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U.S. Department of State

Daily Press Briefing


1-6Assessment of Ohio State University Town Meeting/International Reaction

DPB # 22
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 1998, 1:15 P.M.

MR. FOLEY: Welcome to the State Department. I don't have any announcements, so George, let me go right to your question.

QUESTION: I can't think of a single thing to ask. I'll pass.

MR. FOLEY: Okay. Thank you for coming.

QUESTION: What do you think of the reaction to yesterday's town meeting, in the international community and the Arab world and Iraq?

MR. FOLEY: Well, I think the President answered that question this morning when he said that he thought it was, first of all, a very vibrant example of American democracy at work; secondly, that Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen and National Security Advisor Berger really had a remarkable opportunity to lay out the stakes involved for the American people in the crisis with Iraq.

There were some hecklers. I'm told that, from people who were there, that they did not amount to more than 50 out of an audience of some 6,000, who tried to mar the presentation. But they had ample opportunity, the three officials, to explain clearly to the people in the audience and the American people what's at stake. I think there was very strong support, the hecklers notwithstanding, in that audience, for a robust American policy for standing up to the threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

I think they had the opportunity really to hammer home that theme - that what is involved in this crisis really is the question of weapons of mass destruction, which is the number one security issue that we're going to be facing globally into the next century.

So I think that, again, it was a very lively debate. People had a really wide-ranging opportunity to ask some of the questions that, as Mr. Berger said afterwards, we've been asking ourselves as we face this crisis. But I think that at the end of the day, while everyone - and it was clear in that room - prefers a peaceful diplomatic outcome, that at the end of the day, there will be strong support, as the President indicated, for facing up to this threat by other means, if necessary.

QUESTION: Well, the media is putting a different spin than you just put. The media generally has been saying that it was unsuccessful; that it was unexpected; and that this type of heckling, et cetera was not expected; and that if you had to do it over again, you probably wouldn't have done it. And you're saying that it was a lively debate, as though you're welcoming the kind of treatment that some in the audience gave the three officials.

MR. FOLEY: Well, I'd have to say two things. First, about the hecklers, I think they demonstrated really a profound lack of confidence in their own ability to articulate their positions by acting as they did, and not speaking articulately. Secondly, they showed a lack of respect for the debate involved. If they had bothered to listen, they would have heard that many skeptical questions were posed to the three officials, who answered those questions forthrightly.

But I do think that - and this, of course, is a matter of personal opinion, and you may have different opinions. But in my personal opinion, I would think that the American people were turned off by the hecklers and were interested in listening both to the questions, the serious questions posed, and the serious answers given.

The second point I would make is that Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen and Mr. Berger laid out the challenge, which is Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. And we did not hear, in that forum, any - certainly from the hecklers - any proposal, rational, coherent proposal for dealing with that problem. Certainly, there are questions and risks involved in grappling with this problem, and the essence of leadership is taking responsibility and taking sometimes difficult -- even, in some circumstances -- unpopular actions to deal with threats to national security. But I did not hear any alternatives proposed.

I think that public opinion polls themselves demonstrate the kind of sentiment that was expressed in the room -- that people do prefer a peaceful solution; that military options are risky and have downsides; but that the threat of weapons of mass destruction, uniquely posed by Saddam Hussein, must be stood up to.

QUESTION: But Jim, I mean, the US Government chose the forum of a single television network that has international reach because you were trying to get a message across to Saddam Hussein. And while it might have been a lively display of American democracy at work, which is all well and good, at a time like this when you're in the run-up to a serious military action, don't you think that it is injurious to US policy to have the message - a unified message of US purposefulness kind of diluted by the cacophony of American democracy?

MR. FOLEY: I think that, if one were to take your premise to its logical conclusion, one would conclude that American democracy is something that we have to be afraid of; that we should be running away from; and that government officials could not have the courage of their convictions to go out to the American people and explain a very difficult situation that we're facing in the world today. I think you probably don't actually imply that, but I think there's really no alternative to democratic debate.

The President pointed out in his remarks this morning, we tend to forget in hindsight, because the Gulf War in 1991 proved to be very popular, that it was not so popular before the war began. There was significant opposition to the use of force, significant support for continuing to wait for sanctions to work, and that when President Bush took the decision, following Saddam's - and there are echoes today - unwillingness to resolve the issue diplomatically, that the American public rallied behind the President, rallied behind our forces and they got the job done. And the President predicted that that would be the case again, if it should come to the use of force.

I think we're speaking hypothetically, because some people are arguing that we should let diplomacy work, and we would like to see diplomacy work. What we are saying is that if diplomacy doesn't work, then we will have to move to the military option. If diplomacy has failed, I think you will find American public opinion in a different state. I think opinion polls actually demonstrate that today.


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