Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on Domestic and Foreign Policy Issues

December 14, 1983

The President. Good morning. I don't have any opening statement. But I just figured that it might be a good idea to come in here and get your questions now, and then I won't have to tonight at the press party at the White House.

Sam [Sam Donaldson, ABC News]?

The Middle East

Q. Mr. President, your Secretary of Defense has said that Syria sponsored and directed the attack against the U.S. marines in October. And many officials in your administration have said privately that Iran has been behind attacks in Kuwait and in Lebanon. My question, sir, is: Are we going to retaliate against the Governments of Syria or Iran?

The President. No. We have taken a position -- and it is our policy that if this continues -- we're not there to shoot first or to enter into combat. But I'm never going to send our men anyplace where they wouldn't be allowed to defend themselves. And it's been our policy that if they are attacked, they will defend.

Now, we've seen these instances of being attacked. And we have retaliated as nearly as we can against those who have actually done the attacking. And we want no conflict with Syria. Certainly, we're not there to enter into a war. And we continue to try and communicate and negotiate with them to let them know that, if they'll stop shooting at us there won't be any problems between us.

Q. But, sir, if I may, how -- if Iran is -- the Government of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini is behind some of this, how do we convince Iran to stop it?

The President. No. The best evidence that we have -- you couldn't go into court and say that Khomeini ordered this -- but what we do know is that a group that has been taking credit for these attacks and has claimed that they're responsible for many of them is a group that seems to be of some size, that is definitely with an Iranian connection. Now, whether that's with the government or that they just are Iranians, and they seem to be -- well, they voice things that would indicate that they're interested in a kind of a holy war. They are a sect in the Islamic world.

Q. Mr. President, you said last Saturday in your radio address that you would keep the marines in Lebanon until that country had internal stability. Sir, that country -- respectfully -- has never had internal stability. Isn't that the kind of open-ended commitment that will mean many more marines dying and years and years of an American involvement there?

The President. No, I think we're making more progress than appears on the surface. And the original goal was the withdrawal of the foreign forces and then the reinstitution of the Government of Lebanon and helping them, as we have, to train and raise a force in which they can assume control over their own territory. The multinational force, they felt, was absolutely necessary. And they still feel that way, to be able to do some maintaining of order as they would then have to move out toward their borders once the foreign forces have gone. Now, this is still the goal, still the thing that we're trying to do.

In Geneva there was progress made where even those who are opposing each other within the country, the opposing factions, recognized the Gemayel government and agreed upon that government. Now, the thing of the multinational force, what I'm trying to say is, there are two ways in which they could be withdrawn. One of them would be if we achieve our goal. The second would, of course, would be if there was such a collapse of order that it was absolutely certain that there was no solution to the problem. There would be no reason for them to stay there.

Q. Are you saying, then, that you would consider withdrawing the marines if it appeared that the Gemayel government could not extend its authority beyond Beirut and could not create some kind of coalition?

The President. Well, we're getting into hypotheticals now of what the situation -- I'm simply saying that if there was a complete collapse and there was no possibility of restoring order, there would be no purpose in the multinational force.

But let me call to your attention that it's not just us, that all of the nations of the multinational force, within a matter of days recently, have reaffirmed their determination that the mission is sound and that we're all going to stay there.

Well, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International].

Q. Mr. President, isn't there growing political pressure for you to pull out fairly soon, and aren't we -- have we lost our role as peacemaker and into -- a role of peacekeeper into a role of escalating violence? My question is, there are reports that you will pull the troops out before the political conventions this summer.

The President. I've seen those reports quoting unnamed sources again. Well, here's a named source, and I will tell you now, no decision that I'm going to make on anything of this kind is related to the election or the conventions or anything political. As a matter of fact, on all major issues I have reiterated more than once to our Cabinet that I don't want to hear the political ramifications of any major issue.

And on this one, there is no harder job or part of this job -- --

Q. But do you think -- --

The President. -- -- than putting our forces -- let me say -- someplace where these young men and women could be endangered. And, certainly, what we do in that regard is not based on any political consideration.

Q. Will it weigh in when you run for reelection?

The President. You meant, of course, if I run for reelection.

Q. Haven't you decided?

The President. You'll know January 29th, won't you?

Helen, no, there's just no way that political -- the politics could be considered in an issue of this kind where the lives of our young people in uniform are involved.

Q. Mr. President?

The President. Yes, Bill [Bill Plante, CBS News], and then I'd better move back there.

Fiscal Year 1985 Budget

Q. We thought you were supposed to be in a budget meeting this morning, sir, although we're certainly delighted you came to see us instead. Does that mean that you've already decided the basics of next year's budget? Will there be a contingency tax as Secretary Regan suggested the other day? He seemed pretty solid on it.

The President. Well, the canceling of the budget meeting this morning was just for another reason. No, we're not close to any decision. These are meetings in which we take up various segments of the budget, preliminary estimates and so forth. So, they can be handled anytime within the next few days.

But with regard to a contingency tax, first of all, I can tell you there won't be any tax in 1984. The thing is that's always been back of the contingency tax -- and I think this is what Don Regan was saying -- was that such a tax would only be considered on the basis of getting the spending reductions that we must have.

This whole matter of looking only at the deficits out there -- and I don't minimize them; I've been preaching too long, for a quarter of a century now, against deficit spending and having these deficits -- but the deficit is a symptom of the problem, a result of the problem. The problem is the Federal Government is taking too big a percentage from the private sector of the gross national product. And the answer to getting rid of deficits and not running up more deficits comes with reducing that percentage that the Federal Government is taking.

Now, if you get to the absolute point in which government cannot be any further reduced in size and cost and then it is still out of line with revenues, you would have to make an adjustment on that side. But if you would look at it actually, when a government is taking too much money, then it's got to match that with one of two ways: It's got to do a tax, or it's got to reduce government cost, one or the other -- or it's got to borrow, I should say. Now, either way you're taking more money from the private sector, whether you borrow it or whether you tax it.

And the real answer is to cure the disease, which is to get government down to a percentage figure that is consistent with having a sound economy.

Q. Well, sir, a number of economists, including Mr. Feldstein, have said that it's because of your military spending and your tax cuts that we have these deficits, and that taxes, some kind of taxes, are going to be the only answer.

The President. I think that's been a little out of context also. I reviewed the whole situation where Mr. Feldstein spoke on that, and he made an answer that I think any one of us could have made. The answer was said that, ``Well, yes, if the defense budget were reduced, and if you hadn't tried this tax thing, reduced revenues for taxes, yes, the budget would be -- or the deficit would be smaller.'' He did not say that it would be right to do those things, either to increase the tax or to reduce the defense spending.

Now, let me point out that some 20 years ago, during the Kennedy administration, defense spending was 47.8 percent of our budget. We are under 29 percent with regard to defense spending. We're spending about double on social reforms and social programs as to a percentage of the budget as was spent in those Kennedy years.

So, just to count the number of dollars, you have to look at defense and say, ``What is necessary for our national security?'' And then if there's anything unnecessary, yes, eliminate it, but if everything there is necessary from sound thinking for our national security, then you can't reduce beyond that point.

I've got to go back to the back of the room here.

Deputy Press Secretary Speakes. This is the last question.

Nuclear Arms Reduction Negotiations

Q. Mr. President, on arms control, do you expect to do anything, take any positive measure to bring the Soviets back to the negotiating table?

The President. Yes, we are trying to stay in communication with them. And I have to believe that they will come back, because it is to their advantage to come back. They stand to gain as much or more than anyone in coming back to those talks. So, we're still determined on the reduction, particularly of nuclear weapons, and I am determined that once you start down that path, we must come to the realization that those weapons should be outlawed worldwide forever.

Q. Sir, would 1984 be a year for a summit, perhaps?

The President. Are you trying to ask whether I'm going to be busy in 1984 or not? When the time is right, you don't go by what is a time period that is right for it. When there is an opportunity and evidence that we can achieve something, that there is an agenda that can go on the table in which some gains can be made for both sides, then you have a summit. You don't have one just to say that you've had a summit, because too many people get disappointed.

Hunger in America

Now, he says that I've taken the last question. Could I just volunteer some information, though? I'm sorry that none of you -- maybe one of you that I didn't call on would have asked about Mr. Meese and hunger.

Q. Yes, we were going to ask.

The President. You were? [Laughter] Well, let me just say -- I'll volunteer, instead of an opening statement, a closing statement on that.

I believe the manner in which that's been treated by a great many of you is totally out of context with the entire interview which he gave. The policy, and my own feeling in this administration, is that if there is one person in this country hungry, that is one too many, and we're going to do what we can to alleviate that situation. And I happen to know that he feels the same way.

Now, one journalist the other night on one of the weekend talk programs said that we should be out on the front steps of the White House cheering those private agencies that are providing meals and providing evening dinners and lunches and so forth to the needy. Well, I may not be out on the front steps shouting, but you bet I'm cheering them. As a matter of fact, this is part of our private initiative program.

We've done everything we can to encourage this. Wherever possible, we have supplied surplus foods to them, because even -- whatever we've done, we're doing more to feed the hungry in this country today than has ever been done by any administration. More money is being spent; more people are getting food stamps. All of these things we're doing. But this private sector aid is essential also, because where government can justify providing the necessities, there is a need also, as there's always been, to help provide some of those things over and above bare necessity that make life worth living, and the private sector is doing that and doing it splendidly -- not only with the meals being served but with food distribution centers, and we're helping there also.

But, that -- and it all ties into the commission that some have said, ``Well, why? Don't we know that people are hungry?'' That wasn't the purpose of the commission, and I'm waiting now for the January report.

We get anecdotes that some of you have reported on, individual cases or something, of people that are hungry. What we want to find out is why. Is it a lack of or a fault in our distribution system at the government level? Or is it that there are people out there who don't know what's available to them or how to find their way to a government program? Or is there -- well, I think I've covered most of what it could be that they don't know how to find this, or that we somehow are bungling, bureaucraticwise, in making -- at a distribution. This is what we want to find out. Is there something we can resolve so that there won't be anyone, either through their own ignorance of what's available, or through falling between the cracks in a bureaucratic process, that we can resolve that and see that there is no one overlooked who's hungry.

Q. You don't think, sir, that those people were cheating who -- you don't -- the statement was that people might be going to a soup kitchen because they wanted to do it. You don't think that's happening?

The President. What I think was distorted in the reporting of that -- and that I'll only take because it was part of my statement; then I'm going to run before you ask any more questions -- that I think this is where there was something out of context. For example, we know that there are people who are not deserving of welfare who have been getting welfare. And one of our jobs has been -- and not too well understood -- to weed out, because every time someone who has the means and yet is subsisting on the help of their fellow citizens is doing that, they are reducing our ability to care for the truly needy. So, we try to clean up there.

Well, if that's true there, I'm sure that it must be true in these private groups. The difference is that these very worthwhile charitable efforts on the part of churches and community groups, unions, and others that are doing this, they have no way to establish eligibility. They can't set a rule and say, we're going to quiz you and determine whether -- they have to accept that people that come and ask for help must be needful. But on the other hand, if there are people who will cheat with regard in getting welfare, I think it's possible that some might be cheating in this other. But that doesn't mean that you close down the private groups, because I'm quite sure that the vast majority of the people who seek aid there, it is of benefit to them and their families.

Q. But his answer was pretty all-inclusive.

The President. What?

Q. His answer was pretty all-inclusive -- that they were going there, they had the money, they didn't want to pay.

The President. All we know is we had some anecdotal incidents, too, that we knew about.

Q. Don't forget to file in Illinois and New Hampshire, Mr. President. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 11:31 a.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House. The session was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television.