August 11, 1983

National Bipartisan Commission on Central America

The President. I've been so used to seeing your tear-stained faces as I pass you by out on the South Lawn.

I have held the first meeting with the -- -- [laughter]. It took a little while, didn't it? [Laughter]

I just attended the first meeting with the Commission chaired by Dr. Kissinger, the Commission on Central America, and have explained to them -- if any explanation was needed -- what it is that we have in mind for that Commission: that I've believed for a long time that this country in the past, even though it has suggested plans for better neighborly relations with the countries in the rest of the Americas, and while the intentions were good, somehow maybe there was an insensitivity about our size and our suggesting something as a plan that everyone should adopt; that I have been looking for a way in which we could get their cooperation, their ideas, and bring all of the nations of the Americas closer together as equal partners and allies; and that this is the kind of long-range plan to bring this about -- to alleviate some of the conditions that have made many of those countries subject to recurring revolutions, because the revolutions have always been -- or for the most part have been revolutions that simply changed one set of rulers for another set of rulers.

And I began this before I'd even taken office with regard to our nearest neighbor, Mexico, and to see if we can't make the borders meeting places instead of lines for confrontation or separation. And the very fact that we're all Americans from South Pole to North Pole here in these two continents, with a common pioneer heritage, with a common desire for individual freedom, is such that I just hope that we can begin to bring this about and bring together the more than 600 million people in our two continents and the Isthmus, and that their job would be to start with Central America and see how we could have economic and social reforms that would help bring this about.

Situation in Chad

Q. Mr. President, how far are you willing to go militarily to save Chad from falling into the hands of the rebels backed by Libya?

The President. Well, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International], Chad, actually, you might say, is in a sphere of interest of the French. France, because of its historic relationship with that area, has made it plain that they consider this their principal place. We're in consultation with them and we have, in answer to request, provided weapons and some trainers in the use of those weapons.

We are, at the same time now, because of the concern of all the northern African States there, or the central African States about the Libyan intervention -- Qadhafi and his adventuring down there have them all concerned, and for that reason, many of the African States are providing troops. We have volunteered to some of them to aid in the transportation of those troops, but we're not in any way in line for participating militarily other than that.

Q. What do you think are the chances, in view of the fall today of Faya Largeau, that Chad will survive under the present regime?

The President. Well, it's a very volatile situation, and I don't know that I could -- I'm not going to hazard a guess. But Chad looks so small on the map when you see it pictured so often there. We forget the size of Africa, because if Chad is superimposed on a map of the United States, you find that it's a country that extends virtually from the Mexican to the Canadian border and is a few States wide when it's looked at in that way.

So, Faya Largeau is a city, of course, but it's our understanding, as well as we can get information out of there, that the Habre forces have been withdrawn, that they came out not dispersed or captured or overrun. But again, I have to caution you that any reports we're getting -- there are conflicting reports of all kinds coming from there.

But, no, I don't think that this is such a key spot that this marks the imminent end of the war. The reason I gave you the geographical description is that's a long way from the capital, N'Djamena, where the French paratroop forces have gone in and things of that kind.

I'm going to start, as I said before, I'm going to try to start with some back there a little further, because I never get beyond about the first two lines.

Q. Mr. President, would the United States allow Chad to fall to Qadhafi and the Libyans rather than intervene?

The President. As I've said before, it's not our primary sphere of influence; it is that of France. We remain in constant consultation with them, but I don't see any situation that would call for military intervention by the United States there.

National Bipartisan Commission on Central America

Q. Mr. President, I wanted to ask you a question on the Commission. Have you decided whether to retain or remove the Cuban-American member of the Commission while the allegations remain against him?

The President. There is, as you know, a clearance that has to be done for everyone that is appointed to any group of that kind or to any position. And pending such a clearance, which is going on, why, I'm not going to comment about any. I think it is a fine Commission and represents a variety of viewpoints, and I hope that it will be passed intact.

Situation in Chad

Q. Mr. President, you've described Chad as lying within the French sphere of influence. Do you feel the French are, at the moment, doing enough to counter Libyan adventurism?

The President. I have to tell you that I'm not aware of what their plans might be or what it is that they're prepared to do. I know they have introduced ground forces in there, but I'm just not privy to their military planning, and I think that's explainable. I think that they know that the more something is talked about, the more chance there is of leaks, and the leaks in this case could benefit the wrong people.

Q. Mr. President, you have said, though, that you're in consultation, close consultation, with the French. Do you think that it would be helpful if they provided air support to Chad? And should they be providing more than the limited ground forces and the trainers that they've sent already?

The President. Well, as I say, I don't know what their plans are. Frankly, we had believed at first that there was going to be some aerial activity there. Now, I don't know whether they're negotiating at the same time with Libya or not. But I know that we had thought that because part of Libya's forces, and key forces in their first advance, not only have been motorized troops on the ground but have been aerial attacks.

Q. To follow up, sir, why are we so concerned about that part of the world? If it is the French sphere of influence, what is it about Qadhafi and perhaps the Sudan or Egypt, why is this an American concern?

The President. Well, I think the whole attitude of Qadhafi and his empire-building is of concern to anyone, but the main concern is to the surrounding African States. They are all very much alarmed and disturbed because they believe that Qadhafi is intent on adventuring far beyond his own borders, and they believe that they're all under a threat.

U.S. Forces Around the World

Q. Mr. President, are you worried that the United States forces are being stretched too thin around the globe, as I believe the Army Chief of Staff put it recently?

The President. Well, I think what he was pointing out is that in training the military and in planning your own security, you have to consider what are all of the contingencies that could require, for our security, some action by us. And then this is why you have war games in various parts of the world and joint training exercises.

And what he was pointing out, I think, was that today, unlike a previous day when weapons weren't quite of the kind they are now -- the world has grown more interdependent -- that at one time, and within my lifetime, our principal protection was shore batteries of artillery along our coasts. And I think he was pointing out that our military requirements are different. And in considering the possible contingencies and where we would feel that our security was actually involved is so much more widespread than it has ever been, that our peacetime forces, yes, if they had to be called into action -- but I think, also, that's considering that they could be called into action in all those places at once.

Q. Mr. President, the United States now has marines in Lebanon. We have AWACS planes in North Africa. We have a military training mission going on with Egypt. And we have a show of military force in Latin America. And there's an impression now that you are responding to troublespots always in a military fashion. Has there been a change in your approach to problems around the world? Is there a shift in our policy?

The President. I don't think so at all. Under a previous President, a few Presidents back, there was an entire division in Lebanon. This was part of our peace program there. They're not there in a combat state; they're there to help while the Libyan Government -- or the Lebanese Government tries to regain control over its own territory. The war games in Egypt that are going on or the practice maneuvers, joint maneuvers, that's an annual thing that we've done for a long time.

Now, I noticed that you changed the tone and said that it was a show of force in Central America. Well, we have held joint maneuvers, both naval and on land, repeatedly with our friends and allies here in the Americas. As a matter of fact, many of you have referred to the one in Honduras as the biggest. It's only about half as big as the one we held within the year in Panama, where there were 10,000 troops involved.

Q. To follow up on that, are you saying that it's not the American role to play policeman around the world?

The President. No, it is not. It is to recognize that the threats can be that widespread, and the threats to our security, because we know, for example, that a great percentage of the strategic minerals that are needed for our industrial might come from various places in the world. The oil that we import -- we can't stand by and say that we have no consideration of what might happen in closing off the sealanes that are used by the tankers supplying us with the oil that we must import. So, this is all based on what could be, what could involve our own security.

Ms. Thomas. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. I was just going to get back into the middle there again.

Q. Are you going to China?

The President. What?

Q. Are you going to China?

Deputy Press Secretary Speakes. Andrea [Andrea Mitchell, NBC News], how many times do I have tell you?

Q. Give us a hint, a hint.

The President. Do you expect me to defy Larry? [Laughter]

Q. Sure.

Q. Yes, we do all the time. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 2:30 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House. Earlier in the afternoon, he met for the first time with members of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America and several of the Senior Counselors of the Commission.