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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release November 20, 1997
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

11:18 A.M. EST

MR. BERGER: I have a brief statement about the condition of the McCaughey septuplets -- (laughter.) I'm sorry, I'm in the wrong room.

Let me say a few things about where we seem to be this morning with respect to the situation in Iraq. As you know, last evening in Geneva, the P-5, which consists of China, Russia, the United States, France, and Great Britain, reaffirmed very strongly the imperative that UNSCOM must be permitted to return to Iraq with the previous composition, pursuant to the Security Council Resolution 1137, which is the resolution which rejected Saddam Hussein's actions and demanded that the UNSCOM be permitted to go back in unfettered.

The P-5 also reaffirmed that Saddam must comply with all U.N. Security Council resolutions. This is a very strong expression of the solidarity of the international community and its will with respect to resolving this situation on the basis of full compliance.

Iraq since has indicated that it will allow UNSCOM to return. From our perspective, the proof of that will be in its actions. We will watch the situation very carefully. We hope that that is in fact what is permitted to take place, but we will judge it by what happens.

We will continue to insist that UNSCOM operate on an autonomous, professional basis, be permitted to do its work in a professional way, and we will continue to retain all options as we continue to move forward through this situation.

Let me say a word about the bilateral understanding that is referred to in the communique that was issued by Russia and by Iraq. That is an understanding between Russia and Iraq; it is not binding on us or on the U.N. It is not something that we are obligated to, in any respect, or is the U.N. So, in short, we will continue in a very steady way over the days ahead to pursue the strategy that the President outlined from the beginning, which is to pursue diplomacy for the objective of full compliance backed by strength.

Let me end the statement there and take your questions.

Q Will the U2 flights be suspended, as Iraq says they will?

MR. BERGER: We have every expectation the U2 will continue to fly.

Q As previously arranged?

MR. BERGER: As Chairman Butler determines, on a periodic basis.

Q Sandy, if the Russians do bring a proposal for easing the sanctions to the Security Council, how would the United States react to that?

MR. BERGER: Our position on easing the sanctions is unchanged. Let me say -- put it in two respects: Number one, his decision, if that's what's happened, to return -- to allow UNSCOM to return must be unconditional. That's certainly what the statement of the 5 says and it is our deep commitment. There are no conditions on his returning those --

With respect to sanctions, our position is unchanged. It has been a consistent position since the Bush administration, which is that we need to see compliance with all relevant resolutions in order to consider the question of sanctions relief.

Q And if I could follow up on that, if the Russians propose something short of that, would we veto it?

MR. BERGER: We would not support anything short of that. If we had to veto it, obviously we would.

Q Sandy, appearances account for a lot here, and if tomorrow after Butler makes his recommendations one of those recommendations is for recomposition of the UNSCOM team and the U.S. supports that, the appearance is going to be that this was part of an understanding that Saddam, the Russians and the United States had going on.

MR. BERGER: There is absolutely no understanding, there is no deal, there are no concessions. UNSCOM will meet tomorrow and UNSCOM meets -- this is the actual commission, not the inspectors -- about every six months. These are professionals. They're largely sort of arms control wonks -- and I don't mean that disrespectfully -- who come from around the world. They're people who believe deeply in UNSCOM's mission. They are not generally political or foreign ministry people. They're technical people. And they periodically look at the effectiveness of UNSCOM.

The most important thing that could be done to make UNSCOM more effective would be for Saddam Hussein to be more cooperative with it. They will make recommendations to Chairman Butler. Chairman Butler has demonstrated himself to be, I think, a man of impeccable integrity who is also deeply committed to the mission of UNSCOM, which is to detect and prevent -- detect weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq and prevent them from being reconstituted.

Now, he will make those judgments. If we felt those judgments were being politicized, or we were being excluded in any way, these have to be approved by the Security Council and that's the reason why that sentence is in the communique of last night of the 5 so that we obviously would veto anything that we thought was being done for reasons other than the efficient, effective operation of UNSCOM. And I believe, again, that through this crisis and before, UNSCOM and its leadership have proven to be professionals.

Q If anything happens tomorrow in the United Nations with Security Council, and implicitly, U.S. approval, that favors Iraq, how is it going to look like anything more than a coincidence?

MR. BERGER: Well, if UNSCOM goes back in, it's got to be able to do its work and it's got to be able to do it professionally. These teams, as I've explained to you before, as I said before, are made up of experts -- people who have expertise in nonproliferation, expertise in chemical weapons, expertise in biological weapons. The United States happens to have a good deal of that expertise. And we have every expectation that the United States will continue to be a significant contributor to the UNSCOM teams.

But there are certainly no concessions, no deals that have been made here with respect to either the U.N. or the United States. And I might note that Tariq Aziz has said that in the last few hours. He said that the Security Council permanent members made no specific commitments to Iraq in a Russia-brokered deal. Tariq Aziz, however, said Russia promised to work for a just and fair solution. So even the Iraqis are not claiming that these commitments are binding upon the Security Council or its members.

Q Over the previous 24 hours, numerous administration people were making it very clear that they were very skeptical that anything would come out of the Primakov mission and that they were at least somewhat wary of what his motives were in this and somewhat suspicious of what he might come back with. What changed?

MR. BERGER: Well, first of all, I think skepticism is not a bad way to proceed through a matter like this. I stand before you today, even after last night, not saying that this is over, because it will not be over, in our judgment, until these people are let back in and we see that they're able to do their job.

I think that it's very difficult to speculate on why Saddam Hussein may be doing something. One can speculate that the commitment by the Russians to press in the U.N. for sanctions relief and for whatever else provided him some face-saving mechanism here. But I think that Mr. Primakov has been very clear that he spoke for no one else, sought to commit no one else, and I think probably we'll see -- it may have probably played a constructive role here.

Q Will Saddam Hussein have to pay any price for defying the U.N. for 20 days?

MR. BERGER: Yes, I would say the answer to that is that he does pay a price that's probably unattractive. Number one, he's done a very good job of reuniting the international community around the proposition that we ought to continue vigorous effort to get at his weapons of mass destruction. Number two, he has set back the date by which, in my judgment, one can imagine UNSCOM completing its work, because to the extent there has been disruption, I think Chairman Butler has indicated that he's going to have to reestablish a continuity of record here, and it may be that in some instances he has to go back before he goes forward.

So I think -- and I would say, number three, that the international community is far more focused today on the threat that Saddam Hussein poses by his weapons of mass destruction program than they were two weeks ago. We've been talking a lot in the last week about UNSCOM -- not exactly a household name around the world -- what they do, what his capacities are, and to the extent that he may have lulled the world into a false sense that he was less of a threat after -- six years after the Gulf War, I think he's provided us an opportunity to remind the world that he remains a threat. And the last thing I would say is, the most pervasive sanctions regime in the history of mankind which has been imposed on him since the Gulf War remains intact. I have a hard time computing that as anything except a setback for him.

Q How much potential damage over these past 20 days do you think there was in the effort to destroy the weapons of mass destruction capabilities? What would happen, in your assessment, over these past three weeks, potentially that could have set back the process?

MR. BERGER: It's really a technical question and I don't know exactly the answer. First of all, let's -- I think all along here, we have been and continue to be, as the President was this morning, quite cautious about all of this. This is not over. We have to maintain the two-pronged strategy we've been pursuing -- the diplomatic effort to resolve this on a peaceful and principled basis, backed by a strong military presence in the region to keep our options open. But I think that's -- I'm sorry, Wolf, I lost the train of your question.

Q How much damage potentially -- what could he have done?

MR. BERGER: I think that he clearly has -- we know that he has moved some things. We know that he has obstructed some of the monitoring devices. I don't think we'll know that until UNSCOM is allowed to go back in, if they are, and make that technical judgment. But I think we also said, and I've also said all along here, that he can't reconstitute in a matter of a few weeks what UNSCOM has been successful in destroying over the last six months. And I think we've -- six years -- and I think we always understood that there was obviously some loss as each day goes by.

Q The United States has spent large amounts of money in the last two years maintaining a military presence in the Persian Gulf. Right now, with the new addition of planes, troops, equipment, ships, more money will be spent. I imagine Great Britain is backing you. Are you getting any promises of backing in the military sense if they were needed, and are you getting all your clearances in the Arab countries which would have to give you free passes to your planes, et cetera?

MR. BERGER: Well, again, I don't want to speculate on military options, certainly, the operational details of military options, that the President has held open. I would say this -- that we are I think quite confident that we not only have the capability in the region, but we have the other capacity in the region to do what we might have to do in any kind of more difficult situation. And I think the Pentagon later today will have some statements about some further planes that are being deployed.

Q You seem to be suggesting that for whatever reason Saddam blinked. Is the administration absolutely confident that he got nothing else from the discussions with Primakov? And if the administration isn't absolutely confident of that, have you sought those assurances from the Russian government?

MR. BERGER: Am I absolutely certain that he's gotten no commitments from the United States, no commitments from the other Security Council members? What Minister Primakov has indicated is that they will argue on behalf of the Iraqis that sanctions should be lifted more quickly. But Russia has taken that position for some time, so it's not a new position. But there's nothing here that's self-executing in terms of a Russia and Iraq arrangement or a Russia-Iraq understanding. It has to be approved by the Security Council; we are a member of the Security Council; we have a veto on the Security Council and we will not support anything that violates our fundamental red lines that we've talked about all along -- UNSCOM being permitted to do its work and to do it in a professional, unfettered capacity.

Q Just two quick questions, Sandy. First off, if Saddam succeeded in getting the Russians to argue more for -- in the Security Council for lifting the sanctions, why -- not immediately, but over the next few months -- why isn't that a gain for him? Why doesn't that get -- cross purposes?

MR. BERGER: Because the Russians -- first of all, I wouldn't quite characterize it the way you did, John. I think they've -- this is a way in perhaps they've tried to help resolve this matter. They have been -- they have taken this position in the past. It's not supported by the United States, not supported by Great Britain, it's not supported by the vast majority of Security Council members. And I think as a result of the last two weeks, there is a far higher degree of concern in the world, in the capitals, in the streets of these countries about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction capability than there was three weeks ago when people sort of forgot Saddam Hussein and thought that he had taken a vacation.

Q A second question. Do you anticipate an expansion in the oil for food program if he comes into full compliance?

MR. BERGER: Our position is the same as it has always been on this, which is our dispute is not with the Iraqi people, it is with their government. We do not seek through these very tight sanctions or very strong sanctions to hurt the Iraqi people. We are the author of the resolution which provided for the sale of some oil under U.N. supervision to be distributed for U.N. supervision for food and medicine.

There have been some indications that that is not happening at adequate levels, and we would not be opposed at some point to seeing that expanded. But that was our position before this, during this, after this, and it's not at all -- let me say, that never even came up last night in the meeting in Geneva.

MR. MCCURRY: This has got to be the last question.

Q Sandy, are you concerned that Russia can now use its veto in the Security Council as an advocate for Iraq, and does that complicate any further pressure you might hope to bring on Iraq?

MR. BERGER: It's hard to make something happen by veto. You can stop something bad from happening by veto. You can't force something to happen by veto. They've always had a veto in the Security Council; they had a veto in the Security Council on Monday and they have a veto in the Security Council on Thursday. And they -- in fairness here, the Russians have signed on to the proposition that UNSCOM must go back in its previous form without interference. And so I can't -- it will be inconsistent with that for them to take a different position in the Security Council. To the extent that they have a different view than we do on sanctions, that has to pass by an affirmative vote, and if any Security Council wanted to veto a change in the current sanctions, i.e., us, we could do so.

Q One last question. Do you applaud the Russian role in all this? The French are praising the Russians for this triumphant return to the diplomatic stage in the Middle East. Is that a view that the United States shares?

MR. BERGER: Again, I think we need to see how all of this -- I'd rather read the last chapter of this book before I decide whether I like it or not.

Q Good ending.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 11:40 A.M. EST