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Condoleezza Rice on Iraq, Lebanon and Cuba

In an exclusive interview to air tonight on "Hardball with Chris Matthews," NBC's David Gregory speaks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the war in Iraq, the crisis in the Middle East, and the current situation in Cuba. In reaction to Senator Clinton's comments about United States policy in Iraq, she says "I do not believe it's failing." Secretary Rice also tells Gregory that Iraq is not sliding towards a civil war.
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In an exclusive interview to air tonight on "Hardball with Chris Matthews," NBC's David Gregory speaks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the war in Iraq, the crisis in the Middle East, and the current situation in Cuba.

In reaction to Sen. Hillary Clinton's comments about United States policy in Iraq, she says, "I do not believe it's failing." Secretary Rice also tells Gregory that Iraq is not sliding towards a civil war.

The following is a transcript of the interview, which will air tonight on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" at 5 and 7 p.m. (ET).

DAVID GREGORY, HARDBALL: Secretary Rice, let me start on the topic of Iraq. Yesterday, on Capitol Hill, Senator Hillary Clinton called -- after the testimony of Defense chief Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld -- for his resignation and said, in effect, it was time to choose a new team that could come up with a new strategy to deal with Iraq. How did you react to that?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I reacted that the president of the United States has great confidence in Don Rumsfeld and so do his colleagues. And we are the team that has been involved in Iraq since the very beginning. I believe that we've made progress.

Everybody knows that this is a very, very difficult situation, that what the Iraqis are trying to do is really unprecedented in the whole region. It's certainly unprecedented in Iraq, but it's unprecedented in the whole region, and that is to take a political culture that has largely either been run through oppression or through violence and to put in place democratic political institutions that are going to help people deal with their differences.

That's hard, it's turbulent, but it's very, important to the future of the Middle East and, indeed, important to our future security.

GREGORY: Was it striking to you, however, that Senator Clinton -- obviously, a Democrat, but has not joined other Democrats in calling for a withdrawal of troops, she has not joined other Democrats in calling for Rumsfeld's resignation -- would do so at this point?

RICE: I can't speak for Senator Clinton. Obviously, she's a senator. She has the right to say whatever she pleases. And I heard some of the testimony yesterday. I heard Generals Abizaid and General Pace, as well. I heard them talk about the challenges in Iraq, and I also heard them express confidence that they believe they have the right forces and the right structure in place to deal with those challenges.

GREGORY: Is this is a failed policy, as Senator Clinton alleged?

RICE: The policy in Iraq is under way to produce in Iraq the first real democracy in this entire region. And, David, it's going to be hard. This is a huge historic change. Historic change doesn't come without difficulty and without turbulence.

But we somehow seem to think back on an Iraq that was a pristine Iraq, where the Iraqi people were somehow thriving. That wasn't the Iraq that we found. We were dealing with an Iraq with a brutal dictator, with 300,000 people in mass graves, who had used weapons of mass destruction, who'd attacked his neighbors, against whom we'd gone to war in 1991 and again in 1998 to try to control his power.

So when we look at the Iraq of today, we have to remember the Iraq that we were dealing with. And what the Iraqi people have done is quite

extraordinary: They've put in place a political process that gives them a chance to learn to deal with their differences in a political way.

But, yes, it's hard.

And I know that, when people see the terrible scenes of violence on television, when we mourn the death of each and every American man and woman in uniform or a civilian that's killed in Iraq, that it's hard to see the progress that's being made and it's hard to believe that this is all going to come out for the better.

GREGORY: But the question is, is it failing or is it succeeding?

RICE: No, I do not believe that it's failing. I believe that, in fact, we are in the midst of this huge historic change. And when you're in the midst of it, sometimes it's hard to see what's at the end of the process. And at the end of the process, I believe Iraqis, who are going to control their own future, who are going to control their own security forces, they're going through an extraordinarily difficult time. But what they don't need is to have doubt that America is committed to them in this struggle in which they find themselves.

GREGORY: Is it a civil war in Iraq now?

RICE: The Iraqis have sectarian differences; there's no doubt about that.

GREGORY: A little bit more than sectarian differences, isn't it?

RICE: No, they have sectarian differences, and some of those are violent. But everything that Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people -- not the people who are trying to cause failure there -- what the Iraqi people and their leaders are trying to do is to build a unified Iraq.

It's not civil war when 12.5 million people go out and vote for a government that bridges all of the sectarian groups. It's not civil war when the Iraqis are able to then, on the basis of that vote, form a unity government that is now trying to work both toward reconstruction and reconciliation. It's not civil war when you have a prime minister of Iraq, who is himself a Shia, who sits with the defense minister, who is a Sunni, with an interior minister who's a Shia, with a president who is Kurdish. That's not civil war.

GREGORY: So the commanders on the ground who say the sectarian violence is worse than it's ever been and, if unchecked, will lead to a civil war, they don't have it right?

RICE: Well, I read those statements. And what General Abizaid said is that he had confidence that, in fact, we could help the Iraqis to arrest what could be a slide toward civil war. He did not say that there is a civil war going on there, and it would be wrong to quote him as saying so.

We know that the dangers of sectarian violence, of spinning out of control, it's on everybody's mind, of course. But the Iraqis have a lot of institutions and, by the way, a lot of commitment to not having that happen. And what we need to do is to support them in this process that they're involved in that really is unique to the region.

GREGORY: If it's not a civil war, then what is it we're in the middle of?

RICE: What we're in the middle of is the transformation of a society that has handled its politics through repression to a society that will handle its politics through democratic institutions.

I was with our ambassador, Zal Khalilzad, not too long ago, and the way that he explained it is that these are people who are learning to relate to each other, not to depend on a strong man to just hold in check their differences, but to literally relate to each other through institutions that are brand new. It's very difficult; it's hard.

But they're doing this. We need to remain committed to them, to help them build security forces that can help to secure them, to help them reconstruct the country, and to help this political process move ahead.

GREGORY: But, Secretary Rice, isn't it striking that the administration is now taking a tone where there is more acknowledgement of Iraq sliding toward civil war when it was just months ago when the administration, from the president and other top officials, was accusing the news media and others of misrepresenting success there?

RICE: David, I think it's extremely important to get the tense right here. I didn't say "sliding towards civil war." I said that we all believe that there are great dangers inherent in sectarian violence of this kind, but the Iraqis themselves, first of all, don't want civil war. That's very clear.

Civil war usually starts when somebody is determined to start one.

The Iraqis...

GREGORY: What evidence is there they don't want it?

RICE: Well, the unity government that they've formed; the armed forces that continue to fight; the people who continue to show up to serve in the police forces or in the army, despite the violence that is being done against them; the fact that their neighbors are rallying around them; the fact that you have a prime minister who sits with a national unity government to make policy every day.

Those are very strong indications that these are people who want to live together. They've had plenty of opportunity to say, "No, we would rather like as Kurds, and Shia, and Sunni." That's not what they've done. In fact, the Kurds, who everybody accused of being just ready to secede any moment, the president of Iraq is a Kurd. He's one of the founding fathers, if you will, of a new Iraq.

And so, yes, it's very, very difficult, but I really think that we do not do them justice, many of them who have lost family and friends as a result of this steadfastness about the need for a unified Iraq, when we tell them they're sliding into civil war.

GREGORY: You talk about the desire for democracy, the desire to avoid civil war. This was a government that we helped put into place, helped to organize, and it is led by a prime minister who has sharply criticized Israel. And in the streets of Baghdad, there have been demonstrations, pro-Hezbollah demonstrations, a group which we've talked a lot about recently calling for the destruction of Israel. Is this the Iraq that the administration promised us?

RICE: There is -- well, first of all, what the administration promised was that we would help to build a democratic Iraq, in which Iraqis could express themselves and in which Iraqis could have control of their own future.

We're not going to agree with everything that every Iraqi says or every Iraqi leader says. Those are democratic choices. But I can tell you that this is an Iraq that is going to be at peace with its neighbors, that's going to fight terrorism, that is not going to do the sorts of things that Saddam Hussein has done, and is, therefore, going to be a pillar in a different kind of Middle East which will, indeed, have room for a resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

That is the kind of Iraq that this is going to be. Now, I know that it's a deeply emotional time, David, in the Middle East, very emotional time and, of course, there are going to be demonstrations and there are going to be people who will say things with which we don't agree.

But we have to keep our eye on what kind of Middle East is going to prevent these spasms of violence, what kind of Middle East is going to create a circumstance in which Israel and Palestine can live side-by-side and a two-state solution that the president has proposed.

And it was never going to be that kind of Middle East with Saddam Hussein in power.

It has a very good chance of being that kind of Middle East in the future, with an Iraqi government that is committed to a unified and democratic Iraq.

GREGORY: You talk about being hopeful for the future of Iraq. But it's also clear, isn't it, that you don't really know how it's going to turn out?

RICE: Well, David, if you always knew how things were going to turn out, if you could be certain that things were going to turn out in a particular way, that would, of course, be better. But I think it actually goes without saying that one never knows precisely how things are going to turn out.

What we can do and what we are doing is to help the Iraqis create institutions that give them a very good chance of succeeding. I don't think anybody would have believed, by the way, 50 years ago, that France and Germany were never going to fight again either. They don't.

So things as seen impossible one day suddenly seem inevitable many days later. And so I would suggest that we not try and take a snapshot in what is the huge historical circumstance to assume that this has a bad outcome.

GREGORY: Is the news media misrepresenting the story there?

RICE: Well, I think the problem is that everybody takes a snapshot every day of how we're doing in what is a huge and historical transformation. It's natural that that is the case.

But I would be surprised, if you look back on the other big historical transformations that the world has been through, that people didn't do the same thing. I think they probably took snapshots that now, in retrospect, when you look back on them, look pretty shortsighted.

GREGORY: More with Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, right after this break. A lot more ground to cover.

GREGORY: Secretary Rice, I want to return to the subject of Secretary Rumsfeld. James Baker, a Republican, very close to this administration, was reportedly writing the following in his book that is critical of the Defense Department. "After fighting successfully against the State Department to secure the lead role in winning the peace and reconstructing Iraq, the Defense Department," he writes, "made a number of costly mistakes, including disbanding the Iraqi army, outlawing the Baath party, failing to secure weapons depots, and perhaps never committing enough troops to successful pacify the country."

It's not just Democrats, Republicans, too, who think Secretary Rumsfeld has led a failed policy.

RICE: I don't know what Jim Baker has written in his book, but I do know that the policies that were pursued in Iraq were the policies of this administration as a whole.

Now, was anything executed perfectly? No, everything was not executed perfectly. Did we plan for every contingency? No. Did we plan for and prevent contingencies that did not come about? Did we succeed in places that we might have failed? Absolutely.

David, there will be plenty of time to go back and examine what might have been done differently, but whenever you're dealing with something as complex as taking down a dictator of Saddam Hussein's depth and breadth in his society, trying to deal with institutions that turned out essentially not to be institutions. The army essentially disbanded itself. Dealing with a society that had really been traumatized by all of these years of tyrannical rule, it's going to be hard and you're going to make some mistakes and I'm sure we did.

GREGORY: Should the Malaki government fail to succeed in its mission of securing Baghdad, which is where the focus is, there's more U.S. troops there, what is plan B in Iraq?

RICE: We are very focused on helping Prime Minister Malaki succeed with his Baghdad security plan. And it's not just a matter of more troops in Baghdad. I think it would be a caricature of what he is planning and what we are planning to just talk about more troops in Baghdad.

The more troops in Baghdad are to help deal with the very difficult security situation, but he also has a plan for national reconciliation, a plan that really does invite people to lay down their arms. It's become a part of the new Iraq.

There are efforts going on to reform the interior ministry and to make the police a more important and, indeed, reliable factor in Iraqi security. He has worked to increase electricity in the area to show that the government can do that, and, by the way, they have increased electricity since he became prime minister.

So, yes, the troops are important, but we really have to note that it's a broad-scale plan for the security of Baghdad.

GREGORY: But is there not some discussion about what happens if this doesn't work, a plan B?

RICE: David, what you want to do is to settle on a plan and then press as hard as you can to make that plan work and that's where everyone's energies are at this point and I think this plan is going to work.

GREGORY: But when does staying the course become less a strategy and more of a copout?

RICE: David, we've just begun the Baghdad security plan. Malaki has only been in office several weeks. This is...

GREGORY: But it was your administration, this administration that said he would not have an unlimited amount of time to succeed.

RICE: Well, I think we should probably give him more than, what is it, two months. These are very difficult changes. And I know there's a certain concern and impatience. Sometimes I feel that impatience myself.

But I also know that when you are undertaking something of as big a circumstance as historic instance, as really unprecedented instance, that you also have to recognize that it's hard and that it takes time.

The Iraqis have been given a chance, by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to build a very different kind of polity in the Middle East.

They're working at it. They're sacrificing.

Sometimes there's almost a sense that the Iraqis don't want this.

Well, of course they do, or they wouldn't be making the sacrifices that they're making in order to achieve it.

And so I think our best course is to support them, to help them build their institutions, to help them provide security, to help them with the reconstruction, and to give them a chance to achieve what they clearly are all trying to achieve.

GREGORY: I want to turn to the other war in the Middle East right now that is between Hezbollah and Israel. You are pursuing a resolution in the Security Council. There's a lot of diplomacy at work now. What are the particulars, if it all comes together? If the administration gets what it's looking for, what will happen?

RICE: Well, remembering that it was the attack by Hezbollah on Israel that started this, and that that attack was because Hezbollah is a kind of state within a state. The authority of the Lebanese government to control all of its territory, to control all of its actors, not to let its territory be used in this way, is really the centerpiece of any future resolution of the crisis.

And therefore, the Security Council resolution is, of course, aimed at stopping the violence -- that's very important -- but stopping it in a way that doesn't permit the conditions to come back into being that led to the circumstance that we find ourselves in now.

It's also a resolution that, when it's passed and when it's implemented, I think will show that, in the short term, while Hezbollah may be enjoying -- Nasrallah may be enjoying having his picture on television all the time, that the loss of the south by Hezbollah, the deployment of international forces to the south, the extension of Lebanese authority throughout the country, the rebuilding of the Lebanese armed forces will be a strategic defeat for Iran, which, after all, is Hezbollah's principal sponsor.

GREGORY: We'll pick up on that point when we come back in just a minute. More with Secretary Rice on the wars in the Middle East when we come back on HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


GREGORY: About this international force, what will its parameters be? Will its primary mission be to disarm Hezbollah?

RICE: Well, the mandate of the international force has not yet been written because we wanted to get to a place that we could establish certain political conditions that would not allow return to the status quo ante. But I don't think there's any expectation that the international force is somehow going to disarm Hezbollah.

GREGORY: Well, then who does it then, is the question?

RICE: The Lebanese.

GREGORY: But the Lebanese government has yet to even condemn Hezbollah. Is that a concern?

RICE: Let's remember that Hezbollah has two wings. It has the political wing; it has the military wing. You can't have one foot in politics, one foot in terror. And the Lebanese government has certain obligations under not just Resolution 1559, which was passed a couple of years ago in the Security Council, but also under something called the Taif Accords, which was essentially brokered by Saudi Arabia in 1989 to disarm militias.

Now, right now, the country is (INAUDIBLE) state within a state. It has Hezbollah that has this military wing that caused this attack, that operates singularly in itself. And so, yes, you have to extend the authority of the Lebanese government. You have to rebuild the Lebanese armed forces.

But the Lebanese do not want a circumstance in which their territory can be used in this way, bringing destruction down on the entire country. So this is a matter of getting the status quo -- not going back to the status quo ante in the south and then allowing a political process, with the support of the international force, to disarm Hezbollah.

GREGORY: Do you think that Hezbollah, which will have to be an important part of this process, will actually allow an international force to come in which will have the mandate of helping the Lebanese government effectively destroy it?

RICE: Well, first of all, (INAUDIBLE) the Lebanese themselves, when Prime Minister Siniora was at Rome, called for an international force.

He went back, and he got a cabinet decision that included the two Hezbollah ministers that there should be an international force, U.N.-mandated force.

We will see what Hezbollah does, but they will certainly be outside of the consensus of their own country. They'll be outside the consensus of the region if they do want to see the conditions that would permit a sustainable end to the violence.

GREGORY: In the view of the administration, has Hezbollah to date been sufficiently degraded to justify the wide-scale loss of human life?

RICE: Well, I cannot speak to the military realities on the ground. I do think that the issue of Hezbollah at the border, able to carry out the kinds of attacks that it has, with the command and control that it has, and so forth, that there has been significant degradation of some of those capabilities.

But the real key here, of course, is to create conditions in the south so that they cannot operate freely in this militia way without the consent of the Lebanese government, without the consent of the Lebanese armed forces. And that's what we have to try and establish. And that would be a real change, David, a real change in the circumstances of Lebanon.

GREGORY: As the fighting continues, as more lives are lost, there is some sense of urgency within the international community to end the fighting. But how concerned are you, especially with threats from Hezbollah that they might attack Tel Aviv, that this could become a wider war, could become a more intense war, before you get around to a cease-fire?

RICE: Well, you have to be concerned about the potential for the region as a whole. I think everyone is concerned about that. But we are moving, I think pretty effectively now, with the French and with others in the United Nations, toward a cessation of hostilities, toward an end to the fighting, an end to the violence, so that -- and, by the way, on the basis of a kind of political framework that would prevent this return to the status quo ante.

We then have to move in a second phase to a security force, and we do have to get to a sustainable and permanent cease-fire. This is a process that we will be beginning with the resolution that we hope will be ready, and I believe will be ready, within days.

But, obviously, Lebanon remains a place that is greatly fragile, but it's been fragile for a lot of years. Syrian forces were there for 30 years. We finally succeeded in getting Syrian forces out. You now have a government in Lebanon that is democratically elected, that has a wide range of people in it, obviously, but also has a kind of democratic center coming out of the March 14th movement, the true democrats of the country.

And so there is a lot to work with here. And while it may be fragile, while clearly this terrible spasm of violence has had tremendous costs, human costs to Lebanon, human costs for Israel, what we must stay focused on is getting a sustainable cease-fire, a sustainable end to this violence that will not allow this to happen again in several months or even in several years.

GREGORY: Secretary Rice, only a couple of minutes left, let me turn to the issue of Cuba in our remaining moments. What is the latest this government knows about Fidel Castro's condition, his health?

RICE: Well, given the nature of that society, I don't think anyone knows the nature of Fidel Castro's health. I will say this though,

David: A transition is clearly under way in Cuba. One way or another, a transition is under way.

The people of Cuba have lived too long without freedom. They've lived too long as the exception in this hemisphere. And as you go down the street here to the Organization of American States, the only seat that's empty is Cuba, and that is because you have to be a democracy to be a part of the Organization of American States.

It's time for the Cuban people to have their freedom. And so, as this transition goes forward, the United States is prepared and has been preparing, through a commission that the president appointed several years ago, to plan for support to the Cuban people in their aspirations for democracy and freedom. We're working with international partners to make certain that the Cuban people know that they would have support and help in what will undoubtedly be a difficult transition.

But it's extremely important that no one think that it is acceptable when there is a change in Cuba that the Cuban people have to go from one dictator to another. In a hemisphere in which democracy is the rule not the exception, the Cuban people deserve a better future...


GREGORY: How concerned is this government about an attempted mass exodus from Cuba?

RICE: Well, clearly we believe that Cubans should stay in Cuba and be a part of what will be a transition to democracy. That's why we want to put in place and are putting in place efforts to help in whatever may be the near-term problem of Cuba and the Cuban people, as they come out of this transition.

We've looked at humanitarian assistance to them. We've looked at international support to them, what kinds of support would they need in that transition. So Cubans can stay knowing that they will have the support of the United States for a peaceful and democratic transition.

GREGORY: Secretary Rice, one final point on Iraq, that a lot of people, of course, think about, particularly when there's discussion of civil war: Is it more or less likely now that American troops can come back in sizable numbers by the end of this year?

RICE: The president has always said that what the conditions are on the ground -- whatever the conditions are on the ground, he will cue his decision to those conditions and his commanders will tell him what they need. I think we've demonstrated that this is not a question of troop levels; this is a question of enough troops to do the job. And so the president will make those decisions.

David, the day is coming when the United States will wrap up its military mission there, because we're training Iraqi Security Forces, because the Iraqi political system is now finally a permanent political system. But it would be wrong, at the time when Iraqis are trying to make this transition, to leave then without support. What we must not do is to lose sight of why Iraq is so important. An Iraq that makes this transition to a stable and democratic future is going to be a centerpiece of a Middle East that will not produce the kind of ideologies of hatred that cost us so much in the war on terrorism.

An Iraq, however, that is -- does not have that kind of support and that is left to the likes of al-Qaida in Iraq is undoubtedly to be an Iraq that will cause security problems for us. And so American and Iraqi security are linked, and we need to give them as much support as we can as they make this very difficult transition.

GREGORY: Secretary Rice, as always, thank you.

RICE: Thank you.