Interview With Andrea Mitchell of MSNBCSecretary Condoleezza Rice
January 12, 2009
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Madame Secretary, Iran. The President-elect has said that he wants a change of approach to Iran. Do you think a change of approach, engagement with Iran, can work?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, it’s not an issue of engagement or non-engagement with Iran. It’s a question of whether or not Iran is willing to make a strategic choice to move in a different direction. And there are all kinds of tactics that one can apply to try to bring that about. But the most important element is that we have now an international coalition that is sending a very strong message to Iran that it cannot have a nuclear weapon, that it ought to abandon its current course. It is not just a matter of the nuclear program, but also support for Hezbollah and Hamas. And when you’ve passed four Security Council resolutions and you have international agencies and international economic agencies leaving Iran in the way that they are, companies leaving – the last Western company to be there was Total – it really does show that Iran is paying a cost for what it’s doing. Now, whether sooner or later, reasonable people in Iran will decide that it’s too high a cost, I think that’s another matter. But Iran is clearly paying a cost.
QUESTION: David Sanger wrote in his book – in The New York Times and in his new book, The Inheritance, that President Bush vetoed an Israeli plan last year to attack Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities.
SECRETARY RICE: I’m not going to comment on internal deliberations in the White House or in any place else. I’m not going to talk about that story. But I can tell you this, the President has always been very straightforward that he believed that a diplomatic course was the appropriate course, that he believed that enough pressure could be brought on Iran through sanctions, some of them unilateral on our part, some of them multilateral through the UN, some sanctions of choice that the European Union decided to impose, that enough pressure could be brought upon Iran to make Iran take another course, and that’s the policy that we’ve been devoted for – devoted to for the last couple of years, and it’s had some effect.
QUESTION: I note that you’re not denying the reports. There had been –
SECRETARY RICE: I’m also not confirming them, Andrea.
QUESTION: There had been conclusions along the way that you and Secretary Gates had taken a strong position in favor of diplomacy, of more engagement – in your definition of engagement – through the United Nations, through the Europeans, to try to stop the nuclear program. And that there had been countervailing pressures, perhaps from the Vice President and others, perhaps from Donald Rumsfeld, that had been pushing the other direction. Why do you think it was the right choice?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, the most important thing here is that the President thought it was the right direction. Because the very fact that we were constantly trying to find a course that would turn responsible people in Iran – you notice, I don’t say moderates in Iran, but responsible people in Iran – to a different course, shows the dangers of what Iran was doing. And so it is, in fact, an urgent task. But bringing the international community together to say to Iran, you must change your behavior – something that by the way in 2005, there really wasn’t an international consensus about Iran and about its nuclear ambitions. And so I think we’ve achieved a lot.
Now, the President never took any of his options off the table. Never. And he constantly repeated that. But he also believed, and believes until this day, that the diplomatic course is the appropriate one.
QUESTION: But there are plenty of reports also, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, that this has not slowed Iran’s progress. And that, in fact, we are several years down the road – several years closer, maybe months away, from them reaching a point where they have enough for a bomb and where they are a real threat not only to Israel and their immediate neighbors, but a threat to us in terms of the deterrence, the balance of power in the region.
SECRETARY RICE: Look, there are no perfect policies here.
QUESTION: When is the risk too great to wait –
SECRETARY RICE: Well –
QUESTION: – to wait, given how slowly the UN and everything else has evolved?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, there are no perfect policies. These are tough choices. And one set of policies brings a set of consequences, other policies could bring even greater unintended consequences. Because after all, we are dealing with Iran not just in terms of its nuclear program, but also in a regional context. We have to remember that the United States has a new relationship with Iraq that is really central to the emergence of a different kind of Middle East which is going to be more stable and more favorable for American policies. That has to be taken into consideration when one considers how to deal with Iran.
So yes, the multilateral diplomacy is not something that is known for its quickness, but it can be effective. And the Iranians are facing a lot of difficulties in what they’re trying to do. They’re facing difficulties because they have a great deal of trouble in annexing – or accessing the international financial system. One of the reasons that we’ve worked so hard to sanction some of the Iranian entities that might be able to fund their weapons programs and their proliferation programs and their terrorism programs is it makes it more difficult for them to carry out their goals.
QUESTION: There are a lot of reports, including over the weekend in The Washington Post, that those sanctions have plenty of holes, like Swiss cheese, that there are front companies, that they have gone beyond Dubai, they’ve gone to other countries set up fronts, and that they’ve gotten the technical help that they needed through other companies, including through American companies, illegally perhaps.
SECRETARY RICE: I think that the – I would not go there in terms of gotten the help that they need from American companies. Sure, the Iranians are quite ingenious. They try to use front companies. They try to get around sanctions. We know that. But the United States and the international financial system don’t sit still either when the Iranians are trying to find backdoors to the – to fund their activities.
If one looks also at the effects on the Iranian economy, you’re looking at an economy that, despite their great hydrocarbons wealth, is importing a refined product, and finding it harder and harder, by the way, to do anything about their creaky refineries because it is difficult for them to get help. So yes, it is not ideal that Iran continues along this course.
But we have seen and are seeing a lot of criticism of the course that the Iranian President Ahmadinejad has taken. We are seeing in the run-up to elections that will take place this spring in Iran a lot of criticism of the isolation that Iran is enduring. And perhaps, as the costs mount, there will be an opportunity to find Iranian interlocutors who want to take a different course.
QUESTION: Iran is believed to be a primary sponsor, or secondary sponsor, of Hamas and, of course, the situation in Gaza is of critical importance right now. The United States abstained at the United Nations. There were reports out of London, and John Bolton has written as well, someone who used to work with you here, although didn’t always agree with the policies in the Administration. There were reports that there was a last-minute plea from Israel, from the prime minister directly to President Bush, which at the very last minute changed your instructions and what the U.S. did at the United Nations.
SECRETARY RICE: Well, the United States abstained on this resolution for really two reasons. I cited one at the time. We really thought that it was premature. I made clear that I felt that the Egyptian mediation effort needed a little more time so that we could see whether or not, in fact, this was a Security Council resolution that was really implementable. But we have been standing, the United States, for a ceasefire – an immediate ceasefire that’s durable – for some time. The President has said it. I have said it. Now, the abstention sent that signal that we thought it was premature.
QUESTION: You don’t think it sent a signal of weakness, that the U.S. –
SECRETARY RICE: No.
QUESTION: – is out of the game?
SECRETARY RICE: No, no. I think it sent a signal of exactly what I said, that we supported the goals of it. In fact, I think there’s very good text about condemning all terrorist acts. I think that there’s very good text that makes sure – makes clear that an enduring ceasefire is the only way that you can lead to a withdrawal of Israeli forces. So I think there is very good text here.
QUESTION: Doesn’t it isolate the United States –
SECRETARY RICE: No, of course not.
QUESTION: – from Europe, from Arab sponsors –
SECRETARY RICE: No, of course not.
QUESTION: – of the resolution?
SECRETARY RICE: No, of course not. Of course not. The United States stands for the right of countries to defend themselves against terrorist attacks, and Israel has that right. The United States also stands for a durable ceasefire that will allow Gaza never to be used again as the kind of launching pad that Hamas has used it for over the last several years, and the United States stands for a better life for Gazans. And I might just add that miserable life for Gazans is because of Hamas policies, and I made that very clear, too. So in fact, this was the right decision for the United States. We did the right thing in allowing the Security Council to go ahead and speak on this issue, but also to demonstrate that we had concerns.
QUESTION: President Bush said today that the key to a sustainable ceasefire is for Hamas to stop rocketing Israel.
SECRETARY RICE: Yes.
QUESTION: It might appear to some people that this was too one-sided a statement that, once again, President Bush seems to only be articulating the Israeli concerns and not addressing the broader concerns of the Palestinian people in general and the residents of Gaza in specific.
SECRETARY RICE: I’ve talked to the President many times about this, and I think the President has made clear his concerns for innocent civilians, Israeli civilians, but Palestinian civilians, too. We know the very difficult circumstances that they’re living under in Gaza. We know that it’s been necessary to press very hard, really to press very hard with Israel on issues of humanitarian corridors, of making sure that there are enough crossings so that material can get in to help people who are hurting, either in terms of food or medical care or whatever it may be. The United States is intensifying its efforts, increasing its contributions to UNRWA, the UN agency that deals with Gaza.
So the concerns of Palestinians are very much on my mind and on the President’s mind. The problem is that the people of Gaza are in a terrible situation and have been in a terrible situation because Hamas launched an illegal coup against a legitimate authority of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, an authority that the President has supported, a two-state solution that we have worked tirelessly for. And it has to be said that it was Hamas that broke the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. And so you have to lay blame where blame is – it really is.
QUESTION: Of course, Hamas says that the – that Israel never opened the borders, that there were violations by the Israeli side as well. You get into a chicken-and-egg situation where both sides are accusing each other. But in terms of the U.S. position, you’ve advocated for a humanitarian corridor, yet the UN relief agencies say their drivers were shot last week, they had to stop deliveries because there were violations even during that temporary ceasefire for humanitarian deliveries, that children were starving near the dead bodies of their mothers within, you know, yards or meters of where the Israeli soldiers were deployed, and that they could not get to these families for days.
SECRETARY RICE: Well, let me start by saying that no one should have to live in those circumstances, and that’s why we’ve worked so hard with the Israelis on this issue. The humanitarian corridor was a direct result of American intervention with Israel.
QUESTION: Are you satisfied with Israel’s response, though, in all regards?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, the humanitarian corridor – I’ll tell you, Andrea, I had a report that morning from Henrietta Fore, who is the Administrator for USAID. And I went through the details, the horrors of Gaza, with the prime minister, with the foreign minister of Israel. And within hours, they had responded with the humanitarian corridor.
Now, it has to work better and we’ve made that very clear. But I do think that a humanitarian corridor with good coordination with the UN agencies is very important. It’s not a good situation. Military operations are -- always make it very difficult. But I do think the Israelis are trying to respond.
We’re trying to help the people of Gaza. But the very best response would be if the – Hamas stopped rocketing Israeli cities – and they’re the ones who started rocketing Israeli cities -- if we could get the crossings opened under the terms of the access and movement agreement that I myself negotiated in November of 2005, this would allow a beginning of a normal life in Gaza, where the Gazan people can benefit from the 58 percent of the Palestinian Authority budget that is spent on their behalf. But if you look at why the situation is so difficult in Gaza, it is because Hamas holds it hostage. Yes, the Israelis need to, and I think want to, do more on the humanitarian side. And we’re trying to do everything we can. But we have to just admit that you’re not going to get a more stable situation in Gaza until Hamas begins to behave not like the terrorist organization that they are.
QUESTION: Was it a mistake for the United States to encourage the elections in the first place that led to Hamas? There was a report written by Elisabeth Bumiller in her book, in her biography of you, that you and the U.S. Government were really surprised. You were exercising one more morning and found out that Hamas had won control of Gaza, and that this came as a complete surprise. Was this a failure of analysis, of intelligence, foresight?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, they won in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
SECRETARY RICE: They didn’t win the right to go and have an illegal coup against the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. And that’s very important to state, because the legitimate authority was still and still is the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Legislative Council elections were one thing, the Palestinian Authority another.
QUESTION: Was it a mistake?
SECRETARY RICE: No, I believe – what was the alternative? That the people of the people of the Palestinian territories don’t get to vote for representation? I might note also that we were – one reason that people were surprised is that all the predictions, including those, by the way of Hamas, were that the Palestinian Authority would – that the Fatah would, in fact, win in those elections. And I think even some members of Fatah would tell you that what was being communicated there was that Fatah needed to do a better job in showing that it was no longer a corrupt party, a corrupt party of Yasser Arafat, but rather, one that was moving on to better governance. And I think that Salam Fayyad and President Abbas have shown over recent – the recent year or so that, in fact, they are bringing a better life for the people of the West Bank, because they’re not corrupt and they are governing on their behalf.
But you know, the United States was actually not the only one that wanted to see elections in – that would allow Hamas to participate. In fact, the Palestinian people as a whole, the Palestinian legislative – the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a whole believed that those elections had to be open.
QUESTION: Do you think in response to criticism of the full eight years before you were Secretary, but when you were National Security Advisor, do you think that the Bush Administration waited too long to be engaged, and some critics have said, never had a consistent engagement, for all of your trips and all the time you’ve spent on this, that perhaps a full-time envoy on the ground or some other mechanism might have done more to promote the two-state solution that this President embraced early on?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, this President has done more for the two-state solution than anybody else. He, first of all, declared that it was a necessity. And you know, the words roll off our tongues now, the two-state solution, a Palestinian state, a state called Palestine to live next to the state of Israel. This was not either the policy of the United States nor was it so easily said –
QUESTION: What about the follow-up?
SECRETARY RICE: – when this President became – became President.
Do you really think in 2001, 2002, with a raging intifada that was not bringing violence against Israel and Gaza out of Gaza or in the settled areas, but rather in Tel Aviv. Do you really think we were going to have a two-state solution when Ariel Sharon came to power to defeat the intifada, not to bring peace; when Likud was opposed to a two-state solution? This was a sea change that took some time, that Israel’s entire political center, led by Ariel Sharon, the father of the settlement movement, finally moved to acceptance of a two-state solution.
And then in 2003, we tried to launch it. But in fact, Abu Mazen resigned as the Prime Minister of the Palestinian people, not because of American policy, not because of Israel, but because of his frustrations with Yasser Arafat. In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza. And finally, in 2006/2007, it was possible to really work in a concerted way – by the way, with the Lebanon war in between – toward the real negotiations of a two-state solution.
But you know, this is an issue that is decades old and it wasn’t going to be resolved in a moment. I still think that there was a good chance after Annapolis to get it done –
QUESTION: The Annapolis peace conference a year ago?
SECRETARY RICE: The Annapolis peace conference a year ago. But they’ve made progress. They’ve done things in terms of identifying what the elements will be to a two-state solution, and I think it’s going to be possible to carry it forward.
QUESTION: The President was asked about regrets today. He cited several. He talked about the “Mission Accomplished” sign on the carrier. He talked about weapons of mass destruction not having been discovered. On that point, back in 2002, you know the quotation on September 8th, 2002: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Were you and others in the national security team too willing to believe the ambiguous intelligence –
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I have to tell you, Andrea –
QUESTION: – or the various claims about intelligence?
SECRETARY RICE: I have to say I don’t think that the assessments were all that ambiguous on chemical and biological –
QUESTION: They were just wrong?
SECRETARY RICE: – that he had reconstituted on nuclear, that he could with– if he was getting outside help, reconstitute a nuclear program in a year. These were the key judgments. That’s not so ambiguous if you’re sitting in the White House with responsibility for the security of this country post-9/11, and the security of the region as a whole.
QUESTION: What advice would you give to –
SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, unfortunately, they were the – the estimates were just wrong, the intelligence was just wrong. But you know, I don’t blame the intelligence community for having to deal with an opaque system like Iraq where by all evidence, Saddam Hussein was doing everything that he could to prevent weapons inspectors from seeing what was actually going on, where most of the intelligence communities around the world believed that he had weapons of mass destruction, where he had used weapons of mass destruction before; where, in fact, when we got there in 1991 he was further along than anybody had estimated. So of course, the entire picture, connecting the dots, as people are often fond of saying, led to a picture of a Saddam Hussein who was aggressively pursuing and succeeding, despite the sanctions, in creating new weapons of mass destruction capabilities. I don’t think any President of the United States – and, by the way, the many people who read those reports, whether they were in the Congress or in the Administration, had much reason to believe that we had another course.
QUESTION: Well, given how challenging intelligence conclusions are, do you think it’s the right time for a non-professional like Leon Panetta, to take over the CIA?
SECRETARY RICE: Look, this is going to be a decision for – now the Congress. I know Leon Panetta some. He’s a very capable person, very sound person, I think somebody of good judgment. But this is a decision that I think the Administration has made and the Congress will determine.
QUESTION: What advice would you give to your successor? You’ve had dinner with her, you hosted her at your own home, so you’ve been reaching out to her to try to give her advice. What do you think Hillary Clinton needs to know in order to get control of the complex bureaucracy, the intelligence, and the foreign challenges?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I’ll give my advice to Senator Clinton privately. I think it’s obvious to everyone that this is a challenging time for the United States. But you know, it’s been a challenging time for a while. And when I’m asked about the challenges that are left, I think about the challenges that we faced when we first came. This was a country that was wholly unprepared in terms of its institutions, in terms of its psychology, in terms of its mechanisms and procedures to deal with a global terrorist threat of the kind that exploded, literally, in New York and Washington on September 11th. And I think there’s a much better system in place now for marrying the intelligence to the actions that need to be taken to prevent a terrorist attack.
But the first thing that I would say is that job is not done. It requires daily vigilance. It requires knowing that every day, there are people plotting and planning to pull it off again, and that they have to be right once and you have to be right 100 percent of the time. So that is still the first and primary challenge that this country faces.
QUESTION: Barack Obama has made it clear through his appointments and his statements that he wants to reverse Bush policies regarding interrogation, enhanced interrogation techniques, some of the more controversial intelligence-gathering methods. Do you think that’s wrong?
SECRETARY RICE: I can’t make that judgment for the next administration and I won’t make that judgment for the next administration. But I do know this. After September 11th, the President of the United States said to all of us, and we said to each other, that this country was in a war with those who intended not just to terrorize us, but to try and bring us down. You don’t attack the Pentagon, you don’t attack the Twin Towers, and you don’t try to attack the Capitol, which is what we now think that last plane was aimed to do, just to terrorize. You are bringing down the very symbols of American power.
And this country mobilized to confront that threat. But part of the confronting that threat was to make sure that you used the means at your disposal, legal and, in fact, in alignment with our obligations, treaty obligations and other obligations, to do what you could to make this country safer.
We knew virtually nothing about how this network operated prior to September 11th.
QUESTION: Well, do you think that this country will be less safe –
SECRETARY RICE: – and now we do.
QUESTION: Will the country be less safe if some of those interrogation techniques and other practices are no longer used?
SECRETARY RICE: Again, this is a judgment that the President-elect – soon-to-be president and his team will have to make. But I will tell you what it was like in November and December and January and February and March. Andrea, it was like being in a dark room with doors all around you that might open at any time with another terrorist attack springing toward you. And under those circumstances, that the President of the United States did everything – and his team, everything legal and everything necessary to protect this country, I think is absolutely – was absolutely the obligation of the President of the United States to defend this country.
QUESTION: What would you say to Republicans in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who are concerned that a new Secretary of State whose husband is a former president with many wide-ranging activities, business and foundation activities around the world with foreign governments and foreign individuals – do you think there’s a built-in conflict of interest there?
SECRETARY RICE: Look, this is a unique circumstance. We all know it’s a unique circumstance. It’s, in many ways, a great circumstance. The President of the United States, former President of the United States, and of course, now senator, former senator, former First Lady, who will become Secretary of State. It’s unique.
But I am quite confident that they will find a way to work these arrangements out in a way that protects the integrity of the office. I also have to say that President Clinton has been tremendously supportive and helpful over the last four years of my term here as Secretary, everything from helping in the tsunami relief with George H.W. Bush, the 41st President, to being someone that I called from time to time about the Middle East. He’s been a very good and supportive person. And so I’m quite certain they’ll work these arrangements out.
QUESTION: When you were a little girl in Birmingham, Alabama and that church was bombed and your family – the adults in the family and the neighborhood all had to walk you all to school to protect the children of the community, did you ever envision this day where an African American man is going to be sworn in as President of the United States?
SECRETARY RICE: I said to some friends the other day, “Oh, I thought it would happen in my lifetime. I just thought I would be 80 when it happened.” No, it’s a remarkable testament to America and how America is everything that she claims to be. You know, we’re sitting here, Andrea, in the Ben Franklin Room, named after one of our most colorful and wonderful founding fathers, and the rooms along here are all named after founding fathers, Monroe and Jefferson and Madison. And they put in place an extraordinary Constitution, extraordinary institutions, institutions that are meant to survive the fallibility of humankind. It doesn't count on the infallibility of humankind. But I –
QUESTION: It permitted slavery.
SECRETARY RICE: I was going to say, but I doubt when they put them in place that they would have ever seen this day coming. Because there was this big birth defect that was right in the middle of all of this, and that was slavery. That you could talk about all men being created equal and yet hold slaves is difficult to imagine. But slowly but surely, because of impatient patriots in our own country, because the perfectibility of the institutions is something we’ve always sought, we’ve become a more perfect union. And I think the election of Barack Obama is a fundamental step.
It doesn't mean, by the way, that this country is yet race-blind. I don’t believe that we will ever be – not in my lifetime. But it does mean that we’ve overcome that impulse to define people by race, to define what they can do by race, and to limit them by race. That is an extremely important message, not just for Americans but around the world, where difference is still, in many, many places, a license to kill.
QUESTION: Do you think that you and George Bush have left America not only stronger militarily, but with a better reputation abroad, contrary to the conventional wisdom that America’s reputation has been damaged by the Iraq war and brought down by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the controversies?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I will wait to talk about America’s reputation when a little time has passed and when people start to take account of the extraordinary circumstance of an Iraq that is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, putting people in mass graves and attacking his neighbors and seeking weapons of mass destruction, but this powerful, important Arab state now finding its Arab identity with a multiethnic, multiconfessional democracy that won’t seek weapons of mass destruction, that will be a friend to its neighbor, where the Egyptian Foreign Minister can visit for the first time in 30 years, where the Jordanian King can go, where the Kuwaits – Kuwaitis fly the Iraqi flag voluntarily, and that is a friend of America. What will that mean when that Iraq is at the center of the Middle East?
What will it mean when we look back on this period of the emergence of India as a great global power, a multiethnic democracy, that America, under George Bush, has taken that relationship to a different level?
A relationship with China, difficult though it may be, that I think is in the best shape that it’s ever been. You know, Andrea, I’m a political scientist, and people say, oh, you couldn't have a good relationship with both China and India. Well, we have both – and by the way, having helped shepherd Pakistan back to civilian rule.
And what will people say about this – America’s reputation as a country that launched the greatest single health program in human history, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief and Malaria Relief? What will they say about an American President who has a whole – who created a whole different way to deal with foreign assistance, to reward countries that were governing wisely and fighting corruption, and who took American development assistance levels to new heights – three times the development assistance for the – for poor countries worldwide, quadrupled it in Africa, doubled it in Latin America?
I mean, there’s so much to be proud of that this President has done. But history has a long tail, not a short one, and I, more than anybody, am aware that today’s headlines and history’s judgment are rarely the same.
QUESTION: I think we have to go, but let me just ask you to respond to – the President did say today that we don’t know yet whether democracy will survive in Iraq. Do you think Iraq’s history is still being written?
SECRETARY RICE: Oh, absolutely, Iraq’s history is still being written. But that’s the nature of democratic change. You know, just a few years out, Germany’s democratic history was still being written. A couple of decades out, South Korea’s democratic history was still being written, Japan’s democratic history was still being written. So of course, just five years after the libration, Iraq’s history is still being written. But the trend lines are that it’s being written in a way that will not just fundamentally change the way that Iraqis see their future, but will fundamentally change the way the people of the Middle East – long left out of the conversation about democracy, long left out of the conversation about the empowerment of women, long left out about the conversation of the right of every man, woman, and child to live in freedom – that Middle East is also going to be changed by Iraq.
QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thank you so much.
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: I hope this is just a continuum of interviews.
SECRETARY RICE: I hope so, too. I look forward to seeing you in California.
Released on January 12, 2009