|The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 8, 2002
Briefing on Vice President's Trip to Middle East
Background Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the Vice President's Trip to the Middle East
The Roosevelt Room
10:35 A.M. EST
Q I'd like to ask two questions on Iraq which didn't come up. There's a concern in states in the region that if any military action were to come, vis-a-vis Iraq, that it not leave Saddam Hussein in power as a wounded tiger, and it not be prolonged. So my first question is, will you assure them that if military action comes, it will be decisive and relatively short?
My second question is on inspections. There's a school of thought that if the U.S. were the demand that weapons inspectors return to Iraq, that this could strengthen the Bush administration's hand in that if they were frustrated, the U.S. could point to this and it would add to its argument for tough action against Iraq. Other people say this could be a snare and you could get involved in the same cat-and-mouse games the previous administration got involved in. The Bush administration has never really clarified its position on this. Do you think that the weapons inspectors should come back in? And if Iraq somehow was given a clean bill of health on weapons of mass destruction, would you put aside your talk of regime change? Or is regime change so important a goal and is Iraq such a threat that we need to pursue that in any event?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that's a lot of -- (laughter) -- question there. First of all, with respect to inspectors, I'll answer that portion that I want to answer, okay? (Laughter.)
With respect to the inspectors, I think it's important not to fall into the trap of assuming here that the objective is inspectors. The issue is WMD, weapons of mass destruction, and whether or not Saddam Hussein is abiding by U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 that he signed up to, that was adopted back in '91, that specifically says Iraq will get rid of all of its weapons of mass destruction.
The question of inspectors arises only as a means to verify whether or not they're living up to U.N. 687. It's our judgment that they clearly are not living up to 687, that they have not gotten rid of all the weapons of mass destruction. And that was evident, for example, from defectors. Saddam Hussein's own son-in-law came out -- had been in charge of the program and talked extensively about it. So we know they have not eliminated their weapons of mass destruction. We know they have thrown out the inspectors for the last three years, so the concern is their violation of that U.N. Security Council resolution.
When you get into inspectors, I would think any inspection regime that has conditions on it is unacceptable, it doesn't do the job. It has to be the kind of go anywhere, any time sort of inspection regime if the world is going to have any confidence that they've lived up to and are abiding by the U.N. Security Council resolution.
So that's -- the question of inspectors is secondary, and you don't want to get caught up in the notion that an inspection regime solves the problem. In general, it won't, unless people have got total confidence in it, and you're only going to have total confidence in it if it's as robust as possible.
There are those who suggest that our earlier inspections in Iraq were too limited; that the way we learned most of the information that we had back in the early '90 about his programs was from defectors, not from inspectors. So I think we'll approach this question of an inspection regime with a good deal of caution, and make sure that we not fall into the trap of assuming that because it's got the inspection label on it that it somehow solves the problem.
Q And on my first question, on the style of the military operation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I never speculate on military operations.
Q Do you think the nations in the regime are going to want to talk about Iraq at this time, or do you think that your agenda might, to some extent, be hijacked by the Palestinian issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think Iraq will be very much on their minds. I can't remember a time when I've been out there when it hasn't been a factor. So I expect it will be on their minds. They live with -- they live in the neighborhood every day; they see that -- I think they all have legitimate concerns about the regime in Iraq and they're aware of the fact that I think Saddam Hussein continues to represent a threat to the security and stability of the region. I expect they'll all want to talk about it.
Q You said the Israeli-Palestinian issue will come up every stop. Does having Zinni in the region take any of the pressure off to explain the U.S. position? And was that your idea to have him go out there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I certainly supported having him go out there. It's a subject that's been under discussion for some time. As the President said previously, when appropriate he was prepared to reengage Zinni. So that's been an element that's been there. The President made the decision in terms of sending him back, but we all concurred in it. I certainly did; I know Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld did, as well.
Q How does him being in the region impact your meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it -- hopefully, it will provide an opportunity to make some progress to try to get into the Tenet plan. Secondly, I think it's a reaffirmation of the depth of U.S. commitment to try to deal with these issues. The notion that somehow we are not engaged is not a valid one, and Zinni's presence I think will reaffirm that.
Q How will you gauge the success of this trip? Are you looking for specific commitments from specific countries for future action against Iraq and elsewhere on the war on terrorism? Are you looking for increased steps on the measures you described, like law enforcement efforts in the war on terrorism? How will you gauge the tangible successes of this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My experience out here over the years has been that it's not so much a matter of touchdown passes as it's three yards in a cloud of dust. You've got to keep working all of these relationships all the time. And especially when you talk about the war on terrorism, there isn't any one giant victory, so to speak, that solves the problem.
Every time you can enhance the degree of cooperation between our law enforcement agencies and our intelligence agencies and those of the host countries I'll deal with out there, you bring more pressure to bear on al Qaeda. Maybe you wrap up specific individuals, or you are able to take into custody key operational planners or people who are involved as facilitators in terms of moving people and money and providing logistic support. Every time you go in and put the hammer down on the financial assets of an organization that is, in fact, providing funding to the al Qaeda network, that's progress.
And these relationships that we have in this part of the world, it should be clear to everybody by now, are important over a long period of time, and that we need to tend to them on a continuing basis. It's not just a matter of sort of one trip. There's no arms control treaty -- it's not like Nixon going to Moscow in the '70s and signing an arms control agreement, and bingo, everything is resolved. These are important relationships we work on a continuous basis. And that's I think how we'll judge my trip.
Q Would it be wrong for us to assume that you're going to be seeking specific support for a mission against Iraq?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It would be wrong for you to support -- for you to expect that I'm somehow going out to announce that military action is imminent. That would not be appropriate.
Q On that point, obviously you don't want to talk about military action, but clearly, some of these leaders are going to ask you about the next phase of the war on terrorism. How will you explain to them the administration's intentions? What do you anticipate saying to them about the next phase?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pretty much what I've just said. I think it's a matter of reemphasizing what we want to do here. Also, the President is scheduled to make a speech on Monday in which, to some extent, will address some of these issues.
Q But, sir, on that point, do you see -- well, I'll call it, for lack of a better term, maybe a charm offensive -- the Iraqi delegation meeting with the Secretary General yesterday, there certainly are a lot of people who see this stretching out potentially for months. If you have a spring, late spring debate about sanctions in the United Nations, maybe then a delegation goes into Baghdad to negotiate would there be a regime, an inspection regime, would they get kicked out. Is the point of your trip to make clear to these leaders that that process is well and good, but it is secondary, in your words, and the United States will not become hostage to that timetable, if you will, as it debates future fronts?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll do what I just said I would do -- that with respect to Iraq, the President was very clear in his State of the Union speech, concern about their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, they've hosted terrorist organizations such as Abu Nidal in the past -- so we've been very direct about what we perceive to be the threat.
I think one of the things we're seeing now is some evidence that the President's words have had an impact, as well as our actions in Afghanistan. And had an impact in terms of I think those who might consider themselves at risk because they have sanctioned or supported terrorist organizations. I think also maybe encouraged some who might have been on the fence that it's time to sign up and work with the United States in a cooperative way. In other cases, reassured our friends in the region that we're deadly serious, and if you have any doubt about the depth of our commitment, look at Afghanistan and what we did there.
And I will emphasize for my hosts the extent of which we do not anticipate a return to September 10th; that this is a continuing, long-term proposition for us; that we believe the threat to the United States is very real and we intend to do what's necessary in order to ensure that we defend and protect the United States against those kinds of attacks.
I'm going to do one or two more questions and then I'm going to hang it up.
Q First, on the Zinni mission, is not only his return, but then your presence and your meetings signal perhaps more pressure on Israel than has been the case up until now? And related to that, what's different since the Gulf War in the sense that in any effort to build a coalition for what comes next, how is that complicated -- if you could describe how it's complicated by what's happening with the Palestinian issue, and then how do you pivot as a result?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would not take the Zinni mission or my mission out there as any shift or change in U.S. position with respect to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The President addressed that last night out here in the Rose Garden, and I thought it was -- I'm not going to elaborate on it here this morning.
With respect to a comparison with the Gulf War and how things are different out there now, I recognize there's always a great temptation to sort of reach back to recent history for some reference point, to say, well, this is like the Gulf War, or the other day I saw somebody comparing Operation Anaconda and helicopters being struck to Blackhawk Down and Mogadishu in '93. Just a word of counsel and advice -- don't overdue the historical analogies here.
With respect to the Gulf War and the current situation, very different set of circumstances. In 1990, you had Iraq having invaded Kuwait with conventional forces, a very conventional kind of military operation; a major threat to Saudi Arabia and the region; and a response that was appropriate in terms of organizing a coalition and deploying a large conventional military force to go liberate Kuwait.
That was, as I say, a dramatically different set of circumstances from now, where what we're talking about is the threat comes directly against the United States. It comes from a terrorist organization that has its roots or its origin, if you will, in this part of the world; that draws support from the Gulf region and the Middle East, but where we've clearly had a very different kind of military operation -- by what we did in Afghanistan, working with indigenous forces, taking down the Taliban, wrapping up the al Qaeda -- it's a very different kind of military engagement.
Politically, it's different, too, in the sense that the, say, part of our success against al Qaeda, where we could put all of our focus in '91 on defeating Iraqi forces in Kuwait -- now, to be successful in the war on terror, you've also got to be able to marshal your intelligence and financial and law enforcement assets in a lot of other countries around the region, who, through no fault of their own, in many cases, nonetheless, find themselves with al Qaeda cells on their territory, just as the United States had an al Qaeda cell here prior to the attacks of September 11th.
So it's a very different kind of conflict. And the degree to which other nations can contribute now isn't so much in terms of sending troops the way they did in '90 and '91 as it is looking to their own internal situations within their countries and to do everything they can to work with us to eliminate that terrorist threat.
Q Will you be bringing any new plays in order to gain those three yards, either on Iraq or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: New plays?
Q Well, exactly. I mean, are you bringing new proposals, new ideas, anything new to the table on Iraq or the Middle East that we don't know about when you go the these missions? Even if you're not throwing a touchdown pass, are you bringing new ideas?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I were, it probably would be best if I discussed it with our hosts first.
Q The administration has been very direct about the threat that Iraq represents, and also direct about the need for regime change, which raises the question of what next? And as you pointed out, these are people in the neighborhood. The United States has been criticized before for overemphasizing the importance of overseas Iraqi opposition groups who are problematical. Is part of your mission to explore the likelihood and legitimacy of a post-Saddam Iraq? And in particular, what's the administration's position on an independent Kurdish state in the north of Iraq?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You are asking me to start to speculate about prospective future developments. And I'm really reluctant to do that.
One more question.
Q What's going to be your message -- or will you be taking a message to the Saudis regarding their new vision, proposed vision for Middle East peace? Or will you be asking -- what sort of questions may you be asking them, of that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I've known the Crown Prince for some time. I find him to be a thoughtful man who's got a wealth of experience in that part of the world. He's been a good friend to the United States; also somebody who's very frank and very direct at telling us what he thinks, and expecting us to respond in kind.
With respect to his latest vision, I think it is significant. It's a somewhat unique development for the Saudi leader to step up in this fashion, within sort of the debates in that part of the world, and especially in light of the upcoming Arab summit in Beirut. And his forthright statement with respect to exchanging normalization of relations in return for the proposed Israeli withdrawal, those are significant developments.
It doesn't -- obviously, there's not a lot of detail there, but it may provide an opening to make some progress in what's a very difficult problem that's plagued that region for a good many years. So certainly I'll discuss it with him. He and the President have already discussed it by phone, but I'll also be discussing it with others in the region. And I'm sure it will be a factor in General Zinni's discussions as well, too.
I'm now going to cease, and turn you over to the experts. But I am looking forward to the trip. We're delighted to have all of you on board -- (laughter) -- and willing to join us.
Q Thank you.
END 10:50 A.M. EST