Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Deputy NSA for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on the President's Meetings at the UN
Waldorf Astoria Hotel
New York, New York
September 21, 2011
7:33 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for you patience, for this rather late in the day briefing. I have with me today a man you’re familiar with, Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. He’ll give you -- he’ll make a few statements about today’s events and the meetings the President has had, the speech he delivered, and then take your questions on issues related to the United Nations General Assembly and the President’s events and meetings.
I’ll stand by here, and when you’re through with Ben I will be here to take your questions on other subjects.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, Jay. Sorry -- late in the day. We obviously had a very busy day today, and we’ll try to be as brief as we can. I just want to comment on a number of the meetings the President had, just because we have been in meetings throughout the entire day. And then happy to take any questions.
With Prime Minister Noda, I think you heard the two -- the Prime Minister and the President make comments. They had a very good first meeting together. They discussed a range of different issues confronting the United States and Japan and the alliance. They discussed, in particular, coordination on global and regional and bilateral economic issues, such as the upcoming G20 and APEC meetings, and the President was able to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the context of the APEC meeting.
They discussed coordination on a range of global and regional security challenges and alliance issues, from the Arab Spring, where Japan has played a very important role in supporting efforts there, as well as Afghanistan, North Korea and Okinawa. And they agreed to continue to work closely together and make sure we’re aligned on these economic, politic, and security issues.
With President Kiir of South Sudan, you obviously heard the President welcome the South Sudanese today in his U.N. address, and he was able to reiterate to President Kiir his congratulations on the independence of the Republic of South Sudan, and discuss a way forward for a new country.
The discussed the urgency of resolving outstanding issues associated with a comprehensive peace agreement, including with respect to oil. President Obama and President Kiir also discussed the importance of transparency and the rule of the law, and setting the Republic of South Sudan on a path to economic progress.
President Obama stressed the need for an immediate halt to bloodshed and violence in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile states in the Republic of Sudan, where we have been very concerned about events recently. He asked President Kiir to closely monitor and take action on the reports that his military was providing assistance to support the fighting there.
President Obama also stressed that the United States will continue to remain committed to the people of South Sudan. And the two leaders agreed to consult closely going forward.
I’ll just say a couple of comments on the meetings with our European allies. With Prime Minister Cameron the President discussed a range of issues. They began by discussing Libya. Prime Minister Cameron was able to stress some impressions from his trip there. They agreed upon the need for an inclusive transition within Libya, and they expressed their support for the TNC.
On the Middle East, they discussed their shared commitment to pursuing direct negotiations in pursuit of a two-state solution that is responsive to the aspirations of the Palestinian people and the aspirations of the Israeli people.
With regard to Afghanistan, they discussed the progress made in pursuing a transition in Afghanistan. They discussed the recent events with the killing of former President Rabbani, and the way forward in terms of our efforts to support both a military transition and a political solution with Afghanistan.
On Syria, they expressed their support for sanctions on the Syrian regime, which both the United States and the United Kingdom have pursued, as well as our efforts at the United Nations to support a U.N. Security Council resolution against the Syrian regime. And then, finally, they discussed the global economy and agreed that it was important to stay closely coordinated heading into the G20 meeting in France.
President Sarkozy -- with President Sarkozy, the two leaders -- again, you heard their comments at the beginning of the meeting. They focused really on three issues. On Libya, President Sarkozy also was able to discuss briefly his trip. And, again, they were in full agreement that a good outcome was at hand in Libya, but there was much work to be done to support the TNC in an inclusive transition.
With regard to the global economy, they obviously discussed the situation in the eurozone and they also agreed to closely coordinate in response to a situation in the eurozone, but also in the lead-up to the G20.
Then, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, President Sarkozy was able to discuss his speech today with President Obama. Again, the two leaders agree that they share the same goal of a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine. And I can discuss that more in questions.
And then, lastly -- and I presume most of your questions will be about the Middle East as well -- as you know, the President met with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and then just concluded a meeting with President Abbas, and was able to reiterate a lot of the core points that he made in his speech today directly to the leaders -- to express his firm commitment to a two-state solution, to express his support for direct negotiations between the parties, and emphasizing our opposition to actions at the United Nations and our support for solutions that can get the parties back to the table.
And, with that, I’d be happy to take your questions on any of this.
Q On the meeting with Abbas, could you be a little more specific about what President Obama may have asked of him? Did he actually ask him to pull back the resolution when he speaks on Friday? And did he ask, if he does choose to go forward with them, for him to essentially drop this issue after going through that sort of formal process?
MR. RHODES: I think -- we were able to talk to the President before coming down, and I think the key point here is that he was able to say directly to President Abbas what he -- what we’ve been saying for several days now and that the President said in his speech, which is that we are firmly committed to a Palestinian state, and we understand that there is a lot of frustration around the lack of progress, but that we still believe that actions at the United Nations is not going to achieve a Palestinian state, and that, therefore, we would have to oppose any action of the Security Council, including, if necessary, vetoing any resolutions associated with the declaration of a Palestinian state in the Security Council, but that we need to pursue solutions that can get the parties back to the table.
And, frankly, I think one of the messages the President delivered in both meetings, with Prime Minister Netanyah, and with President Abbas is that, when you look at the basis that the President laid out for negotiations on the issues of security and territory, that it’s the belief of the President that the parties are not that far apart. That’s precisely why he laid out, again, those principles as a basis for negotiation, and that, actually, the differences between the parties can be bridged and are not as wide as the atmosphere may suggestnd that, therefore, it’s both necessary and worth the effort of pursuing direct negotiations because they hold out the promise of achieving a Palestinian state.
Q -- talking points -- so was there any real progress actually made here over the past couple days?
MR. RHODES: Well, I mean, I think because we’ve had a very consistent position, so we weren’t going to amend that position in the course of today’s talks. Our position has been one that we’ve been very transparent about, which is that we oppose actions at the United Nations.
We want to look at ways in which we can get the parties back to the table. We want to, again, have a good sense of where they’re coming from. We were able to hear from other leaders, like President Sarkozy, who has put forward some ideas today, as well.
So, again, I think there’s still additional steps that are going to take place over the coming days. The Palestinians have signaled the intent -- they have yet to file a formal letter with regard to their intent to pursue action at the Security Council. So I think there’s events that are yet to take place.
As things go forward, what we’re focused on is what is the way that we can get the parties back to the table, because that’s going to solve the problem. And, again, as I’ve said to you guys for a couple days now, whatever happens at the United Nations, this conflict is going to be resolved in negotiations. And the United States wants to be firmly behind that effort in looking for creative ways to get the parties back to the table.
Q President Sarkozy, today, was quite (inaudible) this morning at the U.N., and he seems to be inclined to want a Palestinian state created as a non-member state. What is your reaction to that? And, also, this morning in his speech he was quite critical about a veto position from the United States.
MR. RHODES: Yes. So the Presidents were able to discuss President Sarkozy’s speech, as I said. AndI think our response is that there are some important ideas that President Sarkozy put forward, that he’s aiming to put forward constructive ideas as it relates to getting the parties back to the table; that we share a number of those views. We share a sense of urgency about getting the parties back to the table. We share a belief that negotiations are the best way to achieve a two-state solution and a lasting peace. We share, frankly, the belief that security and territory can provide a basis for those negotiations going forward because those are areas where the parties are the closest to agreement. So there’s a lot in what President Sarkozy said that is in line with things that the President -- President Obama has said, and that he would, again, be a party to going forward.
I guess the principal difference is, we oppose actions at the United Nations to confer -- to achieve a Palestinian state. So that would be the principal difference. But the goal is the same. And, frankly, as it relates to some of the issues around getting to direct talks, there’s a lot of overlap with the things that President Obama has said -- including, again, the sense of urgency, the notion that you might build in some metrics around timelines. It’s something that we’ve been discussing through the Quartet process. So that’s an idea that has been on the table in the Quartet process, in the Quartet talks.
So we see a lot of overlap, even as we have a difference on the role of the United Nations. But the two Presidents said that they very much wanted to coordinate going forward; that we want to be in touch with the French as they, again, pursue their ideas, and that the goal we share is getting these parties back to the table.
Q -- did President Abbas lead President Obama to believe that, perhaps, he might not file his letter of --
MR. RHODES: Again, I wouldn’t characterize what President Abbas said, other than he has been very -- just as we have been very clear about what our position is, he’s been very clear what his intent is, which is to go to the Security Council and to, again, begin the process of pursuing membership there. Now, they haven’t filed that request yet. Again, the support in the Security Council for that remains to be seen; the procedures and the amount of time it would take for that to be pursued remains to be seen. So those are the types of issues that will be determined in the days to come if this action comes to the Security Council, and then as the Security Council works it through procedurally.
So I guess what I’m referring to is their intent has been clear. They have yet to file a request. After they do, it remains to be seen what the support is at the Security Council and what is the length of time as it works through the various procedures on the Council. Again, irrespective of those developments, we will continue to pursue a process that gets direct negotiations begun.
Q Can you say anything about the tenor of the conversation between President Abbas and President Obama, and what you guys think is the state of your relationship, your direct relationship there?
MR. RHODES: I think that President Obama said it was a very straightforward conversation, that they got their -- the leaders were able to be very candid and direct with one another. Again, the President is very supportive of the aspirations of the Palestinian people and the end goal that President Abbas is trying to achieve, which is a state for the Palestinian people. We have a difference about the role of the United Nations in that process. And so they were able to discuss that difference.
President Obama was able to describe why he believes, as he said in his speech, that negotiated settlement is in the interest of a Palestinian state and in the interest of the Palestinian people. Again, they were able to discuss the type of basis for negotiations that the President put forward back in May on security and territory and the fact that the President believes that those differences can be bridged. But, again, I think it’s something that will continue to be in close consultations with the Palestinians going forward.
Q Was the administration surprised at all by Mr. Sarkozy’s speech today and his call for a General Assembly resolution? Were you expecting it? Had they talked to you guys about the speech?
MR. RHODES: As I said, a lot of the ideas that were embedded in the speech are ideas that the two leaders have -- well, that our teams have been discussing throughout the course of the last several weeks. Now, as you know, there has been a lot of diplomatic activity around the run-up to the UNGA. And s, some of the issues related to the resumption of talks, some of the issues related to building timelines into the process were a part of some of the discussions that were taking place with the Quartet and with other partners like the French.
So I would say we were aware of the types of options that President Sarkozy discussed in his speech. And, again, the commitment that they made coming out of the meeting was to make sure we were fully coordinated going forward so that we could work together to support a process that gets back to direct negotiations, with this very basic understanding that we have a difference of opinion about the role of the United Nations.
Q -- Israeli retaliation or possible measures taken -- (inaudible.) Did the President ask the Israeli prime minister not to take such measures, not to escalate further? Does this go to a vote at the U.N.? And also, I wanted to touch upon President Sarkozy’s speech. He spoke about internationalizing the peace process further. He said, even one country -- even if it’s a superpower -- can’t take this on. And you’re also pushing for Quartet involvement. So do you see that there is scope now to have more of an international role?
MR. RHODES: I’d say a couple of things. First, on the Israel bilateral meeting, I think one of the principal points of discussion that the President has had with Prime Minister Netanyahu over a period of months and that continued today was the President's strong belief that the pursuit of peace is in Israel’s interest; that Israel has a strategic interest in the pursuit of peace; that Israel’s security depends upon a two-state solution in order to address challenges related to demographics and various other issues.
These are issues the President spoke about very directly in his May 19th speech; he spoke about it at AIPAC. So I think that the general message is we have an unshakeable support for Israel’s security, as the President was very clear about today. We will stand up against efforts to single out Israel in international forums, and that our pursuit of peace, frankly, flows out of our friendship with Israel, because we belief that peace is, again, ultimately going to bring the type of security that Israel deserves. So I think that was kind of the -- one of the key focal points of discussion.
So that out of that, therefore, whatever steps could be taken to get back into direct talks by both parties will be important going forward so that we’re working towards a solution rather than driving the parties apart, which is another reason why we feel that the U.N. action is not conducive to success, because it doesn’t create the type of climate that is most beneficial to talks.
Your second question was on --
Q International role --
MR. RHODES: International, yes. What we’ve been focused on I think since the May 19th speech that the President gave is how do you broaden the international basis of support for this type of foundation for negotiations. The parties are going to work this through ultimately between the two of them. But what the role the international community can play is providing support to that effort and also, frankly, getting behind the type of basis for negotiations that can help bridge the differences that the parties have yet to be able to do in talks in the past.
So we’ve been working -- we’ve been focused on the Quartet as one of the venues, given its role in this process that could provide that type of endorsement going forward. One of the things that we want to talk to the French about going forward and consult with them on is how you would broaden international support. So it’s an issue that we’ll have to be in touch with the French on. But, in principle, it’s something we are very supportive of. I mean, in the past we believe the Arab Peace Initiative was an important step. We believe statements by the Quartet are important. The United Nations is a party to the Quartet, of course. So I think we’ll be working with the French on that.
And one other thing is the French expressed also an indication around a potential donors conference, for instance. That’s the type of idea that we’ll be talking to them about, to get a better understanding of what they have in mind as well.
Q If you could switch to the global economic -- you had all three leaders in the bilats -- Sarkozy, Cameron and Noda all spoke about it beforehand. Did that get into the private discussions as well, and how much? Can you just give a little bit of a readout there?
MR. RHODES: In terms of what they focused on?
Q Yes, did it come up? How did it come up? What was the context? Is it preparation for G20?
MR. RHODES: I think that conversations with President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron very much flow out of the phone conversations I think that the President has been having with, in particular, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron, and President Sarkozy over the course of the summer. And you’ve, of course, seen our readouts of those conversations. And, in particular, for instance, the President has been speaking to Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy about the steps that they are taking to address the very serious challenges in the eurozone. So I think he was able to exchange -- to hear from them about their view of the situation in the eurozone, the very serious challenges that are faced, the steps that are on the table to provide confidence going forward.
So that was very much one portion of the discussions, and then that flows into the G20. The G20, of course, addresses a broader coordination, but they were able to talk about the G20 agenda, which includes -- but goes beyond -- the eurozone issues, and it gets into issues about rebalancing going forward. And, in particular, I think, the President really underscored the need for the G20 to come together and take concerted action.
As he said in his speech, just as we were faced with a very grave situation in 2009, today we’re faced with a fragile recovery. And so, once again, the G20 has to be a forum for people to come together and to take coordinated action. So I think they agreed. And Secretary Geithner was in the meetings as well, and they agreed to have their finance ministers and sherpas work these issues going forward.
Q In the bilat with Prime Minister Noda, Prime Minister Noda raised a concern about the economy could go back into recession -- in his opening remarks. What was the President's reference to that? Could you give us a sense of the discussion on that?
And, secondly, again, on the G20 meeting, I heard that Prime Minister Noda raised that concern, about the European situation. What kind of coordinating action was talked about in that context?
MR. RHODES: Well, on the first one, I don't think there is much -- I wouldn’t want to speak for Prime Minister Noda. I think that the -- I think what the situation that the President and the Prime Minister addressed is that we’ve obviously had a very steep hole to climb out of with the financial crisis; that recovery is fragile; that, frankly, there have been some shocks and challenges associated with the recovery -- from issues in the Middle East to the issues in Japan, which, of course, were both a great tragedy and also a disruption to the Japanese economy. So I think the context for that is a shared concern that we need to put recovery on a firmer footing; that coordination is the best way to do that.
And then, again, I think, with regard to the G20 and the eurozone, that is one piece of the picture -- of the recovery that needs to be strengthened, and that projecting confidence and taking coordinated action is an important way for not just the European countries but the broader membership of the G20 to signal a confident direction to markets and to -- most importantly, to the people of our various countries.
Q I know that the U.S. are against the observer state status for the Palestinians at that point, but that the French are suggesting as an alternative if no agreement is reached by the Quartet. But what do you fear most specifically from this observer state status? What would be the risk, according to you, if the Palestinians would get this status?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think, that our core point has always been that in order for there to be lasting peace, the Israelis and Palestinians have to work it out together, and that unilateral action through the United Nations to start to achieve statehood is not going to resolve the issues for Palestinians on the ground, because they’re going to need an agreement on issues related to their borders, on issues related to the future of refugees, of course, on issues related to security and issues related to Jerusalem.
That can’t be addressed through any United Nations process. It can only be addressed in direct negotiations -- and that by doing things through the United Nations, you can make it more difficult to get the parties back together, because it sends a signal that -- of taking a unilateral path and walking away, essentially, from the negotiating process. We want to do things to get the parties back together.
So I think that before there is that type of status conferred, we want to see an agreement reached between the two parties. There hasn’t been a UNGO text put forward so -- and the Palestinians have not sought action at the UNGA at this point. So it’s hard to speak to a specific resolution associated with the observer status until it’s actualized. But our general view has been that actions to the United Nations are not the best way forward.
Q President Sarkozy was very blunt in his speech. How do you compare that speech to the speech he gave a couple of years ago on the ban on the nonproliferation? You remember that Security Council meeting, the high-level meeting?
MR. RHODES: The one on Iran at the G20?
Q would you compare the speech he gave today, which was very blunt, to that speech he gave that day --
MR. RHODES: In Pittsburgh? In Pittsburgh? Yes, well, look, I think President Sarkozy is a leader who speaks his mind, speaks very directly, who puts forward ideas. And so I think, again, it’s indicative of his interest in trying to catalyze the process. I think there are issue of commonality that we can work with the French on, around the need to get back to direct negotiations, around the need to move forward with a sense of urgency, perhaps, on establishing the type of basis that’s focused on security and territory going forward. So there is a lot of areas where we think we can work with the French, even as we have a different view on the U.N.
So I think it’s characteristic of President Sarkozy to I think put forward strong proposals on a range of issues. And on Iran, frankly, we’ve been in lockstep with the French in terms of pursuing sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, and then in terms of pursuing our own coordinated national and European Union sanctions. So I think we were able to work very closely with President Sarkozy out of that speech, and what we want to do out of this one is to coordinate on issues related to Middle East peace.
Q I just have a follow up, Ben. There are a lot of French reporters here tonight, because for us it’s a huge story what happened this morning at the U.N. when President Sarkozy was really quite offensive, and he was quite critical about the American way in the Middle East. I mean, it’s in his speech. Then, a few hours later, he came here and it was a lovely declaration to the President. So how do you feel about that?
MR. RHODES: I thought it was a lovely set of comments before the bilateral meeting. I certainly share those sentiments about President Obama and his leadership. I think that President Sarkozy is frustrated with the pace of progress on this issue. As the President said in his own speech, a lot of the people in this hall are frustrated with the pace of progress, and President Sarkozy’s speech spoke to that. And I think the notion that there needs to be a sense of urgency is something we share, and we want to channel that urgency towards a process of negotiation. And the French are one of our oldest and closest allies in the world, so we believe that we’re going to be capable of having discussions with them going forward. We just have a difference on the role of the U.N.
So I think it’s -- the two Presidents have a relationship where they’re more than capable of sitting down and having very friendly and expansive conversations on these issues. And this took up -- about half the meeting was focused on the issues around the Middle East. So I think it was definitely a robust statement by President Sarkozy at the United Nations, but I think it grows out of things that he’s been expressing for a period of time. And what we want to do is channel creative ideas into a process of negotiation, and that’s why we want to stay coordinated with them going forward.
Matt, did you have a question?
Q Yes. I just wanted to ask did President Obama specifically ask President Abbas to not go ahead with this resolution seeking statehood at the Security Council? Did he say, please don’t do this?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think it was more an expression of what our position is, why we oppose it. So, I mean, certainly associated with that is a belief that we want to see the Palestinians focus their very legitimate interests in accomplishing statehood to a process of negotiation. But I think President Abbas had made his intent clear as it relates to the Security Council last week. So this was an opportunity for President Obama to lay out precisely why we have the position we do, to reiterate, frankly, that we would oppose actions in the Security Council; that we would, if necessary, use our veto, but that also, even within this context, we want to be talking to them and to the Israelis about how can we get beyond this current impasse and channel all of this energy, all of this interest of the various parties and the international community into a negotiation.
Q Did President Obama ask either or both of these men for goodwill gestures toward the other side, for confidence-building measures, and were there concessions?
MR. RHODES: I mean, I think it’s certainly true and fair to say that, yes, he asked both leaders to take steps towards the other, and that there needs to be movement by the parties to get back to the table. And the clearest thing that he’s laid out is what he believes is the basis of negotiations on security and territory, which involved a set of assurances that were associated with Israel’s security, involve a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, the agreed-upon swaps. That alone would be -- for the parties to enter in a negotiation on that basis would be, of course, a step forward from where past talks have been. And then there are, of course, a range of other measures that the parties could take.
But I think one of our concerns is that this whole series of actions at the United Nations is a distraction from that process, that it doesn’t advance that process. And it’s not, frankly, one of those confidence-building measures that you could take; it’s the opposite. It’s something that takes what should be addressed at the negotiating table and puts it in an international forum in a way that, again, is not going to solve the problem.
MR. CARNEY: Let’s do one more for Ben. We’re going to have to go after this.
Q How did Abbas respond to Obama’s explanations of why U.N. action is not constructive? How would you characterize his response? And, just to clarify, did Abbas actually during the bilateral meeting reiterate his intent to submit a bid to the U.N.? And second question -- on Japan, what more concretely did they discuss about Okinawa --
MR. RHODES: On the first -- I’m not in a position to characterize President Abbas’s side of the bilat. So really that’s something that should be addressed to the Palestinians. I think there was a -- it was, frankly, an opportunity again for the two leaders to state directly and privately to one another in detail the position that they’ve staked out over the course of the last several days, but also to reiterate that we need to figure out a way to get beyond this impasse and to get back to the table.
On Okinawa, I think we just want to see a resolution to the issue that is in line with the interests of our alliance and the agreements that we have. So I think that it was very much in line with the position the U.S. has taken with successive prime ministers. And we believe that it’s important to the alliance going forward to implement those agreements and to move forward.
MR. CARNEY: Is everybody good? Anybody have any questions that I can help you with?
Q Yes, just a quick question on how long did they meet? And you mentioned several times that they didn’t -- (inaudible) -- should we read anything into that or was that just --
MR. RHODES: No, that’s really a matter of sequencing. But my point was that we can -- there are steps associated -- they have to file. There is a question around the level of support they have in the Security Council. And there’s a question of the procedures and the time associated with those procedures that are taken at the Security Council. So those are very relevant issues that will have to be worked through in the coming days.
The meeting lasted about a little less than -- probably 45 minutes to an hour, in that timeframe.
MR. CARNEY: Everybody good? Yes, ma’am.
Q It’s kind of related. But on Sarkozy, did the President read Sarkozy’s speech or listen to it? I know he had meetings. How much of the content did he hear?
MR. CARNEY: Do you want to come answer, Ben? We’re going to have to go pretty soon. We’ll miss that all-important flight back.
MR. RHODES: I do not believe -- the President had not read a full draft of the speech, but he was very familiar with the core points that President Sarkozy laid out before the meeting, had been briefed on them, and then was able to walk through those core points in the bilat.
Q This is about the Iranian hikers. I wanted to ask why the Iraqi government was specifically mentioned? I know why the Omanis were? What role did Iraq play?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, I should have reiterated, as the President did, our relief that they are finally reunited with their families, frankly, far too late from where we stand. But it’s a very joyful day for the American people to see our young people reunited with their loved ones.
I think what we did in the statement from the President is highlight a variety of different leaders who were helpful in trying to resolve this case, in trying to support our efforts to see that Josh and Shane were released. The Omanis obviously played a very important and constructive role, just as they did in the instance of the previous release of Sarah. But, similarly, President Talibani, I think, in his contacts with the Iranian government was supportive of the efforts to release the hikers. So, therefore, we wanted to express our gratitude for those efforts, which had been ongoing over the course of several months.
MR. CARNEY: Okay. Thank you all very much. I appreciate it. Have a good night. Thanks for joining us here in New York.
8:11 P.M. EDT