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DAS Wittes: Good morning everyone, and thank you for coming out as Washington is still recovering from a pretty nasty week, but it’s good to see you, including some old friends out in the crowd.
Let me start with just a couple of minutes of comments about the Secretary’s trip, and in particular the speech that she gave at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha on Sunday, and some of the civil society activity that she’s engaged in on this visit.
The Secretary was speaking in Doha, kind of giving an update on the vision that President Obama laid out in Cairo last June, and reiterating the new approach that the United States is bringing to its interactions with Muslim communities and governments of Muslim majority countries around the world. And that new approach really has three key elements to it.
The first is relationships built on mutual interest and mutual respect. The second, a commitment to universal values. And thirdly, working in the spirit of partnership and mutual responsibility. A broader engagement that goes beyond our government to government relationships and really looks at how we can build better engagement with citizens across Muslim communities all around the world.
The Secretary was laying out in her speech how our policies and the partnerships that we’ve built since coming into office last year reflect this new approach. Our commitment and our active engagement toward achieving a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; banning torture; responsibly withdrawing our combat forces from Iraq and building a civilian partnership with the government of Iraq; our efforts to engage diplomatically including with Iran, and to try and deal diplomatically with the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program; our work multilaterally including rejoining the United Nations Human Rights Council; and the work that we’re doing in terms of broader engagement to reach out to support civil society, democracy activists, reformers, and citizens across the Middle East and in Muslim communities around the world.
One of the points that she was making after laying out how those policies are linked to the principles the President spoke about in Cairo is how important partnership is to achieving all of these shared goals, whether it’s Middle East peace, or advancing human rights and democracy. The partnership is key to achieving all of these shared objectives and that as we reach out we are encouraged by a number of governments and non-government partners that have reached out to us in return, and we’re seeking more partnership from our friends around the world.
As Michael mentioned, my main responsibility in the Near East Affairs Bureau is to supervise the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the broader Middle East and North Africa project initiative, and more broadly, to work on democracy and human rights issues, support for civil society. This broader engagement across the Near East region.
The Middle East Partnership Initiative, which is one of our main mechanisms, really to make manifest this vision of partnership with citizens, not just with governments. The Middle East Partnership Initiative is really working to advance that view. And its mission at this point is to build vibrant partnerships with citizens in the Middle East who are working on behalf of their own political, social and economic empowerment.
We do that in a variety of ways. In the seven years since the program was established, it’s given over half a billion dollars across the region to more than 600 projects in 17 countries. So it’s really built a record.
Moving forward, we are going to be focused on a lot of the same issue areas that MEPI has worked on in the past including educational reform, support for democracy and human rights, support for reform of political institutions, support for economic innovation, including helping to develop young entrepreneurs and helping to promote the inclusion of women more fully into the private sector.
We are doing that through an emphasis not just on kind of big projects implemented by international NGOs, but also through our local grants program. At this point I want to emphasize this to you because I really think this is at the heart of the vision of broader engagement that this administration is committed to. The local grants program that MEPI runs operates in every country in the region. This is a program that provides direct support to indigenous civil society organizations. It represents now fully one-half of the projects that the Middle East Partnership Initiative implements.
So I just want to highlight that fact for you as a way of emphasizing the commitment that we have to supporting indigenous citizen efforts to build the kind of future they want for their own societies and to play a role in the broader political process in their own societies of setting that new direction.
So with that me stop and open it up for your questions.
Al Hayat: Joyce Karam with Al Hayat Newspaper. It’s good to see you here.
I wanted to ask you about the, you probably weren’t in office when they decided the 2010 budget, but we’ve seen, I think it’s between 40 percent to 60 percent cut in aid to civil society and democracy promotion. Seventy-five percent in the case of Egypt. That’s numbers according to NGOs in the Beltway area.
How does that complicate your job? Why did that happen?
DAS Wittes: I’m not sure what the factual basis of that question is. If you look at MEPI’s budget for 2010, we were granted a 30 percent increase by Congress. It isn’t everything that we asked for. The administration request for 2010 for MEPI was $86 million; we were given $65 million. But that’s still an increase of 30 percent over what we had in the last year of the Bush administration and I think it’s a signal, a positive signal for us as we move forward.
So as far as our work, we have more resources available and as strong a commitment as ever to supporting civil society in Egypt and across the region. In fact MEPI, in Egypt we made a commitment this year to set aside a specific portion of our program funds for civil society in Egypt, and we’re going to continue to do that going forward. DRL also has set aside some funds specifically to support local civil society groups in Egypt.
So you may have seen some reductions on the part of other parts of the U.S. government that provide this kind of funding, but MEPI has actually stepped up in this area.
Al Hayat: In the case of Egypt in particular, how much aid is given to democracy promotion and civil society? In the Obama administration.
DAS Wittes: Exact numbers for 2010 are still very much in flux. You may have noticed that Congress in its appropriation put a cap on 2009 spending for democracy and governance in Egypt out of the Bilateral Aid Program, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. MEPI is not bilateral, it’s region wide, and there are a number of other mechanisms that we have available to do this work.
I don’t have all those figures in front of me but there are a variety of means by which we can support this activity and we are very committed to doing so.
VOA: Mohamed Shinnaw, Voice of America.
Arab reformers and democracy promoters feel that the United States is yielding to Arab autocratic regimes, tactical state controlled reform that’s designed to fend off real democratic transformation, especially in Egypt. What do you say to that?
DAS Wittes: I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of our intention or our policy or the work that we’re engaged in. We do have dialogue with all of these governments. These governments are important partners for us. These are also governments that have made commitments to their own populations about what they’re going to do to proceed down the path of democratic reform.
We take those commitments seriously, that those governments have made to their own people, and we expect our partners to take them seriously as well. It’s actually something that we discuss with them quite regularly. I would say in just about every senior meeting we have, we are raising issues in democracy and human rights, and we’re talking about specific things that we think we’d like to see these governments do to advance down that path.
So we’re by no means hands off on the topic, and as I mentioned, in addition to our dialogue with governments we have an ongoing engagement with civil society, with political parties, with aspiring candidates and politicians for whom we provide training and other kinds of support, and we really are engaged at the government and the non-government level to try and advance the ball down the field in terms of democratic reform.
VOA: I noticed when you met with the reformers in Egypt (inaudible) put an article and reading the comments scared me because most of the liberals that are commenting are asking not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Egyptian, of Egypt, assuming that the United States shouldn’t be doing this and criticizing your role in meeting with these people.
How would you deal with this resentment to a U.S. role? And the perception that this is an interference with the internal affairs of Egypt?
DAS Wittes: I think, and let me speak not about Egypt specifically although I will get back to that in a minute, but more broadly, about our approach. I think Secretary Clinton spoke about this at length in her speech on human rights and democracy in December at Georgetown.
What she said there and what I believe very firmly is that we don’t live in a world where we can sort of set walls at the borders of our countries and say what happens inside doesn’t matter. We can see a variety of issues in which internal affairs affect the international community. Whether it’s refugee flows, whether it’s disease, whether it’s domestic governance. And as you just saw at the international conference dealing with Yemen, issues of governance in Yemen are deemed by the international community as very relevant to the broader security challenge that we all face from extremists there and it’s something that the international community is committed to working on with Yemenis, the government and the population.
So I don’t think we exist in a world today where we can say that certain things are outside the realm of discussion, and certainly that’s not the case in our discussions with our partners. We talk about a range of issues.
So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, as I said and as I think we’ve manifested in all of our diplomacy, the President, the Secretary, all the way on down, we are committed to a broader engagement with this region that goes beyond the high politic, strategic issues that are an important and traditional part of our dialogue, but we’re broadening our dialogue well beyond that. We’re talking about education. We’re talking about how to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. We’re talking about how to advance cooperation in science and technology. All of those are domestic issues as well.
So I think that if we are willing to engage at this broad level, at the people to people level, we’re going to discuss all of the issues and certainly democracy and human rights, as something that we’re committed to ourselves, as a government, as something we’re committed to internationally. That’s going to be an important part of our diplomacy.
Haberturk: This is Tulin Daloglu with Haberturk. It’s a Turkish daily newspaper.
In the context of promoting human rights and democracy, do you reach out to the Iranian population in Iran?
DAS Wittes: I think that you’ve heard very clearly from the State Department, from the White House, a lot of concern about the human rights situation in Iran, about the fact that Iranian citizens are attempting peacefully to express their grievances and to seek redress from their government. These are universal rights that are endowed to them as human beings. This is a set of international standards that we all need to adhere to. And I think we’ve watched with great concern as the Iranian government has failed to uphold its international obligations in dealing with its own population.
So this is something we’re very concerned about. It’s something we’ve spoken about very explicitly, expressed those concerns very explicitly. In Geneva today there is a discussion of Iran’s domestic human rights record as part of its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. This is a process, by the way, that the United States is going to undergo this year in November, since we’ve now joined the Human Rights Council.
So again, to emphasize, these are universal values to which we are all committed. We apply them to ourselves and we expect other countries to uphold those standards as well. We’re very concerned by the failure of the Iranian government to protect the basic rights of its citizens.
Haberturk: I’m not objecting that these are not universal values. They are exactly universal values. But my question was what can you do if the Iranian regime continues to clamp down the green movement on the streets? Do you have any, have you thought about it, if it really comes to the point that they do not get the message of the international community and continue doing what they are doing?
DAS Wittes: I think you’ve seen this aspect, this concern over human rights, as part of a broader international engagement and other concerns that we also have with the Iranian government and its behavior, internally and externally. And we are committed to working with our partners internationally to try and persuade the Iranian government to change that behavior. So there are a variety of mechanisms that we are engaged in along with our partners to do that. We’ve been very active diplomatically, and I think this administration has demonstrated again and again as the President said the other day, we’ve bent over backwards to demonstrate our willingness to engage with the Iranian government in a different way. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the kind of response that we would hope to see, and we haven’t seen the Iranian government demonstrate a willingness to change its behavior either on issues of international security concern, like its nuclear program, or so far on issues of human rights concerns. So I think both of these are very much, are very troubling. I think it’s something that we’re engaged in, a constant process of dialogue with other partners in the international community about how to respond to this.
As you know, we are discussing what next steps we need to take in order to send a strong signal to the government of Iran and try and make the choice sharper for them in terms of what behavioral changes they need to make if they want to really rejoin and become a partner in the international community. Right now they don’t seem very interested in doing that.
Institute for Gulf Affairs: Hi. My name is Karen Laty. I’m from the Institute for Gulf Affairs.
I wanted to ask you the U.S. position in Saudi Arabia, because Saudi Arabia is responsible for many abhorrent human rights violations, especially against Yemeni civilians right now with the Yemeni situation and also against women specifically.
And I wanted to know how the Obama administration will push for greater civilian rights in Saudi Arabia.
DAS Wittes: Thank you.
You know that Secretary Clinton has been in Saudi Arabia. She was there Monday and Tuesday, today. On Monday she had a series of bilateral meetings with government officials, and today she has been in Jetta meeting with civil society leaders and student leaders in Saudi Arabia. This is part of a commitment that she has really everywhere she visits to engage not just at the government level but at the level of civil society. It’s something she feels very strongly about herself because her own political activism started out in civil society with work on women and children’s issues, and this is something that she feels very passionately about, a commitment to supporting civil society activists and particularly women’s empowerment and women’s leadership.
You may have seen in her speech in Doha she spoke at length about the importance not only of women’s empowerment in political and economical and social terms, but also the importance of addressing abuses against women by governments and society. Violence against women and the important role those governments, religious leaders and other community leaders have in speaking up against those kinds of abuses. So this is something she feels very very personally committed to and it’s something she made a point of doing in her stop in Saudi Arabia, was taking time to meet with a group of women business leaders from the Jetta Chamber of Commerce and Industry, women lawyers, and social entrepreneurs including a group of young women at Daral Hekma College who are committed to doing what they can to make a difference in their own community. They’re not waiting for anyone to hand them additional rights. They are taking it in hand to do what they can to make a positive change in their own community. She’s there largely to recognize and support and encourage those kinds of efforts.
The National: Steven Stanek from The National.
I’m just wondering what are the specific things that the administration might say to a leader like Hosni Mubarak to encourage democratic reforms? And what is this administration doing differently than the previous administration because as you know, there were attempts to enact some democratic reforms in Egypt, but they didn’t happen.
DAS Wittes: President Mubarak at the last election cycle in Egypt in 2004-2005 when he was running for reelection, made a series of promises to his own people about removing the emergency law from application, about removing prison terms for journalists, about having a more open and competitive political process. As I said before, those are commitments made by a leader to his people. Those are commitments that we have discussed with the government of Egypt, that our President discussed with President Mubarak when he was here in August, and I think the public record reflects that conversation. And it’s something that we continue to raise with them regularly as they head into a series of three very important elections this year.
So we would like to see a more open, a fair process of elections in Egypt this year. We are working both on the diplomatic side and through programmatic support to do what we can to try and cultivate a more democratic system in Egypt and to try and support an open, robust public debate and an open election in Egypt.
The National: Is there a way to ensure that these things happen to make sure that, what happens if they don’t happen as they did during the Bush administration?
DAS Wittes: I would love it if there were a way to make sure that these things happen. The future of democratic politics in Egypt and in every other country, just as is true in our own country, is up to the citizens. It’s up to citizens themselves to set their goals, to organize and mobilize, and to advance those goals. Our role is to support that effort. And it’s important for us to make sure that we are doing what we can to support internal voices that are working on behalf of those universal values that I talked about.
So we’re going to do that, but we can’t ourselves substitute for that internal role. We can support it, we can encourage it, and we can talk to our partner governments about what they can do to support and encourage it as well.
World Business Press Online: Good morning. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I’m from the World Business Press Online news agency.
My question is, we already spoke about Iran, already spoke about Saudi Arabia. Secretary Clinton was in Saudi Arabia criticized the sanctions over Iran are just long term solutions that maybe some immediate action should be done before the Iran regime and human rights go totally wrong.
So my question is, and you also mentioned that you are considering (inaudible) steps and solutions. So if you could be more specific, what kind of steps and directions are you considering right now? Thank you very much.
DAS Wittes: Thank you.
First, just to clarify, I think the comments that you’re referring to about long term versus short term were actually made by the Saudi Foreign Minister in that press conference. He was expressing his sense of the situation.
I think that we understand that from the perspective of our partners in the region, especially in the Gulf, there is a sense of urgency about the situation with Iran because they are the ones, as the Secretary said, who feel the most direct threat. So we are committed to working with them to ensure that they feel more secure, and we’re working internationally to try and, as I said, change Iranian behavior in a way so that all of us feel more secure and more reassured about the role that Iran is playing in the region and the world.
I’m not going to get into further steps here. It’s not really my bailiwick. I’ll leave it to others to discuss the multilateral diplomacy on Iran.
Asharq Al Alawsat: Mina Al-Oraibi, Asharq Al Alawsat newspaper.
I want to ask you about Iraq. We have the elections coming up next month and there really are significant questions being raised about one, how transparent the process of even allowing candidates to run the elections and the elections themselves.
Can you tell us a little bit about the role that the U.S. is playing to help making sure that the elections are open and transparent and fair?
And also in terms of what you would consider ensuring that the election outcome is acceptable. Thank you.
DAS Wittes: I think what makes an outcome acceptable to the population, to the citizens who are voting, is whether they have confidence in the process. So I think what’s most important is that Iraqis feel that the process is open, that it’s fair, that it’s transparent, that they can participate freely.
For me what’s very encouraging about the situation in Iraq heading into these very important elections is that most of the debate, most of the conflict if you will, is taking place through words rather than through violence in the streets.
Now there are those who are trying to use this period to foment sectarian tension and to try and send Iraq back to the bad old days of civil conflict, but those are relatively fewer than they have been in years past. Personally I find it very encouraging that Iraq and Iraqis are at a point where they’re working out their disputes politically. That’s what democracy is about.
So that’s I think the first important point.
The United States is working in a variety of ways with the government of Iraq, and with the Iraqi civil society to try and support this election process, to make it one that is peaceful, open, transparent, and one that the Iraqi people can have confidence in, both through work with NGOs like the National Democratic Institute which is doing a variety of work with government and with civil society in Iraq, support for Iraqi civil society organizations that are involved in civic education, get out the vote efforts, voter monitoring. So across the variety of issues related to the electoral process there are a variety of American programs all designed to support Iraqis, government and non-government who are working on that process.
Asharq Al Alawsat: There is the serious case of which candidates will be allowed to run or not. To actually give somebody the platform to run in elections is crucial.
I know that the U.S. government has been careful not to seem like it’s interfering, but at the same time has an important voice in Iraq. So if you could just speak to the importance of actually allowing as many candidates as possible to run in elections, and do you think that the process as has happened impedes the democratic process?
DAS Wittes: Look, it seems to me that the Iraqi government has a process in place. This has been ongoing for some weeks now, this discussion over who will or will not run. It has gone through a variety of decisionmaking processes starting with the committee and moving into the judiciary and parliament has had discussions, so it seems to me that there’s been a full airing of the issues in Iraq. There have been some authoritative decisions made by Iraqi institutions, and the process is now moving forward and the campaign has begun.
So it really demonstrates to me, or it emphasizes to me, I guess I would say, that this is an Iraqi process. That Iraq has institutions in place to deal with these issues, and that Iraqis have the capacity to debate these issues in a very robust manner in public and to work them out through their institutions.
Al Hayat: Can I ask you two questions?
DAS Wittes: Why don’t we take them one at a time.
Al Hayat: Can you tell us a little bit if MEPI is doing anything in Gaza? Is the aid flowing to non-Hamas affiliated NGOs? That’s one.
Your predecessors mostly Liz Cheney, used to like meeting with opposition groups in D.C. You don’t have to answer, but have you had any meetings with opposition groups from the Middle East in the capitol?
DAS Wittes: I’m not sure I’ve had any requests to meet with opposition groups in the capitol.
Let me talk about Gaza because I think it’s really important and the Secretary spoke about this also in Doha on Sunday.
This is a crisis for the people of Gaza that is really troubling to all of us. It’s something that we are working very hard to address. The United States is, let me say first, we’re the largest donor to UNRWA, the Relief Works Agency. We have devoted many many millions of dollars to humanitarian relief in Gaza and USAID in Gaza now is working on a series of reconstruction projects that it’s trying to get into place and get that process kick started. So that’s on the assistance side.
MEPI is engaged in Gaza in a couple of ways. On the education side. And it’s important to remember that the population of Gaza is incredibly young. I think 60 percent of the population of Gaza are kids. So it’s very important that we focus on this population and we do what we can not only to ease the humanitarian burden, but also to provide this very young population with the tools they need to overcome the experience of their day-to-day lives and to give them the tools to succeed in the future hopefully when peace is established. So MEPI supports two important projects, three actually, to support Gazan youth.
One is English access micro-scholarships. This is a program that MEPI started, USAID now supports it in a variety of countries around the region, and it provides underprivileged young people, kids who don’t normally get access to say an English language school, to get some English language training. It’s really a gateway for so many other opportunities because English literacy is such a currency of success in today’s globalized world. That’s the first thing.
We also have two scholarship programs that were established by Secretary Clinton when she visited Ramallah in March, right after the war in Gaza was over. It was her first overseas trip as Secretary and she went to Ramallah to emphasize her commitment to the Palestinian people and launch these two scholarship programs. One of them supports deserving but again underprivileged high school students in the West Bank and Gaza who would like to be able to go to school in the United States. And provides them two years of intensive training in English language, taking the SATs, writing essays, all the skills that they would need in order to apply successfully to an American university which is a dream for so many people.
Then we also have a scholarship program that sends underprivileged youth from the West Bank and Gaza and a number of other Arab countries to American universities in the region, to AUC, AUB, and LAU. And so those are three projects that MEPI specifically runs that support youth in Gaza and tries to give them a window, some new opportunities, and a look at a better future.
Haberturk: Thank you. This is Tulin Daloglu again.
In her speech Secretary Clinton also talked about the State Department representative on innovation and entrepreneurship, paying a visit to Turkey. Can you please give us some information about it? What are the ideas that are being talked? What is it that we should be expecting out of this visit? Thank you.
DAS Wittes: Thank you. You’re talking about Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor for Innovation in the State Department. Alec, I think he’s actually spoken to you in the Foreign Press Center a month or so ago about the Secretary’s speech on internet freedom.
He is a very dynamic young man, as you know, and he is committed to making the United States more technologically savvy in our diplomacy, number one. And number two, he’s committed to figuring out how you use new media tools more effectively in our broader engagement with civil society and citizens around the world.
So he has been working as part of our emphasis, and the President talked about this in Cairo, on science and technology as part of the currency of the 21st Century. That’s what the President said.
Looking at how we can leverage our technology and our spirit of innovation and reach out to people in other countries who are seeking to do the same in their own societies, whether it’s bringing business, American businesses, high tech businesses together with their counterparts in other countries, whether it’s how we can use new media tools to support civil society activists. And this is actually a project that MEPI is sponsoring this year. We put out a $5 million call for applications for what we call the new empowerment technologies program. This was soliciting ideas, soliciting proposals, on how we can use new media tools, whether on-line, cell phone, et cetera, to empower civil society activists to enhance their ability to learn from one another, to expand their impact, and to help them grow.
So all of these ideas are things that Alec is working on and he’ll be meeting with government, he’ll be meeting with civil society, he’ll be meeting with business people, and he has such a creative mind. He’s got about an idea a minute, so I’m confident that he will come back from his trip with some great ideas that we can work on building new partnerships with Turkey and with other countries.
VOA: President Obama was again seeing one party in power and the opposition in prison. What’s the U.S. reaction to the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
DAS Wittes: Thank you. I think it’s very important to go back to our core principles in our approach to these issues, whether we’re dealing with Egypt or any other country in the region. And that is our commitment to universal values and our commitment to democracy and human rights as universal values. So what’s important for us is to see that people are dealt with using due process of law, to see that if there are concerns about criminal activity, that they go through a normal civilian procedure. And I don’t have details on those issues with respect to the individuals that you raised so I’m not going to comment on that case specifically, but I am going to say that issues of rule of law and due process as well as treatment of prisoners are issues that we raise in our dialogue with governments in the region including the government of Egypt.
Voice: Say a word on Syria.
DAS Wittes: I think I will have to leave it to others to say a word on Syria.
Aharq Al Alawsat: This is going to sound cynical, so forgive me. But you’ll find a lot of people in the region will say we’ve heard this before. With all due respect. I think you know the region well enough to know the sorts of comments that come out, whether it’s how the situation is at Palestine, politics always has to do with everything in the region. But I wanted to ask you what you would highlight as the difference being with the Obama administration from the Bush administration. We know the change in tone and everybody was happy with the change of tone, but then there was the statement that perhaps there were over expectations. That with the change of tone there was still the realities of politics that get in the way for any ambition. So if you could perhaps say something on that, it would be helpful. Thank you.
DAS Wittes: What I think is really important here and let me go back to what the Secretary said in Doha, because I think to some extent in all of the discussion about Iran and so on, maybe this aspect was missed so let me highlight it for you.
The new approach that the President laid out in Cairo, number one, wasn’t just about tone, it was about substance. And it was about the way our principles inform our policies. And I would argue that the policies that we put into place since last January and certainly since the speech in Cairo last June are evidence of this new approach. A commitment to universal values that apply equally to us as they do to every other country. A commitment to working on the basis of partnership, and a partnership that goes beyond government to government and reaches out to citizens as well.
When we talk about our commitment to achieving a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, that’s not just talk. That is something that the President began working on on day one of his administration. As you know, and his appointment of Senator Mitchell in his very first week. Senator Mitchell was off the ground on his way to the region within a week. And that has not stopped. He’s been out in the region every month since then working the issues.
There’s persistence, there’s commitment, there is energy, there is day-to-day focus on the Middle East peace process. And I think that is reflective of our new approach.
Likewise, I think the policy we’re pursuing in Iraq is reflective of that new approach. That we are withdrawing our combat troops, that we’re ending this war in a responsible manner, that we are leaving Iraq to the Iraqis and we are building a civilian partnership like the partnership that we would have with any other country in the region. And just as we’re doing that, we are asking other states in the region to reach out to Iraq as well and build those partnerships that are so crucial for this state to be a normal part of the regional gain.
So working in a spirit of partnership means we’re doing our part. Our policies demonstrate that. We’re asking other states, whether it’s in the Middle East or anywhere else around the world, to step up and do their part as well because as the Secretary said in Doha on Sunday, President Obama’s vision in Cairo wasn’t about one country writing a new chapter all on its own. It was about how we built a new relationship and a relationship is something that takes work on both sides.
So I think our policies demonstrate what we’ve done to reach out. I think that we have begun to see some positive impact, although not everything that we would wish to be sure. And we have seen some partners begin to reach out on a number of these issues. I think we’ve seen the impact of that on a number of the key strategic issues that I was talking about. More international cooperation, more support from the region. We would like to see even more of that. I think we will, going forward.
Saudi Press Agency: Yasmeen Alamiri, Saudi Press Agency. I actually just wanted to follow up kind of on that same point.
I think if we look at the way the President is focusing on the year ahead, 2010, it seems that domestic issues are taking priority. This upcoming announcement that Vice President Biden and his wife are going to the Middle East, I think came to a lot of people as a signal that it’s not going to be the priority to kind of engage with the Middle East in the most hands-on way that the President did in the past year.
Are there more trips that are going to take place to the region? How do you think you’re going to kind of ramp up this engagement when a lot of people are quite skeptical about what can happen in this upcoming year?
DAS Wittes: You’re talking about more trips by the President? Is that what you’re asking?
Saudi Press Agency: More trips by the President, but also I think more trips like the Secretary is on right now. She hasn’t returned, right?
DAS Wittes: No, she’s not back yet. I think she may be on her way shortly.
Look, Secretary Clinton has visited 47 countries now in her first year. She’s been on the road a lot. And a number of those countries have been in the Middle East/North Africa region and certainly in the broader Muslim world. And I think that that’s indicative of our commitment to engagement.
In those stops, as I said, she hasn’t just been having bilateral meetings with governments. She’s been reaching out to civil society. She’s been doing townhall meetings as she did on this trip, to emphasize how important it is that we’re engaging with citizens as well. I think that that’s going to continue.
Vice President Biden’s trip, that’s an interesting interpretation. I would say rather that having the Vice President go out to Israel and Egypt and Jordan and the Palestinian authority is a very important symbol of our commitment to engage. The Vice President is one of the most senior interlocutors we can put out there and I think it’s evident of our persistence, our commitment, and the senior level attention that these issues are getting.
So I see no slackening of our commitment. I see no slackening of our effort. If anything, I think we’re ramping up, and I’m hopeful that over the course of this year we will continue to see forward movement on all of these issues.
Saudi Information Agency: Ali Al-Ahmed from the Saudi Information Agency.
I have two questions. You made the trip so make it worthwhile for you.
The first question, does the United States support security sector reform in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain which are sectarian armies and security forces? As the United States supported integration of other elements of society in Iraq, is that policy even really that crossed the mind of the United States, especially the fact that the United States is selling a lot of weaponry to these security forces and armies that are providing assistance and so on?
The second question is, there are a couple of leading human rights activists in the Gulf who have been banned from the United States who are democratic activists and have no record of anything but some of them have been shipped out even upon their arrival in the United States. Is that going to be reexamined?
DAS Wittes: I’m going to have to just take that second question, Ali, because I’m not sure what specific cases you're referring to and I don’t have the fact on that, so I can’t really comment on it.
On the issue of the security sector, what I would say is that we have a very multi-faceted relationship with all the governments in the Gulf. We have ongoing dialogue with them on defense issues, on security issues, on intelligence issues. And we talk to them regularly about the principles that underlie our own approach to issues like intelligence and counterterrorism. And we do, as we do everywhere with every country, human rights reviews on the assistance that we provide.
There have been I think times when we’ve had conversations with governments and they’ve raised issues where they would be interested in having training or assistance and we talk about ways that we can provide that, so that’s definitely part of our ongoing conversation. It’s certainly not off the table.
Maybe one more question.
The National: Steven Stanek from The National again.
I’m just wondering if this administration has given any thought to how it might react if a group say like Hamas won another election. Would, or a group that the U.S. doesn’t necessarily overtly support. Would there be a different reaction than the previous administration had, even to election victories by the Muslim Brotherhood as well?
DAS Wittes: I think it’s very important to make a distinction, an important distinction between an organization like Hamas or Hezbollah and other Islamist movements in the region. Hamas and Hezbollah are militant organizations. They are committed to using violence to pursue their political goals. To me there’s a fundamental conflict between that attitude and a commitment to democracy. And I think that it’s very important that we make that clear. Our issue is not with movements with Islamist tendencies; our issue is not with Islam; our issue is with the behavior of those organizations. We would like to see Hamas make the changes necessary to participate responsibly in Palestinian politics and in the international community. What does that mean? That means setting aside violence. It means committing itself to a two-state solution. It means committing itself to recognizing Israel’s existence. These are basic parameters for the peace process in which all of us have been engaged for years. That’s what we’re asking from Hamas.
Thanks very much. I enjoyed it.
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