the Bosnian Muslims have threatened to take peacekeepers hostage?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it underscores for the United States the dire circumstances that we believe the Bosnian government views itself facing at this point. And it, by no means, is acceptable to the United States. U.N. personnel, we've said repeatedly, should not be interfered with. But understand, you're dealing with a safe area that is not feeling very safe at the moment. And the understandable frustration of the Bosnian government given those circumstances requires us, I think, to be understanding but at the same to state that we do believe that the United Nations ought to proceed with its assigned mission in Bosnia.
Q: Do you fear, though, that that will just harden positions on the Hill for those folks who are already inclined to support Dole-Lieberman?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if anything it would be the contrary because the effort by Senator Dole and Senator Lieberman is designed to assist the Bosnian government by allowing them to get the kind of weapons they need.
Q: The stock market is a little bit soft at the moment. The Dow is down --
MR. MCCURRY: Is the market still open? No comment.
Q: How will Dole-Lieberman assist the Bosnian government? I mean is there anything in the resolution that will actually get weapons to them?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, no, there's not. It's a wing and a prayer is what's in there for them because there has not been a determined willingness on the part of those senators who indicate their support for the Dole-Lieberman resolution to explain where the money comes from, where the arms come from, how they will get them to the Bosnian Muslims.
I read today somewhere that says that, oh, there are a lot of spare Czech tanks floating around Europe. Well, how do you propose to get Czech tanks to the Bosnian Muslims that need them to fight? You know, those are serious questions that I think, in fairness, the sponsors and supporters of this resolution need to address so that the American people can understand that ultimately what will happen here having made the moral commitment to letting the Muslims acquire new arms is that the United States will provide them, United States taxpayers will pay for them, United States military planners will go into Bosnia to help equip and train the Bosnian Muslims. They will have to be protected. The United Nations will withdraw. We will have to send 25,000 U.S. troops to help them withdraw.
So that, as we say repeatedly, unilaterally lifting the arms embargo will Americanize this war and put the United States on the ground in Bosnia. And, for once, we hope the sponsors and supporters of this resolution will make that abundantly clear to the American people so the American people can understand what's being decided and voted upon in the Senate.
Q: One of the arguments they're making up there is that weapons would be available from countries like Slovakia, weapons that the Muslims are already familiar with. You said something about them not being correct the other day. Can you expand on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't go into intelligence assessments but the Bosnian government has some experience using that type of weaponry. It's not clear how extensive that experience is. And we've seen in the past that as they develop more expertise they become more effective but initially sometimes they've not presented themselves as an effective force when they are dealing with that kind of weaponry.
Beyond that, there's not much more I can say other than to say it's our judgment and our best judgment that there would be training that would be necessary if they were to become a fighting force that could repel the advancing Bosnian Serb offensive.
See, the second part of this is in the time that it would take to equip them or even in the time it would take them to acquire this weaponry, the Bosnian Serbs would likely strike to take advantage of their qualitative superiority in weaponry and that would present an incredible situation of risk for the Bosnian Muslims. There would need to be some type of response. And that's why, if you recall back to any time the United States government has considered a scenario that involves multilateral lifting of the arms embargo, it always has gone with the requirement that we be prepared to conduct significant air strikes to repel the Bosnian Serbs in the meantime, which puts the United States, again, in the position of being quite deeply into this conflict.
Q: One of the other arguments that was made up there is why, if the President doesn't feel a moral obligation to send troops now, he would feel a moral obligation to send troops if the arms embargo was lifted. What they're saying is we have the power to send troops or not to send troops.
MR. MCCURRY: Let me answer that because there's a very specific answer to that. That commitment extends to our closest European allies, who are members of NATO, who have troops on the ground in the Bosnia and we have made a moral commitment not to leave them in the lurch if they need to be extracted and withdrawn from Bosnia. And that's the difference. That's the nature of that commitment and it extends to our closest and longest European allies. That is a question that goes to the heart of the future of the Alliance.
Q: Isn't language inserted into the bill that gives the President 30 day periods in which he could suspend its implementation? Given that why is it a problem?
MR. MCCURRY: I will tell you that not only in the calls that the President has had today but in the active diplomatic dialogue we have had on this, over and over again the President and others in our government are asked is Congress going to do such a foolhardy thing as to pass this resolution. There's enormous concern. If this resolution passes, I think it's a dead-certain bet that UNPROFOR will be withdrawn from Bosnia the next day, with all of the humanitarian catastrophe that will result from that -- the loss of humanitarian supplies for those refugees that we see on television everyday; the loss of assistance that goes with having a U.N. military force there to monitor what the conflict is like.
It really is a formula for making -- it's the one thing you could do to make a terrible situation worse. And the United States Congress seems hellbent to do it.
Q: Did you imply there that Chirac and Major said that today?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't repeat details of the conversation held at the highest level.
Q: You said in calls today.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q: In addition to the things you've already said about the law enforcement speech tomorrow, is the good old boys roundup likely to come up for a repeat?
MR. MCCURRY: I will have to take a look on that and let you know later. -- why don't you work up a little sense of what the President's going to do on that tomorrow.
Q: Alan Greenspan had some pretty upbeat testimony on the Hill this morning. Do you know if the President received a briefing or if he had any reaction to it?
MR. MCCURRY: In advance of the Chairman's testimony today?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of, although I did see the Chairman floating around on the South Lawn last night. But I don't know that it was an occasion that provided opportunity for detailed briefings on the status of the American economy.
Q: Mike, whatever happened to Henry Foster and the teen job that he's going to get? And also, House Approps is to take up the bill tomorrow that would eliminate the Surgeon General's office. Is there or is there not a veto threat on it?
MR. MCCURRY: A veto -- that measure would be a part of a larger measure which I think for many, many reasons the President would likely veto for all the reasons that Leon Panetta sketched out the other day. I have never asked the President directly is the abolition of the office of surgeon general significant enough to trigger a veto in the case of that bill. But it's part of a much larger appropriations bill that has ample reason for a veto in the first place.
Dr. Foster -- we continue to have very good discussions with him about the role that he could play in continuing his very positive work to combat the problem of teenage pregnancy. And I suspect that not too long from now, if not fairly imminently, we may have more to say on that subject.
Q: Is he apt to get another position in the administration?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think he is likely to get a position in the administration, but a role that he could play working with the administration is possible, certainly.
Q: Another appropriations bill calls for eliminating the Council of Economic Advisers. I think it's Treasury postal service. Is that --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's a source of very dire concern having the available advice of academic economists who are good, who are talented, who bring an expertise to the decision-making and policy-making here at the White House. It's been an important feature for so long of the work of the Council of Economic Advisers, and we very strongly object to any sense that they should cancel funding for that.
It would seem to me, at a time when urgent budget questions where there's active dialogue between Congress and the administration about economic assumptions and budget assumptions, it is unbelievable that the Congress would not want the President to have available to him here at the White House the best available advice from professional, academic, and largely, independent economists.
Q: While you strongly object, would the President veto a bill that included --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, again, it would be a case of what is a part of a larger appropriations bill. I think in that case it's a legislative appropriations bill, is it not?
Q: Treasury postal.
MR. MCCURRY: Treasury postal. It would depend on what is in the overall bill, and it would be one factor that would be weighed by the President.
Q: Will the President have anything new regarding the budget to say tomorrow --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. He'll have some -- that will be a speech in which I think he will have several new things to say on the budget.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:13 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/270053