NORFOLK NAVAL STATION, Va. — President Clinton, in his most extensive, emotional effort yet to address critical questions about the campaign over Kosovo, said Thursday that the war is an attempt to prevent a new Holocaust in Europe.
"Are we, in the last year of the 20th century, going to look the other way as entire peoples in Europe are forced to abandon their homelands or die?" he asked, as he accused Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of seeking to take Serbia "back to . . . 14th century ways of looking at other human beings."
Clinton used his speech before a crowd of 2,500 sailors and Marines to justify to the nation the risky campaign in the Balkans, made all the more frightening by the capture of three U.S. soldiers along the Kosovo-Macedonia border. At the same time, he took on the challenge of convincing a military audience--still skeptical six years into his tenure--that he understands the needs of the armed forces and the individuals he sends to battle.
Speaking in a hangar with F-14 and F/A-18 fighters positioned menacingly behind him, Clinton said, "President Milosevic should make no mistake: The United States takes care of its own."
He said the three soldiers had been on a peaceful mission, protecting Macedonia from the violence in Kosovo.
"There was absolutely no basis for them to be taken. There is no basis for them to be held. There is certainly no basis for them to be tried," he said, referring to Yugoslavia's stated intention to bring the soldiers before a military court. "All Americans are concerned about their welfare."
Clinton said the United States and its NATO allies "tried and tried and tried every conceivable peaceful alternative" to the aggressive posture it has assumed to restrain Milosevic's hand in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.
Now, he said, "the troops and police of the Serbian dictator are rampaging through tiny Kosovo, separating men from their families, executing many of them in cold blood; burning homes, sometimes, we now hear, with people inside; forcing survivors to leave everything behind, confiscating their identity papers, destroying their records so their history and their property is erased forever."
As he has repeatedly in recent days, Clinton dwelt on Milosevic's decade-long campaign to stir up festering ethnic animosities "right in the underbelly of Europe," as part of a Serbian drive for power based on "the kind of ethnic and religious hatred that is bedeviling the whole world today."
"Is that really what we want the 21st century to be about for our children?" he asked. ". . . We can never forget the Holocaust, the genocide, the carnage of the 20th century. We don't want the new century to bring us the same nightmares in a different guise."
Before speaking to the troops, Clinton met privately for about 40 minutes with relatives of 18 sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines deployed overseas. In an apparently blunt and emotional conference, they presented accounts of the hardships caused by long family separations and by military duty in general.
Of the 7,400 Americans taking part in the Kosovo campaign, 3,900 are in the Navy and a substantial number of them are from the Norfolk area, White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
One woman, whose husband is a senior enlisted man, said she was forced to accept welfare payments to support herself and their three children.
Clinton visited six years ago with sailors of the Atlantic Fleet, flying by helicopter to the deck of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, just off the Virginia coast, as the ship was about to begin a mission in the Mediterranean.
He was just beginning his service as commander in chief, the first in half a century who had not served in the military, and had established the "don't ask, don't tell" rule seen as relaxing military policy regarding gays and lesbians.
Sailors were not the least bit reticent about their displeasure then, criticizing him in conversations with reporters even as he addressed their comrades.
Now, with Congress considering a presidential request for greater defense spending, including a 4.4% increase in military pay, there is less open grumbling. Conversations with sailors produced some reluctant praise.
"I'm not going to say he isn't a good president," said 23-year-old Jonathan Cesero, who maintains bomb racks and gun systems. "But I'd still prefer to have someone in office who's been in military service. They have a lot better feeling for what everyone goes through."