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Newsmaker Interview: National Security Advisor Samuel Berger

July 26, 1999 at 6:00 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Our Newsmaker interview with President Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Samuel Berger. I talked with him earlier this evening from the Old Executive Office Building.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Berger, welcome.

SAMUEL BERGER: Good evening, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Friday’s massacre of the Serb farmers, does this mean that the peacekeeping force cannot maintain order in Kosovo?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, it’s a tragic event. The people who’ve gone back to Kosovo have experienced enormously painful memories, and some have gone back obviously with anger and some with revenge. And we’ve seen in the incident last weekend an expression of that. It has been denounced by the political leader of the KLA, Mr. Thaci, but it is clearly a responsibility of the international community to try to protect the Serbs. We didn’t fight in Kosovo for the Albanians and against the Serbs. We fought for the principle that no one should be exterminated in the sense by virtue of their ethnicity. KFOR now has 32,000 soldiers. There will be eventually 50,000. There will also be an international police force, which we’re beginning to establish in Kosovo, which will consist of about 3,000 police-trained officers from around the world, and then ultimately we’ll establish an indigenous Kosovo police force. We’re not going to be able, obviously, to stop every incident, but it certainly is important for the people of Kosovo and for the international force there to do all that it can to prevent these incidents.

JIM LEHRER: Does the United States and NATO consider this crime a war crime on the same par with those crimes that were committed against the Kosovars by the Serbs?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, that’s a legal judgment that will have to be made by the War Crimes Tribunal. They’re looking at this as is the UN. It certainly is a tragedy.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. As a practical matter, aren’t most of the Serbs now gone from Kosovo?

SAMUEL BERGER: The vast majority of Serbs have left. Now, I would hope that over time we would be able to create the conditions in Kosovo that would enable them to feel that they can return in security and safety. And that will require, obviously, both from the international community and from the Kosovar community a degree of tolerance and protection that will make them feel they can return in safety. I think it should be a very high priority in this operation.

JIM LEHRER: But hasn’t a kind of reverse form of ethnic cleansing now happened? First it was the Serbs who ethnically cleansed the Albanians — the ethic Albanians out of Kosovo, and now the Serbs have been ethnically cleansed out of Kosovo?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, let’s be clear, Jim. I think that while what happened on Friday is a tragedy, one cannot compare it to the ethnic cleansing of 1.5/1.8 million Serbs with perhaps 10,000 killed over a brief, frenzied, mad period of time by Milosevic. Now, the people who have experienced that, who have seen their children killed, who have seen their husbands rounded up and taken off to be killed, obviously, these people come back not only with devastated homes but with broken hearts and with some of those hearts filled with anger. And I think we’ll have to deal with that, as well as with the broken homes.

JIM LEHRER: The numbers are certainly different, but isn’t the principle the same, Mr. Berger, that — Kosovars are saying you are not like us, out of here, and the massacres are designed to scare the rest of the Serbs out of there —


JIM LEHRER: — the same way the other folks did to the other side?

SAMUEL BERGER: I think the difference is this – and, again, I don’t mean to condone actions against the Serbs at all – but in one case you had a government, the government of Serbia headed by Milosevic, with a preconceived, predetermined plan to systematically expunge that country of its Albanian population through murder and through intimidation. What we have now is many Serbs leaving out of fear of retaliation and incidents of revenge and attack, which we have to deal with. I think they are qualitatively different but both reprehensible.

Protecting civilians

JIM LEHRER: Now, as a practical matter, Kosovo really is not a part of Yugoslavia, anymore, is it?

SAMUEL BERGER: Kosovo is for purposes of sovereignty, according to the international community, a part of Serbia. But it is – for purposes of governance, for purposes of administration, for purposes of protection, is now really under the protection of the international community.

JIM LEHRER: But this was not what the United States and NATO intended, is it?

SAMUEL BERGER: Oh, no, I think from the beginning we said that what would have to happen to Kosovo after the Serb forces left and after the refugees returned and after an international force was present was the establishment of an internationally-protected area, i.e., Kosovo, that would be within the sovereignty of Serbia but which would have a high degree of protection from the international community. The Kosovars simply would not come back if they were going to be governed by Belgrade.

JIM LEHRER: And now the Serbs won’t come back because it’s being run by the international community, rather than Serbia, correct?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think, again, I think that’s a challenge for the international community. Most of the Serbs that have left have left, as I said, out of fear for retaliation. They were certainly present when the reign of terror took place in Kosovo. And I think they’re fearful indiscriminately they may be the victims of retaliation. But I would hope that —


SAMUEL BERGER: — again, as I said before – as these forces get stood up, that they would feel that they could come back.

JIM LEHRER: Are there any serious signs that Milosevic is losing his power?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think Milosevic certainly is under duress. He has seen increasingly large demonstrations in cities throughout Serbia. Some polling numbers that I’ve seen indicate that most Serbs blame him for what has happened to Serbia, do not want to see them as a leader. You’ve seen leading opposition figures stand up and speak out against him. And now you’ve seen leading former military figures like Peresic, General Peresic used to be the chief of his military, say that he has to go, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church. And so I think that he is clearly a man whose hold on power is weaker than it has ever been before, but he is —

JIM LEHRER: He’s still in charge, though?

SAMUEL BERGER: He’s still there in Belgrade.

JIM LEHRER: And the U.S. position and the NATO position remains firm that there will be no humanitarian aid for the people of Serbia, as long as Milosevic remains in power?

SAMUEL BERGER: No reconstruction aid.

JIM LEHRER: No reconstruction aid.

SAMUEL BERGER: I think that we have to be prepared to provide humanitarian assistance, food, medicine, to the people of Serbia, if that becomes necessary. But the President and most of the other leaders of NATO and the international community have said that we should not spend one penny for rebuilding Serbia as long as Milosevic is at its helm.

JIM LEHRER: Is that a kind of form of blackmail to the people there, say, hey, if you want us to help you rebuild your country, you’d better get rid of this guy?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think, first of all, it’s a statement of fact and a statement of our own values. I think we’d be hard pressed to justify spending American taxpayer money on rebuilding the country that he has brought to ruins. But let’s call it an incentive to the people of Serbia to recognize that they can be part of a new Southeast Europe that we’re going to start talking about at a conference — at a summit meeting in Sarajevo on Friday — they can be part of that as well, but not so long as they are still governed by Milosevic.

The one-China policy

JIM LEHRER: Another subject, Mr. Berger, of China. How serious is this war of words over Taiwan?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think it is troubling. Our policy is very clear, has been for a long time. We believe in the one-China policy. It has been a good policy not only for China but for Taiwan. Under this formulation Taiwan has prospered economically, politically, and every other way. We believe this dispute should be resolved peacefully through a dialogue between Beijing and Taipei. So we will continue to adhere to our position and hope that the parties can —

JIM LEHRER: Work it out.

SAMUEL BERGER: — work it out.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any doubt in your mind, Mr. Berger, that the Chinese are serious when they say, we will use military force to keep Taiwan as part of China, if it comes to that?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, that has been their formulation for a number of years. We have indicated very clearly that we expect this problem to be resolved peacefully and not forcefully.

JIM LEHRER: So what’s going on here then, who’s playing the game, and what is the game?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think that President Lee has —

JIM LEHRER: The President of Taiwan.

SAMUEL BERGER: The President of Taiwan– I think has tried to change the terms of reference here to some degree in terms of the relationship between Taiwan and the rest of the world, Taiwan and Beijing. But I think he’s also said at the same time that he does not intend to change Taiwan’s formal policy, recognizing that it is a part of China.

JIM LEHRER: Has the United States made it clear to President Lee that in the opinion of the United States, at least, you’re playing with fire here, Mr. Lee?

SAMUEL BERGER: We’ve made it very clear what our policy is and that we would hope to see a clarification from Taiwan that would reduce the tensions.

Real possibility of Middle East peace

JIM LEHRER: Another subject. The Middle East. You were with President Clinton at King Hassan’s funeral in Morocco, and there were some talks there. How serious do you think the move toward talks between Israel and Syria are at this moment?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I believe that Prime Minister Barak – who as you know was here in the United States for several days and spent several hours with President Clinton and others — is deeply committed to seize this opportunity to not only move the peace process forward but to bring the peace process in a sense to a conclusion over the next year or two, that is, to complete a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as well as with the Syrians and the Lebanese. I believe he feels that and believes that deeply. Now, that’s an ambitious undertaking, it’s going to be extremely difficult, but I believe it is the goal he has set for himself.

JIM LEHRER: What about Syria’s side of it? Do they feel the same way that Barak does?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, President Assad has made some encouraging statements since Prime Minister Barak was elected. He welcomed Prime Minister Barak’s election. There have been some calmer statements to groups in Damascus that don’t adhere to the peace process, to essentially not interfere with it. I think that all of this has to be tested, obviously, in the arena of negotiation.

JIM LEHRER: Are you hopeful? I mean, is this really — well, let me put it this way. A lot of people have said – in fact, on this program last week somebody said that Syria is the key to it; until there is peace with Syria, there is not going to be a real peace between Israel and the Arab world. Do you agree with that?

SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think that’s true, but I think you could also say that about the Palestinian tract as well. I don’t think that you can have closure — you cannot widen the circle or close the circle of peace for Israel until there is first of all an agreement with the Palestinians, not only including what has already been negotiated in the Wye Agreement but a final status agreement that deals with Jerusalem settlements and water and refugees. And, second of all, you certainly can’t complete that circle of peace unless you have an agreement with Syria, which would then enable Israel to conclude an agreement with Lebanon. So I think all three of these tracts are important. I believe Prime Minister Barak believes there is a moment in history here, which he intends to vigorously pursue, to try to bring all of these three tracts together over a relatively short period of time?

JIM LEHRER: Do you think he can do it?

SAMUEL BERGER: I think it’s possible. I think it’s very difficult. We will certainly provide him with all of the support that he needs. We will continue to act as a facilitator, as an honest broker, as we have in the past. I think that it is possible to make substantial progress in the next 15 months, which is the deadline — which is the timetable that he’s prescribed.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Mr. Berger, thank you very much.

SAMUEL BERGER: Thank you, Jim.