President Clinton talks with 'Late Edition'
June 20, 1999
Web posted at: 5:41 p.m. EDT (2141 GMT)
COLOGNE, Germany (CNN) -- The following is a transcript of an
interview by Senior White House Correspondent Wolf Blitzer
with U.S. President Bill Clinton. It aired on CNN's
"Late Edition" on June 20.
BLITZER: Mr. President, thank you so much for joining us on
this very special "Late Edition" from here in Cologne. There've been reports that President Yeltsin has been ill, erratic, that his behavior has been shaky. You just met with him a little while ago. What's your impression?
CLINTON: Well, his behavior was neither erratic nor shaky
today. He was strong, clear, forceful, and looking to the
future. And we actually had quite a good meeting. We got a
lot done. We set at an agenda to continue to work on reducing
the nuclear threat, to continue to work on reducing the
likelihood of any kind of cooperation of Russian entities
with Iran's missile technology development. We're working to
help Russia comply with the IMF and get its economy going
stronger again. And obviously, we talked about our commitment
to fully implement the agreements we've made over Kosovo. So
today, all I can tell you is I had good personal experience.
He was clear, concise and direct and strong.
BLITZER: But a lot of people were concerned when the Russians
sent those 150 or 200 soldiers into Pristina so secretively.
With the Russians still having thousands of nuclear warheads,
should Americans be concerned about the security, the safety
of that nuclear arsenal if there's a problem between civilian
and military control of the Russian military?
CLINTON: Well, so far, I can only tell you what our
experience has been in six and one half years. We've worked
very well with the Russian military to implement the system
that was set up, actually before I became president, although
we've tried to strengthen it, to strengthen the Russian
security over nuclear weapons, to strengthen security over
other materials that President Yeltsin and I agreed last year
to destroy 50 tons of plutonium arising out of nuclear
operations. We have great confidence in that, and it's
working quite well. I have no reason to believe that it won't
continue to do so.
BLITZER: But then, will you concede, though, that the dash for the airport in Pristina, and grabbing hold of that piece of territory, helped them get a better deal for their
peacekeepers in Kosovo than would have been the case if they
had not done so?
CLINTON: I'm not sure that's right for the following reason.
I felt that it was important myself, and I told all of our
people this and several of our NATO allies, that Russia had a
different role in Kosovo because of the importance of making
clear our common commitment to protect civilians, both the
Kosovar Albanians who are coming home, and the Serbs who
remain. Therefore, I thought it was important for Russia to
have its forces in more than one of these sectors. And of
course, as you know, now they'll be working with us, and with
the Germans and the French. So, they may believe that, the
Russians may believe that, but in my own mind I had already
determined that if our allies would go along, they should be
in more than one sector.
BLITZER: But not necessarily in control of the airport, which
originally was going to be the strategic headquarters for the
CLINTON: Yes, but now the division of labor they've worked
out at the airport is quite acceptable to us and guarantees
that the mission can go forward. So I think that's the most
important thing. We have to -- every decision we made,
including the agreements made with the Russians, had one
thing uppermost in my mind: will the mission succeed? That
is, today -- it's a very happy day. The Serbian forces will
go out on schedule, the last of them. We have about 20,000 of
our NATO peacekeepers in there. Sixty-two thousand of the
Kosovars have already come home. Some of them before we
wanted them to because of the de-mining operations. So I feel
very good about where we're going with this now. And I'm
leaving here with real confidence that we are going to
succeed in achieving all of our objectives.
BLITZER: But you have to be concerned about the potential for
the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, the revenge, the hatred.
The fact that they're not going to be satisfied with
autonomy. They're going to want full independence from
Serbia. The potential for danger to those U.S. troops is
very, very real.
CLINTON: There is potential for danger for all troops, from
both disgruntled Kosovar Albanians or disgruntled or
frightened Serbs in Kosovo. But I am encouraged that the
leaders of the KLA have now signed on to the commitment to
demilitarize. They've agreed to put away their uniforms, to
give up their big weapons, their non-pistol weapons. To do
everything we have asked them to do. Might there be
individuals or small groups who are full of anger and seek
revenge? Of course. And we'll have to be very vigilant, just
as we've had to be vigilant in Bosnia. I also think we're
going to have to work hard to take initiative, to take some
of that venom out of the atmosphere. When Elie Wiesel, our
Nobel laureate who survived the Holocaust came back from the
tour I asked him to take of the camps, he talked about how
troubled he was by the children, the families, how much we
needed to work on that and how hard we'd have to work to get
people, religious leaders and others in there, to try to get
people to turn away from revenge. But this is a problem
everywhere where such things occur. And you look at these
accounts that are just now coming out, even worse than we
imagined about the mass killings and the graves and the
unusual, almost unimaginable cruelty. So it will take them
some time to get through that and we're going to work with
BLITZER: There are some in the U.S. military who are
concerned that just as -- when the U.S. and President Reagan
sent troops into Lebanon, there were high expectations. When
you sent troops into Somalia, there were high expectations.
Things could go sour quickly. Is that realistic, or are you
taking certain steps that will prevent another Lebanon or
CLINTON: Well, I think we learned a lot about that. I mean,
we went to -- to Bosnia, where all the same things were
present. We knew that we'd had a quarter of a million people
killed. We had 2.5 million refugees. We had all those
horrible internment camps. All of the hideous awful stories
we're hearing now out of Kosovo we had in Bosnia for a longer
period of time. So we did a lot of extra work on security,
and we were quite careful about how we defined our mission
and how we carried it out, based on lessons learned in both
Lebanon and in Somalia. And so, we have tried to carry those
lessons through. I can't tell the American people there will
not be any violent incident that no American will ever be
harmed or killed. But I can say that we have learned the
lessons of the last several years, and I think what we are
doing is profoundly important.
BLITZER: In your Oval Office address, you declared victory.
Some of your critics, though, say that as long as President
Slobodan Milosevic is in power, there is no victory.
CLINTON: Well, that's two different things. Let me first say
that when I spoke to the American people, I said we had three
objectives -- to reverse the ethnic cleansing and bring the
Kosovar Albanians home. We are doing that. Sixty-two thousand
are already back. To do it in a way that would keep our
alliance together. We're stronger than we ever were. And that
I would seek a partnership with Russia as we had in Bosnia.
We have now formalized that partnership so that even though
our relationships with Russia were quite strained during this
period of the conflict, I think that we're actually in a
position to have a stronger relationship with Russia in the
future than we had before the conflict started. So I feel
good about that. So that is victory. Now, do I think the
Serbian people would be better off without Mr. Milosevic? You
bet I do. He has been indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal,
and every day now we see the vivid pictures which graphically
demonstrate that it was even worse that we imagined. There is
no statute of limitations on that. The Serbian -- the leader
of the Serbian church has now called for him to step aside,
and I certainly hope that will happen. And we can -- we have
time to focus on that. But first, we've got to do the
mission. We've got to bring the folks home in safety and
BLITZER: But what the critics also say is that the U.S. and
the NATO allies have done nothing to go after other leading
indicted war criminals -- Serbs Ratko Mladic, Radovan
Karadzic, Arkan. Why should President Milosevic be any more
concerned than they are? They're all still free men.
CLINTON: Well, in our sector in Bosnia, we have arrested
people who were indicted, and so have the British. And we
have worked with them. And I think that'd be a big mistake
for Mr. Milosevic now. We may not have an extradition
agreement with Serbia, but he -- as long as he remains at
large, there is no statute of limitations, and if I were in
his position, I wouldn't take too much comfort from that. But
the best thing that could happen for the Serbian people is if
he were no longer president.
BLITZER: Do you think that's realistic that that could happen
CLINTON: Well, I think that I shouldn't comment on that right
now. But I think that there's a -- you know, with the church
leaders calling for him to step down, with the people in the
opposition in Serbia calling for him to do so and with the
commitment we have made as allies to support humanitarian aid
to the Serbs, but no reconstruction aid as long as he's
there, I think that's a pretty clear message.
BLITZER: Do you know about the reports that you've signed an
intelligence finding to actively seek to undermine his
CLINTON: But I don't comment on those things. I can't.
BLITZER: I knew you wouldn't, but I figured I would ask
anyhow. Let's move on to talk about under the category of
"now the truth can be told." When you gave the order to
launch the airstrikes, did you ever believe, in your wildest
imagination, it would take 78 days and all the devastation
that it did take to finally declare victory?
CLINTON: I'll tell you what I thought. I thought that there
was maybe a 50 percent chance it would be over in a week
because once he knew we would do it, I thought he would
remember Bosnia, and I thought he would understand what we
could do. But I knew that if he decided to take the
punishment of the air campaign, it could go a long -- quite a
long while. Because he would be trying all along to divide
the allies or bring pressure from the outside to try to find
some way to bring it to a close. And so, I told everybody
when we started, I said, "Look, if we start this and it
doesn't work out in two or three days, we've got to be
prepared to go on." I knew that we had, because of the facts
of this case, the capacity -- with the sophisticated weaponry
and the skill of our pilots -- I knew we had the capacity to
essentially take down the military apparatus and the economic
apparatus supporting him. But I knew it could take quite a
long time. I didn't have any specific deadline, but I knew it
could take quite a long time.
BLITZER: Yes, Mr. President, some of your aides are now
talking about a "CLINTON doctrine" in foreign policy in the
aftermath of this war against Yugoslavia. Is there, in your
mind, a CLINTON doctrine?
CLINTON: Well, I think there's an important principle here
that I hope will be now upheld in the future, and not just by
the United States, not just by NATO, but also by the leading
countries of the world through the United Nations. And that
is that while there may well be a great deal of ethnic and
religious conflict in the world -- some of it might break out
into wars -- that whether within or beyond the borders of the
country, if the world community has the power to stop it, we
ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing. People ought --
innocent civilians ought not to be subject to slaughter
because of their religious or ethnic or racial or tribal
heritage. And that is what we did but took too long in doing
in Bosnia. That is what we did and are doing in Kosovo. That
is, frankly, what we failed to do in Rwanda, where so many
died so quickly and what I hope very much we'll be able to do
in Africa if it ever happens there again.
BLITZER: All right, let's move on to some domestic issues.
Guns, a big subject this past week. Do you really believe
it's realistic, it's appropriate to register all guns in the
United States and if that were done, would that stop the
CLINTON: Well, you asked two questions. Realistic in this
Congress, perhaps not. Appropriate, should we register cars
and if we did register them, it would be easier to track
sales and easier to do comprehensive background checks. But
that's not what I asked the Congress to do was to close the
loop hole for sales at gun shows and flea markets so we could
do the same background checks we now do at gun stores. And I
think that would make America less violent place -- yes, I
think there would be less crime with guns if that happened.
We already, under the Brady Bill, we stopped 400,000 improper
sales and we also have a 25-year low in our crime rate and
violent crime coming down on average even slightly more than
that. So, do I think violent crime would go down more?
Absolutely I do.
BLITZER: Independent registration -- are you going to hold off on for the time being?
CLINTON: Yes, I mean if we can't close the gun show loop
hole, we certainly couldn't pass that. But let me ask you
this, that doesn't have anything to do with the right to keep
and bear arms. There's a constitutional right to travel in
America. Enshrined by the Supreme Court as a constitutional
right, no one believes that registering our cars or proving
that we know how to drive them undermines our constitutional
right to travel. It facilitates our constitutional right to
travel by making sure we're safe on the road and that we know
what we're doing.
BLITZER: All right, but you will concede though that the
Democrats have a potential political bonanza from this defeat
of the legislation this past week going into the elections
CLINTON: Well, if the public supports us, but you know, I
didn't want a political bonanza, I wanted a safer America and
our party did not seek political points on this. If we wanted
a political bonanza, we would have gone in with a bunch of
issues that we knew were popular that we had no chance to
pass. We thought -- we went in there with an agenda, we
thought we could pass that we knew would make America a safer
place. No one questions, no one seriously questions after the
experience of the last five years of the Brady Bill. But if
we close the gun show and flea market loop hole, that there
will be fewer improper sales and it will make America safer
at minimum disruption to the people who buy and sale guns and
use them lawfully. What we've tried to do is to get things
done that would make America a safer place.
BLITZER: All right, speaking about politics, let's talk about
presidential politics. Do you think that Texas Gov.
George W. Bush is qualified to be president of the United
CLINTON: Well, that's a decision the American people have to
BLITZER: What do you think?
CLINTON: Well, I think -- you know, for one thing, we've got
to see where he stands on the issues. So far, we know almost
nothing of that except what we know from his record as
governor. He said -- his announcement speech was very well
crafted and was strikingly reminiscent of what those of us
who call ourselves new Democrats have been saying since 1991,
but on the specifics, you know, I just don't know. I mean,
for example, he said nothing about this gun battle going on
in the House. He signed the concealed weapons bill in his
Texas Legislature, but that's just been one example. The one
thing I thought the vice president did particularly well when
he said, "I'm very proud of what we've done in the last six
and a half years. I've got all the relevant experience to be
president, but the important thing is, what are we going to
do in the next four years, and here are specific things I
will do." I think that Gov. Bush owes it to the American
people to say the same thing.
BLITZER: Well, why is Vice President Gore so far behind
Gov. Bush in the polls and what does the vice president
have to do to catch up?
CLINTON: Well, I think in historical terms he's not
particularly far behind. I think if you go back and look at
this point in 1959 when candidate Richard Nixon, Vice
President Richard Nixon was going to run as the Republican
nominee, he was considerably further behind Adlai Stevenson
who was the best known Democrat at the time. I think the
American people -- the encouraging thing to me is that two-
thirds of them have said that they want to know more about
all the candidates including the vice president. I believe
when they look at experience, proven success and the program
for the future. All elections are about tomorrow. I think
he's going to do very well.
BLITZER: Do you think that he's trying this week to distance
himself from you, the vice president ... that your
behavior last year was inexcusable.
CLINTON: Well, I took no offense at it. He didn't say
anything that I hadn't said in much starker terms along time
ago, so there was nothing inappropriate about it. I felt the
most important thing he did, frankly by far, was to say, I've
got experience in areas that matter and we have succeeded.
Here's what I'm going to do specifically if you elect me and
the real choice is whether you want to build on this record
of success and go beyond it and you want to go back. I think
people might -- the American people will view this election
as they should, as they should. As about them, their children
and their future. All elections are about tomorrow. So, if
you've been a good vice president or a good governor of Texas
-- to the voters at election time, that's only valuable if
it's evidence that you'll be good tomorrow. They hire you,
they give you a check every two weeks to do a good job, so I
thought the most important thing he did was to talk about his
BLITZER: All right, let's talk about the first lady's
potential run for the Senate from New York. When did you
discover, when did you learn that the first lady was a New
York Yankees fan?
CLINTON: Oh, when I first -- shortly after I met her because
I'm a big baseball fan.
BLITZER: You know, a lot of people think she just ...
CLINTON: Yes, I know that, but she was a, she said how it
came to be. Her primary allegiance all her life has been to
the Chicago Cubs. If you go to Chicago, basically most of the
people on the North Side are for the Cubs, most people on the
South Side are the White Sox. And she said, I remember back
in the 70s, we were talking about other baseball, and she
said, "But I like the Yankees, too." I said, "Well, why don't you like the White Sox?" She said, "If you're from Chicago, you're for the White Sox or the Cubs, and normally not both. So, our family always liked the Yankees." You know, I learned it a long time ago.
BLITZER: You know, there were reports out today in U.S. News
and World Report that she's thinking of moving out of the
White House and getting a place in New York in the fall.
CLINTON: Well, it's not true that she's going to move out of
the White House. But let me answer the report. Months ago, we
said that we intended to get a place in New York. We talked,
we started talking not long after we moved to the White House
about where we would live when we got out. She's always
wanted to live in New York, so we said we'd do that. And I
would divide my time between New York and going home to
Arkansas, and finishing my library and doing my work there.
Now if she runs for the Senate, she'll obviously have to
spend a lot more time there. But it will be more like an
incumbent member of Congress running for re-election, that is, she's not going to stop being first lady and doing her other responsibilities, but she'll have to spend a lot more time in New York, and we'll have to get a place there for her to be while she's spending the time there.
BLITZER: If she runs for the Senate, will you be eligible to
vote for her in New York state? In other words, would you
move your ... from Arkansas to New York?
CLINTON: Well, you know, I might, because I think every vote
counts, and I'd certainly want her to win if she ran.
BLITZER: It could be that close?
CLINTON: I will say this. I think if this what she wants to
do, if she wants it, if she decides to do this, I will be
enthusiastically supportive, because I think she would be
truly magnificent. I think she'd be great for the people of
New York and good for the people of America. And all the
years I've been in public life, of all the people I've ever
known, she is, she has been the most consistently seriously
dedicated to the kinds of public issues that I think are
important today, to the welfare of children, the strength of
families, the future of education, quality of health care. I
mean, this is something, if the people of New York chose her,
they would have somebody with 30 years of unbroken,
consistent, committed dedication, who knows a lot and is
great with working with people. So if that's what she wants,
I'm strong for her.
BLITZER: And so you're ready to move from...
CLINTON: I'm ready to do whatever she wants. I will be,
whatever the facts are about her running for the Senate, I'll
be dividing my time between New York and home, because I've
got a library to build, I've got a public policy center to
set up. And it's a real gift I want to give my native state,
and I want it to be something wonderful and good. And I've
spent quite a lot of time on it already.
BLITZER: Mr. President, you've always been someone who's
looked ahead. When you look ahead to your personal life after
you leave the White House, what do you see?
CLINTON: Well, it depends in part on what Hillary does. I'll
be going, hope I'll be going to meetings of the Senate
spouses club if she decides to run. But I want to continue to
be active in areas that I care a great deal about. And I
think that through my library, and through the public policy
center, and perhaps through some other activities, I can
continue to work on some of the issues of world peace and
reconciliation of people across these racial and religious
lines that I've devoted so much of my life to. I can continue
to work at home on issues that I care a great deal about,
including involving young people in public service. And
whether it's young people in AmeriCorps or young Americans
who are interested in running for public office, I've given a
lot of thought to it. But I'll find something useful to do. I
want to work hard. I'm too early to quit work, and I'm not
good enough to go on the senior golf tour, so I expect I'll
have to just keep on doing what I'm doing in a different way.
BLITZER: So what I'm hearing, more of a Jimmy Carter model as
opposed to a Gerald Ford model.
CLINTON: Yes, that may just be a function of age and
circumstance. I think President Carter has been the most
effective former president in my lifetime, and one of the
three or four most important former presidents in his public
service and the quality of his work in the entire history of
the United States. So what I would do wouldn't be exactly
what he had done, but I think the model of what he's done and
how he's done it is a good model for every former president
who gets out and still has good health and a few years left.
BLITZER: OK, Mr. President, I'm told we're all out of time. I
want to thank you very much for joining us for this special
"Late Edition" here in Cologne.
CLINTON: This is your last trip with me, so I want to thank
you for six and a half good years.
BLITZER: Thank you very much.
CLINTON: Good luck.
BLITZER: It's been an honor to cover you.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer conducts an exclusive interview with U.S. President Bill Clinton (Part 1) (6-20-99)
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