Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes
Press Filing Center
6:12 P.M. CT
MR. CARNEY: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Today I'd like to, as part of the briefing, give you Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications; and Dan Restrepo, the Senior Director at the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere. And if you have other questions that I can help answer, please -- I'll stand here as well and you can direct them to me. But let me start with Dan.
I did want to say one thing -- that we will be releasing a photo from the President’s briefing that he received on Air Force One that Ben talked about in the gaggle and we're going to try to get that -- is it out already? Okay, great. Thanks very much. Here’s Ben.
MR. RHODES: And just to reconfirm, the photo was of the secure conference call that the President did this morning with Tom Donilon and Bill Daley here, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and General Ham.
I'll just give a brief overview of tomorrow’s -- well, the remaining events today and tomorrow’s schedule in El Salvador, and then Dan can speak a little bit about both the President’s speech today and what we're hoping to accomplish tomorrow in El Salvador. And then we can take your questions on a range of subjects, whatever is on your mind.
Before I begin, though, I also want to just highlight for people that in addition to the President’s speech today, the First Lady also delivered a speech here at a school in Santiago. She was speaking to a school’s first graduating class that particularly has students from some underprivileged backgrounds. This continues the First Lady’s consistent outreach on her foreign travel to young people, underscoring a message of educational empowerment and public service, and how young people in all parts of the world share aspirations that can be lifted up through education. So I think this is an important piece of the First Lady’s international agenda.
Her speeches have been very well received in all of her travel, and so we would point you to those remarks, I think which we should be able to make available to you and your colleagues as well.
Tonight the remaining event is that President Pinera is hosting an official dinner for President Obama and Mrs. Obama, so we will be attending that dinner tonight. Then tomorrow we'll be en route to El Salvador in the morning.
We felt, as we've said, that it was very important for the President on this trip to Latin America to make a stop in Central America, which is a distinct sub-region of its own in the Americas, one with very deep and close ties to the United States, both through foreign policy and also through the large populations of Central Americans and Salvadorans in particular who live in the United States.
So we'll be able to address a set of shared challenges that Dan can speak to, often specifically focused on issues like citizen security and the kind of regional approach that we're taking to security in Central America that the President talked about today.
Tomorrow the President and the First Family will arrive in San Salvador at roughly 12:45 p.m. They will participate in an arrival ceremony. Then the President will hold a bilateral meeting with President Funes of El Salvador, who has been a very good partner of the United States, and they will have a bilateral meeting followed by a joint press conference.
Following that press conference, we also have the President slated to do two television interviews with CNN Espanol and Univision -- and opportunity, of course, for him to share his reflections on his trip and discuss a range of other issues.
And then tomorrow night, President Funes will be hosting an official dinner for President Obama and the First Lady as well.
With that I'll give you to Dan to talk through the speech and some of the program and agenda for tomorrow.
MR. RESTREPO: Thanks, Ben. In today’s speech you saw a continuation of the President’s efforts engaging with the countries of the Americas as partners. It’s a theme that he laid down initially in May of 2008, continued setting out a new set of proposals in April of 2009 at the Summit of the Americas -- the signature piece there being the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas.
And today you saw the evolution of that engagement. As we have an increasing number of capable partners throughout the Americas -- for example, in the citizen security space -- we're building upon, as the President announced today, building upon existing what had essentially been bilateral security arrangements between the United States and Mexico with the Merida Initiative, and Central America through the Central American Regional Security Initiative, with the Caribbean with the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative -- which was also launched at the Summit of the Americas -- with Colombia, the continuity of Plan Colombia and the Colombian Strategic Development Initiative.
Those have been a very kind of traditional way of the U.S. working one on one with countries or sub-regions. As a number of countries in the region have become more capable and able and willing and interested in engaging through our diplomacy, through our outreach with other countries in the region, today the Central American Citizen Security Partnership, where you’ll have Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, the United States, Spain, Inter-American Development Bank coming together to meet a security strategy that Central America will be putting on the table in the coming months -- that is another step of how working as equal partners in the Americas looks like. That's what it looks like to engage with a more regionally and globally engaged set of partners and capable partners.
You also saw today taking a step of recognition of the importance of education in the future, of competitiveness in the Americas. One of the themes that we've been talking about throughout this trip and that the President has been working on is the economic and commercial interconnection between the United States and Brazil and the rest of Latin America.
A key component for the Americas to remain competitive, globally competitive, is education -- as the President laid out in his speech today, the goal of increasing exchange students from the current 40,000 U.S. students who annually study in countries in Latin America to 100,000 U.S. students studying in countries in Latin America by the end of the decade.
Similarly, taking the number of Latin American students, which is roughly 65,000, who study annually in the United States, increasing that also to 100,000 by the end of the decade -- because we're in this together, as it were, the Americas, the natural connections that we have and the competitive advantages that we have of geography, of longstanding relationships -- building upon those, making sure that we have a well-educated and populations that are able to work together on the key challenges of today. The other thing that will underscore this 100,000 strong in the Americas initiative is the flexibility of it -- working with different partners, different countries. Yesterday -- or two days ago in Brazil, President Rousseff and the President talked about the importance of increasing science, technology, engineering and math student exchanges. The President Pinera today talked a lot with President Obama about the importance of English language training as Chile tries to become a bilingual nation.
Those initiatives will fit under this umbrella of increasing exchanges. It will call upon the private sector in the United States and throughout the region to contribute to the economic well-being and the economic competitiveness of the region by participating in this 100,000 strong in the Americas.
Also, an initiative -- related initiative of putting entrepreneurs throughout the region together with universities but also with one another so that the ideas that are created in labs, be it in the United States but around the Western Hemisphere, can get to market more effectively -- again, underscoring the importance of competitiveness in the Western Hemisphere.
You also, in the sense of shared responsibility, the President discussed today the importance of the democratic experience here in the Western Hemisphere and the responsibility that all countries have not only to abide by a common set of commitments in terms of how they govern themselves, but to defend in those situations when democratic space is infringed upon -- in the case of the coup in Honduras in 2009, where the inter-American system at the Organization of American States came together to defend democracy and constitutional order there. In the run-up to the Haiti elections yesterday, the OAS played a pivotal role in ensuring a free, fair run-off election involving the candidates who actually got the most number of votes in the first round of the election.
So you have another set of examples of countries of the region coming together to fulfill this challenge of shared responsibility that the President was talking about today. You’ll see that carry over to tomorrow in the President’s meetings with President Funes in El Salvador. It’s the second time he’ll meet with President Funes -- actually he met him on the margins of the Summit of the Americas when President Funes was president-elect. President Funes visited in March of 2010, visited the White House.
Tomorrow, their discussions will focus on the principal -- two principal challenges facing El Salvador, one being economic stagnation where Salvador has had very low levels of economic growth over the course of the last decade; and citizen security. These are related concepts -- how we can continue to work together through the Partnership for Growth to help unlock the Salvadorian economy, to create sustainable economic growth there; encouraging the government and civil society and the private sector to come together to work on both sets of these challenges.
Those will be the primary issues that the Presidents will talk about tomorrow, as well as building upon the energy and climate partnership of the Americas, the role that Salvador is already playing on electricity grid interconnection that was mentioned in today’s speech, but taking other steps forward to deal with climate adaptation in Central America as the challenges of desertification and the destruction of forests in Central America take a heavy toll on the environment there and also create economic development challenges.
So those are the themes that you’re seeing throughout the week in terms of the importance of the Americas for the United States, our deep interconnection, and the President’s commitment to work as an equal partner to address the basic challenges and seize the basic opportunities that lie in front of the nearly billion people who share the Western Hemisphere.
MR. CARNEY: So with that, we’ll start taking questions, if you have any. Mr. Feller, do you --
Q I’m good.
MR. CARNEY: You’re good? That’s fantastic. Matt.
Q Question on the Libya situation? Okay. So I guess to go a bit beyond what the President said, but we’re just really interested in getting a better sense of the depth of U.S. military involvement in this, whether the U.S. is going to continue taking a lead while it waits for NATO to assume that lead, which doesn’t seem to be in the immediate offing.
MR. RHODES: Well, let me just say a number of things. As you’ve heard the President say consistently, what we are doing is bringing a unique set of capabilities to bear in the front-end of this operation to protect Libyan civilians, particularly in major population centers like Benghazi, and to lay the groundwork and shape essentially the space for an effective no-fly zone that will then be enforced by our allies and partners.
Already, and I think General Ham briefed this today, you have seen a decrease in the relative amount of the flights that are being made by U.S. aircraft, for instance. So even today versus the day before and the day before that, you see more flights from our allies and partners and less, relative, by the United States.
What we are doing right now is engaging in a set of consultations with our European allies, with our Arab partners, and also, again, at NATO about what the command structure will be when we transition to a coalition command and enforcement of the no-fly zone. We do expect that NATO will have a role to play in that effort. Obviously we are working with a coalition that, if you look at the Paris communiqué, goes beyond NATO members.
But, again, we do believe that NATO will have a role to play in that coalition and we do believe that the U.S. contribution to this will, again, be diminishing and will shift essentially in that transition from being in the lead and providing a lot of the resources to our coalition allies and partners being in the lead in terms of the enforcement of the no-fly zone. At that point, we will be in much more of a support role.
Q One more thing on that. The French have called for a change of -- basically regime change in Yemen in light of the violence going on there. What’s the U.S. stand on that, on whether our support and confidence remains with the leadership there?
MR. RHODES: Throughout the situation in Yemen, as with the situation in the region, we’ve communicated that we believe very strongly that there need to be actions taken by the government to be more responsive to the people of Yemen. We were deeply disturbed and condemned, for instance, the violence that we saw several days ago against the people of Yemen. We’ve insisted that that violence not only stop but that there be accountability for those who carried it out.
Right now what you have is a very fluid and dynamic situation. And what we are focused on is channeling those forces at play in Yemen into a political dialogue so that there can be a political settlement to the challenges in Yemen that is responsive to the Yemeni people and that does not resort to violence, again, to effect a crackdown on the people of Yemen.
So, again, our efforts are to meet the test of a government that is responsive to the people, that, again, provides greater political space for their, political expression and economic opportunity. And we’ve communicated that directly to President Saleh. In fact, John Brennan called President Saleh as recently as yesterday to underscore our deep concerns and strong condemnation of the violence that. And we’re continuing to follow it very closely and communicate at a range of levels with officials in Yemen.
MR. CARNEY: Chuck.
Q I just wanted to follow up on his first question. You keep saying you’re going to hand over this operation to the international community but you’re not saying how it’s going to work, NATO is going to be a part of it. You must have some idea -- I mean, how close is -- I mean, is that the holdup? Could you be handing this over in the next couple of days if you knew what the command structure was going to look like and how the Arab League nations would fit with NATO? I mean, what is -- is this the holdup for how --
MR. RHODES: No, I mean -- there are two factors at play. The first factor at play is that we are in the first phase of this operation. And very deliberately, we believe that in the first phase of this operation, that the United States and some of our particularly European allies are capable of bringing a set of capabilities to bear that can accomplish things that are unique -- so, for instance, taking out Qaddafi’s air defense systems rapidly, taking out his air assets, taking action to stop, for instance, the offensive into Benghazi.
So it is our belief that it is both appropriate and necessary for us to play, again, with allies a robust role at the front-end of this. So that’s point one.
Point two is, there is broad agreement that there is going to be a transition to a different kind of command structure and that the United States is not going to lead that effort, and that our allies and partners are going to take the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone over time. What’s happening now is an intensive series of consultations at the diplomatic and military level about what the nature of that command will be, what the different participations of different allies and partners will be.
So, again, these are -- what’s happening now is that’s being shaped by those discussions.
Q It’s the countries that showed up to Paris? That is the group of countries negotiating this command structure?
MR. RHODES: The countries that showed up in Paris, the -- you’ve also seen, frankly, a broader set of Europeans actually step up to signal their willingness to commit resources to this as well in recent days. So I think there’s a broader set of European allies that actually goes beyond those who participated in Paris. And NATO is of course a part of this discussion as well.
So what they’re -- what we’re doing at the military level and at the diplomatic level is formulating both the nature of the coalition and the contributions that different partners will make, as well as the operational details of what that command structure will be. So that’s being worked at the military and diplomatic level, and when it’s established we’ll of course provide you with all the information about it.
Q Jay, this may be for you, but it’s very hard to find a member of Congress to say anything very supportive about how this operation is going so far, whether it’s a Democrat, it’s a Republican, a hawk, a dove. A lot of discomfort being said publicly today and yesterday. Has the President made any personal phone calls to members of Congress? How are you guys dealing with this? And what do you say to a Jim Webb who today said there was no consultation with Congress, that they were simply told what the plan was.
MR. CARNEY: Ben will have some more details, but as I think you heard the President say and others, he did consult with members of Congress. He brought in leaders, had a meeting with them in the Situation Room that lasted an hour, I believe; others dialed into that to participate. And then on Saturday, deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough called leaders to inform them of the imminent action that was going to be taken.
We, as Tom Donilon said yesterday evening, we welcome -- we take very seriously the need to consult with Congress and we have been doing that, and we would welcome any action they took to show support for this --
Q What have you guys done recently, since you’ve been here in South America? Has the President made any calls?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any information on calls to members of Congress that he’s made. We have obviously given you a lot of information about some of his other calls and briefings. But why don’t I let Ben have some details on this and then I can come back with some other things.
MR. RHODES: Yes, I’d just make a number of points, Chuck, because it’s an important question. Just to reiterate, we do -- first of all, I would say that there have been expressions of support from Congress for the concept of a no-fly zone, the concept of taking action in Libya. With regard to our consultations, there were a set of hearings over a period of time leading into the decision that we made.
I think it’s important to note, for instance, that on March 1st, the Senate passed a resolution that condemned the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including the attacks on protesters, and urging the United Nations to take action to protect civilians. So that was an important expression by the Senate. And the U.N. Security Council resolution that passed, of course, on March 17th was very much in line with those sentiments.
In addition to the consultations Jay laid out, which include the bicameral leadership coming to the White House or joining the President on a call on March 18th, we also had an all-members briefing led by Under Secretary of State Bill Burns, who walked through in great detail on March 17th what it was we were pursuing at the United Nations and the nature of the resolution and its enforcement. And Bill Burns led an interagency team in that instance.
After the congressional leadership was consulted by the President, the appropriate oversight committees -- again, State Department, Defense, intelligence community -- were briefed by the officials of those agencies. So there have been administration-level briefings between administration officials and the agencies that are involved in the action and their oversight committees.
Again, today I think you saw, consistent with the War Powers Act, the President send a letter to the leadership of the Congress laying out exactly what our mission is and what we are aiming to accomplish in Libya, consistent with the War Powers Resolution.
Again, our view is that a mission of this kind, which is time-limited, well defined and discreet, clearly falls within the President’s constitutional authority. And if you actually look at precedent, for instance, Bosnia -- President Clinton pursued the intervention in Bosnia under quite similar circumstances. He did not have a congressional authorization but he did provide a letter, consistent with the War Powers Act. In that instance, for instance, in two weeks you had over 2,000 sorties flown by the United States. And there have been a range of other U.S. military actions, such as the deployment of U.S. forces to Haiti as well, that took place consistent with that notion the President has the constitutional authority to undertake a limited, time-limited in scope and duration military action, but inform Congress through the War Powers report.
Again, I think we share the view that we want to have robust consultation, and we're going to continue to do so going forward. So, again, we had the calls on Friday, on Saturday, the briefing through the oversight committees, and we're going to continue to brief and consult going forward.
But again, with regard to the specific question, an action that is limited in scope and duration is very much within the President’s constitutional authority and has plenty of precedent as well.
Q Are you surprised, though, by the reaction of -- so far -- and elsewhere?
MR. RHODES: No, I mean, I'd echo what Tom said yesterday, which is that we believe it’s appropriate that Congress take an active oversight role and active interest in what we're doing in Libya, and we want to be responsive to that desire and so we'll continue to consult with them going forward.
Q This is fairly negative, the negative comments.
MR. RHODES: Well, I think there’s been a desire for senators and members of the House for consultation by the administration, again which is entirely appropriate. I would say you have seen, again, expressions of support out of Congress, too, for a no-fly zone, for the protection of Libyan civilians. You saw a Senate resolution that called for precisely those things, which are also embedded in the U.N. Security Council resolution.
So I think that there has been support expressed in Congress for the action of protecting Libyan civilians, for a no-fly zone. Again, that doesn’t mean that we don't believe that it’s absolutely incumbent upon us to consult very regularly in a very robust way with Congress. So we're going to continue to do that and reach out to a broad range of members who are interested in this.
Q If Qaddafi were to stay in power in Libya, could that have implications for the Arab awakening? In other words, if Qaddafi leaves power, is that more helpful in fostering democracy in this region, do you believe?
MR. RHODES: Well, I would just say that our stated policy, which the President reiterated today, is that separating the military mission and its objectives, but from the overall policy of the United States government and this administration is that Qaddafi should leave power because he’s lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people and the eyes of the people of the region and the world.
And within the context of the unrest we've seen in the region, it would obviously be a healthy development that someone who claims the mantle of leadership and yet brutalizes his own people ruthlessly be removed from power or remove himself from power -- that would be a positive development, within the context of the unrest that you're referencing.
Q Just to follow up very quickly, this goes back to the debate that Chip was having yesterday with you all. Would a simpler way to say this be that if civilians or Libyan residents with arms are confronting Qaddafi’s forces, that these forces, under the terms of U.N. Resolution 1973, the coalition could intervene to protect --
MR. RHODES: I think that the U.N. Security Council resolution very clearly defines the mission of protecting the Libyan people. So, therefore, the target of this military action is Qaddafi’s forces, his military forces that are advancing on Benghazi and other major population centers, and the assets that he can bring to bear, particularly air assets, to, again, carry out atrocities or killings against his own people.
Everybody else, again, the rest of the Libyan people are not the target of this military action and by definition are being protected under this military action. So it’s focused on Qaddafi and his forces. The rest of the Libyan people are the people we aim to protect in this instance.
Q Is there an inherent conflict when the resolution says protect the Libyan people but the President says U.S. policy is Qaddafi should go?
MR. RHODES: Not at all, because essentially what you have is you have a different set of tools that you're bringing to bear to accomplish a different set of objectives. The military action that we're undertaking is specifically tied to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which calls for the protection of Libyan civilians and the enforcement of a no-fly zone.
That leads to a very focused military objective, which is to protect Libyan civilians, to stop advances by Qaddafi’s forces in the major population centers, to take out his air assets that could allow us to, therefore, enforcement of a no-fly zone so he could not punish his own people from the air, and to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Libya.
That is what the military operation that's underway is aiming to achieve, and that is something that we believe we're making very good progress on as well. The fact that we believe Qaddafi should go is a matter of U.S. policy, because we believe he has lost the legitimacy to lead and we believe that the Libyan people have lost confidence in him as a leader. To achieve that goal we have a whole range of tools set in place, unilaterally and multilaterally, that include tightening financial sanction accountability measures, assistance of the Libyan people, an international coalition that is united in sending a message to Qaddafi that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead.
So, again, the military option is focused on this very clear goal. We are not going to be enlarging the nature of that mandate. We are going to keep it tightly focused on what’s in the resolution and what we're enforcing. That doesn’t mean we don't have a range of other policy tools at our disposal with ourselves and the international community to, again, effect the outcome that we would like to achieve, which is to see Qaddafi leave Libya.
Q Two questions. The first is -- sorry if you can't hear me -- how worried are you that Iran is benefiting from unrest in the region, particularly in Bahrain and Yemen?
MR. RHODES: We have seen attempts by Iran to essentially wrap its arms around the unrest in the region and in some instances claim credit for it. The Supreme Leader made statements, for instance, after the Egyptian protests, essentially asserting that they were in line with the Islamic Revolution of Iran. But what we believe is, number one, we don't believe that's true. We believe, for instance, in Egypt these were very indigenous forces that -- Egyptian people who were demanding change.
Number two, that it exposes an extraordinary level of hypocrisy because ultimately Iran is refusing its own people the right to peacefully assemble and the right to free speech and has engaged in brutal crackdowns of its own. So Iran itself seems to fear its own people as a force for change within their borders.
In the instance -- but across the region, as I said this morning, we do expect that Iran will attempt to take advantage of events for its own purposes. Iran has a long history, again, of attempting to meddle in the affairs of other countries, a long history of regional ambition. So we always monitor very closely anything Iran might try to do, whether it’s in Bahrain or Yemen or any other country, to try to co-opt forces to its own interests.
But, again, right now what we feel is happening in the region is, again, protest movements that are, again, largely anchored in grievances of the peoples of the different countries and governments that are responding to those protests movements, and we'll just have to continue to closely monitor what Iran might try to do to take advantage of those movements.
Q The second question is -- the conversation at the press conference about the U.S. history in Chile during Allende’s regime, and the President said we need to understand history but not sort of obsess over it. But is it -- when we're looking at what’s happening in the Middle East today, you guys have made a connection between the two. What is your assessment of the role the U.S. played in democratic change in Latin America? Was the U.S. generally a force for good, or did the U.S. really get in the way or make it worse here in --
MR. RHODES: I'll say a couple things and then Dan I think should speak to this. I think what we've seen -- and the President spoke to this in his speech today -- obviously the U.S. has a very complicated and difficult history in parts of the region. It’s something that we've spoken about. At the same time, part of what has held the region back at times is kind of a constant refrain of the old debates of the past. Essentially redebating the ideological divisions of the Cold War or the different roles that were associated with that is something that isn’t responsive to the aspirations of the people of the region -- so that we need to understand history, acknowledge it. We have taken steps, that Dan can probably speak to better than I, to be transparent about the history of the region. But we believe that moving beyond history is what is going to be responsive to the aspirations of the people of the region.
Q You say we've been transparent. But what is the “it”? You haven't said -- is the U.S. playing a positive role or a negative role at the top?
MR. RESTREPO: I think Ben was alluding to over the course of the last decade plus, there’s been declassification of information regarding events like the events around General Pinochet’s coup against President Allende -- declassified by the U.S. government. Those efforts -- and there are other examples of that -- cooperation with the Truth Commission in El Salvador, the U.N. Truth Commission in El Salvador in the 1990s. So there’s a series of undertakings the United States government has done to help what, as the President noted in his address today, is an important piece of the successes of the democratic transitions in the Americas, which is an account -- the accountability mechanisms for countries to understand their own histories and to be able to learn from those histories and move forward.
And moving forward is an important piece of this. It is the -- instead of -- and the President, to go back to the Summit of the Americas in April of 2009 and to underscore that rather than relitigating the past, what the people of the Americas want today is governments and societies that are responsive, that help make their lives safer, that they can get to and from the school safely, they can to and from a decent job safely, and that are addressing the climate-related challenges, the energy-security related challenges.
That’s what the President has been focused on. That’s what the President is going to continue to be focused on -- you heard it from President Pinera as well -- of the importance of working on the challenges that lie before the Americas today and that the United States can be a positive contributor in building upon the democratic successes that the region and folks like President Rousseff, like the former presidents of Chile that were at the address today worked so hard to help create in their own countries. The United States needs to, and under President Obama is, a willing partner to help consolidate those democratic advances.
Q The question is what is your assessment of that time? I know you don’t want to -- I know you want to move forward, but I’m just asking you a straightforward question about the U.S. role at that time.
MR. RESTREPO: There are 34 countries in the Americas and at that time could cover 200 years. The U.S. has had a complicated history with different countries in the Western Hemisphere over the course of our independence. So if you had a long time, we could go through each country and whether the U.S. was good or bad in a particular decade or a particular century.
I think the important thing is, moving forward, is how can the U.S. partner with a region that in many ways has accounted for its past, understands its past, but is focused on its future.
MR. RHODES: I’d just add one thing. The facts are available through extensive declassification efforts by the United States and through some of the Commission of Accountability measures here in Chile, for instance, with regard to 1973.
I think an important point to underscore in the context of your question about, for instance, the Arab world, is what you see in Chile or El Salvador is countries that underwent a democratic transition and that the United States emerged as close friends and partners with a democratic government, just as we had been partners before those democratic transitions. So we were able to -- again, to both work through those democratic transitions and support them very strongly and work to consolidate those democratic gains.
MR. CARNEY: Savannah.
Q You guys have worked really hard to say that you’re separating the military objective, which is to protect civilians, versus the policy objective, which is to remove Qaddafi. But wouldn’t the most effective way of accomplishing your military objective of protecting civilians would be to remove the threat, i.e., Qaddafi, by a military means? I mean, is the distinction as clear as you guys are contending? Because if you can go after Qaddafi’s forces in pursuit of protecting civilians, why can’t you go after the source, the person giving the military those orders -- Qaddafi?
MR. RHODES: I think that if you -- there are a number of points that are important here. The first is, we are acting very clearly under the authorization of a U.N. Security Council resolution --
Q -- to protect civilians, to go after the person that is posing the threat to the civilians.
MR. RHODES: I think, as we’ve learned throughout our own history, there are very different -- a military operation that is intended to effect regime change in a country is a very different exercise than a military operation that has an intrinsically humanitarian purpose. There is just a different -- it’s very different in the eyes of the international community; it’s very different in the scale of what you’d carry out; it’s very different in how it affects how that transition takes place in that country.
So, again, we believe that the reason we took the decision to join this coalition and engage in military activity is because there was an imminent threat -- and this is very important. Qaddafi had already carried out attacks. His forces were on the move. Within days or hours even, it was expected that he would get to Benghazi, a city of 700,000 people that was the center of the opposition, that he had told he would show no mercy. If ever there was an example of an imminent, urgent humanitarian danger, we believed that this was very much -- was very much in line with that.
So therefore, we felt the need to take urgent action with the international community to stop the advance of Qaddafi’s forces and to achieve this very focused goal of protecting those people, of setting up a no-fly zone so that Qaddafi would not have the advantage and the air assets that he had been using against his own people. And again, to create the conditions where we can assistance to people so we can literally save lives and, again, prevent a number of consequences that would be very damaging to U.S. and international interests, including a humanitarian catastrophe, including the destabilization of an important region that is on the borders of several of our allies and partners, and including Qaddafi essentially ignoring the will of international community, as expressed in two U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Q I have a follow on that. Considering you’re seeking Qaddafi’s ouster via these other means -- so you’re seeking Qaddafi’s ouster via other means -- sanctions, travel ban, all the things that you have outlined that you have done -- what evidence can you point to that they’re having any of the desired effect?
MR. RHODES: Well, the initial evidence I think is -- and frankly, part of the reason why we believe Qaddafi has to go is that the Libyan people have expressed in many different ways their desire to see him go. So what you’ve seen is in the early days of these protests, large parts of the country essentially declare their own independence from Qaddafi.
Q -- the international community is doing in order to obtain Qaddafi’s ouster and how those measures are having any effect?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think they’re related, though, because when the international community signals through its actions that Qaddafi, again, is no longer a legitimate leader, signal -- so just to take some very concrete examples, when we begin to impose very strong sanctions and we begin to introduce the international justice and accountability measures that we have, again, that creates disincentives for people to stay with Qaddafi. You’ve seen the leadership of the opposition is in some instances comprised of a number of ministers that were in the Qaddafi government. The international community can play a very strong role in sending a signal that history is not on the side of Qaddafi; that people who are aligned with the aspirations of the Libyan people and the Libyan opposition, again, are going to be the legitimate -- have the legitimacy of popular support that he himself has lost.
So I think the international community can both pressure him, have a real impact on literally his ability to have assets, which is what sanctions do, but also the pressure and the isolation that he faces, again, creates a broader sense of momentum that this is not going to go in Qaddafi’s favor. And so, over time, tightening that international isolation, increasing those pressure measures, and supporting the Libyan people, again, I think makes it more and more of a sharp choice for both Qaddafi and those around him about whether he’s going to remain in power.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, I’m sorry, from the Japanese press, I know I promised --
Q Thank you, Jay. On the nuclear situation in Japan, the Japanese government has started to say the situation is stabilizing for the past few days. What kind of information are you getting from the Japanese side and what’s the latest assessment by the administration on the ongoing Japanese situation?
MR. RHODES: We are in very close consultation with the Japanese about their assessment of what’s taking place at Fukushima as well as our efforts to support their ongoing efforts to contain the damage there. Again, what we have been focused on is providing the support that’s necessary for the Japanese and also, again, informing our own citizens about our assessment of the risks that are in play.
So that’s why we’ve taken a number of precautions associated with the evacuation that extends to a 50-mile radius, associated with the authorized departure for dependents of U.S. government personnel. And we will continue to inform our citizens about what we believe the risks to be. And we will do so in consultation with the Japanese government. We speak to them regularly about both our assessment of what’s taking place and what we’re going to be telling our own citizens.
So those are the two tracks that we’re most focused on right now -- supporting the Japanese effort to contain the damage, consulting with them on it, and also alerting our citizens to our understanding of what we believe the threat to be to their own health and safety, and in some instances providing them with guidance so they can make informed decisions about what steps they want to take, be it to leave the country or the area that they’re in if it’s in the affected area, or other precautions that might be necessary given the circumstances.
Q What’s the latest assessment on the situation? Has it stopped getting worse?
MR. RHODES: I have to say, I’d point you more to the comments recently by Secretary Chu and others in the administration as to kind of our scientific assessment. I can speak more to the U.S. government actions in terms of alerting our citizens and consulting with the government of Japan. I will also note, which I did this morning, the President had a call this morning from Air Force One with Tom Donilon, Bill Daley, and also John Holdren and John Brennan, who briefed the President on our latest assessment and the steps that we were taking to, again, alert American citizens of any information that they need to be aware of and to work with the Japanese. But I think our Energy and NRC colleagues are better positioned to give the scientific assessment.
Q Coming off of where Savannah was going, it seems today that the President really tried to make that definition and separate the two, the military action on 1973 and the greater U.S. policies. Has this kind of gotten all mixed up to where the American public, and it happened so quickly, that it’s been difficult for the public and even members of the Hill to grasp the differentiation between the broader U.S. policy? And what kind of a problem does that --
MR. RHODES: Look, I think that the American -- I think that, first of all, like I said before, I think there was a broad recognition in Congress and among the American public that you had a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation. You had over a period of days calls for action coming from action that we took very seriously, for instance. And you also had a imminent humanitarian catastrophe that if we didn’t act, if we didn’t choose to act in the window of time that we did, we had every reason to believe that Qaddafi’s forces would have overrun Benghazi, and the worse-case scenario could have developed.
So with that context, I also think that what is owed to the American people, what the President believes is owed to the American people, is a clear description of what our goal is, because it affects essentially the cost to the American people very much. And we have been very clear to them that as part of an international effort, sanctioned by the United Nations with a clear and defined goal in that U.N. resolution, we’re going to bring a set of capabilities to bear.
The reason that this is a military action that is limited in time and duration -- in both scope and duration is precisely because we have a clear and focused goal and international backing. And that will then allow us to bring -- to basically stop the advances of Qaddafi’s forces and enable the enforcement of an effective no-fly zone that can protect those civilians over time.
So, again, I believe that the President’s view is very much being very clear and focused about goal is preferable to more broadly defining a mission, again, and having the United States act by itself or act in a more broadly defined mission that would actually carry far greater costs to the American military and to the American taxpayer as well.
So we’re very comfortable and being very clear about exactly what our military is going to do and what it’s not going to do.
Q -- message to the American public?
MR. RHODES: I don’t think so because, again, I think the American people would agree that we need to be very specific in what it is our military is trying to accomplish, and that’s what we’ve done. I also think there’s a broad sense not just in the United States but around the world that Qaddafi is now, because of what he’s done, lost both the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead.
That doesn’t mean that the military operation should be different than what’s prescribed by the U.N. Security Council resolution and different from addressing what was the imminent challenge and the imminent threat that caused us to act, which was essentially a government that was committing acts of violence against its people and different parts of the country was on the verge of taking the largest population center of the opposition, largest population center outside of Tripoli, and a leader who was telling those people that he was going to show them no mercy when he got there.
So, again, that's why we had to act imminently. And that's why we have this clear focus and international coalition that is joining us in enforcing it.
MR. CARNEY: I just want to add on that point that to act unilaterally in order to do some of the things that Savannah was talking about would be entirely inconsistent with the very clearly stated position of the President which is, what we have seen in the region in terms of the unrest in the populations who are demanding greater participation in their governments, greater democracy, greater freedoms. For the United States to become the prime actor, for it to become about the United States or the Western nations would be inconsistent and not the purpose of our policy because this has been -- it’s very important that this has come up from the ground in the region, in North Africa and the Middle East. So I think that that's also important to remember.
MR. RHODES: Yes, it’s very important -- and I’d one point to that. The Libyan opposition, for instance, when they met with us and with Secretary Clinton and in their statements called for protection, called for a no-fly zone. They expressly did not want the introduction, for instance, of foreign ground forces or a more robust military mandate. Again, they are the ones driving the change from within Libya. What we are doing is stopping the humanitarian crisis.
Similarly the Arab League statement called very explicitly for a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians, as did the U.N. Security Council resolution.
So again, I don't think that taking a unilateral action with a far more broadly defined mission is in the interests of the United States. What’s in our interests again is working with the international community to stop an urgent humanitarian crisis and then working over time through a set of pressure tools with a broad coalition to increasingly isolate and put pressure on Qaddafi.
Q I wanted to follow up on Peter’s question, which goes back to the Chip question from last night. The question keeps being asked, and you guys keep saying, well, the only legitimate targets are -- under the resolution are Qaddafi loyalist forces. I think everybody understands that. I think the question is what is a triggering event? What are the thresholds that would cause the coalition forces to intervene? They're not just willy-nilly attacking Libyan forces all over the country. And the question is would any violent interaction between Libyan forces and armed civilians or armed rebel forces -- however you want to call them -- necessitate the intervention of the coalition force?
And I have a follow-up.
MR. RHODES: Okay, I’d just say a couple of things about that. Again, the military actions against Qaddafi’s forces, we are protecting everybody else who comprise the rest of the Libyan people who have been endangered by the Qaddafi forces.
Specifically in terms of the question you ask, I think the clearest answer is the President’s own message to Qaddafi that was also echoed by other members of the international community when he spoke about this on Friday, and he said there needs to be an immediate halt to violence against civilians; that forces need to be pulled back from Benghazi; that that assault has to stop, that forces have to be pulled back from Misurata, another major population center; that that has to stop; that forces need to pull out of Ajdbiyah, which the regime forces had occupied and carried out acts of violence in. Those were the very specific conditions that the President associated with a cease-fire because those are the precise areas where we felt there were the greatest risks to civilians.
Again, I think what we’re trying to accomplish is to stop the assaults on those population centers and get the Qaddafi forces to stop their offensives there, their shellings of those civilian areas and their potential attacks on civilians in those areas; and then have a no-fly zone in place that can ensure that Qaddafi is not using any of his air assets or substantial military assets to launch offensives against his own people.
Q But if those rebel forces came out of those cities, that would be another scenario? Different from what you’re --
MR. RHODES: Yes, and -- I mean you can play out any number of scenarios here. And I think Tom was appropriate here yesterday in saying we do need some humility about predicting exactly what’s going to happen both in terms of how long Qaddafi might be in power or what the next step is on the ground. We have a very clearly prescribed military mandate that protects civilians and it’s focused on Qaddafi’s forces not any other armed entity in the country.
Q Can I just do another quick follow on another rather serious subject? Has the President been briefed about the leak or disclosure of several thousand photos of alleged abuses or posing by corpses of U.S. forces overseas? And is the administration concerned about what the impact of the release of these images could be?
MR. RHODES: Yes, well, we issued -- we have said that we deplore what is in these photos, that it’s absolutely outrageous what is depicted in the photos because we deplore violence against the citizens of Afghanistan in any form. And the President is aware of this. There’s also an ongoing legal action against some of the individuals implicated or associated -- or allegedly associated with those photos. So we’re also aware of that ongoing legal action.
And also this is an issue that we talk at various levels of the Afghan government about regularly -- not this particular instance at the presidential level, but President Obama has spoken in nearly every one of his conversations with President Karzai about the need to refrain from civilian casualties.
Vice President Biden spoke to President Karzai recently on a similar -- on the same subject, as well. So we strongly condemn and deplore any and all violence against Afghan civilians. I think we have statements to that effect related to these photos, and we’re also, again, aware and cognizant of the fact that there is an ongoing investigation and legal action being taken against a number of individuals who are allegedly associated with the photos.
Q Thank you very much. The BRIC countries today, they criticized the United States and the other countries which formed the coalitions and they are trying to make an alliance against the attacks over Libya. They say that these attacks are costing a lot of civilian lives. What do you answer me about it?
MR. RHODES: I’d just make a couple of points. First of all, the U.N. Security Council resolution that passed very clearly called for not just a no-fly zone but actions that would protect the Libyan people. And at the U.N. -- privately and publicly the United Nations was very clear that we believe that in the absence of actions beyond the no-fly zone, we wouldn’t be able to achieve that goal.
In that context, you had Brazil, Russia and China and India abstaining from the resolution -- not opposing it. And President Medvedev underscored that again today. So we believe that the resolution itself was very clear, that this was going to include actions that went beyond the enforcement of the no-fly zone to include actions to protect the Libyan people. And we share the goal of limiting civilian casualties. We are certainly taking every care to do so going forward. What we could not tolerate was the risk and level of increased civilian casualties at the hands of the Qaddafi regime.
And there’s one other important thing I just would like to point you all to, as well, because there was some interest about it yesterday in terms of the interpretation of events going on. Amr Moussa had a statement out today in which he was very clear in stating his continued support for the U.N. Security Council resolution and the need to take a range of measure to protect the Libyan people. So if you haven’t seen that, we can certainly get you that text as well.
MR. CARNEY: Guys, wait, wait, wait. We’re not going to do seven more questions.
Q I would like to know how many people have died there? Do you have any information about the casualties caused by the coalition.
MR. RHODES: Well, our military has spoken to this and has said that we are not aware of any actions that we have taken that have caused civilian casualties. Our military is the best source for that, so I would continually point you when it relates to targeting or the outcome of the strikes we’ve undertaken, I would point you to our Pentagon. And clearly there have been a number of casualties at the hands of Qaddafi over the course of the last several weeks.
Q Ben, do you agree that the need to protect civilians lasts as long as Qaddafi is in power?
MR. RHODES: The need to protect civilians lasts as long as civilians are under risk of attack in the way in which we’ve seen them attacked over the course of the last several weeks.
Q Do you think Qaddafi could have a change of heart, be in power but not pose a threat?
MR. RHODES: We believe that Qaddafi should make the calculation that he should leave. We believe that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead. We believe that the Libyan have lost confidence in him, so that's our continued position with regard to his legitimacy to lead the country.
MR. CARNEY: Thanks.
7:09 P.M. CT
August 20, 2014
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