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Congress Debates U.S. Involvement in Kosovo

April 20, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Even before most members arrived at the Capitol this morning, Arizona Republican John McCain was on the Senate floor proposing Congress make a definitive statement on the U.S. effort against Yugoslavia.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Silence and equivocation will not unburden us our responsibility to support or oppose the war. I do not recommend lightly the course I have called on the president to pursue. I know, as should anyone who votes for this resolution, that if Americans should die in a land war with Serbia, we will bear a considerable share of the blame for their loss. We are as accountable to their families as the president must be. But I would rather face that sad burden than hide from my conscience because I sought an ambiguous political position to seek shelter behind. Congress, no less than the administration, must show the resolve and confidence of a superpower whose cause is just and imperative. Let us all, president and senator alike, show the courage of our convictions in this critical hour. Let us declare ourselves in support of or in opposition to this war and the many sacrifices that will entail. Our duty demands it.

KWAME HOLMAN: The resolution authorizing the president to use all force necessary, including U.S. ground troops, is sponsored by a small bipartisan group of leading voices on the Kosovo conflict. Joseph Lieberman is a Democrat from Connecticut.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I still believe that the current air campaign, which is being very effectively implemented, carried out, can succeed in bringing about our goals in this conflict. However, it would be irresponsible not to plan for other military options that may be necessary to defeat this enemy. Not only should all options remain on the table but all options ought to be adequately analyzed.

KWAME HOLMAN: But upon hearing about the all necessary force resolution, other Senators were skeptical.

SENATOR KAY BAILEY HUTCHINSON: Congress should not micromanage this war. The President should come to us and say what he needs, what is he going to do with the money, what kind of plan we have, what kind of troop commitment are we talking about, what is it going to do to the rest of our national defense operation? We need to have a full plan. I will not vote for troops on the ground in this operation as a carte blanche, a blank check, before I know what we’re going to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: At a White House briefing today, Defense Secretary William Cohen was asked about the resolution.

REPORTER: As we speak, Senator McCain, Senator Biden and others are on the Senate floor introducing a resolution that would authorize the president’s use of all necessary force in Kosovo. Why aren’t we prepositioning ground troops now in the event they’re needed for hostilities?

WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: As we’ve indicated on a number of occasions, the alliance is dedicated to carrying forward an air campaign. An assessment was done last August and September for a full-scale type of invasive force. We went on to — and that was not accepted by the alliance as the course to pursue. Instead, an air campaign was unanimously endorsed, and that’s the campaign that we’re carrying forward. That assessment was done last fall can be updated should the military authorities and the political leaders of NATO decide that they want to update it.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott agreed Congress should leave the initiative to the president.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: There will be time to discuss and debate what’s happening and what should occur. The President has not asked for additional authority. The President has not asked for ground troops. I don’t think we should put anything off the table, but for the Senate to engage in a debate or a series of votes about what might be done next, I think we need to think about very carefully.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, House leaders today said action on President Clinton’s $6 billion request to fund Kosovo operations is expected next week. The money may simply be added to an emergency spending bill already passed by both Houses.

JIM LEHRER: We hear now from four members of the House: Republicans John Porter of Illinois and Robin Hayes of North Carolina; Democrats Eliot Engel of New York and Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.

Congressman Porter, do you support this all necessary force approach that the Senate — that the new Senate resolution endorses?

REP. JOHN PORTER, (R-IL): I think that the president made a terrible mistake in taking that off the table originally. I think that said to Mr. Milosevic if you can last out the air campaign, you can succeed in beating NATO. And I think we have to authorize the president to use whatever force is necessary. We are engaged in a war. We are attempting to defend innocent people who are being ethnically cleansed about a terrible dictator, and we can’t do it simply with one hand tied behind our back.

JIM LEHRER: So you support what McCain, Lieberman and the others are doing in the Senate?

REP. JOHN PORTER: Yes, I do.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Engel?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL, (D-NY): Well, I support it as well. I think resolutions similar to the one that we had during the Persian Gulf war, I was one of those Democrats that crossed party lines to support President Bush during the Persian Gulf War. I think we’re in this now; we need to win it; we need to show Milosevic that we will not tolerate ethnic cleansing, and we need to do it for the sake of those refugees and for the sake of the NATO alliance. I believe that Congress should authorize the president to do what’s necessary to win this war.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hayes?

REP. ROBIN HAYES, (R-NC): I don’t support ground troops in Kosovo. That was my position before I went. And after I’m back, my resolve -

JIM LEHRER: When did you go, sir?

REP. ROBIN HAYES: I was there this weekend.

JIM LEHRER: This weekend.

REP. ROBIN HAYES: Congressman Blagojevich and I were there with a group from here. And until we have a battle plan that outlines very clearly distinct objectives, until I’m assured that the military people will be allowed to conduct a campaign not the politicians, I cannot support an idea, even though genocide is involved here. We can’t replace that with what could be suicide for our troops. That’s a terrible mistake.

JIM LEHRER: Is your concern that this authorization to use all necessary force, not authorization, because the resolution doesn’t really authorize that, but that concept puts too much power in the hands of the president?

REP. ROBIN HAYES: I’m not concerned about where the power is, but without the military strategy, without the battle plan, without the why and without the clear exit strategy we don’t want to commit to something that we cannot explain to the people that live in my district and the 82nd Airborne, which is part of –

JIM LEHRER: Fort Bragg is in your district in North Carolina.

REP. ROBIN HAYES: It was in my district. And I was talking to these young and men just last week prior to their being sent – they’re in Tirana now – a battalion of the 82nd Airborne, supporting the Apaches.

JIM LEHRER: We have a report on them that’s going to follow our discussion as a matter of fact. Our correspondent Betty Ann Bowser was down there, we have some comments from the 82nd Airborne.

But back to our — Congressman Blagojevich, where do you come down on this?

REP. ROD BLAGOJEVICH, (D-IL): I think it was Queen Elizabeth who said “I hate war, because wars are so uncertain.” My concern if we give the president carte blanche ability to escalate this war with impunity is that we may ask ourselves at the end of the entire conflict how do we get into this and how do we get out. It seems to me we should keep the president somewhat involved with us. We should be still part of the process. We are the elected representatives of the people from our respective districts. And if, in fact, we’re going to see a further escalation, I think we need to have a say into whether or not we should or shouldn’t, or at least we should have a debate. And just giving him the carte blanche now, it seems to me, we may be fulfilling a prophecy of the kind of rhetoric that we’re hearing, which is further escalation. I like the option of considering some sort of negotiated settlement based on a partition because I think in the final analysis it’s clear the Kosovars have a right to an autonomous place to live free from the Serbs and probably can’t end up living with the Serbs in view of what has just happened to them.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Congressman Porter, Congressman Engel, you’ve heard what the other two gentlemen have said, one thing at a time, do not give the president carte blanche: How do you respond to that, Congressman Porter?

REP. JOHN PORTER: Well, we’re going to take up very soon, probably next week, a resolution to provide the funding for our military to carry on this campaign. And that certainly is a point of debate in the issue. The president is asking for $6 billion, a little bit more, to both take care of the refugees and pursue the campaign and that will be a signal, whether the American people do or do not support what is being done there.

JIM LEHRER: But you’re not concerned, you don’t share the concerns of Congressman Hayes and Congressman Blagojevich about giving too much authority to just go do it?

REP. JOHN PORTER: Well, the president is commander in chief. If the Congress is going to provide the funding, I think the message is very clear that the American people support what the president is attempting to do.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hayes?

REP. ROBIN HAYES: We went to Kosovo with a very clear mission: Evaluate the supplemental budget; look at the situation; and then come back and use that input to decide. The question becomes, and there’s very clear agreement that we’re going to support the troops. We’re going to support this request. The question for me becomes are we going to use this opportunity to fill in the gap that’s been created by lack of priority for the military over the past seven years? And that’s where the debate is going to take place. I went to say, we’re going to support the military, but we also need to prepare for this to go on into the future and to bridge the gap that’s been created by a lack of priority for military spending.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Engel, Congressman Porter mentioned the point about the American people. Have you been hearing from people in your district about this?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I have a number of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in my district. And they are of course deeply concerned, as we all should be, about genocide going on back in Kosovo. I think all options should be on the table. I don’t think you announce to a dictator like Milosevic that we will only do a certain thing and then stop there. I think it’s clear that the Kosovar Albanians can never again live under Serbian rule, and I ultimately think that the solution is independence for Kosovo. When the former Yugoslavia broke up, all the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia had the right to independence. The Croats and the Bosnians, the Macedonians, and the Slovenians all had that right. And I believe the Kosovar Albanians have the same exact right. And they have the right to live and they certainly have the right not to be ethnically cleansed. And I want to commend the president for doing something. It would have been politically easier for him to stand by and do nothing. But having done something, we now must win this war, or else I believe Milosevic will widen this war, he’ll go into Montenegro and try to depose Dupanovic, he’ll go into Bosnia and Republika Srpska and try to start trouble there, he’ll go into Macedonia.

We have to show him that we mean business and that NATO has to win this. So I believe that all options should be on the table, including the option of troops on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Blagojevich, a lot of people have made that point, that Congress starts putting restraints here, well, we want to know what you’re going to do next, and we want to know an exit strategy, and we want to vote specifically for ground forces. All you’re doing is encouraging Milosevic just to hang in there each step along the way. How do you respond to that?

REP. ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Well, first of all, let me say the Kosovars may or may not have a right to independence. But I’m not so sure American troops should be the ones who have to fight their war for independence. And we have to keep in mind that our policy here in the United States, the president’s policy is not an independent Kosovo; that’s what he says repeatedly. It’s about an autonomous Kosovo. And just as I said moments ago, when you unleash wars, when wars begin, little by little, events start taking control of those who try to shape the events. And here we have a situation where we’re starting to see goals changing. And what I’m afraid of, is that we ultimately see American troops, 65 percent of the troops in a NATO ground war would be American soldiers, fighting to provide independence for Kosovar Albanians. How is that in the national interest of the United States? And if we end up doing that, we are fundamentally altering our relationships with Russia.

JIM LEHRER: And you believe as a member of the House of Representatives, you should be involved in making that decision.

REP. ROD BLAGOJEVICH: If we’re going to do something that dramatic, I think we absolutely have to, and I think also — there’s one thing about bombing for diplomatic, political, and humanitarian purposes. I think that’s legitimate. It’s quite another – and I think the moral register is higher for all of us — when we look in the faces of the American soldiers, young people who salute you and say yes, sir, no, sir, are filled with enthusiasm, by and large working class and inner city kids and rural kids who aren’t the children of members of Congress and, you know, those in the State Department who have to fight these wars, they would have to go into the mountains of Kosovo and ferret out Serbian paramilitary thugs, we know how mean and vicious they are. And it seems to me before we allow that to happen, everybody who has an elected responsibility should have a voice in that.

REP. JOHN PORTER: Let me agree, Jim, with what Rod said. But let’s remind ourselves of something. This is probably the first time in human history that the most powerful nation on earth is using its power not for conquest or personal gain, but to defend an oppressed people who are being ethnically cleansed. I think we can be very proud of what we are doing there. We cannot lose this battle. We cannot back away from this. We cannot allow this to continue. And it seems to me the only way to really address this is for the NATO nations to mobilize their ground forces, intensify the air campaign. I think at that point Mr. Milosevic will back down, at least to the extent, perhaps of a partition, as Rod suggests.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hayes, do you share Congressman Porter’s pride with what we’re doing therein the first place?

REP. ROBIN HAYES: Absolutely. I share the pride that we’re doing the right thing. But I want to make sure we don’t commit American lives just because we’re doing something. What’s he saying is right, at the same time Rod is also right. We did not have a proper plan in place. In my opinion we played into Mr. Milosevic’s hands by commencing this limited bombing campaign. We are creating some problems for them, but political people are making decisions that should be made by the military.

JIM LEHRER: About the point that Congressman Blagojevich also made that once you start down the war road, you can’t control it, things that you hadn’t planned on happen, and that’s what’s happened here?

REP. ROBIN HAYES: I don’t think that’s what he said. I think he said our planning up to this point does not match the condition that is we met. And seeing the problems that we face now, let’s don’t make the same mistakes; let’s have a clear cut battle plan. Don’t take any of the options off the table. That’s a problem now. We have not outlined the options. We have not put all the possibilities on the table. So we’re not properly prepared for the introduction of other forces into this battle – our making sure that this supplemental budget sends a strong force to Milosevic, we are going to be powerful enough that diplomacy and negotiation is the option that you ought to choose. That’s the issue for me here.

JIM LEHRER: But you want Congress to say very specific things as to what the president can do, correct?

REP. ROBIN HAYES: I am not on record as outlining a set of demands for the president. The president has to perform his role and we need to inform our district and our people what’s at stake and what’s involved. The issue here is the supplemental budget, that’s the main reason we were there. Are we going to send a message that we are going to support our troops and our military and strengthen our negotiating position by putting money back into this budget that’s been taken out, money that will give our reserve planes the equipment that they don’t have that they need to go increase our strength.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Porter, do the folks in your district in Illinois share your pride with what’s going on, at least the ones you’ve heard from?

REP. JOHN PORTER: Yes, I think many of them do. Many others are concerned, as Robin is, about the degree of commitment and whether American lives are going to be lost in this. It seems to me that Mr. Milosevic understands strength, and if we display to him the strength of all the NATO nations working together, we will in fact back down, we’ll be able to solve this.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a harm that can be — could there be any harm in an open congressional debate at this point, Congressman Engel?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL: I think that Congress ought to debate it, I think that Congress has a right to debate it. After all, the people elect us. But I do think that we have to let the president do what he’s doing. He needs to listen to the Congress. And let me just say that — mentioned before about partition, I’m opposed to partitioning Kosovo, because I think it would in essence reward Milosevic for ethnic cleansing. And I think we really ought to be considering arming and training the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army. They are the only forces on the ground right now, and we ought to be dropping anti-air tank weaponry to them, because if we don’t want prolonged troops on the ground, NATO or American troops on the ground, they’re the counterbalance to the Serbs.

JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there. You just introduced about eight other issues, each of which we need to take one at a time but thank you all four very much.