Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 -12 May 2004
Issue No. 689
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'I'm sorry'

US President George Bush apologises for the torture of Iraqi prisoners in this interview with Al-Ahram Board Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, Ibrahim Nafie. The interview was published in Arabic in the daily Al-Ahram on Saturday 8 May

Mr President, I have learned that President Mubarak recently sent you two important messages. I don't know the contents of these messages, but I assume, naturally, that they're linked to the situation in Iraq, and Palestine. At the start, I would like to ask you about your vision of the future of the Middle East.

Well, first of all, I communicate with President Mubarak a lot, because I value his judgment, and we've got a frank relationship where, if he thinks things are going badly, he'll tell me. In other words, he doesn't gloss over.

I think that things in the Middle East for the United States are difficult right now. I think they're difficult because people don't really understand our intentions. I think they're difficult because some people ascribe bad values and bad motives to the American people and the American government.

Our intentions are to work for free societies and peaceful societies. Our intentions are to protect our own security, on the one hand, but also enable people to live in peace. Obviously, our reputation has been damaged severely by the terrible and horrible acts, inhumane acts that were conducted on Iraqi prisoners. Today, I can't tell you how sorry I am to them and their families for the humiliation.

I'm also sorry because people are then able to say, look how terrible America is. But this isn't America, that's not -- Americans are appalled at what happened. We're a generous people. I don't think a lot of people understand that. So I've got to do a better job of explaining to people that we're for a lot of things that most people who live in the Middle East want. We want there to be peace. We want people to have a living. We want people to send their kids to schools that work. We want there to be health care. We want there to be a Palestinian state at peace with its neighbours. We want there to be reform. We want people to have a chance to participate in the process.

But I'd say right now times are tough for the United States and the Middle East.

I have four topics, Mr. President: Iraq, the Israeli-Arab issue, the so-called greater Middle East Initiative, and bilateral relations -- which of these would you choose to begin with, Mr President?

Whatever you want to do, sir, you're the distinguished journalist.

Thank you very much, indeed. Okay, I will go for the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Many Arabs feel that after the letter of assurances you gave to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, any future Palestinian state would exist on less than half what the partition plan offered them in '47. How do you reconcile this with a moral concept of justice?

First of all, I made it very clear in my letter that I recognised circumstances had changed -- but I made it very clear of a couple of very important points. One, that any final status would be negotiated by the parties -- that would be the Israelis and the Palestinians -- not the United States, we won't pre-judge final status.

Secondly, I made it clear that I supported what the Prime Minister had done, because I think it's a great opportunity for the establishment of a Palestinian state. I'm the first President ever to have articulated the vision of a Palestinian state.

I've written about this, and I want to express to you that we appreciate this very highly.

Well, I'll tell you, and I'm somewhat amazed, sir, that the debate has already started about what the end results are going to look like when we haven't even really begun yet to establish a state. I think the focus ought to be on putting the institutions in place for a Palestinian state that is peaceful and prosperous to emerge.

I think it's very important for reform-minded Palestinians to step up and ask the world for help, in order to build the security apparatus needed for a state to grow; ask for education help; ask for help to stimulate the entrepreneurial class so businesses will grow. I believe it'll happen. And when it does happen, the final status issues will be much easier to solve.

In other words, when there is a state that's up and running and prosperous and has the confidence of Egypt and Israel and America and the EU and the rest of the world, it'll be much easier for these final -- these tricky issues to be solved between the two parties. And so now is the time not to be arguing over what the world will look like down the road. We ought to be arguing about what the world can look like this year. And that's why the road map is so important.

The United States is firmly committed to the road map. I'm sending a letter to the -- I announced today I'm going to send a letter to the Palestinian Prime Minister explaining that I'm committed to the road map, committed to two states living side-by-side in peace, but also reminding him it's now time to step up and show leadership, show leadership against the terrorists, and show leadership in putting the institutions in place for a state to emerge.

The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland and to be provided with compensation is legally asserted in several UN resolutions.


The United States has also traditionally supported the right of refugees to return in recent major conflicts. How would you then justify making the Palestinian refugees an exception for accepted international laws under human rights conventions?

My comment, again, was this, that the right of refugees is a final-status issue. And that's to be negotiated on between the Palestinians and the Israelis. When I said what has changed and what will change is when there's a Palestinian state to which Palestinians can go. There hasn't been one. And my point was that when a state is set up and the institutions are in place and people have a chance to make a living and it's peaceful, the entrepreneurial class is growing, small businesses, people are participating in the political process, that's going to change the dynamic on the ground.

I fully concede there's a lot -- the compensation issue is an issue that's still being negotiated. The rights of -- you know, the rights of Palestinians to return to Israel will be negotiated. But what I'm telling you is when a state emerges, it'll change the dynamic. And that's all I said in my comment.

Again, I'll repeat to you, people want to focus on the future, when I think we ought to be focused right now on the right now, which is what is necessary to put a Palestinian state in place so people can have a chance to live in a hopeful society. And I'm frustrated, I must tell you, a little bit, because I think that there needs to be better leadership in saying, what can we do to help the Palestinian people develop a state. And there needs to be a new constitution, it seems like to me.

And some of these reforms stalled. Heck, we've been talking about them for about two years, unfortunately. But now is an opportunity. And I think Prime Minister Sharon created an interesting dynamic, I really do, and that is withdrawal from Gaza. You know, it wasn't all that long ago if an Israeli Prime Minister stood up and said, we're out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, people would have said, that's fantastic. And so the Prime Minister makes the decision to get out and, of course, his own party rejects it, which speaks to -- it speaks to his leadership, in my judgment, that he's willing to do what he thinks is right, in face of political opposition.

But do you really agree that pragmatic realities mean annexation of other people's lands?

I think what it means is, I think you're going to see over time with the emergence of a Palestinian state that the West Bank will be occupied by Palestinians. And to the extent to what the final border looks like is up for negotiations.

Again, we very much appreciate the fact that you were the first US President to call for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But in all the recent proposals that are being circulated, including the latest disengagement plan, we did not see any specific timetable. What happened to your pledge to create a Palestinian state by 2005? And do you still believe that this could be possible?

Well, 2005 may be hard, since 2005 is right around the corner. I readily concede the date has slipped some, primarily because violence sprung up. When I laid out the date of 2005, I believe it was around the time I went to Aqaba, Jordan. It was a very meaningful moment, where former Prime Minister Abu Mazen, myself, Prime Minister Sharon and His Majesty, the King of Jordan, stood up and pledged to work together.

But we hit a bump in the road -- violence, as well as Abu Mazen being replaced, which changed the dynamic. I don't want to make any excuses, but nevertheless, I think the timetable of 2005 isn't as realistic as it was two years ago. Nevertheless, I do think we ought to push hard as fast as possible to get a state in place.

And I repeat to you, sir, that part of my frustrations were alleviated with the Quartet making the statement it made the other day -- the Quartet being the EU, Russia, United Nations and the United States, working together. I think we can get the World Bank involved. But there is a certain sense of responsibility that falls upon the Palestinians, reform-minded Palestinians to step up and say, yes, we accept these institutions necessary for a peaceful state to emerge.

There's also a responsibility for Egypt. Egypt has got, in my judgment, an important role to play to help make sure there is security in Gaza, as the civil structure is put in place and as the government structure is put in place. And President Mubarak, I think, is willing to assume that responsibility over time -- I don't want to put him on a timetable, but I do believe he is committed to helping bring security to that part of the world, it's in Egypt's interest that there be security.

You know, Mr President, we did our best; getting all the factions together in Cairo to try to convince them to have one single opinion, and that we're ready for training the police and security guards.

That's right. President Mubarak has been a leader on the issue of security, he really has. As you say, he's convened a very important meeting to make it clear that in order for there to be a peaceful evolution of a state there has to be security, and that he's willing to train police. Egypt plays a mighty important role. And it's a great country and it should play an important role.

Mr President, you have said in recent statements that the assurances you gave to Sharon did not differ from what was being discussed, and what we mentioned now, and previous final status talks. But in those talks there were proposals on land swaps and an Israeli acceptance of the return of a limited number of refugees. Why were these proposals absent from your recent letters?

Look, I want to assure you once again that I understand the sensitivity of these final status issues. But they will be negotiated, not between the United States and the parties, they're negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian government, of a new state. And that's really -- and that is a position I've taken all along.

It's what I told my friend, President Mubarak. I just told that to His Majesty, the King of Jordan. And I will explain that consistent position of mine.

People -- I think some people are trying to read something into what I said or didn't say. And what -- you know, I'll say it finely one more time: This is an opportunity that we can't let go by. There's a lot of argument about final status issues, and they're very important issues, don't get me wrong. But the focus ought to be on how do we get a Palestinian state up and running and moving forward.

You have praised Sharon's proposal to withdraw from Gaza, which is an idea that does not represent more than one per cent of historical Palestine. Would you accept granting Palestinians a similar letter of assurances stating that any annexation of West Bank territory has to be minimal and that Israel has to pull out from nearly the entire West Bank, according to Security Resolution 242 and 338?

No, I will write -- I will say the exact same thing in a letter to the Palestinians that I have said publicly today, that I believe an opportunity exists and it's essential that the Palestinian Authority find reform-minded leaders who are willing to step up and lead.

The last question on Israeli-Arab issue; you have repeatedly stated that Israel had the right to defend itself. But do you believe that by building walls and settlements and by assassinating Palestinian leaders, Israel is enhancing security and helping and reassuring peace talks?

I think that any country has a right to defend herself. And you're looking at a President who is now in the process of defending my country against terrorist attacks. It is very difficult for the President of the United States to condemn anybody for defending themselves.

My problem with the wall was not the security aspect of the wall. My problem with the wall was that at one point in time it looked like it was trying to prejudge any final status. And I hope -- my hope is that, at one point in time, the wall is unnecessary. The hope is that a peaceful Palestinian state, that -- I keep saying that, but I think it's possible -- but a peaceful Palestinian state must be a state in which youngsters are well-educated, and have a chance to make a living, and parents have a chance to raise their children in a peaceful setting.

And I think that a peaceful Palestinian state will eventually change the dynamics on that which exists on the ground today.

I thank you, very much, for your patience. I will move to the other topic, Iraq.

Sure. Sure.

You said yesterday that you first learned of the abuses of Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq generally. Why has it taken so long to adopt serious measures against those directly responsible and their commanders?

First of all, I learned about the fact that there was an investigation going on. I did not know the extent of the abuse. And there was a report done as a result of those investigations. And what you're hearing here in America is, why didn't I see the report? And that's a good question.

That's one of the questions I'm asking, because I first saw about the pictures on television screens.

But one of the things you've got to understand about our country is that, one, we reject this kind of treatment of people. It's abhorrent. And it's not America. Your readers have to understand, this is not our country. Secondly, that we will fully investigate. Now, there's a difference between fully investigating and rushing to judgment. We will investigate. And there's a procedure in the military that is necessary to make sure that the guilty are truly guilty. It's very important for the Commander-in-Chief not to prejudge.

Thirdly, the process will be transparent. Your readers have got to know that here in America, in our system, the judicial process will be fully transparent. And you're beginning to see the transparency. The press corps wants to know different questions. And those questions need to be answered.

Tomorrow, our Secretary of Defense, in whom I've got confidence and believe in, will go up and testify at the United States Senate. So you'll see the process evolve as to -- and the truth come out, as to why the military needed to take the time necessary to fully investigate these horrible, horrible acts.

And I repeat to you, sir, I am sorry for the humiliation suffered by those individuals. It makes me sick to my stomach to see that happen.

I'll tell you what else I'm sorry about. I'm sorry that the truth about our soldiers in Iraq becomes obscured. In other words, we've got fantastic citizens in Iraq; good kids; good soldiers, men and women who are working every day to make Iraqi citizens' lives better. And there are a thousand acts of kindness that take place every day of these great Americans who really do care about the citizens in Iraq. It's an awful, awful period for the American people, just like it's awful for the Iraqi citizens to see that on their TV screens.

Again, sir, do you feel that you need to apologize to the Iraqis and the Arab world, now you've said that you're sorry"?

Well, I'm sorry for the prisoners, I really am. I think it's humiliating. And it is, again -- what the Arab world must understand is a couple of things. One, under a dictatorship, these -- this wouldn't be transparent. In other words, if there was torture under a dictator, we would never know the truth. In a democracy, you'll know the truth. And justice will be done. And that's what people need to know.

What are the main pillars of the upcoming Security Council resolution on Iraq? How much control are you ready to cede to the United Nations and the future Iraqi government?

Well, I think the Iraqi government wants sovereignty. And I think that's the proper -- the proper relationship is sovereignty to be passed to the Iraqi government with help from the coalition, as well as the United Nations.

I'll tell you a very good role for the United Nations is to help set up the elections that will take place in January of 2005. And the United Nations Security Council resolution is important, because it says to members of the world, please participate in helping this government grow.

But the sovereignty -- Iraqi people want to run the government themselves. That's not to say they don't want help; of course they want help. But they want to run their government. Frankly, you hear frustrations about America there in Iraq. And I can understand that, because nobody wants their government run for them. The people of Iraq want to run their own government, and that's what will happen.

How long do you think the United States will stay in Iraq?

As long as necessary, and not one day more.

A recent Gallup Poll showed that 71 per cent of Iraqis considered the United States an occupying power. Does this disappoint you?

No, listen, I understand. I mean, if I were an Iraqi and I saw people -- was asked, am I happy that somebody is running my government for me -- which basically is what the question implies -- the answer would be, no, we want to run our government ourselves. And that's why we're transferring sovereignty.

I'll tell you, however, the Iraqi people understand that America needs to be around for a while to help make sure that the killers -- the foreign fighters who are there, disgruntled former Saddamists -- don't wreak havoc. There are thousands of Iraqis losing their lives at the hands of these killers. And they need help right now, until Iraqi security forces are efficient, are formed in a way that will be able to be responsive to the dangers of these few people. It is essential that there be a secure environment as Iraq emerges from this period of tyranny. And they want our help there. They also want the reconstruction aid.

And this has been delayed a lot.

Well, it has, for a reason. Early in the winter there was fast movement on the reconstruction projects. I mean, there's some wonderful things that have happened in Iraq, which of course don't get mentioned very often.

For example, I'll tell you an interesting thing that's happened, is that the currency, the old currency was replaced by a new currency in about a six or seven month period of time. That's hard to do. And, yet, it was done without a lot of arbitrage, a lot of counterfeiting, theft -- there was no theft. And the currency is stable, which is a remarkable feat, when you think about it. The electricity levels were climbing quite dramatically. The oil production, which is Iraqi oil production, it's not American, it's -- Iraq owns the oil -- it's up to about two-and-a-half million barrels a day.

So in other words, there were positive signs going on. And then we had this period of fighting, where elements in society decided to fight, because they saw freedom coming and they wanted to try and stop it, is what they're trying to do. And we took them on and are defeating them.

What's happening now is that big projects are starting back up again, because the security situation is a little better, and big companies are moving in with these reconstruction projects. It will start back up, and Iraq will be better for it.

I am aware of a very emotionally-charged meeting that took place recently between you and an Iraqi women's delegation -- it was very emotional and there were tears shed. Do you care to share the details of that meeting with us?

Only because you asked. I did have the honour of welcoming a group of women to the Oval Office. I was told ahead of time that some members of the delegation did not want to come in the Oval Office because they didn't want to get their picture taken, because they were afraid -- not of American reaction, but of reaction back home. In other words, there is still fear in people's heart.

I met with those ladies later. The door opened to the Oval Office and the first woman that walked in looked at me and she burst out in tears, and said, "You are my liberator." It touched my heart, it really did. And I, of course -- I held her in my arms and tears came to my eyes as she cried of joy. It really made me feel great. She said, "Thank you, Mr President. You liberated us." I said, "No, the American people helped liberate you." And then another lady came in and another lady came in. We had about six of us in our office.

And it was a touching meeting. These were people that were obviously somewhat taken aback that they were in with the President of the United States. And, yet, when they were with me, it was deeply emotional. It touched my heart. I still remember it clearly today. It made me very joyous inside to think that people who had been enslaved to tyranny, fearful of torture, probably had friends in mass graves, would be so thankful for the chance to live in peace.

And I'll tell you what's really important for the people -- those people, those women, and I think about them all the time, is for me to never show any weakness in the face of the dangers in Iraq. In other words, those killers want us to leave. But my attitude is, having met with these women, if we leave, they will be in jeopardy. And I have an obligation, no matter how difficult it gets, to stay strong on behalf of those women, and their chance to raise their children in freedom.

The other day I had the Olympic Committee from Iraq come, two members of the Olympic Committee. It was an exciting moment. I love sports, for starters. And the head of the women's Olympic committee came. She was a former runner. And she told me about her two-year-old son and one-year-old son. She had quit the Olympic team because she didn't want to run for one of Saddam's sons, for fear of her life. And yet she was so grateful for the freedom she has. It's heartening.

I met with Fulbright Scholars, young Iraqis that are here studying in the United States. I met with doctors from Iraq who are getting new training -- all of whom are desperate for there to be a free society so they can live in peace. And that's why we share the same goal.

On the Greater Middle East; Mr, President, has your vision on the greater Middle East initiative changed at all, in light of recent reactions from Arab and European countries? What will be presented to the G8 leaders in their meeting next month?

My vision for the greater Middle East reforms was strengthened by the Alexandria Library Conference. You might have heard of that. (Laughter.) I saw the spirit of that conference. There are people in the Middle East who understand the need for reforms.

Now, when I talk about reforms, I fully understand that the pace of reform will be different from country to country. But, nevertheless, there has to be a commitment to reform for a better life for every citizen. I am as strong today on reforms in the greater Middle East as I have ever been.

I fully understand the criticism. I mean, I get criticised all the time in my job. I think the job of a leader is to have a vision, a vision that is hopeful and optimistic, and one based upon certain principles -- a principle like rule of law; a principle like human dignity by empowering individuals to make decisions in the political process; a principle that every person deserves respect; a principle that says that a peaceful society is more likely to be one that is a free society. And, therefore, I won't abandon those principles, no matter how significant the pressure.

One last question --

Okay, one more question. Then we've got to go.

Why does your administration insist on imposing sanctions against Syria?

Because they will not fight terror, and they won't join us in fighting terror. We've asked them to do some things, and they haven't responded. And Congress passed a law saying that if Syria will not join -- for example, booting out a Hizbullah office out of Damascus -- that the President has the right to put sanctions on.

I have yet to impose a sanction, but the bill enables me to do so. And we've talked to the Syrian leader very clearly -- and these aren't -- these are reasonable requests -- and thus far, he hasn't heeded them. And that's why, if I make the decision to put on sanctions, it will be because he hasn't been a full partner in the war against terror.

That would create more problems in the area.

Well, we'll see. But I think that people need to understand that there needs to be a full commitment. I mean, there's no need to harbour people who are expressing hatred. And if the world would join together to rout out terrorist organisations who want to kill innocent people, it would be a heck of a lot better off.

See, here's my objection. We've got Muslims killing Muslims in Iraq. There are Muslims who will kill an innocent Muslim, for the sake of trying to create fear. We can't let that happen. Civilized people must not allow that to happen. What they're trying to do is they're trying to shake our will, our collective will. For those of us who love freedom, they were trying to say, well, don't work for freedom, leave us alone so we can kill other people. We just can't let that happen. There are too many peaceful people who need protection. And we want to help them. And, most importantly, we want to help them help themselves, so they can be self-governing in Iraq.

But the killing of innocent life for political purposes is not acceptable in the 21st century. And you know that, and I believe that.

Let me assure you that the Arab people have no ill-will towards the American people. Maybe the only issue is the Palestinian-Israeli --

The Israeli issue, yes.

-- and the American bias in it.

I hope we can get that solved. I mean, I truly believe that a peaceful state will emerge. And, listen, I've got great respect for Arab culture; I've got great respect for the Muslim religion. I reject this notion that this is a war against Muslims. This is not a war against Muslims. The Muslim religion is a peaceful religion. Islam is peace. This is a war against evil people who want to kill innocent life. That's what this is.

And it is -- they've killed in our country. They've killed in your country. They killed a great man in Sadat. And it's essential that freedom-loving people and peaceful people fight terror. It's the call of our time; it's the challenge of the 21st century. And we've got to work together to do so.

And I appreciate you giving me a chance to visit and share my views to the people who need to learn more about our intentions and our deep desire for peace.

I do thank you very much.

Thank you, sir.

And I hope we shall see you very soon in Egypt.

Good job. Very good job. Very good interview.

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