Press Gaggle by National Security Advisor General Jim Jones and NSC Chief of Staff Denis McDonough Aboard Air Force One
7:19 A.M. EDT
MR. McDONOUGH: Hey, everybody. Sorry to bother you. We wanted to get you early enough in the flight, but we also wanted to get you a shot at General Jones, and I know that some of you were resting -- apologize for that. But we also wanted to do it soon enough so you can go back to rest.
So General Jones has got a couple of minutes. This will be on the record and I think he’s got a couple of remarks and then we’ll take your questions for a little bit. So, sir, you want to fire away?
GENERAL JONES: Thank you. I'm going to talk a little bit about the dinner last night and the final breakfast this morning, or the outcall with our Czech friends.
First, to the dinner last night. This was an all-NATO, all-EU attendance, basically all EU except for Croatia, 11 countries with their leaders. It was a very private dinner in the sense that the heads of state and heads of government were by themselves in a dining room. Adjacent to that was another room where people could take notes. But other than interpreters, the Presidents dined by themselves.
The President greeted each head of government, head of state individually and personally, welcomed them. And I will start out by saying that we have -- we had four themes that the President was interested in exploring, not necessarily in order of importance, but there was Afghanistan, Iran, European security and, finally, NATO.
The President started out in his opening remarks by emphasizing the importance of U.S. relations with each one of their countries and how much we value them. He thanked them each for their contributions to Afghanistan, emphasized that many of their contributions surpassed their national capacity -- in other words, many of them were actually doing more than was expected and he thanked them profusely for that.
He asked them to comment individually about their concerns and their evaluation of the themes, particularly NATO, the European Union and their relations with Russia.
He emphasized in his opening comments also that his administration, however long it lasted, was always going to place a high priority on the transatlantic relationship and the transatlantic partnership.
So each head of state, head of government individually spoke around the table. The President listened very attentively. The common themes that the other heads of state, heads of government presented was first an appreciation for the START treaty and the work that's been done with the Russian relations. They characterized the START treaty as increasing adding to their security, and for that they were very grateful.
They also emphasized at some length the value and the progress of U.S.-Russian relations and the impact that it’s had on their region. And they characterized it by saying that, indeed, not only is it decreasing tensions, that it’s increasing the opportunity for cooperation with Russia and reasonable dialogue.
Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman on that issue was the President of Estonia, President Ilves, who made that intercession, which was supported by his colleagues around the table.
They also emphasized their collective importance to NATO and to their security in the 21st century, obviously keying very much on Article 5.
Fourthly, they asked the President to make sure that we don't take our eye off the Balkans and to keep working on those issues as they are issues that are of great importance to them.
And lastly they also expressed their concern for their energy security -- for obvious reasons -- their dependence on certain sources.
So those were really the five themes that the leaders evoked during their presentations.
The President, in his closing comments, expressed his appreciation. He commented on all of those things. He gave them a general overview of our approach with regard to Iran. He reiterated our support for NATO, said a few words about the evolution of the NATO security strategy that's being written, emphasized that their role within that strategy and that determination was very important.
On energy security he said this is a 21st century asymmetric threat for all of us, that we all have to work on it; suggested to them that they do collectively within the European Union and suggested that diversity in sources of energy supply was a good thing for everyone, but pledged cooperation and support with regard to that issue.
At breakfast this morning the President used the opportunity, with his team, meeting with the President and his cabinet, to thank the President and his cabinet for the reception that we received not only this time, but also a year ago in Prague, which kicked off the commitment to achieve a START treaty; mentioned that forevermore Prague and the Czech Republic would be associated with this historic treaty and was very grateful for the warm reception that we had, including the location, the lunch that was held by the President with Russians, Czechs and Americans sitting at every table in the wonderful area in which we had the lunch yesterday.
The President recommitted to the security architecture and the importance of NATO once again, to the strategic concept where he overtly and sincerely supported President Klaus’s request and his cabinet’s request that they be full participants in the emergence of the NATO strategic concept. The President again said that there are no old members or new members in NATO, only members, and that they’re a full member of NATO and they should have no fear about anything be imposed on them without their full participation.
He also commented on the security architecture for Europe and the United States’ plan for missile defense and the phase adaptive approach, and reassured our host that this was in fact solid, well thought out and well supported.
And finally just reiterated his appreciation for the visit and pledged to stay in touch and looked forward to our continuing bilateral relations.
MR. McDONOUGH: Let me just add two things. One is a fact, the second is hearsay. But the fact is General Jones was SACEUR, obviously, when seven of the 11 allies joined the alliance, who had dinner with the President last night. So it’s obviously that this is something that we, from our leadership, the President and --
GENERAL JONES: Got my uniform on this morning. (Laughter.)
MR. McDONOUGH: -- the National Security Advisor take very seriously.
And the second instance, this is hearsay, but I gather from General Jones that President Klaus mentioned that President Obama spent so much time in Prague that he might have a job here in retirement as a tour guide in Prague. So while the President is not eager to look at post-current job options, he did take note of the fact that he has enjoyed his time in Prague very much.
GENERAL JONES: Actually, the President said that by the time his administration is over that might be all the energy he has left to -- you know, an appropriate way to spend his time.
MR. McDONOUGH: So why don't we take a couple of questions, if you've got them.
Q I’d like to ask if the President is disappointed that Netanyahu is not going to be able to make it to the nuclear summit next week.
GENERAL JONES: The President invited -- his invitation was to heads of state and heads of government. In the case of the Prime Minister’s decision he understands that their Holocaust Day events were going to make it difficult for the Prime Minister to be in two places at once. We obviously would like to have had the Prime Minister, but the Deputy Prime Minister will be leading the delegation and there will be a robust Israeli delegation. And we’ll still have a great conference, but he understands the reasons why.
Q Is that the real reason, sir? Or is it that they didn't want to be in the same room when countries like Turkey or Egypt or others in the Middle East might start talking about their nuclear holdings?
GENERAL JONES: I think that the Israelis did not want to be a catalyst for changing the theme of the summit, and I think that they will be at the table. The Prime Minister will be in Israel, but he is committed to the theme of the summit and the President's initiatives on proliferation and counter-proliferation and the spread of nuclear weapons.
So, again, we’ll be sorry that the Prime Minister can't be there, but we’re delighted that we’ll have a very, very god Israeli delegation.
MR. McDONOUGH: I would just say on that -- obviously you guys have been talking with Robert about this since the idea and the schedule for the summit was first announced last -- I forget the seasons now, but several months ago. And obviously it’s very important to the President that our ally, Israel, be at the summit. And obviously, as General Jones outlined and as he’s discussed with his colleague, the Prime Minister’s national security advisor, over the last several days, there are a variety of issues that we’re going to work very closely on all these things.
Q People are describing relations with Israel as being in a state of crisis. What do you think of that characterization?
GENERAL JONES: Well, as Denis just pointed out, and I should have mentioned, I was in touch with the Prime Minister’s national security advisor this morning. Last week we had an Israeli delegation in town working on mutual security interests. The national security advisor is coming into Washington next week and I'll be meeting with him as well.
So I think -- I know that the relationships are ongoing and fine and continuous. We’re talking about the importance of starting the proximity talks and I think everybody is pulling on the same oar in that direction.
Q Is the White House serious about drafting a U.S-Mideast peace plan? And is there a strong contingent within the White House that thinks that that's a good idea?
GENERAL JONES: There’s been no decision on that. Obviously there’s been some reporting about former National Security Advisors that I convene in the White House, which I do regularly to benefit from their experience on issues that they were working on and that we’re still working on, like the Middle East. But we are focused on the proximity talks, eventual resumption of peace talks and getting to the two state solution in a manner that's befitting and deserving for the people of the region, and the overall security of the region and the impact on the global playing field.
This is obviously a very strategic moment with Iran and our efforts there. The two are very closely linked because of the region that both efforts are ongoing in, and we have to treat that with the seriousness that it deserves.
Q It sounds as if you're leaving room for the possibility that that could be under consideration. And also is the White House satisfied with how serious the Israelis appear to be in the current conversations?
GENERAL JONES: Well, these are ongoing discussions and I think that while we’ve not taken any decision to jumpstart any dramatic shift in our strategy, I think we should say to make clear that we don't intend to surprise anybody at any time, and that whatever we do will always be done with the effort to help both Israel in its legitimate and our unqualified pledge to their security, and the emergence of a new Palestinian state that has legitimate claims on sovereignty and what that would look like; that we will be a full time player and we will do everything we can to bring this about so that all sides are satisfied.
Q What are the President's goals for the meeting with President Hu on Monday? And has the President been briefed yet on Secretary Geithner’s trip to Beijing?
GENERAL JONES: I don't know the answer to that right now.
MR. McDONOUGH: You know, I think as it relates -- I think you'll probably have an opportunity to get a better read on the meeting on Monday. General Jones has provided a bunch of material for the President to work on the way home, provided -- included in that was a report from the Secretary on his trip. But I don't think we’re in a position right now to kind of lay that out for you. But I'm sure over the course of the next couple days you’ll have a shot at that as you all prepare for the bilats on Monday.
Q General Jones, can you talk about what you make of Karzai’s statements? I mean, they've been rather weird and sort of up and down, and I know there’s been a lot of controversy about what it means and what might happen. Can you talk about what the White House makes of it, how you assess the way he’s talking just a few days after the President was there?
GENERAL JONES: We believe that we are on a encouraging glide path in Afghanistan, and Pakistan I might add. We have a number of significant events coming up: President Karzai’s visit to the U.S., the Kabul conference later on, the --
Q The Karzai visit is on definitely?
MR. McDONOUGH: Absolutely.
GENERAL JONES: There’s no modification to that whatsoever.
We have been in contact, as you all know. President Karzai and Secretary Clinton had a clarifying conversation. We have consistently said since the elections that President Karzai is our strategic partner. We have a huge amount of work to do in terms of bringing all these pieces of our strategy together so they function in a cohesive way. We see indications on the ground that they are, in fact, moving in that direction. We have I think a successful operation in Marja. We have strategic objectives to achieve by the end of this year to solidify the gains that we think we’re making now.
And I believe that the rhetoric on perhaps both sides ought to -- we ought to calm the rhetoric and engage as strategic partners intent on bringing about peace and security in not only Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in the region as well. And that's what we’re doing.
Q What exactly was clarified in the conversation? How was this -- how were things clarified?
MR. McDONOUGH: That's a good question for Secretary Clinton.
Q Secretary Clinton?
MR. McDONOUGH: That sounds like a question for her.
GENERAL JONES: Yes, I think the Secretary could answer the question, since she had the conversation. But President Karzai did not intend to create any damage to the relationship. And the President has sent a letter to President Karzai, which was delivered by the ambassador, basically recommitting ourselves to the success of our operation and our partnership and looks forward to greeting him in Washington to continue that progress.
Q Don't Karzai’s remarks lately, though, underscore what Ambassador Eikenberry said in his memo to you all, his cable to you all during the Afghan review -- that this was not a reliable partner and therefore that strategy ought not to rely on him as a foundation for success there?
GENERAL JONES: Well, first of all, on that issue we have a democratically elected President who by definition is our partner. And he, I think, will prove himself over time as we tackle all of these important issues to be very reliable and is very appreciative of everything that we’re doing.
But this is not easy and there are times when in the region he probably is provoked in one way or the other to make certain statements that can be misinterpreted. And I think we have gotten through this period. Secretary Clinton’s conversation was clarifying and I think you'll find over the days and weeks ahead that we’ll get back to regular order here to do the things that we have to do. We have people who are laying their lives on the line -- both Afghans and coalition members, U.S. forces. This is what we’re about. We’re trying to bring about peace and stability. And I think that this matter is really behind us now and I think you'll see that in the weeks ahead.
Q When was the letter sent? The letter from the President, when was that sent?
MR. McDONOUGH: I think -- what day is it? Is today Friday? This week.
GENERAL JONES: Probably delivered yesterday.
Q Was there any admonishment in it or any --
GENERAL JONES: Absolutely not. It was a very respectful letter. The President thanked President Karzai for his hospitality during the trip. I might say that having been in on the conversation between the two Presidents, that there was far too much reporting on lecturing and making corruption the centerpiece of everything we talked about -- that wasn’t the case. The conversation between the two was very respectful, very friendly. It was very direct and frank.
And then the other significant event I thought was a first was the dinner that President Karzai hosted in which most of the members of his cabinet were also at the table interspersed and were each able to give a short presentation about their ministry and the progress and the problems that they have. And I think we all came away -- I know I came away being generally impressed with the quality of the ministers and the seriousness with which they’re approaching their job -- and that included several ministers who spoke out on women’s rights in Afghanistan and things of that nature.
So I actually came away from that -- and I know the President did, too -- fortified by the conversations he had, reassured by the conversations with the President. And also we had a favorable opinion of the quality of the ministers that are advising him.
MR. McDONOUGH: Can I just add to this. The letter was a thank you letter, because the President was very grateful for the fact that on such short notice that President Karzai and his government did receive him and the delegation at the palace, had the dinner that the General spoke about.
And so as the General said, in fact as is typically the case with very gracious actions, it was General Jones’ idea to send a letter. So that's the letter that we sent, and as he said it was delivered earlier this week. It’s hard for me to remember the day, so it may have been yesterday or the day before.
GENERAL JONES: I know the letter was delivered. If you'd like to know exactly when we can find out, but I think it was delivered yesterday, it could have been the day before.
I want to confirm that this was in fact exactly what it is: It was a thank you note and a pledge to continue our common efforts towards success in Afghanistan and a statement of support and willingness to work together. There was absolutely no reference to anything else.
Q Can I ask about Kyrgyzstan, what’s happening in Kyrgyzstan, do you recognize the new government and what do you think is going to happen with the Manas base?
GENERAL JONES: Well, those are good questions that we’re asking ourselves, it’s an ongoing situation that we’ll have to watch carefully and we’ll be back talking to the Secretary of State today; as we get back this will be an evolving matter that I shouldn't comment on now as it’s unfolding. We’re watching it as it unfolds.
Q Prime Minister Putin called Rosa Otunbayeva the new declared leader of Kyrgyzstan. Have we had any high-level contacts with their government, their new government, or transition government?
GENERAL JONES: Well, not from this flight. I think the President will look forward to getting a report from Secretary Clinton. Obviously Manas is a very important air base for our operations in Afghanistan, but all that we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out because it’s just too early.
Q As long as we’re talking about Central Asia, President Obama is meeting with President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan next week, who’s been criticized for his human rights record and democracy and so forth. Is that something the President would bring up?
GENERAL JONES: I'm sorry, I missed the last part of the question.
Q Democracy, human rights, is that something the President would bring up?
GENERAL JONES: The President will never hesitate to speak up on democracy and human rights, which was the cornerstone of our own democracy. President Nazarbayev is recognized in the context of this nuclear security summit as having done something very courageous and exemplary for his country and for proliferation in general. And it’s in that context that the President will be receiving him.
But there will be other subjects the we’ll bring up with each different head of state with whom he’s going to have a bilateral.
Q General, looking ahead to the nuclear security summit coming up this week, with so many parties that have so many different interests, can we expect anything more than, say, a broad commitment of some sort to deal with loose nukes and the concerns the President has mentioned?
GENERAL JONES: Well, I think this summit is important. And if you look at the chain of events that's happened very quickly, the signing of the START treaty, the rollout of the NPR, the Nuclear Posture Review, this summit and then in May in New York another proliferation-type conference -- I think it signals the seriousness with which we approach this very, very important issue.
And, you know, many times I'm asked what keeps me awake at night, and the answer is always the same -- and that's proliferation, the fact that a weapon of mass destruction could fall into terrorist hands. And my absolute conviction, and I think the President's conviction, that if that happened the terrorists that we’re dealing with today would not hesitate to use it, which would change the world as we know it.
So this is a subject that the President is very eager to lead on. You can be sure that the President will devote 100 percent of his time to this summit and to guiding it and keeping it on track, on theme, on message, and will use his persuasive powers to make sure that everyone understands just how serious it was. And the fact that almost 50 countries are coming to Washington, most heads of state, heads of government level, is indicative of the response that these countries are paying to this very important subject. So --
Q Again, sir, the question was will there be some unifying statement or document out of this thing?
GENERAL JONES: Well, I hope so. At the end we’ll certainly have a wrap up statement, but I don't want to pre-judge the conference; but yes, absolutely, it would be our goal to have a unifying statement that commits the attendees to keep working on this issue. We’re not going to solve everything right now, but I think with the United States leadership, President Hu of China, President Medvedev, President Sarkozy, a significant of the world’s leaders coming, Angela Merkel, this is important.
MR. McDONOUGH: Peter, I would just say that as one of the guys who’s been tasked by General Jones and the President to make sure that this is a very concrete summit that there will be very concrete actions out of it.
Q Can I just clarify one thing quickly in your response to Christi’s question. It sounds like you're saying that the peace plan is under consideration, but it’s not -- no decision has been made.
GENERAL JONES: No, there is no change in our strategy in the Middle East. But --
Q But is it under consideration?
GENERAL JONES: -- the idea of a U.S. plan has been talked about for years. It’s not something new. But there will be no surprise to any of the participants at all. So we’re focused on the resumption of the talks. The best way to help us in our collective goals is to restart the peace talks. It will also help us in what we’re trying to achieve with Iran.
Thank you very much.
MR. McDONOUGH: All right guys, thanks a lot.
Q One quick factoid, Denis. Is it possible the President might use this flight to call any senators on the ratification of the new START?
MR. McDONOUGH: I don't think so. I know that he’s working on a lot of different things -- the summit and then a bunch of other stuff that's been coming in. But if something like that happens we’ll make sure that we let you know.
7:49 A.M. EDT