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Interview on Meet the Press With Tim Russert

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
May 21, 2006

QUESTION: But first, yesterday Nouri al-Maliki was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Iraq. Here to talk about that and more is the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Welcome back.

SECRETARY RICE: Good morning, Tim.

QUESTION: A new government in Iraq, a new Prime Minister, and yet no minister of defense, of interior or national security. Does that concern you?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, I think this is a real step forward, a big day really for the Iraqi people. You have the first elected government that is there to govern, not just to prepare elections or to prepare a constitution, but to govern permanently. Our understanding with Prime Minister Maliki is that he wants to get it right about defense and interior. They're going to take a little bit longer. They are doing interviews. They've vetted people. They want to make certain that they make the right choices there.

When I was in Iraq with Secretary Rumsfeld, Prime Minister Maliki was very focused on the need particularly to have an interior ministry in which people had confidence and that could build police in which people had confidence. And so I'm not surprised that it's taking them a little bit longer to make sure that these are people in whom the Prime Minister has confidence.

QUESTION: It's a pivotal position.

SECRETARY RICE: It's absolutely pivotal and it needs to be truly a national unity position. It needs to be a position in which there is someone who is not just competent but somebody with integrity, and I think it actually shows some maturity that they were able to go ahead with the formation of the government so that they can start working, but that they can take a little bit longer.

And I talked this morning to Ambassador Khalilzad in Baghdad. He told me that already the Prime Minister has had meetings today on infrastructure security, he is saying that he's determined to use maximum force if necessary to stop the terrorists and to make certain that they can disarm militias and other unauthorized armed groups. So he's focused on the right things and this government, I think, has a really good chance to work and work effectively.

QUESTION: The New York Times reports that one of the leading candidates to be the minister of the interior is Ahmed Chalabi, one of the Iranian -- Iraqi exiles who encouraged the U.S. to go in there in the first place. Would that be acceptable to you?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we are going to work with Prime Minister Maliki and these are his choices. But I wouldn't jump to any conclusions about names here. There are a lot of politics going on in Iraq right now. Democracy has broken out. People talk. People engage in politics. But he's looking at names that I think really will show that this is going to be a position of integrity and a position of competence.

QUESTION: Is Chalabi on the list?

SECRETARY RICE: I'm not going to discuss his choices. I think the Prime Minister --

QUESTION: Is he up to the job?

SECRETARY RICE: It's for Prime Minister Maliki to decide who is up to this job.

QUESTION: Congressman John Murtha, a Democrat who had voted for the war and now sees things a lot differently, had this to say. Six months after first calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops, Congressman Murtha said that the military situation in Iraq had only gotten worse. Murtha contended that by most every military and economic measure, the situation in Iraq had deteriorated. He said oil production, a key ingredient for Iraqi prosperity, had not reached prewar levels: much of the country gets only 9 to 11 hours of electricity a day; in Baghdad the average is 2.9 hours. The President insists that our military needs to stay the course but there is no plan for progress. Every convoy is attacked. Improvised explosive devices exploding all around, being shot at every day. American troops are in constant and severe stress. The only people who can settle this are the Iraqis.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I would certainly agree with the last line, that the people who will settle this is Iraqis, and that's why the creation of this new government of national unity that has such great focus and that is already beginning to work on behalf of the Iraqi people is so important. But I do think that the United States and other coalition and indeed the international community can support them in that work.

We are going to sit with the new Iraqi Prime Minister and his team and look at the security situation both in terms of what remains to be done and who should do it. When I was there, Prime Minister Maliki told me that he wanted to see an acceleration of even the training of Iraqi forces and certainly Iraqi forces stepping up more to take their security responsibilities. They are stepping up. They're taking large parts of territory that they now control. That notorious highway between the airport and the international zone is now controlled by Iraqis and, in fact, has been much more peaceful since they've taken control of it.

So they are taking their responsibilities. They are taking losses on behalf of their own country. And I want to say something also about the political leadership in Iraq. I have met with Iraqi leaders who have lost family members to hardcore insurgents who don't want particularly Sunnis to be part of the political process; and at every turn, when they lose a brother or they lose a sister, they say the way that we honor that memory is to form a government of national unity and to make Iraq a stable democracy. These people are sacrificing, they are committed, and we need to be there to help them succeed. But it is true; they are the ones that must succeed.

QUESTION: With this new Prime Minister, this new government, will there now be significant reductions of American troops by this fall?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we are going to sit with the Prime Minister and his team and make a determination on how the security situation is going to best be addressed. But clearly, larger numbers of Iraqis are being trained. Clearly, they're taking on more security responsibility. And it has always been the plan that as they take these responsibilities, we will have less to do. I think it's already the case that we spend a great deal more of our time on training, but there are still some difficult places to deal with and we want to make sure that we have the forces there that are needed. That's why the President talks about condition-based withdrawals.

QUESTION: But you're optimistic we'll be able to have some withdrawals by this year?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I'm optimistic that the Iraqis are taking more security responsibility and are better trained. I think it would be premature, before we've had a chance to talk with the new Iraqi Government, to start talking about precisely what's going to happen with withdrawing forces.

QUESTION: But, Madame Secretary, you know the numbers as well as I do: 2,448 dead Americans, 18,088 wounded or injured. And look at these numbers in terms of support for the war, the President's handling of Iraq. When the war began in March of '03 it was 70 percent approval. It's now down to 32. Less than one in three Americans support the President's handling of the war in Iraq. What happened?

SECRETARY RICE: I understand that Americans see on their screens violence, they continue to see Americans killed, and we mourn every death. These are very hard things to do. But I would ask that people remember why we are there. We are there because we are trying to, having overthrown a brutal dictator who was a destabilizing force in the Middle East, we are trying to help the Iraqis create a stable foundation for democracy and a stable foundation for peace. In a region in which our interests and indeed our very security has been so wrapped up, the Middle East, that is something worth doing. And nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice.

I understand that it's hard. It's also hard -- harder to see the quiet progress on the political front, the coming together of Iraqis -- Sunnis, Shia, Kurds -- to build their political future. And so I understand that Americans want us to succeed, and that the question is: Can we succeed? And I just want to say we can.

QUESTION: But it's more than just seeing violence on the screen. Would you not agree or accept the notion that Americans, who only 32 percent approve the President's handling, have seen some misjudgments -- no weapons of mass destruction, a misreading of the level of intensity of the insurrection, whether we'd be greeted as liberators, sectarian violence, cost of the war? There were a lot of misjudgments made that the American people also witnessed.

SECRETARY RICE: Undoubtedly, Tim, there are many things that could have been done differently and I'm certain could have been done better. But when you're involved in an enterprise this big and this complicated, there are going to be misjudgments. The real question is: Do you adjust when you see a different situation on the ground? And in numerous circumstances, we have had to make adjustments. I think those adjustments have been in the right direction.

But there are also some misjudgments that were not made. There were those who said that it would be best just to overthrow Saddam Hussein and then put in an Iraqi strongman who could govern. That would have been a disaster for the progress of the Middle East as a whole and for a democratic foundation for the Middle East. There were those who said the Iraqis will really never be able to do this, let's go in with a huge footprint and leave nothing to the Iraqis.

What we've done is to steadily build Iraqi political capability and competence and confidence over this period of three years. We are a long way -- people forget we're a long way from the governing council that had a rotating president every month to the now inauguration of Prime Minister Maliki, the inauguration of an Iraqi Government that is capable and competent and committed, and the inclusion of large numbers of Sunnis through authentic political leadership that we believe can give people a place in the political system and give less reason for a violent insurgency among the Sunnis.

QUESTION: You've been deeply involved in the President's foreign policy. The Economist, a highly regarded magazine from Great Britain, supported the President when he ran in 2000, wrote this this week: "That Mr. Bush has made big mistakes in foreign policy is not in doubt. He oversold the prewar intelligence on Iraq, bungled the aftermath and betrayed America's own principles in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib."

The UN committee has now said we should shut down the prison in Guantanamo, shut it down because it is wrong and politically -- many Americans believe -- gives America a black eye around the world.

SECRETARY RICE: No one would like to shut down Guantanamo more than this Administration. We don't want to be the world's jailers. But I would ask people to answer the following question: Then what do we do with the hundreds of dangerous people there who were caught on the battlefield, who are known to have connections, who regularly say that if they're released they're going to go back to killing Americans? Do you really want those people on the streets?

We have released hundreds of people from Guantanamo. We've released them to custody of their own governments when we can assure that they won't be mistreated and when we can assure that they will be properly monitored and looked after so that they can't commit crimes again.

Yes, Guantanamo is a necessity because of the nature of the war on terror, but lots of changes have been made at Guantanamo. I only wish that rapporteurs had gone to Guantanamo and actually looked at what was going on there. This is a little difficult to understand by remote control.

QUESTION: So it will not be closed?

SECRETARY RICE: In time, Tim, of course it will be closed. It's my hope that that time is coming. But we do have to recognize --

QUESTION: What's the timetable?

SECRETARY RICE: No, I'm not going to talk in timetables. What we can talk about is what result we want, and we want a result in which we are certain that dangerous people are not going to be let back out on the streets. Because the day that we are facing them again on the battlefield -- and by the way, that has happened in a couple of cases of people released from Guantanamo -- the question is going to be quite a different one from you or from others, which is: Why didn't you make provisions to keep dangerous criminals, dangerous terrorists that you knew were terrorists, out of America's neighborhoods or London's neighborhoods or the neighborhoods of Amman, Jordan?

QUESTION: Jim Hoagland says in today's Washington Post that the President's slipping poll ratings don't stop at the water's edge; they have consequences all around the world. Russian President Putin behaving differently. Iranian -- the Iranians, when we said you will not build a nuclear bomb and there may be sanctions against you if you do that, this was the response from the Iranian President: No UN Security Council resolution could make Iran give up its nuclear program. "The Iranian nation won't give a damn about such useless resolutions."

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it's high talk, but I'll say this: Every time we get close to a vote in the UN, there's an Iranian diplomat in every capital trying to stop it. And so I assume that they do have concerns about the kind of isolation that the international community can bring on Iran.

Now, we're trying to show Iran that there are two courses. They can go down the course of pursuing a nuclear program in which the international community has no confidence that they're not covering activities toward a nuclear bomb or they can accept a course in which they have civil nuclear energy, acceptable program in the international community, and the benefits of integration into the international community.

But the Iranians know that sanctions, that international action, can, in fact, be quite damaging to them and that's why they work with all their might to avoid being referred -- worked with all their might to avoid being referred to the Security Council. They failed in that and now they're trying to forestall sanctions. So I assume that the Iranian President is simply posturing on this because I think the Iranians do know how devastating this could be.

QUESTION: Would the United States offer security guarantees, promise not to bring about a regime change in Iran, if the current government agreed not to build a nuclear bomb?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, I just want to set the record straight. I haven't been asked by my colleagues if the United States will grant security guarantees to the Iranians, so the notion that there's some split between the United States and Europe on this is simply wrong.

QUESTION: Well, will you?

SECRETARY RICE: Secondly, it's a little strange to talk about security guarantees when the question is Iranian behavior here. And yes, the nuclear issue is important, but let's remember that this is a state that threatens to destroy Israel, that is a central banker of terrorism, that is engaged every day in supporting Hezbollah and rejectionist groups in the Palestinian territories, that has stirred up violence in the south of Iraq, including, we believe, in terms of technology that may be contributing to violence against our soldiers. It's certainly strange to talk about security guarantees in that circumstance.

And I would say one other thing. I've never quite understood it. If this is a civil nuclear program and it's supposed to give energy, what is with security guarantees? I thought this was supposed to be a civil nuclear program.

QUESTION: But in reality, if you're asking someone to stop developing a nuclear bomb, and they in turn say through other diplomats at the UN, guarantee you will not topple their government if they do that, you won't do that?

SECRETARY RICE: I thought the Iranian position was that they weren't developing a nuclear bomb. I thought the Iranian position was that they wanted civil nuclear power. So --

QUESTION: But you say they are.

SECRETARY RICE: So, well, let's pursue the question: Do they want civil nuclear power? But, Tim, the United States is not, first, being asked about security guarantees. And secondly, it makes no sense in a context in which Iran is a central banker of terrorism and a force for instability in a region of great importance to us.

QUESTION: New York Times reports, however, that we're going to have a negotiation with North Korea about a peace treaty even though we said we wouldn't negotiate as long as they had nuclear bombs.

SECRETARY RICE: No, what the -- I think the New York Times is referring to is there is an agreement between the six parties that not only will we insist on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, that is, that the North Koreans have to make a strategic choice and actually a verifiable choice to dismantle their nuclear programs. And of course, at some point in time it's going to be very important to talk about the context on the Korean Peninsula. That is the state of war that exists between the parties to the Korean conflict out of 1953 and the North Korean state. But that's a very different set of circumstances. Clearly, North Korea hasn't made that strategic choice and they're not at the table.

The Iranian situation, let's just remember what we're talking about. We're talking about the international community's demand that Iran change its course on the kind of nuclear program that it is pursuing and that it can then have certain benefits in the international system. This is not about Iran and the United States. This is an issue between the international community and Iran. And to the degree that the Iranians try to make this a tussle between, a disagreement between, the United States and Iran, they are really not going to find very fertile ground because we are united with our allies in what needs to be done.

QUESTION: Would it be easier to deal with Iran and this issue if, in fact, we did not have the complication of Iraq? And the reason I'm asking that is we went before the world and said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, our very best intelligence says that, and that's the rationale to go in. And now the world and many in this country are saying: What evidence do you have about Iran? And are you being distracted by Iraq and are your options being limited in dealing with Iran because of the difficulties we have in Iraq?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, let's remember first of all that the United States didn't go and say Iraq is a problem on the WMD side. There were resolutions within the UN Security Council that suggest everybody knew and believed that there was a WMD problem with Iraq.

But that aside, we are also in very good company in being concerned about what Iran in doing in terms of its nuclear program. This isn't the United States alone that has concerns about the potential that the Iranians are using civil nuclear programs to cover military nuclear programs. That's why the Russians structured their Bushehr civilian nuclear reactor with what's called a fuel take-back provision so that there wouldn't be proliferation risk. It's why the International Atomic Energy Agency is asking the questions of Iran that it is about its program. So I think we have pretty good unity on the concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.

QUESTION: And Iraq has not limited your options?

SECRETARY RICE: I do not think Iraq has limited our options. Iraq and Iran are very different places. Quite apart from what is going on now, the circumstances that led us to do what we did in Iraq are very, very different than the circumstances we face in Iran.

QUESTION: But Iran is clearly a much more serious threat than Iraq.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I certainly wouldn't say that. We went to war with Iraq, let's remember.

QUESTION: But they didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

SECRETARY RICE: No, Tim, let's remember that in 1991 we found that their weapons of mass destruction programs were far further developed than anyone knew. There was then a long period under UN Security Council resolution where they would not answer questions about extremely dangerous programs.

QUESTION: But in terms of a threat to the United States, what we found in March of 2003 is that Iraq was not nearly the threat that Iran is now.

SECRETARY RICE: Tim, of course you know what you know at the time.


SECRETARY RICE: And when we made the decision to go into Iraq, everybody believed there were weapons of mass destruction. But Saddam Hussein was also a tremendously destabilizing force against whom we had gone to war. Iran is a dangerous state today because of its nuclear ambitions but also because of its activities in the region, and we're dealing with that through a concerted international effort in which we have as tight coordination and agreement with our European allies as I've frankly ever seen on any issue.

QUESTION: Will George W. Bush leave office as President of the United States with a nuclear-armed development program in place in Iran?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it is certainly our view and the view of our allies that the world cannot accept the Iranians' current position. We can't allow Iran to move steadily toward nuclear weapons because it would be tremendously destabilizing in this already volatile region.

We have a lot of tools at our disposal. We have three tracks: the UN Security Council track which we will pursue; we have the negotiating track which we will pursue -- and by the way, the United States will support that track and support it fully; and we have the whatever states, likeminded states may wish to do outside of the Security Council with financial measures and the like.

QUESTION: So the military option is off?

SECRETARY RICE: The President is not going to take any option off the table, but we believe that this is something that can be resolved diplomatically. We have many steps yet to take and Iran can really not stand the kind of international isolation that could be brought upon it if we don't -- if they don't find a way to change course.

QUESTION: Are you concerned about the -- not only the eavesdropping that had been reported earlier of calls being made from the U.S. to a foreign country, but now the collection of data done on domestic phone calls?

SECRETARY RICE: Tim, the President has spoken to the program of surveillance allowed us to understand what was going on outside the country in connection to what was going on inside the country. That link had to be made. Mike Hayden has spoken to this extensively in his testimony, in his confirmation hearings. And the President has assured the American people that he has acted within the law but that he's done everything within the law to help protect and preserve this country.

QUESTION: During the campaign he said every time -- any time he'd get a wiretap he'd get a court order. That has not been the case.

SECRETARY RICE: The President has made very clear that what he is doing is under his authorities as Commander-in-Chief but also under legal authorities. I'm not going to get into the debate that the lawyers may have about this, but I can tell you that this President is committed to two goals simultaneously: first, that he's going to protect the privacy of the American people because that's who we are; but he's also going to protect us as a country, and in order to do that I think Americans understand that you can't have a situation in which al-Qaida and people associated with al-Qaida are having conversations inside the country that connect to conversations outside the country and we can't monitor them.

QUESTION: But this is collection of data within the U.S.

SECRETARY RICE: Tim, I'm not going to get into the details of our intelligence programs, but let me just note the issue is: Can we both protect our privacy and protect our country? The President believes that we can. He has undertaken steps to do that. And I might say that Mike Hayden, who I've know, by the way, since we were -- he was a lieutenant colonel on the Joint Staff and I was a fellow there, is someone who is a man of integrity, someone who will do a very fine job of running the Central Intelligence Agency, and someone who is equally committed as the President is to both privacy and protection.

QUESTION: And to be continued. We thank you very much for sharing your views.



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