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Ronald Reagan Administration: Interview with Bruce Drake of the New York Daily News

(December 12, 1983)

Mr. Drake. I wonder if we could start right off on the Mideast, Mr. President. A Congressman said last week, after those hearings that they had on the Hill, that it seemed to him the marine force had become more of a lightning rod for attack than a peacekeeping force. And I was wondering whether you feel that the marines, in that particular position that they're in now, continue to serve a useful purpose, and whether you're likely to redeploy them.

The President. Well, I believe this, that while we had hoped in this whole plan and in sending, at Lebanon's request, this multinational force, that casualties could be avoided. But I have to believe that what is happening is an indication of the determination of some others to prevent Lebanon from having either peace or its sovereignty as a nation. And if there is a lightning-rod effect to the multinational force -- because this is happening to other forces there other than our own -- it is that their chances of destroying the peace in Lebanon would be enhanced if they could get us to go home.

Mr. Drake. ``They'' meaning?

The President. Meaning the forces. First of all, there are forces in Lebanon that are fighting not just with the new government of Lebanon but are fighting with each other. They have been for years. That's what caused the breakdown of Lebanon several years ago. But they're aided and abetted by others who have other ideas. The Syrians, for example, have made it plain that they believe that Lebanon is really intended to be a part of a greater Syria.

Mr. Drake. I think what I was getting at -- you said in your speech after the terrorist bombing on the marines that their operational role at the airport was to prevent the area from becoming a battleground. It would seem that it has become a battleground.

The President. Yes. But remember -- remember that when this whole thing was conceived, Lebanon, itself, was a battlefield, with thousands of innocent men, women, and children being slaughtered because of armed forces that were fighting in that congested city, using it as a battlefield. And remember that elsewhere, there was no stable Government of Lebanon. There were these other factions fighting each other.

The proposal was that, when finally the PLO -- which was one of the battling factions -- was ousted and left, that a multinational force would go in -- the idea that the two nations, Syria and Israel, would leave. Both had agreed to -- said that when the other left, they would leave Lebanon.

The multinational force was to be a sort of ``keeping order force'' while the Lebanese Government reinstated itself, developed an armed force that could then take over in these war-torn areas as those two nations left. Remember that originally, there was no quarrel on the part of Lebanon of Syria invading, because it was invading against the PLO. So, Lebanon actually invited Syria to come in and help because of this kind of trouble.

Now, the multinational force went in. I think there were a great many accomplishments. The fighting stopped. There was some withdrawal, and then Syria reneged on its agreement and has refused to leave. There is an agreement now between Lebanon and Israel, which Israel has agreed that it will leave. But it can't leave as long as it's threatened by the Syrian forces there.

But the Lebanese Government has created an army, and we have trained that army. We have provided materiel and weapons in great amounts. And so, the purpose is still there.

Mr. Drake. Is the purpose served by keeping them at the airport in specific?

The President. Actually the airport is probably not as hazardous as it might be to be where some of the other forces are that are out actually patrolling the streets, threatened by snipers and so forth everyday. But the importance is that's the only airport in Lebanon. If they're to have any communication with the outside world, if they're to have traffic back and forth -- including our own people, our own diplomats who are trying to help in this process -- that airport must be kept open. And they were there to keep the airport open.

Mr. Drake. So, your inclination is to keep them there?

The President. No. My function is only that the multinational force -- that includes the leaders of those other three countries -- that we must have a visible showing of our multinational force in Lebanon to perform their function. But as the actual tactics and locale, that I leave to the military.

Mr. Drake. Let me ask you a broader question about it. We've, so far, lost 250 lives, and many Americans seem to feel that Lebanon is a place where another disaster could happen at any time. We've had a direct military exchange with the Syrians. Are you worried that fears of war, of escalation will cause public and congressional support of your policies to erode? And what can you say to assure Americans that we are not about to be drawn into the kind of quagmire that it has been for so many other countries?

The President. We're not about to be drawn in. Let me call to your attention there's going to be no firing by the marines unless they are fired upon and they defend themselves. That's far different than going in as an aggressive force that is now going to advance and conquer territory. There's no intention on the part of the multinational force to do that.

So, no, there's not going to be a war involving us.

Mr. Drake. What about congressional support? You must have read the papers over the last days. There are all sorts of reports that the congressional mood is turning again. Are you concerned about that?

The President. Certainly, I'm concerned. But I wish that some of those who are weakening in their resolve would recognize they're weakening precisely because that's what those who are committing the assaults on our forces -- why they have committed them. They feel that, if they can make enough trouble, that we will withdraw.

Mr. Drake. Let me ask you this to sort of interject. You know there was another terrorist attack on one of our Embassies this morning in Kuwait. You were reported last week to have made mention of a thousand terrorists massing, I think it was, in Lebanon. Is that an accurate report? And do you think that the attack today in Kuwait signals some sort of intensive campaign of terrorism that we're going to face in the next few months?

The President. Well, even you in the press have had some information that led you to print stories that worldwide terrorism, some of these -- [inaudible] -- on the increase and that the threats extend far and wide. You mentioned before about the casualties, the bulk of the casualties, the tragedies that we sustained in Beirut were from just one such suicide mission.

Mr. Drake. Right.

The President. But now to indicate that that doesn't only happen in Beirut is this thing in Kuwait. And apparently the same people are claiming credit who claimed credit for the assault on us, on the French, on our Embassy, which proceeded any attack on our military forces.

This is a tactic that is being used by the kind of people that we're trying to prevent from taking over in yet another country -- Lebanon.

Mr. Drake. Do you believe it's connected to this group of terrorists that you reportedly spoke of to the -- Lew Lehrman's group last week?

The President. Do I what?

Mr. Drake. It was reported that when you met with the Citizens for America last week, you made reference to this large group of terrorists that had massed, I think, in Lebanon, you said. Do you or your officials connect the attack today to that?

The President. Let me just say that there was sufficient evidence for me to feel safe in making that statement.

Mr. Drake. Mr. President, in Syria -- excuse me -- some reports from Lebanon say that the Syrians' success in downing our two bombers had shaken the confidence of some Lebanese in us as a protector. Do you feel that's the case? And I also wanted to ask you whether you had any second thoughts about older aircraft being used for that mission when, as you've often said, we have the New Jersey offshore with its 16-inch guns.

The President. Let me set the record straight on that. All that I did -- I don't give tactical orders to the military when there is a mission that has been approved to be carried out. All I said was that I hoped that they would consider that and see if that was a viable alternative, because it wouldn't present more of a safety factor. And the decision, for a number of actual tactical reasons, was that the airstrike -- for one thing, the forces that we were going after are mobile. And there would be no way just in an artillery attack to know whether we're still shooting at them or not, or whether they've gone someplace else.

I don't believe -- the beginning of your question -- I don't believe that there's been any lessening on the part of the Lebanese in their trust in the multinational force or their belief that it is essential.

Mr. Drake. You don't think that the shooting down of the planes had a propaganda effect to help the Syrians in that region?

The President. Well, the Syrians immediately jumped onto the bandwagon of propaganda. But they haven't reported anything about the success of that mission. We knocked out a number of very important installations, including blowing up an ammunition dump.

So, yes, there were casualties. Yes, one of them was a complete tragedy. There were some things that -- the planning of that couldn't have been foreseen. The weather lowered in; they had to go in at a lower altitude. But, as I say, I think the mission accomplished its purpose.

Mr. Drake. What about the pact that we made with the Israelis? As Secretary Shultz is finding out, in the Mideast a lot of moderate and other Arabs are asking how can we say this doesn't undermine our credibility as a peacemaker, as an honest broker, in Lebanon and the Mideast as a whole, if we have now entered into this military pact with the Israelis.

The President. Well, I think that we have an answer to that and have been giving the answer to them on this. This relationship with the Israelis is something that we've had since 1948. And a restatement of it or a dealing with some specifics with the new government now in Israel is a natural thing to do.

But the net point is that at the same time we're doing that, we are working with the moderate states. For example, one thing that was mentioned was the possibility of joint maneuvers. Well, we've had joint maneuvers with some of the other Arab States. We have, regularly, joint maneuvers with Egypt. We have forces in other places there.

Mr. Drake. But that's as we see it, Mr. President. Isn't there -- don't you concede that there's a factor that they see it a different way since there's been this longstanding enmity with Israel?

The President. Yes, but there seems to be a change when they find out that at the same time, we informed Israel of what we were going to continue to do with regard to the moderate Arab States.

Mr. Drake. Well, did we get any concessions that the moderate Arab States had hoped we would get from Israel, such as some more conciliatory statements on the settlement policy?

The President. No, there's a difference of opinion on that, and it has existed since Camp David, on the settlements. But we made our position plain that we still believe that that should stop -- that is one of the subjects for negotiation in a peace process. But we did tell them what we were going to do with regard to other Arab States who also require some of the same kind of cooperation that we're giving Israel, and we're going to do that.

Mr. Drake. You've often -- as recently as your radio address on Saturday -- mentioned the large Soviet presence in Syria. But you haven't said what it is you think their immediate design is. Is it just Soviet troublemaking? Are they prepared, do you think, for a confrontation in the region? What do you think the Soviets are up to?

The President. I don't know that there's any sign that they want a confrontation, particularly with us. But there's no question about their interest in the Middle East, and there's no question but that where there is trouble of any kind, they don't mind stirring the pot.

Now, just take a look at Ethiopia, South Yemen, and you can see that the Soviets have eyed the Middle East. It is a place of strategic importance to, particularly, the Western World -- Europe and Japan. Where would they turn to, what would they do if suddenly a force should shut off the energy supply that comes from the Middle East?

Now, the Soviet Union does not need the Middle East for that purpose. The Soviet Union has the greatest supply of oil reserves in the world. It is the greatest producer of energy.

Mr. Drake. Well, is there anything that you're expecting as far as what they intend in the region? Do we -- you do not expect that the Soviets are trying to shift confrontation to that region? Do you think that they're just filling contractual obligations to an ally?

The President. Well, I think very much they want to be involved and have a stake in the Middle East. And you can't ignore the things that, as I say, that they've done in Yemen and Ethiopia, there in the horn of Africa. You can't ignore Afghanistan. You can't ignore the divisions that they have at the border of Iran.

As a matter of fact, the Russian desire to move in that direction toward warm water precedes even the Soviets.

Mr. Drake. On a completely different aspect of the Middle East, I've listened to you for many years, and you always spoke with emotion about the PLO. What are your thoughts on the fate of Arafat -- you know, where he stands today, and also on the specific issue of whether Israel, us, or the U.N. should provide guarantees for him to leave the country?

The President. Well, I think our own view is here that his absence from Lebanon would be a step forward.

Mr. Drake. Do you think the Israelis are going to permit it, or do you -- --

The President. I don't know. We haven't communicated directly -- or I haven't -- with them on this point and their now sudden statement about this. But I have to say that we had evidence that Arafat -- remember, he is one of those who has, as some Arab States have, declared that Israel has no right to exist as a nation, that it was war to the death with them. But then he modified that position in his discussions with King Hussein of Jordan, with regard to negotiations for peace, and then was overruled by his own people, which must have been the growing prominence of that radical force in the PLO that has been fighting him.

Now, it's a case of will the real Mr. Arafat stand up. I don't know whether he has lost any leadership in the PLO. I don't know whether that modification still exists or whether he is willing to go further with that. I think that he would find great support among the PLO. I think the PLO people, the Palestinians on the West Bank are more moderate and don't want war. They want a peaceful solution to their problems.

Mr. Drake. Are we going to ask -- are we going to press the Israelis diplomatically to let him leave?

The President. I have to tell you, with our people, the Secretary of State abroad and all -- had a meeting on that.

Mr. Drake. Let me ask -- there's one thing I have to ask -- --

Deputy Press Secretary Speakes. That's got to be the last one.

Hunger in America

Mr. Drake. There's one thing I have to ask which is on the question of Ed Meese's comments the other day. I'm sure you've read it. I'm sure you read the controversy, all the reaction from the Democrats. I wonder if you could tell me your feelings about that and in specific whether you agree with his assertion that there's considerable information that some people who can afford to do otherwise are going to soup kitchens for free food?

The President. I'm delighted to set the record straight on that.

Let me preface it by saying one thing: As long as there is one person in this country who is hungry, then that's one person too many, and something must be done about it. And I happen to know that Ed Meese agrees with that.

Reading the entire script of the interview, I have to say that the reaction ignored much of what was in that interview and distorted the meaning of what he had said.

Now, we ourselves are the ones who have encouraged this getting into the picture of private groups, church groups, others in providing meals and the food centers. I've visited some of them myself around the country. We have contributed surplus foods to these people and to these food centers to help in what they're doing.

It isn't a case that this is to fight off starvation. What we envisioned with this is that the government does all that it can to try and see that there is no hunger. But others can make life also a little easier, maybe a lot easier, for these people in going beyond just the absolute necessities and, by these efforts, making sure that families can have a little more than bare necessities, which makes life worth living -- --

Mr. Drake. Well, could I -- --

The President. Now, let me just say this -- --

Mr. Drake. Sorry.

The President. We have found -- first of all, we are spending more on nutrition in this country than has ever been spent before in the history of the country. More people are getting food stamps than have ever gotten them before. I rejoice in these private groups, because there are more of those helping than have ever helped before.

But what he probably was trying to point out is that any time you've got a program of this kind -- how do we find cheaters on welfare, people that are getting welfare and being supported by their fellow citizens who don't really have a need and who should not be there. Well, isn't it logical to suggest that people of the same train of mind are going to take advantage of those who are privately trying to help? Now, the situation is that those private groups have no way of checking on the credentials of someone who comes there. They have opened their doors to invite those in -- the hungry in.

Now, this leads to why we have a commission -- and that, too, has been distorted, I'm afraid, in the accounting or the recounting of the -- the press and others have, every once in a while on an annual basis, have brought up finding an individual or people or a family that is doing without and that is hungry. I want to know why, because I know what we're doing; I know what the private sector's doing. And this commission was sent out not to find out if there's hunger in America; it was sent to find out how widespread is this. How many people are there who are suffering this? And is it because of some bungling in our distribution system? Is it because of people who don't know the way to find these programs? It could be some of both. And if so, we want to find out how do we communicate better and say to someone who is hungry, ``Look, here is how you find out the answer to your problem. Go here and there; appeal to the right people.''

Mr. Drake. Could I ask one more question?

Mr. Speakes. We're right on the ground.


Mr. Drake. I just want to ask quickly, what are your feelings with this security business? Is the White House becoming sort of a fortress? There's now this report that Secret Service are going to be armed with ground-to-air missiles in case there's an attack from a plane. Does this -- --

The President. I haven't heard anything about that -- such a thing. I have to say that I don't inquire too much. I have a great faith in our security forces and I -- like the military, I leave them to do what they believe in their own best judgment.

Mr. Drake. It sounds like you might be safer somewhere else. [Laughter]

The President. Well, in Kuwait, for example? [Laughter] This is the problem with worldwide terrorism. We do have some information on what they have threatened, their activities worldwide, and there are precautions that have to be taken.

Mr. Drake. Should make campaigning difficult.

The President. Well, yes. I have my own idea of one of the things about this terrorism. It's almost an impossible thing to detect and confine, but I believe that the countries and the groups in whose name the terrorists are operating have a responsibility.

For example, in this in Kuwait, if this is an Iranian group -- claims that this is part of a holy war and this is being done in the interest of the Government of Iran, then I think Iran has a responsibility to curb and curtail these things being done in their name, just as I would feel that if somebody went out doing these things and said they were doing them in the interest of the United States, I would feel that I had a responsibility to corral them and stop them.

Mr. Drake. Thank you, Mr. President.

Sources: Public Papers of the President