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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

I sat down to talk with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today about the Middle East, about terrorism and Iraq. Earlier this week, President Bush announced a plan to revive the Middle East peace process. He called for a summit and pledged aid and diplomatic backing to the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. Now, Abbas is calling for early elections, a move that could freeze the rival Hamas faction out of the political process.

When I talked with Secretary Rice in her outer office, I asked her why the administration has waited until now to restart Middle East peace talks.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): Let me just review what happened when this administration came to power. The Camp David talks, despite the excellent efforts of the Clinton administration, they had collapsed. The second intifada had been begun by Yasser Arafat. Ariel Sharon had been elected in Israel, not on a platform of peace, but on a platform of defeating the terrorists militarily, if necessary. We forget about the horrific suicide bombings in 2002 and 2003 in Israel. We forget about the fact that Yasser Arafat was dealing with Iran to bring weapons in.

We are now in a different place. We're in a place where a broad range of Israelis have accepted the need for a two-state solution. One would not have thought that possible when Ariel Sharon came to power; where the Palestinians have elected a man in Mahmoud Abbas, and a prime minister now, in Salam Fayyad, who are clearly committed to a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace. So now, many of the elements are there that were simply not there in 2001.

NORRIS: Some of the things you listed, though, many say would argue for more direct engagement. And now that the administration is planning to directly engage in the Middle East, some argue that it's almost seven years too late.

And by not sitting down with leaders in Hamas - who were democratically elected - and instead backing Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, that there could potentially be a boomerang effect, that Hamas was democratically elected in part because of dissatisfaction with corruption within the Fatah movement. Is it possible that supporting Mahmoud Abbas will instead wind up bolstering Hamas?

Sec. RICE: Well, it's not just the United States that is supporting Mahmoud Abbas. A great number of Arabs are supporting Mahmoud Abbas. He is the elected president of the Palestinian people. Yes, Hamas was elected, but Hamas was also elected to act responsibly. And Hamas has not acted responsibly.

It's very hard to imagine a partner for peace that refuses to renounce violence and refuses to recognize the right of the other partner to even exist. And so I find rather strange the notion that we should somehow try and engage Hamas, rather than to work with and strengthen the Palestinian president, who shares all of the values that will in fact bring about peace between Palestinians and Israelis; and by the way, a leader, who in his role as chairman of the PLO, has the mandate for negotiations for the Palestinian people.

NORRIS: Why not do both, though? I mean, you could argue that the art of diplomacy lies in directly engaging your enemies.

Sec. RICE: Well, Hamas is a little more than an enemy of the United States. Hamas, of course, is a terrorist organization. And we saw what Hamas did in Gaza, when they threw people off of buildings and then knelt to pray. The violence in the Palestinian territories, in the Gaza in particular, is directly related to Hamas activities. So, to somehow engage Hamas and to reward that activity would make no sense.

NORRIS: Now, when asking the question - I certainly wasn't talking about rewarding Hamas or other terrorist organizations - but if you're trying to solve the thorniest foreign policy problems right now, is it possible to do that without sitting down with groups that mean to do us harm — with Hamas, with the Iraqi insurgents? How can you do that without, at some point, engaging them?

Sec. RICE: Well, every situation is different. With Hamas, we certainly would not do so. They're a terrorist organization and they're devoted to the destruction of Israel. There's not much to talk about. With Iraqis, some of whom, at one point, believed that the United States was in occupation, some of those people have turned.

What is happening in Anbar - the province that was once said to be given over to al-Qaida - is really quite remarkable, where you have Sunni sheikhs and maybe even some who, at one time, were associated with the insurgency, turning to take their streets back. And in fact, we are cooperating with those people against the common enemy that is al-Qaida.

We have found reasons to talk to Iran about a limited agenda. So this is not an ideological problem to talk with those with whom we have differences. You're right, that's what diplomacy is. But you have to recognize that it makes sense to talk when there is a sense. This may, in fact, have some benefit, it may have some outcome that is favorable, and when one has the proper leverage to try and bring about that favorable outcome.

NORRIS: And I'd like to turn, if I could, to the National Intelligence Estimate. It concludes that al-Qaida is trying to find ways to build ties or build relationships with al-Qaida in Iraq. When you look at the conclusion of that report, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that the U.S. faces a greater terrorist threat now than it did in the past.

Sec. RICE: Well, I just don't think that that's true. It's clear - al-Qaida is trying to adapt. It's not the organization that attacked us on September 11th in terms of its field generalship, in terms of where it does its training, in terms of the financial ties that it has. It's not surprising that they're trying to adapt and to reconstitute.

But we are stronger, too, in the way that we can resist them. We are stronger, too, in the allies who are fighting them actively in Afghanistan, fighting them actively in Pakistan, fighting them actively in Saudi Arabia. They don't have the kind of umbrella of protection that they once had by the simple silence and incapacity of so much of the world to deal with them.

NORRIS: But it's hard to argue that this is an organization that's on the run. Al-Qaida in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the National Intelligence Estimate finds that al-Qaida regenerated itself in Pakistan. Could you argue that we are, perhaps, engaged on the wrong front, that we're fighting the wrong war, that we should be focusing more on Afghanistan than Iraq, where we could truly strike at the heart of al-Qaida?

Sec. RICE: We have to focus on all of these fronts, because — just to be totally accurate, Zarqawi, who is the founder - was the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq - was in Iraq prior to the war. But the al-Qaida in Iraq that has emerged has emerged as an enemy of the Iraqi people. And the Iraqi people are fighting back against it.

It's a little bit like saying that, well, if we just left them alone and only tried to go after them in one place or another, they wouldn't show up in other places. This is a worldwide movement that has franchises, in a sense. And you have to fight them in all of those places.

Now, as to Pakistan — yes, we're concerned about the ungoverned areas of Pakistan that, by the way, have been ungoverned for the entire history of Pakistan. What is different now, though, is that the Pakistani government, I think - having gone through a period when they were trying to find some political solution - recognizes that they are also going to have to fight these people.

And I think you're going to see much more aggressive Pakistani tactics because what we're seeing is that these terrorists are not only trying to plot and plan against the United States, but clearly have their designs on Pakistan as well. And you're seeing Pakistan fight back. Yes, this is a very tough fight.

And I remember very well when the president made his speech just a few days after the September 11th attack, that he said this would be a generational struggle against these people. And this ideology of hatred was in place and infecting much of the Middle East long before the United States had to liberate Iraq. So the notion that somehow this ideology of hatred emerged because we were in Iraq is simply not right.

NORRIS: I think we have to leave it there. Secretary Rice, thank you for your time.

Sec. RICE: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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