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Departure Deadline?

May 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the U.S. role in Kosovo, we are joined by Republican senators John Warner of Virginia and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Democratic Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan. Senator Warner, the House just 90 days ago maybe, in March, passed a resolution, a bill that would do exactly the opposite of what it passed today. Since you helped draft that House resolution that passed today, which set new limits on our involvement there, what is the say about Congress changing its mind about what our role in Kosovo should be?

SEN. JOHN WARNER, Chairman, Armed Services Committee: Well, Gwen, I don’t want to speak for the House of Representatives, but you’re correct.

The action just voted on overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives is a contribution that I made of some several months ago when I came back from Kosovo and I learned firsthand that our allies had not lived up to their commitments in bringing in the necessary funds, the necessary policemen and the like to reestablish that war-torn region. And I said, “Time is out.

We should bring to their attention our willingness to remain as a partner, provided they live up there to their contributions, which they committed to do.” We flew the majority of the missions in 78 days of combat, supplied the majority of the ammunition, the airlift because we had the equipment and we were an integral part of NATO to do just that.

And I think it’s important, as we, the Congress, are about to expend $2 billion of taxpayers’ money for the operations past in Kosovo and up until this September, that we should make it very clear that we want to continue as partners in this operation, provided first the allies live up to their dollar commitments and, secondly, into next year, that a succession of presidents, President Clinton first and then the next elected president come to the Congress and say, “It is important to remain.” And I can tell you right now, if the next president says, that he’ll get the senator from Virginia’s vote, assuming he makes a strong case.

So it’s not that we’re trying to pull out; we’re trying to bring the Congress in as an equal partner, as the Constitution provides, and voice on behalf of the people, the continuation of this mission in Kosovo. Your next section deals with the problems in the military today of retention and recruiting because our men and women are stretched so far around the globe, they’re not staying in, in the numbers necessary to maintain our force. This is one of the reasons.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s try to get to the other side of this story. Senator Biden, we just heard (Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright say today that she believes that action on the Senate on this bill would be playing with fire. You’ve heard the NATO Commander Wesley Clark also say that this would give Slobodan Milosevic the victory he could not achieve in the battlefield. How do you make that case on the floor of the Senate?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, (D) Delaware: I think it’s real easy to make the case on the floor of the Senate. Whether I get the votes is a different thing. First of all, we have 100,000 troops in Europe that aren’t in Kosovo or the Balkans. If we’re stretched so thin, why don’t we take 5,800 out of Europe — 5,800 out of Germany. What’s the — no Americans die — 5,600 Americans are in Kosovo.

People aren’t dying now. The carnage has ended. There is the beginning of stability in that region a building of a stable region of Europe. And at the same time, the Europeans have now met their commitment. — 40,000 forces on the ground are non-American, 5,600 are American. On average, we’re expending 13 percent to 17 percent of whatever the category is, police or reconstruction funds or whatever.

And so we’re doing… the Europeans are doing what we asked them do to do. Now, if this is a constitutional issue of the Congress speaking, well, let’s vote now. If it’s a constitutional requirement now, then it exists. If doesn’t become a constitutional requirement until next year when John and others say that’s the time we’re going to make the decision, then there is no constitutional requirement.

Either it exists or it doesn’t. And lasts point I’ll make is this: The idea that we can in fact withdraw all our ground forces from that area and expect there not to be a change in the environment in that area in a negative way is, I think, is pollyannaish to think that’s the case. I just think this is a bad idea.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you, Senator. Senator Hutchison, you just heard that point. And you support withdrawal. If this bill does pass, if this amendment does pass, what does that say about the United States’ commitment to peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo and elsewhere abroad?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, (R) Texas: This is not about withdrawing troops. We’re not setting a deadline to withdraw troops. What we’re doing is saying we want the next president to be able to come in, look at the situation, assess it and have a plan. What has been missing in the Kosovo operation is a strategy and a clear mission. We are acting as policemen right now.

We have our U.S. troops guarding maybe one family, taking that family to the dentist and back. That is not what we signed on to do. Now, we can do these kinds of things on an interim basis, but we’ve got to set in place the groundwork for them to have a police force because, as Senator Warner said, we’re losing our own troops. I visited on Easter Sunday a guard unit that is there for eight months in control in Bosnia. The guard unit is there because we didn’t have an active-duty unit to send.

When the senator from Delaware says we have only 6,000 troops on the ground in Kosovo, he’s not counting all the troops that are surrounding those troops for their protection and safety. Now, I don’t quarrel that we want to have them protected, but it is not an efficient operation for us to have that many troops in Bosnia and Kosovo on a mission that is unending, that is wearing out our active-duty troops and affecting our own national security interests.

So we’re trying to do something responsible, we’re trying to set a timetable in which a new president would come in, give us an assessment of what we can do to have a lasting peace. We’re not going to drop our allies and walk out. We’re not going to be irresponsible friends.

GWEN IFILL: If I can just piggyback on a point you just made about the new president. Are you a supporter of Governor Bush. Governor Bush said yesterday that he thinks the Senate and Congress would be over-reaching by passing this amendment.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I respectfully do not think that is the case. And I think that, if Governor Bush — I haven’t had a chance to talk to him, but I if I this — I think if he understood that we are trying to give him time, if he is elected, to put a strategy in place and then, if he comes to the Congress and says, “I need six more months or nine more months or we need to set an exit that lasts for two years,” we would be supportive of that, if we saw a clear plan and he made the case, which I think he is absolutely capable of doing.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Levin, let’s talk about presidential prerogative for a moment. This president obviously has already threatened to veto the entire under lying military construction bill if this language is included. Is this a question of presidential prerogative, or is this a question of that this Congress does not trust this president that we have right now?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D) Michigan: In my judgment, it’s a question of whether it’s wise to set a deadline, and we might as well address that issue first and foremost. This language sets a deadline. It says Congress can change its mind next year and undo the deadline, but it sets a deadline, period. Now, if the sponsors of the language in this bill want to strike that deadline, we have a totally different situation. But the deadline is there, it is July of next year, unless Congress changes its mind.

That creates between now and then, a very dangerous period of uncertainty and instability, which in the words of General Clark, who is our commander there until recently, creates danger for our forces, that period of uncertainty is very dangerous because Milosevic will seek to gain an advantage during that period and because both the Serbs and the Albanians, because they’re uncertain whether we will change our mind and stay, are going to seek to arm themselves for the day in which we leave.

Now, the NATO Secretary-General, Mr. Robertson, has written us very clearly that from NATO’s perspective, this bill means the effective pullout of American forces is threatened and that will do severe damage to the NATO alliance.

What this does is, after we have won a victory there, after we have returned a million refugees to their home, it just sort of grabs defeat from a victorious situation. Now, there’s plenty of problems there, let me tell you, but there’s no use turning a victory into a defeat by creating a deadline and the uncertainty which is then created.

GWEN IFILL: How about that Senator Warner, would the passage of this amendment just be a setback?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: No. You know, I regret that everybody’s saying the sky’s going to fall in. We’re but 15 percent of the total force of over 40,000 troops in this region. To follow my good friend Senator Levin’s argument, if 15 percent — and we’re not taking them all out, we’re only taking out the ground combat troops. We’re leaving in the support and the airlift and so forth, so the U.S. isn’t pulling out all together.

But the point is: If the other 85 percent are so inefficient as to induce Milosevic to come crashing back in again, I just think that’s almost injurious to those wonderful nations that are in there, the 85 percent, that you can’t handle the job if a few more of your troops replace ours.

Furthermore, there’s a provision in this bill which says, if Milosevic or anyone else were to begin to threaten the security of the Kosovo region, our president could waive this legislation and immediately send in forces that are necessary to stop that type of aggression. So we’re not walking away from this situation.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Biden, is that enough of an assurance for you?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: That’s no assurance, Gwen. What it says is, look, there’s stability now. We’ll pull out. If instability is created, we’ll be go back in. Look, right now we all talk about — spend a lot of time dealing with, this all four of us, whether or not Milosevic is going to destabilize Montenegro.

There is a great discussion about whether or not NATO would move if he did that. You know that, John, and we all know that. Now, what do you think Milosevic will conclude, his options are if the 5,600 American forces, ground forces, combat forces leave? And what do you think the rest of our allies will do?

What do you think those nations that aren’t the front-line states are going to do? They’re going to say, “Wait a minute now. They’re out, we’re in?” I mean, I don’t get this. And in terms of the next president, the next president of the United States, he doesn’t need this to make a judgment. If he leaves the troops in, he’s obviously made his judgment.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hutchison, why don’t you respond to that.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I would say it is time for the United States of America to become a leader, to act like the superpower that we are. I see a whole different scenario. I don’t see us just leaving Kosovo, pulling up stakes and leaving. I see us convening all the parties and coming back together and saying, “OK, what can we do to create a lasting peace?” And I think passing this bill will give the incentive to them to come to the table.

And I think if we act like a leader and we present a plan and we have all of the parties at the table, their incentive will be there, they will come to the table, we will have the chance for a peace that will really last, we will do our part to transition, through the time that we have to make sure that that peace is on the right footing, and then we would be able to cycle out. So I don’t see –

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Will Milosevic be at the table?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Absolutely.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, we’re going to have at a table to negotiate with him.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Otherwise, you’re going to have our troops on the ground in harm’s way with no mission and just declare that status quo is a policy. Status quo is not a policy.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: For 50 years, we had 300,000 troops in Europe doing just that. Thank God our fathers and mothers had patience.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Senator Levin in on this for a final answer, which is what should our mission be. Senator Hutchison says we are kind of aimless and don’t have a mission right now in Kosovo. What should it be?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Our mission is to maintain the stability in there with our allies. We’re doing a very good job of it. We’re gradually getting that stability back. We’ve returned a million refugees to their homes. The Europeans have taken over 85 percent now of this chore.

They have 85 percent of the ground forces. They are doing the lion’s share of the humanitarian assistance and other assistance. For us to pull the rug out from under our own allies after we have won this success it seems to me is an absolute non-to policy, it is the worst thing we can do after we have been able to bring some stability back to the Balkans and avoid a much wider war, which could drag us in even deeper.

GWEN IFILL: Anybody want to take a crack at how this vote’s going to turn out tomorrow?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I would just say the following: You saw that strong vote in the House. I think the Senate will take a look at, that but we have over 100,000 American soldiers right there as a part of the NATO force. This is a NATO operation, and they could respond. Our President has the authority to make them respond if a problem occurs. Let me just say the bottom line is this: We should not be spending $2 billion without Congress speaking on this issue and reserving to itself the right to vote in the future on the next president’s plan to stay or not stay. That’s what it is.

GWEN IFILL: That will have to be the last word. Thank you, senators, all very much.