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Excerpts from the Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer, March 5, 2003 (Full Transcript)

QUESTION: Ari, just so we can be clear. The statement that came out of Paris this morning sure looked definitive when you read it. Are you insisting that this is not a veto threat by these countries?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm pointing out that as the ongoing process of diplomacy continues, you can learn a lot about the future by looking at the past. And we have seen similar statements made in the past by various officials, and I think the one day we'll know for certain where nations stand is when it comes time to raise hands and vote in the United Nations.

QUESTION: These -- two of these countries have veto power and they have said they will not allow a resolution to pass that authorizes force. Do you doubt their word?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, they continued on in that statement as they said that, as members of the Permanent Security Council, we will fully assume responsibilities. Last October, President Chirac said, France is a member of the Security Council and a permanent member will assume its responsibilities. Actually, the same language in that sentence. My point is, I think it's not accurate to leap to any conclusions about how these nations will actually vote when it comes down to it and when the members of the Security Council have to raise their hands and be counted.

QUESTION: But when you told us President Bush was confident of the outcome --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: -- what you meant was that you were confident that these nations will allow this resolution to pass?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President continues to be confident in the ultimate outcome. He certainly hopes that no nation will use its veto.

And let's spend a minute talking about exactly what would be vetoed. Because the resolution -- if it does get vetoed -- if the resolution that is pending before the United Nations Security Council reiterates everything that passed unanimously in Resolution 1441, and then it adds this sentence -- the Security Council decides that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441 -- what is the substantive matter there that would be vetoable? That's the question, and this is the responsibilities that are on all 15 members of the Security Council when they decide what course of action to take, whether they would object to that sentence, or not.

QUESTION: So are these empty threats? Is this posturing so that these nations can cover their own concerns?

MR. FLEISCHER: I characterize it no other way than I did, which is that people shouldn't leap to conclusions about what the final outcome will be. You've seen diplomacy before, you've seen a variety of statements before, and you know there's one day when we will all find out what the outcome is. That day has not yet arrived.

QUESTION: When do you think it will come?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has not made a determination about that. The first step will be to listen to Mr. Blix's report on Friday, and then following that, an assessment will be made about what the exact time will be to proceed with the vote.

QUESTION: Ari, since there is an atmosphere of the imminence of war in this White House, and since we have no direct access to the President, will you state for the record, for the historical record, why he wants to bomb Iraqi people?

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I dispute the premise of your question, first of all. There's regular -- there's regular access to the President. The President is asked questions all the time. And when the President --

QUESTION: He hasn't had a press conference for months.

MR. FLEISCHER: And when 14 of your colleagues spend 36 minutes asking scores of questions to the President just two days ago --

QUESTION: Well, that's not a news conference.

MR. FLEISCHER: -- they asked the President a similar question, although they phrased it a little differently than you did. They asked the President why does he feel so strongly about the need to use force, if it comes to that, to disarm Saddam Hussein. And the answer from the President was that, given the fact that the world changed on September 11th, the threat to the American people was brought immediately to our home and to our shores and to our families, the President thinks it is in the interest of peace to make certain that Saddam Hussein does not have weapons of mass destruction which he can use against us, either by transferring them to terrorists or using them himself.

QUESTION: There is no imminent threat.

MR. FLEISCHER: This is where -- Helen, if you were President you might view things differently. But you have your judgment and the President has others.

QUESTION: Why doesn't he prove it? Why don't you lay it out? When have they threatened in the last 12 years?

MR. FLEISCHER: They have attacked their neighbors. They have gassed their own people.

QUESTION: Twelve years ago.

MR. FLEISCHER: They have launched attacks.

QUESTION: With our support.

MR. FLEISCHER: And September 11th showed the United States is vulnerable to those who would attack us. And one of the best ways to protect the homeland is to go after the threats abroad.

QUESTION: You haven't linked terrorism to Saddam Hussein, in terms of 9/11.

MR. FLEISCHER: It's not -- the threat is what took place on 9/11. You don't have to make a direct linkage between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 to know that others who are planning can try to do it again, Saddam Hussein included.

QUESTION: It sounds as if you're saying about Russia, France and Germany, that when they say, we will not allow the passage of a planned resolution which would authorize the use of force, they're lying.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I'm saying exactly what I've said. I urge you not to leap to any conclusions about what the final outcome of the vote will be.

QUESTION: What is the conclusion to be drawn about the meaning of the words, the plain meaning of the words that they uttered today, that they don't mean them?

MR. FLEISCHER: If you think the story is written and done, then I can't change your interpretation of it. But I'm suggesting to you that you might want to think twice before you leap to final conclusions. There's a lot of diplomacy going on involving many different people in many different countries. And you have not heard the final word from any nation.

QUESTION: Okay, quickly, the meeting with General Franks this morning, can you tell us a little bit about that, what was that aimed at?

MR. FLEISCHER: This was a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss a variety of military matters that are pending, and I really can't go into it anywhere beyond that.

QUESTION: Senator Daschle said that the President, in their meeting this morning, discussed timetables on Iraq. Can you tell us what the President has for a timetable, whether he has a date certain for making a decision, what other components might be part of that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the timetable is, one, to listen to what Mr. Blix reports; two, to make a determination about the timing to proceed at the United Nations Security Council on when the vote will take place. And beyond that, it would just be speculation about any other timetables that come into play. The one timetable that the President identified that remains operative is when on January 30th he said, weeks, not months.

QUESTION: The timetable issue, is it -- not asking you to give us the timetable, but is it something that he is discussing with leading members of Congress, to prepare them for whatever the plan may be?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't believe the President got into any specific level.

QUESTION: Going back to the veto question. If they're saying they would not support or allow a resolution to come to a vote that authorized force, would it be an option that you are looking at to parse the wording of the resolution in a way that left open a sort of more vague wording that they --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a very interesting question to put to the ministers. The language of the resolution that has been offered by the United States at the Security Council reads, decides that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it -- in Resolution 1441. Resolution 1441 warned that Iraq had to fully and immediately comply without conditions and without restrictions. It was its final opportunity to comply, and if it did not comply -- and this is binding on Iraq --

that Iraq would have to face serious consequences as a result of continued violations. That's 1441.

And then the language before the U.N. now say: decides that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441. That's the language. It's hard to imagine an objection to that language. And I don't speak for those other nations, but I reiterate, the President is confident in the ultimate outcome of this. Secretary Powell, just as recently as yesterday, said he's increasingly optimistic about the outcome of this. And there you have it.

QUESTION: Does the administration believe that that language authorizes the use of force?

MR. FLEISCHER: It enforces Resolution 1441, which says, there will be serious consequences if Iraq fails to disarm.

QUESTION: Ari, who at the White House has been in touch with the French, the Germans, the Russians this morning? You made a reference to a lot of diplomacy going on and you're implying that there is something going on behind the scenes that's not apparent from this --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you can be assured that every day, through a variety of means, people are talking to different nations around the world -- whether it's at the United Nations, on the ambassadorial level at the United Nations; at the State Department, through the embassies around the world, including in these countries; or whether it's occasional phone calls from people higher up in government. All of the above can be happening on any given day.

QUESTION: But you can't tell us specifically this morning or today or --

MR. FLEISCHER: I report to you on the President's conversations. You know, as well as I do, that there are spokespeople for the other agencies who keep track of all their various people. I don't; I don't keep track of every individual at the State Department.

QUESTION: And one last try. Do you see this as an attempt at a compromise with these nations? Are you trying to forge a compromise to accept a --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think this is part and parcel of ongoing diplomacy.

And I don't think this should come as a surprise to people. Last fall, when you covered the debate leading up to 1441, many reported that there are threats of veto from France, from Russia and from China; little signs of movement in the French position. "In a statement that some interpret as a veto threat, President Chirac said that he would push for a resolution in line with the interests of the region as we see them. If it did not succeed, President Chirac continued, 'France is a member of the Security Council, and as a permanent member, will assume its responsibilities." So what you see is part and parcel of ongoing diplomacy.

Now, one other point about what you have seen in the past on resolutions, which clearly indicate that the United States and some of the other nations in the Security Council don't always see it eye-to-eye, but it doesn't always lead to a veto. We are where we are today, with the role of the inspectors in Iraq, and the fact that UNMOVIC was created to inspect Iraq and has been sent in for the purposes of inspecting Iraq's compliance.

The U.N. resolution that created UNMOVIC was 1284, which was adopted on December 17th, 1999. It was adopted with only 11 votes in favor of it. Four countries abstained; two of those countries are France and Russia. They abstained on even the creation of UNMOVIC. They did not support the creation of UNMOVIC.

Resolution 1134, which passed on October 23rd, 1997, found that Iraq was in flagrant violation of previous resolutions and condemned their cooperation with the special commission the United Nations had set up, and it demanded immediate, unconditional, and unrestricted access to any and all areas, facilities, equipment, records, and means of transportation within the mandate of the special commission. That passed with ten votes in favor, and France and Russia abstained. They did not support the condemnation of Iraq, nor did they support demanding immediate, unconditional, unrestricted access to any and all facilities.

There's a history of France and Russia not seeing this eye-to-eye with the United States. You are seeing that continue to varying degrees. I urge you not to leap to the conclusion that this is determinative matter that a veto will follow. This is part and parcel of diplomacy. This is based on previous actions that led to abstentions by France and Russia in the past, where, as I indicated -- it's notable -- France and Russia abstained on the creation of the inspectors themselves.

QUESTION: So you expect abstentions?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't predict what other nations will do. I simply say the President remains confident in the outcome.

QUESTION: Ari, as far as war is concerned, the President is under pressure from many people not to go to war because of millions will be homeless, millions will be jobless, and thousands may die. Last year, if you remember, India and Pakistan were on the brink of war -- but the President was the one who persuaded them not to go to war, in which they did not. So how is the President taking this one, advice from around the globe?

MR. FLEISCHER: How is the President pursuing this one, meaning --

QUESTION: -- advice -- is he taking any advice or --

MR. FLEISCHER: You're comparing the situation in Iraq and the situation between India and Pakistan?

QUESTION: Yes, but this is the President who persuaded those nations not to go to war. They listened to him. But now, as the world is telling him not to go war --

MR. FLEISCHER: Vis-a-vis Iraq --

QUESTION: -- how that he is doing, not to go to war?

MR. FLEISCHER: The difference is Resolution 1441. The difference is that the nations around the world joined together after the President went to New York and they called on Iraq. And again, when you talk about the vote that is coming up at the United Nations, it's important to go to the substance of what they are voting on. What they are voting on is enforcing 1441. I can only keep saying it; 1441 called on Iraq to fully and immediately comply. It did not say partially comply, and it did not say slowly comply. It said fully and immediately -- without conditions, without restrictions.

As we've seen, there are umpteen conditions Iraq keeps inventing and putting on the inspectors; umpteen restrictions, including bugging the inspectors, they keep imposing. They said it's the final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligation. Final opportunity. It didn't say penultimate. It didn't say third last chance. It said final. It said it's binding on Iraq. It didn't say it's for discussion or negotiation; it said binding. And finally, it said Iraq would face serious consequences as a result of continued violations. As we all know, they have continued to violate. And so the resolution pending before it is very simple and straightforward and it simply states, 1441 shall be enforced and Iraq shall

-- had its last chance to comply. That's different from the situation with Pakistan and India.

QUESTION: We understand there was a meeting today in the Situation Room between the President, Secretary Rumsfeld, General Franks. Could you tell us what the upshot of that was? Was there discussion of an ultimatum? And secondly, in view of the attack in Israel today, is there not a rising concern that there could be more such militant attacks as we edge toward war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Number one, the question was previously about the meeting. And I've answered as best I can, we don't discuss National Security Council meetings and what happened. I indicated General Franks was there and they discussed military plans. On the second point --

QUESTION: Ultimatum?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't discuss what takes place in National Security Council meetings. And don't take that to mean that was or was not discussed; it's just a policy, we don't discuss it.

On the situation in Israel, even prior to any discussions of anything happening vis-a-vis Iraq there were suicide bombings. And the President condemned those. The fact of the matter is this is the first suicide bombing in some two months, and in the last two months you've seen a steady buildup toward the potential for the use of force in Iraq. So I think there's no basis to make any connection between events.

QUESTION: Ari, on the ongoing diplomacy on the part of this administration and perhaps by the President, any new tactics, strategies, new arguments, or is it pretty much the same old stuff we've heard for two years?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I keep reporting to you the phone calls the President makes, and the State Department reports out the phone calls that President (Secretary) Powell has and the various meetings that take place. And this is really being pursued as a matter of deep and important substance, and as a diplomatic matter. And it's a debate worth having. And that's why the President created this process and is going and talking to our friends and allies about this 18th resolution, or second resolution at the United Nations.

I've described to you an ample number of times today the substance about what has been voted on unanimously and what this follow-on resolution calls for. And the discussions really focus on the need to disarm Saddam Hussein; this is what this comes down to.

QUESTION: So, really, nothing new?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it's ongoing diplomacy. And the same question could have been asked, how come we were successful last fall when everybody thought that somebody would veto the resolution last fall. And I previously read to you similar statements in 1990, interestingly enough, when the United Nations considered the resolution after the invasion of Kuwait; there were similar warnings of potential veto threats, all of which did not materialize.

QUESTION: But we compromised.

QUESTION: You said the NSC meeting today was to discuss a variety of military matters that are pending, a phrase that would seem to be eight months pregnant with meaning. (Laughter.) Was the same thing discussed with the congressional leaders?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm trying to do the math. When does eight months go back to? (Laughter.) And are you suggesting there will be a baby born in one month? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Perhaps less than a month. Was the same general set of issues discussed with congressional leaders?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just don't go into the specifics of anything that's discussed in National Security Council meetings.

QUESTION: No, no, no, I'm not talking about NSC, I'm talking about the congressional leaders.

MR. FLEISCHER: The congressional leaders meeting focused much more broadly than the National Security Council meeting. Their meeting talked about a variety of issues around the world. I can talk to you -- they talked about the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and what that meant in the success in the war on terror. They discussed other issues internationally. So it's more a broader meeting.

QUESTION: You've indicated -- one more thing, if I could. You've indicated repeatedly the President was likely to give a speech before any military action --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.

QUESTION: -- if, in fact, it comes to that. Would you expect in that speech for it to be much like it was with the Taliban in Afghanistan, that he would give the Iraqi leader one last chance to do something before any move to military action?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not prepared to speculate about what the topic of a speech not given could be. There are several events that would be intervening if the President makes a decision to use force between now and then, in any case. So I will not speculate.

QUESTION: There are some who argue that members, undecided members of the Security Council could be moved if, in fact, the U.S. did make assurances that there would be some kind of deadline set. Is that at all being considered by the White House, particularly in light of the fact that it might bring some of the undecided votes along?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've read to you the language of the resolution that is pending. And we always consult, we always talk to our allies. We have not said to anybody that everything is in stone, but I'm not aware of anything that would lead one to that conclusion that you've raised, Jean.

QUESTION: I don't think that the suggestion is that there would be an amendment to the resolution, but that it would be an assertion from the White House. Is that being considered at all?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I'm just not going to speculate on anything that may or may not happen down the road. I just can't accurately do that.

QUESTION: But you're not ruling it out?

MR. FLEISCHER: I just can't accurately tell you what may or may not happen down the road in every step.

QUESTION: Is it significant to the White House that the leaders of France and Germany and Russia did not use the word "veto"?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think it's important to analyze their words precisely and carefully, to analyze the words of the United Nations resolutions precisely and carefully, and not to leap to conclusions about the ultimate outcome.

QUESTION: Ari, given the problematic situation in the Security Council and the months that have been consumed now by going through the process there, does the President in any way regret his decision to work through the U.N. on this?

MR. FLEISCHER: No. No. The President went into this knowing how the United Nations works and how slow the United Nations can be, but how important the United Nations is. And in the many conversations the President has had with our European allies and others, he recognizes that there is an important role for the United Nations to play.

He only hopes that the United Nations will play that role. He hopes that the United Nations will not have passed a resolution that said, "full and immediate," only to indicate it didn't mean either "full" or "immediate." He hopes the United Nations did not pass a resolution that said "without conditions or restrictions," only to find out what they really meant was full of conditions and full of restrictions. He hopes they didn't pass a resolution that said "final opportunity" only to be a resolution that said one of many opportunities. He hopes the United Nations understood the seriousness with which they passed 1441.

And I think everybody, when they passed 1441, recognized the consequences. As you've said, there's been a certain time to this buildup.

When they voted, they were keenly aware of the buildup. They were keenly aware of how serious the President was about preventing Saddam Hussein from using the weapons he has to attack the rest of us. They understood the context when they voted on it. This is a test of whether they meant it.

QUESTION: Given all that, is he not frustrated by what's going on now?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I said, the President -- I think the best way to understand the President's point of view is, he created this process in the first place by asking the United Nations to get involved. And he's pleased they have gotten involved. He hopes they will play a productive role. But whether they agree or disagree, the President is determined to protect peace by making certain that one way or another, Saddam Hussein is disarmed.

QUESTION: Ari, you correctly note that the French are using language now similar to language that they used last fall prior to the first vote -- vote on Resolution 1441. But the circumstances are obviously different now. Back then, there was the hope that Saddam would comply. We've had continued assertions from the White House that he hasn't, and clear signals that the buildup to war is progressing. And that the circumstances then, in terms of this debate, are a little bit different. There's not much room to roam now for anybody on the Security Council. So given that, aren't --

isn't the language, isn't the possible message being sent by the French and others who are reluctant perhaps a little stronger and a little different? To that end, is a goal of the diplomacy now simply to get as many votes as you can and make sure to avoid a veto?

I have a second question.

MR. FLEISCHER: -- of course, yes. The goal is to get as many votes as we can. The goal is to get nine votes or more and not have a veto.

QUESTION: Back when this whole process began, the President decided to go the U.N. route last fall. Did he expect at the time that it would prove so difficult to build consensus within the Security Council and the world at large? Has he been surprised by the reluctance of --

MR. FLEISCHER: Frankly, no. Well, keep in mind, again, what I just reported to you, that on October 23, 1997, France and Russia abstained on demanding the immediate, unconditional, unrestricted access to all areas, and that France and Russia abstained in 1999 on the creation of UNMOVIC and the inspectors themselves. So the President went into this knowing that not everybody sees the issue the same way because historically they have not. The President is determined to go into this and to end this in a way that is respectful of our allies. No matter what position they take, we will continue to have important relations with them beyond any decisions that are made.

And so the President understood perfectly, he's referenced it often that this is the process of the United Nations. And it's a process that he made the call to bring the United Nations front and center in this matter. And at the same time that he says that, he expresses his confidence in the ultimate outcome of it. And as I've said before, I think we will all know what the ultimate outcome is the day the vote it taken.

QUESTION: Again, going back to the Security Council vote. You just said that the goal of the United States is to get as many votes as you can. Has the President expressed in any, way, shape or form his frustration for countries like -- allies like Mexico, which has not expressed to this point the way they will vote? Or is -- the President has spoken with President Fox in the past few days today? Or if there's any meeting scheduled for any time?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President spoke with President Fox from his ranch in Texas some two weekends ago. And again, the President looks at this as the ultimate outcome will be the day of the vote when member states, at that time, for all the world to see, raise their hands and state their positions.

QUESTION: This is about Iraq. On Monday, the UK Telegraph reported the murder of General Muhammad Sa'id al-Darraj, a senior missile engineer in charge of Iraq's mobile Scud missile program, shortly after meeting with Saddam's officials. Would you comment on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's the first I've heard about it. But one thing is for certain with Saddam Hussein, he is brutal. When you talk about human rights and killing Iraqis, you can look first to Saddam Hussein as the world's worst human rights violator, one of the world's worst human rights violators, who has killed his own people.

Today, for example, when the President meets with the Commissioner on Human Rights, I anticipate one of the topics the President will raise is the horrendous treatment of the Iraqi people, the repression of the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein, which includes killing those who would have any disagreement with him.

QUESTION: Ari, it was reported in a French newspaper this week that President Chirac has privately told colleagues that he had made up his mind that Bush had made up his mind to go to war, and that he would not want to use a veto and, therefore, the phrase he used was "shoot Bush in the back."

You've been very complimentary from the podium about President Chirac being very candid with the President. Do you know if President Chirac or any other representatives of France have privately assured the President or the United States that that is the case, that France would not use the veto?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, in the event that anybody received an private assurances, I'm sure you would not be asking me to make public anything that was private.

QUESTION: Is that the reason why --

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has had an overall approach to this, knowing what he knows and knowing the conversations that he's had with the Presidents of nations, that he has a sense of confidence about the ultimate outcome of this. But it would not be my place to speak for any one leader.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ari, I know you have answered a lot of my questions, but with the threat of the French or Russian veto, will the President go forward with the second resolution anyway?

MR. FLEISCHER: I've addressed that many times, and once the Blix report is over, it's received, we will make a determination about the timing of it. But it's all systems go.

QUESTION: Ari, I didn't quite understand a couple references you made earlier. You talked about how France made a number of statements suggesting their position before a vote, which they ultimately gave their assent. In that case, the reason the French did not veto or abstain was because there was protracted number of weeks of negotiations and some give-and-take on the language in the resolution. Is that same process operable here?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, two points on that. One is, what's the objection to the language that's been offered? It's very simple and clear language, to enforce Resolution 1441. But, two, we have never suggested that the language is written in stone. We, of course, consult.

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