Richard Armitage: U.S. Must Talk to Syria Creating a peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon is a centerpiece of the U.S. plan to end fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. But it will be difficult, if not impossible, according to the former deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration.
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Richard Armitage: U.S. Must Talk to Syria

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Richard Armitage: U.S. Must Talk to Syria

Richard Armitage: U.S. Must Talk to Syria

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U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is calling for an immediate cease-fire to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. He spoke as senior officials from the United States, Europe and the Middle East are meeting in Rome for talks aimed at ending the two-week-old conflict. There also discussing the possible deployment of an international peacekeeping force.


To hear how such a force might work, we turn to Richard Armitage. He was at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration when American forces served as peacekeepers in Lebanon. Most recently, during President Bush's first term, Richard Armitage was the number two official at the State Department. He's skeptical a peacekeeping force can be put together.

Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. State Department): I actually don't think this is a very real possibility, first of all. There are very few nations in the world who have sufficient troops to take on a mission, whether it's a robust mission of disarming Hezbollah, which would mean fighting, or whether it's a mission of being interspersed between the two warring camps.

And the numbers of people involved and the length of time of their involvement are still to be worked out and have to be worked out by military planners. But I suspect, talking in terms of months is not correct and that you'd have to be talking in terms of years for a duration of mission.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there any value in a situation like this for an international peace force if it can't fight or is not allowed to?

Mr. ARMITAGE: No. If the rules of engagement wouldn't allow it to fight and if they're not very robust, it would not be a good situation. I find a lot of chatter about this peacekeeping force, but I find very few people putting their hands in the air saying they've got troops who are willing to do it. No matter the mission, it would be a long-term involvement, because I don't think you'd expect the government of Lebanon or the Lebanese armed forces to be able to do any of the heavy lifting for a long time to come.

MONTAGNE: And what kind of troop levels would one have to be talking about?

Mr. ARMITAGE: Well, I saw a level thrown out of 10,000. It looked to me like it came up out of thin air. I am unaware of any military planners anywhere putting paper to pencil - or pencil to paper, excuse me.

MONTAGNE: Or any countries putting their hands up to say...

Mr. ARMITAGE: No, not at all. It all sounds like a great idea, but sorry, each of us are busy with our own problems.

MONTAGNE: And is that basically it or is there also a consideration that some countries might be acceptable to one side and not acceptable to the other?

Mr. ARMITAGE: Well, I suspect the United States, if we had excess troops -which I don't believe we have - we would fall in that category, and so do the British. We'd be seen, I think, as much more partial to Israel, which, hence, would not be acceptable.

MONTAGNE: You were an assistant secretary of defense back in 1982 when a peacekeeping force was sent into Lebanon.

Mr. ARMITAGE: Right.

MONTAGNE: Multi-national force stationed there, but ultimately forced to withdraw. Talk to us about that and what we might draw from that.

Mr. ARMITAGE: It was a very troubled time actually. And sooner rather than later, we became involved or were seen as taking sides in someone else's civil war. Ultimately, we lost 241 Naval and Marine personnel.

MONTAGNE: In the bombing of the Marine...

Mr. ARMITAGE: Yes, in the October '83 bombing.

MONTAGNE: Are there parallels between that peacekeeping force and now?

Mr. ARMITAGE: Well, I remember with stunning clarity one of our Israeli interlocutors sitting in my office telling me, don't worry about this Peace in Galilee operation. We understand our neighbors very well. We understand them better than anyone. We know all the dynamics of the situation in Lebanon. And that turned out not quite to be the case.

I suspect that people in government now are also hearing that from Israel. Don't get me wrong, if I thought that this air campaign would work and would eliminate Nasrallah and the leadership of Hezbollah I think it would all be fine. But I fear that you can't do this from the sky, and that you're going to end up empowering Hezbollah and perhaps introducing a dynamic into the body politic in Lebanon that will take some great period of time to recover from.

MONTAGNE: An element into the body politic that, as yet, we do not know?

Mr. ARMITAGE: I think we do not know. We're not, as far as I'm concerned, using all of the levers that we have, such as having the secretary of state talk to the Syrians. I think they want to get involved. I think they want to become more central to the solution, and you might as well give them the opportunity. If they step up to it, fine. If they don't, we'll know them for what they are.

MONTAGNE: The administration has made it pretty clear that they're interested in talking directly to Syria. Why draw that bright of a line?

Mr. ARMITAGE: I don't know. I think they've talked themselves into this. Their feeling is that Syria has to just step up to this without any discussions with the U.S. and do the, quote, right thing, unquote. My own view is, in any of these diplomatic maneuvers, you have to have a dialogue where two sides will see each other as having roughly equal opinions. We, of course, feel that we're entirely in the right. I happen to feel we are, in large measure, in the right. But we have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians in this case and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way. We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies.

MONTAGNE: One problem in 1983 was that the American force was seen as taking sides; coming in neutral, it thought, and then seen as taking sides and ended up a target. First of all, is that accurate?

Mr. ARMITAGE: Well, it's completely accurate. We were there as a peacekeeping presence. And just, by the way, in military terminology, presence doesn't mean anything. No military man knows how to be a presence. But, at the same time we were interspersed among the warring camps, we had increasing U.S. military involvement with naval gunfire and trainers and advisers on behalf of the Amine Gemayel government. We lulled ourselves - we, the United States, particularly the U.S. Marine Corps - into a delusion that we were immune to massive, unconventional attack because we were a peacekeeping presence.

MONTAGNE: Would this time in Lebanon be different because any peacekeeping force would go in taking sides really from the beginning - of necessity, which is to say it would be there against Hezbollah?

Mr. ARMITAGE: I think the disarmament of Hezbollah will be an extraordinarily difficult situation, and I think that's what going to keep many nations from putting their hands in the air and volunteering for the mission. They are not prepared to fight against an unconventional, nongovernmental organization, if you will, called Hezbollah.

MONTAGNE: And are nations thinking better to not go in in the first place then to go in and then have to withdraw?

Mr. ARMITAGE: Well, I think absolutely. And there's been no military planning anywhere of which I'm aware that would sort of sketch out the dynamics and the dimensions of such military presence, not to mention the rules of engagement, how robust they are, how violent they are. So we are an awfully long way, it would seem to me, from having any ability to have any forces interposed between the warring camps.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ARMITAGE: Thank you, Ms. Montagne.

MONTAGNE: Richard Armitage was deputy secretary of state during President George W. Bush's first term. Tomorrow, we'll have another discussion about the fighting in Lebanon, and a look at the Bush administration vision for a new Middle East.

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