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Meet the Candidates: Al Sharpton

March 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Tonight, we talk with the reverend al Sharpton. He’s 48 years old, ordained a Pentecostal minister when he was ten, in 1969 he became youth director of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket in New York. In the 1970s, he was tour manager for soul singer James Brown. In the 1980s and ’90s, he led protests on high-profile racial cases, primarily in New York. He also founded the National Youth Movement, a voter registration group, and the national action network civil rights organization. He’s unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for New York State Senate, the U.S. Senate from New York, and mayor of New York City. Reverend Sharpton joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

AL SHARPTON: Good evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Rev. Sharpton, what is your view of the way president bush is going about trying to disarm Saddam Hussein?

AL SHARPTON: Well, I think that he has very clearly embarked on a strategy of saying that we must engage in a military action. He’s laid out from the beginning a desire for military action without having been able to convince many of our allies as well as many in the world of the necessity of that action. I think he has done it in such an overt and aggressive manner until it has now come to haunt him as he’s tried to change the rationale for such an attack. It seems that his moving around with his rationale has given the picture to much of the world that he’s just trying to justify an action that he was determined to take no matter what.

MARGARET WARNER: So how would you have handled the situation differently?

AL SHARPTON: First of all, I would not have gone to the United Nations and told them that, “you do it my way or no way.” I certainly would have tried to cooperate and participate in the United Nations Security Council’s review of what was or was not done with the weapons inspectors. I would not have undermined the process. I certainly wouldn’t have inferred and in later statements state that they become irrelevant if they don’t agree with my policy. I would have tried to engage also in a real relationship with allies in the Arab world, build some alliances there and try and through those allies engage in some very direct and fruitful and productive dialogue similar to what Mr. Bush’s administration began in their dealings with North Korea. It seems to me a contradiction to engage in dialogue in North Korea where we do know there are weapons and we do know they lied about them and engage in war talk only when it comes to Iraq when we suspect their weapons and suspect that there has been some duplicity. So I would have had a consistent policy. I would have had a policy of engaging and expanding allies and I certainly would not have tried to undermine in any way the United Nations or the Security Council of the United Nations.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you view Saddam Hussein as enough of a threat that you would have taken him on in some fashion? And if so, do you think you would have ever succeeded in getting, say, weapons inspectors back in Iraq without the threat of war?

AL SHARPTON: Well, first of all, I think that clearly I don’t know of anyone that thinks Saddam Hussein is a fine person or a great head of state. Having said that, I think that we have to really establish what is meant when we say that he is an imminent danger to the United States that would warrant military action. There are many people around the world, including North Korea, that has weapons of mass destruction that could sell them to enemies — that could trade with terrorists that are inclined to attack innocent American people. My priority as president would be to capture bin Laden and al-Qaida who has already attacked us and not to engage in questionable priorities of putting in many ways the pursuit of Hussein over the pursuit of people that have already attacked, that have already had a determined strategy to continue these attacks if we are to believe what intelligence sources say. It seems to me that it is very suspect that we are more inclined and hearing a lot more out of this administration until the last couple of days about Hussein than about bin Laden. In fact when I listened to the president’s state of the union address, he didn’t even mention bin Laden’s name one time. There’s something to me that is very, very, very suspect about our priorities being that jaded.

MARGARET WARNER: I hear you criticizing the president but I’m trying to find out what your alternative would have been. Would you have taken on Saddam Hussein at all or do you think that the situation as it was before was really fine and you would have turned your sort of foreign policy attention elsewhere?

AL SHARPTON: No, I think as I said I would have taken him on by working with the United Nations and by under-girding and supporting to the fullest ability we could as a country the Security Council and the process laid out by Mr. Blix and the weapons inspectors. I think that, yes, I would have moved toward disarming him in the way that it was being dealt with and agreed upon by the Security Council. I don’t think that the only way to move is militarily. I think there was a proscribed, agreed-upon way that the United Nations was wrestling with in the Security Council. I would have proceeded in that way and I would have tried to do whatever I could to support that and not undermine that. I thought I was very clear about that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So if Pres. Bush does not succeed in getting a second U.N. resolution, what would you have him do?

AL SHARTPTON: Well, I don’t think that he should make a unilateral attack. I don’t think there should be a unilateral military action. I think that clearly we must engage in the debate, and if we lose the debate, then we must try to find common ground with the rest of the world. Secondly, we must be concerned about the cost of all of this. When we look at the fact that we’re not only talking about now a military action, we’re talking about really coming in and controlling and maintaining Iraq, possibly for years to come, where is this money going to come from? And what are you going to have to sacrifice in terms of American, domestic agenda, in terms of American people in order to pay for this? We’re already hearing discussion, debate back and forth about some $26 billion to $32 billion alone at one point on the table with Turkey. I mean, what are we talking about the cost of all of this being and how do we deal with that cost in light of what we need in terms of continuing to deal with record deficits in state budgets and a record federal deficit?

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And in the short time we have left, first let me ask you, you’ve mentioned North Korea a couple of times. You said that the administration was willing to talk. But, as you know, actually so far it’s unwilling to engage in the face-to-face bilateral talks that North Korea says it wants. How would you handle the North Korea situation as it is now?

AL SHARPTON: Well, I think they began by talking to allies is what I said. Clearly there’s been communications all around the regions and those that can deal with the North Korean government. I would be not opposed to under the appropriate circumstances having a dialogue with whoever which could lead to the fruitful disarmament and the fruitful resolving of weapons in North Korea or anywhere else. Again though, I think that that is a much healthier way of dealing with this than dealing with military action and the threat of such in Iraq. What I’m saying is the contrast in what we have projected to the world in terms of how we dealt with North Korea is certainly a striking contrast when we look at how we have dealt with at least the rhetoric, the military build-up and at this point moving in military personnel around the Iraqi situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally Rev. Sharpton, you’ve never held public office before. What do you say to voters in terms of what qualifies you to take on the responsibilities in foreign policy that a president has?

AL SHARPTON: Well, first of all, I think that there are many people who hold elective office that have no foreign policy experience. I’ve engaged in foreign policy for the last 20 years, whether it was fights around democratizing Africa or the Caribbean, dealing with various causes of world peace and world hunger in Europe and around the world or slavery in the Sudan. I have far more experience than many elected officials. I don’t think that you can make holding elective office and foreign policy experience the same thing. I have traveled more extensively and dealt more extensively around the world than Pres. Bush did before he ran for president. So let us not mislead people into thinking that just because you hold elective office that you know anything beyond the maybe narrow district you may hold an office in.

MARGARET WARNER: Rev. Al Sharpton, thanks so much.

AL SHARTPON: Thank you.