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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 8, 2005

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:56 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. I'd like to begin with an announcement on the President's schedule. The President will welcome King Abdullah of Jordan to the White House on March 15th. The President looks forward to discussing bilateral and regional issues with the King, including Jordan's economic development, the broader Middle East initiative, the global campaign against terrorism, the situation in Iraq, the situation in Lebanon and the search for peace in the Middle East.

The President this afternoon looks forward to welcoming Presidents Clinton and Bush back to the White House, and receiving an update on their trip to the Indian Ocean region, where they toured some of the areas that were devastated by the tsunami that hit the area. The United States is committed to a long-term effort to help the people of the region rebuild their lives and their communities. And the President looks forward to this opportunity to also personally thanking these two leaders for taking on the effort to encourage an outpouring of support from the American people to support non-governmental organizations in the region who are helping those people who are in need.

To date, my understanding is that the estimate is that private sector contributions from the United States is around $1 billion. So we certainly appreciate the efforts of these two leaders to help with those efforts that show the compassion and generosity of the American people.

And with that, I am glad to go to your questions.

Q Scott, how does the President square his calls again today for Syria to get out of Lebanon, with the enormous outpouring of support for Syria on the streets of Lebanon today and calls for the international community to stay out of the internal affairs of Lebanon?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, we are glad to see people peacefully express their views in the town square, as they have done for days now. We hope the Lebanese people will be able to express their view at the ballot box, through free elections, without outside interference and outside intimidation.

Syria's continued presence in Lebanon undermines the aspirations of the Lebanese people to live in freedom. I also noticed today that the flag that was being waved was the Lebanese flag.

Q Right, but it's another side of the story, it would seem, that there is one segment of the Lebanese population who wants Syria to get out, another segment of the population that wants them to stay in; and that the call is for people like the President, for Germany, France, Saudi Arabia to stay out of the process, that it's not their place to be involved in.

MR. McCLELLAN: We want the Lebanese people to be able to determine their own future without any outside interference or outside influence. Syria is a destabilizing force in the region right now because of their actions and their continued support for terrorism and their continued presence in Lebanon. We have seen in the past few weeks large numbers of Lebanese people going out into the town square in Beirut and talking about -- or speaking out in support of freedom. That came on the heels of the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri. And we continue, as the President did earlier today, to join the international community, calling on Syria to comply with Security Council Resolution 1559. It was very clear. It said, the complete and immediate withdrawal of all Syrian forces -- that means military forces and intelligence service personnel.

And our objective is to make sure that the upcoming parliamentary elections in May are free and fair and credible. For those elections to be free and fair and credible, Syria needs to get out.

Q Now, are you absolutely confident that if Syria were to withdraw from Lebanon under the timetable you are suggesting, that Lebanon would be stable enough, security-wise, to be able to conduct these elections without any assistance from the international community?

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, that's something the President has addressed with other leaders. It's the importance of the international community supporting the Lebanese people as they move forward. And when you're talking about some of these forces withdrawing --

Q So could that not be seen as outside interference of a different sort, depending on what your point of view is?

MR. McCLELLAN: We want to make sure that the international community supports the Lebanese people as they move forward to have more control over their own future. And, obviously, those are issues you have to look at.

Q Scott, are you saying that if the people we saw today marching in the streets of Beirut saying that they want -- the pro-Syrian demonstrators, saying that they, perhaps, would like them to --

MR. McCLELLAN: They were waving the Lebanese flag, I might point out.

Q The question is, if those people determine their future, and that determination is that they want to remain connected to Syria and they want to reject what the President is saying, you'll be okay with that?

MR. McCLELLAN: They'll be able to express their views at the ballot box, we hope, come May, when they have the parliamentary elections. We look forward to those parliamentary elections taking place without Syria, or anyone, interfering or trying to influence those elections. We want the will of the Lebanese people to be respected. That's what we've made very clear over the previous few weeks.

Q So when the President said today -- his message to the Lebanese people was, the American people are on your side, he was also talking to the tens of thousands of people out marching against the President today?

MR. McCLELLAN: The international community is on the side of the Lebanese people in their aspirations to realize greater freedom. Absolutely, we stand with the Lebanese people.

Q Scott, today's speech had a little bit of a feel of a victory lap for the President. Does he believe that this administration's policies have ushered in this new wave of freedom in the Middle East? Or does he think there are other factors?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, freedom and democracy advancing in the broader Middle East region is a victory for the people in the region. It's the people who deserve the credit for stepping forward to realize greater freedom. Freedom is on the march in the region. The President talked about that. We're seeing remarkable developments take place in the region. And it's because of the people in the region, because all people aspire to live in freedom. That's a belief the President holds very strongly, and it's a belief that we're seeing proven true because of the people in the region who are stepping forward to insist on democracy and freedom, to insist on more control over their own future.

Q I'm sorry, then why did we have to go to war in Iraq, then, if they were going to take care of this themselves?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we can go back through all those --

Q You sound like you're being a little overly humble here. Is that really what the President believes? Does he believe that this was all, sort of, people power that would have been unleashed at one point or another, or does he believe that war in Iraq was the catalyst here?

MR. McCLELLAN: The Iraqi people are serving as an example for the rest of the Middle East. The people of Afghanistan --

Q But that's not the question, Scott. I understand that's your view, but my question is, what's the catalyst?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're not letting me come to the response. I'm trying to get there.

The Iraqi people are serving as an example to the rest of the Middle East through their courage and determination to defy the terrorists and defy the regime elements who want to turn back to the past. The people of Afghanistan are serving as an example. The Palestinian leaders who are stepping forward to help the Palestinian people realize their aspirations deserve credit for the events that are taking place in the Middle East.

But the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power has been helpful to advancing democracy and freedom in the region. He was someone who brought instability to the region. And it's the Iraqi people who have stepped forward to say, we fully support freedom and democracy and that we do not want to turn back to the past, that we are not going to let the terrorists determine our future. For too long, we excused and tolerated and accommodated the governments in the region because we thought it would lead to stability. And when I say "we," we're talking about -- I'm talking about the international community. Instead, it led to instability and it led to tragedy. We saw the tragedy that it led to here on our own shores on September 11th.

Q In that speech this morning, also, Scott, the President once again said that Iran is trying to shape Iraq's constitution, that Iran is trying to influence the shaping of Iraq's constitution. What specifically is he talking about? Is he talking about financial support for certain politicians or parties, secret agents on the ground? Can you point to something specific?

MR. McCLELLAN: These are conversations the President has had with leaders in the region and that we've had with leaders of the interim government. I think the interim government has spoken to this issue and talked about how Iran is trying to influence the formation of their national assembly. And Iran has made commitments not to do that. They've made a commitment to play a constructive role in Iraq's development on its path to democracy. We want to see Iran live up to that commitment. Iran needs to stop interfering in internal political matters going on in Iraq. We want the Iraqi people to determine their future. The Iraqi people voted for their national assembly, and it's those leaders who should determine the formation of the leadership of that national assembly, the transitional national assembly.

Q The President also said that the Europeans are involved in these negotiations with Iran over Iran's nuclear weapons. Has he now fully endorsed the European desire to offer these economic carrots to Iran -- WTO membership and others?

MR. McCLELLAN: We are continuing to discuss our common strategy with our European friends. The President's recent trip showed that all of us have a common purpose, which is to make sure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. It's important that we work together to develop a common strategy to meet that shared goal, and we're having discussions with our European friends. They are the ones who are leading the diplomatic effort in discussions with Iran. We support those efforts, we want to see those efforts succeed. They have had some ideas that they have been talking about. The President listened to those ideas when he met with leaders from the European -- from those European countries during his European trip.

And I think it's also important to point out, when you're talking about a common strategy -- because that's important to making sure you get to your shared objective -- that if Iran continues its noncompliance, then you have to look at what steps you will take if that happens. And I noticed that Henry Kissinger had an interesting op-ed today in The Washington Post, and it talked about some of the questions that need to be answered as you move forward together to develop a common strategy, and, you know, it reflected some of our views, I think.

Q Then just one more on the region, on Egypt. Human Rights Watch put out a report last week that after the bombing of the Taba Hilton, Egypt rounded up about two thousand suspects, most of whom are still being held incommunicado. Is the United States aware of this? Is the President, his emphasizing democracy and human rights in the region, is he going to stand by and allow for this to happen?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I know we've expressed our views when it comes to Mr. Nour and the fact that we believe he should be released. And when you're talking about opposition leaders, in terms of this specific incident, I'd have to look back at it -- State Department may have previously commented on it, but I'll be glad to take a look at it.

Q Just to be clear on Syria -- why are you giving Syria until May to pull out? I thought you wanted them out immediately?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're saying complete and immediate withdrawal. I think that's what --

Q The President gave them a deadline of May, today.

MR. McCLELLAN: Chancellor Schr der and President Chirac yesterday issued a joint statement saying the complete and immediate withdrawal. That's what the United Nations Security Council Resolution calls for; that's what we want to see. Obviously, you can't have free and fair elections, in the President's view, if Syria continues to have a military and security service presence inside Lebanon. And those elections are coming up very soon here, and that's why it's important that they leave Lebanon now. And that remains our view. They certainly need to be out of there before those elections take place, in order for the elections to be free, fair and credible.

Q So we shouldn't read anything into your change from --

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on, I'll come to you. Dick.

Q Scott, what options are on the table if Syria does not completely withdraw? What kind of pressure can you bring to bear on them to compel them to do this, if they choose not to?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, those are discussions we have with the international community. The President had a good phone conversation with President Chirac yesterday. We're working very closely with the French on this issue. We have been all along. We're working with our other partners, as well. This is an issue the President discussed at length on his trip with many leaders, and so those are issues that you'll talk about with other leaders, about -- if Syria does not live up to the demands of the international community.

Right now we've seen some half-measures taken by the Syrian government. We want to see the complete and immediate withdrawal of all its military forces and intelligence services. And if they don't follow through on their international obligations, then, obviously, you have to look at what the next steps are. But the Lebanese people I think are saying they want to be able to determine their own future. They're out there expressing their views.

Q How do you go about dismantling the Hezbollah, given how much popular support they have? And, also, how much help would the U.S. give the Syrian people and the Iranian people if they try to change their governments?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, our views in terms of Hezbollah are very well known. And in terms of Iran and Syria's continued support for terrorism, the President spoke about that earlier today: they need to end their support for terrorism. That's one of our concerns with those two countries. They need to change their behavior and get on the path that the rest of the Middle East is moving on, toward democratic process -- toward democratic progress.

Q But is the President telling the people of Syria and Iran he will help them, the United States will help them if they change their governments?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are serious -- there are serious concerns we have about Syria and Iran. The President expressed those views earlier today, and those are what his views are. And we are continuing to work with the international community to get both nations to change their behavior and address the concern of the international community.

Q China has passed a law, sort of cocked the trigger on the gun pointed at Taiwan. If Taiwan declares its freedom, then China will invade. What's the reaction to that?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll react -- you're talking about the draft anti-secession law that was outlined today. We view it as unhelpful and something that runs counter to recent trends toward a warming in cross-strait relations. We would call on Beijing to reconsider passage of the law. The draft law that was presented allows for punitive measures directed at Taiwan. We oppose any attempts to determine the future of Taiwan by anything other than peaceful means, and our views are very well known, in terms of our continued commitment to a one China policy that upholds the three communiqu s and does not support Taiwan independence. We oppose any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo, and that is our view.

Q On the distinction that the President made today about the Lebanese elections in May, is there no change in the President's position in terms of immediate and complete withdrawal? Or does May, in fact, provide an additional amount of time? And is the administration convinced that in two months these can be free and fair elections based upon the massive population of Syrian intelligence personnel?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, in fact, this is something the President has said before. We remain committed to -- like the rest of the international community -- to seeing Syrian forces completely and immediately withdraw from Lebanon. The elections are just around the corner, in a couple of months' time. And we want to make sure those parliamentary elections are free and fair and credible. And Syria's presence in the country only undermines the ability of those elections to be free and fair.

Q Is the administration then confident that if Syria does, in fact, get out immediately, as you'd like, that those elections can be free and fair? Or will they require additional observers and some measure --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we believe that there ought to be international monitors to observe the election, and to ensure that those elections are free and fair and credible. We've previously expressed that.

Q Scott, would people in Taiwan who are for independence be fair in regarding President Bush's policies on freedom as hypocritical, because he doesn't support Taiwan's independence?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've always been supportive of what I spelled out, and that's -- that the Taiwan Relations Act -- that's any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by anything other than peaceful means. We believe that there ought to be cross-strait dialogue. There has been some helpful dialogue in recent times. That's why I pointed out that what was drafted -- this law that was drafted and presented runs counter to that. We continue to encourage cross-strait dialogue, but we've been supportive of the people in the region and we'll continue to be.

Q The President's tax cut proposals appear to have gotten a haircut in the Senate Budget Committee today. The Republicans announcing a $70 billion plan, as opposed to what the White House asked for, $100 billion over the next five years. Is that a concern for the President?

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven't seen the action -- you're talking, they've acted in the Senate Budget Committee today?

Q I believe that Senator Kyl announced a plan.

MR. McCLELLAN: I've heard about some preliminary discussions. I think that's what they are at this point, preliminary discussions in the budget process. We're going to continue to work closely with members of Congress on getting a budget resolution that meets the top line that the President outlined that makes sure -- it makes sure that we fund our priorities as well as holding the line on spending elsewhere in the budget. But I think that those are preliminary discussions you've been referring to, and this process still has a little ways to go.

Q Employees of the Office of Special Counsel have filed a complaint against Scott Block, the Director of the OSC. President Bush has been cc'd on the complaint, and a letter has come to him about it. What is he going to do about this? And does he believe that the OSC is able to operate, do its work, in this environment?

MR. McCLELLAN: Haven't seen the complaint, and I'll be glad to take a look at it.

Q One more on Taiwan. When you were calling on the Chinese to be restrained on their actions, would you also state clearly that you do or do not support Taiwan to declare independence, though?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's why I said that we -- what we support is no unilateral change in the status quo. That's what our view is, and that remains our view.

Q On Russia. The Russians have just announced they have killed the secessionist leader, Aslan Maskhadov. First, do you have any independent confirmation of that?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, the last I heard before I came out here, I'd seen the reports, but I did not have any confirmation on those reports at this point. Our views, in terms of the situation, is that we believe it should be resolved through a political process, and that remains our view.

Q How can it be resolved in a political process if the leader of the secessionists have now been killed -- has now been killed? And a number --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I've seen the reports. I don't have confirmation on that. But we've consistently said that when it comes to Chechnya, that it needs to be -- in this situation with Russia, that it needs to be resolved through a political process.

Q I don't -- I don't see the logic there. Why is it different from capturing and killing terrorists in other countries? Why is it different from capturing Saddam Hussein in --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I mean, you're talking about a specific report. I've not confirmed that report. I would want to find out more about the information on this particular report.

Q I'm asking --

MR. McCLELLAN: Obviously, our views on terrorists are very well known.

Q I'm asking about your --

MR. McCLELLAN: We work very closely with Russia in the global war on terrorism.

Q I'm asking about your general approach to the situation. Suppose the report comes true -- suppose the report does not turn out to be true, why do you insist that in this particular instance, the political approach is what should work, whereas in other situations involving Americans themselves, you do not have much regard for political processes, as far as I can see, in Iraq, or maybe some other places?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, again, I don't -- I'm not going to suppose anything. I do not have official confirmation on the reports that I have seen, and I would want to have that first. But we have a longstanding position when it comes to the situation in Chechnya. And our view has not changed. Our view remains that it ought -- there ought to be a political resolution to the situation.

Q I just want to come back to something that you said in describing the paradigm shift towards governments in the Middle East that the President talked about this morning. You seem to suggest that U.S. policy may have at least been partly responsible for the September 11th attacks, and I just want to make sure I heard that right.

MR. McCLELLAN: What I said -- well, the terrorists are responsible for the September 11th attacks. You did not --

Q You said the U.S. policy of supporting these totalitarian regimes gave rise to terrorism, which we saw manifested in the September 11th attacks.

MR. McCLELLAN: The Middle East became a breeding ground for terrorism. I think that that's clear to all people now. The President talked about it in his remarks. It should be clear to everyone that excusing and accommodating tyranny -- or excusing and accommodating -- I should say, excusing and accommodating what was going on in the Middle East where democracy and freedom were not advancing.

Q Right, but you seem to make the connection that policy --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm trying to finish a response.

Q -- may have had something to do with it.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, the terrorists are the ones who are responsible for the attacks on September 11th. They're the ones who are being held accountable for the attacks on the American people. But we saw over the course of time, the President talked about this in his remarks -- or early in his remarks; I would go back and refer you to what he said at the beginning of his remarks -- that this was something that was building for some time, that terrorists, through hopelessness and despair and tyranny, found a breeding ground in the Middle East. And it led to people hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings and killing innocent Americans.

So the policy of excusing and accommodating that, the governments in the region, as the President talked about in his remarks, was designed to bring stability to the region and to the world. And, instead, we've seen that it led to instability and it led to tragedy. And that's why the President believes that the advance of democracy and freedom is so important, because democracy and freedom leads to peace. When people -- when people are free, they respect the people in their own country and they respect their neighbors. So that's what the President was talking about.

Q So is it more the idea, then, that U.S. -- previous U.S. policy turned a blind eye to this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we've talked about it before and we said the fact that we ignored what was going on in the Middle East led it to become a breeding ground for terrorism and outlaw regimes like the one in Iraq. And that's why it's important that we act to advance freedom and democracy in the world because freedom leads to peace.

Q Thank you.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you.

END