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Interview on NBC's Meet the Press With Tim Russert

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Crawford, Texas
August 6, 2006

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, good morning.

SECRETARY RICE: Good morning, Tim.

QUESTION: As you well know, the French and the U.S. have put forward a resolution at the United Nations that is hopeful to bring about a full cessation of violence in the Middle East; but thus far, Hezbollah and Lebanon have said no to the language, Israel has increased the intensity of its ground campaign. Is this resolution dead before it was passed?

SECRETARY RICE: Tim, we haven't even had the vote yet. We're going to have further debate in the Security Council today, then we expect a vote on the resolution in the next day or so. And I think that once the international community has spoken you will see that the parties will need to come into line. I've talked with both the Israelis and with the Lebanese just yesterday. This is a resolution that we think meets the needs of a set of principles that will allow the violence to abate so that they can begin to build toward a permanent ceasefire and to bring international forces in. But it's a first step. It's not the end of this process by any means.

QUESTION: Can there be any peace until the Hezbollah militia is destroyed?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the one thing that all Lebanese agree with -- perhaps all but Hezbollah -- is that it cannot have a situation again that attained when Hezbollah crossed the blue line, a kind of state within a state, attacked Israel, abducted soldiers and really plunged the entire country into war without even the knowledge, let alone the consent, not even the knowledge of the Lebanese Government.

And so if you talk to the Lebanese, they're very focused on extending the authority of the Lebanese Government throughout the country, of being able to bring Lebanese forces throughout the country and making certain that any arms are going to be in the hands of just the Lebanese Government, that there are not going to be unauthorized or militia groups running throughout the country with arms. And so the Lebanese themselves are dedicated to that. And these are obligations that they undertook, by the way, Tim, in the Taif Accords all the way back in 1989, brokered by the Saudis, and also in Resolution 1559. So the Lebanese know what needs to be done here and the international community now needs to help them do it.

QUESTION: But you're saying the Lebanese Government will disarm and disband the Hezbollah militia?

SECRETARY RICE: I'm saying that the Lebanese Government, the Lebanese army, with the assistance of the international community, wants to extend its authority and make certain that arms are held by Lebanese security forces and not by militias. Those are obligations that they've undertaken not just to the international community but to the Lebanese people. And the ministers, by the way, two of whom are Hezbollah ministers, voted in a council of ministers meeting for the points that Prime Minister Siniora has put forward, and among those is to be able to carry out the Taif Accords, which require the disarming of militias.

But we need to concentrate on the first step here, and the first step is to have this violence abate, to have the political principles, the political elements, that will allow an enduring ceasefire, and that's what we've been working toward. We've been working toward it now since the G-8 statement in St. Petersburg several weeks ago, during the trip that I made to the Middle East where I engaged both parties on this, and now this is all going to be put forward in a Security Council resolution that puts the stamp of the international community on this set of elements that will provide a basis so that nothing returns here to the status quo ante.

QUESTION: But, Secretary Rice, on this very program last week I asked the Lebanese envoy to the United Nations whether his government was willing to disband the Hezbollah militia. Here was his answer:

Mr. Russert: "Would you acknowledge the Lebanese army is not strong enough to disband the Hezbollah militia?"

Nahoud Mahmoud: "It's not on our political agenda to disband them militarily."

It's not on our political agenda to do that?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I would suggest that the envoy read the Taif Accords and Resolution 1559, both of which are obligations of the Lebanese Government and both of which, by the way, the Lebanese Prime Minister has affirmed over and over and over.

Now clearly the disarmament of Hezbollah isn't going to take place before the cessation of hostilities or before a ceasefire. Nobody expects that. But what is expected is that the status quo ante in the south -- where you had Hezbollah at the border able to go into Israel without the consent of the Lebanese Government, the situation in which you had heavy arms in the south, the situation in which there was no legitimate Lebanese authority in the south -- that has to be changed and that has to be changed quickly by the deployment not just of the Lebanese armed forces but also the deployment of international forces to help them.

There will have to be a disarmament of these militias in accordance with Lebanon's obligations, and I think if you look at the statements of the Prime Minister and his council of ministers, which include Hezbollah ministers, they have reaffirmed those obligations.

QUESTION: But according to polling that Nick Kristof writes about in the New York Times today, in Lebanon 87 percent of the Lebanese support Hezbollah against Israel, 80 percent of the Lebanese Christians support Hezbollah over Israel. Has our policy of, in effect, giving Israel a green light to continue their military response and for you to wait at least two weeks before going to the Middle East, has that backfired and in fact made Lebanon as a country much more sympathetic to Hezbollah?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, it is quite understandable that there is a lot of emotion in Lebanon about what is going on there. But let's recap what we've been doing over this three weeks. This is not a matter of green lighting anyone. This is a matter of working within the international structures -- first the G-8, then with the parties, now in the UN Security Council -- for a cessation of hostilities that will actually be based on something that will not permit a return to the status quo ante.

The fact of the matter is, Tim, that the history of the Middle East is littered with failed ceasefires. We understand that. We know, too, that the political condition that caused this problem in Lebanon, this terrible destruction in Lebanon, the most proximate cause was that Hezbollah launched an attack across an internationally recognized line, abducted soldiers, started rocketing Israel, despite the fact that the Lebanese Government did not know. That can't happen again. You have got to create conditions on the ground in which you cannot have a return to the status quo ante. And I would just ask people to go and to look at what Prime Minister Siniora said when he was in Rome, which is we cannot have a return to the status quo ante.

We've been building now over the last three weeks a set of arrangements, a set of political principles, that cannot, will not, allow that return to the status quo ante. We don't want to be back here in six months or so talking about another ceasefire caused by the same circumstances that caused this problem.

QUESTION: Do you believe Israel has shown the proper restraint?

SECRETARY RICE: I'm not going to try to judge each and every Israeli operation. I do know that Israel has a right to defend itself. The President has made that very clear. We've been also constantly saying to the Israelis that their war is against Hezbollah and not against Lebanon and not against the Lebanese people. And I think they understand that and they now are in a position, as is Lebanon, to have a cessation of hostilities that will allow a rebuilding of the political ground so that we can begin to rebuild Lebanon.

The United States was one of the first countries to respond to the humanitarian needs of Lebanon. It was the United States that worked with the Israelis to get humanitarian corridors in place so that people could be helped. We've been paying tremendous attention, detailed attention, to the humanitarian circumstances of the Lebanese people and we continue to do so.

QUESTION: Many have suggested that the way to bring a permanent resolution to this crisis is to peel off Syria from Iran -- Syria, a secular Sunni country, Iran a Shiite country -- and the way to do that is for the United States to talk directly to Syria. Richard Armitage, who was the top deputy to your predecessor Colin Powell at the State Department, said this, and he was the last senior official to talk to -- from the U.S. to talk to the Government of Syria in 2004. He said he completely disagreed with Secretary Rice's description of the conflict as the birth pains of a new Middle East. He said, "The Administration has an irrational fear that talking is a sign of weakness. It's the best way of gathering information and influencing events."

Why not go to Syria and talk directly to the Syrians?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it's ironic. Rich Armitage was actually the last U.S. Administration official to go to Damascus, and he went to Damascus to say to them -- senior official -- he went to Damascus to say, you know, it's about to be a new day, the President had just been reelected, it's really time for Syria to make a strategic choice and here are some things that you could do to demonstrate that you've made a strategic choice. They didn't do them. The problem isn't talking to Syria. The problem is that Syria doesn't act when people talk to them.

Now, I want to correct the misconception that somehow we don't have contacts with Syria. We have an Embassy in Syria. We have a chargé in Syria.

QUESTION: But we withdrew our Ambassador. Madame Secretary, we withdrew our Ambassador.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, we did. We withdrew our Ambassador when the Syrians refused to cooperate with an international probe that at least implicated Syria in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. And to talk to Syria about Lebanon is a very interesting strategy. Since Syria -- we've spent a lot of time now and lot of energy trying to get Syria out of Lebanon over the last -- they occupied Lebanon for the last 30 years.

And I think to suggest that somehow Syria is a part of the equation for a stable Lebanon after they occupied the country for 30 years, after they created the conditions that permitted Hezbollah to become a state within a state, after they have repeatedly intimidated and perhaps even contributed to the assassination of Lebanese officials, it's a rather odd strategy to say that Syria is somehow going to be part of stabilizing Lebanon. But we do talk to Syria and I want to just correct that misconception.

QUESTION: The President referred to the conflict in the Middle East as "a moment of opportunity." And another Bush -- former Bush Administration official, Richard Haass, had this to say. He is now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations and Mr. Haass made these comments. He laughed at the President's public optimism. "An opportunity," Haass said with an incredulous tone, "Lord spare me. I don't laugh a lot. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once in a lifetime chance?" These are former Bush Administration officials.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, and I know Richard well and am very fond of him. I've known him for a long time. But it's short-sighted, extremely short-sighted analysis, and I would think that if people looked back on the history of how things have changed, they will recognize that opportunity very often comes out of crisis. You know, Tim, the Chinese have a character for crisis. It's wei ji, danger and opportunity. I think they have it right. Every crisis has within it danger, but every crisis also has within it opportunity. And this President is determined to seize opportunities to bring about a different kind of Middle East. Anyone who wants to argue that the Middle East that has been left behind was one that was stable, that was good for the people of Iraq with 300,000 Iraqis in mass graves, that was good for the people of the Palestinian territories with Yasser Arafat stealing them blind, that was good for the Lebanese people with Syria occupying the country and stoking the kind of sectarianism and the kind of conditions that have led to a state within a state that is Hezbollah, I think you'll have to make an argument that that was a good Middle East that should have been left untouched.

Yes, it is a time of tremendous turbulence in the Middle East. It's a time of change in the Middle East. And the United States has an obligation now to try and, on the basis of the work that has been done, construct and help those in the Middle East construct a better Middle East. There's no doubt about that.

QUESTION: You talk about a --

SECRETARY RICE: The notion that there is not opportunity within crisis is ahistorical.

QUESTION: You talk about a different kind of Middle East. This was a scene that Americans watched on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrating in favor of Hezbollah and burning American flags. And the Associated Press reporter on the scene wrote it this way:

"Hundreds of thousands of Shiites chanting, 'Death to Israel, death to America,' marched through the streets of Baghdad's biggest Shiite district in a show of support for Hezbollah militants battling Israeli troops in Lebanon. The demonstration was the biggest in the Middle East in support of Hezbollah. Demonstrators wearing white burial shrouds, symbolizing their willingness to die for Hezbollah, waved the group's yellow banner and chanted slogans in support of its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who has attained a cult status in the Arab world for his defiance of Israel. 'Allah, Allah, give victory to Hassan Nasrallah,' the crowd chanted."

Have we created another Iran in Iraq, another fundamentalist Islamic extremist regime where hundreds of thousands of people in a country of just 25 million show up and burn American flags?

SECRETARY RICE: First of all, the notion that somehow Iraq under Prime Minister Maliki and his government is something akin to Iran is just not right. I mean, it's just erroneous. What you have in Iraq is the beginnings of a -- it's a very young democratic system. It is a system that has produced a unity government after a number of elections in which people went out despite terrorist threats and put their lives on the line to elect this government. And it's a young government and, yes, it has to get its feet under it.

But, Tim, it's an emotional time, particularly for Shia in the Middle East. And that people would go out and demonstrate and say what they feel is one sign that perhaps Iraq is one place in the Middle East where people are exercising their right to free speech. No, I don't like what they said and I believe that when you have an Iraq that is more stable and more democratic and moving toward bringing these groups together that you won't have demonstrations of that kind.


SECRETARY RICE: But to suggest that this is the start of a new Iran I think is just erroneous.

QUESTION: When Prime Minister Maliki was here, he brought his Foreign Minister. I spoke to his Foreign Minister. I said, "Do you believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization?" He said, "I cannot make a value judgment on that."

President Bush has said, "Either you're for us or against us." Do you believe that the Iraqi Government should publicly state that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization?

SECRETARY RICE: The European Union hasn't even stated that, Tim. I think the Iraqi Government ought to concentrate on governing Iraq. That's what they're trying to do. This is an extremely young democracy in a very difficult circumstance, and what they need to concentrate on is building their security forces, rooting out the terrorists among them, rebuilding their Interior Ministry in a way that will not stoke sectarian violence. They need to concentrate on building the confidence of their people in their reconciliation efforts, their reconstruction efforts and in bringing security to Baghdad. That's what we want them to concentrate on.

I have no doubt that this is an Iraqi Government and an Iraq that is going to be a fierce fighter in the war against terrorism because they themselves are experiencing the effects of terror on their population. I have no doubt that this is going to be a government that is going to be -- that is on the right side in the war on terror.

QUESTION: I asked the Foreign Minister how long could his government maintain the respect of its people with a hundred deaths a day due to sectarian violence, and he said by the end of this year it must end. Do you agree with that?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I've certainly talked to a lot of Iraqi leaders who believe that that's their test, is to deliver for the Iraqi people a better future, a less violent future, in the next several months. It's remarkable to me, and I think indeed heartening, that they take it on themselves to make that pledge to the Iraqi people.

But let me just note, Tim, the person about whom you're speaking, Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister is a Kurd, the President of Iraq is a Kurd, the Prime Minister is Shia, the Speaker is Sunni, the Defense Minister is Sunni. These are people who are working together for a nonsectarian unity government in ways that has been unimaginable and indeed unprecedented in the Middle East.

And so yes, we're going through a period of turbulence and difficulty, but great change doesn't come without turbulence and difficulty. It is a far better Iraq today despite its many difficulties than a Iraq that relied on repression to resolve differences between their various groups.

QUESTION: You say far better. General John Abizaid testified before Congress this week. This is how he described the situation. The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East told Congress Iraq "could move toward civil war if the raging sectarian violence in Baghdad is not stopped. I believe the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it."

And the former Ambassador to Baghdad from Great Britain, a William Patey, had this to say: "Civil war is a more likely outcome in Iraq than democracy," Britain's outgoing Ambassador has warned Tony Blair in a confidential memo. Patey, who left the capital last week, predicted the breakup of Iraq along ethnic lines. "The prospect of a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy. Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq -- a government that can sustain itself, defend itself, govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror -- must remain in doubt."

Those are two men on the ground who say that Iraq is if not in a civil war close to one and will most likely break up along ethnic lines.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, I think it's important not to misquote John Abizaid or to take him out of context, Tim. What John Abizaid said is, yes, the sectarian violence is as bad as he has seen and he has said if not arrested then there could be a slide to civil war. But he also said that he believes that we have the forces in place and the plan in place to prevent that. The tense is very important here. He didn't say sliding towards civil war. He said the dangers are there. Of course the dangers are there when you have sectarian violence.

I simply disagree with the analysis of the former British Ambassador. I respectfully disagree. But the important point here is that Iraqis haven't made a choice for civil war. Iraqis have made a choice for a unified government that can deliver for all Iraqis. And when I say Iraqis, I mean not just their leadership, which clearly has not made a choice for civil war, but their population.

Yes, there are violent people who want to use sectarianism and sectarian violence to stoke a sense of insecurity. They are going right at Baghdad because they recognize that that has a special significance to the country. There are large parts of the country that are stable and functioning. But the government, the new leadership, has focused its efforts very heavily on Baghdad. They have been improving electricity services to the population. They are focusing on jobs programs for Baghdad and they're focusing on security for Baghdad. That's why General Abizaid, General Casey, have given more forces to be involved in the security plan for Baghdad. It's clearly a crucial time for the leadership and for the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: So if those military commanders recommended to the President that more American forces be sent into Iraq from the United States, additional troops are necessary to put down a potential civil war, you would support their request?

SECRETARY RICE: The President is going to listen to his commanders on the ground and he's going to respond to what they say. You already see that General Casey has considerable flexibility in bringing those forces into Baghdad to be able to assist the Iraqis. But the Iraqis of course are the key here and their increasing competence, particularly among the army forces, gives them a lead in the security operation in Baghdad. And they've been very clear that they want that lead.

QUESTION: Before you go, Madame Secretary, how sick is Fidel Castro?

SECRETARY RICE: I don't know, Tim. This is a very closed society, obviously. It keeps it secrets well. But what the United States has been sending is a message to the Cuban people that change is clearly underway, that the United States stands clearly and with people who want a more democratic future in Cuba. We will stand for their right for free elections to say what they think, to worship as they please, and we will help organize the international community to support them in any way needed. We have put aside important humanitarian efforts that could be made on their behalf and my message to the Cuban people would be that they have an opportunity as this unfolds at home to build a stable and more democratic Cuba.

QUESTION: USA Today reports that the Bush Administration has dedicated assistance "to prepare the Cuban military forces to adjust to an appropriate role in a democracy." What does that mean?

SECRETARY RICE: This simply means, Tim, that we've done some far-ranging thinking about when the transition really does come in Cuba how Cuba might have institutions of democracy. That's all that means.

But I want to lay one thing to rest. The notion that somehow the United States is going to invade Cuba because there are troubles in Cuba is simply far-fetched and it's simply not true. The United States wants to be a partner and a friend for the Cuban people as they move through this period of difficulty and as the move ahead. But what Cuba should not have is the replacement of one dictator by another. The United States will support a democratic and peaceful process. But this is simply trying to think through how we might help the Cuban people have more democratic institutions when that time comes.

QUESTION: And we will not allow a mass exodus out of the United States or out of Cuba?

SECRETARY RICE: The United States really feels very strongly and we've worked to tell the Cuban people that their future is at home. And, no, a mass exodus is not to be expected, nor would it be condoned.

QUESTION: Of Cuban Americans back to Cuba as well?

SECRETARY RICE: Our view, Tim, is that this is a time in which a lot is unfolding in Cuba. We are watching it very carefully. Our role right now is to make clear the kind of future that we see for Cuba and to be prepared to help the Cuban people toward that future. It is also our role to give a sense of calm and stability as things go forward. And the President has been very focused on this. I've been very focused on it. The Cuban people deserve our respect and they deserve our support, and they will get it.

QUESTION: So you will not allow Cuban Americans to return back to Cuba en masse?

SECRETARY RICE: Tim, we are not going to do anything to stoke a sense of crisis or a sense of instability in Cuba. This is a transitional period for the Cuban people. We are going to stand with them for the proposition that there should not simply be the return from -- the end of one dictatorship and the imposition of another dictatorship. And we are working with partners in the international community to send that message very strongly. But our role will be to help the Cuban people when the time comes to have a peaceful and stable democratic transition.

QUESTION: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, we thank you very much for your views.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you, Tim.


Released on August 6, 2006

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