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Secretary of State Rice Places Conditions on Iran, Syria for Talks

December 21, 2006 at 6:15 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: President Bush and the new defense secretary, Bob Gates, have made it quite clear in the last couple days that they’re giving very serious thought to increasing the number of troops in Iraq. Do you support that, as secretary of state?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the president is examining the options that will help us be successful in this new phase, a phase that really began after the bombing of the Samarra Golden Mosque, with a rise of sectarian violence, a government in Iraq that’s determined to take more responsibility for its security.

And so the president’s looking at his options. And I’m going to look at them with him. And, of course, we’ll give him advice. But my view is that we need to do what needs to be done in order to win.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, yesterday, when the president was asked about reports that some of his own commanders have real doubts about the wisdom of sending additional troops, for the first time he declined to say that he would follow their recommendation. That’s always been his mantra in the past, that they make that decision. What has changed?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I think the president is waiting not to hear reports of what commanders may be saying, or rumors about what commanders may be saying, or even the voices of a commander here or a commander there, but rather to get a systematic look at what his options are, at what the people on the ground, the commanders, think is going to help support this Iraqi government in getting control of the violence in Baghdad. And he’ll make a decision at that point.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean he doesn’t feel he yet has the full assessment from his commanders?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I know that he does not think that he has the full assessment. He asked Secretary Gates to go to Iraq. He’s there helping to make that assessment. He will come back; he will report to the president.

The president has been listening to advice from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was actually in the tank — the chairman’s conference room, so to speak — to speak with all of these commanders.

But when Secretary Gates gets back, I’m sure he will get a recommendation on what needs to be done, and then he can make the assessment. But, no, he has not had yet a full recommendation, because the secretary of defense needed a chance to review the situation himself.

MARGARET WARNER: The president did say yesterday that he wouldn’t send more troops unless they had a specific mission that they could perform. Can you give us an idea of what kind of mission additional troops could perform that the U.S. cannot do right now?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I think it’s appropriate for the president to have a chance to listen to the secretary of defense, both in terms of mission and what capabilities need to be put against that mission. That’s what he’s assessing right now.

We know a couple of things. We know that the Iraqi forces are not yet capable on their own of dealing with the security challenge that they have and that they’re going to need help.

We know that they are trying to deal with a situation in Baghdad. Much of the violence is in a 35-mile radius of Baghdad.

We know that they’re dealing with a problem of sectarian violence, but there’s also a continuing effort against al-Qaida forces in some parts of the country.

And so those are the various security challenges that the United States, the coalition, and the Iraqis face. How those missions will be defined to address those security challenges, what forces will then be needed to address those missions, I think that’s what the president’s going to be examining over the next period of time.

The president's perspective

Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
The president has been very open to all kinds of suggestions as to how to meet the commitment to help an Iraqi government be able to sustain itself and defend itself and govern.

MARGARET WARNER: You are certainly closer to the president than any other cabinet member. How open a review is this, in terms of his frame of mind going into it?

In other words, did he go into it open to even the possibility of coming to the judgment that we've done all we can and it's time to start disengaging? Or did he go in it with certain fixed assumptions, certain assumptions that the mission is still doable, and it's just a matter of finding a way to do it better?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There is no doubt that the president went into this phase with the same conviction and the same commitment that he's held throughout this war.

And that is that the decision to go into Iraq was because it was in the interest and the security interests of the United States to do so, and that failure in Iraq would have grave circumstances, grave consequences for American interests, for the interests of our friends and allies in the region, and, indeed, for global security.

So that's not going to change; that conviction, that commitment is not going to change.

The president has been very open to all kinds of suggestions as to how to meet the commitment to help an Iraqi government be able to sustain itself and defend itself and govern.

And I would just note: It's very interesting, when the Baker-Hamilton commission came out, that was the same conviction that that very illustrious group of Americans held, that we can't afford to have a failure in Iraq.

And so I've noticed, Margaret, that, really, the Baker-Hamilton commission, but also since the elections, a renewed spirit by Americans, whatever their views of the decision to go to war, a renewed spirit in the Congress, among outside experts that the real issue is: How do we succeed under the circumstances?

'Victory' in Iraq

Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
That's really the test: When will the Iraqis be able to go after those who are living outside the law and, therefore, give a message of protection to their people?

MARGARET WARNER: So when the president yesterday said, "Victory is achievable," what is the definition of "victory"?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, certainly an Iraqi government that is able to govern and sustain itself is one of the very major keys here.

But let's recognize that this is already the most democratic government, with the exception perhaps of Lebanon, in the region. And it is a government that, while it's facing very dire challenges from extremes, extremists, I think does have the legitimacy of having been elected and having been put in power by 12.5 million Iraqis.

The goal of the United States now has to be to take that seed of democracy in Iraq and help the Iraqis to create the circumstances and the capabilities to protect that democratic development.

MARGARET WARNER: But if Americans watching this are wondering when can the U.S. get out, how important is the level of violence to your definition of victory? In other words, does violence also have to be down to a certain level before the United States can ever leave?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Oh, I don't have any doubt that there's going to be violence for some time in Iraq. But I do think there has to be a sense that the Iraqi government, with the help of the coalition, is capable of protecting its people.

That would be -- that's what Prime Minister Maliki, in effect, said to us. He said, we as a government have to be capable of protecting our own people and capable of dealing with those who are operating outside the law.

In many ways, that may be the most important test, is that the Iraqis are willing and able to go after those who are not willing to live within the bounds of a state in which the violence is really the purview of the state, not the purview of militias, not the purview of death squads.

MARGARET WARNER: So is...

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: That's really the test: When will the Iraqis be able to go after those who are living outside the law and, therefore, give a message of protection to their people?

MARGARET WARNER: But you also said "willing and able." Is your judgment that Prime Minister Maliki is willing?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I believe Prime Minister Maliki is willing. I think he wants to do that. But I've said several times, Margaret, this is not just Prime Minister Maliki.

Iraq elected many leaders, not just Prime Minister Maliki. The Iraqi parliament, the other leaders that are a part of the governing structure -- the presidency, for instance -- also need to be supportive of a policy and a direction that says Iraqis know that their government is going to go after those who are willing to kill innocent people.

'A new moderate coalition' in Iraq?

Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
[W]e're not managing Iraqi politics; the Iraqis are managing their politics, and they're doing it under extremely difficult circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you've been speaking with some of those leaders. They've come to Washington in the last couple of weeks. After those discussions, how feasible does this idea of a new moderate coalition within the Iraqi government sound to you, that is one that splits off the more radical Shiites, the ones allied with Sadr, and the more moderate Shiites go in with the Sunnis, some Sunnis and Kurds? Is that feasible?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the definition is: Are these people who are now willing to have a plan for national reconciliation -- which means hydrocarbons law, for instance, the sharing of resources -- and are they willing to stand by the Iraqi armed forces, the Iraqi prime minister when he goes after the people who are...

MARGARET WARNER: That's what I'm asking you.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think it's feasible, because I really do believe that, in talking to these leaders, they have a lot at stake. We sometimes act as if we have more at stake than they do. We don't.

People like Tariq Al-Hashimi, who lost two brothers and a sister to assassination, are still trying to make this government work. These are people who understand the consequences of being unable to come together, and I think they will come together.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there a risk at breaking up or encouraging the breakup of the Shiite coalition, that it could just introduce a whole other chapter of violence, which would be Shiites versus Shiites?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the Iraqis have to find a center to their politics that -- don't call it by name. Whatever you want to call it by name, Shia, Sunni, Kurds, whoever they are, people who are dedicated to certain principles and willing to act on them.

Those principles are very clear that it's an Iraq for all Iraqis and an Iraq in which Iraqis are equally protected. However they get to that, that is going to be better for Iraq than if there are people on the fringes who refuse to govern based on those principles.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States, I think it's fair to say, has not been great at predicting or managing Iraqi politics, not that anyone else would be any better. And so I wonder, with all due respect, why we should have confidence now that we'll be any better at it?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, we're not managing Iraqi politics; the Iraqis are managing their politics, and they're doing it under extremely difficult circumstances.

Of course, we're there to advise and to help. But Prime Minister Maliki is a quite independent person. He's someone who knows what he needs and wants to do.

He came to the president when we were in Amman and said, "I don't have enough capability, I don't have enough responsibility to solve my country's problems." That says to me that this is someone who's not willing to let others manage his politics for him but really wants to take the responsibility himself.

Negotiating with Iran, Syria

Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
The problem in the "just talk to Iran" or "just talk to Syria" idea is that, if Iran and/or Syria believe that it is in their interests to have a stable Iraq, then they will act in accordance with that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you brought up the Baker-Hamilton commission, and you've been asked repeatedly about this call for engaging with Iran and Syria. You and the president have made clear the answer is no unless they meet conditions.

Jim Baker, of course, has used the analogy of the Soviet Union. You're a Soviet expert. We talked to the Soviets for decades when we had missile pointed at each other. Why is that not a valid comparison?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the fact is that we talked to the Soviet Union mostly about how not to annihilate each other. I don't actually remember having a conversation with the Soviet Union about them helping us to secure Western Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: What about securing Eastern Europe? When Eastern Europe was coming apart, Baker and Shevardnadze negotiated over the future of that region.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No, no, absolutely not. Let's remember that this is when the Soviet Union was in decline and coming apart.

MARGARET WARNER: True.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: And we most assiduously did not negotiate over the future of Eastern Europe. Poles determined their own future; Czechs determined their own future; in the final analysis, Germans determined their own future. And we negotiated on how to get our four-power rights and responsibilities out of the way so Germany could have a future.

But let me just make one other point about the Soviet Union. There were other elements to our policy with the Soviet Union. We had the most extensive set of sanctions against the Soviet Union that had ever been put on a single state, called CoCom, where we denied the Soviet Union technology. We had a military alliance arrayed against the Soviet Union.

And, perhaps most importantly, Margaret, we didn't just talk to Soviet leaders. We talked to dissidents. We talked to Andrei Sakharov. We talked to Natan Sharansky.

MARGARET WARNER: Then why not do that with Iran?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, because the point is that, with the Soviet Union, we were talking in a context in which we had considerable leverage.

We've given the Iranians a chance to talk. In fact, we said we will reverse 27 years of policy. I myself have said I'll show up any place, any time, anywhere to talk with my Iranian counterpart, with other European leaders, if the Iranians will just do the one simple thing that the world has been asking them to do for almost three years: suspend their enrichment capabilities, enrichment activities so that they don't continue to perfect the technologies to produce a nuclear weapon.

So the opportunity is there. The problem in the "just talk to Iran" or "just talk to Syria" idea is that, if Iran and/or Syria believe that it is in their interests to have a stable Iraq, then they will act in accordance with that. If they don't believe that it is in their interest, they will not, or they will try to exact a price.

And I don't believe for a minute that the Iranians are going to talk about Iraq over here and leave their nuclear program over here without trying to make some kind of trade. Nor are the Syrians going to talk about Iraq over here and leave the future of Lebanon and the future of the tribunal to deal with the murder of Rafik Hariri over here.

MARGARET WARNER: So why not -- let me just ask you this, though -- why not talk to them and find out?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Margaret, I think it ought to be absolutely clear that, if the Iraqis -- if the Iranians and the Syrians want to act to stabilize Iraq, they can do that without talking to us.

They are, by the way, talking to the Iraqis about how to do that. They are, by the way, members of the International Compact for Iraq. And if they come to those international meetings ready to act in a positive way, at least in Iraq, then that will be welcomed.

But the idea that we somehow have to tell them what to do in order to stabilize Iraq, when they, in fact, are the ones who are destabilizing Iraq, they know what they're doing. They can stop it on any day.

Perhaps the reason that they would perhaps rather do it by talking to us is that then they can exact a price for cooperation in Iraq, and those are prices we're not willing to pay.

MARGARET WARNER: Madam Secretary, thank you.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Thank you.