April 30, 1996
Having just returned from Syria, Secretary of State Warren Christopher talks about 20 hours of rocky negotiations with President Assad. He also discusses the dangerous situation in Liberia, where U.S. Marines exchanged fire with angry mobs today.
JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who's with us now for a Newsmaker interview. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
WARREN CHRISTOPHER, Secretary of State: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: First, on Liberia, what is the situation there? What's happening?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, it's a very serious situation, Jim, the cease-fire has broken down there and competing armed groups within Monrovia are beginning to fire at each other, and they fired today at the U.S. embassy, and our Marines fired back to protect the embassy, as they were obviously charged to do, obligated to do, and unfortunately, there were some killings on the Liberian side.
JIM LEHRER: Three reported deaths.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's our present information, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, is there any information as to what these armed gunmen were trying to do? Were they trying to take over the embassy? Were they trying to just cause trouble, or do we know?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I think they were probably doing some random firing at the embassy. The embassy has been a focal point in the sense that of course we have been in charge of the evacuation of a number of American civilians, as well as other civilians. That may have for some reason angered the mobs there in Liberia and Monrovia. It's really quite a chaotic situation, Jim, and I don't think there's any way to account for a particular action.
JIM LEHRER: Well, are there any plans in the works to evacuate, to close the U.S. embassy and to evacuate other people from there, other Americans?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, we have drawn down very considerably, and, of course, we look at that on a daily basis. We think that the forces we have there now are able to protect the embassy. We hesitate to pull our embassy out. We've narrowed it down, minimized it as far as possible. We'll look at because obviously the safety of our personnel there is of high importance.
JIM LEHRER: How many Americans are still there?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, it's in the neighborhood of between twenty and thirty. That is official Americans. I don't know how many unofficial Americans are still in the country. We've taken out all of those who desire to leave.
JIM LEHRER: Does that include, that twenty and thirty figure include the armed Marines?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: No, it does not.
JIM LEHRER: How many Marines are there?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I'd rather not get too much into detail on that, Jim. We're in the process of strengthening that somewhat.
JIM LEHRER: There's--there are 2500 that have been publicly reported on ships offshore, is that correct?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: And is there--what is being done, other than the military situation, to try to stop the killing? What is the U.S. doing?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, we're trying to encourage the neighboring countries to restart the peace process. As you know, this matter has gone on for more than three years, all the time we've been in office. Indeed, the fighting has gone on there. There have been peace endeavors, peace processes, a peacekeeping endeavor, but it's all broken down, and we're trying to get that restarted. Asst. Sec. George Moose, our point man, is actually in Monrovia today trying to see the parties. He'll also stay in the region to see if he can engage the neighboring countries to accept the responsibilities that they've been trying to carry out. It's a very unsatisfactory situation. The only resolution for it is to have the entities within the country recognize that there's no hope as long as they fight each other, as long as they're killing each other, but unfortunately, we're back in a "no win" situation for all of them at the present time.
JIM LEHRER: Before the cease-fire, Mr. Secretary, it was reported that there were, there was widespread killing, chaos, anarchy, but one thing that was never reported was the extent of it. Do we have any idea how many people have been killed in these last two or three weeks?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I've not seen any reliable estimate of that, Jim. Most of the recent fighting has been around the city of Monrovia. But we don't know what the situation is in the outlying areas.
JIM LEHRER: All right. All right. Let's go--or I should say back to the Middle East.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: And your successful negotiations there. The cease-fire is holding, is that correct?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, a cease-fire is holding.
JIM LEHRER: But what about this report today that there was an exchange of fire between the Hezbollah and the Israelis, although no civilians were involved? Do you know--can you add anything to that report?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I think it's necessary to step back and explain a little bit about what was achieved and what wasn't . Now, what we did achieve in the agreement that was reached was the crisis was in the--there was an agreement there'd be no more katyushas fired into Northern Israel. There was an agreement that civilians would not be targeted on either side.
There was an agreement that civilian areas would not be used to launch katyusha rockets or any other kind of endeavor, and we set up a monitoring commission. What wasn't done, Jim, and we had really no hope for endeavor that we might do this, and this is not--this is not a peace agreement. This does not end all the fighting. There may continue to be fighting. We hope there will not be--in the so-called security zone in Southern Lebanon between armed forces.
Now, we had hoped and expected there would be a period of calm that even, even in that area there would not be any fighting, and unfortunately, today's incident does rupture that calm, but it does not breach the agreement that was reached because civilians were not involved, and I hope that the really brevity of that incident means that the parties will go back to a period of calm so that we can restart the peace process.
JIM LEHRER: What was the nature of the exchange?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, as I--I've just read about it. I've not had an official report on it, but as I understand it, the Hezbollah fired at the--some Israeli forces, and the Israeli forces fired back as they were well entitled to do.
JIM LEHRER: And that, that was the end of it?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That was the end of it. It was a very brief encounter. Indeed, the Israelis that I talked to over lunch today were downplaying the seriousness of that episode.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's go back now to the, uh, to the agreement, itself.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: The cease-fire agreement. It's been widely reported here in the United States that the way you brought that off finally was you got mad, you got angry, you lost your patience with Assad, snapped your briefcase, and started to walk out, and he said, wait a minute, let's make a deal, is that, is that true?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, some elements of that are true. It was, it was a long negotiation. It was a very tough week. There were ups and downs in the week, and in the course of the week I understand him a little better now and perhaps he understands there are limits to my patience too.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, you really did get mad then?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I was upset, yes.
JIM LEHRER: What--what was the nature of your upsetness, if that's a word?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Jim, I thought that the matter was being prolonged unnecessarily. People were, you know, people were dying, fighting was going on. There's more homeless being created. Hundreds of thousands of people were having to flee their homes, and I felt that we should not procrastinate any longer, that there was no reason to be examining the words over and over and over again.
I spent more than 20 hours with President Assad, and I thought we'd come to the point where if he was serious about it, we should reach agreement.
JIM LEHRER: The other thing that a lot of people have said, particularly a lot of newspaper columnists have said that you were humiliated, you were embarrassed, you were mistreated and abused by Assad, particularly when he wouldn't see you when you came back on one of those trips and he kept you waiting one previous time. Do you feel insulted? Do you feel abused by President Assad?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Uh, Jim, that's a very tough neighborhood out there, and it's no place for the faint of heart. I, I was in a situation where, uh, I was upset about what happened, but my, my choice is not to walk away from the situation. You walk away, and the fighting goes on. Uh, so I didn't pay a great deal of attention to that episode. I just pushed on because I knew it was necessary to get an agreement.
Ultimately, it was the United States that prevailed. I had negotiated the earlier, informal agreement. We were at the center of this negotiation, and I think only the United States could have achieved what was achieved there, so the end result was a very good result, and in the end, I think it was the United States, the presence and the power of the United States that made it possible.
JIM LEHRER: Now, explain that, Mr. Secretary. Here you've got 16 days of fighting, people dying.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: And nobody could, could end it, except the United States Secretary of State. What kind of situation is that?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, we have a relationship with the parties, as I said. I negotiated the informal understanding in 1993 that it was only oral and not written. We have a relationship with the Israelis. The Israelis identified us as the sole channel. We have a relationship with Syria and with Lebanon, some of the other neighboring parties, and, you know, we've had a long relationship in the Middle East.
We have a special responsibility there. It's exceedingly important in the United States both for emotional reasons, sentimental reasons, economic reasons, security reasons, so it's in our best interest to be active there, and putting myself to one side, I think the United States plays a leading role. I have developed a relationship with many of the leading actors there as well.
JIM LEHRER: Did you ever say to Assad or the foreign minister of Syria, I'm the Secretary of State, I do not appreciate being kept waiting, I do not appreciate being treated this way? Did you--did you raise it to that level?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Uh, let's say that the morning after that happened we had about 20 minutes alone. I made it fairly clear that the relationship that we had was endangered by their conduct. I don't want to go beyond that, but we had a fairly candid conversation at that point.
JIM LEHRER: Tom Friedman, a columnist for the "New York Times," among others, have suggested that, that not just you but everybody has misplayed Assad, that the sweep technique with him doesn't work. He understands--he's a tough guy, himself, you got to treat him toughly, and, and that's the way to go. Do you agree now based on this experience that maybe Friedman was right?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, as I say, I've learned something about him. he's probably learned something about me. What I disagree with Tom about--Tom Friedman that is--is that you ought to just walk away from the situation. He said, you know, tell Assad to call you up if he wants to go on. I don't think we--
JIM LEHRER: He said that on this program, in fact, Friedman did?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: I don't think we can afford to do that. We need to keep probing to see if it's possible to reach a peace agreement, particularly as long as the Israelis want us to do that. It's--it probably is quite satisfying to sort of turn your back and walk away, as I might have in the middle of last week, but that, that's not my style, and it doesn't get very good results.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to Assad and folks like Assad when they say how can the United States be a neutral force here, you're so clearly pro--the United States is so clearly pro-Israeli, pro-Israel?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Uh, what I say to them is observe how I'm conducting these negotiations. See if you don't think I'm being fair. See if you don't think I'm dealing with this situation in a way that's trying to produce the best result. I know that you have interests, Israel has interests, but the United States has a role to play here, and we're going to try to play it so as to achieve the result.
This is not--this is not a zero sum game. Both of these nations can win if peace is achieved. There's a great deal to be gained on Syria's part, not only to gain back territory that they claim but also to break out of the isolation, to break out of the economic privation that we're in. As far as Israel is concerned, of course, if peace can be achieved, it would complete the circle of peace and I think remove the single greatest threat that they have even now.
JIM LEHRER: Prime Minister Peres said on this program last night to Elizabeth Farnsworth that there could not be a real peace in the Middle East without the cooperation of Assad and Syria. Do you agree?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Yes, that's correct. He controls the situation almost totally in Lebanon, or very completely, and that, as I say, that's necessary to complete the circle of peace. I think if that peace can be put together, then a great many other things will fall into place very quickly in the Middle East.
JIM LEHRER: Today your department issued the terrorism report. This was in the News Summary, and one of the countries listed as one of the state sponsors of terrorism was Syria. Did you say anything to Assad, hey, knock this stuff off?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: We talk about that quite regularly. Our principal objection, of course, is that they provide a haven for the terrorist organizations, not that the government, themselves, are involved, but that they provide it.
JIM LEHRER: They don't send terrorists out from Syria to hit--attack--
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: --hit targets in Israel or somewhere else?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: They provide a safe haven, a home for some of the resistance movements who then, we believe, conduct these terrorist attacks, themselves. That's what our objection is.
JIM LEHRER: Does President Assad deny that, or how does he--what does he say when you mention this to him?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Well, we've, we continue to have our differences on that subject. But I think he feels that a peace agreement is the only basis on which they will end that kind of activity, providing a safe haven for the resistance groups, and, uh, there are various differences we have with, with Syria, but as I say, I don't believe I can just list those and then walk away.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. He sees that--helping what the United States sees as terrorist groups as legitimate resistance movements, in other words, he doesn't seem them as terrorist groups?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: That's right. I don't want to try to plead his case, but he would, he would say that as long as Israel occupies part of Southern Lebanon and occupies what used to be Syrian territory in the Golan Heights, then they are justified in providing a home for these resistance movements. I think that's what his argument is.
JIM LEHRER: Did you come home from, finally, Mr. Secretary, did you come home from this last, as you say, 20 days of hard work, you got a cease-fire, do you feel you got anything beyond that? Do you see a, a little bit of more light at the end of the tunnel than you saw when you left here?
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Jim, it was seven days. It felt like twenty, but it was only seven days.
JIM LEHRER: Twenty hours. I'm sorry. It was 20 hours with Assad. Okay. Sorry.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Jim, there are, there are some positive things to come out of this. First, I think in the agreement, itself, there's a recognition that this is not the final conclusion, what is really necessary is a peace agreement, the United States commits itself to try to get the parties back to the peace table, and I think there's a fairly good chance of doing that in the near future.
Second, it sets up a monitoring committee or group which will monitor the situation in Southern Lebanon, for the first time give us an entity involving the Syrians, the Lebanese, and the Israelis together with the American and French, who will be working on the situation. It also sets up a consolidated group, consultated group that will work on the reconstruction of Lebanon. So those are positive things but mostly I think that the most valuable things, it may pave the way for a resumption of the peace talks.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.
SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Thank you, Jim.