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Eisenhower Center for American Studies
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , University of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana , Monday, May 17, 1999

Senator [Mary] Landrieu, thank you very much, and, Doug [Brinkley, Director of the Eisenhower Center], for your kind words. I must say, this is the third event that Senator Landrieu and I have attended today. She has been introducing me at each stop along the way, and I am relishing every moment of her introductions. [Laughter.] They get better and better and better. Pretty soon, I’m just going to play a tape recorder back when I have to appear before her committee on bended knee and just say, "This is what you said to me in New Orleans." [Laughter.]

She is a great asset, not only to Louisiana, but to our country. I have tried to point out to each and every audience that she is very astute, and she wants to learn. When she doesn’t know something, she asks the right questions, and she makes me and others come up with the answers. That’s precisely the kind of person that you want to have, who demands answers to legitimate questions. I’m going to try to do the same in a few moments, when I ask you to open the floor and to see what’s on your minds.

I have a brilliant speech. [Laughter.] It is 26 pages long. But as I look out into the audience, you have been truly accommodating to me. I truly appreciate your flexibility because I had received a call [saying] that "You must move your schedule up an hour; you must move your schedule up an hour and a half." [The schedule] kept shifting and moving because of the President returning to Washington and because other members of his national security team had to take off to fly to Europe and elsewhere this evening. So they moved the meeting up at the White House earlier and earlier. So I appreciate your flexibility in arranging your schedules.

On history itself, you have a great historian here in Doug Brinkley. And I recall reading somewhere, where Daniel Boorstin, another great historian, said that if we don't look back over our shoulders at what has gone before, it's like trying to plant cut flowers. It doesn't work. I think of Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes who said that we turn to the past not out of desire, but out of necessity.

I can turn perhaps to other literature as well. We talk about Alice in Wonderland. When she approached the Cheshire Cat, she said, "Which way do I go to get from here to there?" And the Cat said, "Well, it all depends on where you want to get to." She said, "I don't much care where." And he said, "It doesn’t matter which way you go." Of course, we all know from our experience, it does matter which way you want to go and how you’re going to get there. If we don’t look back over where we’ve been, then we are at the mercy of fortune to tell us which way we ought to go. So this is an opportunity for me to pay tribute to historians.

I regret that Stephen Ambrose cannot be with us today. I’m a big fan of his and not only because I read his [books] Citizen Soldiers, D-Day, and The Victors. I presented Bob Dole -- on Armed Forces Day that we kicked off on Friday at Andrews Air Force Base -- with a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s The Victors because Bob Dole was there [during World War II]. He suffered grievous wounds during World War II. He spent 36 months in a hospital bed, trying to recover from those wounds. So he’s a great personal hero of mine, and I was pleased to have him to share Armed Forces Day with us.

On Citizen Soldiers, I must say that there are a number of things that come to mind: citizen soldiers, D-Day, [and the film] Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan was based very much on the interviews that were conducted by Stephen Ambrose. You will find as you look through that movie that you can almost [find verbatim] conversations that come out of the book itself.

I had the opportunity to have a private showing of Saving Private Ryan. My wife and I hosted it in a small theater. What was astonishing about the movie was what happened afterwards. At the conclusion of the movie, everyone walked out, and no one could look at each other. Not one of us could look into the eyes of the others, because the heads were all down. It was one of the most of the poignant moments that I can remember. We had people like [Senator] Max Cleland there, who fought in Vietnam and suffered grievous wounds there, going through that experience.

But the question really was raised at the end of the movie: Are we really worth the sacrifice that our forefathers have made for us? Do we measure up? Do we hold up the ideals that they fought and died in so many numbers for? How do we do that in our daily lives? I remember that moment as we all walked out of the room. We simply wanted to be alone with ourselves, contemplating whether we were worthy of what took place during World War II and what our fathers and forefathers were able to endure on our behalf, knowing that on the hinge of history swung the future of civilization.

It was a very moving film. But it also raises some fundamental questions about who we are. Who are we as a nation? I've asked this question in a different format from time to time. I recall Admiral Stockdale. You recall when he was running for Vice President. He took the podium, which he was not accustomed to taking, and he asked two questions, which produced some kind of derision and reaction on the part of the people who were there that night. But they were very important questions. He said: "Who I am? And why I am here?" And those are existential questions that we have to ask about ourselves -- as individuals always, but surely, as a nation. Who are we? Why are we here? Why are we there? Why are we forward-deployed throughout the Asia-Pacific?

We hear from time to time people who say, "Well, let the Asians take care of Asia." Or, "Let the Europeans take care of Europe. Let’s just come back to the good old continental United States, tuck ourselves in some kind of continental cocoon and watch events unfold on CNN." We know that that’s not possible. If it ever was possible, surely it is not now with what technology has done to miniaturize the globe. Technology has reduced the size of this great world of ours to the size of a ball, spinning on the finger of science. Senator Landrieu and I were talking about this today, about how we are now taking our science and integrating it into our armed forces to make sure that we remain the best fighting force in the world.

So these are fundamental questions: Why are we in Kosovo? It's an important question because it has been debated in the halls of Congress, and it will continue to be debated. Why are we in Bosnia? We just met with a group of young men and women who will go to Bosnia in August, and they will become peacekeepers in that region. They will continue to do what we have done for the past three and a half years. We have brought peace to that region, or at least enforced the peace agreement. And the question becomes: Is it worth it? Is it in our interest? Or is it in our interest to see instability continue to burn like a fire in various parts of Europe, running the risk that it could set off a much bigger explosion in terms of humanitarian consequences and involving many of our NATO allies?

The reason that we are involved in Kosovo is because of one person: Slobodan Milosevic. He has carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. Those words almost lose their meaning. What does that mean? Ethnic cleansing? It’s like some ring around the collar that he is sort of machine-gun washing clean. It’s a horrible phrase, but it brings up memories of what took place [and what] we thought would never take place again in our experience, certainly in Europe, where we have such tremendous influence with our ideals, our history, our interests. We thought that would not ever happen again in Europe. So he has brought us back to his future, a dark future, to what I call the Heart of Darkness. He is a contemporary Kurtz. He has taken us into that Heart of Darkness. And we are left to say: "The horror, the horror." So we’re trying to deal with the horror now.

How do we deal with this? We knew, for example, that for a long time he has been planning to clean out the ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo. He started it last year. Last year he was doing this, and we tried to rally our allies, saying: "We must do something to prevent this from taking place." You may remember, last fall that there were almost 300,000 to 400,000 people up in the mountains, the hills around Kosovo, who had only the clothing on their backs. They had no warm clothing. They had nothing. They were in danger of freezing to death or starving to death. At that time, we were able to rally the NATO allies, to say: "We have to tell Milosevic that unless he gets his forces out and lets those people come back, we’re going to attack him."

This raised a fundamental issue: Well, how can NATO do this? The NATO countries are all democracies. They said, "What is the legal underpinning of our actions?" They said, "We must have a Security Council resolution in order to allow this to take place, a legal mandate."

We said, "Wait a minute. If instability in Kosovo runs the risk of spreading to Macedonia, which runs the risk of continuing to burn, to potentially bring in Greece and Turkey and others, that’s in NATO’s security interest. NATO is going to protect its security interest and act on its own, even under the U.N. Charter. So if you go to the Security Council for a legal mandate, that means that you will subject that to a Russian or Chinese veto. Is that something that NATO wishes to set as a precedent?"

Finally, after about three-fourths of a year, they said no. They said, "We will in fact authorize the use of air power to persuade Milosevic to back away and let the refugees come back out of the hills." Which is what happened last fall. That action order that was authorized by NATO itself to go against Milosevic remained in effect.

Except, what happened? He backed away. He signed an agreement that was negotiated by [United States Envoy] Richard Holbrooke. Then almost immediately thereafter he started to break the agreement. So [his] plan was put in place, [a plan] that was revealed in The Washington Post or The New York Times, called Operation Horseshoe. From last fall [onward], he started planning how he was going to eliminate the ethnic Albanians.

We saw this was coming, and we saw what was taking place. At that time, we went to him and said, "You must sign up to the Rambouillet Accords." That’s something that was conducted by all of the NATO members in France. We convinced the Kosovars to sign up to it, but Milosevic said no. So we tried diplomacy. By the way, even the Russians were involved as co-negotiators of that agreement. The Russians were the ones who also thought that he should sign that agreement. They were as frustrated and angry as everyone else that he would not. They didn’t agree that force should be used to enforce that agreement, but they did agree that he should sign that agreement. So we tried diplomacy. We said that we will go to the last agreement. We sent Richard Holbrooke for the last time. The answer was no.

We said, "We will try deterrence. We will have all 19 countries" 16 at that time, but now 19 countries "arrayed against you in the event that you don’t sign up to this agreement to bring peace to the region." And he said no.

So then we said, "In that case, we are not going to let you carry out this campaign with impunity. And we are prepared to take these 19 countries and start systematically taking you down militarily," which is what we’ve been about for the past 50-odd days.

Questions have been raised: Why is it taking so long? Why only an air campaign? Because, number one, there’s a consensus for it. All 19 countries agreed that there should be an air campaign. All 19 countries don’t agree with putting land forces into Kosovo. When you have a consensus to take military action, as difficult as it may be, you ought to stay with that consensus. That’s precisely what we’re doing.


Out of that 50-odd days, 54, 55 days, how many good days have we had? Roughly 12. We’ve had roughly 12 days out of all of this two-month period of time in which to carry out the air campaign unimpaired by the weather. As the weather starts to clear, what are you seeing? More and more damage is being done to those things that keep Milosevic in power.

What we are trying to tell him is that with each day that goes by, he's going to be weaker. With each day that goes by, those forces that he has been trying to eliminate in the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] are going to be getting stronger. They are getting more numbers. They are starting to get funds. They are getting more weapons coming in. They are going to wage a guerrilla campaign against him that will be his Vietnam -- if we want to look for analogies.

We are trying to say, "You can stop this, you can say tomorrow, ‘It’s over.’ But don’t come up with any partial solutions. Don’t have any partial withdrawals. You’ve got 40,000 troops who have engaged in mass killing, and now you want to pull out 120 or 200 and say it’s a gesture of goodwill. The answer is no. You’re going to pull all of them back. You must allow the refugees to go back home. There must be an international peacekeeping force with NATO at its core. And there must be a political settlement that allows for autonomy. Unless you can agree to these, then we are going to continue our effort, and we are going to intensify it."

I said I wouldn’t talk long, but I started to talk long. Let me stop, because you may have many questions you’d like me to respond to. And I’m eager to try and do so. [Applause.]