Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 9/11/2013
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here at the White House for your daily briefing.
Before I take your questions, I just wanted to note, as many of you know, early today in honor of the 12th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the President, the First Lady, the Vice President and Dr. Biden led White House staff in observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn.
Throughout the day, the President, First Lady, Vice President, Dr. Biden and members of the Cabinet will be participating in a number of memorial events here in D.C., also in Virginia and New York, Pennsylvania and other states.
As you know, this morning, the President joined Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey at an event at the Pentagon, where he delivered remarks and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony to honor the victims of the attack there.
In the afternoon, he will participate in a service project to commemorate the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance. The First Lady will visit with military children and families at the new USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir. The largest center in USO history, the USO Warrior and Family Center supports wounded, ill and injured troops, their families and caregivers, as well as local active-duty troops.
During Mrs. Obama’s visit, she will participate in an activity making patriotic crafts with military children.
This evening, the Vice President and Dr. Biden will host a barbeque for wounded warriors and their families at the Naval Observatory. And, as I mentioned, members of the Cabinet are participating in events across the country, including at memorial events in New York City and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
With that, I’ll take your questions. Julie Pace.
Q Thanks, Jay. I had a question about the decision the President announced last night to delay votes in Congress while pursuing this diplomatic track on Syria. So much of the conversation about the diplomatic track has been from the administration saying that it’s only feasible because of the pressure and the threat of a military strike. But if you pull back on the votes, then don’t you ease up on the possibility of a military strike? Don’t you make that less imminent?
MR. CARNEY: What the President said is that he believed it was the right thing to do for Congress to postpone a vote. Congress is obviously continuing to work on this issue. And a number of members have begun looking at resolutions that might take into account the diplomatic avenues that are being pursued, and that is certainly worthy of pursuit. And we’re in consultations with Congress about that.
There is no question that the credible threat of U.S. military force brought us this diplomatic opening. Until two days ago, Syria did not even acknowledge that it possessed chemical weapons. We have seen more cooperation and helpful activity on this matter from the Russians in the last two days than we’ve seen in the last two years. And I think that is clearly because of the President’s forceful comments about the need to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons against his own civilians.
So we are doing the responsible thing here, which is testing the potential here for success of resolving this matter of Syria’s possession of chemical weapons and deterring Syria from using chemical weapons again through diplomatic means rather than military means.
Q Do you have a timeline for when you need to see some kind of tangible progress on the diplomatic front before going back to the Hill?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a timeline to give to you. What I can say is that it obviously will take some time. There are technical aspects involved in developing a plan for securing Syria’s chemical weapons and verifying their location and putting them under international control.
Secretary Kerry is leaving for Geneva, as you know, at the President’s request to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, where they will discuss this matter. And each side -- the American and the Russian side -- will bring technical experts, so bringing a team, a delegation to evaluate the proposal and to assess paths forward.
So I expect that this will take some time. But we also are not interested in delaying tactics. And we believe it's very important to hold Assad accountable.
What is I think very clarifying about this is, as the President made clear all along, the potential use of limited military strikes by the United States was in response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. It was not, as he said, an effort to involve the United States militarily directly in the Syrian civil war. It was not designed to precipitate regime change. It was around the question of chemical weapons. And if Assad's chemical weapon stockpiles can be secured and removed from his position absent military force, that would be a very good thing.
Q But I know you're not going to give us sort of a specific date for when you want something to be done by or want some sign of progress. But in talking to experts about this process, this is something that could take months, even years to carry out. So don't we need to give some sort of firmer timetable for when you need to see progress? Otherwise, this could just drag out and become a delaying tactic.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, let's be clear. This initiative has been presented only in recent days. We are deploying the Secretary of State to meet with his Russian counterpart in Geneva. And these discussions will take place.
Separate from that, there are discussions in New York at the United Nations around framing a United Nations Security Council resolution on this issue and on the removal from Assad's control of his chemical weapon stockpile. So let's be clear -- I don't want to suggest, because it's certainly not the case that we are interested in a delay or avoidance of accountability here. And there are steps in this process, if it were to succeed, and that is obviously a demonstration of sincerity and a verifiable way to secure the weapons and remove them from Assad's control, ultimately to destroy them.
And the fulfillment of that process would certainly take some time. But the implementation of it could begin obviously before its completion. And we're going to work with the Russians. And it would be irresponsible not to explore this potential diplomatic resolution of this very serious matter.
Q Could you talk about what the President expects from the diplomatic process? Has the United States seen the French draft resolution? And would the use of force in the failure of diplomacy need to be part of any U.N. resolution, the possibility of use of force, I guess?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to draft a U.N. Security Council resolution from here. That's a process that will take place up at the U.N. And we are working within the P3, with Great Britain and France on that, and obviously within the broader P5.
Separately, in Geneva, Secretary Kerry will meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov to explore the path forward when it comes to how we would go about securing Assad's chemical weapons, identifying, verifying, securing, and ultimately removing from his possession those weapons with the final goal of destroying them.
So this is a process that will take a certain amount of time, but it needs to be credible. It needs to be verifiable. And we will work with our allies and partners to test whether or not that can be achieved.
Q Has the President spoken with Putin since last night or since the discussions in Russia? And what does the President hope for Kerry to achieve with Lavrov?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any presidential calls to read out with foreign leaders today. The President hopes that Secretary Kerry will be able to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov on the Russian proposal, the very explicit Russian proposal to have Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile secured, removed from Assad’s possession, placed under control of the international community and ultimately destroyed.
And I think that it’s important to note one of the milestones here that was crossed -- there are several -- Syria saying, after 20 years of denying that they possess chemical weapons and refusing to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, suddenly acknowledging that they possess those weapons and suggesting that they would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention -- that is significant.
Two, Russia, after two years of blocking efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere to hold Assad accountable, broadly speaking, and hold Assad accountable for his chemical weapons stockpile, now playing -- or at least suggesting that it wants to play a constructive role towards preventing Assad from ever using those weapons again -- this is significant.
And I think that it demonstrates that Russia is now putting its prestige on the line when it comes to moving further along this diplomatic avenue. Russia is Assad’s and Syria’s closest ally. Russia has played the role of blocking international efforts thus far to hold Assad accountable. And the proposition that they put forward to deal with Assad’s chemical weapons presents a real opportunity, if it were to be successful.
Q Let’s jump around. The Brazilian Foreign Minister is meeting with Susan Rice today to talk about surveillance. Brazil’s President has asked for the full explanation about what U.S. surveillance activities have been involving Brazil, rather than sort of a drip-drip, as new leaks become public. What message is Susan Rice going to give the Brazilian Foreign Minister about surveillance this afternoon?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have a specific preview to give you. I can tell you that the President obviously spoke with his Brazilian counterpart at the G20 and this subject was part of that conversation. The President spoke about this in his press conference in St. Petersburg, and so I would point you to what he said. That's entirely consistent with what our National Security Advisor Susan Rice will be discussing with her counterpart later today.
We obviously, like most nations, collect intelligence. And when it comes to revelations on specific countries, we're not going to get into specifics about the intelligence that we collect, but I would point you to what the President said on Friday.
Q Jay, I wanted to get back to the speech last night and some of the criticism that the President received in response to that speech. Some of the polling that came out after the speech was not exactly excellent. Some of the members of your administration were taking to Twitter to rebuff some of the comments that were being made by various columnists. And I'm just curious -- when you go back to the speech, it seems like the President was saying we need action, but it’s not going to be another Iraq; but we're not going to put boots on the ground; but we don't do pinpricks. It just seemed like a tough case to make because there were so many twists and turns in the speech, that there really were just so many inherent conflicts in the speech that it wasn’t a clear case that he was making to the American people last night.
MR. CARNEY: I think your question makes it more complicated than it is. When it comes to the use of military force this is a proposed limited military strike, limited in scope and duration, that would have significant effect on Assad’s capabilities. But -- and there’s only one “but,” not three -- but it would not be -- and it is important that the American people understand this -- it would not be an engagement that places American boots on the ground. It would not be the kind of open-ended, large-scale military engagement that we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would not even be of the size and scope of the Libya operation, or the Kosovo operation in the late ‘90s.
So those are significant distinctions that need to be made. Because, understandably, as the President made clear, the American people and their representatives are, understandably and justifiably, weary of military conflict and wary of new military conflict. The President is completely understanding of that dynamic. And insta-polls notwithstanding, he understood going in that this would be a tough case to make. He has made that clear from the beginning since he announced that he wanted to go to Congress for authorization. And he made that clear last night I think in very sincere terms, where he addressed specifically one by one the concerns that the American people have.
He talked about letters that he received from Americans on this specific issue about this question of whether or not the United States should be the world’s policeman, whether or not it’s in the U.S. interest to involve itself in a civil war in the Middle East. These are understandable questions and understandable anxieties, and the President addressed them last night.
And the job that he set out to achieve last night was to lay out for the American people why Syria and the use of chemical weapons in Syria matter to the United States; why we are sure that Assad and his regime are responsible for deploying those chemical weapons against innocent civilians; why it is in, ultimately, our national security interest to hold Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons; and why the international community, broadly, has as its interest --
Q So what do you to account for the -- I mean, it seemed like there was a lot of negative reactions to the speech. How do you account for that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not sure that that’s the case. I think that the commentary that I saw reflected where the American people are, where commentators are, experts are, members of Congress are, which is conflicted. There’s very little dissension about whether or not a chemical weapons attack occurred; in fact, I’ve heard none in this country. There’s zero disagreement with the assertion that the Assad regime is responsible. There is zero [disagreement] that I’ve seen, at least from lawmakers, that it is in our national security interest to maintain the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
The question is do we need to take military action in order to enforce that prohibition. That’s never a desirable option. Prior to 48 or 72 hours ago, there were no diplomatic avenues open to resolve this. Now that Russia has put forward a potential diplomatic avenue, we are going to explore it. That is a responsible thing to do. But it remains the case that this is a very serious matter; that, in the long term, if unchallenged, if Assad is not held accountable, would make the world a more dangerous place for the United States and for our allies.
Q And earlier this morning, some pretty notable Republican senators came out and said that they would be voting “no” for authorization of use of force. And I’m just curious, as of yesterday, how did you think the vote was going to go?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think the President acknowledged from the beginning that this would be a challenge. We have presented a great deal of information to members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate, and we are continuing to do that today in briefings and will continue to do that moving forward. Congress has only been back in town for a day and a half.
Q Were there concerns about the vote not going your way? And did those concerns have anything to do with the President’s decision to ask for a delay of that vote?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s important to note that we set the speech, the President was going to make his case, and that’s the case that he did make last night. Part of the case now is the opening that has been provided here: the possibility of resolving this through diplomatic means.
But the President went forward and made the case for why we should hold Assad accountable last night. And that’s the position he held prior to this diplomatic opening and it’s the position he holds today.
Q Jay, did the President consider at all cancelling the speech?
MR. CARNEY: No.
Q Because the original intent when you called for it on Friday was to make the case for military action and to make the case for Congress to pass this resolution with both clearly delayed. No consideration whatsoever to cancelling?
MR. CARNEY: I would be intimately involved in that consideration and it did not take place. And the reason for that is that it is still very important for the President to speak to the American people about what he views to be necessary in response to this appalling attack by the Syrian regime against its own people; and to put forward to the American people the context of this discussion from his point of view as Commander-in-Chief and President, and to explain also the now potential diplomatic avenue that has been opened that could allow us to resolve this without resorting to military force.
So absolutely, the President -- we never considered canceling. The President believed it was a useful thing to do to have the opportunity to speak to the American people. And this is something -- gone are the days when even a speech like that is seen by the vast majority of Americans. And we will continue to have this discussion, as we have over the last several days -- or the President has -- through interviews in the days ahead.
Q And just trying to get a direct answer to what Jim was asking. Clearly, the threat of force, as you've said over and over again, helps the diplomacy. It's why the diplomatic opening happened. So if you could have gotten that vote from Congress, it helps the diplomacy. You asked for -- the President asked for a delay in that vote because he didn't have the votes.
MR. CARNEY: The President asked for a delay in that vote because we're engaged in diplomatic -- exploring a diplomatic avenue. And members of Congress are interested also in exploring that diplomatic avenue, as you've seen in some of the actions that they've taken with regards to potential resolutions. The President thought that was an appropriate thing to do.
What remains true is that the credible threat of U.S. military action is on the table. And it is because that threat is on the table that we have seen the kind of about-face from the Syrians that we've seen in these last several days. And we've seen the constructive approach that the Russians have taken in the last several days. And that remains. And the President made clear last night that his military remains on the same status that it was and remains ready to implement an operation if necessary.
Q But Dianne Feinstein said that she believes that Putin really wants to end this. Does the White House have a similar confidence that Vladimir Putin is acting in good faith on this?
MR. CARNEY: What the President said in one of his interviews is that we should approach this in the way that Ronald Reagan memorably did when he was dealing with his counterparts, and that is to trust but verify. It is simply the case that Russia has not been constructive or helpful on this matter for the last two years. But there is an opportunity here, and they have laid it out pretty specifically, for Russia to be helpful, to help create a scenario where we could secure Assad's chemical weapons, place them under international control and ultimately destroy them so they can never be used again.
And so I think that that -- it is absolutely the right thing to do and the responsible thing to do to explore this potential avenue. We, of course, remain skeptical of any commitments that Syria is making. The Assad regime has not shown itself particularly consistent in keeping its commitments, but it is absolutely the right thing to do to explore this possibility.
Q And then just one last technical question. Should this agreement also include Assad turning over his biological weapons?
MR. CARNEY: I'll have to defer that to the experts who are negotiating this, perhaps the State Department or others -- the team that's going with Secretary Kerry. What is obviously directly of concern here was the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. But I think that's a question that's worth following up on.
Q I know you don't want to negotiate the resolution here, but if you are asserting, as you have, that military force was an important -- the threat of it was an important component about this development, you certainly can't say that the U.S. government would be willing to take that off the table in the context of a resolution before the U.N. Security Council, would you?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we haven’t taken it off the table.
Q So that would be something that would have to be included, then?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I'm not going to negotiate a United Nations Security Council resolution. What I'm saying is echoing what the President said last night, which is he believes that absent the success of a diplomatic initiative like this that verifiably removes chemical weapons from Assad’s control, the right course of action is to engage in a limited operation, as we've described over these past several days.
Q But would not including that in a U.N. resolution increase this international buy-in to uphold the standard and apply a sanction to a country that used chemical weapons -- all consistent with the goals the President has set forth in --
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s simply too early to begin from here to pinpoint what must be in a United Nations Security Council resolution beyond a verifiable process for removing chemical weapons from Assad’s control into international control.
Q Picking up on that word “verifiable,” you are no doubt aware of the difficulties that many experts have raised in the last 24 hours about verifying removal of chemical weapons in many scattered stockpiles in the midst of a civil war. How difficult a task is that? And does that present practical problems that could be separate from the diplomatic language involved to make this workable?
MR. CARNEY: I don't doubt that this would be a complex operation, which is why it has to be verifiable, which is why Syria would have to keep any commitment it made to allow for this process and to facilitate this process, and why Russia obviously, as the nation that proposed this avenue, would have to engage directly in verifying it and making it happen.
I think that it’s important, as I noted earlier, to say that by making this proposal Russia has, I think to its credit, put its prestige on the line when it comes to its close ally and the activities of its close ally. And it’s clearly in the world’s interest that Assad give up his chemical weapons so that he can never use them again. That would resolve the specific matter at hand here, which is a point that I and others have been making over these past weeks, which is the issue of chemical weapons and their use in Syria by Assad is obviously related to the context of the civil war but it is distinct from our policy towards the opposition and the civil war itself, and the fact that resolution of that conflict has to be brought about through political negotiation.
Q And when you say “prestige,” what exactly do you mean? That Russia has to deliver Syrian compliance?
MR. CARNEY: I'm saying that every participant in this process would have a stake in seeing it bear fruit.
Q But you didn’t say Syria’s prestige is on the line; you said Russia’s. So what you're saying is this is something that Russia has to deliver on the world stage now?
MR. CARNEY: I'm saying that Russia has stepped forward and put this proposal on the table. A Russian delegation is going to work with an American delegation in Geneva on some of the technical details of it. There are discussions in New York at the United Nations around what a Security Council resolution would look like. We are very interested in having a U.N. Security Council resolution. And I think this whole process will test the seriousness of all participants, and it is absolutely the right thing to do to pursue this and see if it can bear fruit.
Q Lastly, you said you're skeptical. Are you more skeptical or optimistic?
MR. CARNEY: I think this is far too complex an issue to reduce to single phrases or words. I would say that it would be a good thing if we were able to resolve this through diplomatic means. Syria has not shown itself particularly credible in the past on these matters. Russia has obviously not played a very constructive role at the United Nations on these matters. But the proposal they put forward is very specific; Syria’s reaction to it changes the position they’ve held for years and is a total about-face from the position Bashar al-Assad held three days ago. And that is significant.
So it is absolutely the right thing to do to test whether or not this can be a success.
Q Jay, I want to ask you about Syria. But, first, another resolution -- the CR, the continuing resolution; the House may bring it up as early as tomorrow. There’s obviously something you may want to weigh in on before about health care funding being tied in there. But more broadly than a fight over that, does the White House feel there’s any progress being made on those talks at all in terms of preventing a government shutdown? Where are we right now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we clearly believe --
Q -- we’ve been talking about other issues --
MR. CARNEY: Sure. No, it’s certainly the case that we haven't had this conversation in a little while. But our view is that Congress needs to act to avoid a shutdown. Washington should not engage in an activity that creates more self-inflicted wounds on the economy, and a shutdown would do just that at a time when we've created, since the Great Recession, 7.5 million private sector jobs, when we've seen steady economic growth, we've seen improvements in a housing market that was obviously in dire straits during the recession. And we are continuing to make progress. There is certainly more work to do, and allowing a government shutdown for ideological reasons would be hugely counterproductive.
So we haven't seen any bill yet. Our position obviously is that we will not accept anything that delays or defunds Obamacare. Again, threatening a government shutdown over an ideological position is not something most Americans would believe is the right thing to do. Harming the economy to refight old political battles, to refight a battle that was waged and ended when Congress passed the law -- the President signed the law, the Supreme Court upheld the law -- is not in the interest of the American middle class. So we would obviously oppose that.
Q Back on Syria. There were several times you have said there has been an about-face by Syria because of this credible threat of military action by the President. How then do you explain Secretary Kerry on Monday saying that any U.S. military action would be "unbelievably small"? Was that a gaffe? Because I'm not sure Assad would think "unbelievably small" would sort of scare him to the table, would it?
MR. CARNEY: I took this question the other day. I think you weren't here. But the Secretary was describing the proposed military action in contrast to the large-scale, open-ended ground invasion-type operations that we've seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the President made clear, even the kind of operation that we were contemplating, that we are contemplating is not a pinprick. It would have a serious effect on Assad's capabilities, specifically his capabilities when it comes to carrying out further chemical weapons attacks. And it would have the effect of deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again.
And deterrence is a key factor here. The goal of military action is to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again, to deter their use. And the pursuit of this diplomatic channel, this diplomatic avenue towards relieving from his possession that chemical weapons stockpile obviously has as its ultimate goal deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again in the future.
Q Having said that, on Monday, Secretary Kerry also downplayed the idea that Russia could be helpful here. And more importantly, perhaps, Ambassador Rice gave an important speech on Monday where she specifically said the President "would much prefer the backing of the United Nations Security Council. But let's be realistic, it's just not going to happen now. Believe me, I know. I was there for all those U.N. debates." And I won't belabor it. But she said, I was there for two and a half years; Russia has never been helpful in this process. What has changed since Monday? It's only been 48 hours. Is this just a fig leaf to buy you more time?
MR. CARNEY: What I think has changed -- and I would point you to the on-the-record statements by Russian government officials as well as Syrian government officials -- is the threat of U.S. military action. And as I think has been reported and we've said, we have had conversations with the Russians -- going back to the G20 in Los Cabos, between President Putin and President Obama -- general conversations about the need to deal with the threat posed by Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. Those conversations continued in various forms between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. They were one of the topics of conversation between President Obama and President Putin in St. Petersburg.
But Susan Rice's comments and Secretary Kerry's comments reflected the reality that we had dealt with as a nation when it came to Russia's disposition on this matter. And it wasn't until -- because private conversations are one thing, but it wasn't until Foreign Minister Lavrov explicitly and publicly put forward a proposal to act on the need to secure Syria's chemical weapons -- to remove them from Assad's control, to place them under international control and ultimately destroy them -- that that avenue was open. Because prior to that, based on past experience, there was not a lot of optimism about resolving this diplomatically with Russia's help, given the role that Russia had played in the past.
Now, Russia has made this proposal. Russia is engaging with the United States and other members of the United Nations Security Council and other participants in this process. And we will see where it leads. It is certainly too early to tell if it will be successful. And there is certainly reason to be skeptical, and we are entering this with our eyes wide open. But it is particularly -- because as the President has said, our military commanders, his military commanders have assured him that the military is ready and that waiting for a certain period of time will not negatively affect their ability to inflict the kind of damage that we envision on Assad's capabilities, if that were to become necessary. We should pursue this diplomatic avenue, and we are.
Q Two other quick ones, though. If, in fact -- I've heard this line that for months these talks were going on with the Russians, talking about the possibility of them playing a positive role in Syria, and that this wasn't just sort of thrown out there by Secretary Kerry on Monday; it wasn't a gaffe, that this had been privately worked on. If that is true, why would you have canceled the summit back on August 7th? If all of this great progress was happening behind the scenes, why would you put out a press release under your name on August 7th, saying we're not making progress with the Russians, so we're not going to have a one-on-one summit with Putin, because it's just not fruitful?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I understand that some may doubt President Obama's word or Secretary Kerry's word. But perhaps the fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov or President Putin have said --
Q No, you said that we were not making progress, on August 7th, so we're not going to have a summit.
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all --
Q So how do you trust Putin now? All of a sudden, this is the --
MR. CARNEY: I just said in answer to your last question that we had made no progress. We were having these conversations, but there was no indication prior to Foreign Minister Lavrov's public statement that this avenue would be pursued. And it's a welcome development. But given Russia's past positions, there was very little optimism that Russia would take this course. And it is a welcome development that Russia seems to be willing to take this course, and certainly a welcome
development that Syria has suddenly -- three days after Assad himself denied possessing chemical weapons -- acknowledged that they possess chemical weapons, and now said, after 20 years of refusing to sign the CBW -- sorry, the CWC -- said it wants to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.
So there’s no question that these are significant changes from positions held in the past -- in the very recent past. But, again, the point I was making is it’s not just President Obama or Secretary Kerry who have said, or their aides, who have said that these conversations had taken place; Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin have said that these conversations have taken place. What they had not produced prior to earlier this week was any actual action towards a diplomatic resolution of this matter.
Q Last one. You mentioned the President’s words. Senator McCain, Senator Graham came out of the Oval Office after meeting with the President a week ago Monday, and they said then out in the driveway and then in subsequent interviews that the President assured them in private that he was going to make a bigger push on helping the Syrian Free Army, the rebels in Syria, and that this would be part of the public case. And that was part of the reason why McCain came out here and said that he was relatively supportive of the effort. Today Senator McCain is saying he’s stunned that the President didn’t mention the Syrian Free Army last night. What happened? Why were they --
MR. CARNEY: I think “stunned” is your words. I think he said he wished he had heard that. But if I could, Ed, we have always maintained that there is a distinction between a military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people and our policy of supporting the Syria opposition -- support that has increased significantly in recent months and that is aimed towards supporting the opposition so that it can withstand the assault that Assad has been perpetrating against it and against the Syrian people, and that will ultimately lead to a political settlement. That’s our position.
We had said and have said, and I say today that a military, strike, if it were deployed, would degrade Assad’s capabilities, specifically his capabilities when it comes to using chemical weapons, and would no doubt have an overall impact on his capabilities. But it was specifically and explicitly not designed to precipitate regime change. And it was not designed to begin a long-term engagement by the U.S. military in a Syrian civil war that can only be resolved, in our view, through a political settlement.
Peter, and then I'm going to move around.
Q Following up briefly on what Ed said, Jay. Let’s say that Assad gives up his chemical weapons, does that mean that he would get to kill civilians with conventional weapons for an indefinite period of time without U.S. action?
MR. CARNEY: The U.S. has been acting in its explicit and substantial support for the opposition in Syria. What we have said for two years now is that we're not putting boots on the ground in Syria; we're not engaging directly with our military in a Syrian civil war that can only be resolved through political negotiation. And that will remain the case even if there is a military strike in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. We've been extremely explicit about that. And the President repeated that last night.
So the fact of the matter is we support the Syrian opposition. We provide support to the military opposition. We provide substantial humanitarian support to the Syrian people. And we will continue to do that moving forward. We believe, as the Russians do and so many other nations do, that the only resolution here that we, collectively -- the international community -- should seek is a political settlement, because that offers the best hope for the Syrian nation, for the maintenance of a Syrian state, and a better future for that country.
So we will continue to work with Congress, including Senators McCain and Graham, on that policy. But it is distinct from a response to Assad’s chemical weapons use.
Q On the topic of boots on the ground, U.N. inspectors, when they recently were in Syria in their efforts to try to gather evidence at some of those neighborhoods and communities that were attacked, were attacked again at that time. I guess the question is, if there is to be some form of an agreement that requires the confiscation or the shutting down, the dumping in some form of Syria’s chemical weapons, the President promised last night there would be no boots on the ground attached to military action. Would there be no American boots on the ground attached to an effort to confiscate or to dump chemical weapons? Does it apply to that as well? No American troops in Syria whatsoever?
MR. CARNEY: We do not envision boots on the ground. That is our policy. And we are not participating in the Syrian civil war in a direct military way. We are providing support to the Syrian military opposition and to the Syrian people.
The process by which chemical weapons would be identified, verified, secured, and removed from Assad’s control is obviously a complicated one, and that will be discussed in Geneva and I'm sure in New York. And I'm not -- again, I don't pretend to know all the parameters of what that would look like. It would clearly -- going to Syria’s commitments here -- require Syria’s acceptance of the fact that it is giving up its chemical weapons. And that would require cooperation from Syria in making that happen.
Q So just to be very clear, so the pledge, “no boots on the ground,” at this time it’s too early to dictate whether or not that would apply to any U.S. involvement in --
MR. CARNEY: There are going to be no boots on ground involved in Syria’s civil war. And the President could not have been clearer about that on many occasions.
Q Final question, if I can, very briefly. NBC News has been on the ground in Syria. A Free Syrian Army commander told us immediately after the President’s remarks, “Bashar al-Assad won this battle.” He said, “The U.S. doesn’t seem to care about Syrian losses. There will be more victims and more destruction.” What do you say to the Free Syrian Army?
MR. CARNEY: I say that this administration, the United States supports the Syrian opposition and has provided stepped-up support to the Syrian opposition, and will continue to do that.
But we have been explicit that the military response contemplated had to do with Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It was never envisioned as a means by which the United States would engage directly, militarily in the Syrian civil war. It is a proposed limited strike, limited in scope and time, designed specifically as a response to hold Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Margaret, and then Carol.
Q Thanks, Jay. Does the prospect of this diplomatic resolution now allow the White House to refocus more of its attention with Congress on the domestic agenda? And besides the debt ceiling and Obamacare, what are sort of those issues you want to get back to? And could you also help me to understand whether the path that this thing is taking with Syria is likely to make -- to strengthen or to weaken the President’s hand? In other words, do you think that Republicans will see it as he blinked and he’ll continue to blink if they do standoffs with him? Or do you think they will see it as he sought our vote on authorization and he wants to be cooperative and we should be cooperative?
MR. CARNEY: He, being?
Q The President of the United States.
MR. CARNEY: I'll try that one first and get to your other question. I think members of Congress understand -- Republican and Democrat -- that it was the credible threat of U.S. military action that led to the opening of this diplomatic avenue. There is no other explanation behind this rather remarkable change of position by the Syrians, and no other explanation behind the decision by the Russians to seek a diplomatic resolution of the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. And I think that members of Congress understand that.
So what they see through their eyes, you’ll have to ask them. But I think a number of them have noted that, and that is why we have to keep the pressure on.
When it comes to other matters, there’s no question that Syria has consumed a lot of attention here in Washington, around the country, around the world. That's the way these things are. The President remains committed to pushing forward on an economic agenda that creates a better bargain for the middle class, that focuses on middle-class security, the opportunities of providing education to America’s children, and to making the necessary investments in our economy so that we can continue to grow out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
And absolutely, the President will be focusing on those issues in the coming weeks and months, because they’re so important to the American people and they’re so vital to the long-term future of this country.
Q Can I just clarify? So are you saying, on that other question, that you think that Syria has no impact on this domestic political hand, or weakens, or strengthens it?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to make a political assessment. I think that what the President has been discussing here and what he has sought from Congress is a sincere debate about whether or not Congress should authorize the use of force in this case -- a debate that ideally sets aside political affiliation and focuses on the stakes for the United States, the consequences of not upholding this prohibition against chemical weapons use, and the risks of acting and the risks of not acting.
And I think we've seen a healthy debate. I don't think it’s been completely devoid of politics, but I think generally it’s been healthy. And the President appreciates that. And you’ve seen his administration at every level engage with Congress in any way that it can to provide more information about this very important issue.
Q And just, sorry -- we understand from the Russians that Russia has submitted to the U.S. the plan -- an initial plan for Syria. Do you have any reaction to that initial plan? Have you released the text, or are you releasing the text?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think there are -- I know there are conversations ongoing and paper being exchanged. I don't know that there’s a formal plan to present anywhere. I think that the United Nations Security Council will be meeting. I know that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov will be meeting with substantial teams in Geneva. I think we're not at the stage of putting down public pieces of paper.
Carol, and then Mara.
Q I want to go back to the timing question. You’ve said a number of times it will take -- the diplomatic process will take some time, a certain amount of time. Isn't that just stating the obvious?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q So can you put a little sharper point on that? I mean, you're asking -- you have a President out there addressing the American people in a primetime address and saying this is a national security threat and that he’s going to take this opportunity -- he wants the American people to give him time to do this. So what are people supposed to expect? Are you talking days, weeks?
MR. CARNEY: The timeline for this, appropriately, will be worked out at the United Nations Security Council. The P5 is meeting this afternoon, as I understand it. And then other aspects of this, more technical aspects, the implementation aspects of it will be discussed in Geneva between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov and their teams.
So I'm not going to place a timeline on it except that, as I said earlier, we're not interested in delay or avoidance. We have ample reason to be skeptical about Syria’s commitments and intentions. But you don't negotiate these kinds of things with partners that have always been willing, or with interlocutors that have always been helpful. You wouldn't have to. These kinds of things come about because, in this case, pressure has been placed on Syria to change its position. And Russia has decided to put forward what could be a very positive path forward to resolve this diplomatically. But we're not there yet and that's going to take some time.
Q Just two other quick things. When you say that you're not interested in delay and avoidance, what types of benchmarks or what are you looking for? And what would signal delay and avoidance? And at what point do you cut ties and go back to Congress and ask for authorization for force?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I'm not going to place a date on it or a time limit on it. I think that over the course of our discussions in New York and Geneva and what continues out of those discussions -- because I don't want to suggest that all of this could possibly be wrapped up by Friday; let me assure you that it won't be. But we will begin to see how serious the opportunity is here, how committed the participants are in making this happen. And we'll be able to make assessments as this process moves forward.
Q And then, lastly, just -- it also has to do with the timing. On Russia's involvement in this, do you guys feel like while they're involved and engaged in this -- as a former White House Chief of Staff might say, they have skin in the game -- does that give you confidence that Assad will not use chemical weapons again because it would embarrass President Putin?
MR. CARNEY: I think it's impossible to know with certainty. But it is certainly the case that Russia has been Assad's closest ally. Russia has essentially protected Assad from being held accountable by the international community, by the United Nations Security Council. Assad depends on Russia in many ways for support. And so it stands to reason, based on all those facts, that Assad would care about the position that Russia holds on this specific matter.
And we've seen that. Russia makes a proposal; Syria has accepted it. Syria has volunteered the possibility that it might sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. I don't think any of Syria's actions would have taken place prior to Russia putting forward its proposed solution. And how that relationship plays out as these diplomatic discussions are being held is certainly one that will be fascinating to watch for everyone.
Q It sounds like you have some confidence in that.
MR. CARNEY: I think that the logical assessment based on the relationship is that there will be some coordination. But it's impossible to know for sure.
Q Both supporters and opponents of the resolution in Congress all say that you're right to pursue this diplomatic opening, whether it pans out or not. If it doesn’t -- which I guess is the greater likelihood here -- do you feel that your hand would be strengthened to get Democratic votes for a resolution?
MR. CARNEY: I just wouldn't guess about what a vote count might look like in the aftermath of the pursuit of this diplomatic opening. And I certainly wouldn't get into hypotheticals about whether it succeeds or fails or anything like that. I think that this is a tough issue. The President knew it was going to be a tough issue. He knew it was going to be a challenge when he decided that it was the right thing to do to ask Congress for authorization.
He knew and knows and understands that the American people are extremely reluctant to get the United States involved again militarily in the Middle East -- not just in the Middle East, but anywhere. But as someone who deeply understands that, and who has spent four and a half years as President getting us out of wars, he believes in the case that he made last night, and I think he understands why there's reluctance and why there's anxiety about potentially striking Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons.
But he views this as something that has long-term implications for U.S. national security, long-term implications for U.S. troops serving in theater in the future. If the Chemical Weapons Convention and the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons unravels, and Assad is allowed to use them again without repercussions and others see that, and we begin to see the use of chemical weapons in other areas and the potential proliferation of chemical weapons to non-state bad actors, there are potentially hugely negative consequences for the United States and for other nations in the region.
Q Does that mean that U.S. prestige is on the line, as well as Russia's?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the United States leads in these situations, and it's not always popular and it's not always comfortable. But we are a unique nation in many ways, the oldest constitutional democracy. And the responsibilities that we bear when there are crises around the world are unique. But it is also part of our democratic process and the President's views that we have an open debate about it; that we in this case, because the circumstances allow it, that we have a debate in Congress and a vote potentially on authorization of military force.
Q Just one practical question. When Secretary Kerry made his off-the-cuff remarks in London, the last thing he said was it can’t be done, on a practical level it cannot be done; can't get these weapons out of a place that's in the midst of a civil war. Is that still your conclusion? Or have you come to a conclusion on whether it's physically possible to do?
MR. CARNEY: Certainly, it's possible.
Q In the midst of a civil war?
MR. CARNEY: And the fact that it's a challenge -- certainly, you're not suggesting or no one would suggest that because it's difficult we shouldn’t pursue it.
Q No, we're not suggesting that.
MR. CARNEY: Because it would certainly achieve our goal, and the international community's goal, to take those chemical weapon stockpiles away from Assad, place them under international control and dispose of them. That would be an enormous accomplishment -- one of the largest stockpiles in the world under the control of a regime that has been willing to use them.
I'm sorry, Margaret.
Q Have you come to a conclusion about whether you need a ceasefire to do it? Have you come to any conclusions?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think you're talking about mechanics that are going to be negotiated by experts, that are going to be negotiated at the United Nations Security Council in Geneva between the Russian and U.S. delegations and elsewhere. But I accept the assessments by experts that this kind of thing isn't easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't pursue it, because it's obviously a preferable alternative and it achieves the goal that we set out, which is to deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future to make it clear to him that there are enormous consequences to using those chemical weapons. And if we can achieve diplomatically that goal without a strike, that would be a good thing.
Q Jay, two quick questions. First, you said earlier that there is no question that the threat of force led to this potential outcome. And the timing on that is confusing, because two weeks ago when it seemed like force was imminent, it seemed like the President was ready to strike; the Syrians nor the Russians relented. This week, when it looked like congressional and public opinion was moving against the use of force, making such use even more difficult arguably, they finally relented. Can you square that circle?
MR. CARNEY: I think that you're viewing this through a particular Washington and American lens. I think that there is no question, based on what the Russians have said and the Syrians have said and what we know, that the credible threat of U.S. military action precipitated this. And I'm not sure what other source you ascribe it to or it could possibly be. The fact of the matter is the President made clear that even when he decided to go to Congress, that he believes he as Commander-in-Chief and President retains the authority to use a U.S. military strike in defense of our national interests. And that remains the case today.
But he believed -- because the threat wasn't imminent, the threat posed by Assad's use of chemical weapons -- that it was the right thing to do to seek congressional authorization. So I don't think there’s any doubt that the credible threat of force has produced this change in dynamic.
Q And, secondly, the President invoked the Holocaust, international law, crimes against humanity last night in connection to the chemical weapons attack by Assad. In that context, did the President -- had the President concluded that Assad would constitute a war criminal and should be brought before the ICC for prosecution?
MR. CARNEY: That's obviously a distinct matter that was not a focus of the President’s remarks. It’s a not a focus of the discussion right now about using military force in response to the use of chemical weapons or pursuing the diplomatic opening that is currently being explored. So I would leave that for discussions in the future.
Q Thank you, Jay. I just wonder if you would agree with the assessment that there’s been a zig-zag quality to the foreign policy at the White House over the last couple of weeks? I mean, the President was --
MR. CARNEY: Is that a shout-out to Politico? (Laughter.)
Q Well, it’s a good phrase. (Laughter.) It seems apt.
MR. CARNEY: It seems like a cliché to me. But --
Q Okay, well, I mean, how would you put it? First, the President was talking about international law, then he was talking about norms, then it looked like strikes were imminent, then diplomatic -- this diplomatic solution was being pursued. I mean, do you agree that maybe --
MR. CARNEY: And so this approach that has engendered these analyses and criticism and stuff has led to what today?
Q Well --
MR. CARNEY: A complete about-face by the Syrian regime, an acknowledgement for the first time in its existence that they hold chemical weapons --
Q A complete about-face?
MR. CARNEY: On it’s possession of chemical weapons -- true or not?
Q Well, they're saying they're going to turn them over. Have you seen them?
MR. CARNEY: Hey, Ed, we can debate on “Crossfire” one day when we’re both out of our current jobs. (Laughter.) But the --
Q We can arrange that. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Jim is going to set us up. We’ll talk to Stephanie and Newt.
But they have completely changed their position about whether they possess chemical weapons. Syrian government officials aren’t only acknowledging they possess them, they're talking explicitly about why they had them and how they fit into their military arsenal. That is a --
Q They're still not taking responsibility for the attack on the 21st, right? That's not a complete about-face.
MR. CARNEY: I didn't say that. And I --
Q Well, you’re saying a “complete about-face.” And they're saying they're going to --
MR. CARNEY: Ed, let’s save it for “Crossfire.” But on the issues of whether or not Syria possesses -- even Andrei would agree with this -- that Syria possess chemical weapons, it’s true --
Q Okay, but what you’re saying is that you’ve ended up in a good place. Would you agree that you’ve sort of zig-zagged your way to it?
MR. CARNEY: I think that there have been developments along the way that have obviously affected how everyone views this matter. What has been -- where the President has been consistent is that we cannot, in his view, as a nation or as a responsible international community, accept the flagrant violation of a prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Because there’s a price to be paid for that.
And these are hard choices. And I think in his address last night, the President made clear that he understands how hard these choices are. But he also made clear why he believes deeply that we have to hold Assad accountable for gassing his own people, for killing his own nation’s children in their beds merely to retain his grasp on power.
Q But none of those facts changed while the President was changing some -- his approach to it, right? I mean, the international law versus the international norm argument changed while the facts didn't change.
MR. CARNEY: You’re talking about language here.
Q Or the “unbelievably small” strike versus --
MR. CARNEY: It’s a chemical -- what language you use to describe it, there is an international prohibition enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention signed by 189 nations, representing 98 percent of the world’s population that prohibits the use of chemical weapons. You can call it a norm or a law, it’s a standard ascribed to by almost the entire world. And Assad violated it, and that's a serious thing. And that's the approach the President has taken.
Obviously, when it comes to the change in direction associated with this diplomatic initiative, we acknowledge that and we think it’s a good thing, potentially. Although we’re healthily skeptical about the process and about the participants given the track record. But it is absolutely the right thing to explore it. It would be irresponsible not to explore it.
Q Spasibo. Spasibo, Jay. Last night, the President referred to this new opening as coming in part from his prior constructive talks with Putin. Frankly, it is not how you described those talks for us. So if you could explain to us what he meant by saying the talks were constructive, that would be helpful for me.
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q And also, does the President intend to keep being engaged -- personally engaged in the process?
MR. CARNEY: I can answer the second one -- yes.
And in the first, I accept your point. And the point I was making is that even though they were useful and constructive conversations that date all the way back to Los Cabos, what we had not seen -- fair to say -- from the Russians prior to this week was a proposal for action to resolve the fact that its close ally, the Assad regime, possesses chemical weapons, and that those chemical weapons potentially represent a threat not just to the Syrian people, as we’ve already seen, but to people around the region, including potentially the Russian people and the American people.
But the President’s conversation with President Putin in St. Petersburg was constructive, as the President said that day. And it was constructive on this subject and on other subjects. And I take your point, and I accept that. And Foreign Minister Lavrov, Secretary Lavrov has had, in our view, constructive conversations on this issue with Secretary Kerry.
What we had not seen until this week was a willingness by the Russians to actually move forward and act, because obviously they play a very important role in this dynamic given their relationship with Damascus.
Q And then, secondly, if I may, another point. Does this new opening and the new feeling of rapport between our nations, does this mean that the Russian arguments on the Syrian issue will now get a new look from Washington? What I specifically mean is the Russians have been saying throughout that they doubt that the picture of events as presented by the Syrian rebels and by Washington, by the way, is completely accurate and borne out by the facts. They have produced their own report of a different chemical attack in Aleppo in March, and they have submitted it for the Security Council at the U.N. Will you now -- well, will the experts now be looking at all the evidence at hand, or are we still focused on --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll say this, Andrei, there was a U.N. inspection team that was fired upon and almost not allowed to visit the sites of the attacks on August the 21st, but they have obviously been able to conduct an inspection. And we await, as the Russians do and others do, the results of that report.
We think, and we’ve seen no credible suggestion to the contrary, that it’s undeniable that there was a chemical weapons attack that night, and we think that the evidence is overwhelming that Assad and his regime were responsible for it.
All of these matters, I think, when it comes to other instances of chemical weapons use, appropriately should be reviewed by the United Nations. And we have always supported that.
Unfortunately, what we have seen by and large has been a refusal of the Assad regime to allow inspections; or in the case of the August 21st events, an effort to delay the inspection so that they could bomb those neighborhoods as much as possible in an effort to destroy evidence. But we're in a slightly different place now. And we hope that this process bears some fruit.
Thanks very much.
1:56 P.M. EDT
March 23, 2015
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