President Clinton's Remarks at the United States Air Force Academy Commencement Ceremony

Office of the Press Secretary
(Colorado Springs, Colorado)

For Immediate Release June 2, 1999


United States Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado

11:28 A.M. MDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. General Oelstrom, Mrs. Oelstrom; General and Mrs. Ryan; General and Mrs. Myers; General Lorenz, Mrs. Lorenz; General and Mrs. Wagie; Colonel Halbren; Cadet Friedman; Acting Secretary Peters, who I intend to nominate as Secretary of the Air Force; ladies and gentlemen.

I'd like to also acknowledge particularly four graduates of the Air Force Academy that I brought to this ceremony today because they are serving our country ably in the White House -- Bob Bell, class of 1969, my Senior Counsel for Defense Policy and Arms Control, who is soon to become the Assistant Secretary General of NATO. Colonel Ed Rice, class of 1978; Lt. Colonel Betsy Pimentel, class of 1980; and my White House physician, Lt. Colonel Richard Tubb, class of 1981. The Air Force Academy has been good to our administration and to the White House. (Applause.)

To the families and friends of the graduating class, and especially to you, the members of the class of 1999, I extend heartfelt congratulations. It's been a long road from Doolie Summer to graduation. But you have achieved, as General Oelstrom told me, an unparalleled record of academic achievement, athletic success, and excellence in your military endeavors. From here on out, the sky is the limit for you.

I want to offer special congratulations to the graduates from other nations who are part of this class. We wish you well as you return home, and hope you will forever cherish your bonds with the Academy and your classmates.

Now, before I go any further, I want to carry out a venerable tradition. By the power vested in me as Commander in Chief, I hereby grant amnesty to cadets who are marching tours or serving restrictions, or confinements for minor misconduct. (Applause.)

One of the cadets suggested I also raise everyone's grades. (Laughter.) But I'm told that even the Commander in Chief can't do that.

Just a moment ago, I participated in another traditional ceremony I've been part of every year but one since I became President -- it's now up there almost as routine and sacrosanct as giving the State of the Union address, lighting the White House Christmas tree, or pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey. For the sixth time in seven years, I've presented the Commander In Chief's Trophy to the Air Force Academy Falcons. (Applause.)

Many believe it was the best team in the Academy's history, with a 12-1 record, a top 10 ranking, victory in the conference, in the bowl game, over Army and Navy. In the last two seasons, second in the nation in scoring defense to Ohio State -- where the linebackers are the size of C-130s. (Laughter.) And the team did all this in spite of an incredibly sportsman-like decision never to deploy a "Stealth" running back or throw a single, laser-guided pass. I appreciate that, and I congratulate you. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, the class of 1999 represents -- and today you rededicate yourselves -- to the same remarkable combination of accomplishment, grit and self-sacrifice our servicemen and women have embodied for more than two centuries now. You can be reminded by that just by looking over at Sijan Hall, named for a Medal of Honor winner tortured and killed in Vietnam, to be reminded of the finest example of courage and honor in terrible and terrifying circumstances.

Those qualities are on display today when Air Force men and women serve at home and abroad, from Iraq to Korea, to helping hurricane victims in Central America, and now in the historic effort to reverse the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and restore the people of that shattered land to their homes.

A month ago I went to our airbases at Spangdahlem and Ramstein, Germany, to visit the pilots and support crews who are flying our missions over Kosovo, and the young people in uniform bringing aid to the refugees there. I wish every American could have been with me to see the courage, the intensity, the skill it takes for our pilots to fly these aircraft at high speeds through enemy defenses, putting ordinance on target, putting their own lives in greater danger to avoid civilian casualties on the ground, coordinating with air crews from more than a dozen other countries, then coming home to debrief, rest and do it all over again.

These young Americans know they're doing the right thing. They're determined to prevail. It is impossible to see them and talk to them and come away with the slightest iota of cynicism about our nation and our role and responsibilities in the world.

We are joined today here by two of these brave American airmen. I cannot mention their names, under our procedures, for they are still flying missions in Kosovo. But the first is a pilot of a B-2 bomber who graduated from the Academy in 1986, and who has flown his craft from Whiteman Air Force Base on strike missions over heavily defended areas in Serbia. The second graduated from the Academy in 1980, and now flies a C-130, ferrying life-saving supplies to the refugees fleeing Kosovo.

I would like to ask them to stand and ask you to recognize them for their courage and for their service. (Applause.)

I am very proud of them, and very proud of you for following in their tradition.

America became a great nation not just because our land was generous to those who settled it; not just because our forbears who came here were clever and worked hard; but also because whenever our beliefs and ideals have been threatened, Americans have always stepped forward to defend them.

Kosovo is a small province in a small country -- but it's a big test of what we believe in and stand for: Our commitment to leave to our children a world where people are not uprooted and slaughter en masse because of their racial or ethnic heritage, or their religious faith; our fundamental interest in building a lasting peace in an undivided, free Europe so that young Americans never have to go there again to fight and perish in large numbers; our interest in preserving our alliance for freedom and peace with our 19 NATO allies.

There are also differences, however, between this conflict and those we have waged in the past. Kosovo is a communications age conflict, as General Oelstrom and I were just discussing. It is waged at a time when footage of air strikes is beamed to homes across the world even before our pilots have returned to their bases; a time when every accidental civilian casualty is highlighted, but also when the victims of terrible war crimes can give testimony to the whole world within days of those crimes being committed.

In World War II, Americans knew they were fighting to end a great horror. But what news we had then about Nazi atrocities came to us delayed and piecemeal -- from the few refugees and couriers who managed to escape occupied Europe. It was only in victory, when our soldiers liberated the concentration camps, that Americans truly saw the face of the evil we had defeated.

Today, our pilots over Kosovo see the smoke of burning villages beneath them, the tanks and artillery that set them ablaze. When they turn to base, they watch the news, they see the faces of the fleeing refugees marching so many miles over mountains with only the belongings they can carry on their backs, pushing their elderly along in wheelbarrows. They hear the voices of victims telling stories of young men singled out and shot along the road, young women raped and children torn from their parents. They also hear the voices of those who say all is not lost because the nations of NATO are with us and will not let us down.

Our servicemen and women can see today what we are fighting against and what we are fighting for. So can the American people and the entire world.

Now, Mr. Milosevic has been indicted by the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal -- the first time a sitting leader of a nation has been held responsible by an international body for ordering war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There are still some who assert that our bombing is somehow responsible for the atrocities his forces have committed against the Kosovar people. That reminds me of the old story of the young boy who came running home to his mother with a bloody nose. When his mother asked him what happened, he replied, it all started when the other kid hit me back.

We know that by the time our air strikes began the Serb campaign of executions and expulsions had already started. In fact, Mr. Milosevic has been indicted in part for a massacre that took place in January. Tens of thousands of refugees already had been pushed from their homes in carefully pre-planned attacks. Serbian forces were already positioned for the offensive we have seen unfold.

Mr. Milosevic already had unleashed in Kosovo the same paramilitary warlords who spent four years ethnically cleansing Bosnia and Croatia, where 2.5 million people were driven from their homes and a quarter million were killed before NATO bombing and the resistance of Bosnians and Croatians brought us to the Dayton peace agreement.

Ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was not a response to bombing. It is the 10-year method of Mr. Milosevic's madness. Had we done nothing, the tragedy would have been permanent, accepted and, in effect, condoned by the world community.

Now, Mr. Milosevic had 40,000 and nearly 300 tanks in and around Kosovo before he rejected the peace agreement the Kosovars accepted. He could not be prevented, therefore, from driving the Kosovars from their land. But he can be prevented from keeping them out of their land. His 10-year cleansing campaign will end once and for all. (Applause.)

This time the world did not wait, as we did in Bosnia, for four more years of fruitless appeals to reason in the face of evil. We have acted quickly to end this horror, and that is exactly what we will do.

Let me be clear about why we have done this and how we intend to meet our goals. As members of the United States Air Force, the members of this class especially are entitled to know.

Our reasons are both moral and strategic. There is a moral imperative because what we're facing in Kosovo is not just ethnic and religious hatred, discrimination and conflict, which are, unfortunately, too abundant in this world. America and NATO's military power cannot be deployed just because people don't like each other, or even because they fight each other.

What is going on in Kosovo is something much worse and, thankfully, more rare -- an effort by a political leader to systematically destroy or displace an entire people because of their ethnicity and their religious faith; an effort to erase the culture and history and presence of a people from their land. Where we have the ability to do so, we as a nation and our democratic allies must take a stand against this. We do have the ability to do so at NATO's doorstep in Europe.

But there is also a clear strategic imperative. Since I took office, I've worked hard to build for you and your future a Europe that, for the first time in history, is undivided, democratic and at peace. Because if there is anything we have learned from the bloody 20th century with its two world wars, it is that peace and stability in Europe is vital to our own security and freedom.

Now, think what the United States has helped to accomplish in the last few years. Many thought the NATO Alliance would wither and die after the Cold War. But it is strong and vital, with new partnerships with 25 nations, stretching all the way from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia. Three new democracies -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- which spent the last half century struggling for their own freedom in the Cold War, are now our NATO allies defending the freedom of Europeans.

We've helped Russia deal with the difficult challenges it faces on the road to democracy and stability, the road to being a part of and a partner in Europe. We also helped immeasurably to end the war in Bosnia, and now we're keeping the peace there with a coalition that unites every former adversary in all of European history -- France and Germany, Germany and Poland, Poland and Russia, Russia and the United States.

We have made clear that NATO membership will remain open to other responsible democracies from Central and Southeastern Europe. And through our efforts in the Balkans we have also helped to bridge the gulf between Europe and the Islamic world, the source of so much trouble over the last millennium, and the source of troubling tensions still today.

The killing Mr. Milosevic unleashed in the former Yugoslavia a decade ago is now the last major barrier to a Europe whole, free and at peace; the last gasp of an aggressive nationalism that has shattered the lives of so many Europeans in this century and drawn so many Americans to fight there in wars. It threatens all the progress made in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Imagine what would have happened had we let the violence in Kosovo escalate without taking a stand. NATO would have been discredited for doing nothing about ethnic conflict and cleansing on its doorstep. The refugees would have ended up a people without any prospect of going home -- overwhelming, perhaps even destabilizing the new, fragile democracies of Southeastern Europe with their permanent presence and bitter grievances. Tensions with Russia over the Balkans would not have disappeared, they would have increased. And the fighting might very well have spread to other countries.

Letting Mr. Milosevic succeed would have sent a clear message to other unscrupulous leaders: If you have ethnic or religious problems, just kill the minorities or drive them out. No one will stop you, you won't pay a significant price. In a way, the world will make your job easier by feeding the refugees and finding them permanent homes without pressing for their return.

Slobodan Milosevic would then have become a model of success for 21st century rulers trying to obliterate multi-ethnic societies, instead of the symbol of the bankrupt policies based on hate that we want to confine to the dustbin of history.

Our strategy for reversing Mr. Milosevic's ethnic cleansing begins with clarity about the goals we are fighting to achieve. The refugees must be able to go home with security and self-government. For that to happen, Serbian forces must leave Kosovo. An international security force with NATO at its core must deploy to protect all the people of Kosovo, including the Serb minority there. Our diplomatic effort supports these goals. They will continue to make clear to Mr. Milosevic exactly what he must do to end the conflict. And our military campaign will continue until it does.

We cannot grow weary of this campaign because Mr. Milosevic didn't capitulate when the first bombs fell. We cannot abandon a just cause because an adversary holds out for more than a few news cycles. I reject that. Our allies reject that. I know the vast majority of Americans reject that. We must be willing to pay the price of time and effort to reverse the course of ethnic cleansing. The benefits will be far greater and last much longer than the costs.

And day by day, night by night, our air campaign is succeeding. The pilots are doing a magnificent job. Mr. Milosevic is systematically losing his armed forces. NATO air strikes are destroying ever-increasing numbers of tanks, armored vehicles and artillery. We have eliminated 80 percent of Serbia's modern fighters, most of its ability to produce ammunition, all its capacity to refine fuel, much of the rest of its military economy.

Mr. Milosevic, in turn, has not eliminated the insurgent Kosovar Liberation Army. Their ranks are growing, and the longer he holds out, the more vulnerable he leaves his forces to the KLA's growing attacks.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs of disaffection in Serbia: soldiers abandoning their posts, civilians protesting, young men avoiding conscription, prominent citizens calling on Milosevic to accept NATO's conditions. There is a clear choice before the Serbian leader. He can cut his losses now and accept the basic requirements of a just peace, or he can continue to force military failure and economic ruin on his people. In the end, the outcome will be the same.

This week, we are deploying an additional 68 F-16s and F-15s to join the mission. We now have planes flying at all hours from every direction, from bases in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, the United States, and from carriers at sea. If we have the patience and determination to match the courage and skill of our men and women in uniform, we will achieve our goals. (Applause.)

A second reason we have pursued this strategy is that it enables us to pursue our goal in a way that preserves the unity of NATO's 19 democracies. We must maintain the solidarity between the United States, Canada and Europe that has been vital to our past and is vital to our future security. And I am confident we will.

A third important reason is to meet our goals in a way that strengthens, not weakens, our fundamental interest in a long-term positive relationship with Russia. Russia is now working with us on a solution that meets our requirements. We hope Russian troops will participate in the force that keeps the peace in Kosovo, just as they have done so well in our joint efforts in Bosnia.

A fourth element is to prepare now for the difficult task of returning refugees to Kosovo and implementing the peace there. Yesterday, NATO approved the outlines of KFOR, the force that will deploy to Kosovo once the conditions are met. Approximately 50,000 troops will take part in this effort. Our European allies will provide the vast bulk of them, but America will also contribute, and we should.

Today, I am announcing my decision to provide about 7,000 of these troops for Kosovo, about 15 percent of the total force. The leading elements and headquarters are already in Albania and Macedonia, ready to deploy to Kosovo within a few hours to oversee the safe return of the refugees. The additional NATO forces required are beginning to move to the region.

Finally, this strategy will enable us to put in place a plan for lasting peace and stability in the Balkans, when Mr. Milosevic is stopped and the ethnic cleansing is reversed. For that to happen, the European Union and the United States must be far-sighted. We must do for Southeastern Europe what we did for Western Europe after World War II, for Central Europe, for Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and others after the Cold War. We must give them a positive path to a prosperous, shared future; a unifying magnet more powerful than the pull of hatred and destruction which threatens to tear them apart.

It is simply not true, as some have alleged, that the Balkan region has always been and always will be torn apart by ethnic and religious strife and violence; that they are somehow genetically predisposed to that. It isn't true. History does not support that conclusion. And today, the efforts of Romania, Hungary and Slovakia to resolve their minority problems peacefully show that if leaders are responsible, and if people have a positive future to work for, then they can live together and resolve their differences.

Europe and the United States can and should support efforts to increase economic growth, trade and investment, to strengthen democratic governments and institutions, to help the nations of the region join the European Union and NATO. We should also include Serbia in this effort if, but only if, it practices democracy, respects human rights, and has leaders who uphold the basic standards of human conduct.

So I say again, why are we Kosovo? Because we have a moral responsibility to oppose crimes against humanity and mass ethnic and religious killing and cleansing where we can. Because we have a security responsibility to prevent a wider war in Europe, which we know from our two world wars would eventually draw America in at far greater cost in lives, time and treasure.

Why are we pursuing this particular strategy of massive bombing and diplomacy? Because it gives us the best chance of achieving all our objectives in Kosovo: First, the return of Kosovars with security and self-government, withdrawal of Serb forces and the deployment of the international security force with NATO at its core. Second, to maintain allied unity. Third, to continue cooperation with Russia. Fourth, to maximize our capacity after the conflict is over to build a progressive, democratic, multi-ethnic Balkans region that will contribute to our economic growth as a world society and our security progress, not be a constant drain on our economy and a constant threat to our security.

Why have we refused to close other doors and other options? Because we are determined to prevail. We are in Kosovo for the same reason you are here -- some things are worth fighting for: A future with a great alliance between the United States and Europe standing strong. A future not dominated by massive killing of innocent civilians because of the ethnic or racial heritage they were born with, or the way they worship God. A future in which leaders cannot keep, gain or increase their power by teaching their young people to hate or kill others simply because of their faith or heritage. A future in which young Americans who set out from this academy to serve our country will not have to fight in yet another major European conflict

That is the future we want you to have. That is the future we want your children to inherit.

I thank you for your willingness to contribute to that future. I thank you for your dedication to your country.

Good luck to you all, and Godspeed. (Applause.)

END 11:50 A.M. MDT



What's New - June 1999

Budget Surplus

Oval Office Address to the Nation

BBC Interview

Whiteman Air Force Base Personnel

Press Availability Remarks

President Arpad Goncz of Hungary


United States Air Force Academy Commencement Ceremony

Kosovar Refugees

Presentation of the Commander-in-Chief Trophy

Congressional Gold Medal for Rosa Parks

Budget, Energy Efficiency, and Kosovo

Gun Legislation

ABC's Good Morning America Interview

International Labor Organization Conference

Breakfast for Congressman Rahall

Disability Employment Awards Ceremony

Conference on Mental Health

President Chirac

American Community

Children, Violence and Marketing

Taped interview by Russian TV

Modernizing Medicare

Wolf Blitzer, CNN Late Edition

University of Chicago Convocation Ceremonies

People of Albania

National Association of Theater Owners

Kosovar Refugees at Stenkovich I Refugee Camp

Civil Rights Roundtable

KFOR Troops

Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center

Operation Allied Force Troops


World Champion New York Yankees Event

Presidential Scholars

Press Conference

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