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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 11, 2003

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:38 P.M. EST

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. The President is engaged again today in a very busy day of telephone diplomacy with heads of state. He began his day with a phone call to the President of Angola dos Santos. The two consulted about the situation in Iraq. The President appreciated the opportunity to talk to President dos Santos about this. Their consultations are good, and I anticipate that the President will continue his consultations with other leaders in many phone calls that you will get this afternoon.

The President has not at this time made additional phone calls, so I will have a report for you later in the afternoon about the other phone calls the President is making, which will include other members of the Security Council and other nations, as well.

With that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q Did the President today meet with Secretary Rumsfeld or Myers?

MR. FLEISCHER: He did.

Q What was that -- and Wolfowitz?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has had for a considerable amount of time weekly briefings with several members of the Cabinet, where individuals in the Cabinet come in to talk to him about whatever is on their agenda. I have no report for you on the meeting. It was a private meeting. Presumably, the topic of Iraq would have come up. But that's part of the meeting.

 

Q Who all was in the meeting besides the three I mentioned?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't have a complete list of who all was in the meeting.

 

Q And you're saying it's routine for those three officials to meet with the President once a week?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The Secretary of Defense will come here on a periodic basis -- actually, a regular basis, about once a week, to meet with the President. And the Secretary often brings different people with him.

 

Q Can you substantiate the credibility of the President's statement that Iraq is capable of, or direct an imminent attack on the United States? And I have a follow-up.

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The President does believe that Iraq is a direct threat to the United States as a result of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological and chemical weapons.

 

Q Aimed at the U.S.?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly, the fact that we have a presence in the region means American military men and women, American allies are targets. And even without a buildup, we have American forces in the region that could be targets of such attack.

 

Q They haven't done anything in 12 years. Do you mean our people, the 250,000 troops we've put there now?

MR. FLEISCHER: In addition to the troops that are there now, there are the American forces that were in place prior to the buildup. There are our friends and our allies who are there. And the question is, does Saddam Hussein, in violation of Resolution 1441, have weapons of mass destruction? The answer is, yes.

Q My follow-up is, do you think there is any world leader who thinks that Iraq is going to attack the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: There are many world leaders who agree that Iraq must disarm, that Iraq is a threat, not only to the United States, but to other nations in their neighborhood. And that's why --

Q But the neighbors aren't even complaining, they're not even thinking of that.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think, as you noticed, there have been reporting about several of the neighbors supporting United States efforts rather strongly. And so, I think the facts are just the opposite of what you suggested, Helen.

Q On the diplomacy, several of the undecided nations have proposed, informally, a 45-day extension of the March 17th deadline. What's your read on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thinks that there is a little room for a little more diplomacy, but not much time. Any suggestion of 30 days, 45 days is a non-starter.

Q All right, so it's not 30 to 45 days, but there's a little more room, somewhere in between?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's not much time. It's not much time, and I would not say it's in between. The President -- we are still in an important diplomatic phase in New York. The consultations with our allies are ongoing, and they are important. The resolution, as amended, is not set in stone, and the conversations are productive. The President has encouraged this diplomacy to take place. But what the President has said is that there is room for a little more diplomacy, but not a lot of time to do it. The vote will take place this week.

Q And as part of that diplomacy, is the President willing to accept this notion of benchmarks, specific tests for Iraqi compliance being built into this resolution?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say that the ultimate outcome of the diplomacy is unknown at this moment, in terms of what the exact language will be of the amendment that is put forward for a vote. That's the topic of the diplomacy that's underway now.

Q And one more. The French President has now said, whatever happens, France will vote no. What is the impact of that attitude and potentially that action on French-U.S. relations, and more broadly on the prospect of this President or other Presidents going back to the Security Council on a matter that could affect U.S. national security, with France potentially playing this game?

MR. FLEISCHER: When it comes to the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, it is too risky to have a laissez-faire attitude about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. This is a real problem, because the resolutions at the United Nations called for immediate and full disarmament. If the U.N. does not enforce the resolution, the message to Iraq will be one of laissez-faire, that it is okay to have the weapons you have because whatever happens, there will be no veto. That's a problematic formulation.

Q Does it have long-term impacts on France-U.S. relations?

MR. FLEISCHER: Bill.

Q There's now a widespread perception that the only way you're going to get this is by getting nine votes, but getting vetoed. Is the U.S. intent on getting nine votes to prove that you could do it if only the French or Russia -- Russians wouldn't veto it? Does this demonstrate some morally superior position?

MR. FLEISCHER: This remains an important matter for the United Nations Security Council and its 15 members, to take a stand on whether resolutions at the U.N. are to have meaning. I do think it matters whether or not the other members of the Security Council support immediate disarmament, and they will have their opportunity to do so in the form of a vote.

So this remains an important test of the United Nations Security Council, and a chance for these nations to show that, while they serve as rotating members of the Security Council, they stand for giving resolutions meaning and impact.

 

Q Do you really think that that gives you the same authority that a vote without a veto would?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has said that one way or another Saddam Hussein will be disarmed. His preference is to do it through the United Nations Security Council. This gives these nations an opportunity to say that, despite a veto, the United Nations Security Council spoke.

 

Q Ari, while this is going on, the economy is in shambles. Does the President believe that this would be a short war, and that investor confidence, let's say, in the markets would return in short order, after conflict? Because, otherwise, what is he prepared to do about the fact that his tax cut is stalled and getting little attention in Congress, and the fact that there's a looming deficit and tremendous potential liabilities for the U.S. to be engaged overseas in Iraq and other places after this conflict?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: Despite the drama of the question, one, the economy is not in shambles --

 

Q Well, I think that a lot of Americans think that the economy is in pretty dramatic shape.

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The economy, I think you described it as in shambles. Of course, the economy grew by just under 3 percent in 2002, which was an increase from the recession of 2001. In fact, the latest data showed that while the economy remains growing slowly, that growth for the 4th quarter actually was twice the amount it was previously estimated to be.

 

The President is indeed very concerned, though, about the strength of the recovery and wants to make certain that the recovery continues. The best way to approach this is through Congress taking action. And again, I don't think it's accurate to say that it is stalled. In fact, just this week the markups are scheduled to begin in the House and then into the Senate on the President's budget, as the House Budget Committee takes up and marks up its budget resolution. That is scheduled to happen just this very week. The Ways and Means Committee has already held hearings on it. And so, actually, last year the Senate, under different leadership, failed to even pass a budget. Already this year, Congress is moving, smartly and on time, to pass budgets. So I think progress is being made, and the President is encouraged by what he's seeing.

 

Q So you're saying -- let's get you on the record on this -- that his vision for stimulus is the tax cut; you think that that's really moving through Congress at a pace that will deliver the kind of stimulus to the economy that is necessary?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. Certainly, when you compare it to the past, there's no question about it, when you take a look under the way Congress always moves, at the speed at which Congress moves They have until April 15th to pass a budget resolution; they're moving already here, early March, on the committee structure to pass a budget. The contrasts dramatically with last year in the Senate, a failure to even do the basic blocking and tackling of passing a budget, or even passing the appropriation bills.

 

So there is a different situation in the Congress this year under new leadership. The agenda is moving forward. And in 2001, for example, the tax cut was passed and enacted into law at one of the earliest dates ever, which was Memorial Day 2001. That, of course, is some three months from now, two months from now.

 

Q Can you just address the first point, which is, does the President expect that any conflict would be short, and therefore, there would be a run-up in investor confidence? Is that what he is counting on?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has not made any predictions in the event that he authorizes force about what the length would be. Of course, plans are made and you hope for the best, you plan for the worst. But I have not heard the President make any prediction. But there's no question that the potential of war has created uncertainty in the market. It has frozen investments. And the President is cognizant of that. Any decision he makes will be made on the basis of national security. But there's no argument about that.

 

Q Ari, there are some reports that President Putin or the Russian Foreign Minister are going to come and see Bush. Do you have anything on that? And I have a follow-up.

 

MR. FLEISCHER: I do not. That's the first I've heard of that.

 

Q Would a Russian veto in any way jeopardize Bush's support for lifting Jackson-Vanik for Russia?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: I've not heard any ties the President has made about any issues facing Russia, what he might do on a vote. Forgive the cell phone violation.

 

Dick.

 

Q Ari, are there any inducements, financial or otherwise, being offered, sought or discussed with the nations whose votes the President is seeking on the Security Council?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: As I've repeatedly said, every conversation the President has had with anybody on this topic, the entire focus is on diplomacy, logic, the need to disarm Saddam Hussein. And that's in both directions. Those are the types of conversations that are had with the President, as well.

 

Q But outside of the specific discussions that he's having with the other leaders, are these nations, through other channels, asking for or being offered anything --

 

MR. FLEISCHER: There's nothing that anybody has brought to my attention, that I'm aware of, Dick.

 

Q Putting aside the effect on the United Nations, what would the effect on the United States be if this resolution doesn't get nine votes?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's already plain to see that the American people are growing increasingly impatient with the United Nations on this issue. And it's important for world bodies to be effective. It's important for the United Nations to have the support and the goodwill of the American people, based on merit and based on action. I think that when you take a look at recent history, you'll see that when it came to saving lives in Rwanda, when you see the issue of saving lives in Kosovo, the United Nations Security Council sat on the sidelines. And so, I can't predict what the American people will think and feel in all instances. I think that's an accurate summary of what the American people think now.

Q So, putting aside the impatience of the American people, is there any effect or impact or result for the United States, or for the administration, if the result -- if the resolution didn't get nine votes?

MR. FLEISCHER: Just as the President said that it's important for the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations to be relevant, to be effective, I think the American people ask themselves the same questions. I can't predict what their answer will be. I think it will be different for different people, but I think there is a large sense in the country that the United Nations Security Council is not the first institution to be looked to to maintain peace, given the way that they did not do it in Rwanda, did not do it Kosovo, and we'll see if they're able to enforce the resolutions here with Iraq and disarmament.

Q Ari, much has been made about credibility -- Iraq's credibility, the U.S. credibility, the U.N. credibility. In the last couple of days, senior administration officials, including Secretary Powell and Dr. Rice, have said March 17th is the final deadline for Saddam Hussein to comply. Now you're saying there might be an extension, even if it's just a little bit of room.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I don't think that's quite fair to the statements that I -- I know that many people in this room -- I'm not sure if you were there at some of the briefings -- have said when they were asked about the March 17th date, is there any flexibility on the date? And the answer is always the same, and that was the importance of diplomacy, continued conversations. I've indicated today, a little time. I haven't said anything specifically on it. And that's a sign that the diplomacy is continuing, and we want it to be successful. But -- so there's no statements about -- and I've repeatedly said they're not set in stone. So I'm not sure that's a fair characterization of those officials.

Q Some senior administration officials have said March 17th is the final chance for Saddam Hussein to disarm. Is there any concern that Iraq would perceive this as an erosion of U.S. credibility at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would strongly encourage Iraq not to come to any conclusions about American credibility and America's intent to disarm Saddam Hussein, along with a coalition of the willing, as a result of any of the ongoing diplomacy. That would be a grave mistake for Iraq to make.

Q And what is the state of play in Turkey?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The situation in Turkey remains pending. We continue to wait to hear from Turkish officials about any actions they may be able to take.

 

Q There are no indications that they might reopen the issue to Parliament about troops on Turkish soil?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, it remains a matter for Turkish officials to settle on, decide, and to move forward with.

 

Q Ari, to get back to your answer to Helen's question about Iraq posing a threat to Americans and American interest. Why isn't that even more the case with North Korea, which we know possesses nuclear weapons? And have we heard back from them on our protest yesterday about the air intercept?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: They were demarched yesterday up in New York, as a result of the intercept. And the demarche speaks for itself. Typically, after a demarche, you don't hear back. The protest is delivered. That has been the practice, particular with the North Koreans.

 

But the issue is they present threats to peace as a result of their development of nuclear weapons. The question is, what is the best response to it; what is the most effective means to stop their production of nuclear weapons, their desire to obtain nuclear weapons in North Korea. There, there's a difference between how the President thinks Iraq should be treated, versus North Korea, because he thinks it will be more effective to pursue diplomacy with North Korea because of the interest of the regional states that can help bring pressure on North Korea.

 

In Iraq, diplomacy was tried; it didn't work. Containment was tried; it didn't work. Sanctions were tried; it didn't work. Smart sanctions were tried; it didn't work. Limited military strikes were tried; they didn't work. That's the difference between North Korea and Iraq.

 

Q On the question of the deadline, could you straighten out something for me? I mean, initially when we introduced it on the 7th, we said the deadline was 10 days. That would have been the 17th. But the resolution has not yet been put to a vote. Is it a 10-day deadline from the time it is passed, or from the day you first started talking about it?

MR. FLEISCHER: The amendment to the U.N. resolution called for a March 17th date, which was based on 10 days from the day it was first proposed. So that is based on that 10-day formulation. As I indicated, there is diplomacy underway. There is not a lot of time and a lot of movement available, but there is diplomacy underway. That's the state of play.

Q But if it were passed, say on Thursday or Friday, whenever it was passed, from that --

MR. FLEISCHER: There would not be a new 10-day clock, no.

Q So the clock is already running. So if it's passed on Friday, the deadline would be Monday, and that's it, so it would be a three-day window?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm not in a position to give you every detail of a possible outcome that is at this moment not yet known. As I say, there is diplomacy underway. I cannot predict what the exact outcome of the diplomacy would be.

Q On the U-2 issue today. How do you regard what happened this morning with two U.S. U-2 flights going up? What does the U.S. make of that?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm looking into it. I saw the AP report about it. And it talked, of course, about this is Defense Department, so anything dealing with operations or anything military you need to talk to DOD about.

Q What about the Iraqi expression of surprise and concern that two U-2 flights were going off at the same time? Does that concern anyone?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, under resolution 1441, Iraq is required to unconditionally and in an unrestricted manner accept all the terms of UNMOVIC.

Q Does the President or the White House have any concern that the U.S. is -- that the British resolve has begun to weaken some on Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President views Britain as being a stalwart ally and partner in trying to resolve this peacefully. And the more pressure that can be brought on Iraq, the greater chances that this could be resolved peacefully. And that has certainly been the case under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Q Is it your sense, though, that the escalating conflict -- the debate over what to do within the U.N. has weakened Tony Blair?

MR. FLEISCHER: No. I think the moment will come when nations at the Security Council will raise their hands, and there will be allies with the United Nations and England in this endeavor. If the moment comes and a coalition of the willing is assembled because the Security Council was met with a veto, then I think there will be a broad coalition of many nations that speak many languages, all working shoulder to shoulder to disarm Sadam Hussein. And that's a reflection of the will of the international community, which England plays its part, and does so in a way that demonstrates leadership.

Q There is a letter sent to the President yesterday by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and I quote, says, "We wish to express our concern and deep disappointment with the tactics your administration has employed to pressure the Mexican government to support the U.S. position on Iraq in the United Nations Security Council. And it continues, saying, "Such tactics are particularly offensive to many Hispanic Americans and constitute a poor foreign policy that only serves to alienate our Latin American allies and undermine U.S. credibility around the world." Your reaction.

MR. FLEISCHER: One, the letter -- unless you don't have it there -- there is no mention of what the specific charge is, what the tactics are.

Q It says, veiled threats, such as suggesting that Americans could boycott Mexican goods and services.

MR. FLEISCHER: It's nonsense. No one said it. And this is a letter -- by the way, is the letter signed by any Republicans, or is it one party only?

Q It's signed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair and --

MR. FLEISCHER: Is it a bipartisan letter, or is it one party only?

Q It's one party only.

MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously it's not representative of any bipartisan thinking on this matter, and does not provide any support or evidence for the claim they make about such a threat. There have been no such discussion in the administration. So I think before somebody puts pen to paper to suggest that there is any type of statement made, they should have facts at their disposal and not engage in such inventions.

Q There is no pressure, then, from the U.S. government to any -- Chile or Mexico, for example?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, this is, as I indicated, a matter that all nations, as they talk to each other -- when we receive new comments from other nations and as the President talks to other nations, it's about diplomacy, it's about disarmament. I have not seen any suggestion from any members of the Security Council back to the President that would support such statements, or in the other direction, from the President to such nations.

Q Ari, over the last weekend, we saw the French Foreign Minister go out and engage in some personal diplomacy with heads of state in Africa, members of the Security Council. Does the President feel as though his telephone diplomacy is effective enough, and he doesn't need any -- you don't need any real personal diplomacy by Secretary of State Powell or anybody else to go out and do something?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I think different nations have different tactics. I don't think this is going to be settled as a result of who has the most frequent flyer miles. I think this is going to be settled on the basis of how member states decide for themselves, after numerous forms of consultation, how to vote up in New York. That's what this will come down to.

Q Ari, going back to what Jim was asking before, do you regard the interception of these U-2 flights as another example of Iraqi noncompliance?

MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly under 1441, there are no questions Iraq is compelled, is bound to comply fully and immediately. And there are many concerns that we have about whether Iraq is doing that, and I think you saw much of that in the cluster report, as well as any other actions that you may be citing here.

Q Do you think this is a particular example?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I think that on the particular facts -- I saw the wire story, and I'm not prepared to go beyond that yet.

Q Ari, before you were talking about you expected the vote by the end of the week. Could you define what end of the week is? Is that Friday, or is that Sunday?

MR. FLEISCHER: Friday.

Q Friday.

Q Getting back to the cost of the war and any cost in the aftermath, you've said repeatedly that there are too many variables, too many scenarios, to give a cost figure, and that it's more complicated than domestic policy proposals. But last week, the President unveiled a prescription drug coverage plan as part of his effort to revamp and modernize Medicare, and made clear that the funding for that hadn't been determined, hadn't been defined, but would come from the $400-billion figure that he listed in his budget proposal. So there is, at least, a framework. People on the Hill are working off of that framework. There's a clear understanding about what the cost parameters would be, at least for the opening of the debate. That's a fairly major policy initiative, obviously. The President's made clear he thinks that it is. Obviously, Iraq is a fairly major initiative, too. Why, then, can't you provide the same sort of parameters for the cost of the war and after-care in the event that hostilities take place and come to an end?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's some very clear statistical and demographical differences, as well as other differences between the potential for war, and a known program such as Medicare, where you have a defined population that demographers can tell you what number of people are going to turn 65 and be on Medicare. You can, of course, working off of longevity tables, know how long life expectancy is for senior citizens, and know what size the universe is who would get a prescription drug benefit, and make an estimate off of that. What the President did on the issue of Medicare, is attach what he believes is the price to it, that his proposal supports, and he will work with Congress beyond that.

On the question of war with Iraq, if anybody were to suggest that the President, or anybody on the Hill should be able to provide a cap, or a ceiling on the price of defending liberty and freedom, we don't know it. And the rest of the equation is not knowable because it is not like the demographics of a known universe like Medicare. It will depend on the duration of the fight.

Q I raised that example for a couple of reasons: One, it's a high priority for the President, just as the Iraqi crisis is. Two, by your own statements and his statements and the fact sheets distributed at the time, it's an elective and voluntary, participatory thing. So, you can't, in fact, know how many people will participate. So you have various scenarios going forward if certain numbers of people take advantage of what the cost would be in this range --

 

MR. FLEISCHER: There's a crucial estimating difference, and that is there is a long track record for private sector and government estimators to take up what an assumption rate would be, what percentage of people would participate in a government program. For example, we know that under current Medicare plus choice, the amount of people participating is I think roughly 12 percent or so. So these are knowable amounts of information.

 

On the question of war, this will very quickly be decided by the amount of resistance that is met at the beginning of the war. If --

 

Q Well, then, should the Congressional Budget Office not have put forward the figures they put forward, with various scenarios, number of troops involved, length of duration of stay? Should they have not done that?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: This is why the Congressional Budget Office is in a different position. They're in an advisory position. They don't make law, they don't make proposals. Only the President does that when it comes time to submit a supplemental, and he will.

 

Q Can I ask you about your assertion, Ari, that the American people are increasingly frustrated by the United Nations over the Iraq crisis? Have you been doing polling on this?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: I read today's papers.

 

Q So you haven't been doing any polling on it?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: There's a bevy of polls in today's papers that I read. That's the basis for that statement.

 

Q That does not reflect your increasing frustration of how the United Nations is dealing or not dealing with it?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it's an accurate statement of what was read on the news last night, on the TV networks, and was said in the newspapers this morning. I don't think anybody is disputing the accuracy of my interpretation of what we all read today.

 

Q Ari, going back to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as it relates to the Congressional Black Caucus, both groups want a meeting with President Bush, mainly to express their similar views, to exhaust diplomacy through the United Nations. Many of those persons, the members of those two groups feel that it's important the President meet with them because 50 57 percent of the infantry are black and brown, if war were to happen. And they feel that their request is falling on deaf ears. What are your thoughts?

 

MR. FLEISCHER: The use of force the President looks as an issue that affects all Americans. And that's why the President has been meeting with and talks to the congressional leadership in closed session, where he fills in the top leadership on what the latest developments are, including classified information. The President looks at this as a part of the leadership of all Americans. He does not divide on this issue into different groups of Americans.

Q But isn't it saying something, a large contingency, the people they represent, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are going to be fighting in the infantry, the front line, 50 to 57 percent, and the President will not meet with them? I mean, that's -- they're saying, that's --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President regularly meets with members of Congress for a variety of reasons, with people from all kinds of backgrounds. And he is open to hearing messages, and he's heard many before.

Q Two questions. Will the United States provide any evacuation for foreigners or U.N. inspectors to get out of Iraq if they can't do so any other way?

MR. FLEISCHER: Anything operational like that would need to be addressed to the Pentagon or to the appropriate agency, if State were to be involved. I don't know.

Q Do you care to repeat the remarks you made earlier about Congressman Moran's statements?

MR. FLEISCHER: I was asked this morning about a statement that Congressman Moran made. The statement was something along the lines, the Congressman said that the reason or a reason this administration is pushing for war in Iraq is because of the influence of the Jewish community. I think that is an accurate summary of the statement the Congressman made. Those remarks are shocking. Those remarks are wrong. Those remarks are inappropriate. And those are remarks that should not have been said.

Q Ari, getting back to the economy for a minute. You took issue with the characterization that it's in shambles. But if you read the papers this morning like you said, you also know that an increasing number of Americans think it's heading in the wrong direction. If things aren't as bad as you pointed out earlier, why are people starting to feel this way?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is exactly why the President thinks it's important for Congress to pass a stimulus plan, and that's why the President proposed one, because the economy is growing, the economy is recovering, but not as fast as the President would like.

Q The President, in his press conference the other night, cited as a positive development the fact that the North Korea situation is headed to the U.N. Why is that, given the track record of the U.N. on Iraq? And where does that all stand if Iraq doesn't do what the President wants to do --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think in good part what North Korea thinks about anything that may be headed for the U.N. will be determined by what the United Nations does with Iraq. I think that if the United Nations shows North Korea that it passes resolutions it has no meaning to enforce and there is no strength behind, then North Korea will say it does not matter what the United Nations does. So that's why the President would like to see a successful vote in the Security Council on the situation with Iraq.

But the point the President was making is because he does believe that this is a regional issue and a multilateral issue, the United Nations can be and appropriate forum for this to be discussed.

Q Will he continue to pursue that, though, if the United Nations lets him down on Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have not heard anything to the contrary.

Q This is a follow-up to Connie's question. Would you comment on the Democratic leadership silence about the statements of Jim Moran and Nancy Kaptur?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, I have not heard if they've said anything. I would be very surprised if they were silent. I think if they were silent on an issue like this, they would be missing an opportunity to speak out for something that deserves to be spoken out on. I cannot imagine they are silent, in actuality.

Q No statements have been issued by the Democratic leadership.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that would be a real surprise if the Democrat leaders stay silent on something fundamental like this.

Q Ari, just back to the issue of deadlines at the U.N. again. Is the issue of a deadline something which is still up for discussion, or is the matter closed as far as America is concerned?

MR. FLEISCHER: You mean the March 17th deadline?

Q Yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: As I've repeatedly indicated, that there is still diplomacy going on -- I'm not going to define specifically what the diplomacy includes, but I have left a little room here, as I say, that there is diplomacy underway.

Q Yes, two questions. First, a follow-up to my colleague's question on Mexico and Chile. First of all, does the United States expect to count those two votes when the resolution is put to a vote? Only two Latin American countries on there.

And, second, if any one of them or both of them should vote against, would the U.S. government take any reprisal?

MR. FLEISCHER: One is, those nations will speak for themselves, and if they choose to announce their position prior to the vote, that's there prerogative. Otherwise, of course, we'll all find out when the vote takes place. The President has, himself, said that if nations vote against him, he will, of course, be disappointed. But this is a matter of principle and this is a matter of diplomacy.

Q And I had a second question. This has to do with Miguel Estrada. I just saw that the President wrote a letter today to the head -- to Senator Frist and the Democratic Minority Leader, Senator Daschle, asking for -- again mentioning the Estrada case and asking for a new approach to judicial nominations. Is there anything that the White House can do to get this nomination moving again, or will it just be impasse, nobody is going to move?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, today, in a sign of how seriously the administration takes the importance of making progress on judicial nominations and ending the obstruction of Miguel Estrada's nomination. The Vice President went up to a session of the Senate and, in an unusual move, chaired the Senate. A letter was released from the President on this topic.

The President very much thinks it's in American interest to move beyond the cycle of both parties on recrimination and blame on judicial nominees.

 

Of course, this is precedent-setting, and there's never before been a successful circuit court filibuster. This would represent a real change in how the Senate perceives its constitutional responsibilities on advice and consent. This is an important and serious issue; the President hopes that the court -- that the Senate will confirm him to the court.

Q In your reading of the polls today and other -- is there any reason to dispute the contention that Americans are just as frustrated with the way the U.N. is handling Iraq as they are with the way the President is handling the economy? Weren't the numbers pretty similar?

MR. FLEISCHER: I do not remember any of the numbers on the economy, Ron, so I -- most of what I saw in those stories in the paper this morning were about Iraq. If it was deeper into the story I'd have to tell you I read just toward the top of the story.

Q It's in there. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, then, why didn't you ask me about it, bill? I'm shocked.

Q A couple of quick follow-ups to Jim. Did you say that the U.S. is ruling out starting a new 10-day clock from the passage of a new resolution, if, in fact, that happens, that that would be too much?

MR. FLEISCHER: I interpreted the question as formulaic, is it saying that once the resolution is taken up, that starts a 10-day clock. And the answer to that is, no. I have not indicated to you, within the area of diplomacy, whether the March 17th date could move to some other potential date. But I took it as --

Q -- passed as is.

MR. FLEISCHER: The current resolution speaks for itself. The current resolution said March 17th, which happened to be 10 days from the day of introduction when it was discussed. That was the 10-day window.

Q And just another quick follow-up to Dick's question. Are you saying that the President is not getting any estimates as Commander-in-Chief from the Pentagon or from the other departments in his administration as to how much this is going to cost?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, there have been a series of discussions the President has had, and you're well aware of that. But what the President has said is that if conflict begins, if hostilities begin, we will -- because then we will have more knowable information -- send a supplemental up to the Hill at that time.

Q So he's got the information, the estimate, but he's just choosing to keep the American people in the dark about that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Right now there are still discussions underway about exactly what the cost could be.

 

Q Ari.

MR. FLEISCHER: Connie. (Laughter.) I'm sorry, Sarah. Sarah. Sorry about that. Connie, you get a follow-up because I got a name wrong.

 

Q Sarah.

 

MR. FLEISCHER: Sarah.

Q Thank you. Ari, today the Air Force is testing a huge new bomb in Florida. This 21,000-pound bomb is designed to be used to destroy big bunkers and against troops in the field. Is the President willing to use such a devastating weapon if he orders war against Iraq?

MR. FLEISCHER: Sarah, any such questions need to be addressed to the Pentagon. The President is not the person who makes these judgments, the Pentagon reviews this.

Q Ari, you mentioned earlier that there would be no new 10-day clock if the resolution is passed, meaning that the March 17th deadline is pretty hard, given whatever results from the diplomacy.

MR. FLEISCHER: What I indicated -- and this is where Terry's follow-up I think was constructive -- what I was indicating is I took Jim's question to be a formulaic one about is it an automatic 10-day period from the date it is put before the United Nations. My answer to that was, no.

On the date, what I've indicated is we're continuing to talk, there's continuing diplomacy. I cannot give you what a date may or may not be. What the President has said is there's not a lot of time.

Q But if the U.N. Security Council adopts a resolution that sets a new date, the United States can live with that new date?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this is part of the diplomacy that's underway, and we'll see what the date is, if there is a different date. That's part of the diplomacy that's underway.

Q Ari, there are a bunch of airline executives in town, and they're talking about the problems they're having in their industry, and they're talking bankruptcy, and they're -- and some of them are even talking about a possible nationalization of the airline industry, and they're seeking help from the federal government. First of all, do you think the airline industry is in that bad of shape? And secondly, are you all prepared to help with tax breaks and things like that?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President looks at this issue in terms of the entire economy. The President is very concerned about the economy, the various sectors in the economy. But the President thinks the worst thing that could happen to the airline industry is what happened after September 11th. And that's why the President approaches this as how best to protect and defend the country. We will, of course, continue to talk to the airlines about various issues, but that's the President's approach -- is, the best way to protect the country and safeguard against any such costs is to stop an attack on our country, which would be the most devastating of all.

 

Q Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

END