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Congressional Debate: Hagel, Hutchinson, Lieberman and Wellstone

April 12, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the return of congress from a two-week recess to face the war in Kosovo. Kwame Holman begins.

KWAME HOLMAN: As members arrived back on Capitol Hill, some weighed in on what the future should hold for U.S. participation in NATO’s operations in the Balkans.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD, (D) Connecticut: I think, at this juncture here, the most important thing I think we can do is to indicate we intend to stick this out. We’re not losing patience here. And if that is conveyed effectively over the next week, I think we can see more success with this policy in the short term than might otherwise be expected.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Democrat Christopher Dodd of Connecticut was among a few dozen members who traveled to Europe and the Balkan region during the recess. So was Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, whose small delegation took along a home video camera as they witnessed refugees from Kosovo streaming across the Albanian border.

REP. FRANK WOLF, (R) Virginia: It’s a little bitty baby. I mean, it’s a real little, bitty baby and they’re swinging it. I’ve seen a number of babies doing that. I guess it keeps them….

KWAME HOLMAN: An 11-member bipartisan group accompanied Defense Secretary William Cohen as he met with NATO officials in Brussels and toured NATO’s Aviano Air Base in Italy. All said they supported the ongoing air campaign against Yugoslavia. Some indicated their willingness to support deployment of US ground troops if needed.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN, (R) Arizona: We lost in Vietnam because we were not willing to commit all of our forces and take every action necessary to win victory. We will not make that mistake in this conflict.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, when they returned to Washington late last week, nine of those 11 members sent a letter to President Clinton, urging that he and NATO officials make plans for the use of ground troops “in the event that proves necessary to carry out such missions to achieve NATO’s broader objective — reversing Milosevic’s genocidal actions in Kosovo.”

House Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana was among the signers.

REP. STEVE BUYER: My advice to the President, if you’re going to lead, you’re going to be the commander-in-chief, you state forward that you are going to lead, and you are going to use all means necessary, and you stare down Milosevic, and you back him down.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Dodd suggested that Congress should send a clear during this first week back from recess, and should send it with one voice.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D) Connecticut: I think it’s very important at this point that Mr. Milosevic understand that while there may have been a debate over how well prepared we may have been for this or anticipated how far he would have gone in Kosovo, I think it’s extremely important, to the extent possible, that he understand that there is a common purpose and common resolve in this country, among Democrats and republicans, to prevail in this contest of wills. The message that we send in the next 48, 72 hours out of this Congress on this issue, I think, could have a huge effect on the outcome of this conflict. We send divided messages here now in the next 48, 72 hours, I think you extend this conflict a lot longer than necessarily need be the case.

KWAME HOLMAN: This evening, the five top leaders of Congress headed to the White House to discuss the Balkan crisis with President Clinton. Fifty to 60 members from both the House and Senate are expected to do the same tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: Now the views of four senators: Republicans Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas; Democrats Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

First, Senator Hagel, President Clinton said today that this was America at its best. Do you agree?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, (R) Nebraska: I think it is. Not only do we have a moral responsibility, but we have a larger responsibility here, Jim, in our obligations to NATO, our commitment to those people. And I think the president is right on this one. We can’t defer this tough decision any more, because if we do, it will get worse. There’s butchery going on in the backyard of NATO — my goodness, if NATO can’t deal with it there, a few hundred miles away from NATO headquarters. So any measurement of the responsibilities that we have as a people, it’s very clear to me that we have to get in and deal with this along with our 18 NATO allies. And I think we can and I think we should.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Wellstone, do you see it the same way?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE, (D) Minnesota: I do. I mean, I think that we couldn’t turn our gaze away from the slaughter of non-combatant civilians, men and women and children. I think we have to be careful that we do minimize the loss of innocent civilian life on the Serb side. I mean, I worry about that because if there is too much “collateral damage” –

JIM LEHRER: Like today with the train, you mean, over the bridge, under the bridge?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: If true, yes. I think then we lose some of the powerful moral case we’re making. So I worry about that. I’ve indicated that to the administration. But I don’t think we could turn our gaze away from what was happening. The question is whether we’re going to be able to stop the slaughter of people and what next.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Do you think that bombing alone will do it, Senator Wellstone?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Do — I don’t think that bombing alone will do it. I think there’s two tracks right now. I agree with what Chris Dodd said. I think we have to be disciplined. And I think we have to be patient and go forward with this campaign. I also think there’s another track of negotiations. And I don’t think we should rule that out at all. I think the Russians will be key for better or for worse. I hope for better. And I think we should continue to move on the diplomatic front, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchinson, where do you stand on where things stand right now and what we should be doing?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: Well, I’m very, very concerned about the movement toward the — the dynamic toward placing ground troops in Kosovo. And I don’t believe that is a step the American people I don’t believe fully understand the implications of what that will involve, the commitment that it will involve, the length of time that those troops will be there. And we should not take that step without a thorough debate in the United States Congress and an authorization. I would hope the president before taking that step would seek the approval, the authorization, endorsement of the United States Congress, because I think we’re looking at 10, 20, 30 years of American troops in the Balkans.

JIM LEHRER: 20, 30 years?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: I think so. And I think after visiting and talking with General Clark, visiting with those who have been involved in Bosnia, that that’s exactly what we’re looking at. And the American people, we’re not looking at ten months. We’re looking at ten years or longer. It’s a big step, and it should not be taken by the executive branch unilaterally. Congress should play an active role in it. And I’m skeptical whether that’s a step we should take.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe in the overview, though, that the United States and NATO is in it and now they have to stay in it until it is resolved?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: We’re — we’ve certainly elevated our credibility. The Joint Chiefs of Staff warned the president we might not be able to win this with an air campaign, I think we’re seeing some of that warning come to pass after three weeks. But we’ve put a lot of credibility on the line. But the idea that we’re in it, let’s win it, I think we need to readdress the wisdom of the policy. And if it is an unwise policy, let’s cut our losses at some point instead of out of a sense we must pursue this to the end — end up in a quagmire that will cost a lot of lives and a lot of money.

JIM LEHRER: A quagmire a possibility here, Senator Lieberman, where do you come down?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, (D) Connecticut: Well, we’re certainly not going to be entered in my opinion for ten or 15 years. I think we’re doing the right thing here. I think the president is right. It is America at its best because we are not only doing something that’s in our security interests. We’re pursuing a principle. We’re not going to let a bully, a brutal dictator kill people, force people out of their homes in the center of Europe at the end of the 20th century, and our allies will not do that either. Now, one of the things we found when we visited last week through all the –

JIM LEHRER: You were on this trip with Secretary Cohen.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yes, yes. One of the things that struck me over there, particularly at Aviano and Ramstein, with our military personnel –

JIM LEHRER: An air base in Italy and an air base in Germany, right?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Right. Was that – you know — through the, not the fog of war, but the fog of war commentary and war politics, the reality is that our personnel are executing this air campaign with remarkable skill and success. And the equipment that we’ve invested in, the planes, the missiles are working extraordinarily. We’re hurting the Serbs. And of course, the hope here is that if there’s any rationality left in the leadership in Belgrade, they will want to stop this wound to their country by withdrawing their forces from Kosovo and allowing the Kosovars to come back. We have a mighty military, and if in the end we have to go in on the ground, which we all hope and pray we will not, to finish this fight and stand for this moral principle, then it’s not going to go on for years. We are much stronger than the Serbs. They’re not our equal — if we have the will to fight with them.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hagel, what about Senator Hutchinson’s point, however, that Congress, what you’re saying, Senator Hutchinson is Congress should play a role in this and this is a major decision to be made somewhere down the line if it, in fact, becomes necessary to put ground forces in. How do you feel about that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, Congress is a partner here, but we don’t nor can we have 535 commanders in chief and secretaries of state, secretaries of defense. No question we have not only constitutional role to play, but it seems to me the president would seek our support, as President Bush did in 1991 during Desert Storm. At the same time, we have to be careful we don’t squander some precious time here and give Milosevic the wrong message that we may be divided. We are in this to win. That debate is over, as far as are we committed or not. We’re committed. As Senator Hutchinson said, we crossed that line, and we have elevated expectations. We can’t lose this. This is not only the credibility of the United States and NATO, but as we move into this next century, other Milosevics, people in Iraq, in North Korea, in other places are watching this very intently to see what the will is of the United States and NATO.

JIM LEHRER: So Senator Hutchinson, if you had the debate that you want, how do you do that without appearing to have a divided Congress?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: Well, I don’t know that that you can. The American people are divided and Congress is divided. And simply to say, “Well, let’s all keep quiet on our reservations so that we can appear unified,” I don’t think that’s what democracy is all about. And I would say to Joe that my suggestion is not that it will take us 10 years to win the military part of this campaign, but the international peacekeeping force that is envisioned would be there indefinitely, something like Korea — Bosnia has now been three years after the initial one-year projection. So I think the American people need to be faced with those facts. I’m as concerned about the moral imperative of what we’re doing as anybody in Congress. All Americans’ hearts are wrenched as they look at the terrible scenes. But there’s the Sudan. There’s Ethiopia. There’s Eritrea. There’s other places in the world where the tragedies and the carnage is even worse. Where does our moral obligation end? And, thus far, we have not accomplished any of the objectives that were laid out.

JIM LEHRER: So your point — well, let me ask Senator Wellstone, do you agree with Senator Hutchinson, wherever you come down on the argument that there should be a very vigorous public debate in the Congress right now this week over these kinds of issues?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Well, I think there needs to be the discussion. And I think there needs to be the debate. I mean, what I worry about is what do we mean by the definition of win? I mean, it seems to me that we were trying to stop the slaughter of people, and a lot of people, I fear, have lost their lives, have been murdered. And a lot of people have been forced out of their country. Now, as Senator Lieberman says, we want to give people chance to go back. We want this to stop. But it’s not just about sort of our winning at any cost. I mean, I think Tim raises a lot of very important questions. NATO hasn’t asked for ground troops yet. The President hasn’t asked for ground troops yet. And I think there are lots of questions: How many ground troops for how long, with what purpose, and certainly before that kind of decision is made, and I think it’s premature to be talking about that now, we should have a very thorough discussion and debate. Senator Hutchinson is absolutely right. And I would echo what Senator Lieberman said. The air strikes, you know, we do need to keep focused on this. And we do need to continue with what our military people tell us what we need to do and again, I think we do need to think about negotiations, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Lieberman, how do we do what Senator Hutchinson wants to do without creating the 535 secretaries of state and defense that Senator Hagel just named?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, it’s not going to be easy. That’s democracy. I think if we speak this week, we should find a way to speak to the justness of the cause over there, and support of our troops. I don’t think —

JIM LEHRER: And stay away from specifics?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I don’t think any of us want to have, or I certainly don’t feel we need to have this week a debate about whether or not ground forces should be deployed. Nine of us who went on the trip, including Senator Hagel and me, sent a letter to the president asking only that some planning begin in case against all our wishes at the end of the air campaign, weeks maybe months from now, we need to use ground forces. If and when that happens, there surely should be a major debate in Congress, and the president shouldn’t and I’m sure wouldn’t go ahead unless the representatives of the people in Washington gave their consent and authorization.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Can I jump in real quick, please.


SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Just very quickly to follow what Joe said. I think this week it is the moral condemnation. All four of us agree about that. What Milosevic has done, what has happened to people, how strongly we feel about it, how strongly our nation feels about it and support for our military. I think we can do that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that Senator Hutchinson?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: I think we can do that. What concerns me is that we do see an incremental escalation in what’s going on. And the idea that we might not end up with ground troops apart from that thorough debate I’m not sure it’s that certain. We’ve got the Apache helicopters on their way. And we have seen a gradual, incremental escalation in the bombing campaign. So if we’re calling for a contingency for ground troops, at some point we’ve got to begin that debate in Congress, certainly we can all unify that we are just in our cause and Milosevic should be condemned. The killing must stop. But beyond that, it is appropriate that there be a thorough debate.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: But would you buy into the idea, don’t do anything but keep it general this week?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: I think this week that’s perfectly appropriate.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hagel, what about Senator Wellstone’s point that he’s made a couple times, hey, let’s don’t rule out sitting down at the table and working this out peacefully. What’s your reaction to that? Is it too early for that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, always you have that option and you never foreclose that. And I think the president said it again today. We’re prepared to do that. Mr. Milosevic must back out of Kosovo his paramilitary thugs and his police and his military. And once that happens, then I think we can start to talk. This guy in October of last year Mr. Milosevic, lied to the world. There was a very thorough story in the Washington Post yesterday about the chronology of that. Milosevic fired his intelligence chief, his chief of staff, his army, his minister of defense back in November because they knew what he was up to when he put those 40,000 troops on the border. He was in October at one time saying, “We’re going to work out a deal,” but knew all along what his objectives were. It wasn’t to welcome the bunny rabbit into Kosovo. He knew what his plans were. And so this guy is a guy who started four wars — you can’t trust. And once he backs the thugs out, the killers out, then we can talk.

JIM LEHRER: Have you heard anything, Senator Lieberman, because there were a couple stories this morning in the newspapers that seemed to indicate that our diplomats, our leaders were beginning to hear a little whiff from Belgrade that maybe Milosevic wants to talk. Is that — is there anything to that?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I don’t know any more than what you’ve described. But, I’ll tell you, from my point of view, we’ve got to be really careful about this and in responding to those whiffs of an interest in talking in a way that suggests that we’re prepared to compromise our principles here. I believe that the best thing for Milosevic would be that he be apprehended and tried as a war criminal, which it seems to me there’s ample evidence he is. And the best hope we would have is that somebody under him particularly in the military rise up and throw him out. But we’ve got some principles here. We can’t compromise. The Kosovars have to return to their homes. They have to live in freedom and there has to be some kind of international monitoring or peacekeeping force.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchinson, time to start talking?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: Well, I think we have to — we’ve laid down — we cannot back off of what we said are the conditions. So, in effect, we’ve said you’ve got to surrender. The question, is as I look at the options, there is no good option how we get out of this. We’ve put a lot on the line. It’s going to be very costly step as we move ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Wellstone, do you hear something in the wind that might end this thing a little sooner and a little more peacefully than others may think?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: I’ve tried every day to stay very close to this. I wished I could say so. I can’t right now. I have no illusions about Milosevic. I was in Kosovo. Several years ago I met with him the only person I’ve never shaken hands with. But I just again would say that I believe that we have to continue to think about other actors, whether it be Russian, whether it be the United Nations, whether it be in exchange for conditions that have to be met, a cessation of bombing. We can never rule out moving forward on trying to have some kind of a solution to this because, otherwise, as we look forward to different scenarios, it’s all very frightening for the world. I understand that, but I think we have to continue to do both things.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you all four very much.