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Crossfire

What Impact Will the Middle East Crisis Have on Campaign 2000?

Aired October 13, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: All eyes on the Middle East tonight.

Continued, if reduced, violence on the West Bank, FBI agents begin their investigation of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, President Clinton prepares for a possible emergency summit over the weekend, and foreign policy suddenly takes center stage in presidential politics 2000.

With a former secretary of state and two U.S. senators, we tackle it all, next on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: The bodies of some of those killed on the USS Cole start their journey home. And amid more violence in the Middle East, talk of an emergency summit of world leaders. Tonight, the latest on the crises in the Middle East, including what impact will it have on the presidential race.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in Charlottesville, Virginia, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and, later, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Gore supporter and member of the Armed Services Committee, and in Manchester, New Hampshire, fellow committee member Senator Bob Smith, a Bush supporter.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Another day of turmoil and tragedy in the Middle East. Diplomatic entreaties took on an increasing urgency as the violence following -- following the Palestinian mob killing of Israeli soldiers showed no signs of subsiding. Gunfire was exchanged in Ramallah, and a Palestinian man was shot and killed in the West Bank. Senior Clinton administration officials tell CNN that it appears increasingly likely that there will be an emergency Mideast summit early next week in Egypt.

At the same time, U.S. officials dealt with tragedy and terrorism in Yemen. As the bodies of sailors killed in the bombing of the USS Cole were transferred out, hundreds of FBI agents and forensics experts were pulling in to begin investigating the terrorist act that left as many as 17 dead and 38 wounded U.S. sailors. So, tonight, crisis and chaos in world hot spots. What should the U.S. do, what can the U.S. do, and how will world events affect domestic politics? Two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee join us in just a few minutes, but with -- but, first, questions for former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger -- Bill.

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Pleasure.

PRESS: An unusual version of CROSSFIRE perhaps tonight where we'll be looking for more light than heat. That's why we've turned to you. And let's start with the bombing of the USS Cole, which, so far, has accounted for the deaths of 17 U.S. sailors. We don't know all the hallmarks -- or all the facts about this yet, Mr. Secretary, but it seems to have all the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden's operation responsible...

EAGLEBURGER: Yeah.

PRESS: ... for the bombing of those two U.S. embassies. If we can prove that connection or prove a connection to any other known terrorist organizations and you were still secretary of state, what action would you recommend?

EAGLEBURGER: Well, Bill, first of all, don't worry. I'm not secretary of state. But if we knew who they were, my fervent recommendation to the president would be that we should forcefully do everything we could to -- to get rid of them, if you want me to be blunt about it. I think we need to react against these sorts of terror any time we can identify who the author is. The trouble is it's very hard to figure out who did it, but if we know, I would go at them.

PRESS: The last time we did that -- we went after the camps of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, he survived, went after a factory in Sudan, which evidence seems to be was the wrong factory, not producing what we thought it was producing. Doesn't -- maybe an easy solution, maybe the right solution, but it doesn't always work, does it?

EAGLEBURGER: Oh, no. I mean, you know, we on occasion are like the gang that can't shoot straight. I don't argue that. On the other hand, if you'll recall, President Reagan's response against Libya when they -- on the bombing of the bar in Germany and -- we haven't seen much of Mr. Qaddafi since. It can be made to work.

But even if we miss the target, if we know who the target is and don't try to do something about it, we are simply inviting further action against us, and my -- by the way, even attacking these terrorists doesn't mean you're going to stop it, but it does mean they at least then understand that there's some price to pay.

MATALIN: Mr. Secretary, we have only recently resumed refueling at this particular port. Besides Osama bin Laden, it's a known terrorist haven. This is an area that -- Yemen did not support us in the -- in the Persian Gulf effort. In recent days, there's been government-supported anti-U.S., anti-Israeli activities, but the reason that we're resuming fueling there is to restore or improve relations. Is using our sold -- our sailors and our sophisticated destroyers the best vehicle for diplomacy?

EAGLEBURGER: No, of course not, but I -- you know, I also have to -- you also have to accept that the Navy has to refuel someplace. Look, the Yemen is not a nice place, and they have certainly not been our friends for a long time. On the other hand, I -- I really doubt that the government at least had anything to do with this, although you, obviously, can't prove it at this stage. But anyplace that harbors these terrorists or lets them move around, as they apparently did in the Yemen -- it means that we, therefore, ought probably to avoid them, and -- if for no other reason than to avoid the attacks against us. I don't argue against that.

MATALIN: So let me talk of -- ask you about the timing of this. This -- the Pentagon is saying that this took a long time. It's a -- seems at the moment to be unrelated to the other Mideast crisis. Do you think the timing had anything to do with trying to disrupt United States elections?

EAGLEBURGER: I doubt it. Look, again, this is asking for a sophistication on the part of these terrorists that isn't there or, indeed, if they think it would have an effect on our elections, they've also made a mistake. I -- to me, this was and probably is a target of opportunity. They had planned for a long time. They waited for a ship to come in. I don't think it's related to what's going on in Israel and, frankly, I don't really think it's related to the elections. It is clearly related to their hatred and antagonism of the United States.

PRESS: Let's shift now, Mr. Secretary, please to Israel, to the Middle East. This conflict has been going on for a long, long time. At one time, it was your responsibility as secretary of state to be trying to bring these parties together. Earlier this year, we thought we were so close. Now it looks like we're so far away. My question to you is are there any black hats here and white hats here? Is it fair, as Tom Friedman did in this morning's "New York Times," to call this Arafat's war?

EAGLEBURGER: Black hat -- look, I happen to believe that fundamentally the Israelis are the white hats, if that's what you're talking about. I think Mr. Arafat, at least for a while, began to look like he had turned from black to gray hat. I'm not so sure anymore.

The fact of the matter at this stage is, and I -- and nobody can argue that Sharon -- Sharon made a major error or did a very rotten thing when he went to the temple. But having said that -- and, certainly, the reaction on the part of the Palestinians was paranoid, but, having said that, the Israelis and Sharon had something to do with all of this, but the reaction has been way beyond anything it -- that he -- that he did himself.

And what it brings me to question is whether -- one, does Arafat have control of his people and, if he doesn't, then why are we trying to work to a peace agreement? If he does have control of his people, then they're doing this at his orders. Again, we have a doubt. Now I'm not against the peace process, but what I am saying to you is I think the last several weeks have brought into question fairly substantially the role of Arafat and whether or not the Palestinians, in fact, really mean the commitments they have made with regard to the peace process with Israeli -- with Israel in the last years.

MATALIN: Well, speaking of Arafat's control over his people, the front pages of "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" and most of America's major dailies ran that horrific picture of the Palestinian mob throwing the Israeli soldier out the window. There's the young man with blood on his hands, the crowd cheering him. From -- the president to the vice president to Governor Bush all condemn this act. How do we, however, as a -- as a nation, express our outrage in a tangible way at this kind of barbarism?

EAGLEBURGER: In this particular case, I think it's very, very difficult to do anything meaningful. I -- look, we are -- we're an important player, but we are not the two active players. We have tried to help bring the players together, but the U.S. at this stage, it seems to me, other than good offices when we can, is largely out of this thing, and I think our ability to affect these events is largely non-existent right now, and I -- therefore, in -- any way to express this outrage, other than to make it clear to Arafat and the Palestinians that, as far as we're concerned, this is beyond the pale -- I don't really think that we have much of an ability to do much.

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for joining us tonight, helping us to better understand two very troubled areas right now of the world. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

And when we come back, we'll be joined by Senators Mary Landrieu and Bob Smith to talk more policy and also about the political dimensions of what's happening in the Middle East. Who benefits if the crisis continues -- George Bush or Al Gore?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

So far, both Al Gore and George Bush have spent most of the time in this campaign talking about health care, taxes, and Social Security, but with troubles in the Middle East, they're also now being pressed on foreign policy. If this crisis continues, who stands to benefit politically -- Bush or Gore? And which one is better equipped to step into the role of world leader?

We turn now to two U.S. senators to debate the policy and the politics of the Middle East. Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire joining us from Manchester, New Hampshire, and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana here in the studio with us -- Mary.

SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D-LA), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Good evening.

PRESS: Hi.

MATALIN: Thank you, Senator, for joining us once again.

The candidates were careful to not talk about politics today, but Gore's campaign manager said that this crisis -- I want to use his words -- "highlights the importance of Gore's experience," but when we look back on modern relations in that ar -- arena, hasn't the -- the greatest advances been made by the Secretary Cheney, General Powell, National Security Adviser team, Condoleeza Rice, all presumed members of the Bush administration?

That was the only time there's been stability in this region. Wouldn't those -- that team that has proved their ability to bring stability be better -- in the past be better for the crises in the future?

LANDRIEU: Well, actually, I disagree with -- with the point that you just made. There has been stability over the last couple of years. These last 15 days are quite unfortunate, but this administration has really guided these Mideast peace talks in a way that really gives us hope that peace can be brought to that region, and the experience, I think, Mary -- the comparison -- is going to be very important to people in this election.

The Gore-Lieberman team has 22 years of combined experience. Joe Lieberman is one of the most respected men on the Armed Services Committee, and Al Gore, with eight years as vice president, clearly has a handle on international affairs, and I think that's going to play to the minds of the voters and be very positive in that, although Dick Cheney comes with a lot of experience, actually, Governor Bush doesn't have very much.

MATALIN: Well, he has as much if not more experience than previous governors, which included Clinton and Reagan, but in spite of Gore's presumed superiority about his foreign policy, voters continue and consistently have given Republicans an edge -- and not just an edge, a decided advantage, by two to one. They believe that Republicans handle foreign policy better.

LANDRIEU: Well, I think some people remember the Vietnam days, and those were difficult days for our country, but I think people give this administration great marks for the successes in Europe. Europe being unified, democratic, and free is a wonderful accomplishment. That was President Clinton's accomplishment. The accomplishments of North Korea which is -- you know, trade with China. These are all engagement policies that sort of take nations off of the rogue list and put them on the sort of normal nation status, and that helps us, and I think people give credit to this administration.

PRESS: Senator Smith, as much as I love politics, I want to ask you, if I may, first, a quick policy question as a member of the Armed Services Committee. We've seen under President Reagan the bombing of the -- the Marine barracks over in Lebanon. We saw the bombing of the U.S. embassies a couple of years ago in Kenya and Tanzania. We see today the bombing -- or, yesterday, the bombing of the USS Cole. Are these -- are we doing enough to protect our institutions and our personnel overseas, or is this just something we can never protect against?

SEN. BOB SMITH (R-NH), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, Bill, I don't -- I don't think you could say you could never protect. You do the best you can, clearly.

But I think it's important to be mindful of the fact that, you know, America's finest, several of them, are coming home now in body bags -- two of them women, I might add -- and we need to be mindful of the fact that American forces every single day are out there on the front lines and they deserve the best we can give them, whether it be the weapons they need or the protection they need.

Clearly, a terrorist who -- who decides to do something like this is very difficult to stop, and what we -- what we know about this so far -- and we've got a lot more to find out -- is that, you know, somehow, this -- this group -- this terrorist group got -- compromised those people who were tending the vessel, who were putting the lines on. Somehow, they got explosives on that -- on those little -- one of those boats and got it up close to the hull and -- and did the damage.

We don't know what happened yet, but I -- I think we'll find out, and I would agree with Larry Eagleburger, if we find out who did it, we should respond in spades because that's the best way to protect American forces out there. This was a United States warship...

PRESS: OK. So...

SMITH: ... that was attacked.

PRESS: All right. Senator, now to -- now to the politics. In 1984, President Reagan gave a speech at Georgetown University echoing President Lyndon Johnson, and President Reagan said that day, quote, "We must restore America's honorable tradition of partisan politics stopping at the water's edge." Do you respect that tradition, Senator, or are you ready to blame the whole mess in the Middle East on Bill Clinton and Al Gore?

SMITH: No, I -- I do respect that statement, Bill. We have one president at a time. This is a terrible tragedy. The Middle East right now is -- is embroiled in a horrible situation, violence. We had a -- we've had a warship attacked.

There's one president. We should speak with one voice. I think we can analyze the -- the blame, if there is any, later, but I don't think it's appropriate to do that right now. I think we're in a -- we're in a time of mourning.

And, you know, I think it -- it should put things in perspective. You know, the one-liners and the jokes and the cheap shots or whatever they may be in a political campaign are -- are totally irrelevant now. They're not -- they're not important compared to what happened, and I think we should be mindful of that.

And I think, frankly, Vice President Gore and Governor Bush have set the standard by basically suspending their campaigns moment -- you know, momentarily in a time of mourning, and I, frankly, wish that the talking heads and -- and some of the political types who work for both of them would do the same thing.

MATALIN: All right. Let me go to substance then, taking my cue from the good senator. The -- people might be wondering why we were refueling in Yemen in the first place, a terrorist haven, and "The New York Times" reported today that was because we were trying to improve our relations in that neck of the woods, and the Pentagon said today we'll -- we're going to reflect on if we're going to con -- do this and if we should have had heightened security. What measures do you think -- or what would you be encouraging as -- as an expert in this area?

LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, they have refueled there actually over probably a dozen times in the last year or two. It's not unusual. We do it with great precaution. Our forces are on high alert all the time when they're in that region, and there are precautions that are taken on a regular basis to protect against situations like this.

But, as Senator Smith said and he so well knows, terrorists can strike at any time, and they have done that against buildings, against ships, against lots of other targets in the last several years, in places all over the world, Mary, not just in our countries that are enemies or not quite friendly. Even in friendly countries, they have.

MATALIN: I think -- let me ask the question the way I asked the secretary. Should we be using our sailors and our destroyers for diplomatic missions? Should we be refueling in a place that we know is dangerous, is a haven for terrorists to improve relations?

LANDRIEU: Well, we fuel in many places around the world, in places -- and we try to take the best precautions that we can, and those precautions are under evaluation. There is a serious review going on. Perhaps that particular area will not be used in the future, but that decision hasn't been made. I do know one thing, that we do our best in the military to protect our men and women in uniform. We use all precautions and will continue to do so.

PRESS: Senator Smith...

SMITH: Mary, can I make a comment on that?

PRESS: Yeah. Go ahead, Senator. Please.

MATALIN: Yes. Go ahead.

SMITH: I would just say, when I was in Vietnam, I served on an oil tanker with -- sitting on -- literally on top of tens of thousands of gallons of jet fuel that we used to refuel the -- into the ships in the Vietnam War, and you can -- there are times when you're out in the open sea that you can have tankers and your support vessels to provide that, but, you know, it depends. This ship was in route to the Persian Gulf. It had to stop somewhere. I haven't had -- really had the opportunity to check to see, you know, what other options they had as far as ports.

But I -- I think you make a valid point, that if you -- if you have some indication that there might be a problem -- but remember this ship did not tie up to the dock. This ship was in a -- tied up to a buoy in the middle of the harbor, and it was somebody who compromised security in the -- whoever the contractors were that were providing that fuel. It -- that's how that boat was able to get up to the ship.

PRESS: All right. Senator Smith, almost out of time, so I'm going to be the irresponsible talking head who gets dirty and talks about politics, but there -- I mean, we are in the middle of election, and the American people are -- if this crisis continues or not, this certainly raises the issue of foreign policy that hasn't been talked about in this campaign so far. At a time of crisis like this, don't the American people want to keep a steady hand, and isn't it the wrong time to change horses?

SMITH: Well, I think, if you look back in history, there -- it goes both ways. I mean, in the middle of the Korean War, Harry Truman left office, and so -- and Dwight Eisenhower took over. I -- I don't -- I don't believe that necessarily that's the case. There are other examples. Second World War where we stayed with Roosevelt. We want the -- I think the American people don't want this exploited. I think anybody who tries to exploit this terrible tragedy for political gain will pay serious, serious consequences.

MATALIN: All right. Senator Smith, Senator Landrieu, we are all happy as Americans and feeling more secure that both of you are in this arena.

Bill and I will return with our closing comments on CROSSFIRE after this quick break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Now you can find out what's coming up in the CROSSFIRE. Sign up for a daily e-mail sent free of charge telling you what we are planning for that night. Log on to cnn.com/crossfire to sign up for your daily CROSSFIRE e-mail.

MATALIN: You know, Saddam is moving troops. The -- there are Arabs taking to the streets all across the region, even in moderate countries. The coalition is totally frayed at a time when this thing could spill out over into the entire region. It is this administration that let that coalition fray, and I think the administration that pulled it together, which included Cheney, Powell, and Condoleeza Rice, would do the best job of keeping it together in the future.

My political point, though, is that, look, the Gore people have been trying to keep Clinton under wraps for months now. Obviously, in this emergency situation, he will resume center stage, and he just -- it's just going to exacerbate Gore's leadership gap.

PRESS: I'll tell you something. Nobody has done more to bring about peace in the Middle East that Bill Clinton has. He's devoted almost all his -- almost his entire presidency to that, and Al Gore has been right alongside of him, Mary. And, you know, I -- I admire both Bush and Gore, that they have not tried to make political hay out of this crisis. We can be more irresponsible than they are, and I have to say, when you see a crisis like this, it's not a time for anybody who needs on-the-job training. We've got 25 years of experience...

MATALIN: Cheney, Powell...

PRESS: ... with -- no, no, no. It's not good enough to have a team. You need...

MATALIN: ... Rice...

PRESS: ... the guy who knows the stuff. Bush -- Gore, 25 years experience; Bush, 0.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. Have a good weekend.

MATALIN: Just remember the last time there was stability there who brought it.

From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Have a wonderful weekend. Join us next week for more CROSSFIRE.

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