11:00 A.M. EST
MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who will deliver a briefing on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Without further ado, here is Mr. Rhodes.
MR. RHODES: Thanks, everybody. I really appreciate the chance to talk to you a little bit about our plans for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and take your questions. I’ll just start by – in case you all are not aware – going through the President’s schedule for the weekend. He, on the day of 9/11, will be making four stops. He’s going to begin the day joining the commemoration that’s taking place at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. That’s a program being put on by the city of New York that he’ll participate in, with a reading that he’ll be making. Then he’ll be going to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where he will lay a wreath to commemorate the loss of Flight 93 in Shanksville. Then he’ll be coming to the Pentagon here in Northern Virginia, where he also will be laying a wreath to commemorate those who were lost at the Pentagon.
That night, the National Cathedral is hosting a service and ceremony to honor the victims of 9/11. The President was scheduled to speak at the National Cathedral here in town. You may have noticed or noted yesterday that they had an accident associated with the cleanup from Hurricane Irene. So that event is being shifted to the Kennedy Center here in Washington. So the President will be speaking at the Kennedy Center in the 8 o’clock to 9 o’clock hour here in Washington at the Kennedy Center, at a program that’s going to be hosted by the National Cathedral.
I’d just say a few things by way of introduction about how we’re approaching the anniversary. There are several – here in the United States, I think there are several core aspects of 9/11 that we want to speak to. Above all of course, we want to commemorate the people who were lost on 9/11 in the attacks, and the President will be speaking directly to families of the victims at each of the sites he’s visiting that day. He’ll have the opportunity to meet with the families and to speak about their loss and their loved ones.
Secondly, we’ll also, of course, be honoring the service of the U.S. military since 9/11. It’s been ten years of war. Thousands and thousands – or millions, actually, of U.S. service members have been in harm’s way since 9/11. So he’ll have the chance to continue to speak to that sacrifice. He did so in his remarks at the American Legion at the end of the last month where he spoke about the 9/11 generation of American service members.
He’ll also be updating people on the efforts that we’ve made to keep the United States safe since 9/11, and we can obviously discuss that in Q&A. We believe we’ve great progress in degrading al-Qaida specifically in the course of the last year, with the bin Ladin operation and some of the other leadership that’s been taken out. Also, it’s important to note that 9/11 is a day of service here in the United States. So over the course of the weekend, Americans around the country will be participating in service projects, and the President has already issued a message calling on Americans to serve, and he’ll be able to mark that occasion, as well.
But the other important thing to note here is that we recognize that 9/11 wasn’t just a tragedy for the United States. There were people from – hundreds of people from dozens of countries who were also killed in the attacks. And so we want to make sure that we are commemorating all those who were lost, including those from, again, so many countries around the world. I think it speaks to the nature of the United States and the openness of our society and openness of our economy that there were so many people working in the Twin Towers and in those buildings – in those planes that hit the buildings from other countries. So we very much will be commemorating those who were lost internationally, and I think a number of our embassies around the world will similarly be doing events.
We also recognize, of course, that 9/11 is, unfortunately, not a unique act of terrorism. It’s unique in its scale and its scope, but in terms of victims of terrorism around the world, we’ve seen attacks by al-Qaida in just about every continent [that have] killed thousands of people of many faiths and countries as well. So I think we also want to step back and recognize the loss that has extended beyond, many terrorist attacks to include 9/11.
And similarly, each of the themes that I identified are ones that hold internationally. Our efforts to keep our country safe are joined with efforts by other countries to protect their populations. The sacrifices of service members that we’ve seen in the United States since 9/11 [have] been joined by sacrifices by many of our allies and partners in Afghanistan, of course, and in Iraq. So we, of course, want to make sure that we are honoring those who have served alongside Americans and that we are also underscoring that the only solution to terrorism in the long run is to have strong international partnerships that amplify our own efforts and involve information sharing, intelligence sharing, joint operations, strengthening of our partners, and of course efforts to spread development, democracy, and opportunity to different corners of the world.
So that’s just kind of a brief overview of some of the events that we’re doing and some of the important issues that we’ll be talking about. A number of other senior U.S. officials are doing events throughout the week. Secretary Clinton is giving a speech in New York on Friday, tomorrow, to discuss, again, our international efforts to combat terrorism. John Brennan, our senior counterterrorism official at the White House, has been doing a number of events around town. So you’ll have seen those as well. But with that, I’m happy to take your questions on this, on the anniversary, or anything else that you’d like to talk about.
MODERATOR: As we move to the Q&A portion of the event, please remember to state your name and publication for the transcript and wait for the microphone, which could be coming from either side. We’ll come right down here.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Ilhan Tanir from the Turkish dailies Vatan and Hurriyet. Thank you for doing this. My first question is: Obama Administration, it has been more than two and a half years, and when we look at Middle East approval ratings of the Obama Administration, it’s even far below than the previous Administration, which is very interesting to many people. My question is: Why do you think that your Administration could not change this dismal picture?
And the second question is: Turkey and Israel, both close allies of the United States, but as you know, the relationship is going down the hill. At this point, Turkey expelled the ambassador and is saying that it’s going to dispatch the fleet, eastern Mediterranean. What’s your plan going forward to bring these two allies of yours on the table? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Thanks for the questions. I’ll take the first one first. Since the President came into office, since you cited polling data, you’re correct in that what we’ve seen is very dramatic improvements in the view of the United States and the view of American leadership in many parts of the world – in Africa, in Latin America, in Europe, and Asia. However, in the Middle East and North Africa, we continue to see a very difficult situation in terms of public opinion associated with the United States.
On the one hand, we believe that can be attributed to what the President actually spoke about in Cairo in his speech, which is that there has been a mistrust that has developed over many, many years, if not decades, between the United States and the peoples of the region. And that can be attributed to a whole host of political and security issues which have been sources of tension in the region and between the United States and the people of the region. So we always anticipated that it was going to take a long time, frankly, to repair those relationships and to, again, improve the standing of the United States in the eyes of the people of the region.
We believe we’ve done a number of important steps in service of that goal. For instance, we are on track in terms of our efforts to remove, thus far, a hundred thousand troops from Iraq, end our combat mission there, and to go down to, again, concluding our efforts in Iraq by the end of the year with regard to our troop presence.
We similarly launched a number of programs in the region that are aimed at developing ties between the people of the region and the United States. Of course, the political and security issues dominate the agenda, but we believe that by investing now in educational programs, entrepreneurship programs, science and technological exchanges, that you can lay the groundwork for a deeper relationship in the future. And, in fact, Turkey has very usefully expressed interest in some of those programs, particularly the entrepreneurship program, which I know Prime Minister Erdogan has expressed an interest in as well.
At the same time, I think people are frustrated by a lack of progress on some issues, particularly the Arab-Israeli issue. And I think it is only natural to expect that when people don’t see progress on an issue that they care deeply about, that that engenders frustration. But what I think the President has shown is he’s persistent in his pursuit of a two-state solution and an Arab-Israeli peace, and he’s going to continue to be persistent in those efforts going forward. But I think a lack of progress, particularly on that issue, has continued to be a point of contention.
At the same time, we see enormous opportunity in the changes that are taking place across the region, and I think this is something that President Obama shares with Prime Minister Erdogan, which is a belief that as nations transition to democracy, it actually can help bring about deeper and healthier relationships between the United States and the governments and peoples of the region. So right now, we’re deeply invested in supporting democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. We’ve obviously played a pivotal role in the efforts to support the aspirations of the Libyan people. And we’re, again, pressing for change in different countries across the region in different ways, whether it be Syria or Bahrain or other countries that are wrestling with the issues associated with the Arab Spring.
So we believe that even as there are still challenges, that we are laying the groundwork for a much stronger and deeper relationship between the United States and the people of the region, one that resolves a lot of the political and security issues that have been points of contention, that invest in democratic transitions that are successful for the people of the region and that will also allow deeper friendships between the United States and the people of the region. At the same time, we want to lay the groundwork through those people-to-people efforts, whether it be in entrepreneurship or education, so that we have a long-term foundation for a healthy relationship between the United States and the people of the region.
On your second question, we have – we believe that the relationship between Israel and Turkey in the past has been beneficial to both countries. It’s been beneficial to the stability of the region as well. They’re both very close U.S. allies who we work with on a range of issues. They’re both strong democracies and set a positive example through their democracies. So we’ve encouraged both Turkey and Israel to pursue the type of reconciliation that can reestablish those close ties. Obviously, those issues continue to be outstanding between the two governments, but I think the United States is going to continue to try to work with both countries to support efforts to rebuild those ties because, again, we believe that those are ultimately beneficial to both Israel and Turkey and to the region more broadly.
MODERATOR: Come down here.
QUESTION: Nadia Bilbassy with Middle East Broadcasting Center. Ten years after 9/11, considering what’s happening in the Arab world – revolutions, uprising, upheaval – how do you assess the threat from jihadists and Salafis, considering you lost Mubarak and you lost Ben Ali in two countries that you share intelligence? And do you think that the threat from al-Qaida-like extremist groups are receding or they will be increasing, considering another factor, that some of the Islamist who link to al-Qaida was a part of liberating Tripoli?
And another question, on Guantanamo. One of the reasons that the popularity of the President is receding in the Middle East, along with the Israeli-Palestinian question, is Guantanamo. One of the executive orders that he signed was closing it two years till now. It hasn’t, and there is no chance that anybody believes it’s going to be closed soon. Can you explain that?
MR. RHODES: Sure. On the first question, one of the things that we’ve been very clear about when we came into office is that our efforts, our war efforts abroad, are focused very specifically on al-Qaida and their direct affiliates, that we do not wage war against a tactic of terrorism, nor do we conflate al-Qaida with a host of other groups, again, who don’t share their violent aspirations. And we believe that our ability to focus more precisely on al-Qaida has been successful in allowing us to direct our resources where they need to be in terms of the degradation of al-Qaida’s leadership while not overextending the United States and making enemies out of people or groups who don’t pose the same kind of threat that al-Qaida does.
So we actually believe we’ve been quite successful in doing that. And one of the reasons we’ve been able to degrade al-Qaida’s leadership is that we’ve been focused on it. And you see that in the – obviously, the Usama bin Ladin operation most specifically, but I think in general we believe that al-Qaida’s senior leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is at its weakest point since 9/11, and that they are on a path to defeat.
At the same time, as it relates to the broader transformations across the region, as countries move to democratic societies, we believe that, again, it’s the people of the region who are going to make the choices about their own future, and that’s appropriate. And the United States supports democratic processes. And what the President has said consistently since his speech in Cairo is that we welcome a role for all groups, provided that those groups respect the fundamental principles of democracy, which include respect for minority rights, which include respect for the electoral process, which include not using the electoral process to gain power and hold it, but rather to use the electoral process to participate in a representative government.
So our principles, as it relates to the changes in the region, are that participation is important, participation is going to include a broad – a broader representation of society in these countries, and that we will stand for a set of principles rather than for a set of groups or individuals in those countries that are going through democratic transitions.
And Libya, specifically, since you mentioned it, we have been very encouraged by the efforts of the TNC, for instance, since the beginning of the unrest in Libya, to send a message that they want an inclusive Libya, that they want to bring in other groups, and that they frankly reject violent forms of extremism. And we’ll continue to work with them to bring about that kind of future for post-Qadhafi Libya.
With respect to Guantanamo, the President maintains his commitment to closing Guantanamo. We have – we did a lot of work at the beginning of the Administration in support of that goal. We reviewed all of the cases that were – that had, frankly, not been dealt with in a very judicious manner. We transferred dozens of detainees out of Guantanamo, reducing the population there significantly. We reformed – also associated with Guantanamo, we reformed our own military commissions to ensure that there was greater due process and review for all the cases that are ongoing at Guantanamo.
I think, quite frankly – and all of you here follow our politics closely – a chief obstacle to our efforts to close Guantanamo have been the Congress. And so any solution that completes the work of closing Guantanamo is going to have to involve a broader buy-in and support across the U.S. political system from different branches of government, including the Congress. But it continues to be the President’s view that it is in the interest of the United States and the world to close Guantanamo, and so that continues to be a commitment of his. And again, the obstacles that remain really have to do with working with Congress to find ways to move beyond the impasse associated with a number of these issues.
So I think the message to the world is: I think if you assess this Administration’s record, you see a steady commitment to make progress on these issues. Progress hasn’t come as fast as we’d like. That is, of course, the way things work in our system, where you are particularly dealing with issues that need that kind of broader buy-in.
MODERATOR: We’re going to break away and take a question from New York. Please go ahead, New York.
QUESTION: Hi, this is Weihua Chen from China Daily. I want to know whether President Obama will also mention the heavy loss of civilian lives in 10 years war in Afghanistan, eight years in Iraq, while mourning the 2,800 American losses. And also – I mean, would he also talk about major – is there any major strategic shift, I mean, of policy for the next 10 years and has he – will he talk about any sort of policy mistakes in the past 10 years since 9/11? And basically, I think this policy has not been working because despite the huge efforts that the U.S. has been putting in Arab world, Middle East, I mean, U.S. still remains unpopular in the region. And so would you address that? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: In the first instance, we absolutely honor the loss of civilian life in the conflicts that have taken place since 9/11, be it in Afghanistan or Iraq. And frankly, what our focus has been since we came into office is ending those conflicts in a way that ends the suffering and violence that has afflicted the Iraqi people and the Afghan people.
In Iraq, all of our efforts since we came into office have been at transitioning to an Iraqi lead and removing U.S. troops and bringing the war to an end. And again, we think that’s in the interest of the Iraqi people, and we think that we’ve seen very good progress by the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi Government in being able to provide for the security of their country. Even as there are still horrific acts of violence, these are acts of violence and acts of terrorism that are being committed by groups like al-Qaida in Iraq against Iraqi people. These are – they’re the ones who have continued to murder Iraqi citizens.
But we are heartened by the fact that the levels of violence have remained far below where they were, for instance, in 2006 and 2007. And we’re optimistic at the ability of the Iraqi security forces to continue to provide for the security of Iraq.
In Afghanistan, we’ve begun a transition. As the President announced – well, as we announced in Lisbon, that transition will be between now and 2014. And as the President announced earlier this year, accompanying that transition we’re beginning to remove our troops from Afghanistan, starting with 10,000 this year, a full 33,000 by next summer, and continuing beyond that.
So if you look at a strategic shift, if you will, to take your question, we are coming out of a decade of war and we’re moving forward to a future where we can see the Iraq war brought to an end and we can see the Afghanistan war winding down and moving into a transition. And that is a very dramatic development because the military footprint of the United States overseas will be dramatically reduced. It already has been reduced by tens of thousands. Even with the increases in Afghanistan over the course of the last years, the hundred thousand troops we pulled out of Iraq has brought down the total number of U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan significantly. And now with reductions beginning in Afghanistan, you’ll see a similarly shrinking footprint of the United States in that part of the world.
So I think we’ve set a clear direction of ending these conflicts. And that’s an important strategic interest of the United States. We believe it’s in the interests of Iraq and Afghanistan and our partners who have joined with us in Iraq and Afghanistan, principally, of course, the governments of those countries as well as our coalition partners in Afghanistan right now.
So that is an – it’s an important point to note, as the President said in his remarks announcing the Afghan drawdown, that we are ending these wars and we can see the point where they’re brought to an end, and that we’re doing so in a way that is from a position of strength, because the reason we went to war in the first place was al-Qaida. And again, al-Qaida has never been in a weaker state. It’s lost its leader. It’s lost a number of other key figures in the organization. And so we’re confident that even as we end the wars and bring our troops home, that al-Qaida does not pose the type of threat that it used to. And we’ll continue our efforts in a more targeted and focused way to protect our country.
With respect to the last 10 years, there have been many debates about the many different decisions that have been made. As you all know, the President was a strong supporter of the need to go into Afghanistan and the need to go after al-Qaida. He did not support and opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq at the time, but since he came to office what he’s been focused on doing is waging a more focused war against al-Qaida and its affiliates while setting the stage to wind down the conflict in Iraq and now begin to do the same in Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: Come right down here.
QUESTION: Thanks. Andrei Sitov from TASS from Russia. Thank you, Ben, for doing this and thanks to our friends at the FPC for hosting the event. You referred to the Arab-Israeli process, and my question is: Are you still counting that the Palestinians will withdraw their bid at the UN? If so, why and what is the quid pro quo for them there?
And also, your job is strategic communications, right? So what is the hardest for you to explain to the outside world about the U.S. policies? What do you find the biggest preconceptions around the world – misconceptions? And does it – is it a big problem for you that sometimes you are obliged to be sort of less than truthful? Obviously, in Libya, the Security Council authorized a narrow mandate, and then others, including yourself, started talking about regime change, about the operation being a model for regime change. So where do you draw the line, sort of, between the reality and how you present it? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Thanks. First of all, let me just echo, I think, the comments that were brought at the State Department yesterday – we at the White House wanted to express our condolences for the plane crash in Russia yesterday. It was a heart-breaking loss, and so we send our thoughts and prayers to the people of Russia.
With respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the President’s view has consistently been that he strongly supports a two-state solution, that the best way to achieve that goal and have a sustainable peace that’s in the interests of both peoples is for it to be negotiated between the two parties.
In service of that goal, in the aftermath of several efforts at talks – proximity talks, direct talks – the President felt the need in May to advance the position of the United States publicly and to lay out a basis for negotiations in the future, understanding that the parties were far apart at the time. And because they were far apart at the time, he took the step of saying that a two-state solution should be based upon security guarantees for Israel and a territorial solution that includes 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps between the two parties. So we laid that out as a basis for negotiations in the future.
Since then, we’ve been working principally through the Quartet to try to energize that process and to establish, again, a basis with international support for negotiations that can succeed. Because what we’re focused on are results. We’re focused on what is the best way that we can bring about a two-state solution. And I think you’ve seen the President take considerable risks in many respects for that goal. It’s been an uphill struggle, but it’s been an uphill struggle for many years.
But our efforts are going to continue to be at developing that course of action that can lead to successful negotiations, and the role the United States can play and the Quartet can play and the international community can play is empowering that process, supporting a basis that the parties can come together on. And so that’s what we’re going to be continuing to focus on.
With respect to the United Nations, it’s been our belief that the goal of the Palestinian state is not going to be achieved through the United Nations, because it can only be achieved and can best be achieved in an agreement that’s reached between these Israelis and Palestinians. So that’s why the focal point of the United States has been on developing what is that alternative, what is that basis for negotiations that can succeed in the future, even as we know things are very difficult at the time.
Your second question is an interesting one, and I think I’d hearken back to the first question. But just with regard to Russia, for instance, we have actually been very pleased with the ability of President Obama to not just develop a very close and personal and working relationship with President Medvedev but also to see some gains, I think, with the Russian public and an understanding – not just in Russia but here in the United States – that that relationship is in the interest of both countries. So you’ve seen President Obama make the case to the people of this country and the people of Russia that cooperation between the United States and Russia is in our mutual interest.
I think the biggest challenge has been dealing with that legacy of mistrust that I spoke about in the Middle East and North Africa. Again, there’s so many suspicions that have built up over time, suspicions that cut both ways, frankly, because people in the United States often associate events that have taken place in that part of the world with violence, including violence that has harmed Americans, even as they recognize that we have a real stake in the future of the region and want to support the aspirations of the people of the region. But similarly, the people of the region, as the President spoke about in Cairo, have a deep sense of mistrust of the United States, of the ways in which some of our policies have been implemented over many years.
I think the difficult thing for me is when you step back and you look at what are the goals we want to achieve, they’re actually quite similar. The United States seeks a Palestinian state that is responsive to Palestinian aspirations that is based on 1967 lines and mutually agreed swaps. We believe that’s in line with a lot of the views in the region, even as there are disagreements about how to get there.
The United States seeks to have our troops out of Iraq and to have a normal relationship with a sovereign Iraq that is responsible for its own security. We believe that’s similarly in line with the aspirations of the people of the region. The United States seeks, frankly, to be at a point where terrorism is not a dominant issues in our relationship with the governments and peoples of that region, but has rather been dramatically reduced as a threat and al-Qaida has been defeated as an organization.
The United States supports democratic transitions, and I think one of the encouraging things for us is, even as there’s still mistrust and even as it’s going to take time for people to begin to develop a confidence in the United States in the region, we are aiming for the same things that people who have been protesting in the streets are aiming for, which is democratic governments that are responsive to the people of the region. And I think we’ve shown that we’ll speak out for universal rights, whether it’s in an adversarial country to the United States like Syria or a friendly country like Egypt. And we believe that over time, if we can invest in successful democratic transitions, that, too, can become apparent.
So the challenge is – if you look at where we’re trying to get to, we think it’s quite similar to where the people of the region are trying to get to. The challenge is, of course, that mistrust has built up over time and that there are differences day in and day out that obscured that goal that we’re all reaching for. So that’s what we have to continue to communicate, I think, as aggressively as we can.
With regard to Libya, I’d just say we always took a position that the political objective or the political view of the United States was that Muammar Qadhafi had lost legitimacy and needed to leave power. The President actually expressed that view before the UN Security Council Resolution, 1973. So we always took it as our position that the Libyan people would be better off without Qadhafi and expressed that publicly. The specific military operation that was launched with UN Security Council 1973 was a civilian protection mission that, again, stopped the massacre in Benghazi and other places, created civilian protection zones in places like Benghazi and Misrata, and places in the west as well. And with, frankly, the time and space that was afforded by those civilian protection zones, the Libyan opposition themselves took it upon themselves to effect regime change.
Now, I think what’s – we’ve pointed out what’s notable about Libya is [that] it wasn’t U.S. troops or foreign troops that marched into Tripoli; it was the Libyan people themselves who did it. And we think that’s an important difference, and it speaks to the inherent legitimacy of the Libyan revolution. So we always had a two-track position, if you will, which is that we had the political statement that Qadhafi needed to go, and we had a UN mandate and a military operation that was in service of civilian protection, and we believe that both of those outcomes have been positive -- that even as there’s been great suffering among the Libyan people, that we’ve averted far more significant suffering if Qadhafi have been allowed to run roughshod over his people. And similarly, we believe that as we near the end of the Qadhafi regime here, the Libyan people have an ability now to chart their own future.
MODERATOR: Okay. Come down here. Sorry. The gentleman.
QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks for doing this, Ben. Eric Weiner Tokyo Broadcasting System. We’ve got a new Japanese prime minister, and I wanted to ask what – is there – what’s the level of frustration or concern with this seemingly revolving door of Japanese leadership? I mean, the Administration’s trying to project its power and influence in the Pacific region, and I want to know what kind of impact you foresee with that.
MR. RHODES: Yeah. Well, the President has worked now with several Japanese prime ministers. I think that what’s constant is that there are elements of the Alliance that endure no matter who’s the President of the United States or who’s the prime minister of Japan. And I think we’ve seen that, in that the United States has been able to cooperate closely with Japan on regional security issues, whether it be North Korea, nonproliferation issues and the like, throughout the administrations of several prime ministers. We’ve similarly been able to stand with the Japanese people at very difficult times, such as in the aftermath of the tsunami with a massive U.S. humanitarian operation, including our military, that I think underscored the importance of the Alliance to both the American people and the Japanese people.
So what we try to focus on is the things that are enduring throughout the course of the Alliance, no matter who is in a leadership position. That said, we also think it’s important to have high-level consultations, close contacts. So the President was pleased to be able to call up the prime minister shortly after he took office. They are looking forward to meeting in the near future. I think they’ve agreed to work to try to meet on the margins of the UNGA, for instance. So those – I think the President’s found that he’s had the ability to essentially pick up the relationship with Japan in midstride from prime minister to prime minister because there is a broad consensus in Japan in support of the Alliance and that the positions and goals of the different prime ministers have not varied widely as it relates to the Alliance itself.
So we are optimistic that we’ll have – continue to have that good working relationship, continue to have those high-level ties through calls, meetings, multilateral organizations like the G-8, G-20, and can carry forward, I think, what has been a very beneficial relation to us. And as you know, we’ve put a lot of focus on Asia, and a cornerstone of our approach in Asia has been our alliances: South Korea, Japan, Australia, and others of course. And this November will be a significant time for the United States in Asia Pacific region, because we’ll be hosting APEC, we’ll be attending the East Asia Summit for the first time at the presidential level. So I think that will further underscore both the value we place on our security and political alliances in the region but also our engagement with multilateral institutions, and we think that the U.S.-Japan alliance strengthens our ability to do that.
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s go down here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ruben Barrera with the Mexican news agency Notimex. A recent opinion poll gave President Obama high marks on the war against terrorism. More than 50 percent of the U.S. – well, Americans think that he’s doing a good job in that arena. And I was wondering if the fact that – well, at what point the killing of Usama bin Ladin contributed to the sense of securities that the American express and these opinion polls? And also, I wonder if, aside of the fact that there has not been more attacks in the U.S. since 2001, that may be seen by many as the highest accomplishment of President Obama in this arena --
MR. RHODES: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- the fight against terrorism.
MR. RHODES: I think that, again, what we’ve been able to do on the terrorism front is a number of things. First of all, we’ve been able to disaggregate our efforts against al-Qaida from, for instance, the war in Iraq. So we could say the war in Iraq is not a part of the war against al-Qaida, that we want to shift resources out of Iraq and focus on al-Qaida as an organization, so that even as we relentlessly pursue al-Qaida, we’re able to begin to dramatically reduce our troop levels there.
In terms of those – now that we shifted those resources into Afghanistan and Pakistan under this Administration, we’ve been able to make significant progress against al-Qaida’s leadership. And the bin Ladin operation, I think, cemented a trend that was already apparent to the American people, which is that they saw that al-Qaida’s leadership was steadily being taken off the battlefield. They saw significant losses for al-Qaida because of the partnership, frankly, the United States has with both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and so that when bin Ladin was taken off the battlefield, there was a gigantic and – both symbolic and operational victory for the United States, and it also cemented a trend of leadership degradation that has continued even after the bin Ladin operation.
You’ve seen that with, for instance, Atiayah being taken off the battlefield. You’ve seen that with the killing of Ilyas Kashmiri, the Pakistani apprehension of senior al-Qaida leaders in recent weeks. So I think when Americans look at President Obama’s leadership, they see that because of the focus he’s put on al-Qaida, he’s been able to accomplish significant goals in reducing its leadership, including Usama bin Ladin, while also ending the war in Iraq at the same time, which is of course very important to our broader interests and our desire to bring our troops home.
That coupled with the fact that the measures we’ve put in place at home under two administrations to strengthen homeland security and intelligence sharing have prevented significant attacks on the United States launched out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places abroad, I think, again, speaks to the fact that people have a great deal of confidence in the President’s ability as commander-in-chief, and we feel we have amassed a very strong record in that regard, again, on offensive measures against al-Qaida and our efforts to protect the homeland.
Similarly, we think that the President’s focus on international cooperation has been essential here because it takes that type of coordination, that type of information sharing, to be able to have the type of successes we’ve had against al-Qaida. So we believe it’s a very strong record that President Obama has amassed. I think the, as you say – point out the public opinion polling bears out that the American people are very satisfied with his leadership on counterterrorism and homeland security, and we believe we’re going to be able to carry that effort forward even as we continue to take precautions against terrorism.
We can take, like, two more, I think.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll break away and go to New York.
QUESTION: Thank you. Paolo Mastrolilli of the Italian leading newspaper La Stampa. This is a question about the economic crisis in Europe. There’s another discussion going on in Europe. People are fearing that this crisis might lead to the end of the euro currency. I would like to know your position on that and if you feel that the economic crisis in Europe might reduce the ability or the willingness of the European allies to help the United States in the war on terrorism.
MR. RHODES: I’d just say a couple of things, and principally, my lane is in terms of national security.
From the beginning of this Administration, it didn’t take the latest events in Europe to underscore to us how important international coordination was. One of the very first or the very first trip that the President took overseas after taking office was to London for the G-20, and we put a lot of effort in that first year in office at establishing a really robust framework for international coordination through the G-20 to deal with the global economic crisis and the need for a recovery. And we think that the measures that were put in place through the G-20, the coordination that was put in place both in terms of providing stimulus for growth and also setting new rules of the road internationally so that we could prevent the types of abuses that led to the crisis were fundamental in preventing a much further economic suffering.
We’ve – frankly, we also felt it was very important to signal that the G-20 was the primary venue for that type of coordination because we wanted to broaden the number of countries that participate in those efforts, that no longer could we just work, for instance, through the G-8 or through a much smaller number of countries, but we needed to take on board a structure that brought in the emerging economies from all across the world, whether it be China, India, Brazil, a range of countries that participate through the G-20. So we believe we set – we helped shape a much more strong structure and inclusive structure for dealing with global economic challenges.
That said, this of course has been a very difficult economic recovery, and the reason for that is we were in a very deep hole. Both the United States and the global economy suffered such a severe shock in 2007 and 2008 that it’s been a very difficult process to make sure that we’re sustaining the gains that have taken place. To that end, the President, I can tell you, speaks on a very regular basis with his international counterparts. And in recent weeks in particular, he’s talked a lot to his European counterparts. He’s spoken to President Sarkozy, to Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Berlusconi, and other European leaders to make sure that the United States and Europe, again, are in close contact and in close coordination in our efforts, again, to help sustain a global economic recovery and to deal with some of the challenges that we face.
So we believe that in the global economy like the one we have today, we need to keep those lines open and we need to make sure that our leaders and our teams below them, again, are working in concert to deal with these challenges. And to that end, I think the G-20 meetings coming up in France will be very important as another opportunity to show international coordination, to demonstrate international commitment to deal with this set of issues.
I obviously am not here to speak to the President’s speech, but he’ll, of course, be making an important statement tonight to the American people about his efforts to create jobs and to grow our own economy. So that too will be an important context for our continuing efforts to coordinate internationally.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll go right there.
QUESTION: Hello, good morning. Andy Judzik from the South American daily Perfil from Argentina. I want to ask you a question related to Latin America. What’s your impression about the security in terms of – also your impression about the – how the war against the narcotics criminals is going in Latin America? How do you see this impact also in the U.S.? And what’s the situation going on in Mexico, where we have seen that there are 42,000 people dead during the last several years?
MR. RHODES: I think this has obviously been a priority for us in Latin America. It’s a priority that’s extended across multiple administrations, of course. I think when we look at the challenge across the region, what we’ve been focused on is building both bilateral partnerships, and in some instances, multilateral partnerships to deal with the threat from narcotics trafficking, to deal with the threat of criminality. We feel, for instance, there’s been great progress in some places. Colombia has continued to make substantial steps towards its efforts to extend security and respect for human rights throughout the country, and we’ve – the United States has continued to play a strong role as a partner to Colombia’s efforts.
In Central America, for instance, we’ve looked to build out a security initiative that includes all the nations of the region, that involves the sharing of information, the sharing of best practices, resources from the United States that can support those efforts, because what we want to be able to bring about is a situation where countries can learn from one another, they can see what’s worked in other places and apply it against their own security challenges, and the United States can help leverage its own resources and its own understanding of those challenges to support those efforts.
With Mexico, it’s obviously been an extraordinary challenge, and it’s one that the President has worked with President Calderon from the beginning of the Administration. We have very close coordination within our governments. So senior officials in the United States, from the Department of Homeland Security, from the White House, from other agencies, are in very regular contact so that we’re sharing information, so that we’re supporting Mexico’s efforts to go after narco-traffickers. We’ve admired and supported President Calderon’s courageous efforts at great loss to his people to, again, take on these cartels which pose a huge threat to the people of Mexico and to the security situation more broadly in the region.
What we’ve also said is that we have a responsibility, too, though, that our responsibility involves supporting our partners, but it also involves dealing with the flow of money and guns and, above all, demand from the United States, and that any lasting solution to the problems of drug-related violence in the region is going to have to involve the United States taking more aggressive steps, again, to stop that southward flow of guns and money and to deal with demand issues in the United States. So we’ve had those conversations with President Calderon as well as with other leaders in the region.
And what we want to bring about is a series of partnerships, again, that leverage things that we know work in different places, that involve countries working together, but that also addresses those factors that are in our responsibility so that we’re doing our share as well. So there’s still great challenges, particularly associated with the violence that we see in Mexico, but it’s a top priority for us.
Thanks, everybody. Sorry to have to run.
MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. This event is now concluded.
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