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Remarks on Airstrikes Against Serbian Targets and an Exchange With Reporters

March 25, 1999

The President. I'm about to receive a briefing from the national security team, as you can see. I'm very grateful that our crews returned home safely after their work last night. And I'm very grateful that the United States Congress has expressed its support for them.

I want to say again that our purpose here is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe or a wider war. Our objective is to make it clear that Serbia must either choose peace or we will limit its ability to make war. And we're going to get a briefing and lay further plans today.

Q. Mr. President, yesterday you listed in the briefing room three objectives of the airstrikes, but among them was not a demand that Milosevic return to the negotiating table if he signed a peace agreement. Yet, others in the administration are saying this morning that is a precondition for ending the strike. What are the facts?

The President. Well, he has to choose peace, or we have to try to limit his ability to make war. That's what we're trying to do. And I think that's been very clear. If you look at what happened at the Rambouillet talks, the arrangement was basically supported by all of Europe, the United States, the Kosovars. The Russians agreed that it was a fair agreement. They did not agree to the military involvement of NATO, but they agreed that it was a fair agreement. Only Mr. Milosevic and the Serbs declined to deal with the evident responsibility they have to choose the path of peace instead of the path of aggression and war.

So I think that it is clear—I don't know how to make it any clearer—that we either have to have a choice for peace by Serbia, not just stopping the killing for an hour or two but a choice for peace, or we will do our best to limit their ability to make war on those people.

Q. What is the exit strategy?

The President. The exit strategy is what it always is in a military operation. It's when the mission is completed.

Q. Do you believe the Kosovars can be safe without the intervention of ground troops from NATO? Can your goals be achieved just through airstrikes?

The President. I do. I believe we can create a situation in which we have limited their ability to make war and thereby increase the prospects that they can protect themselves better. I do believe that.

Q. What about Russians threatening to arm Belgrade?

The President. Well, you know, they have quite a lot of arms on their own; they made a lot of arms in the former Yugoslavia. I told the American people they had a very impressive air defense system, and they had lots of other arms and weapons. I have no intention of supporting any lifting of the arms embargo on Serbia. I think that would be a terrible mistake. We would be far better off if they didn't have as many arms as they do; then they would be out there making peace and accommodating these ethnic differences and figuring out ways they can live together.

Q. Are you concerned that the American people aren't more strongly behind you on this?

The President. No. I believe that many Americans really had not thought a lot about this until the last 2 days. I hope that a lot of them heard my presentation last night. I did my very best to explain what we were doing and why, and I believe that a majority of them will support what we're trying to do here. I also believe very strongly that it is my responsibility to make this judgment based on what I think is in the long-term interests of the American people.

Q. [Inaudible]—achieve peace or you will limit his ability to make war, but need he come back to the conference table?

The President. I think he knows what needs to be done.

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:10 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House, prior to a meeting with the national security team. In his remarks, he referred to President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). A tape was not available for verification of the content of these remarks.

William J. Clinton, Remarks on Airstrikes Against Serbian Targets and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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