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Clinton Tries To Sell NATO Strikes

March 24, 1999 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton sat in the White House residence with 40 members of Congress, weaving history and politics into a hard sell on why the United States should take part in a NATO-led strike on Yugoslavia.

As his argument went on, one lawmaker spoke up. ``You know, Mr. President, I support your policy, but most of my folks couldn’t find Kosovo on a map.″

Others squeezed in together on chairs and plump sofas asked him: Would he explain Kosovo to the American people as he’d explained it to them? The president sensed their support, and that confidence showed later when he spoke in public.


Standing before a crowd of cheering unionists in a hotel ballroom Tuesday, Clinton cast the Kosovo crisis in casual vernacular that belied the anxiety of sending U.S. pilots into one of the most dangerous missions of his presidency.

``If the American people don’t know anything else about me, they know that I don’t like to use military force, and I do everything I can to avoid it,″ Clinton said. ``But if we have to do it, then that’s part of the job, and I will do it. ...

``This is not a slam dunk,″ continued Clinton, who had put aside his prepared notes. ``This is a difficult decision. I believe that the position I have taken is the best of a lot of bad alternatives. But you didn’t just hire me to make the easy decisions.″

Later, Clinton sent a letter to members of Congress, which Sen. John Warner, R-Va., read on the Senate floor. ``Mr. Milosevic should have no doubt about our resolve. ... I ask for your legislative support,″ the letter said.

Long before he showed up before the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Clinton learned from his foreign policy advisers that special envoy Richard Holbrooke was unsuccessful in his talks with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

As he gathered the members of Congress in the cheerfully painted Yellow Oval meeting room, Clinton became ``determined″ and ``anxious to make the case,″ said spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Clinton relayed what he’d learned from Holbrooke. The lawmakers voiced reservations: American soldiers might be drawn into a costly ground conflict. Military resources would be drained from other hot spots around the world.

But they emerged saying airstrikes were coming, and Republicans would pull back a Senate proposal to deny funding to U.S. forces. ``It becomes a different issue when action becomes imminent,″ said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Clinton delayed for an hour, leaving AFSCME officials to kill time. He arrived amid one official’s ad-libbed rehash of the previous day’s Social Security seminar.

The president then launched into another sales pitch, bemoaning the fact that Americans don’t see foreign and domestic policy ``as two sides of the same coin in a world that is growing smaller and smaller.″

``You may not know a great deal about Kosovo,″ Clinton said. ``You’ve been seeing it on television, if you’ve been watching, the houses being burned and all that. ... This is not a traditional war.″

He said Holbrooke ``got nowhere″ with Milosevic, and he painted Milosevic as a thug who must be stopped. ``All this stuff he’s doing is in violation of commitments he made,″ Clinton said.

``Europe needs to be our partner. Now, that’s what this Kosovo thing is all about,″ Clinton said. ``It’s about our values. What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? How many people’s lives might have been saved?″

Clinton then asked AFSCME members to bone up on Kosovo and argue his point to their friends and neighbors.

``I ask you literally to go get down an atlas and look at the map,″ he said. ``Think about whether you really agree with me, and say a prayer for the young men and women in uniform.″