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James Steinberg: What's next in war on terrorism and Middle East

James Steinberg served as Deputy National Security Adviser during the Clinton Administration. Now the head of Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, DC. Steinberg has held positions at the U.S. State Department, The Markle Foundation, the Rand Corporation and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Steinberg served as national security counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy, and is the author of "An Ever Closer Union: European Integration and Its Implications for the Future of U.S.-European Relations." The opinions expressed in this transcript are those of James Steinberg, and are not necessarily shared by CNN.

CNN: Welcome to, James Steinberg. Thank you for being with us today again.

JAMES STEINBERG: I'm very pleased to be back, and looking forward to your questions.

CNN: The Taliban is ousted and al Qaeda essentially destroyed in Afghanistan, but will the U.S. wait until it "gets" Osama bin Laden before moving on to other targets in the war against terrorism?

STEINBERG: I don't think the administration is going to wait until we get bin Laden because, in part as Secretary Powell indicated over the weekend, getting bin Laden could take a long time. That means we'll need to work hard on disrupting al Qaeda cells outside of Afghanistan, in addition to considering whether there are other non-al Qaeda targets that should be considered.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Now that it seems clear that Saudi Arabia is the main breeding ground, how is the coalition going to handle this?

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STEINBERG: I think it's important to recognize that while many of those involved in the September 11 attacks come from Saudi Arabia, the problem is much more widespread, and many members of the al Qaeda organization come from other Arab countries, or in some cases, non-Arab Islamic countries with large Islamic populations. But the problem in Saudi Arabia is particularly acute, because the Saudi government has tolerated, to some degree, the teachings of radical clerics and others which have, in fact, provided impetus for some of the terrorists. What is important now is for the Saudi government to make clear that it is strongly opposed to the kind of anti-American rhetoric that is being advocated in these mosques and madrassahs, and to actively try to inculcate at more tolerant alternative.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the U.S. still willing to overlook the Saudi Arabia's luke warm support because of oil?

STEINBERG: The issue of Saudi Arabia has gained greater attention, because there is growing recognition that Saudi tolerance of extremist views within Saudi Arabia and its support for fundamentalist religious groups outside Saudi Arabia have become a national security threat to the United States. So, I believe that there will be increasing pressure from the United States for the Saudis to address the sources of anti-Americanism as part of the overall relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and that it will not be possible to ignore these concerns, simply because of Saudi Arabia's importance as an oil-producing country.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you really think we are being successful with only 2,500 troops in a land the size of Texas?

STEINBERG: Our troops are still largely in a support capacity, to the much larger number of anti-Taliban forces, both in the north and the south of Afghanistan. In effect, they operate as a force multiplier, making those Afghani troops far more effective than they would be without the U.S. support, as well as a very significant contribution being made by U.S. airpower. The role of the U.S. troops is not as peacekeepers. Instead, other countries are now discussing the possibility of deploying a larger peacekeeping force to help maintain order.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Pursuing terrorist "cells" should now be an FBI/CIA operation. Can't Bush get back to domestic policy?

STEINBERG: It is certainly true that a major focus now ought to be on the law enforcement and intelligence efforts to break up al Qaeda cells outside of Afghanistan. The administration still faces a difficult situation in Afghanistan that will require continued attention. A new outbreak of tension between India and Pakistan as a result of the suicide attacks of last week in New Delhi, and the escalating violence in the Middle East. That having been said, the President will also have to demonstrate to the American people that his much-deserved focus on international affairs is not coming at the expense of equally pressing issues at home, particularly the U.S. economy.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What do you think about the Kashmir issue?

STEINBERG: The suicide attack last week demonstrates that stability in the region around Afghanistan depends on a renewed effort by India and Pakistan to address the long-simmering Kashmiri problem. This is important, both because Kashmir has been a focal point for terrorist efforts, including by groups associated with al Qaeda, but also because conflict in Kashmir always is shadowed by the danger that the Kashmiri conflict could escalate into a military confrontation between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers. The United States is not in a position to dictate a solution to this problem, but we should step up our efforts to encourage both sides to engage in serious discussions.

CNN: Yasser Arafat, in his speech yesterday, called for an end to suicide bombers and terrorist attacks against Israel. How will Arafat gain control over these elements who feel they have a right to defend themselves, and what if it proves that he cannot?

STEINBERG: The speech by Arafat certainly includes some important commitments in principle, but the challenge, of course, is to see whether he can carry them out. His ability to do so will be significantly strengthened if he gets the clear and visible support of moderate Arab governments, who can help him put pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including by drying up the sources of funding for those organizations. Although there are risks to Arafat from trying to implement a strong crackdown, the risks of letting the conflict continue are equally great for him because he will increasingly be seen as irrelevant. If he tries and fails, he will be no worse off for that reason than if he fails to even try to deal with the suicide bombings. And though his position is clearly weakened from what it was in the past, he still has considerable resources to bring to bear to try to damp down the suicide attacks.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will the U.S. help Yasser Arafat? Israel and the U.S. make a lot of demands to Arafat but offer little help except for Israel attacking the Palestinian police?

STEINBERG: The United States can help Arafat by making clear that the U.S. will support resumption of a political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians if Arafat makes a serious effort to deal with the violence coming from the Palestinian side. At this point, it would not be helpful for the United States to seek concessions to Arafat up front, because that would simply lessen the pressure on him to come to grips with what is generally a difficult choice that he is facing.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Arafat mentioned in his speech Sunday that Jerusalem would be the future capital of Palestine. Doesn't this present a problem?

STEINBERG: Certainly, it has always been the position of the Palestinians that Jerusalem in some form would be the capital of a Palestinian state, and the proposals offered by former Prime Minister Barak of Israel offered a solution where Jerusalem would serve as a capital both of Israel and the Palestinian state. So, it is at least possible that Arafat's position could be sustained in a way that would be acceptable to Israel, but as Barak himself found, the devil is in the details.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

STEINBERG: The developments in Afghanistan demonstrate that with appropriate international support, the United States can be very successful in dealing with some of the most dangerous manifestations of terrorism, but they also suggest that this conflict with al Qaeda is far from over, and we will continue to need significant international cooperation both to track down those al Qaeda members who may have escaped Afghanistan, as well as other al Qaeda members around the world. So, it's particularly important now to not lose our intense focus on this long-term struggle.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, James Steinberg. We look forward to having you back again next Monday.

STEINBERG: I look forward to chatting with you all again next week.

James Steinberg joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, DC and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, December 17, 2001 at 12:30 p.m. EDT.


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