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Secretary Albright

December 17, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Madam Secretary, welcome.

SEC.MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: It’s good to be with you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: The Republican leadership of the House decided this afternoon to begin the impeachment debate tomorrow. What do you think about that decision?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it’s not up to me to. It’s a process that Congress has. I think that the president is doing his job, and working exceptionally hard, I think, and the military campaign is going on in Iraq, and we are involved in a period where this is a big issue for our national security.

We have forces abroad. The American people support the president’s decision, and I think all those points should be kept in mind.

JIM LEHRER: Not a problem that U. S. military action was underway at the same time the House of Representatives is debating whether or not to impeach the president, that could lead to the removal of office as the command-in-chief?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I believe that the president did the right thing to make the decision to have this military campaign at this time. His decision was based on a report from Chairman Butler.

This was the time to do it. We clearly – I have nothing to do with the timing of the debate on the Hill, but I can tell you from the perspective of national security, the only time to take care of Saddam Hussein was now.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the minority leader of the House, Dick Gephardt, in arguing on the floor of the House this afternoon against beginning the debate tomorrow, he said that this will hurt our credibility throughout the world, particularly with the British, the Russians, the French, and the Chinese; is he right about that?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that I have to tell you, frankly, I think that in my discussions with foreign leaders the subject has not come up. They know that we are moving forward to protect our national interest. I do think in my private discussions often that most of the leaders in the world do not understand what is going on in our Congress.

JIM LEHRER: How difficult is it to conduct foreign policy when the motives of the president are so openly and strongly being questioned, not overseas but here in the United States by members of Congress and others?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, what I must say has bothered me is that we have had such a great tradition of bipartisan support for foreign policy and also when we’ve been – you know, when any president has been abroad, then for the most part there have not been negative comments.

We certainly found out when the president was now in the Middle East, and I think that the president and all of us national security advisers to him are concentrating on what we’re doing. And I don’t think – obviously, it’s not something that anybody would wish for, but the United States is strong; the American people support what the president is doing; and, Jim, I don’t think it’s really appropriate for the secretary of state to become involved in this particular kind of a discussion.

JIM LEHRER: Let me read you what R. W. Apple, Jr. wrote on the front page of the New York Times this morning. It was an analysis story, and he said, “It became startlingly clear today how much the long months of evasion and legalisms, how much his enemies’ unceasing denunciations of him as a liar had cost Bill Clinton and the nation.”

How would you react to that analysis?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I don’t agree with that. I believe that President Clinton is a highly respected leader abroad and as secretary of state, I have complete faith in his ability to make the decisions. I have seen the respect that he enjoys from foreign leaders, and they see him as a very strong and decisive leader.

They – when we’ve just been in the Middle East for what has been clearly a historic visit where I think he was in his finest role as peacemaker in his – what I think will go down in history as an astounding and historic speech in Gaza, people that have followed Middle East affairs for many, many years think it’s the most really meaningful speech that any president has delivered in the Middle East on Middle East issues, and so I don’t think that this is something that is affecting our foreign policy. And I have to tell you just, frankly, that most of the people that I’ve talked to do not understand what is going on here.

JIM LEHRER: Jim Hoagland, Washington Post columnist, going back to the question of the timing thing that said that what the president did by doing it now has “the military campaign launched under these circumstances is a foreign policy blunder of major proportions,” he’s referring to the fact that it happened at this particular time while impeachment was still – was going on, and that indelibly linked them together. In other words, the action against Saddam Hussein was justified in the impeachment action.

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Jim, the only thing I can tell you is that I know exactly why the timing of this decision took place. A month ago the president gave Saddam Hussein another chance. We were all set to go, as all of you know, and Saddam Hussein said that he would comply, and the president went the extra mile in order to see whether he would comply.

Chairman Butler, who is an independent arms control expert, an Australian, with a commission composed of professional inspectors, had decided that he would have a series of inspections. He consulted with various members of the Security Council, the permanent five, told them that he was going to have the series of inspections.

He was planning already when he started them to be – have them finished around December 15th, and the – you know, frankly, I thought that Saddam Hussein would comply. He had a very good opportunity to comply and then go into a comprehensive review.

But what happened during these inspections was that first of all there were a whole bunch of new things that had been happening before — he created kind of save havens where the inspectors couldn’t go. He said they couldn’t inspect on Fridays. He blocked cameras from operating; he interfered with helicopters; he destroyed documents.

We now know that the military was ordered to destroy documents. And on the basis of these facts Richard Butler made an independent decision that UNSCOM could no longer work; therefore, the timing of all of this was determined by the way that the commission operated its work, and also we were sensitive to Ramadan. This has nothing to do with what is going on here at home — I can assure you – because I was part of every single decision.

JIM LEHRER: But the Hoagland point is different than that – that by — if the president had waited a couple of days or so, he would not have tainted the decision. In other words, where you and are I talking about this now, the front pages of every newspaper are talking about the timing issue, rather than the merits of the bombing. That’s the point.

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I don’t think, frankly, that the president had much choice about the timing. If he had decided to wait, we would be in the middle of Ramadan – the holiest Muslim month – and would have offended every Arab and Muslim nation – relationships which are important to us.

If we had waited until after Ramadan, then Saddam Hussein would have had four to five weeks to disperse everything and to destroy even more of the evidence. And I don’t think that would have been a responsible national security decision. The linkage being made is being made by other people. And if Jim Hoagland wants to make linkages like that, this is his prerogative; he’s just wrong.

JIM LEHRER: Has the mission been successful thus far?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Yes. Well, I think that we’re on track, and I don’t want to comment specifically on – I think you need to – you know – ask Secretary Cohen about the various parts of the mission, but it is very much on track, and it will continue for awhile longer. It has a substantial and sustained military campaign.

We believe that it is on track, and it will continue. I have been in touch with over 24 ministers. We’ve been talking about the length of it and the necessity to have it be a sustained attack.

JIM LEHRER: Sustained over a length of time, meaning what, another three of four days, another two or three weeks?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think I would like to say that we are very sensitive to Ramadan, which begins over the weekend, but I don’t want to go into more detail than that.

JIM LEHRER: What is the measurement being used to judge whether or not it is, in fact, a success?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, what we’re – the purpose of the use of force here is to degrade Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, his ability to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction, and his ability to continue to threaten his neighbors.

So the targets are related to that. They are those to do with weapons of mass destruction facilities with a security – command and control. And so the purpose of this is specifically to do with degrading his ability to – as I said -

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Degrading is the word that you have used; the president used. What does that word actually mean in this context? What do you mean “degrade?” Bombing to degrade-bombing is destroying, is it not?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that – you know – I don’t think we’re pretending that we can get everything, so this is – I think – we are being very honest about what our ability is. We are lessening, degrading his ability to use this. The weapons of mass destruction are the threat of the future. I think the president explained very clearly to the American people that this is the threat of the 21st century.

It’s hard to control, hard to get at, that we need to – you know – Saddam Hussein had the capability to – with the VX agents – to destroy every man, woman, and child on Earth. So we have a serious problem here. He is a threat, and what the president decided to do, I think, was very sound, very important for our national security and take action when he could, and what it means is that we know we can’t get everything, but degrading is the right word.

JIM LEHRER: Has there been any contact between the United States – directly or indirectly – with Saddam Hussein or the government of Iraq since these attacks began yesterday? Do you -

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: No. Let me correct that. In New York, we have informed Ambassador Hamdoon of what we are doing, and obviously, Ambassador Hamdoon is in the Security Council meetings where we are also.

JIM LEHRER: Is there anything that Iraq could do say in the next 24 hours or whatever to stop these, or is it beyond that point?

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, this attack is going to go through its completion, and what Saddam Hussein can do after it is to comply. He can let UNSCOM back in – a real UNSCOM that can do its work. And he can let it do what it’s supposed to do, and then we’ll go into a comprehensive review. That’s what he can do.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Madam Secretary, thank you very much.

SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: After that interview was taped, the State Department announced that the Russian ambassador to the United States has been recalled to protest the U.S. action against Iraq.