Interview by Hisham Melhem of Al ArabiyaRichard Armitage, Deputy Secretary
September 30, 2004
MR. MELHEM: Sir, you said recently that the insurgents in Iraq were trying to influence the American elections. Are you implying that they would like to defeat President Bush?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I'm implying that they're trying to do to our elections what they think they did to the Spanish elections, and try to, through that, break our will. And further, this won't stop -- this violence won't stop with our election because the insurgents are equally committed to stopping elections in Iraq.
MR. MELHEM: And do you think the elections will take place on time?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I sure do.
MR. MELHEM: Sir, every intelligence estimate and every independent assessment of the situation in Iraq paint a grim picture, at least for the immediate future, of Iraq. And yet President Bush and other officials keep saying that the Iraqis are better off, that Iraq is a better place, that the region is a better place, and that the Americans are safer. How could you square that with this current bleak situation on the ground?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, first of all, it's not only President Bush who is saying that. Prime Minister Allawi said it last week here in Washington and in London. And just today I met with Minister Mahdi, the Finance Minister, and he reiterated that same thing.
Regarding violence, we certainly expected violence, and as Secretary Powell said, it's getting worse. And it's going to be worse, we think, through the elections. But once those elections are established, we think the people of Iraq will have spoken and will be on the way to a more secure, stable and representative government.
MR. MELHEM: Were there miscalculations concerning the situation in Fallujah or in Najaf? I mean, did the United States do anything politically or militarily on the ground that allowed the situation to fester -- ?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I mean, they're two different situations, it seems to me. And the short answer to, did we do anything wrong? I'm sure we did. And I'm sure history will, and scholars will pore over this for years to judge just what we did wrong and what we did right.
But I don't see parallels between the two cities. Najaf, I think, was handled quite skillfully. The Iraqi battalions, with military force, brought enough pressure to bear where the Mahdi militia and Muqtada al-Sadr had to negotiate; and it allowed Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani to be successful in a negotiation where he had failed (inaudible).
The question of Fallujah is an ongoing one, but sooner or later it's going to have to be dealt with, and the coalition forces are shaping the battlefield now.
MR. MELHEM: What would you like to see the upcoming International Conference on Iraq to achieve, by way of concrete measures in the areas of stabilization, as well as in the area of reconstruction?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think, first of all, in terms of stabilization, all the neighbors of Iraq, backed up by the G-8, have to commit themselves to stopping cross-border incursions -- not just slowing them down or trying a little bit to stop them, but actually stopping them -- and let the future of Iraq be determined by Iraqis, not by foreign fighters who are killing Iraqis even today in the enlarged numbers.
Beyond that, in terms of reconstruction, several of the neighbors have pledged some money. I think it's about time for them to come forward with those pledges to match the United States and Japan and others who are moving out rather expeditiously.
MR. MELHEM: The United States accuses Iran and Iraq -- Syria, excuse me -- Syria and Iran in meddling in Iraqi affairs, or helping the existence of the terrorists. What would you like to -- what would you expect from those two states, who are going to be in that conference? And will there be any incentives for both of them to cooperate?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I think the incentive is the following: They, it seems to me, want an Iraq which is stable, peaceful and not a threat to the neighbors; and Iraq of the past has certainly been a threat to Iran. Iran's best course of action, it would seem to me, would be to support the Government of Iraq. In that way, they would be more likely to get the Americans and coalition troops out more quickly.
Regarding Syria, we've seen the beginning of a little change of attitude, at least in the discussions we've had: my colleague, Bill Burns, of course, in Damascus; Secretary Powell met with his colleague, Farouk Shara in New York. And at least the words are a little different. We've had some tripartite meetings to discuss ways to shore up the border; and if Syria is sincere and puts actions behind her, there are ways that not only Iraq will be better off, but I think U.S.-Syrian relations could be better off.
MR. MELHEM: You anticipated my question. I mean, given those talks that just ended in Damascus, and in addition to the political talks that occurred before in New York, the State Department said that the Syrians agreed to take some measures concerning borders. And what are we talking about here? What kind of measures you're talking about?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well --
MR. MELHEM: And are you going to give them, like, some time for these measures to --
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure. These measures can't be introduced overnight. But I think that since the tripartite meeting with the Iraqis and the coalition forces, it would be quite obvious when the Syrians are being sincere and putting efforts forth.
But beyond that, for the United States and Syria to have a better relation, I think that Syria needs to carefully pay attention of the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, and what's contained therein.
MR. MELHEM: You anticipated another question, too. Notwithstanding --
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: You and I have been doing this for a long time. (Laughter.)
MR. MELHEM: Notwithstanding Security Council 1559, to the contrary, the Syrians pushed for the extension of President Lahud's term in Lebanon. What would the United States like to see in Secretary Kofi Annan's report in the next few days on this issue? And will you contemplate introducing another, tougher resolution?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, this is something that we're discussing with our colleagues, and I think we have done up in the United Nations. I think, though, we have to acknowledge that there have been some changes and some forces have apparently been moved, some Syrian forces. I'm not sure we understand fully the parameters of that move, and certainly the tenets of the UN Security Council Resolution 1559 also called for Syria to get out of the internal politics of Lebanon. Now, that's a decision that Syria apparently hasn't reached yet.
It's not over, and we'll be able to judge further as we move forward. I think there's some motion; but whether there's enough, I don't think so yet.
MR. MELHEM: Some in Lebanon feel that potential cooperation between Washington and Damascus on the Iraq border issue would be at Lebanon's expense and at Lebanon's sovereignty. Would you like to allay their concerns -- I mean --
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I think I just did by raising it myself. The actions to help Syria -- or, excuse me, to help Iraq, would be dramatically in Syria's interest. But I want to point out in the same breath that that's good but not sufficient; Syria also should remove herself from Lebanon. The Taif Accords took place, what, 15 years ago? It's high time.
We do understand that Syria has a strategic interest in the future of Lebanon, but it's how she puts forth that interest that concerns us. And interfering with Lebanese politics, having troops stationed at a Lebanese (inaudible), is not something that we, and I think most of the Middle East find desirable.
MR. MELHEM: You have a number of differences with the Syrians, beyond the Iraqi border: the issue of terrorism, the issue of Hezbollah, the issue of -- is there anything new in these recent talks that -- you know, did you hear anything from the Syrians that's different than what you've heard in the past?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I think that -- when I say there was a new tone, I think that they appear to be more sincere, and the Secretary had probably the best meeting with Farouk Shara that he's had during his tenure. But I say we're skeptical because we've, on occasion, heard some good words before.
So, we like that. It's a good thing. But let's have some action to show that you're sincere. And at the end of the day, it's necessary, we believe, they have to crack down on Hezbollah and Hamas.
MR. MELHEM: Sir, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that after the American elections, he will push for intensification of the peace process. And he's saying essentially what a lot of people are saying, that this is best way of beating terror in the region.
Assuming President Bush will be reelected, will we see similar intensification on this side of the Atlantic, or just keep reiterating the position concerning the roadmap and others?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: No, I think, first of all, I agree with Tony Blair that we should have a reinvigoration of the peace process, and certainly that's Secretary Powell's view. I do expect that the President will be reelected, and he will be able to put some energy into this.
But I wouldn't agree that the question of the Intifada is solely the problem of terrorism, that that's the only root cause of terrorism. In one of our meetings last week in New York on the Forum of the Future, one of the most interesting comments was from a businessman from the Middle East who said, "Let's not kid ourselves. The ticking time bomb in most of our countries in the Middle East is unemployment, men and women who don't have hopes for their own future." This what we have to get at. So there are several root causes for terrorism.
MR. MELHEM: The Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, on the fourth anniversary of the Intifada, called on the Palestinians as well as the Israelis to reassess some of their assumptions and some of their approaches. Secretary Powell has called for the end of the Intifada.
Don't you think also, maybe, the time has come for the United States, maybe, to take another critical look at some of its own approaches, in the sense that, well, you know, the roadmap is fine, but it's not clear as to the end when the Palestinians will get a state of their own and a few other things that are still not clear for the Palestinians?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think things are becoming more clear for the Palestinians. I did see Abu Alaa’s statement and, as the Prime Minister, I grieve for the lives, Palestinian and Israeli, who were lost during this intifada. But the fact remains that thousands and thousands have died. The state of Israel is not being defeated militarily and the Palestinians are no closer to having a state.
So I've noticed that the Prime Minister's statement came on the heels of what I've seen, that there's a great deal of introspection, and intra-spection, in Palestinian literature, media, newspapers, calling into question whether their approach was right. We have said for a long time for Israel to negotiate, they have to have valid interlocutors; and unless Mr. Arafat will empower Abu Alaa, as he did not empower Abu Mazen, we can't be successful.
MR. MELHEM: You keep reiterating, you and everybody else, every senior official in this government, the feasibility of the roadmap. And yet Mr. Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister, recently said that after the withdrawal from Gaza, he is not committed to the roadmap, essentially.
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I think that --
MR. MELHEM: And he uses some rather explicit language in this regard. He is reinforcing the fears of many observers, not only the Palestinians, that this will be Gaza first and last, and some minor changes in the West Bank, but that's it.
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, the removal of Israelis from Gaza, from four settlements on the West Bank, as far as we're concerned, is a great thing if it is not the final step. It has to completely consistent with the roadmap; it's the only map out there. That is our view, and it's the British view, it's the Quartet's view; and we will continue to hold that view and to talk with Israel about it.
I think it would be a mistake to halt if we have a successful disengagement from Gaza, from the four settlements on the West Bank. We take the point of view that this might be something that could give enough confidence to the state of Israel that we might be able to have meaningful negotiations. But it all depends on whether our Palestinian friends can step up to managing the security situation, the economic situation and the political situation in Gaza and in the four West Bank settlements.
MR. MELHEM: The meeting in New York, G8 and the Broader Middle Eastern states, where are we now in implementing some of the American proposals and initiatives (inaudible) MEPI and the other initiatives? And what did you hear from the Arab states that was somewhat encouraging? Because you mentioned that you met with some Bahraini officials. There was a crackdown on civil liberties in Bahrain recently. I mean, how can you deal with these issues?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I think what encouraged us, first of all, so many nations came, so many nations participated, and it was completely free of rhetoric. And everyone in the region, to a greater or lesser degree, has change going on in their society, has change going on in their business communities, has change going on even sometimes in governmental processes. I note that Saudi Arabia is talking about municipal elections, will have them for the first time. So in every country there is change.
So our proposals are simple. We want to support those changes where the governments and the people of the countries in the Middle East find it helpful. We're not going to come in -- we don't have the recipe to cook the cake in the nicest possible way; but we do have the ability of some money to support civil society, to support transparency, to support good governance. Where? Countries in the region who want it.
So I would take issue with the way you asked the question about American proposals. We propose simply to help those who are already helping themselves.
MR. MELHEM: But the President said that over the last sixty years you didn't push enough, especially with our friends in the region, to respect human rights --
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: This is what we hear from friends in the region. We are criticized for not pushing hard enough on human rights. What the President was saying was simply a reiteration of what we hear day in and day out from many in the region.
MR. MELHEM: Okay, one final question.
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure.
MR. MELHEM: Last time we talked about public diplomacy.
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yes.
MR. MELHEM: Every opinion poll shows in the Arab world and Muslim world, even Europe, shows that there is a growing negative assessment of U.S. policies since President Bush took over. How would you -- do you have a sense as to why people look at the United States today in such a negative way? Is it because of American policies misunderstood? Is it because of American policy inherently not necessarily positive for those societies? And how do you deal with it as an American official?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I acknowledge that our image, America's image in the Muslim world, has been terribly damaged, and I do differentiate that from the anti-Americanism, which is a separate --
QUESTION: That's true.
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I don't think that people in countries in the Middle East dislike Americans, but they do not, as you suggest, like our policies.
So I think it's complicated. One, it has to do with the Israel-Palestinian question, no question about it. And I think it has to do with some differences of opinion over Iraq. But more broadly, there is also a frustration. There is a frustration that the United States can actually do things alone. So then I think -- and we don't want to, and this is not our desired course of action. I think that's frustrating.
Finally, I think some of this anti-American policy is a sign of frustration that exists in the region because some citizens, as that businessman suggested in New York, realize that their own futures are somewhat at question. I mean, unemployment, a lack of transparency in business, corruption in the government, it leads them to lash out. Maybe rather than lashing out at their own governments, they're lashing out at us. So it's a complicated reason; but the bottom line is it leads to anti-American policies, certainly.
We're doing a great deal of outreach, as I mentioned to you earlier. I just came immediately from meeting 17 jurists from Bahrain, where we had an exchange of views. They have the rule of law. They have been explaining to us what they do and why they do it that way, and we've been explaining to them what we do and why we do it that way.
We're going to dramatically increase that outreach. I'll be meeting with a group from Qatar in the future. But it's not just one person like myself meeting with folks, it's getting them all around our country to help educate our population.
Let me tell you a story. And Bahrain has very good – the Bahrain delegation had an excellent visit to our capital, and they were very well treated and they liked (inaudible). And at the end, the guide who had taken them around says, "You're a wonderful group. I enjoyed this very much. Can you tell me, where is your country?" (Laughter.) And they were very unhappy.
And I understand that. And I said to them, this is one of the jobs I'd like to ask of you. Please go forth to Dallas and to New York, where they're going, and tell Americans not only where is your country, but what does your country stand for, and we'll be much better off.
MR. MELHEM: Richard Armitage. Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.
Released on October 1, 2004