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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, September 20, 2002 (Full transcript)

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. The President began his day this morning with a phone call to Prime Minister Balkenende of the Netherlands. The two spoke for approximately 15 minutes. They discussed the situation in Iraq. The President thanked President Balkenende for the Netherlands' strong support as expressed in a recent speech that was given to the United Nations by Netherlands.

The President also this morning called President Putin, of Russia. The two spoke for approximately 30 minutes. They discussed the situation in Iraq. The President talked about the need to make certain that the United Nations pass resolutions that are firm, that accomplish the goals of disarmament and don't let Iraq avoid responsibility.

Following the meeting, the President met with a group of Republican governors who are in town visiting Washington. And then the President had a meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Defense Minister in the Oval Office. During that meeting, the two discussed -- or the three discussed the ABM treaty, the situation in Georgia, as well as the situation in Iraq.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Do you know why [the President] was encouraged? Specifically what gave him reason for encouragement?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you know, the President is confident that the ultimate outcome of what the action that will be taken in the United Nations. The President just cannot imagine the United Nations making the same mistake twice. The President cannot imagine the United Nations again allowing an inspection regime that will not allow the world to know that Saddam Hussein is disarmed.

The President thinks that would be a grave mistake, and that's something the President does not think the world would do.

QUESTION: Well, let's try one more time. Did the President find any change, however subtle, in the Russian position as publicly expressed?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can only, again, describe to you what the President said in the course of these meetings. In the meetings with the Foreign Minister and Defense Minister of Russia, the President talked about how the status quo was not acceptable; that what the objective was is to make sure that Saddam Hussein has destroyed the weapons that he has.

I can also tell you that in the course of the meeting, the President cited what took place on September 11th, and the President reminded the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministers that the oceans that used to divide the United States from the world no longer protect our country the way they used to. He said that it's come home to America, and he cited his responsibility to make certain that he protects the American people, and people around the world, so, as President Bush said, we can make the world a more peaceful place. That's what the President said in his meeting with the ministers.

You heard Igor -- the Foreign Minister, when he left the White House, Igor Ivanov walk out to the driveway, and he said that the Russians have agreed to exchange views on how to make the inspectors more effective. So you heard that yourselves.

QUESTION: Yes, but this isn't about inspections, I understand. I hear it's about disarmament.

MR. FLEISCHER: The point being how to make inspectors more effective, so that we know that disarmament has taken place.

QUESTION: You didn't say that.

QUESTION: And you mentioned that the President wants a firm resolution, one that doesn't let Iraq avoid responsibility. Does that mean that the President is seeking, in this resolution, authorization to use force if Iraq does not comply?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, I'm not going to get into the specific language; this is still something that is being discussed privately among the diplomats on the Security Council. And I think it's important to allow them the opportunity to do their work. And the exact language will be a continued point of discussion.

But the point the President is making is he wants to make certain that it is different from the past. Why would anybody want to support doing the same thing all over again? What good did it do for the world for the last ten years? And that's the point the President is making.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds, if I may, like there's agreement -- as the Russian Minister said -- on inspections, trying to find the answer quickly and thoroughly -- and maybe disagreement on what the United States is seeking authorization to use force if there is noncompliance.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Foreign Minister Ivanov said that he would like to continue exchanging views on how to make weapons inspections more effective. Is it the position of the administration that this might reflect a greater openness from Russia, in terms of perhaps tougher inspections, or a U.N. resolution that would reflect some changes?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, there really is nothing new I can add beyond what I shared with you on what the President said in these meetings. The President stressed in the meetings the importance of making certain that the United Nations doesn't make the same mistake twice, and that it's important to have a different type of inspection -- one that is effective, one that will make certain that Iraq has disarmed.

That's what this is about. This is not about inspections, this is about disarmament.

QUESTION: And does the President plan on speaking with Chinese officials, as well?

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, we'll keep you as routinely updated as I can on all the phone calls the President makes. He has completed his foreign phone calls for today. He has made the two that I mentioned.

QUESTION: Ari, U.N. officials are saying that it might take from nine months to a year for the weapons inspectors, assuming they get full cooperation, to assess the state of Saddam's compliance. Is that kind of a timeline comfortable? Are U.S. officials, and/or the President, comfortable with that kind of projected timeline?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this is another illustration of why the focus, in the President's judgment, needs to be on the resolution the United Nations is going to pass, as well as the importance of destruction of weapons. The inspection process is not the end result of what the President is focused on. The end result is destruction of weapons, and we'll see what the United Nations does when it votes.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Okay. Now, on the question I wanted to ask -- China, France and Russia are not in support of an attack on Iraq. And some are saying that the United States military is already stretched thin because of protecting the United States against terrorism, as well as fighting in Afghanistan. If America does not get support militarily from China, Russia and France, how thin will the United States be in fighting this war against Saddam?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, taking your second question first, it's been made very clear, and similar questions were put to Secretary Rumsfeld and others who have testified up on the Hill, there is no question that the United States has the ability to deal with more than one threat around the world at one time. No question about it whatsoever.

On your first point, again, these nations have not spoken yet. The speaking of these nations, or the final declarations of these nations will take place in a vote of the Security Council. And the President has begun a process that he knew would not be an overnight process, that would be a process that would take some time. And that time is -- we're in the middle of that time right now, as the consultations and discussions continue.

QUESTION: So, in essence, what I'm getting, the United States can go it alone, they don't need China, Russia or France?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think we will find out what happens when these nations vote at the United Nations. This remains still a test of the United Nations' relevance, to see if they intend to enforce the resolutions that they've passed. So I think you're a little hasty in your judgments about where these three countries are.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, what incentive is the President using to try and get Russia's support for a strong Security Council resolution? Is he offering to pay Russia the $7 billion or $8 billion Iraq owes?

MR. FLEISCHER: The incentive the President is offering is logic and a straight, direct, from-the-heart talk about the risks that Russia faces and the rest of the world faces, and in addition the American people face, from Saddam Hussein and his relentless quest for weapons of mass destruction. That's what the President stresses in his phone call with President Putin, as well as in his meetings today with the Defense and Foreign Minister.

QUESTION: But is the U.S. making any commitments concerning those Iraqi debts to Russia?


Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: The President's -- the phone call with President Putin and his talks with the two Ivanovs, did they talk about the details of how to make the inspections more effective? Or merely that they need to be effective?

MR. FLEISCHER: They did not get into details of how to make it more effective. I think these are some of the discussions that are taking place at other levels, including at the United Nations.

Break in Press Briefing

QUESTION: Ari, two questions. First, this week marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, 1,700 Palestinians were killed. And Ariel Sharon was found by an Israeli commission of inquiry to be personally responsible for that event. Also the 20th anniversary of the slaughter in Hama, Syria, of 20,000 Syrians by the Assad regime. And my question is, why aren't we seeking regime changes in those two countries, given the nature of those leaders?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I said yesterday that no nation, no nation on earth is like Iraq. And that's why the United Nations has spoken out as often as it has and as repeatedly as it has for more than a decade about asking Iraq to comply with the U.N. resolutions that have been passed, and they have failed to do so. No nation represents a threat to peace on earth the way Iraq does, because of its attempt to get weapons of mass destruction, and because of its militaristic recent history, where it has shown a willingness and an ability to invade its neighbors and attack its neighbors. No other nation is like that. And so I reject any other comparisons to those nations.

QUESTION: Well, if I could follow up, Israel itself has reportedly 20 to 40 nuclear weapons. So it has weapons, and its leader -- the current leader has been found personally responsible for slaughter in Lebanon.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I don't think you can compare any other nation on earth to Iraq. I think any comparison is faulty.