President Clinton Explains American Position in Persian Gulf

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 17, 1998


The Pentagon

12:37 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President, for your remarks and your leadership. Thank you, Secretary Cohen, for the superb job you have done here at the Pentagon and on this most recent, very difficult problem. Thank you, General Shelton, for being the right person at the right time. Thank you, General Ralston, and the members of the Joint Chiefs, General Zinni, Secretary Albright, Secretary Slater, DCI Tenet, Mr. Bowles, Mr. Berger. Senator Robb, thank you for being here; and Congressman Skelton, thank you very much, and for your years of service to America and your passionate patriotism, both of you; and to the members of our Armed Forces and others who work here to protect our national security.

I have just received a very fine briefing from our military leadership on the status of our forces in the Persian Gulf. Before I left the Pentagon I wanted to talk to you, and all those whom you represent -- the men and women of our military. You, your friends and your colleagues are on the front lines of this crisis in Iraq. I want to you and I want the American people to hear directly from me what is at stake for America and the Persian Gulf; what we are doing to protect the peace, the security, the freedom we cherish; why we have taken the position we have taken.

I was thinking as I sat up here on the platform of the slogan that the First Lady gave me for her project on the millennium, which was: Remembering the past and imagining the future. Now, for that project, that means preserving the Star-Spangled Banner and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and it means making an unprecedented commitment to medical research and to get the best of the new technology. But that's not a bad slogan for us when we deal with more sober, more difficult, more dangerous matters.

Those who have questioned the United States in this moment, I would argue, are living only in the moment. They have neither remembered the past, nor imagined the future. So, first, let's just take a step back and consider why meeting the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is important to our security in the new era we are entering.

This is a time of tremendous promise for America. The superpower confrontation has ended on every continent; democracy is securing for more and more people the basic freedoms we Americans have come to take for granted. Bit by bit, the Information Age is chipping away at the barriers -- economic, political and social -- that once kept people locked in and freedom and prosperity locked out.

But for all our promise, all our opportunity, people in this room know very well that this is not a time free from peril -- especially as a result of reckless acts of outlaw nations and an unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers and organized international criminals. We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century. They feed on the free flow of information and technology. They actually take advantage of the freer movement of people, information, and ideas. And they will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and the missiles to deliver them. We simply cannot allow that to happen.

There is no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein's Iraq. His regime threatens the safety of his people, the stability of his region, and the security of all the rest of us.

I want the American people to understand, first, the past: How did this crisis come about. And I want them to understand what we must do to protect the national interest and, indeed, the interest of all freedom-loving people in the world.

Remember, as a condition of the cease-fire after the Gulf War, the United Nations demanded -- not the United States, the United Nations demanded -- and Saddam Hussein agreed to declare within 15 days -- this is way back in 1991 -- within 15 days his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them; to make a total declaration. That's what he promised to do.

The United Nations set up a special commission of highly trained international experts, called UNSCOM, to make sure that Iraq made good on that commitment. We had every good reason to insist that Iraq disarm. Saddam had built up a terrible arsenal and he had used it -- not once, but many times, in a decade-long war with Iran, he used chemical weapons -- against combatants, against civilians, against a foreign adversary, and even against his own people. And during the Gulf War, Saddam launched Scuds against Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Bahrain.

Now, instead of playing by the very rules he agreed to at the end of the Gulf War, Saddam has spent the better part of the past decade trying to cheat on this solemn commitment. Consider just some of the facts. Iraq repeatedly made false declarations about the weapons that it had left in its possession after the Gulf War. When UNSCOM would then uncover evidence that gave lie to those declarations, Iraq would simply amend the reports. For example, Iraq revised its nuclear declarations four times within just 14 months, and it has submitted six different biological warfare declarations, each of which has been rejected by UNSCOM.

In 1995, Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law and the chief organizer of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, defected to Jordan. He revealed that Iraq was continuing to conceal weapons and missiles and the capacity to build many more. Then, and only then, did Iraq admit to developing numbers of weapons in significant quantities, and weapon stocks. Previously it had vehemently denied the very thing it just simply admitted once Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected to Jordan and told the truth.

Now, listen to this. What did it admit? It admitted, among other things, an offensive biological warfare capability, notably 5,000 gallons of botulinum, which causes botulism; 2,000 gallons of anthrax; 25 biological-filled Scud warheads; and 157 aerial bombs. And I might say, UNSCOM inspectors believe that Iraq has actually greatly understated its production. As if we needed further confirmation, you all know what happened to its son-in-law when he made the untimely decision to go back to Iraq.

Next, throughout this entire process, Iraqi agents have undermined and undercut UNSCOM. They've harassed the inspectors, lied to them, disabled monitoring cameras, literally spirited evidence out of the back doors of suspect facilities as inspectors walked through the front door -- and our people were there observing it and have the pictures to prove it.

Despite Iraq's deceptions UNSCOM has, nevertheless, done a remarkable job. Its inspectors, the eyes and ears of the civilized world, have uncovered and destroyed more weapons of mass destruction capacity than was destroyed during the Gulf War. This includes nearly 40,000 chemical weapons, more than 100,000 gallons of chemical weapons agents, 48 operational missiles, 30 warheads specifically fitted for chemical and biological weapons, and a massive biological weapons facility at Al-Hakim, equipped to produce anthrax and other deadly agents.

Over the past few months, as they have come closer and closer to rooting out Iraq's remaining nuclear capacity, Saddam has undertaken yet another gambit to thwart their ambition by imposing debilitating conditions on the inspectors and declaring key sites which have still not been inspected off limits -- including, I might add, one palace in Baghdad more than 2600 acres large.

By comparison, when you hear all this business about presidential sites reflect our sovereignty, why do you want to come into a residence, the White House complex is 18 acres, so you'll have some feel for this. One of these presidential sites is about the size of Washington, D.C. That's about -- how many acres did you tell me it was -- 40,000 acres. We're not talking about a few rooms here with delicate personal matters involved.

It is obvious that there is an attempt here, based on the whole history of this operation, since 1991, to protect whatever remains of his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, the missiles to deliver them, and the feedstocks necessary to produce them. The UNSCOM inspectors believe that Iraq still has stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions, a small force of Scud-type missiles, and the capacity to restart quickly its production program and build many, many more weapons.

Now, against that background, let us remember the past, here. It is against that background that we have repeatedly and unambiguously made clear our preference for a diplomatic solution. The inspection system works. The inspection system has worked in the face of lies, stonewalling, obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. The people who have done that work deserve the thanks of civilized people throughout the world. It has worked.

That is all we want. And if we can find a diplomatic way to do what has to be done, to do what he promised to do at the end of the Gulf War, to do what should have been done within 15 days -- within 15 days of the agreement at the end of the Gulf War -- if we can find a diplomatic way to do that, that is by far our preference. But to be a genuine solution, and not simply one that glosses over the remaining problem, a diplomatic solution must include or meet a clear, immutable, reasonable, simple standard: Iraq must agree, and soon, to free, full, unfettered access to these sites, anywhere in the country. There can be no delusion or diminishment of the integrity of the inspection system that UNSCOM has put in place. Now, those terms are nothing more or less than the essence of what he agreed to at the end of the Gulf War.

The Security Council many times since has reiterated this standard. If he accepts them, force will not be necessary. If he refuses or continues to evade his obligation through more tactics of delay and deception, he, and he alone, will be to blame for the consequences.

I ask all of you to remember the record here: what he promised to do within 15 days of the end of the Gulf War, what he repeatedly refused to do, what we found out in '95, what the inspectors have done against all odds.

We have no business agreeing to any resolution of this that does not include free, unfettered access to the remaining sites by people who have integrity and proven competence in the inspection business. That should be our standard. That's what UNSCOM has done, and that's why I have been fighting for it so hard. That's why the United States should insist upon it.

Now, let's imagine the future. What if he fails to comply and we fail to act, or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more opportunities to develop this program of weapons of mass destruction and continue to press for the release of the sanctions and continue to ignore the solemn commitments that he made? Well, he will conclude that the international community has lost its will. He will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he'll use the arsenal. And I think every one of you who has really worked on this for any length of time believes that, too.

Now, we have spent several weeks building up our forces in the Gulf, and building a coalition of like-minded nations. Our force posture would not be possible without the support of Saudi Arabia, of Kuwait, Bahrain, the GCC states and Turkey. Other friends and allies have agreed to provide forces, bases or logistical support, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands, Hungary and Poland and the Czech Republic, Argentina, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and our friends and neighbors in Canada. That list is growing -- not because anyone wants military action, but because there are people in this world who believe the United Nations resolution should mean something, because they understand what UNSCOM has achieved, because they remember the past and because they can imagine what the future will be depending on what we do now.

If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear: We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program. We want to seriously reduce his capacity to threaten his neighbors. I am quite confident from the briefing I have just received from our military leaders that we can achieve the objectives and secure our vital strategic interests.

Let me be clear: A military operation cannot destroy all the weapons of mass destruction capacity. But it can, and will, leave him significantly worse off than he is now in terms of the ability to threaten the world with these weapons, or to attack his neighbors. And he will know that the international community continues to have the will to act if and when he threatens again.

Following any strike, we will carefully monitor Iraq's activities with all the means at our disposal. If he seeks to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction we will be prepared to strike him again. The economic sanctions will remain in place until Saddam complies fully with all U.N. resolutions.

Consider this: Already these sanctions have denied him $110 billion. Imagine how much stronger his armed forces would be today, how many more weapons of mass destruction operations he would have hidden around the country if he had been able to spend even a small fraction of that amount for a military rebuilding.

We will continue to enforce a no-fly zone from the southern suburbs of Baghdad to the Kuwait border, and in Northern Iraq, making it more difficult for Iraq to walk over Kuwait again or threaten the Kurds in the North.

Now, let me say to all of you here, as all of you know, the weightiest decision any President ever has to make is to send our troops into harm's way. And force can never be the first answer. But sometimes it's the only answer.

You are the best-prepared, best-equipped, best-trained fighting force in the world. And should it prove necessary for me to exercise the option of force, your commanders will do everything they can to protect the safety of all the men and women under their command. No military action, however, is risk free. I know that the people we may call upon in uniform are ready. The American people have to be ready as well.

Dealing with Saddam Hussein requires constant vigilance. We have seen that constant vigilance pays off, but it requires constant vigilance. Since the Gulf War we have pushed back every time Saddam has posed a threat. When Baghdad plotted to assassinate former President Bush, we struck hard at Iraq's intelligence headquarters. When Saddam threatened another invasion by massing his troops in Kuwait, along the Kuwaiti border in 1994, we immediately deployed our troops, our ships, our planes, and Saddam backed down. When Saddam forcefully occupied Irbil in Northern Iraq, we broadened our control over Iraq's skies by extending the no-fly zone.

But there is no better example, again I say, then the U.N. weapons inspections system itself. Yes, he has tried to thwart it in every conceivable way. But the discipline, determination, the year in-year out effort of these weapon inspectors is doing the job. And we seek to finish the job.

Let there be no doubt, we are prepared to act. But Saddam Hussein could end this crisis tomorrow, simply by letting the weapons inspectors complete their mission. He made a solemn commitment to the international community to do that and to give up his weapons of mass destruction a long time ago, now. One way or the other, we are determined to see that he makes good on his own promise.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq reminds us of what we learned in the 20th century and warns us of what we must know about the 21st. In this century we learned through harsh experience that the only answer to aggression and illegal behavior is firmness, determination, and, when necessary, action.

In the next century, the community of nations may see more and more the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers, or organized criminals, who travel the world among us unnoticed. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity -- even in the face of a clear message from the United Nations Security Council and clear evidence of a weapons of mass destruction program.

But if we act as one, we can safeguard our interests and send a clear message to every would-be tyrant and terrorist that the international community does have the wisdom and the will and the way to protect peace and security in a new era.

That is the future I ask you all to imagine. That is the future I ask our allies to imagine. If we look at the past and imagine that future, we will act as one together. And we still have, God willing, a chance to find a diplomatic resolution to this, and if not, God willing, the chance to do the right thing for our children and grandchildren.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

What's New - February 1998

Efforts To Protect Children's Health

Annual Economic Report

Departure Statement on Iraq

Ron Brown Corporate Leadership Award Ceremony

Welcome Prime Minister Blair

Disaster Sites In Florida

Clean Water Action Plan

Millennium Programs

Support For Internet Legislation

Pass Patients' Bill of Rights

NATO Expansion Protocols

Education Discussion with Governors

Congressional Democrats

Statement on Iraq

Joint Press Conference With Prime Minister Tony Blair

American Association for the Advancement of Science

First Balanced Budget in 30 Years

Commitment to Child Care

Ford's Theater Gala

Los Alamos National Laboratories

Dialogue on Social Security Reform

"High Hopes" Education Partnerships

National Prayer Breakfast

American Position in Persian Gulf

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