WASHINGTON, March 15, 2005 -- President Bush hosted Jordan's King Abdullah II in an Oval Office meeting today. The two men are publicly enthusiastic about some of the recent changes in the Middle East -- among them, the elections in Iraq, a sliver of democracy emerging in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and massive protests in Lebanon calling for the Syrian military to withdraw. After the White House meeting, King Abdullah spoke with ABC News' Peter Jennings.
The following is the full transcript of the interview, a portion of which aired on "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings:"
PETER JENNINGS:Let me ask you first, sir, what is happening in the region?
KING ABDULLAH:Oh, there's so many things happening in the region. We have obviously the issue of reform in Egypt, we have elections coming up in Lebanon. Iraq, last month had very successful elections, and we're looking for help, a momentum that moves toward new elections at the end of the year, which will be I think the new face of Iraq. Obviously we have the problems in Lebanon and Syria. It's going to be a very busy year for all of us.
JENNINGS:What do you think it all means? Taking just what most Americans regard as the positive note, elections in Palestine, elections in Iraq, the slight elections in Saudi Arabia and the slight changes in Egypt?
ABDULLAH:Well, I think that there's a positive trend that reflects the desire of the people. I think that, you know, President Bush called for Middle East reform last year, it had initially been taken in the wrong context by Arab countries as something being forced upon them, but it created debate inside of Arab society and I think we're seeing the fruits of that. I think people are expecting leaders to reform, and are demanding from their governments to move forward.
JENNINGS:Do you believe that President Bush gets a lot of personal credit for what is happening there at the moment?
ABDULLAH: Well, I think if the president had not started the process of getting reform in people's minds, we would have been much more complacent. But because there was outside pressure, people had to look in the mirror and think of how to move forward.
JENNINGS:And what do you think is the outside pressure? Because I think Egyptians and Palestinians and Lebanese would tell you they've been arguing for reform for years.
ABDULLAH: Well, I think that many societies throughout the Middle East have been talking about reform, but obviously there seems to, and may be a strong American position for the Middle East to move toward reform. I believe that European countries are also endorsing that. So, for example, in Jordan it has allowed us to actually push the envelope even more. And if there hadn't been that call, then I think that we'd have been much more complacent about it.
JENNINGS:What do you think is happening inside Syria?
ABDULLAH:I think they're probably asking themselves the same question. They obviously have a problem with the international community, there is, you know, [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1559 that calls for a Syrian pull out of Lebanon. And I hope that they will deal with the pressure from the international community and move in the right direction.
JENNINGS:Do you think Syria's a dangerous place at the moment?
ABDULLAH:No, I don't think Syria's a dangerous place. I have good relationships with the president and from my dealings with him, he understands that there needs to be some resolvement of these issues from the Syrian government, and we're hoping that it will be done peacefully and as smoothly as possible. (Overlap)
JENNINGS:This is pretty unusual for a Syrian president to willingly withdraw from Lebanon?
ABDULLAH:Obviously, there's a lot of history between Lebanon and Syria, and it's very different for the Syrians to pull out, but I think there is a commitment by the international community, and I think the Syrians realize that.
JENNINGS:Do you think [Syrian] President Bashar's [Assad] in control?
ABDULLAH:I would think that, yes, he is in control. Yes.
JENNINGS:And do you think that anything done in Syria today is done in his name, or others' names?
ABDULLAH:Again, this is, has been debated in international community, and it's the million-dollar question. From my dealings with the -- President Bashar, he seems to be in control, understanding what needs to be done, and as a result we've seen Syria over the past several days make the right statements about troops' withdrawal, withdrawal of security services, that are inside Lebanon and we hope that that will go smoothly. We have enough, I did mention the optimistic points, but also we have a lot of areas of instability, and we just don't need Syria to be another one of those for this year.
JENNINGS:What are the points, what are the points of instability?
ABDULLAH:Well if we look at the issue of global terrorism or terrorism inside of our part of the world, Syria-Lebanon is a problem. We're working very closely with the Saudis, because they have an issue with security, which I believe there's strong conviction by Crown Prince Abdullah, who I've talked to on many occasions, that wants to be able to solve the problems inside of Saudi Arabia, so we have a lot of areas that we need to tackle with, and, I'm hoping that the positive, Israeli-Palestinian process, what we think is a positive process in Iraq, will actually add a positive momentum to the other countries.
JENNINGS:What do you think of this story today, of this young Jordanian, allegedly very pro-American, being involved in the Hillah bombing [in Iraq]?
ABDULLAH:Well, again, if that is the case, it's very unfortunate and we expressed our tremendous condolences to all Iraqis that have suffered, not only in this bombing, but any terrorist act that they've had over the past year or two. And this is part of the challenge that Iraq has in trying to bring stability to their country. I think that the turnout, high turnout during the Iraqi elections was a statement by the Iraqi people that they were not going to let terrorists hold sway on their future and I've ... (Overlap)
JENNINGS:Do you think there's a lot of support for the insurgency in Jordan?
ABDULLAH: I think, unfortunately, there's some misguided elements that believe that insurgency is the way to go, and it's not. The future of Iraq has to be a stable, democratic, capable Iraq, and those that interfere in that process are hurting Iraqis more than they can believe, and so from my point of view, those that believe that supporting the insurgency in Iraq is helping the Iraqis, they can't be -- I mean, they're completely misguided.
JENNINGS:Both Jordanian and American officials have told us that you think recently you came very close to capturing [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi. How close?
ABDULLAH:Well, it's -- I think the coalition forces and the international community are working and initial reports recently was that they came fairly close. But I think this is a work in progress, so to speak.
JENNINGS:You are encouraged or not encouraged by the state of emerging democracy in Iraq?
ABDULLAH:I am encouraged because if we see, if we can show success with the Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinian elections, which I thought was very successful, if we can show success in Iraq, it allows the rest of us to be able to move much more freely, and to be able to push the envelope. So any cases of movement in political form throughout the Middle East only I think supports those countries that want to move in that direction.
JENNINGS:And you've said a couple of times now about pushing the envelope in Jordan. What do you mean?
ABDULLAH:Well, two things, that we've done. Obviously we have a national agenda, which is a sort of a 10-year program, bringing in civil society to create a road map on where Jordan should go. I think that is very important. More importantly, from my short-term point of view, with political reform is this idea of complete government decentralization, and created three regions in Jordan, North, Central and South. And allowing those regions to be able to talk about their own futures, and be part of the building block of a new democratic process in Jordan.
JENNINGS:Who would win a free election in Jordan today?
ABDULLAH:Well, unfortunately, this is the problem that we've been dealing with. We have 30 political parties, none of which really have any political platforms, and the problem that I've been facing is that next parliamentary elections, in two years time, I don't want parliament officials being elected because they belong to this tribe or this village or this particular constituency. I want them to be elected on a party political platform. And this is one of the reasons why we moved into this decentralization, this sort of regional program, to try and get grass-root process in creating two or three parties that represent left, right and center.
JENNINGS:Any number of international organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, international organizations that favor democracy, say that one of the impediments to political development in Jordan is in fact the crown itself, namely you.
ABDULLAH:Well, by decentralization, by being able to create three or four political parties as opposed to 30, I think that we can strengthen the institutions, so that the crown can take a step back and people can take a step forward.
JENNINGS:But if people want 30 political parties, why shouldn't they have them?
ABDULLAH:Well, you can have 30, you can have 50, but political parties, if we're trying to -- I mean, seriously move the process along, 30 parties or more that do not have political party platforms, where they stand on the economy, where they stand on social services, health, education, I don't think that's the mature way of growing them. We're trying to, and this is the problem, the Crown can't step in and say to political parties, 'Shouldn't you come up with a political party program?' But we're hoping, with democratic maturity, that that happens, and, we haven't -- (Overlap)
JENNINGS:Excuse me for interrupting. Who decides democratic maturity? Who is --.
JENNINGS:-- as of now, you decide democratic maturity?
ABDULLAH:Well in this particular position, we formed the government, that the parliament is elected by the people. But to encourage that, I mean, I have been in discussions with parliamentarians that would it be stronger for you to create where you stand on issues of education, social services, et cetera, et cetera, so that you can create a political party so that in the future, the people actually pick you for where you stand, and not because you happen to be a cousin or a tribal member?
JENNINGS:Would you be happy to be the head of a constitutional monarchy, as well ...
ABDULLAH:Well, eventually ... (Overlap)
JENNINGS:... than an absolute monarchy?
ABDULLAH:... eventually that's what we're trying to do, and by creating, decentralization, by trying to get these three regions, with their own elected parliaments, that will be the end game.
JENNINGS:So the end game could be a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute monarchy?
ABDULLAH:Absolutely. Because that -- I mean, we have to modernize, I think monarchy plays a vital role in countries such as Jordan. I think there's a lot of positive aspects, but monarchies have to modernize, and a way of modernizing is to do these political reform issues that will give people a much larger say in the way their countries go.
JENNINGS:Can I put it to you quite bluntly, sir: Do you condone the torture of prisoners in the Jordanian penal system?
ABDULLAH:Not at all, and there has been some cases reported where there has been abuse between prisoners and between police prison guards. And I have a new police chief at the moment that is looking into that. We have problems where we've got, as many countries do, overcrowding in jails. We're trying to build new infrastructure. And I gather from the chief of police that he has actually cleaned out a lot of people that he felt are corrupt and not up to the standard. And if we are going to be part of the international community, certain standards need to be set, and especially in jails.
JENNINGS:Why do you think the United States is sending, quote, suspected terrorists, unquote, to Jordan?
ABDULLAH:I'm not fully aware of that process. I know this has been reported in the press. And I don't have enough information to be able to answer that. (Overlap)
JENNINGS:It's a very big issue in the United States, as I'm sure you know, because Americans believe that prisoners are being sent, or rendered, as it's called, to countries where torture is permissible ...
JENNINGS:... or acceptable, rather than here.
ABDULLAH:Right. Well, again, I'll have to talk to my people about that, but I think that we have standards that we want to keep as part of the international community, and if there are any wrongdoings done in Jordan, then, you know, we need to make sure that those issues are addressed.
JENNINGS:Can you imagine yourself saying no to the United States, if the United States wanted to send a suspected terrorist to the Jordanian system?
ABDULLAH:(Deep breath) Well, I'd , I would have -- I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, but I know we have a very good relationship between the Jordanian and American government. I wish I had more information to be able to give you on that particular issue.
JENNINGS:As Americans look at these changes in the Middle East, now they look at Jordan without question, including the restrictive political parties law. Why does that not change, and why could that not change immediately?
ABDULLAH: Well, we're actually in the process of changing those issues. At the moment, working with the government, for example, on media. We have created, in the civil courts, a special judge, actually a lady judge, who's in charge of media issues, and from that point onwards, no journalist can be taken to prison. They can be voted by the Judge Advocate if there is an issue of negligence or misjudgment from a member of the media. And then everything is taken to the civil courts, so there's a process of laws that we're in the process of implementing at the moment to create the right freedoms of the press and of political parties.
JENNINGS: The international organizations who monitor Jordan say that the local media's not allowed to criticize you.
ABDULLAH: Well, with the new system in place, if one does criticize me, and if there's an issue where there is negligence or wrongdoings from the reporter or the media personality, there is nothing that the government can do except for maybe sending them to a civil court, if the person is held liable.
JENNINGS: How long do you think it should be, in your own mind, before people look to Jordan as an absolute model of democratic procedure in the Middle East?
ABDULLAH: Well, again, in our discussions with Western organizations on the issue of decentralization, it could be anywhere as close to one year to five. We have to build a culture of democracy, that's part of the problem, so that people inside Jordan understand their rights, and also we need a lot of technical support. I've been talking to many countries that looked at the federal system or created governors. How do you improve the political system, but at the same time increase transparency, cut down corruption, and have it not affect what we've been doing on the social economic reform program? It's a very complicated issue. And if we're going to have political reform, we've really got to get it right the first time around. And actually my trip to Europe two weeks ago was to reach out to European countries and today to the United States, to really give us any technical advice and support on how to be able to get this political reform done in the right way, the right time, the first time around.
JENNINGS: Are you aware, sir, that it sounds a little defensive to an American audience?
ABDULLAH: In what respect?
JENNINGS: We must create democracy gradually. We can't just spring democracy ... (Overlap)
ABDULLAH: No, no, we can. We can spring ... (Overlap)
JENNINGS: ... for themselves immediately. We have to have decentralization in order for people to express their opinions politically.
ABDULLAH: Well, I'm honestly trying to do it from the bottom of my heart in the right way. And if you're going to do decentralization, and get a system of government that people can take control of their lives, we do need to be able to reach out to people who've gone through the exercise themselves. Whether we're talking about unions, problems we're having with the production unions at the moment, is something that I gathered you've gone through in the United States. So we're now tackling this issue. What are the experiences that America has gone through? Help us do it. So in other words, if we're reaching out to Europe and to United States, it's to cut the time down. And I don't want a process where we can sit back in our chairs and say, well, the political reform process in Jordan is going to take some time. Help us speed up the process.
JENNINGS: Well, how difficult is it to change a society? Let me put it slightly different to you. How difficult it is to change a society in which the police apparatus, secret police apparatus in many cases, is so pervasive?
ABDULLAH: Well, that is one of the elements that we've been discussing in the national agenda, as well as with the Decentralization Committee is that it's not just enough for the government and civil society to be able to deal with this issue. Police and security apparatuses have also got to be modernized. And again, in these issues, from the practical experience that I've had over the past two years, the leadership is fairly easy to convince. It's having to work down the second, third and fourth level to get the message and to change the way that they're doing business. That's the challenge that we're facing at the moment.
JENNINGS: Let me come back to regional affairs. President Bush would very much like you to help the Palestinian president disarm those people in the Palestinian territories who are not interested in the peace agreement with Israel.
JENNINGS: What can you do for him?
ABDULLAH: Well, we've been working, not just recently but even before the Intifada, with the Israelis and Palestinians to support strengthening Palestinian security services, so that they can bring their society in order and government institutions that are reflective of what we're used to. We did offer the Bardr Brigade to the Palestinians as a well-trained police force to go in there. It seems that the Israelis do not want to do that. That's fine. At the end of the day, we're just trying to think out of the box how to help. But we are instrumental in providing assistance and training, and whatever the Palestinians and Israelis agree to. And it's not just now, it's something that's been going on for many years.
JENNINGS: Do you think that the Israeli government is interested, genuinely interested in getting out of Gaza? Genuinely interested in getting out of the West Bank?
ABDULLAH: I believe from our reports, our discussions with the Israelis that is the case. Our foreign minister just came back from Israel last week and felt the same thing. We want to make sure that obviously the disengagements, whether it's from Gaza and the West Bank are part and parcel of a vehicle that we all understand, which is the road map. That's a vehicle that's been articulated in the international community and the one that we have at the moment to get us to the end game. And I hope that these pulls-outs are part and parcel of that.
JENNINGS: Do you think Hezbollah in Lebanon is a terrorist organization?
ABDULLAH: The way we see it, they're an organization that have moved into politics. And we hope that they will continue to move in that direction. And again, they're an important part of Lebanese society, and they can't be ruled out on that basis.
JENNINGS: Did you explain that to President Bush?
ABDULLAH: President Bush understands that they are moving into politics. I think he just heard the statement today, while I was sitting next to him, and he encouraged, I believe, Hezbollah to look at politics as the way to go forward.
JENNINGS: The president's much-trusted adviser, Karen Hughes, is about to take this new position, improving the American image in the rest of the world. What would you counsel her about the Middle East?
ABDULLAH: I think the problem that America has faced with image in the recent years is obviously a perception in the Middle East that Israel is the only country that holds sway in the United States, so that there is a sort of a biased outlook towards the Middle East. As a result, people feel that the Palestinians have been short-changed. Unfortunately, I think initially what happened in Iraq, the visual images that we get in media, where you have sort of Israeli troops occupying Palestinians, American troops occupying Iraq have added to that problem. But I believe that if we see movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and that of Iraq, then the views are going to change, and we said the optimism of all these reforms, these elections, I hope that at the end of the day, whatever part America has played in it will get the credit for making the Middle East a better place.
JENNINGS: Last December, you, in reference to what was happening in Iraq, referred to the Shiite crescent that was developing from Iraq around the Gulf, which was widely taken as a concern by you, that you were threatened by Shiite power.
ABDULLAH: We're not at all threatened by Shiite power. As you know, as being the descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, we have actually a very special relationship with the Shia. And it was turned from what I made as a political message into a religious context. We have a very close affinity to Shia all over the world, especially the Shia in Iraq, and we were concerned that there were elements inside of Iran at that particular point of time that had strategical (sic) objectives in Iraq, which would not be conducive to the harmony between Sunnis and Shia.
JENNINGS: Do you therefore believe that Shiite power in Iraq is largely benign?
ABDULLAH: I do believe so. I think the overwhelming majority of Shia in Iraq want Iraq for themselves. They are obviously an essential building block to the future of Iraq, and again, as the Shias and Muslims and Kurds come together that want Iraq for Iraq, I think that is the best change the country has to become part of the international community as quickly as possible.
JENNINGS: Thank you very much.