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Armitage IV With Muhammad Alami of Al Jazeera

Interview With Muhammad Alami of Al Jazeera

Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State

Washington, DC May 19, 2004

(1:40 p.m. EDT)

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you again for this opportunity.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, thanks for having me.

QUESTION: Let's start with today's headlines. What's your take on what's going on in Gaza?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: You're speaking of Rafah, I assume. Well, it appears that, in particular, a tank fired, a weapon fired, and I'm not sure -- I haven't had the investigation yet -- but ricochets killed many innocent people, and we're just devastated by this loss of innocent life. The President has called on both parties to exercise restraint, and this is what happens when restraint is not exercised.

QUESTION: But, sir, the President went to AIPAC yesterday and to talk about Israelis' rights for self-defense. Do the Palestinians have the same right as well?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: All peoples have the right of self-defense. But the point we were just discussing had to do with what I think was a lack of restraint. That's why I think the President's words should be heeded. There should be a restraint on both sides so we don't have innocents suffer. Enough suffering already.

QUESTION: What, sir, you just said is the strongest reaction so far from the U.S. Government. You know that the problem in the Middle East, the perception there's a double standard, even in reacting to that. If this number of civilians were killed in Israel, the reaction would be totally different.

Do you agree with this perception?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think that the perception is magnified by whichever side of this issue you look at it. I'm looking at it from a humanitarian point of view. Whether Israelis or Palestinians are killed, we all suffer because we're all part of humankind.

And one of the things with the United States, we have to make sure that our reaction is exactly correct, so we have to know exactly what happened and why it happened before we can fully pronounce ourselves of any view.

Right now, I know enough to say, as the President said, restraint, restraint, restraint, so we don't have other innocents sacrificed.

QUESTION: You use that word, Mr. Secretary. With all due respect, today's headlines in The Washington Post, 19 killed. That could be said about today. This is on daily basis. So, apparently, this restraint is not working. Are you going to do something else concretely?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, we met, as you know, last week twice, once Secretary Powell met with Abu Alaa and once Dr. Rice, and my understanding from them, and I think from our Palestinian friends, is it was a good -- it was a good meeting. Sometimes we hear calls for ceasefire, but ceasefires have no meaning if the Palestinian Authority is not going to exercise control over Hamas. Thus far, they are either unwilling or unable to exercise control over Hamas, so calling for a ceasefire has no practical impact.

I think we thought we had a very positive Quartet meeting in New York about a week and a half ago. Secretary Powell felt quite positively about it. We were disappointed that Mr. Sharon was not able to get his Gaza withdrawal plan through his Likud Party caucus, although it appears to us that 80 percent of the people in Israel are in favor of it.

QUESTION: Some UN officials are calling what happened in Gaza a war crime and asking for an arms boycott on Israel. What is the U.S. --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Who is asking for that?

QUESTION: The UN refugee official.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think we've got to get the facts before we rush to judgment. I want to get the facts on this. As I said, right now, with what I know about this morning's incident is that this is what happens when there's a lack of restraint: innocent people die.

QUESTION: Sir, how about demolishing homes? These people have been refugees several times over, and now they are refugees again, and U.S. Government's position is we are against demolishing innocent people's homes. So are you for demolishing guilty party homes or what's your --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, I think guilty parties may be in for a little different punishment. But, as Secretary Powell said so strongly and so eloquently during his trip last week to the Dead Sea, we're opposed to this. I can't make it any plainer than that. We are opposed.

QUESTION: But are you conveying that to the Israeli Prime Minister?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I just conveyed it right here, on your network. But, of course, we're conveying it.

QUESTION: Sir, you took a lot of heat -- as government, (inaudible) in the area remember when the Sharon's plan was declared and got approval from the White House. But, still, it is not being implemented by -- even by U.S. definition, the Gaza, at least, is occupied territory. Why don't you just ask the Israelis to leave?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, Israel has a democratic process. Mr. Sharon put his plan forward. It was met with mixed reviews in the Arab world. Some people saw some positive elements. Some didn't. The Palestinians were initially cold to lukewarm about it. Later, they saw some positive elements. But Mr. Sharon was unable to get it through his Likud Party.

He has told us, and I think he's mentioned publicly, that he hopes to tweak it a bit and make some modifications and come forward with something. We have not seen what he is planning to come forward with and I'll be very interested to see it.

QUESTION: Back to today s incident. Ultimately, it looks like it's going to land at the UN Security Council. The U.S. will use the veto again?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Don't know. We'll look at the resolution and we'll see what it says and make an opinion based on what it says.

QUESTION: So far, some people --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Or make a decision -- excuse me -- based on what it says.

QUESTION: Okay, yes. Sir, some people are talking about the roadmap and the two-state vision, they are accusing this government of just using that for public relations and to get votes domestically and because they're not doing anything concretely to achieve the vision. What's your answer?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think that's a very cynical approach. I think this is the first President who has ever spoken about two states living in peace side by side, peace and security. He's the first U.S. President ever to say that.

We put down a roadmap. It's the only map that's there. It is the United States who constantly comes back to it. And I will note that the roadmap is the only formula embraced by both Palestinians and Israelis; hence, it is a formula where people can talk, make progress together, and hopefully end at a two-state solution.

QUESTION: Talking about the two-state solution, it is being pushed by the President now because it's not, you know, practical for 2005. Do you have any time frame in mind when it's going to be --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, when we started in 2002, 2005 looked like a reasonable proposition. I certainly agree with the President that 2005 looks a little unrealistic now. But the point is not to -- whether it takes one year or one year and two months. The point is, start on the journey. We have to get to a starting point on the journey again, and then we'll worry about the time frame later.

I think if people on both sides of the issue can see some progress, then it will give them further hope and confidence that maybe we can finally resolve an issue that has existed with us, certainly in this way, since 1967.

QUESTION: And the last question on this topic, sir. What happened in Gaza, it does not give any new hope to anybody. What are you going to do, you know --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Let me tell you that the last people you want to have lose hope is the Government of the United States. We have consistently sought peace, we will consistently seek peace, both for the sake of our Israeli allies as well as for the sake of the Palestinian people.

QUESTION: Does it -- just a quick follow-up on that, Mr. Secretary.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: That's fine.

QUESTION: Does it complicate your situation in Iraq?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: It was already complicated. And it would be -- I think it would be incorrect to state that there's no implication of the Palestinian-Israeli question to the situation in Iraq.

Having said that, it is not a main driver in the problems we face in Iraq. But it has an effect. There's no question.

QUESTION: Sir, I am sure you saw the article today in The Washington Post. Mr. Mahmoud Othman, according to the U.S. newspaper -- he is a member of the Governing Council -- was quoted in the paper saying never in Iraq it was like this, never, even under Saddam Hussein. People are killed, kidnapped, assaulted. Children are taken away. Women are raped.

Are you optimistic that some of it or all of it will change by June 30th?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Whoa, it's not all going to change by June 30th. No, I wouldn't say that. But I can say that -- and by the way, I understand the anxiety being expressed by this particular member of the Governing Council.

The man who was assassinated was a much respected, widely loved, courageous, leading Shia member of the IGC. And I think it fills everyone with anxiety and dread when such a wonderful person has their life ended in such a violent way.

But there are parts of Iraq in which things are moving forward. There are people in Iraq who do wish to fight for Iraq -- not for Americans, not for British, but for Iraq. And so every day when I come to work, I come with the hope and the certain knowledge that there are more people in Iraq who are on our side, or I'd say on Iraq's side, than those against it. And that fills me with enthusiasm for the task at hand.

QUESTION: Are you disappointed in the -- according to the poll, almost 81 or 82 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. to leave?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, I, several months ago, I saw a different poll. It said -- it was a poll that asked the question, "Do you want occupation forces here?" And 70 percent said no. And then they asked, "Do you want the Americans to go home?" And 70 percent said no. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: So it was different neighborhood. (Laughter.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, same neighborhood. (Laughter.) The point is, it depends on just what the question is. I think the general overall Iraqi view is, yes, we don't like occupation, we'd like occupation forces to go away -- but not yet, not yet; make sure there's a modicum of security, of safety and stability, and then Iraqis can take care of it. And that's why we're training Iraqi soldiers and policemen so vigorously.

QUESTION: Well, are you personally disappointed that some people you brought to power from exile to Baghdad, they are members of the Governing Council, they are asking the Americans to leave?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Again, it depends on whether they re asking us to leave now or asking us to leave later. One thing we all share, and that is that Americans don't want to stay in Iraq over the long period of time; we just want to stay long enough to get the job done.

If I were a victim of my own personal disappointments from day to day in this job, I'd have a heck of a time getting up in the morning. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Sir, it was mentioned in the piece in the New York Times a few days back that the only way for the future government to get legitimacy is by being anti-U.S., so to speak, and then for the U.S. to really win, it has to lose.

Do you agree with that assessment?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, I don't. I understand the assessment. I don't agree with it. I think that people haven't fully grasped that on 1 July there will be a brand new situation. The CPA, embodied by Ambassador Bremer, will not be in charge. It will not be a sovereign. It will not be an occupying sovereign. It will become a U.S. embassy. John Negroponte will be the first ambassador to the new Iraq and we'll be just like every other country who has an embassy in Baghdad.

True, we will have the majority of the security forces there. We believe their job's not done. And we believe the majority of Iraqis believe their job's not done. But as soon as their job is done, we will leave, and then we'll be just like every other country, having just an ambassador doing the full range of cultural, diplomatic, political and social interactions with Iraqis.

QUESTION: A U.S. official told The Washington Post we've gone from hoping for a strong and empowered government to one that can survive, literally, until a new constitution is drafted. What went wrong in Iraq, Mr. Secretary, in your opinion?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Oh, we were asked this question yesterday, and I think -- I was asked, myself, what did I plan for that was incorrect. I think two major things, at least from my point of view. I'll let others speak from their unique points of view.

The first is we weren't giving sufficient attention to tribal sheikhs. Iraq is very much a tribal society, and tribal leaders and tribal membership is extraordinarily important, and I think we were not as farsighted on that as possible.

The second thing is I don't think any of us had realized the extent to which much of Iraq had become a criminal society during the time of Saddam Hussein; and particularly since the sanctions, people had become very entrepreneurial in criminal enterprise, and I think that was an element that we hadn't properly expected.

So those are a couple of my disappointments.

QUESTION: And, sir, does it lower the expectations of creating this model of a stable, democratic Arab nation that will spread democracy to the area --

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, to the extent they spread democracy, it will be by their example. Let's be clear on that.

No, the President is quite clear on the goal is a stable, democratic Iraq. Look, if Mr. Brahimi and Mrs. Pirelli, who are working so hard to bring about, one, a new government and, two, elections, an electoral system, if they're successful, you could have generally -- or general democratic elections inside a Middle Eastern country by January 2005. Now, think of the implications of that.

QUESTION: And that, Mr. Secretary, leads me to my last question. They keep giving me signs here. (Laughter.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: They shouldn't give you any signs. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I hope they won't be coming over here. (Laughter.)

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: You have all the time in the world. No, they tried that with my boss at the Dead Sea.

QUESTION: I know. (Laughter.) Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary.

That leads me to the Greater Middle East reforms, you know.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Even putting aside the photos in Abu Ghraib, this temporary thing, the problem in Iraq, the thing that will affect the global ambition -- do you share that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, first of all, I cannot put aside the images of Abu Ghraib.

QUESTION: In the long term, what I'm saying.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: In the short or the long term, Americans must not forget this lesson. This was something that filled all Americans with anguish and horror and sorrow. And so thank you, but we won't forget it. It's a terrible stain on our national honor.

The question of Iraq -- let me separate out Iraq from the Greater Middle East Initiative. There is no question that in every country in the Middle East there are some winds of change. Some are great winds. Some are smaller winds. Some are just a little breeze. And they're in different areas. Some are in academia. Some are in women's rights. Some of these changes are in political systems. Some are in economic transparency. There is some change in civil society in almost every country.

And all the Greater Middle East Initiative wants to do is to, where appropriate, assist that change, not to try to impose some idea made in America, made in France, made in Great Britain, but to take advantage of those homegrown changes that are springing forth in the Middle East, and not to try to change the unique cultural or historical properties of the great countries of the Middle East.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up, Mr. Secretary, sir. Some reformers in the area are really skeptical about the U.S. intentions about this reform thing because they are saying the U.S. Government is still doing business as usual with the Arab dictators and because it needs them or for other pragmatic reasons, and these leaders are major source of the problem; they can never be a part of the solution.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I don't think we can expect situations in the Middle East that have existed in some cases for decades and in some cases for centuries to be changed overnight. I think the populations in the Middle East have to be able to see that there is the possibility of change in their lives. It has to be done in a way that didn't -- doesn't disrupt the larger society. But I think that's the important thing.

I don't think you can turn a switch on in any country and find democracy tomorrow. I'll remind you that in my country women didn't get to vote for almost 150 years after the establishment of my nation, and black Americans didn't get to vote until 35 -- 42 years ago in my country. So these things are not matters of turning on a switch or off a switch. They are a matter of evolution. And that's what I think is happening in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much, and always a pleasure talking to you, sir.

DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Thank you.

2004/570

[End]

Released on May 19, 2004


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