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 Home > News & Policies > March 2003

Denial and Deception

Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 13, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Ari, the President was very clear last week, he wanted a vote in the Security Council: it's time for countries to show their cards. And now today, Secretary Powell says, among the options is to go for a vote, or not to go for a vote. What's going on here?

MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, let me try to share or inform you about where things stand in the fluid situation with the diplomacy.

The end is coming into sight, and there are numerous routes to reach thatend through the diplomacy the President is pursuing. And the President has said that he seeks a vote, and we seek a vote. There are options, as the Secretary has said. I discussed with you this morning the possibility of the vote coming to a conclusion tomorrow, or it could continue into next week. There are numerous options to achieve in the end the President seeks, which is a diplomatic solution. I cannot predict for you every shape and turn of the road on the way to that end, but this end is coming into sight, and that's why you're seeing some levels of flexibility and discussion of options as it comes into sight.

QUESTION: Does that level of flexibility reflect a sense that things are starting to break the President's way, and break the way -- you know, in the direction of Tony Blair, as well?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President and others are working this hard, but I made no predictions. I have not cited how any nation has indicated that it will vote. That's a matter for individual nations to address. And I make no predictions. I would reiterate what I've said all along, because I think this is how these things work, that people will know how the vote will come out on the day of the vote. That is the best day to get an indication from the various nations.


QUESTION: One more on this. Given France's comments today, are you -- is the President still convinced that France will veto? Or is there now some flexibility to the consensus?

MR. FLEISCHER: France has made many interesting comments of late. France has said they reject the logic of ultimatums. This is what their foreign minister said. France also looked at the British proposal and they rejected it before Iraq rejected it. If that's not an unreasonable veto, what is? So we looked at what France is doing, and we wish they were doing otherwise.


QUESTION: Speaking of fluidity, can you explain why the President took the rare step to cancel an event at the last minute? He was supposed to go up to the Hill. And why plans for him to visit Tony Blair somewhere outside of London -- why that planning didn't proceed?

MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, on your first question, it's because of just what I indicated, the President is working on the situation vis-a-vis Iraq and the diplomacy, and he wanted to make the phone call that I just reported to you.

Two, as I told you this morning, there are no plans to travel. I asked that question to the Chief of Staff, he said there are no plans to travel. And so I don't have any information for you beyond that.

QUESTION: Had there been tentative plans to visit Tony Blair?

MR. FLEISCHER: There's no information about something that there are no

QUESTION: Ari, the President was categorical a week ago, saying that no matter what the whip count, he wanted a vote. Now the Secretary of State raises the possibility that there may not be a vote. Is this thing going completely south?

MR. FLEISCHER: It's interesting. One question is, is it going north; another question is, is it south. It's ongoing. And I don't think it should surprise anybody that as it gets down to the very last stages of diplomacy, there are different ideas that can be discussed, there are different ends to reach, different routes to reach that end.

And that's what you're seeing. You're seeing that on the question of the substance of the resolution, on the deadline. But one thing is not in doubt, no matter what the end is through diplomacy. What is not in doubt, in President Bush's mind, is that Saddam Hussein will be disarmed.

QUESTION: Jack Straw said this morning that the second resolution is less likely than at any time before. Why should we not think this is failing? And since when is it up -- when is it likely that this President changes his mind? He hardly ever does. And, yet, he appears to have backed away from what he said at that press conference, about demanding a vote.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always said that the United States does not need a second resolution and we are going to work very hard with our friends and allies on this.

QUESTION: That's not what I'm talking about.

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always valued the counsel and the advice he gets from our foreign friends and leaders on this, particularly our European allies who are working on this issue with us, as well as allies from around the world. So the President will continue to work this and consult with our friends and allies about the best course to take to achieve the ultimate diplomatic outcome. If a diplomatic outcome cannot be achieved, there should never be any question and a doubt of anybody about the President's intent to disarm Saddam Hussein. I don't think there is any doubt.

QUESTION: That wasn't my question. I want to know why he changed his mind.

Apparently he is not going to insist on a vote under some circumstances.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, what you're seeing is the President going the last mile on behalf of diplomacy. There is an end to that road. And the end is coming into sight. Until it is final and the road is traveled, this President is determined to pursue a variety of diplomatic options, and that --

QUESTION: You've evaded the question three different times. I want to know why the President -- who categorically said that he would demand a vote no matter what the whip count, because he wanted to see how all of these other nations stood -- is now apparently willing to back off and not have a vote?

MR. FLEISCHER: Because your premise is suggesting that in the conducting of diplomacy there can be no room for flexibility. And as the President travels the last bit of this road, he is going to work to consult with our allies and friends.

QUESTION: Did we read you right this morning when you -- you suggested that the diplomatic -- the coalition you're trying to put together would actually make -- set a deadline for Iraq and have a diplomatic ultimatum, rather than the U.N.? I mean, would it be --

MR. FLEISCHER: There are two issues in play here. One is, through the United Nations Security Council, the resolution that is pending before them right now has a date for bringing the diplomacy to an end of March 17th. That is the resolution pending before the Security Council now. That is the only date pending in the resolution before the Security Council.

If there is a military date by which the President would say that force will be used, the President has not spoken out on that matter. So you have two separate tracks.

QUESTION: My point is, why is the President going through this charade of diplomacy when he obviously plans to go to war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, this is a very serious word, the diplomacy. And the President is carrying it out because he believes in the value of consultations.


QUESTION: It's come to this. (Laughter.)

Ari, what is the administration's formal legal position and assessment from the State Department legal advisor, from the White House counsel about the lawfulness of taking military action if this resolution were to be voted down in the teeth of the opposition of the Security Council, either by a majority or by a veto?

MR. FLEISCHER: You want me to read you a legal sentence?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: The United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 authorized use of all necessary means to uphold United Nations Security Council Resolution 660, and subsequent resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area. That was the basis for the use of force against Iraq during the Gulf War.

Thereafter, United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 declared a cease-fire, but imposed several conditions, including extensive WMD related conditions. Those conditions provided the conditions essential to the restoration of peace and security in the area. A material breech of those conditions removes the basis for the cease-fire and provides a legal grounds for the use of force.

QUESTION: Thank you. So it's our assessment that we can go to war even if the Security Council votes down this second resolution, should there be a vote.?

MR. FLEISCHER: There is no question, based on both international law and domestic law that the President has that authority.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.) Is that assessment shared by Great Britain, Spain and other members of the coalition of the willing? Or is some of the reason for this talk that maybe we won't have a vote that their international lawyers come to a different conclusion, that this war would be illegal over a U.N. veto?

MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to them about their interpretations of laws. I don't speak for them.


QUESTION: Ari, did you mean to say earlier that you saw no daylight in the French foreign minister's statement today that -- maintaining unity on the Security Council is important and France was open to all opportunities in that regard?

MR. FLEISCHER: I didn't address issue. What I said --

QUESTION: You said you talked about their statements being --

MR. FLEISCHER: I cited the foreign minister's statement that France rejects the logic of ultimatums. Well, if you reject the logic of ultimatums, you're telling Iraq you have forever to disarm, which is contradicted by 1441, which said you must immediately disarm, which raises questions about France's commitment to 1441.

QUESTION: But his most recent statement, can you comment on that, that they're looking for opportunities to maintain Security Council unity. Do you see any daylight in that?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think France has recognized that it's statement that it would veto anything that is put before the Security Council has created problems in France from which they're trying to retreat.

QUESTION: And does that create a diplomatic opportunity for the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, the President is pursuing the diplomacy still at this late date. But it will not be pursued all that much longer. It is coming to an end.

QUESTION: Yesterday you indicated that it would be pointless for the President to call President Chirac. Is that still the case?

MR. FLEISCHER: If a call is made, as you know, we keep you informed.

QUESTION: One on Iraq, one on North Korea, Ari. On Iraq, when the Secretary of State said in public today that we have several options here, going for a vote or not, was he speaking for himself? Or was he basically speaking a position that the President, himself, has now taken on? This is just to understand whether the President has, in fact, reversed from last week.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that I expressed it all from the point of view of both the President and the Secretary.

QUESTION: He was speaking for the President; is that a fair assumption?

MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly what I just described is not inconsistent with anything either the President or the Secretary has said.

QUESTION: Well, that's not true, because it is inconsistent with what the President said last week.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, as I indicated, in regard to Bill's question, as we pursue the diplomacy, there is flexibility.

QUESTION: But there wasn't last week.


QUESTION: Thank you. With the President possibly putting the date past the 17th as a date for a vote that might happen at the United Nations. What consideration is being taken into the -- just the sort of health of the troops? It's getting very hot over there, huge sandstorms, et cetera.

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I indicated, when the resolution was first offered, the resolution was not set in stone. And we were talking with our allies and consulting about it. And I think it's been clear from the very beginning that in terms of discussing the date, there may be a discussion of the date, but there would not be a whole lot of flexibility on the movement of the date. There may be some levels of it, but not much.

QUESTION: Ari, the White House has said pretty regularly that the lack of unity or inconsistency at the U.N. sends a wrong signal to Saddam Hussein. How is the idea of clearly blowing out the March 17th deadline that the U.S. put forward and possibly not having a vote at the U.N., even though the President said he wanted one, how is that not sending the wrong signal to Saddam Hussein from the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, you're saying, blowing out the deadline.

QUESTION: Potentially. Well, if you have negotiations through Monday --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, what you are seeing is the President of the United States pursue diplomacy to its fullest. This President would very much like to have this matter settled through peace and diplomacy. And he is taking every step that he can think is helpful and wise to doing that, in consultation with our allies. But the worst mistake Saddam Hussein could ever make would be to underestimate the seriousness of this issue for this President and for the free world.


QUESTION: Ari, given all the machinations at the U.N. and statements from this podium and elsewhere around town, can Saddam Hussein draw any other conclusion but that he's playing a winning hand at the moment?

MR. FLEISCHER: That would be a very mistaken conclusion for Saddam Hussein to draw. I think the conclusion of people around the world that they can draw is that the United States and America's allies are working on the final stages of diplomacy, hoping for the Security Council to take strong action. And if it does not, the United States and a coalition of the willing will proceed to disarm Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Ari, on the timing, obviously the original deadline was the 17th. Now we may not even have a vote on a second resolution, if there is one by the 17th.

So how -- what does the time line look like here? I know you say we're coming to the end of the road, but obviously it is sliding a bit. Are we likely to go past the end of the month before this is resolved one way or the other?

MR. FLEISCHER: I made no predictions about what the timing could be. I think if there are anything that is to said conclusively about the timing on a military front, of course, you'll hear that from the President. But beyond that, I make no predictions.

QUESTION: Well, on the flexibility front, since we've shown flexibility in the diplomacy, does that also suggest some flexibility on the weeks, not months?

MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing has changed that.

QUESTION: That remains as it was?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: Now on the --

MR. FLEISCHER: The timing and the flexibility that you have seen on the diplomacy is, of course, within the context of what the President said on weeks, not months.

QUESTION: So the end point hasn't moved, only the middle points?

MR. FLEISCHER: The diplomacy. I think you're watching diplomacy in action.

QUESTION: Now, the U.S. still has not embraced the British benchmarks, the tests for Saddam Hussein. That did create some confusion in the Security Council last night, because some of the undecided six wanted to know if the U.S. would, in fact, support these tests, if they were willing to vote for them. Could you clarify what the U.S. would do if others were willing to support this?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as was discussed at the Security Council last night, and it was well known by the various nations that met in closed session at the Security Council last night, the position of the United States was that it was in the context of Resolution 1441, that we thought that the benchmarks deserved serious consideration. Obviously, before it could even be very much discussed, the French rejected it out of hand. And as I noted, the French rejected it before the Iraqis did.


QUESTION: Ari, to what extent does the flexibility here reflect Tony Blair's dire political situation at home?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that Prime Minister Blair, from the very beginning, has acted on the basis of principle and acted on the basis of the internationally recognized need to disarm Saddam Hussein and the desire to do it peacefully. I don't talk about other nation's political circumstances. But that is clearly the President's view of how Tony Blair has approached this.

QUESTION: When you say flexibility, presumably it is others like Tony Blair who are asking for this flexibility. And I guess I'm wondering is the President trying to get --

MR. FLEISCHER: It's not for me to divine people's politics or motives. I can describe to you the public stances that they have taken in this case, and the President's approach. And the President's approach is one of multilateralism. It is to listen to America's allies and to consult.

QUESTION: You're not denying the President's trying to help Tony Blair out here?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always said that he wants to listen and work very closely and carefully with our friends and allies. The President finds that an important part of diplomacy, an important part of good relations.

Of course, the President seeks to help out our allies.

QUESTION: Ari, on Tuesday I spent part of the day at the United Nations, going through all the resolutions and talking to people on staff, to U.N. staff and the diplomats. Now, all the resolutions and diplomats all agreed that Saddam Hussein must disarm fully, according to 1441.

But also, the President when he went to address the United Nations last year -- which I'm sure he's planning this year also -- he also said the same thing. But also he promised the U.N. world body that he supports and the U.S. will continue to support the United Nations and their activities. The question all the diplomats and the staff was asking, what is really -- what is the future of the United Nations if the U.S. goes to war without U.N. resolution?

That means end of the U.N.?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the future of the United Nations if the United States and a coalition of the willing go to war without the United Nations Security Council can be judged by looking at the past. It happened when the United Nations Security Council failed to take action in Kosovo. It happened when the United Nations Security Council failed to take action in Rwanda.

So if the United Nations Security Council fails to take action here, it will not be a first. It will be a repeat of a pattern.

QUESTION: Ari, back on the coalition of the willing, what role do they have at this point in setting either the diplomatic deadline or the military deadline for Iraqi disarmament?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you noticed, the President is making a series of phone calls, not only to members of the Security Council, but to other nations around the world. This is part of the very process you're watching unfold before your eyes of President Bush, in as multilateral way as you can think, consulting with our friends and allies. And the conversations talk about many different topics. And the President, as I indicated yesterday, gets ideas about various diplomatic proposals, various amendments, various benchmarks, from a number of nations that he consults with. All of that gets, then, talked about again with the various nations -- with England and with Spain -- and that gets reflected in what the final outcome may or may not be.

QUESTION: But if you don't get a vote from the U.N., or you don't get an approval from the U.N., will you then fall back on more of a formal approach with the coalition where they would take a general view on this?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think the coalition will take a general view as expressed through the military support and the military action. That'll be a rather specific general view.

QUESTION: Rather than a diplomatic step in the first place?

MR. FLEISCHER: The diplomacy would be expressed by their military



QUESTION: You used the words inflexible and unreasonable to describe the French.

Are you writing them off now entirely?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly France has said they're going to veto the

resolution no matter what it says. So France is -- I think France is doing its own writing.

QUESTION: In a broader sense, though, are you writing them off as a long-time ally?

MR. FLEISCHER: Absolutely not. No, I've talked about this before. On this issue, when it comes to whether the military should be used to disarm Saddam Hussein, whether force is required, or whether Saddam Hussein will disarm on his own -- France seems to think that Saddam Hussein will disarm on his own. The United States and many other nations do not agree. We hope that he will, but we haven't seen any evidence at this point.

But, no matter what, the United States and France have an important strategic relationship. We have common values, and the relationship can be strained. It's obvious for everybody to see. What you have to do is watch your TV and see the natural reaction of the American people. They're reacting.

But France has been helpful, and still is helpful, in the war against terrorism. The President has said different nations will help in different ways. France will help in a way that it proceeds and perceives. That won't stop the United States from reflecting, accurately, on the very statements that the French have made. The United States is responsible for the statements it makes. France must be responsible for the statements that they, too, make.

QUESTION: So what's the lasting impact?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to predict that. I have said that, in terms of government to government, and President Bush to President Chirac, they understand that they have other strategic interests, we have other partnerships, we have common values. I think there's no question, though, that when you watch the American people's reaction, it is not good.

QUESTION: So is there no worry, though, that this rift with the French will bleed over into other areas, and other --

MR. FLEISCHER: As I mentioned, France has been a stalwart ally in the war on terror. Germany, as well. The information sharing, the working with the police agencies, and working together around the world to fight terrorism, is strong with those nations. So the issue should not be confused or broadened into something that it is not. We remain important nations and allies. We have differences. You are seeing those differences today.

QUESTION: Ari, Richard Perle is the Chairman of the Defense Policy Board and the lead public advocate for war on Iraq. In the New Yorker Magazine this week, Seymour Hirsch reports that Perle is also managing partner of a venture capital company, Trireme Partners, and is positioned to profit from a war in Iraq. The Federal Code of Conduct, which governs Perle in this matter, prohibits conflict of interest. Henry Kissinger resigned from the 9/11 Commission because of similar business conflicts. When asked on Sunday by Wolf Blitzer about the New Yorker article, Perle called Hirsch "the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist."

Two questions. Given Perle's conflict of interest, and given the widespread public belief that this war is being driven by corporate interests -- war for oil, and war for defense contracts, war for construction companies -- does the President believe --

MR. FLEISCHER: Who's informed judgment is that?

QUESTION: Widespread public belief.

MR. FLEISCHER: Widespread? Or just that chair?

QUESTION: No, widespread. Does the President believe that Richard Perle should resign from the Defense Policy Board? And second question, do you agree with Richard Perle that Hirsch is the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist?

MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, there's absolutely no basis to your own individual and personal statement about what may lead to war. If anything leads to war, it's the fact that Saddam Hussein has refused to disarm. And I think you do an injustice to people -- no matter what their background -- if you believe

that people believe that Saddam Hussein should be disarmed for any reason that suggests personal profit.

QUESTION: Okay, what about the question, Ari? Should he resign and is he a terrorist?

MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, you've had your -- you've made your speech.

QUESTION: You didn't answer the question.

MR. FLEISCHER: You've made your speech.

QUESTION: In regard to France's behavior right now, do we believe that on this particular issue France is acting honorably? And does the White House -- you were referring to the American people's reaction -- does the White House have any objection to the calls for boycotts of French products?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has said repeatedly he believes that President Chirac is acting on principle. And it's a principle on which we disagree. Nations have disagreements. We have a disagreement with France.

We certainly have a disagreement with a statement made that France rejects the logic of ultimatums, and that no matter what is offered, the resolution will be vetoed. No matter what changes, the resolution will be vetoed. Well, of course, we object to those statements.

QUESTION: What about the question of whether the White House has any feeling about the growing calls for boycotts of French products to protest France --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you are seeing the American people speak spontaneously. And that is their right. It is the right of people in Europe to demonstrate. It is the right of people in Europe to speak their mind. So, too, is it the right of the American people to speak theirs.

QUESTION: Since you have said that the President largely went for this second resolution to help the allies, primarily Tony Blair, would he only pull the resolution at the request of Tony Blair? And does he think that it would be more harmful for Blair to have a losing -- to have no vote at all or to have a vote that loses?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just can't speculate about the ultimate outcome. We are proceeding, and we will see what the United Nations Security Council does.

QUESTION: Ari, Tony Blair has effectively been asked to fall on his sword, and he's having a difficult time doing it. If he's replaced as the party leader, or if he makes a decision that he ultimately can't go with the United States under the conditions that are finally decided upon, and the United States decides to go it alone, doesn't that create the impression in the eyes of the world that the U.S. is kind of acting like something of an imperial bully to revamp the map of the Gulf in line with certain agenda that certain people have in the administration? That's already widespread. But wouldn't that really kind of encourage that view?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think I reject the premise of the question. I think that when you take a look at the actions of nations in the region, when you take a look at the coalition of the willing, that you can see that this is actually many nations who share the United States' approach. And that will be reflected if the decision is made to use force, and you will see that.

You said fall on his sword. I think what Tony Blair is doing is trying to act so Saddam Hussein is not armed with a sword that he can swing against others.

QUESTION: Isn't the broad disarray at the Security Council level an ominous sign in terms of the hopes for assembling sort of a broad institutional international coalition in support the rebuilding, reconstruction and democratization of Iraq after the war is over?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that there's no question that the United Nations will play a role in the rebuilding and reconstruction of Iraq. And I think that's a role the United Nations will play. I do think it is a worrisome sign about what the message to the next proliferators are. The next proliferators are going to look at the actions of the Security Council. And if no action is taken, they will celebrate because they'll recognize the Security Council may not be an effective place to take action. The President hopes that is not the case. The President will continue to push the Security Council -- even after Iraq -- to be relevant. But this does raise questions about how relevant they ultimately can be. We hope they will be relevant now and into the future, as well.


QUESTION: Ari, did the President write a letter to the new Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan, seeking access to Turkish air space, and other air rights in the event of a war?

MR. FLEISCHER: As a matter of long-standing policy, as you know, I often come here and I inform you about phone calls the President makes. The letter writing process has always been treated differently by the White House, and the President will often engage in private communications with leaders around the world. So I'm not saying "yes," I'm not saying "no," but I will always respect the privacy of any written Presidential communications.

QUESTION: Is he looking for a quick decision from Turkey on this issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, we remain waiting to hear what the final answer is from Turkey, and we shall see.