February 4, 1998
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East hoping to shore up support for the hardline approach to dealing with Iraq. Following a background report on the trip, two reporters who have been covering the story discuss the qualified support for the Clinton administration's position.
MARGARET WARNER: Once again today President Clinton made clear that the U.S. was running out of patience with Iraq's continued defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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PRESIDENT CLINTON: One way or the other we are determined to deny Iraq the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. That is our bottom line. (Applause)
Secretary Albright's tour.
MARGARET WARNER: The President's comments follow a week-long trip by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, laying the diplomatic groundwork for a possible military strike against Iraq. Her first stop last Wednesday was Paris. In recent months, French officials have spoken out publicly against using force to resolve the Iraqi crisis, but after meeting with Albright last Thursday, the French foreign minister took a slightly different tack.
HUBERT VERDRINE, French Foreign Minister: (speaking through interpreter) We had a very long conversation, and I can say that at this point every option remains open.
MARGARET WARNER: Her next stop was Madrid to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. After their meeting, Primakov said Russia continues to oppose the use of military force against Iraq.
YEVGENY PRIMAKOV: (speaking through interpreter) Russia stood for and still stands by the belief that there are still diplomatic and political methods of achieving a resolution to this situation that faces us.
SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I made clear to Foreign Minister Primakov our considered view that we have all but exhausted real diplomatic options, and that the time is fast approaching for fundamental decisions.
MARGARET WARNER: Primakov said the Russians will continue to send diplomatic missions to Baghdad, trying to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The secretary's next stop was London for meetings with British officials and Jordan's King Hussein. From there, she took a five-country swing through the Middle East--to Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. Kuwaiti leaders said U.S. fighters could use air bases there to launch strikes against Iraq. But in Saudi Arabia, despite a six-hour meeting between Albright and Crown Prince Abdullah, the official response was less explicit. After her final meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Albright summarized her mission for reporters.
SEC. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Today I can report to you that the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Authority are of one mind. This crisis was created by Iraq's defiance of the Security Council. We prefer to resolve it diplomatically. But if diplomacy fails, sole responsibility for he grave consequences that will follow, will lie at the feet of the government of Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Secretary of Defense William Cohen is scheduled to leave tomorrow for further consultations in Europe and the Gulf.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, to two reporters who've been following the Iraq story. Steve Erlanger is chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. He covered Secretary Albright's just-completed trip. And Mohammad Wahby is political columnist for the Egyptian magazine Al-Mussawar. Previously, he served as information minister in the Egyptian embassies in Washington, London, and Bonn. Welcome, gentlemen.
An Iraqi offer?
Before we talk about the secretary's trip, there are some reports today of a new Iraqi offer. How real does the administration regard this?
STEVEN ERLANGER, New York Times: Well, this is a version of what the Russians have been trying to get out of the Iraqis. It is an idea of opening up all of Iraq, except eight presidential sites. They've never actually listed any number before, but subjecting visits to those sites to a number of conditions and perhaps even a time limit, that does not meet what the Americans have said is their standard of unconditional, unfettered, unrestricted access to the sites by U.N. weapons inspectors. At the same time, while rejecting it today, the American officials have said well, it does seem to indicate that the message is getting through to Iraq that they need to move soon if they want to avoid being hit.
MARGARET WARNER: But the U.S. is very serious?
STEVEN ERLANGER: Yes.
Mr. Erlanger: "Though she's talking about diplomacy, her trip was really to gather support for war."
MARGARET WARNER: How--to what degree do you think the Albright trip moved the U.S. closer to military action?
STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I think it did, quite frankly--I mean, because she had to fend off any idea that the United States would accept something less after all this time--the complete access to suspected sites, and because the UNSCOM inspectors after nearly six years are getting to the heart of the mystery, it means that unless Saddam Hussein really opens up these things, then America is going to have to act. They're not going to wait, according to Mrs. Albright. They're not going to put up with another diplomatic solution that proves illusory, as they did last November. So though she's talking about diplomacy, her trip was really to gather support for war, though it should also be noted that increasing the notion of war is itself a form of diplomacy.
MARGARET WARNER: From your conversations with people in the region, what conclusions did they draw, the officials of some of these governments, about U.S. intentions?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY, Al-Mussawar Magazine: You see, Margaret, there seems to be a kind of disconnect here. I mean, what is being projected here in the newspapers and in the media is that Madeleine Albright has got the Arab support for military action, if necessary. The word "if necessary" is very important. In the Arab world what is being projected is slightly different, and that is that they say--they almost quote Madeleine Albright as saying that Madeleine Albright says that the United States and the Arabs are on the same wave length in order to exhaust all political avenues full stop. So there they emphasize the political avenue, you see, and they say they have not been exhausted yet. Here they emphasize the other side and that is the military, that the Arabs are ready for military support.
MARGARET WARNER: But privately do Arab officials see what the U.S. position is from the U.S. perspective, or do they generally see it the other way?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: No, there is no doubt whatsoever that there is unanimity among all Arab governments, that this man is not a very good ruler, to say the least, that he's playing mouse and cat all the time. But the idea is if you want really to have military action, you have to do a couple of things. You have first to exhaust all particular avenues, you have to put across a much clearer message to the Arab man in the street, you see. These are very important, you know, because right now the message in as far as the Arab man in the street, the man in the coffee houses, is not clear at all. And you also allow Saddam Hussein to set the agenda in as far as he plays around about members of the United Nations and so on and so forth.
The international reaction.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get back to the trip. What did Secretary Albright get in the way of concrete commitments from governments there in terms of either support, participation, use of bases, any of these various areas?
STEVEN ERLANGER: What she mostly got--and this is important--is unanimity on the idea that Iraq is misbehaving in a way that will cause it to suffer badly. And that is important because no one, except the Russians, has actually said publicly, do not use force under any circumstances. And that was a very important point. The Saudis didn't say it. Even the Egyptians didn't say it. The point is real, however, that to make diplomacy work, you really need to get into Saddam Hussein's head that something bad is really going to happen so that while the French have reservations about the use of force, they're willing to go along now with the Americans and say military force is a real possibility because to divide the Security Council now would undermine the sense of urgency they want Saddam Hussein to hear. This was an argument I think that also worked in the Arab world.
While you're right that the emphasis there is on exhausting all diplomatic options, it was also true that everywhere she went, there was the understanding that Saddam Hussein must comply with the United Nations resolutions, he must open suspected sites to access unfettered by himself, to look for weapons of mass destruction. There's a general underlying feeling he's a menace to the region, and he's been on the agenda, making everybody's life miserable now for seven years, and that if force has to come, which no one wants it to come, no one's going to stop it. Then the question becomes: Will the Arab countries facilitate it, which is a harder question, and Bill Cohen on his trip is going to deal more specifically with that. But Albright felt she had very good understandings, even with the Saudis, who were most careful, that they will allow American military forces who currently fly out of Saudi Arabia, to oversee the no-fly zone in Iraq, that they will allow American forces what American forces need. And that's not to say everything that they want.
The importance of Saudi Arabia.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain just briefly why do U.S. military planners consider Saudi Arabia so important?
STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, it is--they have big bases where heavy bombers can fly many sorties over Iraq because they're closer. I mean, planes are heavier than they can use easily on aircraft carriers and can carry heavy ordinance and bombs. Now, they can still do that from Diego Garcia, which is a base in the Indian Ocean, but it requires a longer flight and fewer sorties. They can do it from Bahrain. They can do it from Kuwait, which mostly has less bombers and more fighter aircraft. It's just easier if the point is--and it seems to be, because the British don't want an endless bombing campaign--that you're hitting very hard in three or four days, if it come to that--then in three or four days, they want to hit them as hard as they can. And if they can use Saudi Arabia for those raids, they'll be able to hit them harder. Saudi Arabia probably will let them at least use those bases for refueling planes, for AWACS radar planes, even perhaps for ground attack planes. But they may balk at the idea of actually letting American planes take off from Saudi Arabia to bomb another Arab country.
MARGARET WARNER: What does your reporting over there tell you about what the Saudis will do, or plan to do, if push comes to shove?
The view from the Arab world.
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: I think I agree with Steve actually on most of things that he said. But again the Saudis are always worried about how they would appear. You know, they are the custodians of the two most holy places in the--for the Muslim world. So they always are worried about how they would appear to public opinion not only in their own country but in the Arab world as well as in the Islam world. There's also the fact--the idea why emphasize the question of putting your case better--because in the Arab mind there is that connection between the United States being very permissive towards Netanyahu and--
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about the Israeli prime minister?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: And the peace talks.
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: And at the same time it metes out instant punishment to Saddam Hussein for the same thing--you say always about United Nations resolutions. But United Nations resolutions are being flouted equally by Israel's Netanyahu as by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
MARGARET WARNER: And do officials tell you this privately, as well as publicly?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: They do. They do.
MARGARET WARNER: And so it's a very different situation than it was in the run-up to the first Gulf War?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Yes, but also having said that, I also agree with Steve about the question of military action. I would emphasize very much that, for instance, Egypt--I know it for a fact, from what I hear from the Egyptian authorities and Egyptian--Egyptian sources, that the message that--the secretary general of the Arab League, speaking to Iraq--that, listen, the United States really means action, you really have to think twice before you stick to a position of not allowing the United Nations inspection team to go ahead with the work.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we close, one question. Out of the Arab world, how does the--how concerned is the administration right now about Russian opposition?
STEVEN ERLANGER: There are concerns, but, understand, Russia is a much weaker country than it used to be. Russia is looking for a way so that when it stands up, it actually casts a shadow, which is what Primakov has been doing, the foreign minister of Russia. He is an Arabist by training. He has a long relationship with Saddam Hussein. Russia has a lot of debts owed it by Iraq. It would like to see the sanctions end. But being on the side of the Arab street, opposing the United States, which is perceived as being overly friendly toward Israel and not pressuring them hard, this is all part of a Russian plan to restore its diplomatic importance in the world, and it's hard to criticize it for that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much.