Vowing that Uncle Sam will not become "Uncle Sucker," President Bush said in an interview released Saturday that Iraq must rebuild its own devastated infrastructure and that other Arab nations must undertake the job of ensuring peace and economic development in the postwar Persian Gulf.
"We don't want a Yankee solution to the Middle East," Bush told four journalists from Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the White House Oval Office on Friday. A transcript of the interview was distributed Saturday.
But the President--sometimes rambling, often folksy in the lengthy interview--made it clear that his insistence on a major postwar role for the Arabs does not mean that the Administration intends no role for itself.
Bush said the United States still plans to serve as "a catalyst for peace" and an "instrumental part" of any plan addressing the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
"We're not going to pull back into some sphere of isolation as a result of all this," Bush said. "But once again, it's with respect that I say: Hey, we need some regional answers out here. We need some Arab solutions. And let us be a part of it--but not try to dictate it."
The President, addressing many Middle East issues, made these points:
* The United States might have come to the aid of Kuwait even if the United Nations had not been able to act against Iraq. "I might have said to hell with them, it's right and wrong, it's good and evil," Bush said. "He's (Saddam Hussein) evil, our cause is right and--without the United Nations--sent a considerable force to help." But he emphasized that he considered it far better to have U.N. support.
* The Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat, have lost standing and credibility in the United States because of their support for Saddam Hussein and his occupation of Kuwait. "They took a bet. They bet this coalition wouldn't hold. And they bet that the United States would not do what we did. And the guy bet wrong," the President said.
* The United States hopes to improve its relations with Iran. "We want better relations with Iran. We have no animosity," he said.
* He has neither rancor nor bitterness toward King Hussein of Jordan, although he remains disappointed by Jordan's pro-Iraq stance during the war. Bush suggested that Arab countries might "work their magic out here" and come up with a plan for all countries, including Jordan, to work together.
* Despite differences with Syria because of its past sponsorship of terrorism, Bush felt that as a result of President Hafez Assad's participation in the allied coalition during the war, "we have a much better chance to work with them towards peace in Lebanon."
* His experience as a former ambassador to the United Nations had given him a better understanding of the Arab world and a larger circle of Arab friends than other presidents had. "One of the things that made it easier for us to commit an enormous amount of treasure and risk a lot of human life was that we feel this area and its importance more than I think perhaps some of my predecessors," he said.
Although Bush directed his most caustic comments at Iraq, he said the United States would be willing to give humanitarian aid to the war-ravaged nation. "If there's a hungry child, if there's a sick family, we'll go there today," he said. ". . . We've always done that."
But he made it clear that American aid would still be limited even if the Iraqis overthrow Hussein, install a government with "a broad futuristic view," surrender its offensive weapons and stop bullying its neighbors.
"We'd be willing in a broad sense, through these international agencies and others, to be helpful in terms of reconstruction," the President said.
"But it is not the case where we are going to turn around as Uncle Sucker--not Uncle Sam but Uncle Sucker--and turn around and start sending taxpayers' money . . . to rebuild the arrogance that has led to this instability in the first place.
"And I'll tell you the American people feel strongly about it. And there's 265 million of us and nobody feels more strongly about it than the guy sitting right here," Bush said.
He insisted that Iraq needs to come up with a plan that uses its own wealth for its reconstruction. "Iraq can be a very well-to-do country if they'd spend their money on helping their own people and not on arms and bullying the neighborhood," he said.
Bush used the interview to make another plea for a reduction in arms in the area. "I would like to think that out of all this we could have a vastly reduced flow of arms to this troubled corner of the world," he said.
Noting that the United States has been one of the chief suppliers of weapons to the region, he said that it was overly idealistic to think that arms could be limited without working out a system for security and stability in the Middle East.
In discussing the Arab-Israeli issue, Bush stated in one breath that "the framework (for peace) has got to be the action taken by the United Nations." In the next breath, he added, "That doesn't have to be the only answer." Israel, supported by the United States, has consistently resisted calls for a general U.N. conference on the problem.
Bush stressed that there is a momentum for peace. "We're in a kind of healing mode now," he said. "I'd like to heal some wounds." However, he served notice that he is in no mood to resume talks with the PLO now. "They've lost credibility with this office right here," he said. "So I'm not in any rush to do that at all."
Echoing a sentiment expressed by other Administration officials during the last two weeks, Bush said he envisioned the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organization of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, taking a prominent role in peacekeeping arrangements in the future. "I think as more of . . . security arrangements . . . can be arranged for and taken over by the GCC, so much the better," he said.
Asked what he considered the major lesson of the conflict, Bush replied, "You don't swagger around the neighborhood with an arrogance and back it up by an overwhelming force without paying a price."
Addressing Said Sonbol, a correspondent for Egypt's Al Akbar newspaper, the President added: "Same thing that you learned in the schoolyard when you were over there in Egypt." A bully in an Egyptian schoolyard, Bush said, would "go back into his shell" once the others stood up and hit him back.
The other journalists at the interview were Nadir Yata of Morocco's Al Bayan, Mohammed Rumaihi of Kuwait's Sawt al Kuwait and Othman Omeir of Saudi Arabia's Al Sharq al Awsat.