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Secretary Cohen's Press Briefing Enroute to Rome, Italy, Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 09, 1998

Cohen: We have a very brief stop-over in Rome so I can meet with Minister Andreatta tomorrow, before moving up to Brussels where I expect to have two good days of meetings. I'll have a series of bilateral meetings with various ministers. One of the more important ones, obviously, will be with Minister Sergeyev and we will discuss a variety of issues. One of the subjects that I want to bring up with my NATO counterparts, as well as with Minister Sergeyev, is the Y2K problem.

As you know, we are devoting considerable resources to coming to grips with the dimensions of the problem, and I hope to find various discussions on a bilateral basis, and even during the sessions that we have, the plenary sessions with the NATO members, and even the Partnership for Peace program members, is to alert them to the need to focus their resources on coming to grips with the Y2K problem. That's particularly important with respect to Russia, also with China, and in other countries, but during this meeting primarily to NATO plus the Russians. Early warning would be important; what happens in the year 2000 with computers if they suddenly shut down, how would they interpret that and how will they react to that. Some of the initial comments I have heard is that they calibrate their computers differently than we do in the United States, in the West, and they don't foresee a problem. But we have to have some examination that satisfies those that we are cooperating [with] and providing them with whatever information we have in dealing with our own systems, things that they should look at as well. So that will be a subject matter over and above what we will be taking up as far as NATO for the 21st century, talking about strategic doctrine, also missions for NATO in the 21st century, how we can enhance the Partnership for Peace program-all of that will be on the agenda, but the Y2K problem will also be on the mind.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you talk with us a little bit; there's been some reporting a potential for accelerated planning on NATO's part in terms of dealing with the issue of Kosovo. How are you and your colleagues going parse that situation? How are you going to take a look at it, analyze it, what do you think might be coming out of the session?

A: Well, I believe there is a very general consensus that there should be accelerated planning from a military point of view to examine what options would be desirable and then feasible to carry out. That, of course, has to be done within the context of a political framework. Before you can give any kind of direction to military commanders they have to know what the political framework is in which they're operating so they can say, "what's the goal?" and I would anticipate that because of the activities taking place now in Kosovo, with the Serb crackdown, that virtually all of the NATO members feel an increased sense of urgency to build up the plans and to examine the options as quickly as possible, and obviously, as soundly as possible. So I assume there will be quite an impetus at the meeting for discussions, and the military committee will look at this very closely-obviously General Wes Clark will have an important role to play in organizing this effort and then circulating it to the Secretary General and the members at large. So I think there will be increased pressure to look at the plans, and then, within that political framework, come up with a series of options and recommendations.

Q: Do you expect the options to be discussed in the plenaries?

A: Whether it's at the plenary level or the bi level, certainly I will be discussing this with each of the ministers with whom I will be meeting in terms of getting their views and what they think should be done. Our position has been-and continues to be-that we believe a political solution, a diplomatic solution, is the best course that can be achieved. An then look at what levers can be used-in order to bring pressure not only on Milosovic, which needs to be done, but also to make sure that the Kosovars are moving to settle at the bargaining table. We have to be very careful that we don't take action that simply encourages continuation of Kosovar activities at a time when we're also calling upon the Serbs to exercise restraint and to call for a cease-fire.

Q: With the planning that's being done by NATO, would that assume, in cases like preventive course, the use of U.S. ground troops, or is this something that you would rather see the Europeans handle?

A: A lot will depend upon what the options are that we deem to be both desirable and feasible. As you know, there's been a lot of speculation about whether NATO would put some kind of force on the borders and whether that would simply be a benefit to Milosovic at this point as far as having a NATO border patrol, so I think there will be a careful examination of what options are available, and what the most desirable are from the military point of view in trying to achieve a political objective. But I think at this point it's premature to discuss what the composition of forces might be, whether air, land, sea, or a combination of that, I think it's premature right now. I think we'll look at what at the options are and then see where we go from there.

Q: Do you think it's likely that Congress is wearying of paying for the deployment in Bosnia. Do you think it's even politically possible or feasible that U.S. troops could go to Kosovo or participate in a force along the border or anything else?

A: I think it's premature to speculate about that now. What we have to do is find out what the options would be in order to bring about a political resolution to this. It may not be necessary to use, to resort to, military force. What we do is examine what the option would be should that become necessary. In the event that such a decision were ever made, then obviously you would have to have congressional participation in this from the beginning. I think that we have Senator Lott and others who look at this situation as potential for violence to spread and create waves of massive shifts in population with refugees moving across borders, and it's got the attention of many members of Congress. I think a lot will depend upon what the proposal is and what its feasibility is about. I think at this point it's premature to speculate on what kind of force would be necessary, whether it be European or a combination of European-U.S. and other forces. There may be a number of other countries who wish to participate who aren't even members of NATO. So, I think from our perspective, planning has to be done through NATO itself and then, like the situation we have in Bosnia, we have wait and see what the composition would be, if any. We're hoping that Milosovic will call back his troops and not engage in the kind of activity he has been engaged in. We also want to make sure that the Kosovars understand that we do not support independence. We do support greater autonomy, but we don't want to be in a position of simply encouraging the Kosovars to think that any action on the part of NATO is designed to support their press for independence. That would not be the case. So I think we have to not speculate at this point what the proposals would be and what the composition of forces would be that we require for military action.

Q: Can you describe the level of U.S. national interest in Kosovo, and how important is this to us? Is this vital to our national interests?

A: With respect to Kosovo, the real issue is what happens if the violence continues to spread, and you have tens of hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced and moving into countries that can no longer accommodate them; what that means in terms of stability for the region. If the fighting were to engage other countries, spreading down through Southeast Europe, possibly involving conflicts of, certainly Greece, Turkey, Russians-Russia has a major role here as well. Russia has to be involved in any kind of resolution to this issue because they have been historic supporters of the Serbs, so therefore it will be important to at least be taken into account. I think as far as NATO-I think NATO recognizes that this, if it goes unchecked, can have a much wider impact than Kosovo itself. So the national interest on the part of the United States would be that this could affect everything from Macedonia all the way back up to Bosnia, and all the way down to other countries. A much wider conflict would create an instability which would have an effect on the United States.

Q: ...unclear on how that would work. I've heard you describe that scenario. But Milosovic doesn't seem interested in going beyond the border, although Albania said he might, we haven't seen that. How is it that the violence could spread? Refugees, somehow, spread violence?

A: We have other countries who might have an interest here, and you have raised-the media has raised-the question of Iranian participation, in this activity; have there been Iranian arms coming in? To the best of my knowledge, we have not seen that at this point, but if you have a massive crackdown by the Serbs and slaughtering of innocent people then maybe other countries will then seek to provide weapons to the region. It's very hard to predict at this point in terms of when something starts boiling at that level what the unintended or at least uncalculated consequences could be. So I think that there is genuine concern throughout the region that if this goes unchecked, it could have much more implications than simply Kosovo.

Q: So, what lessons do you think have been drawn from Bosnia as far as coping with Kosovo's concerns?

A: The lessons can be drawn from that is if you have an agreement between the parties, that you can sit down and negotiate out the competing interests here. Obviously, Milosovic does not want to see an independent Kosovo. The United States does not want to see, or support, an independent Kosovo. But I think the lesson from Bosnia is that if you get the parties to the table to negotiate out a diplomatic solution, then you can have a peaceful resolution, without resorting to the kind of slaughter that's taking place now.

Q: Is another lesson from Bosnia perhaps that the way to get them to the table is U.S. airstrikes were part of the package. Will that encourage Milosovic to come to the table and talk a bit?

A: Well, I think that any time you have a situation in which you need to have your diplomatic efforts backed up by a credible military threat, that can produce positive results. In this particular case, I think again, it's premature to speculate what kind of military action, if any, is going to be necessary. So I wouldn't confine it to any one type of operation. That's the entire purpose behind the examination that's going to be taking place by NATO itself.

Q: In Rome, is the topic of the EA-6B going to come up with Minister Andreatta, to reassure Italy that the U.S. is cooperating?

A: I assume that it will, and if it doesn't I will certainly raise it myself and give him a progress report on it. He has been very understanding, and we have cooperated with Italian authorities, aggressively, to resolve it, and if he doesn't raise it, I certainly will.

Q: Among the options that are being considered, is one of them to train the Kosovo rebels and provide them with support-not necessarily arms-to give them the ability to defend themselves?

A: I really wouldn't want to speculate on what the options are going to be. I think after I have a meeting with General Clark and other ministers of defense, I can get a better feel in terms of what they believe would be the best course to follow. I think it's too early for me to speculate about that.

Q: Several weeks ago, General Clark said there was evidence of outsiders being attracted to that. ...Guerillas fighting with the Kosovo rebels, is it possible other countries are...

A: I think other Muslim countries are looking at this and perhaps offering to be of assistance, but we have not seen-I have not seen-any evidence to support that there's any kind of large scale movement of equipment from outside into the region.

Q: What about .... A: ... not any that I'm aware of.

Q: In terms of Italy, will you be discussing the possibility of refugee problems, or any kind of use of Italy as a...Aviano, that sort of thing?

A: I think the Italian government is concerned about the refugee problem. I will listen to what Minister Andreatta says about what potential there is, should there be a large flow of refugees. I think that's one of the major concerns on the part of all the countries in the region.

Q: As you listen to your colleagues in the administration, it seems that as usual, State is saying, "Oh! This might need military," and then the Defense Department is saying "No, I think this is the job for diplomats." Is that a fair perception?

A: No. Short answer, no. I think from the military point of view, I think the issue always is what is the objective. What is the political objective you are now seeking to have the military help you accomplish. That's true of any minister of defense. You ask Minister Ruehe, who was in Washington recently; if you ask the Italian minister, any of the ministers would express the same sentiment. Define what the perimeters are, what is the goal, what is the objective, is it clearly defined, can it be accomplished, with what kind of risk, etcetera, etcetera. The military is always going to be concerned about those issues. We're asking our young people to go out there on the front lines of a very dangerous issue. We want to make sure it's clearly defined and we understand exactly what it is we're moving into, and what it is we're moving out of. So, it's part of the job of ministers of defense, of secretaries of defense, to ask those questions. So I think it's a combination-secretary of states, the ministers of state may want to say, alright, we have to take action. Our question is, okay, to achieve what? To define the goal, and whether it can be accomplished and at what risk. And then to bring the legislative process into it as well.

We don't want to have a situation like we're facing now on the Hill, in which we need to have an addition, maybe, two billion dollars to fund the Bosnia operation, and members are having problems with that. If we don't get the funding we may have a problem. So it's my job to always raise these kinds of questions to make sure that we know exactly what it is we're being asked to do. You cannot have effective diplomacy without having a strong military behind it. So you have to have a combination of the two. So the Secretary of State and I, we work closely together. We talk frequently by phone and in person, and frankly, we don't disagree in our approach. It is the job of the secretaries of state and the ministers of state to look at the political objectives, and it's our job to say define those and we'll know what the military missions will be. So that's a natural relationship.

Q: Have the politicians and diplomats worked out the political objectives?

A: Not as of yet. I think that's something that NATO is going to insist upon. You have to have a political framework to understand what the goals are, and once those goals are clearly defined, then we look at what the options are going to be to carry it out. Which ones are the best, can we achieve them, can we get domestic political support for those goals. To set forth the goal, to say we're committed to it, and then build the support for it-that's the way we have to go about it.

Q: Is there a timeframe as for a decision as when you move from talking to actually taking some action?

A: I can't give you a definitive timeframe, but I think it would have to be relatively soon. This kind of slaughter, shelling of villages, is not something that can be tolerated for any length of time. So I expect within a reasonably short period of time. I can't give you an exact timeframe, but I think there is a sense of urgency on the part of NATO members, and I believe you'll see some activity generated-certainly on the political level-in the very near future.

Q: Do you read the opposition for the funding in Bosnia as to the operation in Bosnia itself or to the way the funding has been handled...

A: It's a combination on that score. Senator Stevens and Senator Domenici have raised a point-namely, that this is not an emergency in the traditional sense of being an emergency, because we know we are going to be there. It's an emergency from my perspective because it hasn't been budgeted. So whether you call it an emergency in a traditional sense or whether or not you recognize this as a contingency that has been planned for almost three billion dollars in the budget, we're saying we need an amendment to take 1.9 out of that contingency funding towards Bosnia. So I think, from Senator Stevens and Domenici, they object to the emergency designation. They do not object to giving the money to pay for it.

Then you have others who feel that there should be a mandated phase down, and that of course is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and others who want to mandate a draw down in specific time frames, and we, of course, object to that. That doesn't take into account the requirements in the field. You have to have confidence in your field commanders to make the kind of judgement to say this is permissible to do at this point; we can afford to draw down our forces because the threat has been accordingly reduced, and we've seen so much progress. If you mandate it in law, you take away all that flexibility. It's going to be, I think, very counterproductive and not a desirable place of action. That's being debated right now. So you have different viewpoints on that, people who want to get us down as quickly as possible-so do I. I would like to see us reduce this as soon as we can. But we ought to do this in a way that's consistent with providing for the security of our forces and security of the situation.

Q: In 1992, President Bush warned Milosovic that if the Yugoslav army went into Kosovo that the United States would respond militarily. Does that commitment still stand, or has that passed now because the Yugoslav army apparently has been involved in the latest fighting and, yet has not been asked, specifically...

A: You've heard everyone in the administration say essentially the same thing, and that is nothing is ruled out or in. But you have to take this in the context now that you're seeing intense activity taking place at the international level. We are going to work-the British and others-to formulate a Security Council resolution that would provide for a mandate for international action. I think that's where we are today.

Q: Is there anything going in Eritrea, Ethiopia... A: I haven't heard anymore since yesterday.

Q: How's everything in the Persian Gulf? A: Everything is recently quiet...

Q: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

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