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Press Gaggle by Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes aboard Air Force One en route Fort Bliss, Texas

Aboard Air Force One, En Route Fort Bliss, Texas

11:40 A.M. EDT

MR. BURTON:  Thanks for joining us on this flight to Fort Bliss.  Just for starters, the President did speak with President Bush this morning.  We won’t be reading that call out, but they did speak on Air Force One.

And with that, Ben, if you want to talk a little bit about today’s speech, his.

MR. RHODES:  Sure.  Well, first of all, the President wanted to take this opportunity to thank our troops for their service.  So we’re visiting Fort Bliss, which is a base that has had troops who served at every stage of the Iraq war -- the initial invasion, through many of the challenges that ensued in the years that followed. 

Sorry, you want me to take some of these?  Okay.  So Fort Bliss is a base that has had troops who served at every stage of the Iraq war -- the initial invasion, the many challenges that followed.  There are troops who are rotating back home right now, and there are troops that will be a part of the support mission going forward in Iraq.  So President Obama is looking forward to thanking the troops for their service.

Later tonight, of course, he’ll be speaking to the nation from the Oval Office.  It’s an opportunity to do several things.  This of course is an important milestone for our country as we mark the end of the combat mission in Iraq, and the President wants to take this opportunity to again underscore his gratitude to all those Americans who have rendered such extraordinary service in Iraq, as well as to their families.  He’ll want to describe what’s taken place since he last spoke about the Iraq war in detail in February of 2009, which includes, of course, our drawdown of nearly 100,000 troops and a transition to Iraqi responsibility for security within Iraq.  He’ll also want to talk about the enduring partnership that we are building with Iraq and with the Iraqi people, particularly as we shift into a civilian lead for our presence in Iraq.

So he’ll be addressing Iraq in his speech tonight, of course, but he’ll also be addressing the broader context of this drawdown.  Of course, the President is drawing down in Iraq and ending our combat because he thinks it’s in Iraq’s best interest for the Iraqis to take responsibility for their future.  He also believes that we need to refocus resources both on the national security front and on the domestic front.  And that’s exactly what he’s done. 

Since taken office, we’ve refocused a great deal of resources on the fight against al Qaeda worldwide to include our efforts within Afghanistan.  And similarly, he feels it’s very important to refocus resources that we’ve been spending abroad over the last several years into investing in our economy and our long-term competitiveness here at home.

So he’ll be addressing that as a part of the context for the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

And with that -- I don’t know, Bill?

MR. BURTON:  We’d be happy to take some questions.

Q    Can you talk a little bit about the call to President Bush?

MR. RHODES:  It was a private conversation so we’re just -- we’re not going to have any readout.

MR. BURTON:  I said that right at the top.

Q    What time was it and how long was it?  Can you say anything --

MR. RHODES:  I’d just say it earlier on the trip and it was just for a few minutes.

Q    Is the President going to address the Iraqi leadership and the need for the government to coalesce around a transition, and if there’s a timetable involving that?

MR. RHODES:  Yes, Iraq of course had a democratic election in the spring.  We are not surprised by the fact that there’s been an extended process of government formation.  The election was very close.  Last time it took six months to form a government and this election had no single party that won a majority.

However, we are going -- we are urging Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency in forming a government.  We believe that that government should be inclusive and should represent the results of the democratic election that was held, and we believe that the Iraqis are making progress towards that goal.  And it’s something that Vice President Biden is also discussing in his meetings with Iraqi leaders on the ground yesterday and today as well.

Q    Any timetable?

MR. RHODES:  We’re not going to put a timetable on government formation.  Again, we expected this extended process.  It’s in line with what happened in the past and with the closeness of the election results.  What we are saying, though, is that Iraq should move forward with a sense of urgency around government formation, that it’s time to get down to some of these core issues.  And that’s what the Iraqi leaders have been doing in recent days, and that’s what Vice President Biden is discussing in Iraq.

Q    How can you argue that Iraq is really ready to stand up when there is no government and there’s a lot of concern that the security forces aren’t really ready to fully take on responsibility?  Even the army’s chief of staff said it could take another 10 years.

MR. RHODES:  Yes, I’d say a couple things about that.  first of all, it’s important to separate two questions here.  On the security side, over the course of this drawdown in which we’ve removed nearly 100,000 troops from Iraq, what General Odierno has done on the ground is gradually transition to Iraqis being in the lead for security.

So, for instance, last year, American troops pulled out of Iraq’s cities, and Iraq’s security forces have had full responsibility for the security of Iraq’s cities for some time now.  They provided full security for Iraq’s elections.  So really what’s taken place is they’ve been moving into the lead over the course of this drawdown. 

So there’s no dramatic shift from August 31st to September 1st in that respect because they’ve already been moving into the lead.

And what’ve been pleased with is that Iraqi security forces have held the gains of the last year or two years in terms of security within Iraq, that the trend lines remain low in terms of the incidences of violence.  And so we do have great confidence in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain security.

Similarly, even in the process of government formation, they have retained their loyalty to the Iraqi constitution and to the Iraqi institutions of government under the transitional government that’s in place.  So we’re completely confident that Iraq’s security forces have capability to move into the lead as they have done.

As it relates to our continued support to them, the reason that we are maintaining a transitional force in Iraq in the coming months that currently numbers at 50,000 is because we’ll continue to advise and assist the Iraqis.  We’ll continue to provide them with support as they are in the lead in Iraq.  So they will continue to have a very strong support from the United States on the security side in the months to come.

On the political side, again, we believe that Iraq’s leaders should move forward with urgency to form a government.  There is, however, a caretaker government in place that is running Iraq’s ministries, running Iraq’s government.  And again, Iraq’s security forces have operated very effectively and competently under that caretaker administration, so we believe that they are fully prepared and will be in the lead.  And we’re confident in their ability to do so going forward.

Q    How big a risk is another spike in violence, especially with the government not yet being formed?

MR. RHODES:  I think -- you see a couple things in Iraq.  You see the overall trend lines in a good place in the sense that over the last several months, over the whole course of the year, indeed, the level of security incidences and all the different kind of metrics that we look at, whether it’s acts of violence, whether it’s casualties among Iraqi civilians and security forces, those trend lines remain in a good place. 

We also know, however, that there continue to be groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq most prominently that will carry out attacks and who will try to make those attacks gain as much attention as possible.  So we have no illusions that violence is over in Iraq.  There continue to be acts of violence, and there will continue to be in the weeks ahead.

What those acts of violence have not done, though, is fundamentally alter the security situation.  They have not sparked a sectarian war.  They have not led to a loss of confidence among the Iraqi people.

So even as this violence will continue, we’re confident that the trend lines are in the right direction, that there have been serious blows struck against al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership, just in recent months.  Their top two leaders were taken off the battlefield.  Our estimates are that 32 of their 42 leadership have been removed.  So we believe we’re still in the process of steadily degrading al Qaeda in Iraq.  And frankly, a lot of those leadership captures and kills that have taken place in recent months were carried out by Iraqi-led operations.  So the Iraqi security forces are the ones who are carrying out those kinds of operations with our intelligence support and otherwise.

So we’re confident in the ability to maintain these security gains with the Iraqi security forces in the lead, even as we know that there will continue to be challenges.

Now, in this particular timeframe of Ramadan, there are often increases in attacks during Ramadan; that has been the case over the years in Iraq.  And we also know some may try to draw attention to themselves by exploiting a period of government formation and transition in Iraq.

But again, what they have not done -- what they have failed to do, and we believe they will fail to do, is fundamentally alter the security situation in Iraq and fundamentally spark a sectarian war which the Iraqis have rejected in recent years.

Q    How long is his speech?

Q    Can you talk a little bit about --

MR. RHODES:  I’d say it will be like 15 minutes, roughly the same as the last one.

Q    And how much time will be devoted to the economy?

MR. RHODES:  No, this is principally a speech about what’s taking place Iraq.  I mean, he’ll address it in the context I discussed, which is that part of the context of ending the war in Iraq is drawing down the resources we are spending in fighting wars overseas so that we can focus on our economy at home.  So he’ll touch on the economy, but again, this is a speech that’s about the end of the combat mission in Iraq.

Q    Ben, is he going to talk about what if Iraq requests a continued military presence beyond 2011?

MR. RHODES:  He will not discuss that specifically because the fact of the matter is, there are two things -- and it’s important to separate them.  There is the timeline that the President set in February of 2009 to remove our combat brigades and end our combat mission.  And that’s what’s led to the drawdown of nearly 100,000 troops from Iraq and the shift to a support mission starting tomorrow.

Second -- but the second point is, there is a security agreement that exists between the United States and the Iraqi government, an agreement that was reached under the previous administration, which calls for all of U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.  We would only -- again, the Iraqi government has not requested an amendment to that agreement, so that’s --

Q    They could ask for that any time between now and 2011.

MR. RHODES:  They could ask for it, absolutely, but that’s a hypothetical.

Q    (Inaudible.)

MR. RHODES:  Well, we’re not going to get into that.  We’d have to -- we have to receive their request before we’re able to discuss it.

Q    Hey, Ben -- sorry -- is the President going to be making any other calls to any other allies or world leaders today?

MR. RHODES:  Actually, since you mention it, General Jones is calling a number of his counterparts from coalition partners who have been with us throughout the Iraq war.  Obviously many of those coalition partners have ended their own commitments in Iraq.  However, given the fact that this is such a milestone in the history of the Iraq war, and given the sacrifices that so many nations made alongside us in Iraq, we will be making calls at the level of General Jones and other senior officials to counterparts in the UK and Europe, in Australia.  We can get you a full list.  So that’s where we’re handling those kinds of calls.  But we feel like it’s important.

Again, part of what today is, is just a milestone in what’s been a very difficult war over the last seven and a half years.  And it’s appropriate, we think, to use that milestone to recognize that it’s not just Americans and Iraqis who sacrificed in Iraq; that there are coalition partners with us who did so as well.

Q    Will the President talk or reference his own initial opposition to the -- and continuous opposition to the invasion of Iraq?  And will he draw parallels between what the administration is billing as a success of this mission as he tries to kind of make the argument that America can prevail in Afghanistan?  

MR. RHODES:  I’d just say a couple things.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of the President’s speech.  I think his position on the war is well known.  It’s well known, of course, that he opposed going to war in Iraq, so I think that he’ll certainly be talking about the fact that the war has been an issue of debate and disagreement at times over the years.  But today is a day that we can all agree on our appreciation for the service our troops have rendered, and our hopes for a better future for Iraq.

I think with regard to Afghanistan, there we face a tough fight, a different fight.  It’s similar in the sense that we have increased our forces for a period of time to provide space -- to provide additional training for Afghan security forces and space for Afghan leaders to build their capacity, and it’s similar in the sense that as in Iraq, Afghans will of course have to move into the lead over time as well.

But again, they’re also different conflicts with different histories to them -- and different countries, of course.  So I think he’ll be discussing it, but I’ll leave it at that.

Q    Will he restate the language on the start of the withdrawal next year?  There’s been a lot of debate about that.  A lot of people have had a sort of a -- generals, politicians, whatever, had a say about it.  Will he restate that language tonight?

MR. RHODES:  Again, I don’t want to get too far ahead of it.  I think it’s safe to say that he will -- he’ll be addressing what is our clear policy in Afghanistan that includes that transition.  And our policy hasn’t changed in that respect.

Q    Will he address the removal of Saddam?  And for that matter, does the President believe that Iraq is better off now that Saddam is no longer in power, given that, as Robert said yesterday, if he were in office, he wouldn’t have gone to war?

MR. RHODES:  I think two things.  First of all, certainly he’ll be addressing what has taken place in the history of the Iraq war, which of course involves removing Saddam Hussein from power. 

I think as it relates to the President’s views, he opposed the war in Iraq in 2002 because he felt that it was a distraction from al Qaeda and from some of our challenges at home.  As it relates to Iraq today, what he thinks has been forged in Iraq is an opportunity for the Iraqi people to have a better future.  Because of the extraordinary services of our troops who persevered through many years, as well as our civilians, together with very huge sacrifices from the Iraqi people, the Iraqis have an opportunity here that they can seize to build their own country, to forge a future that is inclusive of all of the Iraqi people.

So that’s something that is an opportunity the President, again, will urge the Iraqi people to seize, and he’ll underscore that the United States will be a partner to the Iraqi people in that effort.

MR. BURTON:  Got anything else?

Q    I got a question for you.  The New York Post reporting this morning Elizabeth Warren is apparently expected to be named.  Can you address that at all, or -- many of the bankers assume that she will be named.

MR. BURTON:  No update on the timing for that position.  But like Robert said yesterday, I wouldn’t anticipate something before the end of this week.

Q    You wouldn’t?

MR. BURTON:  Would not.

Q    Would not.  And also, is there any possibility of a recess appointment for that position?

MR. BURTON:  Like I said, I have no update on the appointment for that position.

Q    On this situation in the Netherlands, these arrests that have been made, has the President been getting briefed on this?  Do you guys have any update on the investigation?

MR. BURTON:  This is an instance where I think that everyone in government was impressed with the amount of information sharing that happened with some of our partners overseas and the speed with which we were able to run incidents to the ground, even transcontinentally.  We’re still gathering facts.  We’ll let you know when we have more information.  But, yes, the President has been briefed on this incident, just like he’s briefed on other intelligence incidents over the normal course of his day.

Q    It hasn’t been concluded whether or not they were actually trying to plot any type of attack?

MR. BURTON:  I haven’t heard of any conclusions further than what I said, which is just that we’re in the information-gathering stage at this point.

Q    Is it being investigated as a potential attack?

MR. BURTON:  That’s a question more for the authorities.  They’re looking into all the information that’s available.

Q    I have a question about the economy.  This is a big foreign policy week for the President.  Is there any concern in the White House that maybe there’s a perception that he’s neglecting the economy, first day back after vacation?  He gave some remarks about it, but it’s going to be in the background the next couple of days and we’ve seen some bad data.  Republicans are criticizing him as being out of touch, and I just want to know if you could respond to that.

MR. BURTON:  Well, a couple things.  For starters, from their track record it’s pretty clear the Republicans will criticize no matter what is happening and they’ll try to obstruct no matter what the President tries to do.  But the President is less worried about the perception of whether or not he’s doing anything and more concerned about the pace at which we need to get the economy moving. 

Obviously we’ve been able to make some progress.  We’ve seen private job growth, we’ve seen the economy continue to grow, but not at a rate that’s fast enough for the President.  That’s why he thinks that as soon as the Senate gets back, they need to move forward on the small business legislation that will cut capital gains taxes for small businesses, allowing them to hire; it will help free up credit; it will help the engine of our economy do what we need to do in this economy, which is to create jobs.

So the President thinks that there’s a lot more that needs to be done and he’s working very hard every single day to move the ball forward on the economy.

Q    Do you have anything on tomorrow, what the President hopes to accomplish in the initial talks, Mideast peace?

MR. BURTON:  You want to talk a little about that?

MR. RHODES:  Yes.  I mean, the President will be holding a series of bilateral meetings tomorrow with each of the leaders.  Those will be one-on-one meetings between him and President Mubarak, King Abdullah, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.  And then he’ll be hosting a dinner with all the leaders tomorrow at the White House.  That’s setting the stage for the direct negotiations that will begin at the State Department the following day. 

And I think what the President wants to do is be able to speak to each of these key individuals in these talks to discuss what can be achieved, to discuss the importance of moving forward and the importance of comprehensive peace in the Middle East to all of our interests, and to build trust among the different leaders through his interactions and through the dinner that they’ll share tomorrow night.

So I think it’s an opportunity to set the stage heading into the resumption of direct talks, and to express his personal support for this effort that will be led by Secretary Clinton the following day.

MR. BURTON:  All right?

Q    I think we’re good.

Q    Thank you, guys.

12:00 P.M. EDT

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