The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Berlin, Germany

6:03 P.M. BST

MR. CARNEY:  Good late afternoon, everyone.  I thank you for joining us on our flight from Belfast to Berlin.  It's pretty cool.  I have no announcements to make at the top.  I have with me again Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.  He has a topper for you, and then we're both here to take your questions. 

Mr. Rhodes.

MR. RHODES:  Great.  Thanks, everybody -- just a couple of comments on the outcome of the G8.  First of all, we were very pleased with the language that was agreed to on Syria, which represented a good convergence of views at the G8.  This was the bulk of the discussion last night at the dinner between the leaders, which went until 11:15 p.m.  Negotiators were working on this until 2:30 a.m.  And then, the leaders finalized it at the first plenary this morning.

In our minds, the most important aspects of the Syria language were the reaffirmation of the Geneva Communiqué and the express support for that process going forward, which importantly includes that this process would need to lead to an agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive power that would be formed by mutual consent through the Geneva process -- so in other words, a framework for a political transition in Syria to a new government.

Secondly, we had come to this meeting prepared to dramatically increase our own humanitarian assistance in Syria to deal with both the situation in the country and in the surrounding countries that are housing refugees.  We put forward over $300 million in humanitarian assistance last night, and a number of other countries through the G8 all stepped up. So we believe we're going to meet $1.5 billion total in commitments to meet the humanitarian needs in Syria and neighboring countries. 

And then, thirdly, on the issue of chemical weapons, which we've been focused on, consistent with what we've been saying to the United Nations and the Syrian government you saw consensus among the G8 countries that there should be a U.N. investigation that gets access of reports of chemical weapons use within Syria.  We'd like to see that process going forward, so it's important for the G8 to send a strong message there.

There are huge challenges in Syria, so this in no way minimizes the difficulties ahead.  But given the various ways the G8 could have gone, we believe that on these key issues of political transition, humanitarian support and chemical weapons investigation it's very helpful to have this type of signal being sent by these eight countries.

With that, I think you know our schedule tomorrow.  Quickly, it's the President begins with a military honors guard and then, a bilateral meeting with the German President.  Then, he has his bilateral meeting with Chancellor Merkel.  They'll have a private lunch together at the Chancellery.  And then, he'll have an opportunity to give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, which we can talk about.  And he'll also be doing a brief meeting with the Social Democratic Party opposition leader before the state dinner tomorrow night.

So I'll be happy to take any questions.

Q    Can we go straight to the Germany speech, Ben?  Can you give us just an overview of the highlights or the message that he wants to give tomorrow?

MR. RHODES:  The historical context is important here.  Any time a U.S. President speaks in Berlin, it's a powerful backdrop to our post-war history.  And it's the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's speech where he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner” -- I hope I got that.  But also, this is a place where U.S. Presidents have gone to talk about the role of the free world essentially, whether it was President Kennedy or President Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate.

And so, with that historical backdrop, I think what the President wants to -- the message he would like to send is that sometimes it's easy to think that history is behind us, essentially.  The Wall is down.  There's not a threat of global nuclear war.  The threats that we do face are far more distant.  And I think the overarching point that he's going to make is the exact same level of citizen and national activism that was characterized in the Kennedy speech and in the Cold War needs to be applied to the challenges we face now, even as they are more distant from our own lives -- whether they are nuclear arms control and non-proliferation, climate change, counterterrorism, the resolution of conflicts and the need to promote democratic values for people beyond Europe and the United States -- so beyond the Western world. 

So I think he is seeking to summon the energy and legacy of what's been done in the past and apply it to the issues that we face today.  It's also, obviously, returning to a city that he visited as a candidate in 2008.  And I think he will be speaking at the Brandenburg Gate with the experience of the last five years, which includes an extraordinary amount of new direction in our foreign policy in terms of ending the war in Iraq -- which was the predominant issue in the campaign -- winding down the war in Afghanistan, beginning to look beyond the framework of the global war on terrorism that we inherited. 

But with that transition, we actually find ourselves faced with a broader agenda of issues to deal with -- whether it's nuclear or climate change or others.  

Q    Can you just say anything about the optics of the speech?  He had such a big crowd in 2008.  I assume we're not expecting as big of a crowd.  Can you talk about how you guys sort of arranged the setup?

MR. RHODES:  Well, it's a different kind of speech.  The German government really arranged the speech.  They extended the invitation to the President.  They believed, as we did, too, that the Brandenburg Gate, given its history of U.S. Presidents -- President Reagan, President Clinton -- speaking there, that that is an appropriate place to do the speech.  Given the fact that he is the President of the United States now, we will be I think addressing -- the assembled German government will be there.  In other words, so there will kind of an official component with the kind of leaders of German government and society, as well as we've made sure with the Germans young people and university students, because really that's the audience that the President enjoys speaking to when he travels abroad.

So in that respect, it's notable for a number of reasons.  He'll be facing East, which obviously was not possible for instance when President Reagan gave his speech.  The new U.S. Embassy has been built.  The new Reichstag has been built.  So he is going to be speaking in a square that essentially symbolizes the transformation of Berlin.

But that brings with it -- a different type of venue, in that it's a square.  It's thousands of people in one of the most historic settings in the world, essentially, including both official participation and young people, and Berliners of different walks of life.  So a lot has changed.  But I think the President's affinity for the German people and, frankly, his connection with them remains the same.

I think Germany is a country where I think the President has drawn a lot of support from a broad cross section of the public if you look at any measuring of opinion polling.

Q    Is that message that you talked about directed at Europeans, at the transatlantic relationship?  Who is that message about moving the relationship forward directed to?

MR. RHODES:  I think it's directed to the United States, to Germany and to the West, frankly, that in some ways individually it's easy for us to be complacent when we are not faced with the same type of dire threats that we did face at the height of the Cold War.  And then, as countries coming out of recessions, coming out of war, it can be tempting to withdraw from the world.  But fundamentally, if we are not standing up for a set of values and dealing with a set of issues, there is no other country that is poised to do so or no other group of countries that is poised to do so.

It is only the United States and our European allies that has consistently advocated approaches to security and to human rights that extend globally.  And so, I think it's a call on citizens and governments to do what is necessary, so that we succeed in the next 50 years as we have in the last 50.

Q    Ben, can we go back to Syria quickly?  I understand the importance of an endorsement for a peace process.  But it seems that how to get to that peace process, specifically how the United States and Russia can agree to one -- the composition of what that group would look like -- is unresolved.  And it seems like still a major stumbling block.  Would you characterize it that way?

MR. RHODES:  Yes.  Well, what I'd say is the next step in this process is going to be determining how you establish a meeting and who participates from both sides.  We will be meeting with -- the United States, Russia and the United Nations will be meeting on June 25th in Geneva to carry forward that conversation.  That will be at the State Department level -- Wendy Sherman was the political representative here at the G8, and her counterpart from Russia, and Brahimi from the United Nations.  

But I think what we wanted to bring out of this is, frankly, we want the Russians to work with the regime to make sure that they come to the table in a serious fashion.  We are working with the opposition, together with our friends and allies as they coalesce and formulate an approach to these negotiations.  And we want to make sure that they understand that they have our full support and that, importantly, this process will have to lead to a new governing authority in Syria.  So this is not simply a negotiation about having a dialogue.  This is a negotiation about how do you transition to a new government so that Syria can move forward and there can the kind of change that allows for military measures and conflict to not be the way in which people are seeking a new government. 

So that's the challenge.  We'll be working it with the opposition, with our allies.  We'll be in those discussions with Russia.  But we felt it was important to have this type of international endorsement and consensus on both the importance of a political track and the nature of the political track coming out of the G8.

Q    Just one last one -- do you have an actual date on the talks in Doha on Afghanistan?

MR. RHODES:  We don't have a specific date.  As the President noted today, with the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, there is an opportunity to make progress towards reconciliation.  The United States, as the President reaffirmed, has made clear the conditions that would have to come at the end of that negotiation in terms of breaking with al Qaeda, renouncing violence and abiding by the constitution.

The United States will be supporting a process that is fundamentally Afghan-led.  Ultimately, this is something that Afghans have to work out with each other.  And in that regard we've strongly supported President Karzai, and his government, as they've approached this issue.  At the same time, we can play a role in talking to the Taliban as well to support that type of peace process, and also because we have our own issues to discuss with them -- for instance, our solider Bowe Bergdahl that we've been seeking to recover given how fundamentally important that is to us.

So we expect that we'll be in talks in the coming days, but we don't have a specific date set for that.

6:17 P.M. BST

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