The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Background Conference Call on the President's Commencement Address at West Point

11:15 A.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll just say a few things and then take your questions.  So in the President’s speech today he was focused on defining, as we come out of a period dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what the next phase of our foreign policy is, both as it relates to our counterterrorism mission and also our broader role in the world.  You heard him speak at length about that.  I’ll only comment on a number of things.

First of all, as we laid out yesterday, we have a commitment now and a decision about how to wind down the war in Afghanistan that involves keeping a force of 9,800 U.S. servicemembers at the beginning of 2015, and then stepping down to a security presence in our embassy in Kabul, as we did in Iraq, by the end of 2016. 

Having made that decision and that announcement yesterday, today the President wanted to discuss the counterterrorism strategy that comes next, what replaces the approach that was focused on the large-scale deployments that we had in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And he made very clear that that approach needs to match our resources to the threat, which has changed as al Qaeda core has been severely degraded, but other al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged in different parts of the region from South Asia to the Sahel. 

The President was very clear that the focus of our efforts must be capacity building.  We need to build essentially a network of partners across this region so that we can deal with the terrorist threat.  And we will support that series of partnerships in different ways.  In some instances, we will provide training and equipping.  In some instances, we will facilitate actions like we were doing in Mali for the French.  We have resources that range from intelligence to special operations to trainers.  And, of course, we will take direct action against a terrorist when it is necessary for our own security.

In order to provide funding and resources for this capacity building, the President announced that he will be working with Congress to establish a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion.  And the purpose of this fund is to make sure that we have the resources available, and the flexibility available, to support all these different missions. 

We highlight the challenge of Syria as both a huge humanitarian crisis and a growing counterterrorism issue.  And the President indicated that this additional funding will support, for instance, Syria’s neighbors who are dealing with a terrorist threat that crosses borders.  He also made very clear that we will continue to find ways to support the Syrian opposition.  And we have, as we’ve told you, provided different types of support, including military support, to the Syrian opposition and we are doing more to increase that support.  And that’s something that we’re going to continue to do going forward.  And we will work with Congress, as he indicated, to find ways to increase that support for the Syrian opposition.

Beyond counterterrorism, he laid out his vision for U.S. leadership in the world, one that is rooted in the United States strengthening existing international institutions and norms, but also working to establish clear rules of the road for emerging challenges from cybersecurity to maritime issues to climate change.  And you heard him highlight two of our key priorities, Iran and Ukraine, where we have worked through collective action with the international community to achieve our objectives.

And, of course, you heard the President speak about our ongoing commitment to promote our values around the world, both through support for democratic transitions in countries like Burma and in the Middle East and North Africa, but also through an increased focus on broadening our relationships and networks with peoples around the world.

With that, I’m happy to move to questions about any elements of the speech or any of the policies that the President touched on. 

Q    On Syria, could you give some more details on what the President means when he says he will work with Congress to find ways to ramp up support for the opposition?  Is the administration considering an open effort by the U.S. military to train and arm in some way the opposition?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, it’s a good question.  So, first of all, we have an ongoing effort to ramp up our support for the moderate opposition, and that is an effort that we coordinate very closely with our Arab partners and our European allies.  And we believe that the trajectory of that assistance has been upward and can make a real difference in strengthening the moderate opposition.

We also, as I indicated, are going to commit additional resources to the neighbors -- Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq -- who are dealing with both refugee and counterterrorism challenges.  But as we look for additional ways to strengthen the opposition, we want to review a variety of different options.  We believe, again, that strengthening the opposition is both the best counterweight to Assad and also the best counterweight to the extremist elements within Syria.  And we do want to work to review the possibility of the United States military participating in that effort.

I would draw your attention, for instance, to a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, the NDAA, which indicates support for and authorities for the Secretary of Defense to provide military assistance to the vetted Syrian opposition.  I think that indicates an emerging view in Congress that is supportive of providing that type of authority for the United States military to participate in support for the opposition.

So this is a conversation that we want to have with Congress as they develop their approaches, as we develop ideas for how to increase resources that can flow to the Syrian opposition.  So this is something, again, we’ll be discussing with Congress in the coming weeks and months.  I think the basic principle is, what are the best ways for us to provide support to the Syrian opposition; what are the different means of doing so; how can we increase resources, as the President spoke about; and how do we explore areas like authorities that are within that provision that I think was an initiative of Carl Levin, but also then drew broad support in the Armed Services Committee -- I believe it passed 26 to 1 23-3.

So this will be an ongoing focus for us as we head into the summer.

Q    After listening to your answer just now it’s still not entirely clear to me whether the U.S. will train an armed Syrian opposition.  Are you able to give a yes or no answer to that?  And secondly, the President talked about giving more support to Syria’s neighbors.  Is there a monetary figure on that support?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We have been very clear that we do provide military assistance to the Syrian opposition, the armed Syrian opposition.  We don’t detail the specifics of that support. 

What we’re saying today, in addition to that, is not only do we want to continue to increase the assistance that we provide to the Syrian opposition, but we do want to have this discussion with Congress about the potential for there to be a role for the U.S. military in that effort.  We would need authorities to do that, obviously, and that is what, for instance, is in the Levin provision that I mentioned.

So this is something that we have to work with Congress on going forward.  But again, we are, as we said, providing military assistance to the Syrian opposition, and it’s something that will continue to be a focus given both the need to counter Assad but also to deal with the counterterrorism challenge within Syria.

In terms of the neighbors, this would be a part of this fund, again, that is up to $5 billion to deal with different contingencies across the region.  So I don’t want to break down the specific dollar amounts for individual countries; that’s something that we’ll be reviewing within the administration and the Congress as well. 

But the fact is, we want a fund like this precisely so we have flexibility, so that if we need to surge particular resources to a particular counterterrorism partner we can do that, even as we have steady support in places like Yemen or Somalia for security forces and peacekeeping forces.

So it will be a part of that Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund that the President discussed today. 

Q    Just a little more on that counterterrorism fund.  You all are asking for that money.  What’s sort of the plan if Congress doesn’t go along and actually fund that counterterrorism fund?  Do you have a second idea how you want to approach that?  And would you call the section of the speech where the President talked about our role in the world being less effective if perception takes hold, that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens, the Edward Snowden effect?  And how much did the Edward Snowden leaks play into how the speech was developed?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Sure.  So on your first question, obviously, we need the support of Congress for any type of additional funding above and beyond what’s already established.  I think that, generally, we’ve had broad bipartisan support for counterterrorism missions in Congress, so we’re optimistic that this is the type of approach that can sustain that support as we discuss our overseas contingency funding with Congress in the coming weeks. 

Again, we also I think would say that this is substantially less funding than was required for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  So for instance, recently, at the height of the Afghan war, we were spending $10 to $15 billion a month in Afghanistan.  Part of what we’re able to do, even with the type of presence that we’re going to have in Afghanistan next year, is have a substantial drawdown in resources and funding dedicated to Afghanistan.  We want to take some of those resources and apply it to this type of fund for counterterrorism partnerships. 

That’s part of reallocating our resources across the region to match the threat.  The threat is not overwhelmingly in Afghanistan and Pakistan anymore; in fact, it’s much more dispersed.  This is an effort to reallocate resources to match the threat so that we’re spending less in Afghanistan and we’re able to dedicate more resources to the partnerships that the President talked about in the Middle East and North Africa.

On your second question, this is not a focus of the speech.  Obviously, the speech that the President gave at the Justice Department earlier this year dealt broadly with not just the disclosures by Mr. Snowden, but our approach to bulk collection and other intelligence activities.

What the President was making a point of today is we must hold ourselves to high standards as a part of maintaining American leadership; that the legitimacy that the United States has to lead the world flows from the fact that we don’t act outside of the international standards that we’ve helped to establish, and that the confidence of other nations and people that work with us is rooted in their belief that the United States has a commitment, for instance, to the rule of law and to human rights.

And again, as a part of that, we do believe that we need to give greater confidence to not just the American people, but to foreign publics as well, that the United States is not engaged in bulk collection for the purpose of conducting surveillance on ordinary people; they were focused on threats.  And so we’re taking a number of steps that the President outlined earlier this year to give those additional protections to citizens in other countries to provide assurances about what our intelligence is focused on and what it’s not focused on.

So this is going to be a significant focus for us in the next two and a half years.  And it’s a part of how we lead not just through our extraordinary capabilities in areas like intelligence, but in our commitment to use those capabilities in a way that people have confidence is not violating their privacy unnecessarily. 

Q    It’s a two-parter.  On climate change, since it’s a mention in the national security context, I’m wondering whether the administration is considering or committed to both framing the rollout of coal stuff and other climate change stuff in a national security framework, and also using that as sort of executive power authorization to do climate change policy. 

And then, I’m sorry to beat the dead horse -- I’m just a little slow -- on the Syria consideration of U.S. military to do some of the rebel training, can you review real quickly what you think Hagel can do now and what you think it is that he needs congressional authority to do?  And would the training be in Syria or in neighboring countries? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On the climate change issue, I think, broadly, climate change is a challenge that cuts across many different areas.  One of those is national security, because, as the President said, this is going to pose increasing national security dangers to the United States, and we’re going to be called upon to respond to conflicts or situations that have connections to climate change.  You can’t draw a red line, but clearly there has been an uptick in extreme weather events. 

When there’s a typhoon in Southeast Asia, when there’s a tsunami, the U.S. military is often called in for disaster response.  As the President referenced today, when there are refugees or conflicts over basic resources like food and water, that ultimately can have a bearing on national security.  So there’s a very clear intersection, we believe, between a changing climate and our national security interests. 

I think what’s important to note here is that our efforts domestically do intersect with our leadership internationally.  Next year, we are aiming to conclude a global climate framework agreement that has been a process of negotiation since Copenhagen in 2009.  Any successful international climate agreement is going to depend on many nations, including the United States, making commitments to reduce their emissions.  So in other words, actions that nations take domestically are going to have to be a part of how we build an international response, because everybody has to step up to the plate.  Of course, one of the things we said is we’re willing to take steps to reduce our emissions, but we need countries like China and India that are emerging emitters to take steps as well.

So the Climate Action Plan that we’ve developed over the course of the last year or so informed America’s commitment that we can then make as we pursue this type of global climate agreement.  These are steps that are important to take in their own right for the sake of the American people, and they’re also steps that will allow us to meet the types of commitments that we made in Copenhagen, whether you’re talking about fuel efficiency standards or coal-fired power plants. 

I won’t get into the specifics of those development elements beyond saying that they do intersect with the way in which we’re going to lead, as the President said, in pursuing this global climate framework agreement next year.  And that’s a big piece of business for us, and it’s going to demand U.S. leadership -- because, frankly, this is not the type of agreement that’s going to work if it’s only a handful of nations.  We really need the entire international community to make their commitments, to stand by those commitments in a transparent manner.  And that’s what we’ll be pursuing.

On Syria, I think if you look at the different options for providing assistance, the U.S. military would need certain additional authorities and resources to be able to step up with assistance to the Syrian opposition.  And you see in the language of the Levin provision that just moved through committee the types of authorities to the Secretary of Defense that would enable him to provide assistance to the vetted Syrian opposition. 

So that is something where there needs to be coordination and a dialogue between the administration and Congress.  That’s a discussion that’s ongoing that we’ll continue to have.  And again, that is one option available for looking at ways to increase support to the Syrian opposition.  We’re working across many lines of effort.  We provide many types of assistance, from humanitarian to nonlethal, to the types of military support we’ve indicated, to the Syrian opposition.  That’s one area where we want to explore whether we can come to some understanding with Congress about the best way to maximize our resources and to get additional support to the Syrian people.

Q    To continue on this same subject of the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, first, do you envision that as being both a Title 10 and Title 50 available fund -- in other words, able to do both types of CT missions? 

Second, you’ve talked a lot about the role that the military might play in Syria, and you seem to be focusing on a training role.  But can you envision emerging from these discussions with Congress something broader in which the military would assist in some ways in providing greater security in the zones that the opposition now holds in the north and south? 

And finally, you’ve said again and again we’re going to have discussions with Congress, we have to talk about this with Congress.  Has the administration itself made up its mind what it wants to propose yet?  It sounds to me as if you haven’t. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So on your first question, this is military funding title, so this would not get at the intelligence community; this would be for security support for a range of different purposes.  The President said a couple of examples today where we’ve dedicated some resources.  We dedicate resources to Mali to facilitate French actions with intelligence, with logistical support that is essential for their operations.  We train Yemeni security services.  We provide support to AMISOM in Somalia.  We equip Iraqi security forces. 

So these are all different missions that have a common thread of building capacity for partners, and the assistance would take place in that context.  The intelligence community has a separate budgeting process.

On Syria -- and your question overlaps with part of Margaret’s -- look, no, this is not -- we’re talking specifically about assistance to the opposition; we’re not talking about activities within Syria by the United States military.  That is not something that we’re contemplating. 

So I think the way to characterize the last part of your question is that we have decided that we need to continue to find ways to increase support to the opposition.  We have different ways to do that, both through our own actions, to the manner in which we collaborate with allies and partners in Europe and the Gulf, and we also want to consider whether an approach that involves the U.S. military could add to that capability.

So I think we’re looking across many different means that we have to provide this assistance.  And this is an additional option that we want to pursue with Congress and make a determination then about whether it’s the best way to increase that support.

But I think irrespective of that, clearly our trajectory is more support to the neighbors, more support to the opposition, more coordination with, for instance, the countries in the London 11, and then consideration of this additional alternative means of providing support to the opposition. 

Q    Yes, let me try this one more time, because I don’t think we’re getting a straight answer here.  Is it safe to say the White House has not decided whether to endorse the Senate language here?  Because that’s really the only thing on the table in Congress, and they’re quite clear that they have the Pentagon train and support and provide assistance to the rebels.  Have you not decided that yet?  Is that where we are? 

And if that’s the case, what do you say to critics who say, listen, you should have trained and armed the rebels two years ago when the entire national security establishment said, do so.  So what do you say to them that this whole notion of coordinating and dialogue is just delaying?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, first of all, we have been providing assistance to the opposition for some time now.  So we’re not at a standing start here when it comes to support for the armed opposition in Syria. 

With respect to the Levin provision, clearly we think that it puts forward a good concept, which is why we made a point today of indicating the fact that we want to pursue these discussions with Congress.  The fact of the matter is this is not something we can do alone as an administration; this is something that we have to do in partnership with Congress.  So I think that’s why we want to see this discussion move forward between the executive branch and the legislative branch. 

And we also want to make sure that wherever we land in terms of those discussions, that it fits appropriately into our broader strategy as it relates to how we’re working with the partners in the Arab World, how we’re working with our allies.  All these pieces need to fit together.

So this would be an additional piece, and we’re looking carefully at it.  We do think that language in the Levin provision is positive and puts forward a good concept, but we want to take the time necessary to ensure that we get this right and that we fold this into a broader strategy that supports our objectives inside of Syria. 

Q    On Syria, again -- what’s the White House’s sense of timing on this, with increasing evidence that the opposition is losing militarily after the fall of Aleppo?  What’s the timeframe for making a decision and actually beefing up military assistance if that’s indeed what the White House wants to do?  Is there a sense of urgency here? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  There are two questions here.  We are beefing up our assistance.  That is an ongoing process.  So resources are reaching the opposition, resources are reaching the armed opposition.  Coordination has improved with our partners in the Arab World, particularly in the Gulf. 

So there is that upward trajectory already.  That’s not in question at all.  And additional funding that can support that effort and support the neighbors is a focal point of how we look at building partnerships across the region, which is what the President said today. 

Then there’s the separate question of simply what additional authorities might be necessary for the U.S. military to participate in our efforts.  And that’s the question that we’ll be pursuing in the coming weeks.  But again, that doesn’t foreclose the fact that we are working this already, we are increasing our support already, we are coordinating better with partners already.  That’s going to continue to be the case no matter what. 

Q    I wanted to just turn to China and ask you, what is the message to China here?  I mean, we heard the President talk about the use of military action to defend the security of U.S. allies, which of course includes Japan and the Philippines.  But he also called out the U.S. Senate for not ratifying UNCLOS.  So what’s the message to China?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The message is that the United States is going to support basic international rules of the road that should apply to everyone.  And we’ve said many times our Asia rebalance strategy is not aimed at China.  It’s focused on strengthening U.S. engagement in the region, but also strengthening the rules of the road across the region -- whether it’s on trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whether it’s on maritime security where we would like to see disputes resolved consistent with international law.

So the bottom line is that the United States would like to see China act consistent with those rules of the road.  And we believe that they have an opportunity to do so, for instance, through negotiation of a code of conduct with the ASEAN countries or through taking the different claims that are at stake in the South China Sea to international law and dispute resolution.  At the same time, though, we are going to be very clear that we object to bigger nations bullying smaller ones; that the United States is going to support those nations that abide by rules of the road and work to isolate those nations that don’t. 

So for China we would like to see them as a part of an Asia Pacific community that is adhering to high standards of trade, that is resolving disputes peacefully, consistent with international law, that is respecting basic rules and norms.  But if China acts outside of those norms, as they’ve done, for instance, on cyber issues, we’re going to call them out.

With respect to the Law of the Sea, the President made very clear that part of how the United States shows our own commitment to those rules and norms is by upholding them ourselves.  And we act consistent with the Convention on the Law of the Sea, but it would send an important message for the Senate to ratify it, because that is the means by which we want to see disputes resolved. 

So, again, we lead on behalf of an international order that can uphold peace and security both by what we do in regions like the Asia Pacific and on issues like trade and cyber and maritime, but we also have to lead on behalf of that international order through our own example.  And that’s why we believe the Senate has long passed the time when they should have ratified the Law of the Sea.

Q    Just one subject that the President didn’t bring up and I was hoping you might be able to lend some clarity to would be the status of -- about a year ago, the President called for a review and even repeal of the AUMF.  I’m wondering whether the administration is planning to send Congress specific language in terms of fixing it, any timetable in terms of when they want to work with Congress in terms of getting that repealed.  And if you could provide a little bit of maybe a window into the administration’s thinking in terms of how to approach this subject.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, I’d say a couple of things.  The point the President made at NDU is that we shouldn’t just have open-ended authorities for the use of military force that continue indefinitely; that we shouldn’t be in a permanent war here; that the AUMF in 2001 was written for a specific purpose and time.  And I think in terms of the timeframe, we look at the end of 2014 as a very important milestone as our combat mission comes to a close in Afghanistan and as our mission shifts there.  And so we look at a whole host of issues as intersecting with the end of 2014. 

The AUMF, which was written in the context of us going to Afghanistan -- we’ll want to talk to Congress about the AUMF as we approach the end of the year.  That’s a good time to have that discussion because we will be pivoting from where our combat mission is today and the type of role we’ll be playing in Afghanistan after 2014.  

GTMO is another issue that is relevant here.  GTMO was opened, after all, when we went into Afghanistan.  And the initial detainee population was heavily weighted with people who were taken off the battlefield in Afghanistan.  So we believe, again, as we bring our combat mission to an end in Afghanistan, that this is an appropriate year to make a redoubled effort to close GTMO.  So this is the context for how we’re approaching the AUMF as well.  I think this is a discussion we’ll have as we get closer to the end of the year.

I think in terms of what we’re looking for, we’re not looking for simply layering on more and more and more authorities within the existing AUMF.  The point here is to not just keep expanding some universal AUMF that applies to every challenge.  As the President said at NDU, what we want to do is narrow and refine authorities so that they’re focused on specific groups that do pose a direct threat to the United States.  And so that’s the approach that we would take into this discussion, which is how do we make sure that we have authorities that are focused on those groups who pose a direct threat to the United States and not simply stacking on additional authorities in the existing AUMFs. 

So this will be a part of how we wind down the war in Afghanistan and pivot to a more sustainable and focused counterterrorism effort across the region. 

Thanks, everybody, for getting on the call.  We can stay in touch on these issues.  And the only thing I’d say in closing is we said to you, I think, in the run-up to this that we weren’t solely focused on one speech here.  The President will obviously be going to Europe next year -- or next week.  In Poland, he’ll be able to talk about our commitment to European security, our commitment to NATO and our NATO allies.  He’ll have a G7.  He’ll speak at Normandy.  Other members of the administration will talk about different elements of our foreign policy priorities.  The President laid out I think a pretty clear roadmap of the types of issues he wants to get done in the next two and a half years. 

And I think you’ll hear different administration figures speak to different pieces of that agenda in the coming weeks as well.  So we’ll look forward to staying in touch.

MS. HAYDEN:  Thanks, everyone, for joining us.  Again, a reminder this call is on background to senior administration official.  And, as he noted, feel free to be in touch with us with other questions you have.  But everyone have a great day.  Thanks.

11:55 A.M. EDT

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