4 Years Ago: A Press Briefing on the Eve of War

By: E&P Staff

On March 18, 2003, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, briefed reporters on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

President Bush, the night before, had given Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to exit the country. Of course, they did not, and the U.S. attack was carried out on the evening of March 19 (March 20 in Iraq).

Here are excerpts from the briefing.

Q What about American lives? We don’t hear about that yet.

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President has said that he hopes that this can be done peacefully. If there are lives lost, he believes the American people understand the risks, the sacrifices that people are prepared to make if it is necessary to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein. I think people understand that. This has been a very serious run-up to what may become war. And the American people have heard and understand the reality and the gravity of the situation. And I think they understand that.

Q I pick up on that — what you said. Does it bother the President that most of the world is against this war, and half of America? And I have a follow-up.

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, this is an issue where you and I will never agree when you state your premise about what the people think.

Q This isn’t you and I. This is a very legitimate question.

MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, I think there’s a lot of public polling that you can see out there. The recent poll from your neighbor to the right, ABC News showed that 79 percent of the American people think that Saddam Hussein is a threat to the United States. I’ve heard you say on many occasions most Americans don’t think he’s a threat to the United States.

Q I didn’t say — I said the war.

MR. FLEISCHER: So I understand your strong opinions clearly. I’m not sure the American people agree with you.

Q That’s a very personal attack. I said the war. Are they in favor of —

MR. FLEISCHER: I thought it was an accurate observation….

Q And one other question, which is, can the President present any show-and-tell evidence of ties to al Qaeda with Saddam, and also a nuclear potential immediately or imminently?

MR. FLEISCHER: You heard what Secretary Powell talked about when he went to the United Nations and has reiterated on a regular basis since then, as well as others in the administration, about the presence in Baghdad of al Qaeda operatives, about the involvement of al Qaeda trained in Iraq involved in the assassination of AID worker Foley in Jordan. So this has been something that has been discussed very publicly.

Q Why is the — the CIA and FBI have never said that, backed that up.

MR. FLEISCHER: Don’t think it would have been said if it hadn’t been supported by them….

Q Secretary Powell said today that there is roughly 30 countries in the coalition of the willing. That leaves roughly 160 United Nations members in the coalition of the unwilling. Why is that?

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, that’s, I don’t think, a fair characterization of other nations to say that they’re in a coalition of the unwilling. Not every nation has the ability to contribute. Not every nation is in an area that is geographically advantageous concerning military operations or overflight or basing. So I think it depends significantly on the ability of these nations to contribute to a coalition. But I don’t think you can accurately say that.

If you were to take a look at — by that standard, then you would be able to make the same conclusions about many previous wars, including the first Persian Gulf War, say that the world was against it by that standard.

Q So does the United States have most of the members it wants, or all of the members it wants?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think it’s fair to say that the United States, as the President said, would act with a rather robust and significant size coalition of the willing, by any measurement….

Q Ari, more generally, we have not seen the President in any kind of informal setting for a while now, other than with the dogs yesterday. Could you describe for us the President’s mood, what he may be doing to keep focused, and the general White House mood?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I was with the President before he made the speech last night and afterwards. And I think the President is very, very focused. The President, having worked on this issue for such a considerable period of time, pursued the diplomacy with the diligence and the importance that the diplomacy deserved, believes now and is comfortable now with the fact that the moment of truth has come.

And the President believes in his heart that to preserve peace around the world, Saddam Hussein must be disarmed. And he is comfortable with the action that is pending, and is confident that it will achieve its goal. He is, I think, rather serious these days about that, focused and determined to achieve that mission, and he’s comfortable with it….

Q Somewhat unrelated — the NCAA is talking about delaying its playoffs. I realize you don’t set the schedule of sporting events, but can you tell us in a broader sense how much Americans can expect to get on with their normal lives, as we brace for war?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President hopes that people will continue with their normal lives. And that’s one of the reasons that the Department of Homeland Security was created and the alert codes were created. The alert codes have a series of actions that are taken as the alert rises or falls. And these are determined by the basis of the threat, any specific information. And Secretary Ridge addressed similar issues today.

Part of the planning is if the event people come to the conclusion that events have to be canceled, that would be made known. That has not been made known by the Department of Homeland Security. That’s not a recommendation they have made. But the Department of Homeland Security will work with all organizations across the country as they talk about what steps to take. That’s one of the reasons they’re there, is to do outreach, particularly for major events….

Q Ari, how long does the President think the American people should expect this conflict to last? Is it days, not weeks? Weeks, not months? How long should the American people be prepared to support this conflict?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, the hope is that it would be short; the hope is it won’t be long. But I am not prepared to make any predictions about that. I’m not in a position where I can give you any type of certainty about it. I think people have to prepare for the fact that it may not be short. It’s just impossible to state, and I’m not going to go beyond it and put any type of time frame on it….

Q I know you said you respect the free speech of members of Congress, but during the duration of any hostilities of any war, would you expect them to limit some of their criticism?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think these are judgments that constituencies need to make. Every member of Congress represents a constituency and they have to make their own judgments about what to say and leave it to their constituents to judge.

Q But some Democrats have said that they would tone down the rhetoric during the actual duration of the war, so that the troops don’t feel that they’re not being supported. Would that be encouraging to you?

MR. FLEISCHER: All I can say is, on this topic, there are obviously deep splits within the Democratic Party. And there are a number of Democrats who support the President; there are a number of Democrats who don’t and won’t. They are both within their rights. The Republican Party is rather unified on this measure; the Democrat Party is not. And that’s a reflection of the reality of the two parties….

Q Every other war has been accompanied by fiscal austerity of some sort, often including tax increases. What’s different about this war and this situation?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, the most important thing, war or no war, is for the economy to grow. And if the President’s judgment is that the best way to help the economy to grow is to stimulate the economy by providing tax relief — which is, interestingly, a notion that many people have endorsed — tax relief. There is some debate about how much tax relief. But the debate to have tax relief is over. Many people endorse tax relief. So the President is going to continue to focus on creating jobs for the American people, stimulating the economy. And that’s why he feels so strongly that Congress needs to pass his plan.

And the plan is, indeed, moving in the Congress. We expect budget action on the floor of the House this week, and the Ways and Means Committee will shortly mark it up. So it’s actually moving and moving nicely. We’ll see what the exact action is in the Senate, as well. But it is already moving….

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