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Newsmaker: Richard Armitage

November 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, our newsmaker interview with the Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Margaret Warner talked with him this afternoon from the State Department.

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, Secretary Armitage.


MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with this worldwide terror alert that went out, I guess, last night, but came out publicly today. What’s behind it?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, there’s a lot of what the intelligence agencies would call “chatter” in the system. We’ve had multiple bombings here, these two terrible bombings in Istanbul in a week. We had a bombing in Kirkuk. There’s a general feeling that the end of Ramadan might be a season in which some terrorists might like to inflict injury on us. So this is the better part of wisdom to button up as best we can.

MARGARET WARNER: How would you describe the level of the chatter, the intelligence chatter? I mean, is it at all similar to the intensity before 9/11, or a lot less than that?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, I’m not sure that we knew as much before 9/11, so I don’t think we had, you know, our sensors out in the same way. But it’s a very significant amount of chatter, at least based on my experience.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let’s talk about Turkey. An anonymous caller claimed responsibility for these bombings, said it was part of a local group allied with… in conjunction with al-Qaida. Does the U.S. have evidence that al-Qaida was involved?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: No, we don’t have evidence yet. We’re discussing these matters with our British and our Turkish friends. I’m personally willing to take al-Qaida at their word. If they weren’t involved, they certainly were an inspiration for this type of behavior. But I suspect at the end of the day, we’ll see their dirty hands in it.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, or does the U.S. think, it was timed to coincide with President Bush’s trip to Britain?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I don’t know. It seems to me that that’s a possibility. There is no question that al-Qaida is a living, thinking and breathing enemy, so it’s quite possible, and I have no reason to be able to have full confidence in that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, Turkey is just the latest, as the president himself mentioned, Islamic country that has been cooperating with the U.S. to be attacked– Saudi Arabia, Morocco, so on. Does it appear to you that al-Qaida is now in a position where it can really attack at will?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I don’t know that I’d quite say that. I think al-Qaida is somewhat more weakened in that we know their finances are down a bit, and that Osama bin Laden and Zawahere are on the run, but certainly there are people that have decided that al-Qaida-type methods are to their liking, and they want to engage in this Jihad, and they’re going to do it. I’m not sure every single attack is centrally directed but certainly the inspiration is from al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s turn to Iraq. You were there just ten days ago, and shortly after you left, the U.S., which has been insisting previously that before turning over sovereignty, they wanted the Iraqis to write a constitution accepted by referendum and have elections, reversed course. Why?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I don’t think I’d quite agree that we totally reversed course. If you want to use a football metaphor, you might say we had an audible at the line of scrimmage. Ambassador Bremer brought back to Washington many of the ideas that had been shared with him by the Iraqi Governing Council. He chewed them over with the president, who gave Ambassador Bremer his instructions. A jury went back and devised a way forward, which has a fundamental law being provided by the Iraqis themselves, and lays out a timetable culminating in June for a turnover of sovereignty. This is not quite a reversal of course. We are… on the horns of a bit of a dilemma. There is no question that the majority of Iraqi people see us as liberators. However, if we overstay our welcome, we will be seen as occupiers. We are trying to thread that needle just right.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you see when you were there that might have persuaded you that this was the right course to take, whether it was an audible or reversed course, but to do something different than was originally envisioned?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, I also met with members of the Iraqi Governing Council, and it was clear to me that there were some differences of opinion about the way to go forward, and certain elements did not want to go forward without a full constitution having been written and decided upon. That is a very weighty undertaking and a very lengthy undertaking. And the course that Ambassador Bremer and the president decided on now is one that, as I said, threads the needle, does provides for a fundamental law which will contain within it the basic sort of bill of rights, if you will, that will govern Iraq’s behavior towards their own citizens. And it seems to me the better part of wisdom for us to have called this audible.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say that — people who describe this as following the Afghan model, that that’s what it is — explain it a little bit more to people who haven’t been following it every day how it would work.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, I think the Afghan model is not quite what I’d say. It is… what’s going to happen is by February 28, the Iraqis themselves will develop a fundamental law. Shortly thereafter, in 18 provinces of Iraq, people will be chosen to be part of a governing committee. They, in turn, will pick, based on population and representation… population representation, people to take part in the transitional assembly. That transitional assembly will choose an executive branch, including a prime minister and the ministers for various ministries, and it is envisioned by the end of June roughly that that body would be sovereign in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And so on June 30, 2004, if this goes forward, the U.S. will no longer be in control?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, we’ll no longer be sovereign. I think it’s very unlikely that the sovereign Iraqi authority at that time will want the coalition forces to leave Iraq lock, stock and barrel. I suspect there will be some lingering security concerns, though I have no question we’ll be in a much better place then.

MARGARET WARNER: But in other words, in terms of rebuilding, in terms of the oil industry, in terms of everything, say, that’s non- military, the Iraqis will be running the show.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, clearly, it will be our money. But by that time, the $18.7 billion, which Congress was kind enough to appropriate, should be moving well into Iraqi infrastructure projects. And the Iraqis will indeed be running their own show.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what will this do to the security picture? I mean, isn’t it possible that it actually could make it worse because it will look to the resistance as if the U.S. is cutting and running or trying to bail out, and that the security situation could get actually worse?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I think it’s our judgment– it certainly was the judgment of the Iraqi Governing Council– that if we were very explicit and laid out a road map, if you will, towards sovereignty with a timeline associated with it, as I’ve already laid out to you tonight, that this would have the opposite effect. It would prove to people that we are intent on leaving, that we don’t want to stay. We don’t want to take advantage of their resources, and actually it will work as a disincentive to possible recruits to join up on jihad. To the extent there is an Afghan analogy here, Afghanistan has had an authority for a year and a half, almost two years now. It has been sovereign, and coalition forces have remained to continue the work of security. I think that may very well be the case in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: What is there… how can the U.S. now guarantee that once the Iraqis fully take over that the Shiites, who are the majority, 60 percent, with or without this fundamental law– that I understand the U.S. is insisting be adopted beforehand– but nonetheless, once the U.S. cedes sovereignty, couldn’t anything happen? Couldn’t the Shiites essentially take over?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I think you… I cannot give you a guarantee of anything including whether tomorrow will have a day in which we see the sun. I would say that if we are able to work through the next seven months and get participatory democratic processes going, and the entire population feels they do have some political and economic enfranchisement, the possibilities of that kind of destabilization are dramatically lessened.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. has been working with a lot of these Shiite leaders, of course, over the last few months.


MARGARET WARNER: What’s your judgment about whether the Shiites in Iraq… and this is an old question, but I’d like your new judgment on whether they want to establish an Iranian-style theocracy or whether in fact, they are more interested in establishing some sort of at least quasi-secular situation in which all the different ethnic groups have a say?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I did travel to Babylon during my recent trip to it’s now called Hilla, near the fabled city of Babylon. I talked to Shia clerics there, and it’s quite clear to me that they’re interested in an Islamic republic, one that does have or does allow for everyone to practice his or her religion, and they’re not interested in the Iranian model. In fact, I found a fair amount of antipathy between Arab Shia and Persian Shia or towards the Persian Shia, but I would also say there is some level of activity of the Iranians trying to buy their way into Madrassahs and things of that nature in southern Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, on Iran and its nuclear program, the IAEA, the Atomic Energy Agency, is now deliberating, of course, in Vienna over what to do. Is the U.S. still pushing to have the IAEA declare that Iran is in violation and refer this to the Security Council?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, our position is clearly no one would say that Iran wasn’t in violation. She’s admitted her past transgressions, and Dr. Elbaradei and his colleagues in the IAEA have said as much publicly. We’re looking for an appropriate response. We’re working with the Europeans and other members of the board of governors to try to have an appropriate response, which will make it very clear what Iran did and which way the international community thinks she needs to go in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your reading of why the Europeans have not agreed with the U.S. Fully on this?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Well, I think like any diplomatic endeavor, it takes a long time to get full agreement, particularly when you’ve got so many members who have so many opinions. I would prefer to use the term that we haven’t yet reached agreement rather than do not agree. We’re still continuing these discussions. There is movement on all sides as we fashion the appropriate response.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has in any way undercut the U.S. ability to push hard in the case of Iran?

RICHARD ARMITAGE: No, quite the contrary. It was the U.S. who has proven to be quite correct standing up against the Iranian program, against those who said, “oh, Iran is just acting in a benign way and of course they don’t have a program.” Now faced with the admissions of the Iranians themselves, I think that both our intelligence agencies and our political judgments are validated.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Armitage, thanks so much.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: Thanks so much to yourself.