Hastert puts Syria and Iran on notice
April 23, 2003
STUTTGART, Germany — America’s third-highest elected official issued a stern warning to Iraqi neighbors Iran and Syria from the military’s European headquarters in Germany on Tuesday.
“One way or another, they’ll have to change their ways,” said U.S. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., of the two Middle East countries that remain on the top of the State Department’s blacklist of countries that support terrorism.
In the middle of a congressional goodwill tour in support of U.S. troops involved in the fight against Iraq, Hastert told Stars and Stripes, “Our actions in Afghanistan, our actions in Iraq ought to send a message to other countries that harbor terrorists.”
Syria has long been a safe haven for Hezbollah, and Pentagon officials worry that Damascus now may be granting refuge to fleeing Iraqi leaders. Meanwhile, Iran — which is believed to host several terrorist organizations as well — has said it will not support U.S. efforts to build a new government in Iraq.
“They ought to pay attention” to what happened in Iraq, said Hastert of Syrian and Iranian leaders, adding that open and honest dialogue should be the first step in their reform.
“I think the Iranian government is starting to make some motions that way,” Hastert said. “Syria has a leader there that is somewhat inexperienced, but I think he’d be wise to start that way as well.”
Over the weekend, President Bush applauded signs that Syria was beginning to heed U.S. demands for cooperation against the fleeing remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Syria responded by welcoming Bush’s remarks and saying it wants discussion, not heated exchanges, with the United States.
Meanwhile, Hastert said U.S. forces shouldn’t expect to leave Iraq anytime soon.
“We’re not going to do this and then abandon Iraq and then have tribal leadership take over and leave us with the same problem we had before,” said the former high school history teacher and wrestling coach.
“What we need to do is make sure — along with our allies — there is stability there.”
Hastert, who said he laughed in Madeline Albright’s face when the former secretary of state told him U.S. peacekeepers would be needed in Bosnia and Herzegovina for only a year, said he didn’t know how long troops would have to stay in Iraq.
The mission now, he said, was clear: “We need to plant the seeds of democracy.” In a part of the world that many believe would elect Osama bin Laden, Hastert added quickly those seeds should be planted “however they may grow.”
“If we make this type of foray into a government and a land and then leave it worse off than we found it, then we haven’t accomplished anything. And we haven’t accomplished anything in our message to the world.”