Press Briefing by Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
10:45 P.M. (local)
MR. BLINKEN: Thank you, great. Well, thank you all. Thanks for being here. I know it's late. We don't want to keep you too long. In fact, we're probably not allowed to keep you too long, given some of the rules. So let me just cover quickly the trip -- what we've done so far, what we're doing tomorrow, and then try and address any questions.
This is the Vice President's third trip to Iraq as Vice President, fourth if you count a trip he made as Vice President-elect, which some of you may remember, in January when he came to Iraq as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan to get a baseline assessment of the situation in all three countries before taking office. And by my count, it's his 15th trip overall to Iraq, going back to 2001.
A few months ago, the President asked the Vice President to play a day in-day out oversight role of our efforts in Iraq. The President was determined that we maintain sustained, high-level focus on Iraq from the White House, and he asked the Vice President to do that, working very closely with the very strong team we have here, with our Ambassador, Chris Hill, General Odierno, and their respective teams.
And so evidence of that engagement and focus has been the trips that the Vice President has taken; the many, many phone calls between the Vice President and Iraqi leaders over the months; the regular engagement with Ambassador Hill and General Odierno; and just this past week, the first of what will be a monthly senior-level meeting chaired by the Vice President on Iraq with all of the senior stakeholders in our administration. Again, a way to make sure, at the President's request, that we keep a very close focus on Iraq going forward.
This trip was planned and scheduled several weeks ago, so as you know we're not supposed to talk about these trips before we actually get here. And the idea was to make a trip before the campaign really gets underway to get one more assessment by the Vice President of the progress that Iraq is making, the progress we're making toward our goals in Iraq, and also to discuss any problems that may emerge.
This evening, he met with Ambassador Hill, General Odierno, and their teams over dinner. He got a briefing from both of them, and talked about some of the issues. Tomorrow, he will see Prime Minister Maliki. They'll do a statement to the press after the meeting. He'll see President Talibani. He'll see the speaker of the Council of Representatives, al-Samarrai. There will also be a meeting with a cross section of political leaders: The Deputy Prime Minister, Al-Issawi; Deputy Prime Minister, Shaways (phonetic); the Finance Minister, Jabr; the Human Rights Minister, Saleem (phonetic); and the Oil Minister, Shahristani (phonetic). They are coming together with the ambassador to meet with the Vice President.
He will also be starting the day, I should have mentioned, by seeing the Secretary General of the U.N.'s senior representative here, Mr. Melkert, someone with whom we've been in very close contact. The Vice President saw him in Washington recently. He will see him again tomorrow.
And then just to fill out the picture, there are some people he is not seeing who would seem to be obvious candidates for meetings, and that's because he will have just seen them in Washington or will soon see them in Washington. Last week, Abdul-Mahdi (phonetic) was in Washington, the Vice President and the President saw him. On Monday, KRG President, Barzani, will be in Washington. And I believe a week after that, Vice President Hashimi will be in Washington.
So as you can see, we are covering the waterfront in seeing senior Iraqi leaders and talking to them about building the partnership that we're developing through the Strategic Framework Agreement, talking with them about the elections and making sure that they come off as smoothly as possible, and then starting to think ahead about what happens after the elections.
But let me leave it at that and take any questions.
Q What's the U.S. -- or what's the Vice President's position on, for a lack of a better word, the blacklisting of the Baathist candidates. And is -- are we coming to the table with, it should be this way, or what's the official line?
MR. BLINKEN: This issue, the question of the disqualification of candidates is an issue that the Iraqi leadership seems seized with. The Vice President did have phone conversations last weekend with Prime Minister Maliki, with the Speaker, al-Samarrai, and with President Talibani in which this issue came up. I'm sure it will come up tomorrow in his discussions. Let me say parenthetically, that was not the purpose of the trip, even though some folks have written that this trip was put on for the Vice President to discuss this issue. As I said, the trip was planned weeks ago.
But what we've taken from the conversations that he's already had with Iraqi leaders, and more -- especially conversations that our ambassador and his team have had is that the Iraqi leadership is seized with the issue, and seized with ensuring that whatever happens going forward, nothing casts a shadow on the credibility, legitimacy, and inclusiveness of the elections. That is the issue. For our part, it's not for any outsider to tell the Iraqis how to resolve this issue. They seem to be resolving it themselves. The only concern that we've expressed, and the Vice President has expressed, is not on the goal but on the process; that is, if the process by which they pursue the disqualification of candidates is perceived to lack transparency and fairness and credibility, it will cast doubt on the elections. And these elections are so pivotal and important for Iraq's future, that that would be a step backward. So that's the only -- that's the extent to which we've engaged on this issue. Iraqis will come up with whatever solutions they have to moving forward.
Q Are you worried about the effect this will have on Sunni reconciliations?
MR. BLINKEN: Again, if the -- if whatever process is agreed to is fair, if it's -- procedures are transparent, then there should not be a problem. The problem only arises if there is a perception that the process is unfair and lacks transparency, and that as a result of an unfair process that lacks transparency, people may be disqualified who at the end of the day turns out should not be. And that disenfranchises people and alienates them. And no Iraqi has an interest in that outcome. Every Iraqi has an interest in inclusive elections that give every community a stake in Iraq's future. So that's -- I think that's the only concern.
But, again, the main point is that based on the conversations we've already had, Iraq's leadership across the board seems seized with that concern and appears to be acting on it.
Q What evidence do you have that Iraqis are seized -- I mean, you keep saying are "seized" with this issue? I mean, from our perspective, it seems that they are seized with pushing ahead with this ban, because Maliki in particular has embraced it very wholeheartedly. So I wanted to know why do you think they seem seized with actually solving it, on what basis do you say that?
MR. BLINKEN: Two things. One, based on what they told us both in conversations with the Vice President and conversations with Ambassador Hill, and other senior members of the embassy team. Two, in the fact that the appearance is at least that everyone is talking to everyone, which is usually a sign that people are working toward a solution.
Q If these 500 or so candidates are indeed disbarred, if these people do not make it on the ballot, can the United States recognize this election as legitimate?
MR. BLINKEN: I don't want to speculate on what might or might not happen. Again, I think Iraqi -- our sense is the Iraqis are working on this, they are seized with this. They have the institutions to work this out. I might add that what we've seen in recent months is a remarkable story. If you go back to the problems that arose over the election law itself, the fact of the matter is the collective Iraqi leadership worked through the problem themselves and got to a solution. And based on what we've heard so far, we see the same thing happening here. So there's no point speculating on what might or might not happen. Again, they're seized with it -- they seem seized with the problem and are working toward a solution.
Q I'm just wondering how any of this, whether it's getting a legitimate government in the elections or this friction between the Shiites and the Sunnis, how any of this will impact the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the timeline?
MR. BLINKEN: We are on track to do exactly what the President set out. As you know, this past summer we removed forces from the cities. In August, the combat mission of U.S. forces in Iraq will end. And at the end of 2011, our forces will be out of Iraq. There is nothing that I've seen that changes that plan. We are on track to move forward on the plan and on the President's commitment.
Q Members of Parliament have actually talked about an election delay. That would be the circumstances in which a withdrawal would become problematic, because -- General Odierno saying that he wants 60 days after an election until he starts drawing down. There comes a timeframe when it's just not possible to get 65,000 troops out.
MR. BLINKEN: I haven't heard any talk of an election delay. To the contrary, the only talk I've heard is a determination to proceed with the elections on March 7th for this simple reason, not because of anything the United States wants or anyone else wants, because it's profoundly in the interest of Iraqis. The way that Iraq will move forward on building on the remarkable progress that's been made in recent months and resolving the outstanding issues that stand between them and a sustainable, stable peace is through this election.
Right now, moving forward on the outstanding issues is not happening because people are in an election mode and in a campaign mode. And until a new government is formed, it will be difficult to make progress on issues that are of profound interests to all Iraqis. And so I think there -- what we're hearing across the board is not only a desire, but a determination to move forward with the election on time. And I haven't anything to the contrary.
Q Yesterday, President Talibani gave a press conference, and he referred to a proposal by Vice President Biden. Could you tell us, was the Vice President asked to help out, by whom? Has he offered proposals, or has he just been giving opinions on proposals? And could you just explain what you mean by "seized," seized up -- seized, obsessed, what do you mean by "seized?" Paralyzed is another synonym.
MR. BLINKEN: We can get out the Random House dictionary.
Q I just -- it's --
MR. BLINKEN: By "seized," I mean simply that they're extremely focused on the problem and seem to be working on resolving it. And in terms of the conversations, I can't get into any description of what they discussed in detail. We are not proposing solutions to them. We are listening to them and hearing how they see moving forward.
Q President Talibani misspoke when he said, Mr. Biden is proposing?
MR. BLINKEN: I didn't see what he said. I'd have to look at his remarks. But there are Iraqi solutions that they're working on. We're listening to them. If we have thoughts or reactions, obviously we'll give it to the Iraqis.
Q Can you give us a sense of what kind of -- I mean, lawmakers and President Talibani have said this is Vice President Biden's proposal. Can you give us a sense of what shape a compromise might take?
MR. BLINKEN: I can't. Again, I'm not sure exactly what this refers to. We've heard ideas for moving forward from the Iraqis. These are not ideas coming from us, they are coming from Iraqis. And we've heard them. And the reason I was able to say earlier that the Iraqis seem seized or focused on the problem is precisely because we've heard from them their ideas for moving forward. And there are a number of them on the table, but I don't think it's right for me to describe them or characterize them -- the Iraqis, to the extent they're talking about this, should be the ones to talk about how they may be moving forward.
Q I think President Talibani said that the Biden proposal was to delay the de-Baathification until after the election, let everyone compete, and then possibly deselect them afterwards.
MR. BLINKEN: And, again, these ideas -- I've heard this idea -- we've heard this idea from Iraqis. And if that's what -- if they come to a conclusion that that is a way forward, that's their -- that's their decision. And provided that whatever decision they take and whatever process they adopt on the question of the disqualification of candidates is one that's perceived as transparent and fair and does not disenfranchise people unfairly, then that seems like a positive way forward.
MR. CARNEY: A couple more, guys.
Q Some Iraqis who have been disqualified say that they see the United States as the only stakeholder, the only entity that is powerful enough to bring them back into the fold. Do you feel any obligation to people who feel that way?
MR. BLINKEN: I would say, again, based on the past -- recent months especially, that what we've seen is a growing and significant ability of Iraqis to resolve their differences and disputes through a political process. We saw that with the election law. I believe we'll see this -- we'll see it again with the issue before them now, the disqualification of candidates. And so I don't think it's the place of the United States, or any other outside country, to resolve these kinds of problems for Iraqis, because they are demonstrating that they are more than capable of resolving it for themselves.
Now, the proof will be in the pudding. But, again, based on the experience of the election law, based on the very active efforts that Iraqis seem to be making across the board to work on this problem, I have some confidence that that's the way it will play out and that they will resolve this problem for themselves.
Q What I'm hearing from you is that the Iraqis are essentially doing -- going down that right path, doing a lot of the work themselves, and you are sort of staying away from any sort of plan that the Vice President might be presenting. So then, why is the Vice President here? If they are already going down that road, if you feel that they're making good progress, then it appears there is no need for him to be here.
MR. BLINKEN: This trip was planned, again, before this particular problem arose. We've been working on this for some weeks, if not more. Because the President is determined that we have sustained, high-level focus on Iraq from the White House, because he asked the Vice President to be responsible for that. Part of that, in our judgment, is coming here on a regular basis. And that's exactly what the Vice President has done -- the third trip as Vice President, fourth since he was Vice President-elect. We are trying to do this regularly, because as you all know, phone calls and conversations from Washington are one thing; being on the ground on a fairly regular basis is another, to really get even for a short period of time get the pulse, see people face to face. And that's what this trip is about. And we thought this was good timing, because with the election on March 7th, we didn't want to be here during the hot campaign period. But just before the campaign really kicks off, we thought this was good timing for a trip. So that's why.
Q So is he just observing, though, in these discussions, or is he offering an input in terms of -- some guidance?
MR. BLINKEN: He is -- if any of the Iraqi leaders with whom he meets tomorrow ask for his views or thoughts or reactions, I'm sure he will provide them. But the purpose of his trip is not to mediate this problem or to resolve it, because the Iraqis are doing that.
Q Based on the Vice President's past two visits to the country, to the tune of which differed markedly, does he feel in any way that he is walking a fine line this time? Because although I understand these trips get planned a long time in advance, he is clearly walking into a situation he hadn't planned on walking in to. How is he going to negotiate that, given that when he came here one time -- the second to last time he came here, he caught a fairly strong dressing down and told not to interfere in Iraqi matters from various senior members of the administration here? Whereas, last time he came, he was markedly different in tone. I mean, how is he going to negotiate that? Does he feel he is walking a fine line?
MR. BLINKEN: I think his tone and approach has been extraordinarily consistent through these trips, and in all of the engagement that he has had and that the administration has had with Iraqi leaders over the past year. And that is that we are strongly supportive of a sovereign, stable, successful Iraq. And our purpose is to build on the relationship. Our troops are coming home over the coming couple of years. We've already begun that process. But what's really happening is we're not disengaging from Iraq, the nature of our engagement is changing. And we building a more normal relationship with a sovereign country, including deeper ties of diplomacy, trade, investment, culture, education.
And so much of what he's talked about on all these trips and will talk about tomorrow, is for example, bringing the Strategic Framework Agreement to life, so that we can build these ties, and also offering the good offices of the United States -- if the Iraqis want -- to be a sounding board for any ideas about resolving outstanding issues.
Right now, as I said before the election, some of these issues that are still in abeyance, whether it's questions of the oil law or disputed internal boundaries or the status of security -- these issues right now are probably on the side, because until there's an election of new government, it's unlikely that there will be dramatic progress. But, again, he comes, he listens, he offers ideas if people solicit them -- that's what we do.
Q Sorry, can I just quickly go back? But are we now experiencing with this problem the hard road ahead that the Vice President previously predicted?
MR. BLINKEN: I'm not sure what that refers to.
Q He said that when he was here the second time past.
MR. BLINKEN: I'll have to go back and look at the transcript, but I'll take your word for it. I think but he probably said, and indeed what the President has said and others have said, is that we've seen extraordinary progress in Iraq. We are moving forward with our plan to change the nature of the relationship that we have with Iraq away from the presence of U.S. troops, and toward a more normal relationship between sovereign countries; but that as Iraq moves forward in this process, there remain difficult issues that if unresolved, could become problems. And they're the ones that I just listed.
And so we want to be as helpful as the Iraqis want us to be in helping them resolve these problems, because ultimately that is what stands between Iraq and a successful, stable, and peaceful future. So I think that's -- I believe that's what the reference is to.
MR. CARNEY: Okay, just one more.
Q With the conclusion of the deadlock over the election law, going back a little while, there was a phone call from Vice President Biden -- 40 odd minutes or more -- with KRG President Barzani, and then a short phone call from President Obama. And then, the next day there was a White House press release with certain language that the Kurds interpreted as having been a great victory. And other people saw it as some sort of restatement of American commitment to Kurdish autonomy, to Article 140, to a census, et cetera. And please go on background if you think you could share more that way. I'm just curious about what -- did that all represent anything? Is there any change in that? Is that just the Kurds playing that as a way to show why they compromised?
MR. BLINKEN: I can't characterize what anyone said about the statement. All I can do is basically reiterate the statement, and the statement was a statement of United States policy. And there was no change in that policy. So there was nothing new in the statement. The only thing, as I recall, that we may have emphasized in the statement that we hadn't talked about was the census, although we've been on record I believe for some time supporting the need for one. And both the Vice President did make clear in his call with President Barzani that we thought that moving forward on a census was important, and that we were prepared to offer our support -- financial, technical, and otherwise -- to make sure that a census got done. But the statement of policy that you're referring to was a statement of existing U.S. policy that existed before the statement was made, when the statement was made, and exists today.
So as I read it, there was nothing new in it. The only thing, as I said, that was emphasized, was the census, which maybe we hadn't talked about before publicly.
Q So you restated long-standing U.S. policy and Barzani climbed down?
MR. BLINKEN: I can't characterize what he did or didn't do. We had had a lot of discussions over several weeks as the election law problem emerged and persisted with everyone involved, including President Barzani. And at the end of the day, the United States did not resolve the election law in past; the Iraqis resolved it through a political process that was quite extraordinary. And that's what happened.
Q The U.S. impact was not --
MR. BLINKEN: You'd have to ask the Iraqis. We always like to think we're helpful. I think we were helpful, but they did it.
MR. CARNEY: All right, guys. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much. I hope we passed the audition.
11:20 P.M. (local)