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Bush Reacts to Middle East Violence

Aired March 29, 2002 - 13:19   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go to Crawford, Texas. That's where our Major Garrett is traveling with President Bush.

It's not going to be a very peaceful holiday weekend I would imagine, Major, for the president. Very busy as he follows the events that are taking place in the Middle East.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Daryn.

And Secretary of State -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, forgive me -- was dispatched to the State Department. It was a byproduct of a National Security Council teleconference the president conducted. He was here at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Secure video hookup to the White House with the Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top administration officials all gathered around and the administration decided it was best to have Secretary of State Powell address the situation. Why? Because the Bush administration wants to emphasize this is a matter of diplomacy. And that if the Israelis and the Palestinians want their grievances dealt with, with the U.S. playing a leadership role, it has to be done through diplomatic channels. And the diplomatic representative of the President of the United States is Anthony Zinni.

And as the president talked to his national security team, very much decided to strike a note asking not only the Palestinian leadership to deal with terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, but make a call to the rest of the world, the European Union, other Arab nations to condemn acts of terrorism as a means of trying to pursue political goals. A very important message from the Bush administration.

A couple of other things to take note of in Secretary of State Powell's address. He made no mention of yesterday's announcement from the Palestinian Leader, Yasser, Arafat, of a willingness to implement an immediate cease-fire. Now the Bush administration is acutely aware of that remark from Mr. Arafat, but made no comment about it one way or the other, almost completely dismissing it.

And yet even as this attack goes on by Israeli defense forces in Ramallah, Secretary of State Powell said that Mr. Arafat and his leadership role remains more central than ever, and expressed his at least general pleasure that the Israeli government had given him assurances -- personal assurances from the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, that no harm would come to Yasser Arafat. So that's a signal to the Israelis, even though they have declared him an enemy of the state, the United States regards Mr. Arafat's leadership as central to the ongoing talks and pursuit of a cease-fire.

So it is a very, very careful line the administration is trying to walk. It is acutely aware of the Arab world's general reaction against what the administration has said. They know that the Arab world wants the United States to be more aggressive in telling the Israelis to back off. But the Bush administration believes the predicate here is terrorism. And as it wages a global war against terrorism, it feels that it is in now way in a position to criticize the Israeli government for responding to acts of terrorism committed against its own civilians -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, Major, the U.S. government might not be in a position to criticize that government, but also, in recent months, in light of the war against terrorism, it has made some allies and some relationships that it also has to nurture.

GARRETT: It has to nurture relationships on all sides of this. But the president's key focus, both domestically and internationally, is this moral clarity about terrorism. A zero tolerance for acts of terrorism against civilians as a means of achieving political aims. And the administration does not feel in any way it can back off from that position of moral clarity, whether it's in the Middle East or anywhere else. And to in any way try to inhibit the Israeli government from responding to the Passover massacre or the suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the administration believes would undercut its overall moral clarity on the issue of terrorism.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Powell also asked the Israeli government to make sure it did whatever it could to avoid civilian casualties among Palestinians. But, nevertheless, also saying it has a right to defend itself and that it is aware that this reaction in Ramallah is part of its military strategy. No criticism there, but an urging of the Israeli government to do everything it can possibly do to avoid civilian casualties among Palestinians. That's as far as the administration would go on that front -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And then, Major, just a logistical question here. No thought right now of cutting short the Easter break for the president heading back to Washington?

GARRETT: No, there is no discussion of that whatsoever. And one of the reasons Secretary of State Powell was sent out was the Bush administration really had hoped to give a lot of its senior aides the weekend off. And the staffing level here in Crawford is at the very low White House level. Many senior officials were trying to take -- hoping to take the weekend off. The president sort of sent that signal before he came down here, let's all try to have restful weekend if we can. We've all been working very hard.

So the White House did not want to have any administration policy articulated here by junior staffers, because they knew in the international community that would not be regarded nearly so seriously as if Secretary of State Powell did so. That's why Mr. Powell was sent to the State Department.

KAGAN: Thanks for explaining those behind the scene decisions. We appreciate it. Major Garrett in Crawford, Texas with the president over the holiday weekend.

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