WARREN CHRISTOPHER ON THE BUDGET & THE MIDDLE EAST
DECEMBER 19, 1995
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, welcome.
WARREN CHRISTOPHER: Hello, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Good to see you, sir. First of all, on this budget shutdown, what impact, if any, is that having on the operations of the State Department here and abroad?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Jim, it's had a serious impact. About 9,000 of our employees are on furlough. It means that we can't issue--
JIM LEHRER: Nine thousand out of how many?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Out of 25,000.
JIM LEHRER: Twenty-five thousand. All right.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: We can't issue passports to Americans. We can't issue visas to foreigners. A great many of our services to Americans traveling overseas, for example, are shut down. So we're really in quite a different situation. It's also having a fairly severe morale impact. I got back from the Middle East yesterday. I walked around through the various departments of the State Department seeing the people just as they were leaving, seeing the people who were staying. And I must say the amount of uncertainty generated at this time of year has had a fairly profound effect on our morale. I hope it'll soon be over.
JIM LEHRER: So you must be encouraged by the news we just reported. It looks like a deal may be in the making.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes. I was very encouraged to hear that, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, on your Middle East trip to Israel and Syria, it has produced a reopening of the talks, is that correct?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, Jim. There is a new spirit. Prime Minister Peres, I almost said foreign minister, he said it's a new beginning, and I think that's a fair characterization. There's an acceleration and there's an intensity that they didn't have before.
JIM LEHRER: What brought this about?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, that's interesting to speculate. On the Israeli side, I would say there is a commitment to carry out the legacy of the former Prime Minister Rabin that's a very important factor. On the Syrian side, I think that they see that the Israelis have taken some great risks for peace and were willing to do so. And something has caused a change in the mood in Syria, as well as in Israel. You know, one never knows the reasons why leaders make decisions of that kind, but there is a new spirit. There's a new quality to the discussion. We'll have to see if that will translate itself into this quite unusual set of negotiations we have set for Washington.
JIM LEHRER: There was speculation that one of the reasons may be that President Assad of Syria was feeling isolated on even the rest of the Arab world, most of whom have now either made peace or are on the verge of making peace with Israel, is that correct?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That may be a factor. He certainly wouldn't admit it was a factor. He's a very strong and tough person. I think he must feel that the events may be passing him by, these other countries may be able to modernize, participate in the economic reconstruction of the Middle East. You know, one of the striking things out there is how, for example, the Aman summit has met that the Middle East is open to business, but that has really not affected the relationship between Syria and Israel, for example, so that may be a factor as well.
JIM LEHRER: How important is it that Syria and Israel make peace?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Oh, it's extremely important, Jim. Peace will not be comprehensive. It will not be complete until there is peace between Syria and Israel. I think the peace between Israel and Lebanon will soon follow thereafter. But until it's comprehensive--
JIM LEHRER: That is because Syria is so--has 40,000 troops in Lebanon and kind of runs things, do they not?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: They have a very strong influence in Lebanon. But as long as there is no peace between Syria and Israel and between Lebanon and Israel, there will still be a great risk to Israel. They still have a threat from Syria, and moreover, I think the other countries of the Middle East will not be ready to fully normalize relationships with Israel. Let me put it positively. Once there's peace with Syria, I think we'll find that the normalization process proceeds much more rapidly. You know, Shimon Peres believes that very strongly. He spoke about 20 nations joining together in some sort of a peace ceremony if the Syrian peace can be achieved.
JIM LEHRER: The term peace talks, I mean, there's no threat of war between Israel and Syria, is there?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, they've been at war four times since 1945. They have very large forces facing each other, and so there's no imminent threat of war, but, nevertheless, there is always that possibility, and, you know, they are still in a technical state of war. People quite often forget that.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the scenario or the schedule that is on the table now, or at least what's scheduled now is the talks will be here in Washington, is that right, next week?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes. They'll be in a remote location in the environs of Washington but outside of Washington in a private facility where they'll be free from intrusions, and those will go on for three days.
JIM LEHRER: These are face-to-face between representatives of Syria and Israel?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, chosen representatives who have a broad mandate from both countries.
JIM LEHRER: At what level, sir?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, it's just below the ministerial level. The--one level before the ministerial level, but more important than that, Jim, I think, is the people who will be coming to negotiate have the full confidence of the leaders of the country. For example, the man who's coming from Israel, Juri Severe, is Peres's right hand man and the man who negotiated the Palestinian agreements primarily as the work horse there in those negotiations. They'll negotiate for three days intensively day and night, and then they'll take a week off to go back home for consultation and probably further instructions, then they'll come back for three more days. After that, I'll go back to the Middle East to talk over with President Assad and Prime Minister Peres the results of this intensive, quite unusual set of discussions.
JIM LEHRER: And when you go, that's in January, right?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, sir.
JIM LEHRER: Are you expecting to go back with the deal in hand?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: No. I'm really not. I'm expecting to go back with some progress. I'm hoping to go back with a framework that enables us to move ahead both procedurally and substantively. But I want to say this is not like Dayton, where we had three country leaders there. They had done a great deal of work prior to that time. Here we hope to take a major step forward to work out a framework for the rest of the procedure and the rest of the substantive discussions, but too much to hope for to have an agreement.
JIM LEHRER: The main sticking point remains the return of the Golan Heights, does it not?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's the principal issue.
JIM LEHRER: Which has been occupied by Israel and Syria wants it back.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Syria wants it back, but what there is to be gained for Israel in addition to peace is, is normal relationships between the two countries, tourists, trade, all the things that peace brings. Other important issues in these discussions are the security arrangements between the two countries if and when the Golan is returned.
JIM LEHRER: And, of course, the late Prime Minister Rabin had always stopped on the security issue because the Golan Heights are crucial, are they not, to the security of Israel?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, they've been regarded as crucial in the past. Now there are things that might compensate for that in the future. I wouldn't say that Prime Minister Peres is any less concerned about the security of Israel, certainly, than Prime Minister Rabin was. And Prime Minister Peres was a former defense minister of Israel, so he'll be equally concerned about security. But in, in this time, I think the parties will be able to fashion arrangements if they wish to do so that can provide for security in a new environment.
JIM LEHRER: You've been involved in many, many negotiations, Mr. Secretary, before and since you've been Secretary of State. Do you smell a deal here?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I'm hopeful. I wouldn't say I'm optimistic, but I'm hopeful, and the main reason I'm hopeful now is the change in the mood, change in the spirit, a new, a new willingness that I see on behalf of both parties, as I said, an intensity that I didn't see before, a willingness to accelerate that I didn't see before. I hope it will pay off. I don't want to--I don't want to mislead. We've got many tough, many tough hurdles to get over.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's turn to the Russian elections over the weekend.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Have the Communists returned?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, the Communists did very well in this election, but the main point about the elections I think is the fact of them, you know. Two thirds of the peoples in Russia voted. The elections were pronounced free and fair. Nobody seems to be challenging that. Forty- three parties contested them. It's so interesting, Jim, a few weeks ago you could read in many papers that the Russian people didn't care about the elections, they were going to just walk away from them, there was a lot of apathy that turned out to be absolutely wrong. There was a massive turnout of voters. The voting picture will not produce a duma that's dramatically different than the one we had before.
JIM LEHRER: That's the parliament there.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's the name of the parliament--the one we had before. The Communists did go up, about doubled their amount in the duma, but the Zhirinovsky Party went substantially down.
JIM LEHRER: That's the radical right.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's the radical--
JIM LEHRER: Nationalist Party, yeah.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: The reformers still maintained a substantial stake, so I think we'll see a duma, a parliament, in which no single party and really no coalition of parties will have a dominance. There'll have to be co-coalitions built between the parties on the right, the parties in the center, or the reformers and the parties in the center, and another fact of life in Russia, of course, is that under their Constitution the Executive is the much stronger branch of government, so I'm, I'm not--I don't want to seem to take the elections lightly. Indeed, I take the fact of the elections as a very, very important development. Imagine if the elections had been cancelled, or imagine if they'd not been free and fair, or imagine if the turnout had been one third, rather than two thirds. Then we might have had something to be concerned about. But here is democracy really working, uh, and it works in some ways that may not be to our greatest liking; nevertheless, I think that what we hear today from Prime Minister Chernomyrdin is that the reform will continue, the government will stay intact. It will keep pushing in the same direction, looking toward the presidential election six months from now.
JIM LEHRER: But is it not correct to read those results too, that the people are not pleased with, with many of the aspects of reform, it's made life more difficult for many of them, and under Communism, they were assured of not only a job but pensions and all the things of life that they no longer have?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's absolutely right, Jim. There's no doubt that there's a major transition going on in Russia. People's lives are being disrupted. They're being forced to accept a number of new things, and I think there is a natural conservatism, but as you look at the situation in the duma, about one third of the duma seems to be in the right wing group that perhaps would like to go back to where they were before. One third are the reformers, and they would certainly want to continue with reform. The middle third is a little harder to categorize, but they certainly don't want to go back to the prior world. So it looks like you've got two thirds of the people who want to proceed in some way, despite all the difficulties. But--
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, the Communists are in that last third, are they not, some of them are? Not all of them are in the Nationalist group.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, I, I put them in the Nationalist group.
JIM LEHRER: You put them in the Nationalist group.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: For reasons of characterization, although I don't want to drive them there. The Communists have said a lot of different things. It's quite hard to categorize them. Their leaders have characterized themselves one way and another way and said some things that are both encouraging, on the one hand, and frightening on the other hand. We'll have to watch them very carefully.
JIM LEHRER: But you can imagine the dismay of lay people who say, oh, my goodness, say, hey, we thought Communism was dead in Russia. They're going to this incredible revolution, and lo and behold, they do have democracy, and lo and behold, the people are voting for the Communists again.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, they did get about 20 percent of the votes perhaps, but we'll wait and see when the presidential elections come along. I think that my own feeling is that there will be no reversion, that the process is largely irreversible, that people don't want to go back. They may want to go back to some elements of the security they had before, but they like democracy. Two thirds of the people, as I said, turned out and voted.
JIM LEHRER: All right, sir. On Bosnia, everything on track?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, I think everything is on track. The weather wasn't quite on track, but it isn't here in Washington tonight either.
JIM LEHRER: It's a terrible night here in Washington.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: It's a rough night here in Washington.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Things are going forward. The IFOR troops are moving in. Basically, Jim, we're carrying out the Dayton agreement. It was signed in Paris on schedule. There was an implementation conference in London. There was an arms control conference in Bonn only two days ago. Today, in Brussels, a conference began on reconstruction. They're putting together a civilian team to try to accomplish the reconstruction, so a lot of tough problems ahead, but basically on track.
JIM LEHRER: Are all of the parties doing what they said they would do in Dayton and Paris thus far?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: There certainly is substantial compliance. It's very hard to find any aspect in which they're not complying, and the cease-fire continues. That's very important, you know. Sometimes that's lost sight of. The cease-fire has now been going on solidly for more than two months.
JIM LEHRER: I reported in the News Summary just now, Mr. Secretary, that Richard Holbrooke, your man who was a point man in these negotiations, is resigning. Is there more there than meets the eye?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Not really. Dick Holbrooke has really done an outstanding job, a great service to the country, I think. Dick and I have been talking about this for some time. He felt he needed to leave for personal reasons at the end of this year. His statement today made it clear that he is fully supportive of the endeavor, but for personal reasons, he does need to leave about in early February and we'll be staying in touch with him as he goes about his personal life from here on, but I think the main thing to remember is how much he's accomplished through the intensity of his work and really the ability of it.
JIM LEHRER: As we come to the end of the year, Mr. Secretary, how do you look back on it from your perspective as Secretary of State in what the United States has done or not done?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Oh, I think it's been a strong year for President Clinton and a strong year for the United States. His leadership has produced progress on a number of fronts. Just consider them. For example, Bosnia, we began this year in terrible shape, and now there's a tremendous opportunity for peace, in the Middle East, progress and the Palestinian track with Jordan and now progress with Syria. Look what's been achieved in Haiti, the election having come off there in good form as well, a peaceful, tranquil election, a fair election by all intents and purposes. The President's been responsible for some progress in Northern Ireland. We've normalized relationships with Vietnam. So in an overall sense, I think, President Clinton's foreign policy has had a good year. Now, we don't rest on our laurels. We've got lots of work ahead, and as I think of 1996, we've got lots to do. But I think the world has recognized that this has been a year of American leadership, a year of leadership for President Clinton. When I travel around the world, I sense a, a yearning for America to continue to lead. People look to us to solve problems. It's a great opportunity that I have to be Secretary of State because of the things one can accomplish, because of the strength of America, and I hope that America won't back away from this leadership. I hope we'll stand up to responsibilities and opportunities we have in the world.
JIM LEHRER: You said President Clinton this, President Clinton that. What about Warren Christopher this, Warren Christopher that, how has this year been for you as Secretary of State?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: It's been a good year for me, but we all work for the President, and one of the things you learn as Secretary of State is that it's the President who leads. It's the President who has to make the tough decisions. We just try to help him carry them out.
JIM LEHRER: There have been a lot of bumpy times in the last three years. And we've been talking about Holbrooke leaving. There have been stories from time to time about you may leave, et cetera. What's the state of that? There hasn't been a lot of those stories lately. What's the status of that at this point?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, Jim, about a year ago now, the President asked me if I would stay indefinitely, and I said I would, and that's the basis we're operating on. And I've got a lot of things to do in 1996.
JIM LEHRER: Well, good luck to you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Nice to see you, Jim. Thank you.