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Exchange With Reporters Aboard Air Force One on the Persian Gulf Crisis

August 10, 1990

Q. What's your reaction to Saddam Hussein's declaration of war against the United States -- --

The President. It's not unexpected. He is so isolated in the world, so much backed into a corner by world opinion, which is almost 100 percent against him, that he has to find some mechanism to rally support. And it won't work. His problem is in the Arab world and the Moslem world as well as it is in the rest of the world, so it's a rather frantic ploy to try to gather some support. But it's going to be ineffective; it will not work.

Q. Mr. President, are you hearing anything out of the Arab summit that encourages you?

The President. Haven't got any reports yet from the Arab summit, one way or another.

Q. Mr. President, are you confident there are enough American troops already in Saudi Arabia to be able to withstand any sort of an assault? Basically, do you think American troops can -- would be able to win?

The President. To be able to withstand an assault on Saudi Arabia? Well, I think -- --

Q. Immediately, if it happens now.

The President. Well, there's no evidence as of right now that Saddam Hussein would be foolish enough to cross that border. But we have implemented the air power out there, air forces. Saudi has strong air power. Some of the Kuwaiti air force is there in Saudi Arabia. Other elements will be there. We have a carrier there. So, I think that our fighting men that are on the ground there will be safe. But I don't want to heighten concern because I've seen -- they have not presented me with any evidence that the troops that have already been moved forward are being reinforced, or that they are preparing to move across the Saudi border.

Q. [Inaudible] -- obviously now leaving the United States to go over there. Can you please give us more of an idea of the size of the force you're sending and how long you're going to need to ask the American people to keep them there?

The President. No. They haven't even gotten there yet, so I can't estimate how long it will be. I might say, since you mention the American people and asking them how long they should be supported, I am very pleased with the strong support for what we've done from the American people -- indeed, from around the world. I think it's been very gratifying and I think it means that people understand that this aggression cannot go unchallenged.

So, in terms of the numbers, I'd prefer not to go into that. I never believe that it's good to pinpoint numbers of forces. And that's, of course, the way [Secretary of Defense] Dick Cheney and General Powell [Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] conducted themselves. So, I can't give you any help on that right now, and I'm not going to even give you any estimates on it right now. But it will be a substantial force, and others will be coming in with more forces, too.

Q. The numbers of ground troops that we obviously see leaving along with their equipment suggest some preparation for extensive capabilities on the ground. Can you enlighten us -- is that your plan? They would suggest that you're preparing for something other than -- --

The President. Listen, I'd love to see the economic sanctions be so successful that the forces could be withdrawn. And I think they will be successful. But I just can't -- my problem is, I just can't estimate the time right now, how long it will take. But there will be substantial force. There will be enough force so that Americans are protected from unwarranted attack, and it won't be just U.S. forces and Saudi forces.

Q. [Inaudible] -- foreigners are being taken out of Kuwait into Baghdad -- --

The President. Well, I view that as a prime responsibility. But you're right, there have been very disturbing reports of violence against the citizens of several countries. And there was a report of a British airline stewardess having been violated and humiliated by Iraq soldiers. There are scattered reports, but I will say that it's not just against Americans. But I think all countries are concerned about the safety of their citizens, and part of any planning has to be about how to protect citizens. Now, we all know the difficulties of that if somebody does violence like has already taken place, as a matter of fact. So, it worries me because I do view it as a prime responsibility. But I would say -- I'm not going to go beyond that and I'm not going to invite further harassment by elevating the value of any citizen.

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. We're not helpless, no. But as we've seen with hostage situations -- and I don't think this is one -- sometimes it's very difficult.

Q. Mr. President, how do you read Saddam's -- [inaudible] -- is this just rhetoric?

The President. Yes, rhetorical, because he's backed into a corner. He's been isolated by the rest of the world. Nobody supports him. And so, he's trying to rally Arab support generally. The problem he's got is that most of the Arab countries violently disapprove of what he's done. But he doesn't have many options, so he's resorting to radical rhetoric trying to mobilize opinion. But his problem is everybody sees through this. Everybody around the world will see through this rhetoric.

Q. -- -- the Arab leaders -- --

The President. No. No, I think it's going well, and my talks with Arab leaders have been very supportive. It's the right thing that you have an Arab meeting of this kind. I salute [Egyptian] President Mubarak for having stayed with the idea. The more such meetings, the better. Maybe, just maybe -- and I'm not too optimistic -- somebody can talk some sense into this man who has been thoroughly censured by the rest of the world.

Q. You say that Saddam -- [inaudible] -- rhetoric, but is there no danger to that kind of rhetoric -- --

The President. No, I don't see any danger.

Q. [Inaudible] -- holy places being turned over to foreigners?

The President. I think it's so extreme that people that are in Saudi Arabia, loyal to the King -- they're not going to rise up when a cornered radical tries to mobilize support when he has none. I mean, people see this so clearly that I wouldn't worry about that.

Q. Mr. President, speaking of the safety of Americans, what about the safety of Americans outside of Iraq and Kuwait? What are you being told about the possibility of terrorist attacks as a result -- --

The President. Well, you always worry about that. As you know, I've worried about that for a long time, long before this incident. And, indeed, Americans are still being held against their will, probably in Lebanon, and this will continue to concern me, wherever they are -- whether it's in the Middle East or elsewhere. So, I do worry about extremists taking extreme action.

Q. Do you have reason to believe that it's more likely?

The President. No specific reason on this case, and no intelligence that has me alarmed. But I continue to worry about it. And we, of course, take the proper warning procedures in our various embassies. But all you can do is make clear to people that there are these dangers.

Q. What's your best assessment -- --

The President. The best assessment is that I'm very encouraged by the worldwide support for sanctions in the United Nations. I am very encouraged by King Fahd's determination to stand up against this reckless action taken by Saddam Hussein. I am pleased the way the Alliance -- our allies are coming through, and I am determined that the economic sanctions that are already beginning to bite against Iraq can be tightened up even more. So, at this juncture, I've got a lot to be grateful for. I'm very pleased with the way our defense forces on short notice answered the call to mobilization that I put out, and the way -- the professional manner in which they moved these forces without incident. And so, there's a lot of good things out there.

The troubling thing is we're up against a man who is known for his brutality and irrationality and who has taken a step that, though widely condemned, has still not been reversed.

Q. [Inaudible] -- a blockade -- [inaudible]

The President. The United Nations has already moved for chapter VII sanctions, which are all-encompassing. I'm not prepared to use the word "blockade," but I am prepared to say that we will do whatever is necessary to see that the exports from Iran referred to under the U.N. resolution do not go forward. And that means pipelines and that means seeing that the product does not get to market that might attempt to. But I'm not prepared to go further than that for several reasons. But I would just leave it right there right now.

But we're moving ships; the British and the French are moving ships; others will be moving ships. Right at this very minute Canada is announcing that they are joining with some ships. So, we'll just let those signals go out that there is a determination on the part of a lot of countries to implement the U.N. action.

Q. -- -- bottled up right now?

The President. Less of it is getting to market, but I cannot tell you that it is totally out of the market.

Q. Mr. President, are you saying that you're going to -- if an Iraqi oil ship went out today, U.S. ships would stop it or some ship would stop it?

The President. I didn't say that.

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. What is your question?

Q. If an Iraqi ship went out today, would a U.S. ship or another ship -- --

The President. Put it this way: I would advise Iraqi ships not to go out with oil.

Q. Could you tell us a little more -- --

The President. No, I'll just leave it right there because there are a lot of things going on right now that I don't feel like commenting on.

Q. Mr. President, you mentioned earlier about terrorism that all you can say is that there is -- [inaudible] -- because this man is known for his brutality and his irrationality. Is there any kind of warning you would give to the American people?

The President. Yes, I'd say don't go to Iraq right now. How's that?

Q. How about other kind of -- --

The President. Don't go to Kuwait. You'll find it difficult to land. No, but it's a very good question, and certainly I'd say to Americans be careful about travel to certain areas right now. There's been concerns about terrorism for many years. And those concerns have been there long before this irrational action by Saddam Hussein, and they are ongoing. Because, you know, you could well see terrorist groups try to capitalize on this.

Q. Do you think Americans need to be careful in travel to other places in the Middle East?

The President. Well, I think they've always been advised to be careful of travel. I'm not prepared to say nobody should travel anyplace in the Middle East. I'm not prepared to say that at all.

Q. What about outside the Middle East?

The President. I'd be careful wherever you go these days.

Q. Do you have any concern about your own trip to Kennebunkport? Will you be able to stay on top of the game while you're up here?

The President. I think we're going to have a safe trip. Are you referring to the safety of the trip?

Q. No -- stay on top -- --

The President. No, I can easily stay here. We have highly complex and highly efficient communications. I have some of my top advisers here. Others will be coming up there from time to time. I expect to see [Secretary of State] Jim Baker up there very soon. And I am in very close -- I will be in very close touch with Pentagon officials or whoever is behind the National Security Council. Right now, it'll be General Scowcroft [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs]. So, I'm determined that life goes on.

I will have a busy schedule, busier than I'd like to have had, of contacts. In fact, I've got a list of calls that I'll be making over the next couple of days -- not all to the Middle East, incidentally. So, it will be a little different than I had hoped, but I think I'm doing the right thing. I think the American people want to see life go on, so long as they understand that their President and his top officials are on top of a troubled situation.

So, that's the way I looked at it. And if I find matters seem to require my going back, it's an hour and a half to go back. So, I think we're in pretty good shape on that.

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. Yes. Haven't you seen the telephone in my golf cart? Or boat? Word of honor. Well, I talked, you know -- where was it? We talked to -- where was it when we were out in the Fidelity the last time?

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. No, no. Well, that was one. Yes, that was one. But, no, the other day we were out and talked overseas, I believe it was. But in any event, I think I should reassure the American people that the communications is extraordinarily good. And if I found that I needed meetings with these top officials or with foreign officials and it would be more convenient to do it in Washington, it's very easy to go back.

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. No. I think the American people will support what I'm -- you mean on this?

Q. -- -- going on a vacation at the same time -- --

The President. No, not at all. Because I'm going to be working -- normally, you know, what I've said is, look, if I'm on vacation I want to have a vacation. And I don't want to try to kid the American people that I'm working. Play and play hard, and then work like hell the rest of the time when you're in Washington. And I think I've done that -- go to work early in the morning, go home late at night. This one will be different because there are some tasks that I must undertake up here, so it will be a little -- it will be legitimately a combination of work and play. But I don't want to deceive the American people -- just tell them what you think and ask for their support. And I think people will understand that. So, that's the way I approach this.

You know, what you don't want to do is appear to be held hostage in the White House to events. And I'm not going to do that. That's why we have all this sophisticated intelligence. So, I feel all right about it.

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. I don't think you weigh your vital national security interests and then say, well, we can't undertake these because there are other pressing problems. There are other pressing problems, but this is so fundamental to the security of the United States and to the free world and, indeed, to the whole integrity of a lot of free countries around the world that when I went to do this I didn't say, listen, please give me a cost estimate to do it. This is what we have to do. And so -- --

Q. [Inaudible]

The President. Probably will. But as you look at some of the forces -- you know, we've not had to enhance the Armed Force units there; they're all there. It's not like a mobilization where you bring in a lot of people that are not on the payroll. So, you have a lot of costs that are ongoing that can apply here to the forces in Saudi Arabia just as they'd apply to them if they were sitting in a base in the United States. Having said that, there will be additional costs -- a lot of it logistical support, getting the materials there. But we're beginning now to get some hard estimates on this.

But regrettably, this is just something that we have to do. And you're faced with decisions where you can't say, I'm not going to do this because of the arts, or education, or the drug fight, or whatever. This is something that is in the national interest, and it is essential that we do it. And I am very gratified that the American people seem to understand that. And I would cite the strong support for what I've done as something that makes me feel they do understand it.

Q. Mr. President, any suggestion that the Saudis would be able to defray any of the cost -- --

The President. Well, I think that they more than likely would. And I think the Kuwaitis have already made clear that they want to help with some of the expenses involved to the Turks, for example. So there's a -- I think you'll see a rather cooperative effort, those that have military forces and those who mainly have funds. But I don't know exactly on the Saudis. We haven't gone into that that I know of.

Thank you all. I hope you get a little relaxation.

Q. What are you going to do tonight?

The President. I don't know. I'm debating. I've got to wait and see what the weather's like. Might go fishing -- test the communications -- or might tee it up. But I've got to wait and see what's happening up there. We haven't -- it's not set yet. But I'll do something. I'm not going to sit idly by.

Q. You wouldn't want to do that.

Q. Will Baker come in tonight?

The President. No. I think he's going to Washington and then come up over the weekend, either tomorrow or the next day. Pretty well locked in. But he won't -- unless there's a last-minute change, he won't. I think he gets back -- what -- 9:30, 10:30 tonight. And so I think it will be over the weekend. But it will give us some interesting stuff to talk about. I'm very interested to see how it went with our NATO consultations.

Q. Are you going out tonight?

The President. Tonight? No, no. You guys are free.

Note: The exchange took place at approximately 1:35 p.m. en route from Andrews Air Force Base to Kennebunkport, ME.

George Bush, Exchange With Reporters Aboard Air Force One on the Persian Gulf Crisis Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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