Condemning the intransigence of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, Mr Clinton said yesterday: "If he will not make peace, we are willing to limit his ability to make war over Kosovo. We will limit his ability to win a military victory and engage in ethnic cleansing and slaughter innocent people." Mr Clinton said that, "like any other military action, there are risks in it".
He was addressing an audience of civil servants in Washington in a speech that had been planned to deal with pension reform, but which was rewritten to incorporate an explanation and defence of US policy in the Balkans.
Couched at times in the language of an elementary textbook, the speech was a clear attempt by the President to counter criticism that he had not justified intervention in Kosovo as being in US interests. The speech was broadcast live by all the main US cable news channels.
While preparing the American public for new military intervention overseas, Mr Clinton was faced with a host of dilemmas about its timing. Republicans in Congress, especially in the Senate, were strongly resisting the use of military force over Kosovo.
The expected arrival in Washington of the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, also contained the seeds of an embarrassing diplomatic rift. However, the visit was cancelled after the Russian Prime Minister ordered his aircraft to turn round in mid-air and return to Russia. "He just turned his plane round in mid-atlantic?" a reporter asked the White House spokesman, Joe Lockhart. "That is correct," Mr Lockhart said. Mr Primakov had already expressed his opposition to any use of force by Nato before he left Moscow and during a stopover in Ireland.
US military action threatens the work of the international peace-keeping operations in former Yugoslavia - to which Russia contributes - and the concept of the "Partnership for Peace". This programme was designed to foster co-operation between Nato and states along the periphery of the alliance, including Russia.
It would also endanger the image of East-West peace and unity that the US wants to project at next month's celebrations in Washington for the 50th anniversary of Nato. The recent accession of the three new Nato members was held outside Washington and kept low-key so that next month's Nato anniversary did not offend Russian sensibilities by appearing "triumphalist".
Authorising Nato air strikes during US-Russian discussions about the anniversary arrangements could jeopardise the whole project.
In the event, the threatened congressional revolt turned out to be the least of Mr Clinton's difficulties yesterday.
After an hour-long meeting at the White House - the second in a week - Republican leaders said they would reluctantly support military action and abandoned a motion that would have required the administration to obtain congressional approval first.
Trent Lott, Republican majority leader in the Senate, said that he was preparing to reword a motion opposing military involvement to express mere "reservations" but also support for US troops. "I am going to support the air strikes," said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who had been one of the most forthright opponents.
And Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas told reporters: "Many of us disagree with the policy, but I think it becomes a different issue when action is imminent."
"Imminent" was reportedly how Mr Clinton described the likelihood of Nato air strikes. That the decision had been taken at least in principle was confirmed by Pentagon sources who made known that, following the failure of Mr Holbrooke's last-ditch pleas to the Yugoslav president, "the countdown to air strikes has begun".Reuse content