Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest En Route Joint Base Andrews, 9/17/14
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Joint Base Andrews
2:11 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you. I hope you enjoyed our morning at MacDill Air Force Base. Let me just do two quick announcements and then we’ll get to your questions.
This afternoon at CENTCOM, the President received an update from General Austin and other senior CENTCOM officials on their ongoing efforts to develop plans for the broader and sustained military campaign against ISIL. He was also briefed on their efforts to build the broad international coalition that is necessary to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. I spoke to the President after the meeting -- he seemed pleased with the briefing, he called it “thorough,” and he complimented the staff on their solid work.
In addition, this afternoon, back at the White House, the President will convene members of his national security team to prepare for next week’s UN Security Council meeting that he will chair to discuss the international community’s coordinated efforts to mitigate the threat that’s posed by foreign fighters. This is the focal point of extensive planning here in the United States, and with our allies and partners around the globe.
So with that, we’ll go to your questions.
Q Josh, yesterday General Dempsey made some more news after he testified on the Hill, traveling with reporters to Paris. He said two things -- one was that in the assessment by the military is that only half of the Iraqi army is prepared to be partners with the U.S. in confronting ISIL. And his other point was that because we have trainers on the ground in Iraq, it might be time to revisit the immunity agreement that al-Maliki would not sign before. So I wondered if that’s a concern for the President. Is there a need for this immunity agreement? And what do you do when only half of the Iraqi army is a trusted partner?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates as it relates to our position on an immunity agreement, so I’ll just have to take that question. If there’s a comment that we have on that later today I’ll let you know.
As it relates to the capability of the Iraqi security forces, we’ve noted for some time that the principal failure of the Iraqi security forces to withstand the assault from ISIL earlier this summer was related to the failed political leadership of Iraq’s central government; that the Maliki government had failed to unite the diverse elements of the nation of Iraq, and that meant that the security forces were not united. That in the same way that the country was divided along sectarian lines -- again, as a result of the failed political leadership -- that the security forces were weakened by those sectarian divisions as well. That’s why the core component of this strategy, from the beginning, since the day that ISIL made their dramatic advance across Iraq, has been the formation of an inclusive central government in Baghdad.
Iraq’s political leaders have made tremendous progress along those lines. They made progress that many observers, frankly, did not think they’d be able to make by this point, to be in a position where they had political leadership that reflected the diversity of that country. And we do expect that that diverse leadership, pursuing a unified governing agenda, will have a corresponding impact on the security forces. We do anticipate that that unified government will have some success in unifying the security forces, which will make them stronger and better able to confront the threat that is posed by ISIL.
Because of our confidence in their improved capability, the President has made the decision to ramp up the kind of military assistance that we provide them. That includes training, that includes some additional equipment. It also includes the backing of American airstrikes to support the effort of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to take the fight to ISIL on the ground. All three of those things should also enhance the capability and the capacity of Iraq’s security forces to face down ISIL.
Q How much time does the U.S. have to accomplish that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has talked about the need to move with some urgency to address the instability that we see in the region -- that there is a genuine concern about the ability of ISIL to establish a safe haven that would be bad for our interests in the region. It certainly would have a destabilizing impact on that region and have an impact on our allies and partners in that region. It certainly would enhance the threat that is posed [to] Americans who are in Iraq. And down the road, it could significantly worsen the threat that that organization poses to Americans around the globe and even to the U.S. homeland.
The President is determined, however, to ensure that we build the kind of international coalition that will be necessary to make it clear that it’s not the United States alone that is at war with ISIL. ISIL has declared war on the rest of the world, and the President will -- and the United States will build and lead an international coalition to take the fight to ISIL to degrade and ultimately destroy them.
Q Josh, were the President’s comments today meant to be a rebuke to General Dempsey?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely not. What General Dempsey said during the hearings yesterday -- and these kinds of semantic details are important. It’s important for people to understand exactly the policy that the President is pursuing and how that is being implemented by his military commanders.
What General Dempsey was describing was the need at some point in the future to put American troops, who are already in Iraq in an advisory capacity, into forward-deployed positions with Iraqi troops -- not to engage in combat. They would not have a combat role. They would not be personally or directly engaging the enemy, rather they would be providing tactical advice to Iraqi security forces. In some cases, they could be in a position to even call in airstrikes. But as General Dempsey made clear yesterday, that forward deployment of those advisory -- of those troops who are in an advisory capacity has not yet been necessary.
If it does become necessary, or I should say it this way, if General Dempsey determines that it may be necessary to forward-deploy some of the American advisers, then he will bring that option to the President. And the President said that he would consider it on a case-by-case basis.
But what he would consider is not a combat role for our troops -- that's not something that the President was willing to consider, and that's not a prospect that General Dempsey raised. So what the President restated in his remarks to our servicemen and women at MacDill Air Force Base today is consistent with what the President said in his national address to the nation one week ago today. That also happens to be consistent with the testimony of General Dempsey yesterday, and the advice that the President has received from General Dempsey and other members of his national security team.
The reason for this -- and this is important, too -- this is not a matter of personal preference, right? This is not a matter of the President concluding that -- well, let me say it this way. The President has made a strategic decision that it’s not in our best interest, it is not in the national security interest of the United States of America to put American ground troops back into a combat role in Iraq and Syria. And that's precisely because the President, as many others, has learned the lessons of the last decade; that countering security threats in this region of the world requires Iraqi security forces to stand up and fight for their own country; that it will be Iraqi security forces that are responsible for taking the fight on the ground to ISIL forces in their own country. This is a strategic objective that the United States cannot execute for them.
The United States and our military will certainly support Iraqi security forces as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their country, but this is not something that we will do for them.
Q If the General makes that kind of recommendation, and as you say, the President considers it and eventually approves it, do you see any risk for that being a slippery slope to more?
MR. EARNEST: No, it is not. Well, again, the semantics are important. I do not see that as a slippery slope to U.S. troops having a combat role on the ground in Iraq, and that's specifically because that's an option the President has ruled out.
But I also would underscore what General Dempsey said. General Dempsey at this point believes that the strategy that we’ve put in place so far, which has not required the forward deployment of American military advisers with Iraqi security forces, has been successful. And what General Dempsey was discussing was the possibility that if our strategy does need to change, that this is an option that he had preserved, and the President had agreed to review on a case-by-case basis.
But again, what he would review would be the forward-deployment of American military advisers with Iraqi security forces. The President will not review or consider options that involve putting American military personnel on the ground into a combat role.
Q But surely having those men and women deployed or forward-deployed will put them in harm’s way, much more so than they would be in a purely advisory role in Baghdad or elsewhere.
MR. EARNEST: The President was very clear in his remarks to the troops at MacDill Air Force Base today in indicating that every mission has a risk. It is also true that our -- that American military pilots are putting themselves at risk when they carry out these airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq.
When those American military pilots carry out airstrikes in Syria, they also will be at some risk. There is risk associated with American servicemembers who are currently defending the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil. But that is different, that is materially different than these American soldiers personally or directly engaging the enemy in combat on the ground. That is not an option the President will consider.
And again, that's simply because the President believes it’s in our strategic interest to ensure that Iraqi security forces are fighting for their own country, and that they are the ones that are principally responsible for taking the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country. This is something that we cannot do for them.
Q Josh, as you may know, former Defense Secretary Gates said on a CBS “This Morning” interview today said that this strategy won’t work without boots on the ground; and that airstrikes alone won’t do it; and to say otherwise risks the President falling into a trap. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I did not see the full context of Secretary Gates’s remarks. But with that caveat, let me say that the President has been clear about the need to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in Iraq and in Syria. What the President has ruled out are American servicemen and women being in a position where they are the ones that are responsible for engaging in combat operations against ISIL on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The President will not consider that option.
What the President will do, however, is ramp up the assistance that we’re providing to Iraqi security forces as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their country. The President has said that he will deploy and has already ordered American airstrikes against ISIL targets in support of Iraqi security forces and their ground operations.
As it relates to Syria, the President has been just as clear that we will not send American servicemen and women into combat mission on the ground in Syria, but that someone does need to be responsible for taking the fight to ISIL on the ground in Syria. That is why the President has sought to ramp up the assistance that we’re providing to Syrian opposition fighters. We are pleased with the bipartisan progress that has been made thus far in the Congress to give the administration the Title 10 authority that’s needed to expand our training and equipping mission for Iraqi -- for Syrian opposition fighters.
There is one aspect of this that I do want to make clear. There has been some confusion that I’ve seen. These training -- this Title 10 authority to train Syrian opposition fighters would not occur on the ground in Syria. These training operations would be conducted in the region. You’ll recall that the Saudi government has already indicated a willingness to host some of these training operations in their country. So, to be clear, American military personnel would be responsible for much of that training. There’s a role to play for other countries that have some expertise in training security forces, but American military servicemembers would be assisting those training operations -- but those training operations would not occur on the ground in Syria. They would occur on the ground in the region in places like Saudi Arabia.
Q This is the President’s own former Defense Secretary, part of the original team of rivals, and he is saying that the President risks falling into a trap by continuing to say what he has been saying. Do you see that risk at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Peter, I think what I would say is there is no doubt that what the President is pursuing here is a strategy that ensures that America’s national security interests are front and center. And that is what’s guiding the President’s decision-making.
This is complicated business, and the context of questions that you all have asked me over the last several months about the sectarian divisions in this region of the world; you’ve noted the long history of conflict that exists in this area of the world; we’ve talked about how the United States has previously gotten drawn into conflicts in this region of the world in a way that didn’t always -- well, in a way that the President views didn’t always end with us maximizing the benefits for our own national security.
So the President has been very deliberative and thoughtful in his approach to dealing with this situation. At the same time, the President has not been hesitant to ensure that we’re using all of the elements of American power, including military power, to protect our people and our interests and our homeland.
Q Josh, was the President today at CENTCOM presented with a war plan or anything resembling a war plan that was detailed for him that he signed off on? Did that happen today?
MR. EARNEST: Christi, what the -- as I mentioned at the beginning, the President was updated on the ongoing planning efforts of senior officials at CENTCOM. This is part of an ongoing process that has been in place for some time. The President has been in regular touch with General Austin and other members of his national security team as they’ve developed options for the President.
The President announced one week ago today that he had made a decision to broaden our military campaign against ISIL. And that includes the deployment of American military air power against ISIL assets in support of Iraqi security forces in Iraq and, down the line, would be in support of the ground operations conducted by Syrian opposition fighters.
But I think the way that I would describe this meeting to you is that this is sort of part of the ongoing planning effort that’s been underway for some time at the Department of Defense. The President has been very pleased with the advice that he has received from his military planners. Again, he described the briefing that he received today as “thorough.” And I’m confident that the conversations that the President is having with members of his national security team and with his senior military commanders will continue.
Q Did he give any kind of sign-off or feedback on operational plans that were laid out for him today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more details to share with you in terms of the President’s conversations with his military planners at this point.
Q Is something like that needed in the near future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there will continue to be a dialogue with the President and his senior military commanders as they continue to pursue this planning process. They’ve made a lot of progress in a relatively short period of time here. And like I said, the President is pleased with the leadership of General Austin and other officials in CENTCOM as they’ve sought to give the President the advice that he needs as it relates to the strategy of broadening our military campaign against ISIL in the region.
The other thing that I don't want to leave out is that a focal of the efforts at CENTCOM is building this international coalition. And the President had the opportunity while we were at CENTCOM headquarters today to visit with and meet the senior national representatives of countries who partner with the United States in this region of the world, who closely coordinate their activities with CENTCOM officials and other American military personnel. And that is an indication of how much of a priority building and coordinating this international coalition is at CENTCOM.
So, again, the challenge that they face is significant. It’s not just putting together American military plans. It’s developing the kind of military plans that can be carried out by a broader international coalition. And it involves securing commitments from the broader international community, and from our partners in the region.
Q Of those 40 people that he mentioned today, from 40 countries, were those American military and diplomatic officers? Were they people from other countries? Or a mixture of both?
MR. EARNEST: They're obviously American personnel who are responsible for -- let me say it this way, they're representatives of foreign countries. But there are also American personnel at CENTCOM who are responsible for maintaining those relationships. So the answer is both.
Q Josh, President Poroshenko is at the White House tomorrow. Should we expect any announcements or fresh U.S. aid to Ukraine above the fact that this is obviously a very significant, symbolic gesture the President is having by having him in the Oval Office?
MR. EARNEST: Let me read something short on this, and then I’ll answer your question. The United States congratulates Ukraine for ratifying its association agreement with the European Union, and for passing the Amnesty and Special Status laws in parliament -- two important measures to peacefully resolve the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine.
In ratifying the Association Agreement yesterday, Ukraine committed to undertake a number of reforms that will help to deepen Ukraine’s democracy and lay the groundwork for a more stable and prosperous economy. We congratulate Ukraine on committing to undertake these important steps.
So what we have seen, Stephen, is significant progress that the Ukrainian government has made, under the leadership of President Poroshenko, to strengthen the democracy in that country. The President has made clear that he is committed to ensuring that the United States of America stands with the people of Ukraine as they seek to strengthen their democracy and strengthen their ties with countries around the world. This is about building up their democracy and strengthening their economy in a way that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. And the United States will continue to stand with our friends in Ukraine and support them as they pursue this effort.
I don't have any specific announcements to make right now, but stay tuned.
Q Josh, will there be any specific asks by our President of Mr. Poroshenko? And are there any expectations that he will make any specific asks of the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to speak for President Poroshenko. I think what you can expect that President Obama will do is continue to encourage President Poroshenko to pursue a diplomatic resolution of the differences between the Ukrainian government and the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
There is a tenuous cease-fire agreement that's been in place for a week or two now. And the President will -- well, let me say it this way, I think President Poroshenko’s visit -- at the invitation of President Obama -- is a pretty clear symbol to everybody, including the people of Ukraine, that the United States is prepared to stand with them as they pursue a future that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people, and as they seek to protect their sovereignty and their territorial integrity from inappropriate outside interference.
Q What’s the message to the unseen presence in the room -- Mr. Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in this case maybe the picture of President Poroshenko sitting in the Oval Office will be worth at least a thousand words, both in English and in Russian I think.
Q What would a few of those words be? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That's why you get paid the big bucks, to describe those pictures.
Anybody else? Okay, thanks, everybody.
2:34 P.M. EDT