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interview: richard armitage

People in the Islamic community have said to us that one man's terrorist is another man's revolutionary. What is a terrorist?

A terrorist is one who kills innocents for the pursuit of a political aim.

Period? It doesn't matter what that political aim is?

Well, I don't think it does. There are ways to pursue political change. In a democracy it's through the ballot box. There are other ways, and many democracies have many different systems of democracy. But to kill innocents, including women and children, for the pursuit of a political aim, is the definition of a terrorist. ...

Is this a political purpose or a religious purpose in terms of Osama bin Laden?

Well, I think clearly it's a cynical misuse of one of the world's great religions for a secular and indeed personal aim.

Bin Laden's litany of grievances in his various fatwahs -- that we tilt towards Israel, that we support corrupt regimes who are repressive, that we have sanctions on Iraq that hurt the people of Iraq, that we bomb Iraq -- the same litany we hear from many people in the Arab world who are not allied with him, who disown his tactics. Are we going to address those issues in this crisis?

Well, I think you're playing ball on his turf, and I'm not willing to do that.

Yes, we bomb Iraq. Iraq invaded a neighbor, killed women and children, raped, murdered and plundered, and would have gone on to do that further in the Gulf if not faced by a might coalition.



about richard armitage

Richard Armitage is the U.S. deputy secretary of state; he previously served as a special emissary to Jordan's King Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 1983 to 1989. He defends overall U.S. policy in the Middle East and tells FRONTLINE that in the past, the U.S. has been "playing defense" in regards to terrorism, but after Sept. 11 "the president's decided that we're going on the offensive." This interview was conducted in September 2001.

I think what Osama bin Laden does is to take the fact that some peoples lack hope and lack opportunity, and twist it to his own ends. That's what you're seeing. I would suggest you don't play ball in his court.

Well, I'm not playing ball in his court. I'm trying to look for motivation and why it is in some places like Pakistan and other countries, we see an expression of support for bin Laden.

I would suggest what you're seeing is several multifaceted phenomenon. First of all, this generally exists where citizens lack hope and lack opportunity. I think it generally exists where the demographics favor the very, very young -- that is, a high birth rate and not a high growth rate in terms of economics.

It is clear that the United States, as a multiethnic, multi-religious society, which is built on pillars of hope and opportunity for all, would stand as a threat to someone who requires for their own survival to spread lack of hope and lack of opportunity at a gospel.

But that's what he feeds off of. I mean to use the words of Mike Sheehan, who used to be head of counter-terrorism at the State Department, we can't just swat mosquitoes. We have to drain the swamp, meaning we have to go after the causes and also the base of this problem. Do you agree?

Well, we should ourselves do what we can to eliminate the causes which seem to give some justification to the cause of someone like Osama bin Laden. But when you use the term "to empty the swamp" or "to drain the swamp," I think you need to use it in its fullest context. Draining the swamp for us also may mean going after those states or those organizations that allow terrorists to swim among them, not just addressing the root causes which allow for fertile recruitment grounds.

So that would naturally include Afghanistan and the Taliban?

Oh, certainly.

It would naturally include, at least historically, Iraq and Saddam Hussein?

Well, there are many countries who have traditionally sponsored terrorism. Iraq is one, though it appears the majority of the terrorism committed by Saddam Hussein is on his own citizens. Iran in this regard. Syria, with their close support of Hezbollah, is noteworthy in this respect.

I think all of these countries, in the wake of this campaign against Al Qaeda are going to have to rethink their behavior and decide whether they're against global terrorism or not. They cannot cherry pick, and I think that's going to be one of the results of this great campaign, that countries are not going to be allowed to cherry pick terrorism.

What do you mean?

Well, for instance, it's quite evident that Iran has intent, to some extent, of cooperating in this campaign against Al Qaeda. The further question would be is Iran equally intent on stopping their support for Hezbollah? ...

We've been told that terrorism -- from the point of view of many people in Egypt that we've spoken with -- is the U.S. sanctions on Iraq, that it's hurting the people of Iraq, and making Saddam stronger. So are we going to reform that policy as the secretary himself has suggested?

The secretary has gone a long way to reforming that policy. Never have we really hurt the women and children of Iraq. It has been the selfishness and the greed of Saddam Hussein has done that. But there was a perceptual problem. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has attempted to address it by making it very clear that all we're concerned with is sanctions on those items regarding weapons of mass destruction. ...

[It seems to be a grievance in Saudi Arabia that we have troops there.] People are very sensitive to this fact.

Well, we have troops in Kuwait as well. Saddam Hussein has several times attempted to at least make feints toward the oil rich regions of the Persian Gulf. We're not satisfied and confident that absent U.S. troops, [he] would be content to leave the neighborhood alone.

And it's so essential to us geographically to have them there?

I'd say geo-politically. It's very essential that we protect the survival of those states, that we protect our access to the oil which flows out of the Persian Gulf, and it's been seen by successive administrations and successive Congresses as being in our interest to have troops stationed there.

Even though we hear from all kinds of people in the Islamic world that it is something that makes them very nervous, that there are infidels that close to their holy sites?

Oh, you know, we're all people of the book, whether you're a Jew, whether you're a Christian or whether you're an adherent of Islam, and I don't think there's really a place for terms like "infidels," et cetera. I think what concerns the people is their own stability and their own security. That's been the overriding concern, and I can't gainsay that there are voices that want us gone, but I would say that the majority appear to want us to stay. ...

What do you say to people that we've spoken with, Iraqis, Saudis, Egyptians, who say, "The United States is perceived in our communities as the backer of the repressive regime in our country -- the Saudi royal family, the Egyptian government, which many perceive in Egypt as being repressive and corrupt. That's what's disappointing to us. That's what creates part of this swamp that Osama bin Laden or other fundamentalist terrorists can recruit from."

I think I'd say that probably the best example that one can give of a democratic way of life, of democratic governance, is to have an association with the United States. If you look at our relationships both with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, although we have relatively close relationships, they're full of scratchy and neuralgic issues because we're constantly talking about need for religious freedom or need for further democratization, needs to raise living standards, the need for education, things of this nature. So what outwardly may look like a very congenial relationship is really one that is very complex and has within it many scratchy issues.

But I'm talking about [whether] we provide, if you will, a political base for the organizing of this anti-American sentiment -- which is not a small group of people in this part of the world -- by backing regimes which we would find distasteful ourselves? I mean the Saudi royal family as an example, I don't think can be described as democratic or ecumenical in any form.

Perhaps not ecumenical. I think the definition of democracy, depending on how the 7,000 plus princes make their decisions may leave you open to some criticism. I think we realize that there are situations in states that are not the way we do business, and as I say, we constantly try to apply the lessons of democratic governance and transparency and things of that nature. I think if you look over the grand swath of time, that you do see changes in the behavior of states, and we take some credit for this, and we're going to continue at it.

There are going to be critics, and even in some cases, a large number of critics, of our relationship with any given state. But as I say, successive Congresses, both Democrat and Republican-dominated, have endorsed the way successive governments in the United States have gone about business with these states.

Have we talked to the Saudis about information related to support for bin Laden that apparently has come from Saudi Arabia, both money, individuals? Many of the current hijackers who are deceased apparently had Saudi papers.

We have indeed talked to the Saudi government, and we were very gratified with the recent decision of the Saudi Arabian government to cut relations with the Taliban and throw them out, following the actions of U.A.E. We've got a pretty rigorous and robust dialog with them. ...

[After Sept. 11th has the U.S. changed its views on fighting terrorism?] Is the new view that we're going to roll up these terrorist bases around the world?

Well, roll up or disrupt and dismay, yes, we're going to attempt to do that. I guess it is a new policy. In the past we've relatively been playing defense, and were content to try to stop things. I think we've had enough, the president's decided that we're going on the offensive, and he's putting together a mighty coalition to do this.

So it's not just predict and try to prevent. It's proactive.

Their activities have made it proactive, and as I say, we're going to try to interdict, to dismay, to disrupt, and indeed destroy if possible these cells. ...

So if bin Laden is target number one, we should look forward to Iraq and possibly the Hezbollah in the sections of Lebanon that they control being second and third?

Well, I don't think I would be inclined to give you a list or a venue to choose from. I think the president's words are accurate. We're going to go after these terrorists with a global reach on our own time, but as rigorously as possible. We're going to get them where they are in whatever shape they are.

But what I don't hear you saying is that you don't necessarily think we need to put more pressure on, let's say for democratization in Egypt, or for economic development in Pakistan, or for the Saudi royal family to reconsider its nonecumenical view. We don't need to take care of some of the grievances we hear, not just from Osama bin Laden, but from other democratic forces in the [region].

... I think we can set the conditions for it and try to jaw-bone people into it, but at the end of the day, Egyptians make decisions about Egyptian politics, and so too do Saudis. ...

[In Osama bin Laden], have we created a kind of icon for those who hate the United States, who may have other agendas? Even if we kill him or capture him, as one of our commentators told us, it's not going to end the problem.

I think it's an absurd statement. Here is a man who killed 6,000 of our citizens, and citizens of 78 other nations. Now, who brought himself onto the world stage? That murderer did with his actions. He made himself into it. He masterminded this murder of our citizens. Now, is that not the way to get yourself onto the world stage?

But is it possible that there are other people who are involved, whose names we haven't mentioned, who are actually in the field or tactical or even strategic commanders here, but he's public. He gives fatwas. He gives TV interviews.

There are many people involved in terrorist activities. There are many "wannabes" out there. He's the one, who by his actions, catapulted himself to the head of the class.

Because he takes credit for it or because we can actually prove that he gave the orders?

It is our belief that he is the prime suspect, and it is our belief that the noose is tightening around his neck, and in the not-too-distant future, it will probably be entirely around his neck.

And if he's dead or if he's captured?

So much the better.

And that's going to end this?

No, no. The president has not suggested that. The president said we're going after Al Qaeda, "the base." We're going after terrorism. Terrorism is larger than Osama bin Laden.

But are we going after the symptom and not addressing the cause?

No. I think we also, with like-minded friends, are attempting to address the cause globally. The whole assistance programs of the United States are based on alleviating suffering where it exists where we can, to bring about better medical conditions, better education, to raise the live standards and the lifestyles of people around the world. We have so many resources. We use them as well as we can to eliminate suffering everywhere, which is a fertile feeding ground of hopelessness and despair from which adherence can come. ...

Has there been a proposal to expand aid, to provide a Marshall Plan for the billion Muslims who are amongst the poorest people in the world?

Well, Saudi Arabia's got a lot of money, for instance. The U.A.E. and Qatar have a lot of money, for instance. Where do you have in mind and I'll answer your question directly?

Well, to the Muslim countries that don't have oil, who don't have money.

Such as Pakistan?

Yeah.

Yes.

So we will expand aid to Pakistan?

And you'll be seeing it shortly. Now, how about Afghanistan?

We'll be seeing that as well?

We are the leading provider of aid for Afghanistan already, and you'll be seeing it increasing. We're not interested in fighting the Afghanis, we're interested in fighting murderers. This is a point which will be dramatically made.

And Sudan?

Sudan has quite a bit of money and is involved in a very difficult civil war. Recently we've had some success with Sudan. They seem to have turned their back, at least to some degree, on terrorism. We'll have to see if this continues to be the case. ...

So our plan is going to be multilayered, dealing with the sources of this, the social, economic, political sources, as well as the tactical and law enforcement or military.

It will be multifaceted in the following way. First of all, it will not be primarily military, though there may very well be a military component. It will be, as you should guess, law enforcement, intelligence, political, financial, getting at the financial base of terrorism.

Additionally, it has to be, as you suggest, the other side of the coin. That is, trying to eliminate to the extent possible the conditions which make fertile recruiting grounds for people who have twisted views such as Osama bin Laden. We'll have humanitarian programs for the nations surrounding Afghanistan. We'll have programs for Pakistan. ...

In 1995 Ramzi Yousef, who was the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, was being brought back to Manhattan in a helicopter, and he looked out at the twin towers that evening, and the FBI who was there told us on camera he said, "If I had enough money, I could have brought it down." From their point of view they succeeded.

Well, they succeeded temporarily, but I wonder if this might not turn out to be a pure victory. They may have succeeded temporarily knocking down part of the skyscraper scenery of New York, but I think they've done something quite remarkable. They've united a great country. They've energized what is our strategic center of gravity, and that's a national will, to their detriment.


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