The President. Terry [Terence Hunt, Associated Press]?
Persian Gulf Crisis
Q. Mr. President, how many American troops have you sent to Saudi Arabia? How long are you committed to keeping them there? And why not use them to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait?
The President. There will be a military briefing at the Pentagon — I think it’s within an hour — and so, I’ll leave the numbers to them. I would expect there would be some reluctance to give out specific numbers at this point for very obvious reasons.
What was the last part of your — —
Q. The other parts, sir, were: How long will you keep American forces in Saudi Arabia, and why not use them to drive the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait?
The President. Well, as you know from what I said, they’re there in a defensive mode right now, and therefore, that is not the mission to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. We have economic sanctions that I hope will be effective to that end. And I don’t know how long they’ll be there. They just got there or are just getting there.
Q. Is this an open-ended commitment? I mean, could this drag on for years?
The President. Nothing is open-ended, but I’m not worrying about that there at all. I’m worrying about getting them there and doing what I indicated in our speech in there is necessary: the defense of the Saudis and trying through concerted international means to reverse out this aggression.
Q. Mr. President, are we in a war? And what other nations have agreed to join our forces in defending Saudi Arabia? And I take it you also have included other Gulf nations in that umbrella.
The President. We’re not in a war. We have sent forces to defend Saudi Arabia. I will leave announcements about what other nations will be participating to the Saudis. But I believe Margaret Thatcher, after talking to King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia], has announced that forces will be going in; and then I think you’ll see other such actions. But I’d much prefer to leave that to Saudi Arabia, who indeed — it’s their country.
Q. But was [Secretary of Defense] Cheney’s mission successful in rallying support with Egypt and Morocco?
The President. Well, I, having talked to Mubarak [President of Egypt] a couple of times myself, feel that we are in very close agreement with him.
Who was your other country you asked about?
Q. Morocco, Yemen.
The President. Morocco — very, very supportive of the Saudis and of our overall position on the Mideast. So, I was very pleased with the Cheney mission in that regard.
Brit [Brit Hume, ABC News]?
Q. Mr. President, there are several dozen Americans in Baghdad apparently not able to leave at this point, and perhaps hundreds more in Kuwait — perhaps elsewhere in Iraq as well. In view of the extreme political sensitivity of Americans toward this whole question of hostages, why should not Saddam Hussein feel that he holds very high cards now in dealing with the United States?
The President. I’ve been encouraged that there have been actually announcements, I believe, saying people were free to leave. So, I’m not going to speculate or hypothecate beyond that. I want to see them out of there, obviously. But what he does — that’s a bit unpredictable. But I’m not going to try to heighten tensions in this regard by responding to hypothetical questions that might go beyond your question.
Q. Well, I just wonder what assurances you might be able to provide, sir, that our policy in this instance will not become, as it has in the past, hostage taking.
The President. I can provide only the assurance that I consider the protection of American life fundamental to my job and responsibilities as President.
Q. Mr. President, the question of chemical weapons — there are reports that the Iraqis were seen loading airplanes with chemical weapons. How concerned are you that he would use these over our troops that are there now?
The President. I think anytime you deal with somebody who has used chemical weapons on the battlefield you are concerned about it. I would think that he’d know, given the way the world views the use of chemical weapons, that it would be intolerable and that it would be dealt with very, very severely. So, I would hope that there would be no use of chemical weapons.
Q. Mr. President, I’m being told in my ear that there is a report or a rumor out of Jedda that Saddam Hussein is dead. Have you heard anything of this?
The President. I have not heard anything of that.
Q. Do you know if the Saudis are going to follow the Turks’ lead in shutting off an Iraqi pipeline, the one to the south? Have you had any promises from the Saudis or any other oil-producing countries that they will increase production to make up for this shortfall?
The President. I believe that the Venezuelans have announced a significant increase, and I expect you’d find others to follow.
And what was the first part, John [John Cochran, NBC News]?
Q. The Saudis cutting off the pipeline.
The President. That matter will be discussed, I’m sure. And I know that the Saudis are fully in accord with the action taken by the United Nations in terms of chapter VII sanctions. But we have no deal with them in that regard.
Q. Sir, it’s difficult for us to get information from Saudi Arabia, one reason being the American news media were not permitted to accompany American troops into Saudi Arabia. Was that your decision or King Fahd’s?
The President. That decision didn’t come to me, but there’s plenty of reporters in Saudi Arabia right now.
Q. Well, do you think there should be a Pentagon pool as there was, for example, in Panama?
The President. I’d have to discuss that with the Secretary of Defense. I’m glad that that many forces could be moved with not too much advance warning and with not too much, therefore, risk to Saudi Arabia or to these troops.
Q. Mr. President, was there any one single thing that tipped your hand into deciding to send U.S. troops and aircraft into Saudi Arabia? And secondly, how supportive have the Soviets been of your decision?
The President. There was no one single thing that I can think of, but when King Fahd requested such support, we were prompt to respond. But I can’t think of an individual, specific thing. If there was one, it would perhaps be the Saudis moving south when they said they were withdrawing.
Q. You mean the Iraqis, sir?
The President. I mean the Iraqis. Thank you very much. It’s been a long night. The Iraqis moving down to the Kuwait-Saudi border when, indeed, they had given their word that they were withdrawing. That heightened our concern.
Q. How supportive have the Soviets been of your decision, sir?
The President. The Soviets have been very responsible, in my view. They have joined the United Nations on that resolution; and [Secretary of State] Jim Baker, as recently as yesterday afternoon or evening, was in touch with Shevardnadze [Soviet Foreign Minister] again. And you know, I can’t ask for a more favorable response than he received.
Yes, Gerry [Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal]?
Q. Mr. President, is it your intention to let economic pressure alone provide the force that drives Iraq out of Kuwait? And are you prepared to wait several months, which is how long it might take for the economic sanctions to really bite?
The President. Well, we’ve taken this first significant step to defend Saudi Arabia. The economic sanctions should begin to bite pretty soon. There will be further steps taken to ensure that they are fully effective. And then we’ll wait and see where we go from there. But I’m not beyond that in my thinking. There obviously is a lot of contingency planning that always goes on and, prudently, should go on.
Charles [Charles Bierbauer, Cable News Network], then Ann [Ann Devroy, Washington Post].
Q. Mr. President, I can understand the need for individual countries to announce their own intentions with regards to the multinational force, but it’s our understanding that the Saudis wanted an Arab component in that force. Is that, in fact, the case, and will there be one?
The President. They didn’t tell us that, but it would not be at all surprising if there was an Arab component in that force, not at all.
Q. But you do not have one at this point?
The President. Well, I’m not going to comment on — because I think announcement of all components really should come from the participating countries.
Q. Not even broadly to define it as Arab, if not by nation?
The President. No. I told you I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened but I’d much prefer to have the announcements of that come from others. I think it is important that the focus be on Saudi requests and on defensive nature of the move we’ve made with these forces.
Q. Mr. President, you’ve told us several times of Saddam Hussein’s lies in his dealings with other leaders and with the United States on his intentions. Why do you now believe the Iraqi Government’s statements that they will let Americans go if there is no evidence of an American being let go?
The President. I’m not sure I totally believe them. I hope they’re telling the truth.
Q. Do you have assurances from any intelligence source, any other source that indicates movement by those Americans or any — —
The President. Well, I’ve had a source of movement by some foreigners. So, I would hope that this would then apply to Americans.
Q. Which foreigners?
Q. Mr. President, you said in your speech this morning that the puppet regime in Kuwait was unacceptable, and so was the acquisition of territory. At the same time, though, you said that the deployments are wholly defensive. The question is: How do you actually expect to force Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait?
The President. Economic sanctions, in this instance, if fully enforced, can be very, very effective. It’s a rich country in terms of oil resources. They’re a poor country, in a sense, because he squandered much of the resource on military might. And there are some indications that he’s already beginning to feel the pinch, and nobody can stand up forever to total economic deprivation.
Q. Can I just follow: Will you rule out preemptive strikes against Iraq as a way of forcing — —
The President. I am not going to go into hypothetical situations. We’ve been very careful not to do that, and I simply am not going to respond.
Maureen [Maureen Santini, New York Daily News]? Then we’ll go to the aisle.
Q. Mr. President, could you share with us the precise military objective of this mission? Will the American troops remain there only until Saddam Hussein removes his troops from the Saudi border?
The President. I can’t answer that because we have a major objective with those troops, which is the defense of the Soviet Union, so I think it’s beyond — —
Q. Saudi Arabia. [Laughter]
The President. A defense of Saudi Arabia. So, I think it’s beyond just the question of the tanks along the border.
Q. Sir, are you prepared for a prolonged ground war?
The President. They have a lot of air power, for example.
Q. Are you prepared for a prolonged ground war in the Persian Gulf?
The President. I’m not preparing for a long ground war in the Persian Gulf. There’s not a war going on there right now.
Q. But I’m just saying, could you just tell the American people what your specific military objective is?
The President. My military objective is to see Saudi Arabia defended. That’s the military objective. Our overall objective is to see Saddam Hussein get out and go back and to have the rightful regime of Kuwait back in place.
Q. Mr. President, can you tell us what U.S. and Saudi forces will be up against? You mentioned surface-to-surface missiles. You’ve spoken previously of the chemical warfare capability of the Saudis. What are they up against? And the second part of the question is: Did we misread Saddam Hussein? A couple of months ago the administration was up on the Hill deflecting a move to put sanctions on Iraq.
The President. Let me ask you — I’m not going to take the question on the exact military problem there because we’re going to have a thorough briefing at the Pentagon. I think they’re much better equipped to handle that kind of detail.
On Saddam Hussein, look, we’ve tried very hard to see if there wasn’t a way to have somewhat improved relations. There’s no question about that. And I have no regret about having tried to have discussions that might have led to a better relationship. But that had to stop the minute you have this kind of aggression. But I think, having tried tentatively to have a little better relationship with the person over the last couple of years, we’ve still been very, very wary all along of his intentions.
Q. Did our intelligence let us down, or did you know that what has happened — when did you get an indication it would be, as far as moving into Kuwait and that sort of thing?
The President. No, I don’t feel let down by the intelligence at all. When you plan a blitzkrieg-like attack that is launched at 2 o’clock in the morning, it’s pretty hard to stop, particularly when you have just been given the word of the people involved that there wouldn’t be any such attack. And I think the intelligence community deserves certain credit for picking up what was a substantial buildup and then reporting it to us. This information was relayed properly to interested parties, but the move was so swift that it was pretty hard for them to stop it. I really can’t blame our intelligence in any way — fault them in this particular go-around.
Yes, Ellen [Ellen Warren, Knight-Ridder Newspapers]?
Q. Mr. President, you said this morning that our troops would also defend our other friends in the Gulf. Do we view the American troops there as peacekeepers throughout the Gulf?
The President. We view them there to defend Saudi Arabia, and hopefully, their presence there will deter adventurism against any of the other Gulf countries.
Q. What other countries, sir, are we prepared to defend in the Gulf region?
The President. I’m not going to give you a list, but we’re certainly interested in the freedom and the independence of all those countries in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], just for openers.
Q. Mr. President, do you see any domestic impact on the budget talks or deficit from this situation in the Middle East — impact on the gasoline tax possibility, or in any other way?
The President. An operation of this nature has considerable expense associated with it. But I’ve asked for some estimates now as to what that price may be. But whatever it is, we’re going to have to pay it, but I don’t have the exact figures yet.
John [John Mashek, Boston Globe]?
Q. Mr. President, national security analysts say that this crisis demonstrates once again the constant vulnerability of the oil fields in the Middle East. Doesn’t this suggest that this force that you’ve sent over there may be there for some time or at least fragments of it will be there to make sure that there is a steady flow?
The President. You might interpret it that way. I’m not prepared to say that I think that’s what the outcome will be because I think if there is this pullback that the world is calling for, and if the sanctions are effective, I think you would reduce the risk of future adventurism.
Q. In your call to the producing countries to pick up the slack, do you expect that to begin immediately?
The President. Well, I think it will start very, very soon. I don’t know about today by way of — —
Gerry [Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal]?
Federal Budget Negotiations
Q. Mr. President, with the economy tipping or close to the edge of recession, do you think you still can afford to raise taxes and cut spending, or won’t that increase the risk of a deep recession?
The President. I still think it’s absolutely essential to get a budget agreement. And that’s going to require a lot of compromise, and it’s going to require a lot of principle. But you know, what I want to do is separate out my feelings about the budget now that I feel uninhibited by an agreement not to say anything, because I want to tell you exactly how strongly I feel about it, but I don’t want to do it here today. I don’t want to mix it into this briefing that is largely dominated by the world concern about the Middle East. But I feel like a liberated human being now. I don’t feel bound by — —
Q. Why not?
The President. May I finish what I’m saying here? I don’t feel — [laughter] — I don’t feel bound by an agreement that I’ve told the congressional leaders is no longer in effect. We’ve been getting one side of that, mainly from the Democrats in the Congress, and now you’re fixing to get the other. But not this minute; you have to stay tuned.
Persian Gulf Crisis
Q. Mr. President, to follow up. Do you think the spike in oil prices, if that occurs significantly at home as a result of the Persian Gulf problems, could edge the economy into a recession?
The President. I have not been advised of that. I hope that is not the case. What I hope to do is see a reduction in oil prices once it becomes clear that there will not be shortage. There’s an overhang now of oil in the marketplace — thank God. We have a Strategic Petroleum Reserve that we can draw from. Other countries have the same — a couple of other countries have SPR’s themselves. And I hope that this rapid spike on oil prices will not be permanent. And I think if the world begins to see assurances that there will not be a dramatic cutoff or cut-down on oil, that then things will return much more to normal in the market.
Q. Mr. President, assuming — —
The President. One more after this.
Q. Assuming that you achieve your withdrawal of Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein is still going to be sitting there on top of a million-man army that he’s shown an inclination to use. What happens in the long run after that? And can you contain that, short of removing Saddam Hussein from power?
The President. I would think that if this international lesson is taught well that Saddam Hussein would behave differently in the future. And that’s what has been so very important about this concerted United Nations effort — unprecedented, you might say, or certainly not enacted since 19 — what was it — 23 years ago, 23 years ago. So, I don’t think we can see that clearly down the road. But a line has been drawn in the sand. The United States has taken a firm position. And I might say we’re getting strong support from around the world for what we’ve done. I’ve been very, very pleased about that. Large countries and small countries — the world reaction has been excellent. And I would hope that all of this would result in Saddam Hussein or some calmer heads in Iraq understanding that this kind of international behavior is simply unacceptable. We see where we go.
Yes, Sarah [Sarah McClendon, McClendon News]?
Q. Sir, would you please — —
The President. This is the last question.
Q. I understand that we provide most of the food for Iraq and have done so on the long term and short term, and subsidies, payments — credit systems — for some time. That means that we’ve been letting them have a lot of food and a lot of other products from our farmers at probably low rates, arranged by the Department of Agriculture. Now, would you please discuss the effect of your embargo, and how much do you think that the Iraqis already owe us for food?
The President. I don’t know what they owe us for food. But I know that this embargo, to be successful, has got to encompass everything. And if there’s a humanitarian concern, pockets of starving children or something of this nature, why, I would take a look. But other than that, this embargo is going to be all-encompassing, and it will include food. And I don’t know what Iraq owes us now for food. Generally speaking, in normal times, we have felt that food might be separated out from — you know, grain, wheat — might be separated out from other economic sanctions. But this one is all-encompassing, and the language is pretty clear in the United Nations resolution.
Thank you all very much. And let me just say this on a personal basis: I’ve screwed up a couple of times here, and I’m very grateful for your assistance in straightening it out. God, I’d hate to have some of those answers stand. Thank you.