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President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair Hold Press Conference from Camp David

Aired February 23, 2001 - 4:40 p.m. ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as promised, we're going back now to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland for the news conference with President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

These are actually rare pictures of this scene. It's not quite common -- not common at all, in fact, for cameras to be permitted to the scene. It is a presidential retreat for the fact that it gets him away from all the activity in Washington.

We do know, however, that there was a walk in the woods a little bit earlier, which was significant. It was more of a photo opportunity this time around than in the past.

But those have always been very useful diplomatic tools: walks in the woods. This , the prime minister and the president were just getting to know each other on a stroll. But in the past, such walks have been used by President Carter to try to bring Menachem Begin of Israel on board to the agreements which later became known as the Camp David Peace Agreements in the Middle East.

And there have been many other incidents of presidents taking their adversaries or their counterparts out for a little bit of a walk around, a breath of fresh Vermont air, and a little bit of a reality check on their diplomatic positions.

We were talking with John King earlier about the issues that are facing the prime minister and the president. And they are numerous. But on so many issues Britain and the United States have stood together -- that this is no surprise that the prime minister would be the first European leader invited to Washington, and then, indeed, invited to this special privilege to Camp David, to this presidential retreat, which is so often used as a place for presidents to regroup and rest away from Washington -- President Bush, especially, taking advantage of this rustic scenery here, and the quiet -- the peace and quiet away from Washington.

There you see assembled this rare conclave here of reporters permitted to join them in this sort of sacred place, the inner sanctum now of Camp David. Normally, those who are covering the White House travel as far as Thurmont, Maryland -- which is just in the neighborhood, It's near the bottom of the Catoctin mountain range -- and they aren't permitted to get this close. But it's a sign, I think, of the significance of this first meeting between the prime minister and the president: that all of their moves and, indeed, their very first comments are to be made public to the nation in a televised news conference.

Now, this delay is unlike the administration. And we don't know if it means that there's some kind of special brokering going on of a position paper or a point of view that has to be expressed. But we do know the sort of things that are being brought to the table at Camp David for this visit.

As we were discussing a moment ago with John King, first and foremost is the joint airstrike against Iraq, which was undertaken by American and British pilots in their self defense, according to the Pentagon, because Iraqi air defenses had gotten more sophisticated at tracking and targeting British and American pilots who were enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq -- this, a legacy, of course, of the Gulf War.

They're also going to talk about nuclear proliferation and the scene -- the system of a national missile defense, which has been put back on the table by the Bush administration after it was shelved by President Carter -- Clinton -- for the time being -- that, a very significant issue because it is opposed not only by Russia, but also by so many American allies in Europe.

And on this count, it would be President Bush's hope that Prime Minister Blair could take the case for missile defense to some of our allies, at least listen to the case being made for missile defense by our own secretary of defense and secretary of state before ruling it out entirely on his part. Again, the closeness of this special relationship between Britain and the United States demonstrated by that important task.

And, as John King said, it's important for these two men shaking hands here now to establish a personal relationship, something that was so important for the prime minister and former President Bill Clinton, as they dealt with a number of issues during the Clinton administration.

And here they are now before the press: President Bush first, Prime Minister Blair on the right of the screen.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... welcome the prime minister, from our strongest friend and closest ally, to Camp David. We've had a couple of formal visits. More importantly, we had a nice walk around Camp David and got to know each other. And as they told me, he's a pretty charming guy. He put the charm offensive on me.


BUSH: And it worked. No, we're delighted tonight. We'll have a dinner, just the four of us, Ms. Blair and Laura and the two of us, and I'm really looking forward to it.

This is a chance for me to tell the prime minister how dedicated my administration will be to an alliance that has made a huge difference in the world, an alliance that I firmly believe will make a difference in the years to come.

We discussed trade. We discussed defenses. We discussed the prime minister's vision of a strong NATO. We discussed a lot of subjects.

The thing I want to leave people with the impression of is that ours will be a strong and good personal relationship and an alliance that will stand the test of time.

Mr. Prime Minister, welcome.

TONY BLAIR, PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN: Thank you very much, Mr. President. Well, I'm delighted to come here, and I've been really enthusiastic about our meetings so far. They've been absolutely excellent and very productive, as I hoped and expected.

So we discussed a whole range of issues. I think we've been through all the issues that you would expect, plus some more. And I've found it a very, very useful meeting, indeed.

And I just want to make one point, by way of introduction, which is that our countries have stood together in some very difficult times, very hard times, some of the most testing times the world has ever known. And the reason we've come through those times together and stronger is because we share the same values, we share the same interests, we have a lot of common history. I think most of all we have the same perception of the world, and the beliefs in freedom, the belief in standing up for what is right and just. And everything that I've heard today confirms my view that that relationship will carry on and strengthen in the years to come.

I thank you very much, indeed.

QUESTION: Have you received a commitment from the prime minister to support your missile defense plan, including building your defense site in Britain?

And, Mr. Prime Minister, do you think that there is a threat that requires a missile defense shield, and would you allow a missile defense site to be built on your...

BUSH: Mr. Prime Minister, before we answer that, generally when I ask for one question, we only get one question or comment.

Well done.

We had a long discussion about missile defense. I will, obviously, let the prime minister speak for himself. I made the case, like I will do to all the leaders with whom I meet, that we need to think differently about the post-Cold War era, that there are new threats that face people who love freedom. There is a threat of an accidental launch of a missile. There are threats of potential blackmail when one of these nations develops weapons of mass destruction and be willing to point at America, Britain, our allies, friends, people to whom we've got commitments, and we got to deal with those in a realistic way.

And the prime minister asked a lot of really good questions, and he can answer what you asked. But we're in the process of coming up with a realistic way to deal with the true threats. It makes a lot of sense to explore options. It makes a lot of sense to develop defenses to face the true threats. It also makes sense for us to send a message to the world that, in the post-Cold War era, the United States will handle its responsibilities to keep the peace in a constructive way by reducing our offensive weapons as well.

And I'm now talking to the Pentagon to come up with a level of nuclear weaponry that will help us keep the peace. As to whether there ought to be sites or no sites, that's too early to determine because I have yet to propose to the prime minister what will work.

BLAIR: First of all, let me say, I understand and share the concern of the president and the American administration about weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation. And I think it's very important in that context that we discuss all of the ways that we can deal with this threat, which is a real threat and a present threat, both in relation to offensive and defensive systems.

And I said to the president, and I want to repeat to you, that I welcome very much the approach that the administration has taken, which is to be very open about this, which is to talk to people about it, to make sure that allies are consulted properly. These are very, very big and important issues, but we welcome the dialogue that there has been on it.

And, you know, I think if you look at the world today and you see those countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction, I think it is a debate that it is right to have.

QUESTION: Can I ask you both about missile defense?

Mr. President, can I ask you, if you fail to get agreement among your key allies, including Britain, are you prepared then to go ahead alone with some form of missile defense system?

And if I could ask the prime minister, are you prepared to say in principle now you could back an American missile defense system?

BUSH: I don't think I'm going to fail to persuade people. I think it makes -- it's common sensical to say to our friends, "Let's come together, work together, to develop a defense against the true threats of the 21st century." And so I don't accept your hypothesis.

BLAIR: And I'm sure, for my part, that this is a debate that is important to have, for the very reasons that the president gave earlier. And I think if you look at the weapons of mass destruction that people are trying to develop and nuclear proliferation, then it's important that we look at every single way we possibly can of dealing with this threat.

Now, as the president said a moment or two ago, we don't have a specific proposal on the table yet. But I understand and share the American concerns, as I've said many times before. And I think what is important is that we take this forward in a constructive way, have the right discussion with allies, then we can find a way through this. I've always believed that, incidentally, and I believe that even more firmly having talked to the president today.

BUSH: I'll give you a follow-up answer. I thought it interesting that Mr. Putin talked about missile defenses. I know there are some concerns in Europe about Russian reaction to the development of defenses that will make the world more peaceful, and Mr. Putin started talking about the need for folks to think about developing systems that will intercept missiles on launch, for example, theater-based systems that will keep the peace.

We found that to be a breakthrough of sorts, a recognition that the Cold War has passed, that we are not Russia's enemy -- I don't view Russia as our enemy either -- and that there will be new threats that we have to deal with.

If we're peaceful, loving people, we must use our technologies to appropriately deal with the threats that we'll be facing. And I thought that was a positive breakthrough.

QUESTION: Could both of you explain how you keep the Iraqi sanctions from crumbling? And how do you explain how the Iraqi sanctions could be reconstituted to help ease the strain on the Iraqi people?

BUSH: We spent a lot of time talking, about an hour, on mutual interests in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. And from our perspective, as you know, I made the famous statement that our sanctions are like Swiss cheese; that means they are not very effective. And we're going to work together to figure out a way to make them more effective. But I think the prime minister and I both recognize that it is going to be important for us to build a consensus in the region to make the sanctions more effective.

Colin Powell left today, after lunch, to move around the Middle East, collect thoughts and to listen, with the policy of strengthening our mission to make it clear to Saddam Hussein that he shall not terrorize his neighbors and not develop weapons of mass destruction.

BLAIR: If I can just add to that, I think that, of course, we look the whole time to see how we can make sanctions more effective, but don't be under any doubt at all of our absolute determination to make sure that the threat of Saddam Hussein is contained, and that he is not able to develop these weapons of mass destruction that he wishes to do. And as I constantly point out to people, I mean, this is a man with a record on these issues, both in respect to the murder of thousands of his own people, in respect of the war against Iran, in respect of the annexation of Kuwait. And we know perfectly well, given the chance, he will develop these weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, he's trying to do so, and will get as much technology as he can to do so.

Now, of course, we've got to -- you know, we're all conscious of the fact that our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people, who in many ways suffer under the yoke of Saddam Hussein, and therefore it's important that we make sure that the sanctions hit him, Saddam, as effectively as they possibly can. But, you know, we need to contain that threat, and that's why the action that we took is right and justified.

BUSH: BBC guy, as promised.


QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. If I could pick up on what we were discussing yesterday, now that you've had a chance to talk to the prime minister, do you share the concerns of many in your party that the European plan for a rapid reaction military force could seriously undermine NATO? And I'd like to hear first your response and then the prime minister's.

BUSH: The prime minister and I have spent a lot of time on this subject as well, and I support his point of view. He assured me that NATO is going to be the primary way to keep the peace in Europe. And I assured him that the United States will be actively engaged in NATO, remain engaged in Europe with our allies.

But he also assured me that the European defense would no way undermine NATO. He also assured me that there would be a joint command, that the planning would take place within NATO, and that should all NATO not wish to go on a mission, that would then serve as a catalyst for the defense forces moving on their own.

And finally, I was very hopeful, when we discussed the prime minister's vision, that such a vision would encourage our NATO allies and friends to bolster their defense budgets, perhaps. And so, I support what the prime minister has laid out. I think it makes a lot of sense for our country.

BLAIR: Well, I was very grateful for what the president had to say on that issue. And the important thing to remember is that, as the president has just outlined to you, this is in circumstances where NATO as a whole chooses not to be engaged. It is limited to the peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks that are set out. It is not a standing army; it is a capability that Europe should have, but the sovereign decision of each nation is necessary for each operation.

And speaking together as the founders of NATO, we would never do anything to undermine NATO. But where NATO as a whole chooses not to be engaged, it is important that we have the capability, where it's right and within these limited tasks that I have set out, to be able to act, should we choose to do so ourselves.

And, you know, I think, done in that way, it is something that can strengthen NATO, give us an additional string to our bow in circumstances where NATO doesn't want to be involved. And I think the president is absolutely right in a sense to put it up to us in Europe and say, "Well, if we are going to do this, then let us make sure that our capabilities match our aspirations." And I think done in that way, it is good not just for Europe, but it's good for NATO and the U.S. as well.

And I think that, you know, the discussion we had on it was very useful, very constructive.

QUESTION: How much of an obstacle is it to this special relationship you say you want to have on behalf of your two countries that you are ideologically poles apart -- a tax-cutter versus a tax- raiser, a pro-death penalty versus an anti-death penalty, America first versus an interventionist? I mean...

BUSH: He can handle his politics in Britain. I'll handle mine in America.

But we've got a lot of common interests. We agree on trade. We agree on ways to keep the peace. But most important, both of us recognize that this is a special relationship, the relationship between American and Britain, and we're going to keep it that way.

The prime minister referred to the great history of the relationship between our two countries, and this is a fantastic legacy for both of us to inherit. And it's a legacy I take seriously, and it's a legacy that I will work hard to protect.

I can assure you that when either of us get in a bind, there will be a friend on the other end of the phone.

BLAIR: Well, I endorse that completely. And I think it's important to recognize, as well, I mean, you know, from the work that we do in Europe as well, there are very strong alliances that can be formed with people, you know, across so-called ideological divides of that type.

But I think what is important is, is that, you know, what we have in common, our two countries and our interests, are just so much more important for us in the work that we do. And I should say also that I don't think, if you look at the problems that are on the president's agenda, even his domestic agenda now, in terms of the economy, in terms of some of the things -- we actually had a brief conversation about education policy...

BUSH: That's right.

BLAIR: ... when we were on our walk together, I think there are, you know, there are some interesting things happening that -- there's a good dialogue on some of these things, too. So I'm sorry to disappoint you. QUESTION: Mr. President, you spoke yesterday about sending a message to China if it is proven that the Chinese government was helping Iraqis at those missile sites -- the air defense sites, excuse me.

Mr. Prime Minister, I'm interested in what British intelligence tells you about any Chinese involvement, and if Chinese involvement is proven, what specific steps are each of you prepared to take, beyond just publicly voicing your displeasure.

BUSH: If I could answer that first, because we had a little bit of news today that the Chinese responded to our inquiry. And you're going to have to ask Condi Rice what specifically they said, but if I could paraphrase, it was, you know, "If this is the case, we'll remedy the situation."

But we did get a response. As I told you yesterday, that we filed a complaint, and they responded this morning.

QUESTION: Do you trust that they will keep word, in that regard?

BUSH: Well, I think you always got to begin with trust until proven otherwise.

Mr. Prime Minister, you may want to...

BLAIR: Oh, I've got nothing to add to that, actually. I think that's the sensible approach, and it's the one we took, too.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, having stood behind President Clinton for the last four years, through thick and thin, do you feel any embarrassment today on his behalf, as his presidency clearly ended in scandal and sleaze?

BLAIR: As I've said over the last few days, when I've been asked about this, Bill Clinton is a friend of mine, will remain a friend of mine. But I'm not getting into what has been in the newspapers and media over here. I don't think it's appropriate for me. I don't think it's right.

QUESTION: Mr. President, your administration has yet to become actively engaged in the peace-making process, particularly in Northern Ireland. Are you planning to become more engaged?

And, Mr. Prime Minister, based on what you've observed so far, do you expect that President Bush will be as engaged as President Clinton?

BUSH: Well, we talked about the peace process. And I, like I did in the campaign, want to again praise President Clinton for his involvement. I asked the prime minister, "Did the president have a positive effect?" He said, "Absolutely."

I then asked for him to let me know if I could ever help. As you know, our position on any peace process is, it takes willing parties to come together. And if there is a way that I can help, I'd be more than willing to do so.

I'm going to wait to be asked by the prime minister. He's got a better handle on it than I conceivably could, as to when and if the prestige of the United States is needed to make the process work better.

But we spent a lot of time discussing the issue. The prime minister deserves a lot of credit, as well, for working hard to bring a peace to Northern Ireland. And progress is being made. And I will be standing by, anxious to help if I'm needed.

BLAIR: Well, I was very grateful for that offer by the president. And you know, it's difficult to foresee the exact circumstances in which I might pick up the phone and ask the president to help.

But the fact that I know he is there and willing to do that is very important, because President Clinton was of great assistance during, you know, difficult parts of the Northern Ireland peace process. And it's a very difficult process. You know, I mean, it goes on the whole time, and we make progress, you know, day by day, week by week, month by month. And there are still some very, very tricky issues to sort out.

So I can't exactly foresee the circumstances in which, you know, the American president can come in and be of help, but I was very grateful for the offer of that. And I think people in Northern Ireland will be as well.

Because, you know, whatever the difficulties of the process there, my goodness, Northern Ireland is a different place today from what it was, you know, a few years back. And for people to know that there is that interest in the outside world, for people in Northern Ireland to know that, it gives them tremendous heart and hope.

QUESTION: A question for both of you: There's been a lot said about how different you are as people. Have you already in your talks found something maybe that you -- some personal interests that you have in common, maybe in religion or sport or music?

BUSH: We both use Colgate toothpaste.


BLAIR: They're going to wonder how you knew that, George.


QUESTION: I also wanted to ask you, you come up with a lot of nicknames for people. I wondered if you already had one for the prime minister.

BLAIR: Well, I'm getting embarrassed about all the ones I choose in this press conference.

BUSH: I'm still open for suggestions. BLAIR: Well, I'm sure you'll get a few.

BUSH: Well, we like sports. The prime minister informed me this morning that he exercised at the gym prior to meeting Vice President Cheney. I informed him, after this press conference, I'm going to go exercise in the gym.

We've both got great wives. I think probably the place where we're going to find a lot of common ground is we're both dads, and proudly so, and recognize that as our most important responsibility is to be loving dads.

I don't know if you found any common ground or not.


BLAIR: I think that's enough to be going on with.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you talked about Secretary of State Powell going to the Middle East, looking for consensus on how to handle Saddam Hussein. We do know that there is a consensus that sanctions hurt the people of Iraq too much, and perhaps Saddam Hussein not enough. Did the two of you discuss ways of changing the sanctions to make them tougher on him and a little less punishing for the people of Iraq? And if not, how do you hope to keep the coalition together? You already have some NATO allies, even, who are questioning the value of the sanctions.

BUSH: Well, that's the work we got to do. First, our beef is not with the people of Iraq, it's with Saddam Hussein. And secondly, any time anybody suffers in Iraq we're concerned about it.

And I would, however, remind you that Saddam's got a lot of oil money, and it would be helpful if he would apply it to helping his people. Having said that, to the extent that sanctions are hurting the Iraqi people, we're going to analyze that.

Colin is really going to listen. He's going to solicit opinions from our friends and folks in the Middle East. And prior to formulation of any policy, we will have listened, and then I will, of course, consult with friends and allies, such as the prime minister here, as we develop a policy that we hope and know will be more realistic.

The prime minister said something interesting, though. A change in sanctions should not in any way, shape or form embolden Saddam Hussein. He has got to understand that we're going to watch him carefully. And if we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction, we will take the appropriate action. And if we catch him threatening his neighbors, we will take the appropriate action.

A change in a sanction regime that is not working should not be any kind of signal whatsoever to him that he should cross any line and test our will, because we're absolutely determined to make that part of the world a more peaceful place by keeping this guy in check.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

BUSH: See you at the gym!

John, are you doing OK?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's fine. Thanks, Mr. President.

FRAZIER: We have been listening to President Bush, Prime Minister Blair in their first televised news conference since meeting, their first meeting as leaders at Camp David, the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.

It also appears, they depart for the gym on the president's part, a question for John King, whether he was feeling all right. We are hoping John's all right, because we'd like to turn to him in a couple of moments for a recap of what was said at this news conference.

But there were no real surprises there. The president and the prime minister both affirming that this is a relationship of great closeness between these two countries, a lot of common ground here, a sense of a shared history, a shared perspective on the world and how things work.

And for more on what they said, let's turn now to John King, who was actually present at the news conference -- John.

KING: Well, Stephen, one little bit of news there from the president. He did say that the Chinese government had already reacted to the United States' inquiry as to whether the Chinese were perhaps helping the Iraqis at those air defense sites that the United States and Britain bombed just a week ago today. President Bush saying the Chinese government said that if there was any Chinese involvement, it would -- quote -- "remedy the situation," and the president said he would assume from this point on that he would trust the Chinese government to keep its word unless he sees otherwise.

Now, these two men perhaps awkward allies, from different political perspectives, but clearly here to try to make the case they are strong allies, nonetheless, promising, even if the sanctions regime against the Iraqi government is changed and more economic aid allowed into Iraq, that they will keep Saddam Hussein "in check," were the words President Bush used. Prime Minister Blair making clear as well that Great Britain shares that.

The two men also saying they were open to a good dialogue, a good debate about the U.S. plans for a national missile defense. President Bush refusing to answer the question directly when asked, Mr. President, would you go it alone, if you can't reach a consensus with the allies? Mr. Bush saying he's convinced that he will be able to persuade the allies to go along, and Mr. Blair saying that he believes the administration handling that debate quite well right now and that he is prepared to try to help the United States in that regard.

Both men joking a little bit about what they share in common. Again, they come from very different political perspectives, but both men also making clear that if one needs a friend, there will always be someone at the other end of the line.

Those questions, of course, stemming from the fact that Prime Minister Blair had such a good personal relationship with President Clinton and a good political allegiance as well. These two men saying they're determined to carry on that relationship even though they might have a somewhat different political perspective in their domestic agendas -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: John, I'm sure you heard, as I did, the very carefully worded answer that Prime Minister Blair gave to some of those very direct questions, especially about the missile defense system, calling this debate simply a debate that's good to have, to consider always to try to limit weapons of mass destruction. Very careful there to neither confirm nor deny any kind of affirmation of his beliefs that this is a good idea.

KING: Very careful, because many of his closest neighbors in Europe flatly object to the idea or at least believe that until you can actually look at the technology -- we are years away from developing this technology -- many of the European allies worried that if the United States spends the billions in research and development, and initial deployment of this system, that the Russians, the Chinese, in India and Pakistan, other nations will feel compelled to escalate an arms race, perhaps nuclear tensions as well.

So, that is the basis of the skepticism for most of the allies. And if the United States did deploy such a system, it would ask to deploy some -- at least some radar sites for this new missile defense system in Iraq -- in Britain. Excuse me. So Mr. Blair trying to make the middle-ground approach right now as this debate begins.

FRAZIER: And pointing out, John, as we say goodbye now with you, with our thanks, pointing out that there is no proposal on the table, that everyone really is just talking about ideas that have only barely been raised, let alone set aside.

We are going to step away now. Thank you for joining us on CNN TODAY.



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