The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: I have no opening statement, so I’m happy to begin with your questions. April.
Q: Thank you. Oh, wow. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: After April’s question we’ll adjourn for the day. Thank you very much. (Laughter.)
Q: Ari, President Bush makes an historic trip to Africa in the next couple of days. Many critics are concerned this is a President who is not for affirmative action, yet his first stop will be Goree Island to a slave house, which some African Americans consider sacred. They’re also calling — those same critics are calling for a statement of repudiation, if not an apology for slavery. What are your comments about that. And also, who will be part of the entourage going to Africa?
MR. FLEISCHER: April, you asked, on the first part, you asked the same question last week, and the answer today is identical to what I said last week. The President –
Q: More critics are coming out —
MR. FLEISCHER: — the President is looking forward to going to Africa to talk with African leaders about issues that are vital to the United States-African relations. And that involves many nations in Africa. It also is an important moment from a moral point of view to go to Goree Island to talk about slavery, to talk about freedom and to talk about democracy. And that’s exactly what the President is going to do.
And as far as entourage, it will be the usual traveling party that accompanies the President on his foreign trips — Dr. Rice, top White House aides. It will be the usual contingent.
Q: No civil rights leaders?
MR. FLEISCHER: It will be the usual contingent that travel with the President on foreign trips. The President does not, when he travels abroad, take groups with him beyond the immediate White House or State Department entities.
Q: And for the record, exactly why is it the President does not want to apologize for slavery?
MR. FLEISCHER: I just suggest you listen to his speech when he’s in Africa next week, and the speech will speak for itself.
Q: So it could be an apology?
MR. FLEISCHER: Just listen to the speech. I’ve already indicated to you the President will not have an apology in his speech.
Q: You have the British, the French, U.N. diplomats on both sides in the Liberian conflict asking for the U.S. to lead a peacekeeping force. Is the President seriously considering that? And what are the issues on the table as he makes the decision?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the United States is actively discussing what the next steps should be to help the parties to meet their obligations to cooperate with the joint verification team that is in place to ensure that the cease-fire holds. A cease-fire has been agreed to with the help of the United States as party to those talks, and we are actively discussing and reviewing what next steps may or many not be.
Q: Are troops a serious option, and will the West Africans get an answer that they want to get by Monday?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the United States is working with regional governments to support the negotiations and to map out a secure transition to elections which have been called for in Liberia. The President is determined to help the people of Liberia to find a path to peace. The exact steps that could be taken are still under review.
Q: So you aren’t ruling out that U.S. troops might go to Liberia?
MR. FLEISCHER: I’m not ruling it out.
Q: And on President Taylor, President Bush called on him to resign. There is some word that he’s looking for immunity from war crimes prosecution. Would that be acceptable to the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President’s statement extended to the importance of his resignation in order to help save lives. I have not heard anything beyond that, so I’m just going to hold with what the President said for now.
Q: And what would be the criteria — how would the President decide whether to send U.S. troops to Liberia? For a lot of Americans, that’s a long way away in a conflict that we don’t know a lot about. How would the President make up his mind whether or not to send troops to Liberia?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the issue here is to work with regional partners to find a way to help the cease-fire to take hold. And the President will make a judgment about what the best and most effective way is to help the cease-fire to take hold. There are different ways to do it, different nations that have capabilities. So this all gets part of the review.
Q: Ari, the United States just declared about 50 countries, including Colombia and six prospective NATO members, ineligible for military aid because they won’t exempt Americans from the International Criminal Court. My question is, why is this priority more important than fighting the drug wars, integrating Eastern Europe? And is there any chance that they would be declared eligible for this aid anytime soon?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, number one, because the President is following the law. This is a law that Congress passed that the President signed, dealing with what’s called Article 98 actions that would make certain that American military personnel and other personnel who are stationed abroad would not be subject to a court who has international sovereignty that’s in dispute, that would be able to reach out to these countries and take Americans and put them on trial before an entity that the United States does not recognize.
So it’s important to protect American servicemen and women and others in government. There should be no misunderstanding, that the issue of protecting U.S. persons from the International Criminal Court will be a significant and pressing matter in our relations with every state.
Q: So you’re — isn’t there a chance, though, that the drug war in Colombia, for example, would be negatively affected by this? If you can’t give Colombia military aid, what’s going to be the impact on the ground down there?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, current programs will continue under the law until the determination date of current programs is reached. And so that which is in the pipeline will continue through the pipeline. But you have stated it correctly, this is a reflection of the United States’ priorities to protect the men and women in our military — the men and women who serve. These are the people who are able to deliver assistance to the various states around the world. And if delivering those aid — delivering aid to those states endangers America’s servicemen and servicewomen, the President’s first priority is the servicemen and servicewomen.
Q: Ari, why should Americans take at face value what Paul Bremer and others in the administration have said that the attacks against U.S. forces that we’ve seen seeing repeatedly over these past few weeks are basically the last desperate cries and acts of violence from a dying regime? Why shouldn’t they believe that, in fact, it’s evidence of a guerrilla insurgency movement that is really testing and challenging whether or not the United States was prepared enough for this phase of the conflict?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because I think that if you look at the Iraqi people, the Iraqi people are overwhelmingly pleased with the fact the United States has helped them to get rid of the Saddam Hussein regime. That was clear from their dancing in the streets, from the way they tore down the statues. And I think that is the viewpoint of the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people.
What we’re up against is the manner in which the war was successfully fought, many of the Republican Guardsman faded back into Baghdad as a result of the military conflict. They simply walked away from their posts, abandoned their positions and left to enter into the city. So it is not surprising that some of these loyalist elements are now doing their best to bring harm to America’s military in whatever form they can.
But in attacking the United States, these groups in Iraq attacked the people of Iraq, because the United States is helping the people of Iraq to find peace and stability and these groups stand in the way, just as they did when they ruled Iraq. So I think the Ambassador says it for good reason, it is because he’s on the ground and he’s in a position to judge it.
Q: Saying that, I mean, is that supposed to resonate with the American people, that they’re hurting — when they’re killing U.S. troops, that they’re really — that they’re hurting the people of Iraq? I mean, aren’t the American people at this point in a position to say, you’ve got a chaotic situation on the ground, you haven’t found the weapons of mass destruction, and yet you go around the country saying that this was such a successful enterprise — is the President not concerned at some point Americans are going to start scratching their heads and say, really?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. And as you know, the President is going to be giving remarks in the Rose Garden shortly, and so you’ll be able to hear exactly how the President views the issue. But the President views this as a matter in which he as the Commander-in-Chief authorized putting America’s men and women of the military into harm’s way. He did it knowingly. He did it because he believes in the cause of protecting world peace and the American people from the threat that Saddam Hussein’s regime presented.
That mission of toppling the regime has been accomplished. As the President warned the American people, there still is danger ahead in Iraq, and that’s what we’re seeing. But this President is dedicated to this mission because he knows it serves the interests of the American people in bringing peace and stability to Iraq. After all, what’s the alternative, to let the thugs who ran Iraq take it over again? No.
Q: Even accepting your premise that the majority of the Iraqis are glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, it seems that many of them would also like to be rid of us, judging by the evidence that we see day to day on the ground. Some of them would simply like to be rid of us and have their own government. Others are willing to kill American soldiers to get there, for whatever reason. Doesn’t it seem that we are ill-prepared to deal with postwar Iraq, both in terms of planning and troops?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I think what you’re doing is you’re ignoring the tremendous number of success stories that have taken place inside Iraq.
Q: What success stories?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, exactly. I think this is one of these cases where if the glass of milk is nine-tenths full, you’ll only see the one-tenth that is empty.
Q: But I haven’t heard any success stories? You got any?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, you just haven’t aired them, but there are many. And I think Ambassador Bremer talks about them on a regular basis. The fact of the matter is, one of the reasons the Iraqi people are supportive of the efforts we’ve had there is because of the effort that’s been done in the reconstruction phase.
Q: — support it?
MR. FLEISCHER: And let me give you some examples. The children of Iraq have benefited tremendously, and that means their parents have also, from the health care systems that the United States has now got up and going — from the immunization programs that are underway throughout Iraq; from the electricity that has now been restored in many places around Iraq to a status that is even higher than it was before the war; to the feeding of the Iraqi people that in many places around Iraq — in much of Iraq people are having better meals than they did prior to the war as the result of the change in government and the fact the United States is there to serve them.
I see your eyes are glazing over. This is my point, that when the news is good, it’s not something that you pay much attention to. But the fact of the matter, there are pockets of violence. And most of those pockets of violence come from the people who are the people who defended the regime, who fought for the regime and are willing to die for the regime. And if they fight the United States, that will be their fate.
Q: Whatever good news there may be — and you’re making blanket statements — there are certainly a lot of —
MR. FLEISCHER: As opposed to the ones you just made?
Q: There are certainly a lot of bad news as U.S. troops continue to get killed on an almost daily basis. And there’s plenty of evidence that there are many people in Iraq who, while they may not wish us dead, wish us gone.
MR. FLEISCHER: And on that point, first of all, I think that there was a recent poll I just saw. It was carried by I think one of the wire services. It didn’t really get much pick-up beyond that, but it was a new poll of the Iraqi people where the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people expressed their gratitude for having the Americans there and they’ve said they want the Americans to stay there to provide security. I think you can ask questions about how reliable its polling techniques in new Iraq, but the point is the same. You’re making blanket judgments now about the Iraqi people, which I don’t think is shared by the people on the ground there.
The fact of the matter is, the United States does not have any intention of staying in Iraq forever. But the President has said that we will stay as long as is necessary to get the job done and done well and done right, and not a day longer. And that’s what you’re seeing.
Q: How long will that be?
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s impossible to put a time frame on it. It’s going to depend on security and stability on the ground.
Q: — we didn’t think it was going to be very long?
Q: If I could get back to Liberia for a moment. As you debate what to do there, how much concern is there here at the White House about the U.S. military being stretched too thin, given the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places? And given the President’s desire to see President Taylor ousted, what planning is going into making sure that Liberia, post-conflict, doesn’t end up like another Iraq? What are you doing to think about new leadership, how that should come about, and so forth?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, keep in mind, on the numbers issue, the United States military numbers more than a million. We have some 9,000 personnel in Afghanistan and some 150,000 personnel in Iraq. So I think if you’re talking about in sheer numbers, it’s not a question of being stretched too thin, it’s a question of what is the best way to accomplish a mission. And that’s what the focus of the planners are as they look at this, and that’s what the President’s focus will be.
The situation in Liberia has been eased and there is quiet and calm on the streets of Monrovia recently, as a result of the international community coming together to work toward the cease-fire. This has been — they authorized the establishment of what they call the joint verification team. That was as a result of the June 17th Liberia cease-fire. So the President wants to work with the international community; we will play a role in that to try to bring stability to a post-Taylor government in Liberia.
Q: How would that government come about? Would there be elections?
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s as a result of the cease-fire agreement. There have been negotiations, and then the talks are going to recommence on July 4th.
Q: Ari, the Washington Post —
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester of the Washington Post. (Laughter.) You’re in their seat.
Q: I own part of the Washington Post.
MR. FLEISCHER: I’d like to hear that story.
Q: Four shares. Four shares. The Washington Post reports, “during the last presidential campaign, whenever George W. Bush was asked what he would seek in a Supreme Court appointee, the first name he brought up as his ideal was Justice Antonin Scalia.” Justice Scalia’s dissent in the Lawrence versus Texas sodomy case notes that “every single one of these laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, adultery —
Q: — fornication, bestiality and obscenity is called into question by today’s decision.” And my question is, does the President now think that Justice Scalia is wrong about the Court’s overruling a law of the state of which he was governor?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. The President said what he said because he meant it. When he was asked what justices he admires most, he answered that question, and that’s because the President meant it.
Q: But he did support it.
MR. FLEISCHER: Go ahead, Terry.
Q: He did support that law.
MR. FLEISCHER: On this case, the administration did not file a brief because it is not a federal matter. As governor of Texas, the President supported the law in his capacity as governor of Texas, correct.
Q: The President expressed his approval of the Supreme Court’s upholding by one vote the practice of considering race in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School, but that university’s most nationally known students, their football team, selects players on the basis of ability alone, with no regard whatsoever for race. And my question: Does the President believe that if the law school uses race in selection, the football team should, too, because law is more important than sport?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, you’ve asked this question before. I think you used —
Q: No — a different version.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you asked about a baseball team. Last time you made the reference to a baseball team, not —
Q: That was the Texas Rangers. I’m talking about Michigan.
MR. FLEISCHER: That’s correct. That’s why I said you’ve asked the question before. Lester, the President’s answer is well-known. The President applauded the Court decision because it recognized, just as he does, the importance of diversity on college campuses. There’s room to disagree about whether or not race should be a factor in achieving diversity. The President has said that he thinks that the best way to achieve diversity is through race-neutral means. And the Court did as the President sought and it struck down quotas as a way of achieving diversity. They differed — the President and the Court differed on the law school application.
Q: Ari, following up on Bill’s question, over the weekend, Senator Hagel and Senator Biden said that the President needed to be more forthcoming to the American people about just how long U.S. soldiers are going to be inside of Iraq, what kind of resources are required. Senator Lugar called it hogwash, the fact — the statements being made about U.S. will be inside of Iraq and not a day longer. Is there any thinking, or any concern that the President’s message is not necessarily getting to the American people, that he has not been forthcoming enough in terms of the sacrifices and resources —
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the President has spoken out repeatedly on this issue, and he will continue to do so in just about an hour. This is an issue that the President does address directly. I think the American people actually have a very good understanding about what is going on in Iraq, what is at stake in Iraq, and they understand that in the Commander-in-Chief there is a President who mourns every loss of life and everyone who is wounded in Iraq. They also understand that in the Commander-in-Chief there is a President who is determined to carry out the mission of making certain that after military action was taking place in Iraq, we do not let Iraq fall back into the hands of Saddam’s loyalists and the people who would again bring the region to the point of turmoil as a result of their being able to seize control of Iraq again, torture the Iraqi people, kill the Iraqi people and rearm.
And this is why it’s important to provide balance and stability in Iraq so that peace can be achieved throughout the region. That has implications for Israel, as well as for the United States.
Q: On the Middle East, Yasser Arafat has said that the Palestinian security forces arrested a member of the Al Axa Martyr Brigade, perhaps the gunman responsible for killing the Bulgarian national. Is it credible to your information and do you see that as a hopeful sign that —
MR. FLEISCHER: I’ve not gotten any independent confirmation on that yet. I saw the story on the wire. Obviously, it’s important for the Palestinian Authority to bring terrorists to justice.
Q: Will there be a readout on Abbas and Sharon — their statements that were made before —
MR. FLEISCHER: A readout?
Q: A readout on the Sharon and Abbas statements. They shook hands and said that it was moving —
MR. FLEISCHER: And the President is pleased that the process is continuing where Prime Minister Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon are working as hard as they are and as diligently as they are and in the spirit that they are, to make progress and move their way forward on achieving peace. It’s an encouraging moment when you see the two leaders speak like that.
Q: On the President’s remarks on education this morning, in the No Child Left Behind Act, the idea of vouchers was dropped. Why is the President bringing it back now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the school choice is alive. The way the President proposed to have a school choice program through vouchers was passed by the Congress in a more limited fashion than the President sought. Nevertheless, as you heard in the event this morning, there are many families in the District of Columbia and elsewhere who yearn to have a choice so their children can get a better education. You heard from them in the audience today. They spoke out as the President spoke. And I think that’s a powerful testament to the fact that parents want good educations for their children. And if they have a public school that is not giving the children the education they deserve, parents still want to take good care of their children and that’s why choice is an important part of education in America.
Q: So can we expect to hear more on this from the President, especially as we move into the campaign season? Is this going to be a major part of his education agenda?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, education and providing parents with options is certainly a top priority for this President. I think you will hear more about education generally. It’s always been heart and soul of what the President is focused on.
Q: You said a minute ago that Americans have a good understanding of what’s going on in Iraq. In a new poll by USA Today and one of my competitors shows a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who think things are going well there, down from 70 percent a month ago to a little bit more than 50 percent right now. At the same time, 37 percent of the survey in that poll thinks the administration misled them leading up to the war. The President today also woke up to a story of several members of the service who say we need to be getting out of Iraq now. Is he concerned about morale? Is he concerned about how Americans view what is happening in Iraq and whether we are still succeeding there, whether we have, in fact, won the war? Is that why he’s talking today? Does he feel he needs to talk up the morale of the American public, given what happens when the morale slips?
Q: I think that, again, this an issue that you’ve heard the President talk about repeatedly, and he will continue to talk about repeatedly. The President, after Afghanistan, gave regular updates about the war on terror in Afghanistan. Today he’s going to give an update about the war on terror in both Afghanistan and in Iraq.
As for the poll you cited, I had a feeling that this issue would be brought up, so I brought it with me. So let me share this with the one-tenth-fullers, because there were many other numbers in the poll. And it said that while the numbers have, indeed, declined, as you indicated, 69 percent say it was worth having — it is worth having U.S. troops in Iraq now; 63 percent say the administration did a good job in planning for the situation following major conflict in Iraq; 61 percent say the administration did not deliberately mislead the American people; 68 percent expressed confidence the United States can rebuild the Iraqi economy.
So, no, I think the American people actually have a very good center of gravity about the situation in Iraq. Clearly, as lives are lost, the American people reflect on the lives lost. So, too, does the President. But the American people remain firm in understanding the importance of finishing the mission and making certain that Iraq does not slide back into the hands of Saddam loyalists.
Q: This is a follow-up to April’s question. What else does the President hope to accomplish on his African trip?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the trip is going to focus on promoting democracy in Africa. In his first stop he’s going to visit with the leaders of many of the African democracies who will be gathered in Senegal. On Goree Island, the President is going to give the speech that I just alluded to about slavery and democracy. The President will also have discussions about trade. Certainly the African Growth and Opportunity Act is now starting to bring tangible benefits to the people of Africa as trade in many African nations is actually surging. And the President will also, when he visits Uganda, focus on the major initiative that is now law of the land, to provide $15 billion worth of funding over a five-year period to help the people of Africa — and the Caribbean, as well — but the people of Africa to deal with the AIDS pandemic.
Q: A follow-up to Wendell’s question on the new Gallup Poll. Is the President, when he looks at those numbers, concerned that Iraq could become a political issue and possibly a political liability as it gets —
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first of all, I’d be surprised if the President is aware of those numbers. The President is not going to be make decisions about what to do in Iraq by the polls. You saw that on the way in to the war in Iraq. He didn’t let that affect him one way or another. Polls are volatile, they move. Principles don’t. And the President is dedicated to the principle of helping the Iraqi people to have a stable country, because that’s in America’s interest.
I think about these things because I have to come here and I had a feeling your question would involve one of those polls. It was in the news today.
Q: Could you address the larger question of the possibility that this may get dragged into the political cycle as we head into the campaign season?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you need to talk to others about what they intend to drag into a political cycle. The President will continue to discuss these ongoing government issues with the American people.
Q: Ari, on aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is under discussion, you said, what’s changed that’s caused this idea that you can give direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, and how far away are we from something like this happening, actually happening?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, previously the Palestinian Authority, when it was headed by Yasser Arafat and had a different finance minister, was widely criticized by the Palestinian people themselves for being corrupt. And there was a real reluctance from many quarters, particularly here in the United States, to provide direct funding to the Palestinian Authority because it would have gone to corruption. There’s been a change in leadership in the Palestinian Authority. They have a new finance minister who is dedicated to openness and to transparency and to honesty. Certainly Prime Minister Abbas is dedicated to the same. And so the United States is going to talk to the Palestinian Authority about direct aid. We have not made any decisions yet about this matter. But this is part of the perspective of good developments taking place in the Middle East, vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Q: What would the money be used for, given direct aid? Would there be strings attached, or —
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s too soon to say. This is also an issue that we’d have to consult with the Congress on. But I’m not prepared to get into what the details could be for something that doesn’t even exist yet.
Q: Ari, staying on the Middle East. Prime Minister Abbas today, according to Ha’aretz, told a meeting with Hamas — he quoted the President and at that point, during that meeting, he suggested that the President conveyed that now is the time to move forward or else I’m going to focus on the election, or the election is coming up shortly. Can you tell me whether or not —
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, somebody else asked me about that quote. I never heard the President say it. He certainly didn’t say it in the trilateral meeting that I attended, and I’m not aware of any other conversation in which he said it.
Q: So there is no deadline attached —
MR. FLEISCHER: You’re seen the President on this issue. He’s focused on it all the time. And he will be focused on it now, he’ll be focused on it a year from now, he’ll be focused on it two years from now.
Q: Part of the same quote, Prime Minister Abbas suggested the President said that God spoke to him about al Qaeda and spoke to him about Saddam. Is that a stretch? Is there anything to that? How would you characterize that part of the —
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s beyond a stretch. It’s an invention. It was not said.
Q: I was going to ask on that very same point. Just to be clear, to quote, as reported by Ha’aretz, is not true, didn’t come up in the meeting?
MR. FLEISCHER: Hasn’t become true since I just told Ken it wasn’t. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, a few seconds passed there.
Q: Well, you said you weren’t in all the meetings.
Q: The President has made security, chiefly national security, a focal point of the stump speech, which we all know we’re going to hear a lot of between now and November 2004. Does he have any concern with the situation on the ground, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, could come back to haunt him? Certainly government — the Taliban has been removed, but Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. He said repeatedly himself that Iraq remains a dangerous place. Does he have any concerns that that’s going to be something that dogs the campaign going forward?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think this is a President who has shown himself to be very strong and decisive, and he takes on the situation in the world as it is. And he always endeavors to make that situation better and more peaceful. And that’s exactly what he has done. And that’s why it’s important, as the President will talk about today, to complete missions, to see out the task, to see the task through. And the President will do that. And by doing that, he can help protect the American people, to make certain that we constantly improve the security for the American people.
I think it’s clear, since September 11th, the United States has entered an era where the war on terror will be an ongoing effort and an ongoing operation all around the world. Like the Cold War, it is not something that just goes away quietly overnight. It is something that will remain a front-and-center issue that will engage the American people, and this President, and likely successors to this President, as well. It’s the nature of the enemies who seek to attack the United States.
Q: Ari, I did have a question on Iraq, but you just said something that I wanted to follow up on. You said, “Like the Cold War.” Are you suggesting this war on terror can last a half a century or so?
MR. FLEISCHER: I’m saying that in the war on terror, the United States is committed to fighting this war for whatever period of time it takes. And unlike conventional wars, like World War II, where there was a clear date where a capital fell, the war on terror is not such an event. And the President has said this to the American people on numerous occasions, particularly after September 11th. And when you see the enemies who still gather to try and bring harm to the United States, when you see the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, it’s all done with an eye toward providing additional protections for the American people in what is going to be an ongoing struggle.
Q: But by comparing it to the Cold War, that suggests it could last as long as a half century.
MR. FLEISCHER: I don’t think you can be literal about how long it will be. But my point is, it is a commitment and an involvement of the people of the United States and the government of the United States that is going to be long-lasting.
Q: And on my question on Iraq, I actually wanted to ask, is the President disappointed by the lack of the numbers of nations who are coming forward to volunteer troops to help in the effort in Iraq? For instance, although Secretary Rumsfeld said they’ve talked to 20 nations, they still don’t have that many nations that have come forward to offer troops. And, in fact, of course, like India has not offered troops. What’s the President’s reaction to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the United States government continues to talk to various nations around the world about what involvement they seek in Iraq, and we welcome support of the international community in these efforts. We are involved in conversations with other nations. And sometimes the nature of these conversations is that they take some bit of time. But, regardless of the number of nations or the amount of international forces there, the purpose of the mission remains the same. The more the world joins in in helping to protect the Iraqi people, the better.
Q: Ari, this has been covered widely now in the press, including India Globe, a number of people have been arrested in this area. They were planning to attack or they had plans, they — India and Kashmir. Now, General Musharraf still in the U.S., when this big arrest took place, and many of them were from Pakistan. My question is that this shows that the training also took place here, and also they were training in Pakistan itself, but Musharraf is saying that, no, we have never trained, and we are not training any of those terrorists in India. And at the same time, India is not happy with the launch of the $3 billion package to Pakistan, because one —
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, what’s the question —
MR. FLEISCHER: What’s the question?
Q: The question is that how do you pursue, or how do you put pressure on General Musharraf that he will comply with the pledge that he make with the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think when you see what is happening in relations between India and Pakistan, where they are now exchanging ambassadors, and ambassadors are starting to arrive on the ground. And you see the improvement in the tension, the diminishment of tension between India and Pakistan. It’s a result of the steps that both President Vajpayee and Prime Minister Musharraf have taken — President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee have taken.
And so I think that his actions speak for themselves and they’ve been recognized by Indian authorities, and the President is very pleased with President Musharraf’s actions.
Q: Can I follow just —
MR. FLEISCHER: We’re going to go to the one-question rule now.
Q: Democratic Senator John Edwards has put a hold on the Heroes Act in the Senate committee. The measure would defer student loans for soldiers called into action. It passed the House nearly unanimously. Where does the President stand on that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I saw that report. I want to look more into that report. From what I’ve heard it’s hard to understand, but let me take a look at that.
Q: What’s the assessment of what’s happening with North Korea? And why won’t the President hold a bilateral meeting with them, if that’s what it would take to end this tension?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thinks that this is a regional problem. It’s not just the United States that is affected by the North Korea’s withdrawal from the nonproliferation treaty, it’s the region that’s affected. And the best diplomacy in this instance is multilateral diplomacy so that the region can have a voice at the table. And that’s something that you hear from Japan, from South Korea, from China, and also on some levels from Russia.
Q: Has it gotten worse, more menacing, though?
MR. FLEISCHER: Has what gotten more menacing?
Q: The situation — the statements from North Korea?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it remains and issue of grave concern about North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for the purpose of developing weapons of mass destruction. It remains an issue of great concern, and that’s why it’s being pursued through the multilateral channels that it has been.
Q: Ari, you talked earlier about the Iraqis who were staging these hit-and-run ambushes and sabotages as having melted back into the civilian populace. Has it moved now from a situation of major combat operations to a guerrilla operation?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it’s exactly as Secretary Rumsfeld said yesterday at the Pentagon. It remains a military operation outside of major combat operations to go in and to mop up after these irregulars and these people who the Secretary has called dead-enders, who if they had their way, would try to resume power in Iraq.
Q: But Americans should be thinking of this in terms of a mop-up operation, not a guerilla conflict?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that Secretary Rumsfeld, who is in a strong position to evaluate it, was asked that yesterday. And I think he characterized it just right.
Q: On Liberia, as the President considers his options, does he feel any special responsibility to bring stability there given the historic ties between the two countries?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think this is looked at in — just as the context in which I said, what is the best way to bring peace and to ensure that the cease-fire between the warring factions holds. That’s what’s on the mind of the President is how to do this and do it right.
Q: Ari, you touched on this a bit previously. The President stood in front of a banner that said, “Mission Accomplished.” And you today used the term the primary mission was accomplished. But when will the mission really be accomplished? Was that just symbolism?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that — again, this is almost a little more revisionism. Certainly in early May when the President said major combat operations have ended, major combat operations had ended. The President didn’t say all combat operations have ended. He used a very specific word with a very specific meaning when he said major, leaving wide open that knowledge — and he said it to the American people, and he said it remains dangerous — that combat operations of various levels will, of course, continue. And I think as far as the crew of the Abraham Lincoln was concerned, as they were about to arrive with their families after the longest deployment ever, Mission Accomplished was a great way to summarize what they did.
Q: So when will the total mission — what is this administration’s definition of when the total mission will be really accomplished?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it will be as — when security and stability are brought to Iraq, when Iraq has a representative government of all the different people of Iraq, when that government is up and that government is stable. And this is going to be a question of some time.
If the President in early May said major combat operations have ended, this is just two months later — why would anybody think, after all the decades that Saddam Hussein had to build up the hate and the destruction in that country, and how many loyalists he had dedicated to helping him carry out the murders and the torture that he had in that country, that in a mere two months, Iraq would look like the United States? It’s not the way it works, and it’s not the way the President thinks.
Q: Ari, going back to Africa again. The President will be visiting two countries that are right on the border of Zimbabwe, which is an impending major problem for the continent in terms of starvation, possible refugees. Is the President going to lobby the leaders of those two countries to put more pressure on Mugabe to either loosen up or leave the scene?
MR. FLEISCHER: I would refer you to the last statement that was issued by the White House after the recent tainted election in Zimbabwe, which expresses the administration’s thinking on that matter. So it is a source of real concern.
Q: On Medicare reform, while the President commended the House and Senate for moving the legislation along, there is a $172 billion health savings account attached and incorporated with that bill. Does the President believe that the Medicare reform bill is an appropriate vehicle for this? And does he support health savings accounts?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you know, the President typically doesn’t get into what the appropriate vehicle is or not vehicle is. That’s something the Congress will work out. But the President supports the notion of medical savings accounts. He thinks it’s another way to bring choice and innovation to health care.
Q: Ari, today, Italy takes over the presidency of the European Union.
MR. FLEISCHER: Right.
Q: And the Italian government is putting forward a very ambitious program of infrastructural development for Europe, including government-supported improvement of the rail lines, harbors, and the like, in order to encourage private investment. Does the President feel that such a program given the state of the infrastructure in the United States, would be on target here also for the U.S.?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not had a discussion with the President about the European Union’s internal infrastructure development programs or plans. The United States is not like Europe in all aspects. We have a much more vigorous private sector here in the United States. But I have not talked to the President about that directly.
END 1:26 P.M. EDT