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The White House

Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Obama National Security Speechwriter Ben Rhodes, 9/23/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                 September 23, 2009
Press Filing Center
Waldorf Astoria
New York, New York
1:54 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: How is everyone? I understand today's speaking record stands at an hour and 36 minutes, so we should probably get started -- that was just a joke.
Q You're going to pass their record of four and a half --
MR. GIBBS: Four and a half? No, let's hope not.
Ms. Loven.
Q Can you talk about the speech today? The tone seemed conciliatory, kind of -- were at a new -- a new era of cooperation, all kinds of language like that. What was the President trying to say he will give in order to get the kind of cooperation he is hoping to get back?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think, first and foremost, I think what those in the United Nations will get from the United States is a partner in the pursuit of many of the goals in which the President outlined today. I think he challenged the body to meet its responsibilities to the threats and the challenges that we face with the type of action that's necessary to meet them. I think he laid out an agenda, part of which we will take up starting tomorrow when the President chairs the proliferation meeting at the Security Council, and we continue our discussions on preventing nuclear weapons from landing in the hands of terrorists and the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world.
I think he -- again, I think it was -- I think the President outlined many of the challenges that we faced and challenged in many ways those sitting in the auditorium to use the forum on the United Nations in a more constructive way, and to all work together to meet our own goals -- to stop playing politics, to stop using this as a forum to create political sideshows, and instead to meet our challenges.
Q On a specific topic, on Iran, the talks coming up in a couple weeks -- can you outline for us what sort of activity is going on here this week, whether -- as the President chats with people, or Ambassador Rice, or Secretary Clinton -- talk about what's being done to get ready.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think a couple of things just today which -- today and tomorrow obviously which will be important. I mentioned a minute ago the President's meeting tomorrow at the National Security Council, which I think is obviously an important step. We've outlined and the President will continue to outline steps that we're taking even well into next year to invite nations to a summit to discuss the spread of nuclear material. The foreign ministers of the P5-plus-1 will meet later today and have a statement after that meeting. Obviously that's a group ahead of --
Q -- on Iran?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. And that will obviously be the same group that meets on October the 1st. And obviously, I think the President will discuss with Medvedev today -- I think number one on our agenda with Russia is the topic of Iran. I expect these conversations to continue as the President travels to the G20 in Pittsburg, and in the lead up to --
Q In what way? Like in a pull-aside kind of thing?
MR. GIBBS: I think throughout this you'll -- he will talk to members as pull-asides. This is a topic that comes up in virtually every conversation that he has with world leaders. I think it's important to -- the President believes it's important to continue those conversations while we're here.
Yes, sir.
Q Is there any sense that with President Medvedev today that the Obama administration's abandonment of the Bush-era approach to -- this will smooth the way to get some help from them on Iran?
MR. GIBBS: Mike McFaul will have a readout from the meeting. I think it's probably best to readout what happened rather than predict a few hours beforehand what might. I think obviously, as we talked about last week, the decision that was made to change a 2006 recommendation to greater address the Iranian threat with a system that was tested, flexible, and more effective was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and accepted by the President.
But I think obviously they'll have a chance to discuss a wide range of topics, including Iran today. And we'll have a readout from that afterwards.
Q Do you still contend that that decision made on missile defense was made without the Russians in mind?
MR. GIBBS: Don't take my word for it. Take Secretary Gates' and General Cartwright's word.
Yes, sir.
Q When Secretary -- or Ambassador Rice briefed us at the White House last week, she talked about benefits of the new approach to the U.N. and engaging more. And the main thing she said, though, was that the U.S. was viewed more positively. Is that it at this point? Because there are a lot of people saying no to the administration so far. Is it too soon to tell if your new strategy of greater engagement is going to work?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think -- and I think Ambassador Rice would tell you this -- I think greater engagement worked first and foremost with probably the most high-profile issue that the Security Council has had to deal with since the President came into office, and that was dealing directly with North Korea.
Go back to the briefings that we had around that time period and don't take it from me, but read the skepticism with which the questions came about the Security Council acting in a way that was not simply unanimous, but constructive in addressing that threat. I think that was addressed unanimously by the Security Council.
I do think again we're making -- the President believes we're making progress on Middle East peace; we’re making progress tomorrow on nuclear proliferation. Obviously, you heard the President talk about the threat that must be faced with North Korea and Iran. And we'll continue to work to make progress on that.
I would tell you that this is -- the President has been here for a little more than eight months. And we did not -- we never came in under the impression that years of these challenges would be wiped away in only a matter of months. The President has invested a lot of time and energy in these challenges, and understands it's going to take some time to continue -- take some time as we continue to make progress throughout these.
Q I know that the President did not want to come in contact with Mr. Qadhafi. There was an odd exchange between the President's speech and Qadhafi's speech where Qadhafi didn't get up when he was supposed to and they wouldn't have met behind the stage. Do you know what was going on there? And did that have anything to do with the White House's kind of orchestration of this?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think if I were to try to begin to explain the actions of Mr. Qadhafi today, I might be busy for the better part of the remainder of the afternoon.
Q But did you ask him to stay off the back of the stage between --
MR. GIBBS: No. No -- I mean, I think you saw the President actually came off the speech and sat down in the chair for a few minutes -- or for a few seconds and then left. So I don't -- maybe it was jet lag. I don't know. (Laughter.)
Q What about the White House or the President's reaction -- I presume he didn't get to hear directly the Libyan leader speak. He had left or was --
MR. GIBBS: No, apparently, he could have come in throughout the intervening hour and a half and caught bits and pieces, but he did not watch it.
Q Qadhafi suggested that it would be a good thing if President Obama remained President not just for life but forever. Does the White House have any response? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Leaving aside the amendments in the Constitution which the President agrees with wholeheartedly, it would be an interesting concept to continue being President beyond one's natural-born life.
Yes, sir.
Q Is a reduction in troops in Afghanistan one of the proposals, like an option being considered by the administration after these assessments?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the administration is -- let me go a little bit broader here on Afghanistan. We've talked about this topic a number of times. The President, during the transition and in the beginning part of his administration, asked for an assessment of where we were in Afghanistan. The President, on March 27th, outlined and defined the goal in Afghanistan of dismantling, disrupting, and ultimately destroying al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
Throughout this process -- and in that speech, the President okayed 21,000 additional troops to create a secure environment for recently conducted national elections, understanding that this would be done in phases. We are at a point now where we are evaluating what's been achieved, evaluating the situation on the ground, assessing the elections. And I think the President will take some time now to look at and talk to many stakeholders involved in assessing where exactly we go from here.
Q So a reduction in troops is an option? You're not ruling it out?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to rule out or rule in any number of things, except to say that the President wants a full evaluation and assessment, and wants to talk to all the stakeholders that are involved in that. I think the President always believed that after the elections was a natural time in which to assess, review, and measure where we are.
I think one of the things the President is -- he said this throughout his speech in March -- we are not going -- we are going to continually reassess where we are. We are going to continue to ensure that we have the best methods possible to achieve the defined goal that the President laid out, and that at that point, at some point after that agreement, there will be a discussion on resources needed to achieve that goal.
Q Have the elections changed your analysis or your --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think you can't look at this situation without looking at the elections, and obviously the outcome right now is still one that is being evaluated. I think obviously we have to have a strong partner, a strong national partner there. Obviously that's simply one of the things I think that the President is looking at to assess.
Q Why didn't the President mention Afghanistan in the speech today?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President outlined several ways that he thought -- as you saw, four pillars in which the President thought the body could address many of the situations going forward. Obviously he has and will continue to work on Afghanistan.
Yes, sir.
Q To follow up on -- President Obama spent a fair amount of time talking about not using the forum of the U.N. as a stage for political points, and then he's followed immediately by someone who uses it for precisely that point. Is there any reaction to that contrast?
MR. GIBBS: No. I mean, look, I think it was Qadhafi being Qadhafi. I think the President's speech lays out a path and a new chapter in working together to address our problems. I don't doubt that some will decide to harken back to what they've always used the forum for. I think the President understands, and I think most understand, that time is of the essence in addressing many of these challenges. We can't wait on addressing proliferation, or peace, or climate change, or the global economic situation. I think his focus and I think he hopes the focus of others will be on addressing those threats and those challenges in a constructive way.
Yes, ma'am.
Q Robert, do you have any comment about the incident which happened last night between the President's Secret Service people and the other secret service people of Prime Minister of Turkey? And Prime Minister of Turkey left the event last night, Clinton Global Initiative. Do you have any comments?
MR. GIBBS: Actually, tell me the last part, the President of Turkey --
Q He left dinner last night -- he didn’t attend the dinner last night because of the incident.
MR. GIBBS: I don't know why that would be -- obviously the President is -- as I understand it -- I think I was in one of the vans -- they had a group of people trying to come in while the President was leaving and, as is always the case, the Secret Service isn't always keen on that. But I don't see why that would cause a huge international ruffle.
Yes, sir.
Q Can I follow up on Afghanistan? In March, the President laid out a comprehensive strategy that was in part based on a civilian surge and new money for training. Is that now being reevaluated?
MR. GIBBS: The President said in that speech that we would constantly assess and evaluate where we were in achieving the defined goal that he laid out in that speech in March. That's -- I think we've all, in the past several years, watched conflicts that we didn’t assess where we were and how we were getting there and where we were trying to go. In many ways, that's why we find ourselves where we are in Afghanistan. The President is determined not to repeat that, and instead, to assess constantly where we are.
I think the President understands that decisions like this put our men and women in harm's way. And I think he owes it -- as he said over the weekend, he owes it to the parents of the men and women that we put in harm's way to constantly assess and evaluate where we are.
I would point out a few things. The effort in Afghanistan continues robustly. The very last portion of the additional resources that the President okayed in March are beginning to arrive in Afghanistan. I think obviously this administration has taken our efforts against al Qaeda and extremist allies -- has taken the fight to them on many fronts, be it in South Asia, be it in the Indian Ocean area, be it in addressing threats with state and local authorities in the United States.
So I sometimes get the feeling or the notion that because of this discussion and this assessment that somehow everything is on hold, and I think obviously that's not the case.
Q If I could just follow up, I mean, it's one thing to reassess tactics, but this sounds like it's a wholesale reassessment of the strategy --
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no --
Q -- the military thought they were -- understood what it was, European allies thought they understood what it was.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again -- well, first of all, understand this is also being done in conjunction with European allies. Right? I mean, NATO is briefed on and working through the McChrystal assessment just as the national security team in the United States are. So the notion that somehow this isn't being done in conjunction with all of those that have equities or troops in the area I think is inaccurate.
The President has, and continues to have, a defined goal for our mission in this region, and that is to disrupt, dismantle, and destroy al Qaeda and its extremist allies. There is an evaluation and assessment of the best tactics -- the best way tactically to achieve that, again, taking into account the assessment of where we are on the ground with a new commander, as well as different things like, as we mentioned, the outcome of recent elections -- all of which -- again, I think the President believes strongly we have to take into account moving forward and assess where we are, rather than simply continue in many ways as we did to get us where we are today.
Q On the nonproliferation stuff tomorrow, the language that the White House is seeking for the deliverable that will come out of that, I understand you guys are seeking to try to make it somewhat tougher and there's been some resistance to that. Can you talk at all about --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me do this. Gary Samore is going to come here at I think it's now 5:15 p.m. --
Q Five o'clock.
MR. GIBBS: -- 5:00 p.m., and then McFaul at 5:15 p.m. So he'll do a more comprehensive review on this, and let's hold that one for --
Q And tomorrow --
MR. GIBBS: Yes, Gary will look ahead to tomorrow. Mike will look slightly back to Russia.
Q Robert, how does the President view the interpretation of what he said yesterday about Israeli settlements? Does he think he was misunderstood?
MR. GIBBS: I think he was pretty clear this afternoon -- or this morning about what his position was yesterday and what it is today.
Q Did he add that line at the -- I mean, was that always supposed to be part of the speech, or did he add that this morning?
MR. GIBBS: The speech -- no, no, that's been in drafts for a while. This is -- our position on this has not changed. I would say some have fixated on this particular aspect not as a means but as an end. And I think as you heard Senator Mitchell say yesterday, the end that we seek is a two-state solution and a comprehensive Middle East peace. The best way to go about getting that is through bringing these two parties together to discuss many of the final status issues. And I think Senator Mitchell believes we're making progress on having that happen.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, one of the events the President is attending today I believe has to do with peacekeeping and saluting U.N. peacekeeping efforts. In one of the interviews on Afghanistan that aired over the weekend, the President said that the only reason that he would send a U.S. man or woman in uniform abroad was to keep the U.S. safe. Would that preclude sending U.S. military personnel ever as part of a peacekeeping mission that didn't have an immediate impact on U.S. security, or would it preclude sending U.S. military personnel overseas for a purely humanitarian or a human rights purpose?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think as the President said, he would commit our forces for whatever purpose because whatever that mission was he determined was in the national security interests of the United States.
Yes, sir.
Q Can you go into some of the details of the U.S.-Japan bilateral meeting, especially on the President's response to the Prime Minister's request to cooperate on the abduction issue?
MR. GIBBS: The truth is I don't have anything to add to the meeting other than what the two Presidents said after the meeting. I don't have anything more than that.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, can you hear me?
MR. GIBBS: Barely.
Q All right, I'll speak up a little bit more. One on Afghanistan and one on Iran.
MR. GIBBS: This is a little farther back than the third row today, Major.
Q Second row, Robert. (Laughter.) On Afghanistan, The New York Times reports that Vice President Biden, in these sessions talking about the way forward, has pressed specifically for a strategy that elevates the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, and he emphasizes U.S. combat forces on the ground. Can you tell us if that's true? And if not, is there anyone within these councils the President is dealing with who is moving ahead or pushing a strategy that does seek fewer combat forces and more use of drones either in Afghanistan or Pakistan?
MR. GIBBS: Major, I think you can understand why I'm not going to get into internal discussions that take place as the President and his team, including the Vice President, Secretary Gates and others, evaluate and assess where we are in Afghanistan.
Q So you can't say one way or the other if that's true or not?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into it.
Q All right. On Iran, a Russian delegate traveling with President Medvedev said today that Russia is willing to discuss additional sanctions if U.N. inspectors authenticate that Iran is not living up to its international obligation. Do you consider this a positive development and do you think this will be something that will be taken up tomorrow at the P5-plus-1, and be part and parcel of what happens October 1st?
MR. GIBBS: Obviously I think their willingness -- and in that answer demonstrating their willingness -- to play a constructive role I think is extremely important. I think that the foreign ministers of the P5-plus-1 will take this topic up this evening when they meet. I believe it will be, obviously, a heavy part of the conversation that the President has today with -- directly with Mr. Medvedev. And again, as we get closer to October 1st, obviously I would point you again to what the President said today, if the -- if the Iranians or the North Koreans are unwilling to live up to their international responsibilities and obligations, then they'll be held accountable. I think that is the strong view obviously of this President and will be of the international community.
Q -- October 1st is a genuine deadline for --
MR. GIBBS: I would simply say October 1st obviously is an extremely important meeting and day where the Iranians are going to have to make some decisions about their path forward and whether or not, again, they're going to live up to those obligations.
Jake, did I see you even back there farther than Major?
Q Yes, I'm behind Major. (Laughter.) This was an unusually blunt speech for an American President to give to the United Nations. I went back and I read a whole bunch of others that other Presidents have given, and with one exception, when George W. Bush was trying to get the U.N. to act against Iraq in '02, this language is really -- really stands out. Could you talk about the decision-making process, why the President felt like he needed to give such a speech, and what the reaction has been --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think as I said in the beginning, I think that this President believes, as he stated at the beginning of the speech, that many of the pillars that he outlined are challenges that are grave and face -- that the world faces and must be dealt with now; that time is not on our side in dealing with them; and that only through collective concerted action will we be able to make progress on many of these challenges. And I think the President was blunt for a reason, that the time for talking about some of these problems has passed; the time for acting on these problems is now. And I think that's what the -- the message the President was trying to convey.
Ben, do you have anything you want to add to that?
Ben Rhodes, ladies and gentlemen.
MR. RHODES: My large purple piece of construction paper is coming out. No, I'd just say that the President tries to speak very honestly and bluntly in these forums, for the reasons that Robert said. And his view is that he's taking America in a new direction; we are meeting our responsibilities; and now he wants to galvanize collective action going forward on our common challenges.
Anything else on the speech?
MR. GIBBS: Anybody else have --
Q Could you talk a little bit about the discussions and how long you've been working on it and the last few days of tweaks?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I mean, I'd say that he discussed the speech as obviously the centerpiece of what we were doing here. So we laid out the priorities that we wanted to set, and climate, peace and security, nuclear proliferation, and of course, the global economy all played a key role in this week. And so as we staked out over the last couple weeks the priority issues we'd be taking here, we fleshed out the speech around those pieces.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q How do you describe his first meeting with Prime Minister Hatoyama in general?
MR. RHODES: I would just point you to what the -- what he said after the meeting, but I think that they reiterated the importance of the relationship. And obviously Japan has a key role to play and Prime Minister Hatoyama has said constructive things about, for instance, proliferation as a challenge.
And again, I guess I'd just reiterate a point on the speech, that the President really outlined a vision of effective international cooperation. Basically what he's saying is, we believe strongly that we need to have international cooperation because nations have common interests. Proliferation threatens every nation. Climate change threatens every nation. The global economic downturn threatens every nation. So if we can't deal with these problems collectively, we're not going to deal with them effectively at all.
So as he laid out at the beginning of that speech, the United States has taken concrete actions in each of these areas to move in a new direction and towards greater international cooperation. But the key pivotal point is that for international cooperation to work, many nations have to live up to their responsibilities, because you're not going to be able to enforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unless there's consequences for violation of that treaty. You're not going to be able to make very concerted progress on Middle East peace, for instance, unless not only the parties -- the Israelis and Palestinians and the United States, but, for instance, the Arab states meet their responsibilities. You're not going to make progress on climate change, as the President said, unless all nations -- not just the United States, but all nations -- take concerted action on climate change.
So I think what he was really trying to emphasize and underscore is, we've all got a responsibility here -- and this gets back to Jake's question about the blunt language -- that we have a responsibility to move forward and that we can't keep having the same arguments about the past, which is what often happens at the United Nations; that it becomes a forum for litigating out, debating interpretations of history -- that instead, this President is committed to being someone who deals with 21st century challenges.
So in that sense, this was, as Robert said, an attempt to lay out in blunt language the urgency of action, the notion that we all have responsibilities for these challenges, and the fact that we are going to be working these issues. The President is not going to take his foot off the gas on any of these issues going forward because they are -- they're too urgent to both American national security but also the security of all nations.
Q He's more quotable than you are.
MR. GIBBS: Well, then quote him.
Q How long had the drafting of the speech been going on? How long had you been working on it, and did he sort of run through it here or last night or this morning?
MR. RHODES: We started working on this one about two weeks ago. As I was saying, we met about these pieces of the week -- climate change, nonproliferation -- these are all ongoing priorities, right? So -- that we identified as, as he said in the speech, they're pillars of his foreign policy.
So in terms of drafting the speech, we sat down a couple of weeks and, as usual, he had a very kind of strong view of what he wanted to do, which became the structure of the speech -- here's what we've done, here's where we're going, here's where we think we can go together. He worked on it a lot the last several days and including -- put the finishing touches on it last night after he came back from the climate dinner. So he was working on the speech well into the late hours last night. Some of us, as usual, didn't get a lot of sleep leading up to a major speech.
MR. GIBBS: Mark, do you have a question way back there?
Q Yes. Not on the speech, but can you give us the latest White House assessment of the U.S. relationship with Libya? Normalized relations resumed in 2006. It was taken off the terror sponsor list that same year. What is the nature of the relationship now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would say -- this is really all I have to add on this, is I think that we were deeply disappointed at the reaction in Libya recently at the Scottish decision, especially given the gravity of the situation and the heartbreak and suffering that so many went through in losing a loved one over Lockerbie. That's just my latest assessment of where we are.
Q Is Qadhafi invited to tonight's reception?
MR. GIBBS: I don't believe so, no.
Q Can we get a guest list for that?
MR. GIBBS: I can try to get one, yes.
Thanks, guys.
Q Any reflections on the U.N. -- this is your first one. It's not your first international summit. Is it -- how does it compare?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I mean I think -- speaking -- I think the President believes that in functions like this, like the G20 and others, obviously I think the pace is always quite fast; the schedule is always quite full. I think the President believes that these are unique opportunities to sit down and continue discussing face-to-face with leaders our priorities and our interests. I mean, I think we have in many ways -- this goes back even to our first trip to London. We've packed -- we usually pack quite a bit into several days.
I think the President believes, again, that these are opportunities to make genuine progress on many of the issues that he outlined today, because we can't afford to wait. I think he's -- the schedule is generally pretty packed with as many things as we can do that further our national interest, and further our involvement and engagement with the international community.
Q So he does value the face-to-face, despite the fact that you guys have kind of talked down the value or whatever that Bush put on -- the connection that he and some other leaders had.
MR. GIBBS: I don't think I understand the --
Q In London, you guys -- on the Europe trip, you guys specifically said you were -- you wanted to play down the idea of personal relationships.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that -- well, I would think -- I don't think a personal -- I think we can look back, and I think we can look at whether a personal relationship in and of itself will change the viewpoint of either a leader or the people of a country.
I think the President outlined this today. We have interests that are mutual, many times that are shared -- as Ben said, without international agreement on many of the issues in the pillars that the President outlined, without that cooperation and working together, it's hard to make genuine progress. I think the President believes outlining and working with leaders on what is in our mutual interests is necessary to make progress on those issues. Obviously, he values the time that he has to discuss these directly.
The President, as you know -- and we read out a lot of these -- speaks often with foreign leaders. Obviously, our national security and foreign policy teams are in constant contact, whether it's in Washington or New York or around the world. But I think the President believes we can and should all work in our mutual national interests to make progress.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, when the President says we can't go it alone anymore, is he really saying that we can't afford to go it alone financially, or we're not as strong perhaps in relevant terms like we were maybe a decade ago? What does he mean by that?
MR. GIBBS: I think we've seen what happens when the world acts together, and I think we've seen what happens when we don't. I think we've seen the progress that we can make when we take, as Ben talked about and as the President spoke about, collective action to address our challenges.
And I've talked about this -- the United States alone cannot solve the climate problem. The world likely can't solve the climate problem without the United States. But the world can't solve the climate problem without heavy involvement from the entire international community. You can't stop the spread of nuclear weapons if everybody is not on board. If you have one -- if you have one regime that is bent on distributing or selling nuclear weapons to a terrorist group and you don't have a pretty tight regime on that, then everybody is in danger.
Q If we were not the world's biggest debtor nation, how would that answer change? I mean, financially we just can't -- even if we wanted to, we couldn't afford to do it anyway. The fact that we're the biggest debtor nation, what impact does that have on our --
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don't think -- I think the President would be the first to tell you that money alone isn't going to solve these problems either. I mean, again, unless or until we take collective action, unless or until we work together regardless of the budgetary constraints or ramifications, we won't make progress and we won't see comprehensive solutions that are needed in order to address all these problems.
Thanks, guys.
2:33 P.M. EDT