Foreign Policy Update Following the President's West Point Speech
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications
July 1, 2014
2:00 P.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MR. RHODES: Great. Well, thanks, everybody. Always good to be back here at the Foreign Press Center. Glad we could time it before the big game this afternoon, which we’ll all be watching. Actually, this originally showed up on my schedule at 4:30, and that was a problematic time for me. But I wanted to take this opportunity to go through a range of issues that are obviously taking place. I’ll just highlight a couple at the outset and then take your questions.
First of all, our team is en route or about to be en route to Vienna for the next round of negotiations with the P5+1 in Iran with respect to the Iranian nuclear program. We have a July 20th deadline associated with the Joint Plan of Action. To date, we have seen very good progress made in the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action with Iran meeting its commitments to, again, get rid of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, not install new advanced centrifuges, provide for additional transparency, not move forward with the progress of its Arak reactor.
So across the board, we’ve seen good compliance from Iran on its commitments with respect to its nuclear program. And in return we have provided the limited sanctions relief in the Joint Plan of Action.
At the same time, there have been negotiations towards a comprehensive agreement, which was the purpose of this Joint Plan of Action in a period of six months of negotiation. Those have been serious and substantive discussions. At the same time, however, we do have gaps that need to be closed. Our view here is that Iran now has a choice in the coming weeks. They should be able to demonstrate that their program is peaceful. The international community and the P5+1 has made clear that we will respect the right of Iran to have a peaceful nuclear energy program, provided that they can provide confidence and assurance that that program is peaceful; meet their international obligations; allow for the necessary transparency; accept the necessary limits on their nuclear program to provide that assurance.
Thus far, Iran has not taken the steps necessary in this negotiation to provide that assurance. In fact, they’ve been very optimistic in their public comments about reaching agreement, but we are going to need to see them take additional steps in the negotiations for there to be a comprehensive resolution. So we’re hopeful that we can make progress in narrowing those gaps and pursuing that comprehensive resolution, but the Iranian side is going to have to take additional steps that it should be able to take, frankly, if in fact their nuclear program is peaceful. And that will be a key focus of ours in the coming weeks. President Obama has been following the progress of those negotiations closely. This has been a top priority for our Administration, and it will be a focus of ours in, again, the days to come.
I’d just say one additional thing on Iraq, which is that the United States very much welcomes the announcement that Saudi Arabia will be providing $500 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq. Given some of the tensions in recent years, I think this is a significant show of support from Saudi Arabia to the people of Iraq at a very difficult time. Secretary Kerry had very productive discussions with King Abdullah when he was in Saudi Arabia, and again, we see this as a positive step forward.
What we’ve said is all – that the neighbors in the region have a stake in addressing the crisis in Iraq and reducing the tensions inside of Iraq, and also meeting some of the urgent needs, including humanitarian needs of the people of Iraq. So I just wanted to be sure – to make clear that we in the White House very much welcomed that Saudi announcement today.
With that, I’d be happy to take questions. Yeah.
MODERATOR: Before you ask your questions, please wait for the microphone because we’re transcribing, and our friends in New York need to hear this as well. And please identify yourself and your outlets when you ask a question. In New York, if you have questions, please step up to the podium, and we will see you just like we see you now. With that --
MR. RHODES: Great, let’s start over here.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ben. Hisham Bourar, Al Hurra TV. What has changed in your assessment of the Syrian opposition to think, or to lead you to think, that with $500 million you will be able to fight the ISIL while they couldn’t withstand the Syrian regime? I mean, these are the same group that – President Obama himself called them a few days ago that they’re a bunch of farmers and teachers and pharmacists.
MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, much has changed in our assessment of the opposition, not just today but over the course of the last several years. What President Obama was saying is at the outset of the Syrian protest against the Assad regime, many of the protesters were not trained fighters. They were ordinary citizens who were standing up and demanding their rights. So that was an assessment he was making – the comments he made the other day – that didn’t apply to the opposition today. It applied to the opposition at the outset of this crisis.
As he indicated, over the course of the last two or three years, we have gotten to know the opposition much better, and we have steadily expanded the types of assistance that we provide for the opposition. That began with humanitarian assistance into Syria. That then led to the provision of nonlethal assistance. And then we announced a little over a year ago that we were going to begin to provide certain types of military assistance to the opposition, including the armed opposition.
So there’s been an evolving assessment and relationship, frankly, that we’ve had with the opposition. And again, it was important for us to develop that relationship, in part so that we knew if we provided certain types of assistance, it would not fall into the wrong hands. Precisely because you have groups like ISIL operating in Syria, we did not want to deal with people that we did not know very well, because frankly the very presence of ISIL shows the risk that if you’re introducing certain types of lethal assistance, that could fall into the wrong hands.
But we very much now have confidence in the people that we are dealing with in terms of the Syrian opposition. The 500 million provides for the funding that could expand the training and equipping of the opposition, but it would also provide new authorities, so that the Department of Defense could conduct this type of support to the opposition. So it would expand, again, both the types of support we provide and also the different authorities under which our government can provide that support.
I think it’s important to note that we see strengthening the Syrian opposition as a goal that relates not just to ISIL but still to the Assad regime. So again, we believe it is important to say that there’s a moderate opposition that we want to get behind. That’s a counterweight to ISIL. But it’s also very much a counterweight to the Assad regime, which has brutalized its own people. And frankly, we believe that the source of the terrorism threat in Syria is not simply ISIL. It’s a regime that, through its own actions, has created a humanitarian crisis which has created space for extremists like ISIL.
If we had the type of political resolution that we’ve been seeking through the Geneva process in which Syrians could have faith in their own government, you would not have the type of ungoverned spaces that ISIL’s taken advantage of. So these are still interconnected problems in which we’re fighting against a terrorist threat, in which ISIL is at the forefront right now, in which we’re supporting a moderate opposition to be a counterweight to that terrorism threat, but also very much we see the need for transition in Syria. Because until Bashar al-Assad leaves power, you’re going to have areas of chaos and violence and instability in the country.
QUESTION: How does that new level of comfort (inaudible) --
MODERATOR: Sir, the microphone.
QUESTION: How does that new level of comfort with the opposition change your opposition to giving them MANPADS, for example?
MR. RHODES: Well, again, we tend not to get into the specifics of different weapon systems. It is the case, though, that our position hasn’t changed with respect to that particular weapons system. We’re constantly reevaluating and assessing what types of assistance can make a difference and balancing that against concerns about proliferation. So again, our position hasn’t changed but it’s something that we evaluate on a regular basis.
QUESTION: Hi. Chen Weihua, China Daily. Thank you. I have a question. The S&ED with China is coming in a week from now. So, I mean, the two countries have been engaged in sort of a more (inaudible) shouting game, probably, people feel in the past months or so. And the kind of Sunnylands spirit people feel is lost. Do you think, I mean, China-U.S. going to get back to the kind of a positive tone leading up to President Obama’s trip to China in November? And also, do you think that there’s going to be a cyber talk after this at the – at the S&ED, after this indictment of five PLA officers? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: So we are optimistic that we can make good progress at the S&ED in terms of practical cooperation between the United States and China. I think when you look back at Sunnylands and you look at the approach we’ve taken from the beginning of President Obama’s administration, and you look at the new model of great power relations put forward by President Xi and President Obama in Sunnylands, it always allowed for the fact that we’re going to have differences. I think the key point has been that the United States and China can have differences, articulate those differences publicly, but still find areas to cooperate. That if we have a difference in one area, it need not derail the entire bilateral relationship, because both of us have so much at stake in that bilateral relationship, and in fact, the world has a lot at stake in that bilateral relationship.
So for instance, we have had differences with China with respect to cyber issues, and the indictments speak to some of the concerns that we have. We’ve had differences over certain territorial disputes and maritime issues in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea.
At the same time, we continue to cooperate through the P5+1 on dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. We continue to have a very broad economic dialogue that has space for areas of agreement and cooperation and then occasional differences. So again, I think there’s an ability for us to find common ground, develop areas of cooperation, even as we’re going to be very – we’re not going to be shy in articulating our differences. So as we look to the S&ED on economic issues, on climate change, on strategic issues, I think there’s good space for dialogue. Part of that dialogue will be both sides, I think, articulating where there are differences.
Cyber – I do think the cyber dialogue will go forward. Again, it’s better that we talk to one another about these issues, have a forum for sharing information, raising concerns, and working through those issues. And so the cyber dialogue that was set up out of the Sunnylands meeting, I think, is an important forum. The S&ED is the right venue for that dialogue to take place. And again, just because we’ve made clear that we’re going to insist that rules and laws are abided by doesn’t mean that we’re not going to explore areas of bridging gaps with China through the dialogue at the S&ED.
QUESTION: Are you sure that there will be cyber talk, or you’re not sure?
MR. RHODES: My expectation is that there’ll be a cyber dialogue, yeah.
We’ll go to New York, take a question from there.
QUESTION: Paolo Mastrolilli with the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Thank you very much for doing this. I have two short questions. The first one is the Italian Prime Minister Renzi is assuming today the European Union presidency. What do you hope that will do in order to promote policy for economic growth and possibly to finalize the TTIP Treaty?
And the second question is about Israel, the killing of the three boys, the reaction of the Israeli Government. How do you think that will impact the peace process and the already very tense region?
MR. RHODES: Sure. Well, on the first question, let me just say President Obama and Prime Minister Renzi have established, I think, a very good and close working relationship. That was developed on the President’s trip to Italy, a variety of phone calls they’ve had, many of which focused on the crisis in Ukraine but also touched on broader European issues and the program that Prime Minister Renzi is pursuing in Italy. And I think President Obama believes that Prime Minister Renzi has brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the project of governance, not just in Italy but in Europe. And one of the things that they spoke about is the need to, again, revitalize the trans-Atlantic alliance. And part of revitalizing the trans-Atlantic alliance is, again, our encouragement of Europe to play an assertive role in resolving both regional issues like the crisis in Ukraine, but also serving as a global partner with the United States.
So I think as we look to the Italian presidency, clearly on the economic side we have supported policies within Europe that promote growth, that recognize that there’s going to be a need for fiscal consolidation and austerity in certain places, but at the same time that if we’re not catalyzing growth, ultimately you’re not going to have the type of job creation and generation of revenue that is going to be in service of the global economy as well as dealing with issues like unemployment in Europe. So I think we would support Italy’s focus on growth within the Euro zone, even as, again, they’ll work with other partners in Europe to address fiscal concerns as well.
I think on the broader agenda, clearly Ukraine is going to continue to be a focus of our relationship with the European Union. And that hopefully can lead to a firming of support for the Ukrainian people as they seek to build on the progress of their election and their new government, but also sending a clear signal to Russia that ongoing violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity will have to bring additional consequences. And we’ll coordinate closely with Italy bilaterally and within Europe in that respect.
On the second question, first of all, our hearts go out to the families of the three teenagers who were found killed yesterday. As the President said, it’s just a heartbreaking tragedy to lose three young people like that. We want to continue to support Israel in trying to find those perpetrators and bring them to justice. We believe that that is done effectively with cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and so we’ll continue to encourage that cooperation as well.
At the same time, we also have made clear that there does need to be restraint on both sides so that we don’t see a further destabilization of the situation, that we can focus on the issue of terrorism. There can be a focus on bringing, obviously, these perpetrators to justice. But at the same time, there has to be an avoidance of steps that can further inflame tensions. And that’s the type of policy that we’re going to continue to encourage going forward: one that again focuses on counterterrorism, bringing perpetrators to justice, but again avoids further destabilization on either side. Because ultimately, the parties are going to have to work together to address both these very pressing security issues – as we recently saw with this tragic incident – and also, ultimately, the pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Well, we’ll go here, and then down right here.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I have a question about Iraq. My name’s Wei Xujiao from China Central Television. So as we know, the United States has increased military presence in Iraq recently, and indications show Iran and Syria also trying to support Iraq Government to solving this problem. So do you think – how do you evaluate their actions, and do you think this will push Barack Obama Administration to work with Iran and Syria in Iraq crisis? What is the next step in solving Iraq crisis? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Yeah. So we believe that a big part of the challenge in Iraq today is because of the ongoing tensions between different communities inside of Iraq, sectarian tensions that have come from a failure to bridge different divides in terms of how governance is implemented in Iraq, and a need for every community in Iraq – whether they be Sunni or Shia or Kurd or Christian – to be invested in the future of Iraq. In the absence of an inclusive government and in the absence of inclusive security forces, we believe there’s going to continue to be tensions. ISIL is obviously taking advantage of those tensions.
The reason that is related to your question is because if Syria and Iran are intervening inside of Iraq, that really is only going to feed those sectarian tensions. I don’t think anybody would expect Syrian or Iranian intervention, particularly military intervention, to be in service of all of Iraq’s communities. I think it would be and has been perceived as favoring one community over others, and frankly not just one community, but subsets within that community. That’s why we would not encourage or welcome or cooperate with in any way Iranian and Syrian military intervention inside of Iraq.
What we would say to all the neighbors is that if you have an interest in reducing tensions inside of Iraq, that you should be encouraging inclusive governance. And frankly, here Iran could play a role in using their influence to encourage an inclusive process of government formation. Because it’s not in Iran’s interests for there to be this type of vacuum in the Sunni areas that ISIL has taken advantage of, that Iran should not be feeding sectarian politics inside of Iraq. Because frankly, that is only, again, going to bring greater instability which, ultimately, is not in any of the neighbors’ interests. So our message to Iran is the same message that we would send all the neighbors, which is let’s support an inclusive politics inside of Iraq. And again, today we welcome the fact that the Saudis stepped up, and through their provision of assistance, I think, are sending a signal that now is the time for countries to look at this with a sense of urgency and try to invest in a different type of process going forward.
Andrei, yeah. Just because I’m sanctioned doesn’t mean that you and I can’t have a dialogue. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Thank you to our friends at the FPC, as well as congratulations on the U.S. national team’s success, and wishing every success in the coming match.
President Putin was speaking to the Russian ambassadors today, so all points from him. First, he says we are not shutting down, we have no intention to shut down our relations with the U.S. These relations are seriously important for the world. My question: Is the U.S. still interested in a further convergence with Russia, or is it diverging – on a diverging course?
Second point from him: blackmail against French and their banks. He says this is done specifically to prevent the French from selling Mistrals to Russia.
Thirdly, and importantly for all journalists, recently – yesterday, a Russian journalist was killed in Ukraine, a third one, a colleague. This is a tragedy that should stop. Putin claims that this seems like deliberate targeting of journalists. What can you say about that? Thanks.
MR. RHODES: Yeah. On the – let me just take the third question first. We absolutely condemn the targeting of journalists, and our hearts very much go out to the Russian journalists who have been killed or harmed in Ukraine. We believe that journalists deserve special protection, and that the ability of the journalists to cover events is fundamental to what the United States stands for around the world. So again, our thoughts are with the family of that journalist and all of the Russian and other journalists, frankly, who’ve been harmed inside of Ukraine.
On your first question, Andrei, we very much want to work with Russia where we can. I think it’s important to note that even throughout this very difficult period, President Obama and President Putin have determined to stay in touch with one another. The ability of the two of them to speak very candidly to one another is important. It allows for space for diplomacy and hopefully a reduction of tensions in Ukraine going forward. And President Obama coordinates very closely with Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande and Prime Minister Renzi and Prime Minister Cameron as well in their discussions with President Putin. So on Ukraine specifically, we have had very significant differences with Russia, as you know. But we believe that we always need to keep that door open to diplomacy.
More broadly, we have been cooperating with Russia through the P5+1. They have an important role to play in that process and insisting that nonproliferation is upheld as a fundamental international norm. And so if you look at the fact that we’ll be at the table of this negotiation, it’s important that Russia stand with the rest of the international community in insisting that Iran meet its obligations.
So there are going to be areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia, but we’re going to have differences. And I think those differences have grown, obviously most acute over Ukraine. But they’re rooted not in any desire by the United States to seek out punishment for Russia. It’s rooted in our belief that nations should be able to make their own decisions, whether it’s Ukraine or Moldova or any other country. People should have the ability to make determinations about their own future, who they want to associate with. And that’s what’s guided our Ukraine policy throughout this whole process.
And Russia has in the past, I think, been an advocate for the notion of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Our point is that that has to apply in all neighborhoods, including in Eastern Europe.
And your second question, Andrei, was --
MR. RHODES: Mistral. Well, look, the settlement with the French bank was – that’s, as you know, something that’s handled by our Justice Department. We don’t politically interfere in that. It is important to note, however, that our concerns about the potential French sale on Mistral is separate from that case. And that’s, frankly, more an expression of a political concern that this is not the right time, given events in Ukraine, to move forward with that type of defense agreement. So that’s actually not related to a specific U.S. sanction that’s in place. It’s more related to the fact that this is not an opportune time to move forward with that type of defense transaction given ongoing events in Ukraine. So we would separate those two issues out.
We’ll take one from New York there.
QUESTION: Hello. This is Edvard Zitnik, Slovenian public television. Last week when Russian foreign minister’s visit to Slovenia was announced – I think he’s coming to Ljubljana the 8th of July – American Embassy in Ljubljana expressed kind of concern. They said that the timing of the visit is not the best. Could you elaborate on that? Obviously, United States are not very happy with the visit – foreign minister to Slovenia.
MR. RHODES: Well, sure. I think as a general matter, we have sought to make very clear that the United States and Europe are most effective in dealing with the situation in Ukraine and resolving tensions in Ukraine when we are standing united and sending a very strong message to Russia that we are united against any incursions into Ukraine, against any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the continued activity of separatists. And we believe support for those separatists coming from Russia has been a concern. So we do want a united front with our European allies.
Clearly, obviously, again, Russia has relations in Europe and those will be ongoing, and we’ve had ongoing conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov as relates to diplomatic efforts on Ukraine and other issues. Again, I think our baseline has been we also, though, need to be in close coordination and we need to be sending a common message to Russia in all of our discussions. And so that’s the type of policy that we’ll continue to encourage. And again, that’s not one that closes the door to any type of communication with Russia. It’s just one that says that we need to be sending the same message.
Yeah, we’ll go right here.
QUESTION: Thank you again. This is Sumiki Mori from Fuji TV. This is about Japan. What is the White House reaction to the Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s reinterpretation of constitution to allow collective self-defense? Considering the reaction of China and South Korea, are you worried about any effect this might have in relations in Asia? And also with this collective self-defense, what is U.S. expecting Japan to do beyond what they do already? Thank you so much.
MR. RHODES: Well, President Obama discussed this issue with Prime Minister Abe when he was in Japan, and the United States very much welcomes the steps that Japan has taken forward with respect to collective self-defense. And President Obama’s been very supportive of his policy, of Prime Minister Abe’s. Again, we believe it’s part of the continued maturation of our alliance and it opens the door to additional cooperation. And when you look at issues such as Japan’s support for peacekeeping efforts around the world or their commitment to regional security and stability in Asia, I think this policy creates space for Japan to play an even greater role as a security partner of the United States and as a country that upholds international order.
With respect to the neighbors, I think what we’d encourage Japan to do is to be very transparent about its policies, be very clear about what they mean and what they don’t mean. We would welcome their continued efforts to engage in diplomatic consultations with the neighbors to have those discussions, particularly the Republic of Korea. So we support Japanese efforts to engage in diplomacy to make clear what this new policy means, and again, to have a degree of transparency around it so that there are no misunderstandings.
And again, we very much believe that in terms of the region, the United States wants our allies to get along. So we very much want to see Japan and the Republic of Korea to continue dialogue to address not just collective self-defense but also some of the issues around historical tensions that have emerged in recent months.
But again, bottom line is the White House welcomes the Japanese announcement and the policy of collective self-defense, believes that if it’s pursued in a transparent fashion in consultation with neighbors in the region that that can reduce misunderstanding and tensions and contribute, ultimately, to the stability and security of the Asia Pacific region.
QUESTION: What does the U.S. even expect Japan to do more beyond what they are doing right now?
MR. RHODES: Well, I think that’ll be an ongoing process. Again, I think Japanese contributions to international security efforts – peacekeeping and other international efforts to uphold rules and norms – I think there is space for Japan to be a positive contributor in that respect. And then again, I think in the Asia Pacific we’ve had a security dialogue, obviously through our alliance. We know Japan has had increasing dialogue with other partners in the region.
And I think we’ll have to evaluate as this policy’s implemented what it means in practice. I think what people need to understand is it doesn’t mean Japan is going to engage in any destabilizing activity. I think it means that Japan is going to be better able to invest in the types of international cooperation that supports stability. So that’s why we think it’s a positive step forward. We’ll continue to discuss with them in practice what it means on everything from exercises to support for international efforts beyond Japan’s borders.
We’ll go to – just want to move around regions here – so the gentleman behind you there. Yeah.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot. Can you talk a little bit about NATO, the summit is coming in Wales. And what about open doors policy? I know you always say that we support open door policy and everything, but can you tell us more information about maybe position of Montenegro, Macedonia? By the way, I’m Ivica Puljic from Al Jazeera Balkans. Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Well, I think every summit we obviously review the progress of partner nations. We have an open door policy. I think if you look at countries like Georgia and Montenegro, they are making good progress in terms of their own plans. And so I think the upcoming summit is an opportunity for the alliance to sit down with different countries, including Montenegro, including Georgia and other aspirants, and to review the progress they’ve made in cooperation with NATO in figuring out how they can further build their relations with the alliance and figure out what the pathway potentially is to NATO membership.
So this is something that, again, there’s a very clear process for. And we expect it to certainly be a topic leading into the summit in September and a topic at future NATO summits as well. And we want to encourage nations to stay on that track and ultimately their people will – their militaries and their governments will have to make the steps necessary to complete the process of their membership action plans, and their own publics will have to make their own decisions about whether or not to join the alliance. So this is an ongoing process of cooperation, but again, we’ve had good progress in recent months and years in Montenegro and expect that to be the case going forward.
QUESTION: Will you do the same for Macedonia? I’m sorry, I ask you for Macedonia also.
MR. RHODES: Yeah, yeah – no. All the aspirants. I mean, I think everybody is at the table in this conversation, and there are different stages. So I think we recognize that some nations are further along than others, but our goal is to have capable partners of NATO and to make clear to those partners that there’s an open door, but that that involves an extended process so that, again, states are taking every step necessary to come into consistency with both the alliance practices, but then also to have their publics express the determination to join as well.
We’ll go over here, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Atushi Okudera from Asahi Shimbun, Japanese newspaper. Nice to see you again. I’d like to ask – my question was almost covered by my friend, but let me ask about – on China. As you say, there are lots of differences between United States and China. One year has passed since the last Sunnylands, but lots of things, including declaration of the ADIZ and the maritime dispute in South China Sea and East China Sea, lots of things happened. So – and at the same time, the West Point speech – President Obama concerned about the aggression in South China Sea. So my question is: How would you in the United States raise these concerns to the Chinese leader this time in the S&ED next week in Beijing?
I know the United States always urge Chinese leader to resolve dispute peacefully and they should follow the international law. But how the United States, then – the Chinese leader understand the importance of the international law? What is the strategy to solve these maritime disputes for the United States? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Well again, I think, clearly, issues associated with territorial disputes, maritime security, have been a key focus not just in our bilateral conversations with China, but in the region more generally. And the principles we apply to that are consistent to whatever country’s involved, which is we don’t want nations to try to resolve those disputes through coercion. There are established international legal means for resolving those disputes. There are negotiations underway around code of conduct to avoid unnecessary escalation, between, for instance, China and ASEAN countries. And this will certainly be a topic at the S&ED given how much it is a leading topic in the region.
And our point is simply that we don’t want to see a process where a big nation – a bigger nation can bully a smaller one to get its way on a territorial dispute. We want to see an understanding of what the international legal basis is for resolving claims and what the process is in the region for avoiding tensions. So I think we’ll make very clear the same points that President Obama made throughout his trip to Asia.
With respect to the U.S. and China, though, I think it’s also important that we have our own military-to-military dialogue because we, too, want to avoid an inadvertent escalation or a misunderstanding. So we’ve sought to introduce greater transparency between our own militaries and greater lines of communication.
And ultimately, that’s the type of dynamic we’d like to see in the region, where countries are able to work together, again, to avoid miscalculation, to avoid a confrontation that neither side is seeking, and to find peaceful means of addressing problems, whether it be arbitration, for instance, as the Philippines has pursued, or other means of resolving claims. The United States is not a claimant, but we do have an interest, obviously, in the free flow of commerce and in the stability of the region.
So it’ll be a topic at the S&ED, one among many, and I think you can expect that will continue to be a topic in our conversation with all the countries in the Asia Pacific region given how much it’s at the forefront right now.
Yeah, we’ll go here.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Wada. I am with Japan’s Mainichi newspaper. Thank you very much for doing this. Kind of quick follow up to the Japanese Government decision to allow the use of – the right to collective self-defense. There’s a sizeable opposition inside the Japanese public about this government move. How would you address that kind of opposition inside the Japanese society? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Well, we understand that there’s clearly very deeply held views inside of Japan about these issues. That’s a process for the Japanese people to determine. We respect the fact that Japan has democratic institutions and a very vibrant press, as is on display here today. And so we would not want to put ourselves in the middle of an internal debate inside of Japan. We’d expect there to be differences of opinion about any policy that a democratic government pursues. That’s certainly the case here.
In terms of our alliance, I think what we can make clear to the Japanese people is we welcome Japan playing a growing role in terms of supporting international peace and security and contributing to the U.S.-Japan bilateral alliance. That’s a sign of the progress that we’ve made over the last several decades. And so I think what we would make clear is that we believe that this is good, potentially, for our alliance, which has been very much in the interest of the U.S. and Japan, and I’d argue in the interest of the region. I mean, the network of U.S. alliances has provided the environment in which many nations have thrived and prospered.
And so again, we’ll fully respect the internal Japanese debate. We’ll look to the leaders and democratic institutions of Japan to sort through that debate, and we will continue to look for ways to mature our own alliance because we believe it’s so profoundly important to the United States and in our own interest.
Yeah, we’ll go to the gentleman there.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Jane Bojadzievski, Voice of America. I have a question regarding the NATO enlargement, the same one. NATO insists that its open door policy remains. However, it doesn’t seem that the new members who were received at this year’s summit in Wales. Still, does the U.S. plan to pressure European allies in NATO to extend membership to Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia? Does giving them support that Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia received in light of the situation in Ukraine? Thank you very much.
MR. RHODES: Yeah. Look, I don’t think it’s a matter of pressure from the United States. NATO is an alliance. We make – we take decisions together, so inherently there is a collective nature to NATO decision-making. I think what we would say to our European allies is there’s a very clear process. Everybody knows what the steps are that are necessary in terms of military modernization, in terms of alliance interoperability, in terms of enhanced cooperation with NATO. And everybody should have the opportunity to – who has, again, a membership action plan and is an aspirant, to participate in that process and to be judged on the basis of their progress. And at the point in time in which I think nations can demonstrate that they’ve fully gone through that process and are a good candidate for membership and have the public’s support for taking that step, the alliance has an obligation through its open door policy to take that seriously.
But that takes time. There’s a reason that NATO is the best and strongest alliance that we’ve had in history, and the reason is that there’s a very high standard of membership and there are very strong commitments that come with membership. So it’s natural that there be an extended period in which nations work through those issues.
So this will be addressed at the summit, but I think people should know the United States has always demonstrated not just in its words but in its deeds that there is an open door to NATO membership, and that’s certainly the – continues to be the case with all the aspirants. And that’s what we’d say to our European allies, that we as an alliance have committed to an open door, committed to nations that, if they work through this process, that there is a pathway for them.
However, we’re in alliance; we take decisions together. There’s a standard that needs to be met, and we can all work through our view of how far nations have come and how much farther they need to go to meet that standard.
QUESTION: Thank you. John Zang with CTI TV of Taiwan. Ben, on the occasion of the presidential inauguration in Panama, Secretary Kerry is said to be having a chance encounter or informal meeting with President Ma of Taiwan. What is the significance of this meeting to U.S.-Taiwan relations? And also, could you also comment on the Taiwan’s aspirations for inclusion in the TPP negotiations at an early date? Thank you very much.
MR. RHODES: I don’t have the latest on Secretary Kerry’s engagements to Panama, to be honest, so I – we’d have to check on whether or not they did have an interaction. I mean, the fact is that in the international fora that Taiwan participates in it’s not uncommon for us to have interaction with Taiwan. We obviously have very close economic and defense ties with Taiwan that are important to the United States, and even as we have a one China policy we very much look to reaffirm our commitment to those longstanding political, economic, and defense ties with Taiwan. So I would imagine that that would be the nature of any exchange that takes place.
On TPP, I think we’re focused on the current negotiation, which is very much entering an endgame with the current participants in TPP. So I wouldn’t want to go beyond that in terms of potential participation. We have – in APEC, for instance, we have a forum to coordinate with Taiwan on economic issues. I think right now, we’re focused on getting TPP done, which is proving hard enough. And again, we have other venues through which we can cooperate with Taiwan economically.
Yes, the lady back there.
QUESTION: Claudia Trevisan from the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paolo. I have two questions, the first regarding Iraq. I’d like to know in which condition – which kind of conditions would trigger military action from the U.S. against the ISIL in Iraq?
And the other one regarding Latin America, Argentina. Argentina is now facing the risk of an involuntary or technical default because of decision of the American justice. Has the Argentinean Government in any way approached the Administration? Has the President Kirchner talked with President Obama? And what kind of solution do you think it’s possible in this case? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: So on your first question, we – President Obama has been very clear that there’s not a U.S. military solution that can be imposed on the current dynamic in Iraq. Actually, the fact of the matter is that even a very extended, nearly nine-year U.S. military engagement wasn’t going to force Iraq’s political leadership to govern in an inclusive way. Ultimately, these are challenges that the Iraqis need to settle themselves, and that starts with forming an inclusive government, and then that includes committing to inclusive security forces that all of Iraq’s communities can have confidence in.
But the United States has a role to play in a number of different ways. First, we’re going to continue to provide training and assistance and equipment to that Iraqi security force. And our assessment teams are on the ground. The up to 300 advisors that President Obama announced, they are looking at ways in which we can better provide support to the Iraqi Government in their fight against ISIL. Our joint operation centers that we’ve – we are establishing with the Iraqis will help support their efforts to coordinate operations against ISIL as well. But those are Iraqi operations, ultimately.
In terms of additional U.S. military action, President Obama again made clear that while he has not ordered any military action, he reserves the right to do so as necessary. I think the threats that we would look to, for instance, would include an evaluation of whether ISIL is posing a threat to U.S. interests that would necessitate our taking action against them, as we have against terrorist organizations in other parts of the region. I think the security and safety of our personnel would certainly be of profound interest to the United States. And we’ve deployed additional military resources to provide for the security of our Embassy in Baghdad and our personnel in Iraq as well.
Again, ultimately, that’s a core interest of the United States: the security of our people, counterterrorism. And I’d add keeping that Embassy open and keeping our operations running in Iraq is what facilitates our ability to cooperate with the Iraqi Government and provide them with security assistance and political support.
So we’re going to be very deliberate in making any decisions about direct U.S. military action. We have left that door open if we believe it can make a difference, a positive difference, or if we believe that it is in our core interest to do so because we face a counterterrorism threat or a threat to our personnel. But ultimately, this has to be an Iraqi-led solution, and that’s why we’re focused, above all, on supporting a urgent and inclusive government formation process and training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.
On Argentina, I don’t have any particular engagements in the White House to read out. I know we are obviously engaged with Argentina through the State Department and other departments of the U.S. Government, but President Obama has not had recent conversations with the president of Argentina about these issues, although they have obviously seen each other at the G20. Again, I think that we believe that this is not simply a bilateral matter, that there are established mechanisms for Argentina to address its own financial commitments, and it’s going to be necessary for Argentina to do so to have the full confidence of the international community and to have their economy on a stable footing.
That’s of interest to the United States. That’s of interest to the region in countries like Brazil that have very deep trading relationships with Argentina. So we’ll encourage Argentina to resolve these issues, to meet their obligations. But I don’t have a particular engagement with President Obama to read out.
QUESTION: Like, is there a concern that this might affect other countries that, in the future, might face difficulties in paying their debt and having difficulties in restructuring it?
MR. RHODES: Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve learned a lot in the last 10 or 20 years about financial crises in different countries, and we’ve learned both how to address and contain those crises and try to – and also how to try to support countries as they seek to get back on a sound fiscal footing. So there’s always a concern when you see countries facing the type of fiscal difficulties that Argentina has faced.
But there is a wealth of knowledge to draw from in looking at how different countries have addressed fiscal crises, and there’s a lot of tools in the international community, frankly, and expertise to draw from in seeking to resolve those issues. So we believe that if countries have the political will to take difficult steps, it is possible to again put a firmer foundation underneath a fiscal crisis, and that’s what we’ve consistently encouraged Argentina to do.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, we only have time for --
MR. RHODES: We’ll take a couple more, yeah.
MODERATOR: -- a couple more, there you go.
MR. RHODES: So let me just move around here, though. So --
MR. RHODES: We’ll take an Egypt question. Yeah, sure. (Laughter.) We’ve – yeah, and then – we’ll take three more questions. We’ll take three more questions.
QUESTION: This is Thomas --
MR. RHODES: Don’t think that that’s the way to get a question. I just – I’ve not taken any Egyptian questions. (Laughter.) I always look for an opportunity to talk about Egypt.
QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian with Al Tahrir Egyptian daily newspaper.
MR. RHODES: Yes.
QUESTION: The question is related to Egypt and the tense relation that it’s leaving now with United States and regarding the partnership, that strategic partnership you are always mentioning it. What is done or has to be done from your perspective, from your side and the other side, to improve the relation?
MR. RHODES: Yeah.
QUESTION: This is first one. The second one related. Beginning of August, the United States-Africa Leadership Summit is going to take place. Is President Sisi of Egypt is going to attend it? Do you extend your invitation to him or what?
MR. RHODES: So on your first question, yes, the United States has a strategic partnership with Egypt, and President Obama discussed that partnership with President Sisi. I’d say a couple things, though. We recently made some certifications in terms of Egypt’s compliance, for instance, with its – with a range of its obligations, including some of the strategic interests that we share. And so as we look at the U.S.-Egypt relationship, we obviously have an interest in the continued peace treaty with Israel, in terms of regional security, counterterrorism issues. And that’s why you’ve seen us maintain a degree of cooperation and a relationship with Egypt on the security side.
But we did not make the certification on the progress towards democracy. And in terms of what we need to see, I think we have consistently pointed to a number of different issues that are of concern to us. Number one, it is outrageous that these Al Jazeera journalists are still in prison in Egypt. There is no basis for detaining them. You can’t lock people up just for reporting the news, even if you don’t like it. And so we believe that there needs to be a resolution to those cases, and that the notion that there’s a judicial system that overrides any ability to deal with that challenge is one that we just don’t accept, because the fact is there’s no demonstrable crime of which these people are guilty of.
And again, Egypt clearly has a vibrant media environment, and lots of voices have been raised in Egypt over the last two or three years. That’s part of what has brought us to where we are today. In that spirit, we’d like to see respect for independent media, and I think the clearest indication of that would be the release of those journalists.
I think more broadly, even as we’ve seen an election held, there are still concerning detentions of different political activists, including, for instance, not just members of the Freedom and Justice Party, but some of the secular activists who actually supported the removal of the Morsy government. Some of them, I think, have been confronted with harassment and detention, so we’d like to see that type of action come to an end.
And I think more broadly, just see that there’s a pathway towards a truly inclusive Egyptian democracy. Yes, Egypt needs strong leadership from President Sisi. Yes, the Egyptian military is an incredibly important institution within Egypt. But at the same time, the long-term stability and success of Egypt is going to depend upon all of Egyptians being able to express their views freely and to participate in the political process freely. If we see Egypt moving in that direction, I think it broadens our ability to fully restore our assistance relationship and deepen that strategic partnership.
And it’s very important to note that that’s what we want. We want Egypt to succeed. We want the United States to have a full and robust assistance relationship. And in fact, we have been looking at ways that we could increase it through things like enterprise funds and support for education. But it’s hard for us to do that if we don’t see progress in some of these other areas that get at kind of core universal rights that, frankly, the Egyptian people so clearly demanded a number of years ago.
So we believe there’s a good platform for cooperation, that we’re better off when we cooperate. The strategic relationship is in place with President Sisi and the Egyptian Government, but we would like to see a broader and deeper partnership, frankly, between the U.S. and Egypt. And I think that can come about if we see progress in some of the specific areas that I mentioned.
On the summit, I don’t – this was an initial determination made based upon the fact that Egypt was not in full standing with the African Union. So as that process works through the African Union, I think we’ll make determinations about invitations. I don’t think we’ve made those yet. But – so that’s something that we’ll be making a decision about here in the coming days in conversation with the African Union.
But again, it’s important to note we want this relationship to succeed. At some cost to the United – to – look, it hasn’t been easy for us to, at times, defend the sustainment of this relationship through the various ups and downs that have taken place. The reason that we’ve maintained the relationship is because it is so important to us. Egypt is important to the United States. The Egyptian people are important to us. And we believe that cutting the cord on that relationship would be a bad thing, not just for our strategic interests but, frankly, for our – the values that we want to see that the Egyptian people have stood up for. So we’ve maintained that connection, but again, there’s a much broader horizon that can be reached, much broader cooperation that can be achieved if we see Egypt take some of these concrete steps.
Yeah. This gentleman here.
QUESTION: Lukman Ahmed, BBC Arabic here from Washington. I have couple of question on Sudan. First, I will take you to Darfur. It’s – there are 2 million people for more than 10 years staying in refugee camp after the war in Darfur in 2003. The report from the UN shows that the situation there is very dire and people are dying every day because of hunger and disease after the Sudanese Government expelled the international organization and helped them out of the country. What is your – and right now, reportedly some of these refugees are getting back home. What is your strategy dealing with these refugees? Are you supporting staying there with the status quo in the refugee camps or trying to do more action that will have a solution so these people can go back home?
And the second question is we know that Mariam Yehya is in the U.S. Embassy, and so they are trying to get her to the United State of America. Your government is negotiating with the Sudanese Government her exit. Any progress on that? What are the problems that preventing her to get out till now? Thank you.
MR. RHODES: Yeah, I don’t have the specific progress report on that. I do know that the State Department is providing her with all of the support that they can and – her and her husband, for that matter. And this is an ongoing discussion with the Sudanese Government. Obviously, we were outraged by the charges against her. We believe that she needs to be released and have the freedom to make her own determinations about her future. But State is best positioned to talk about the current status of negotiations.
With respect to Darfur and the refugee camps, I think there have been a number of things that we would encourage. First of all, there needs to be full access for international organizations, NGOs, to the refugee camps and to some of these more difficult areas in and around Darfur. At times we’ve seen limits placed on that type of access. We want the international community to be able to provide full support both to those who are in camps and to those who are seeking to resettle. And so essentially, the message to the Sudanese Government is that they need to cooperate fully with the international community, including different aid organizations in the UN to allow for that access and to help – to let the international community help people who are in need both in the camps and people who are seeking to resettle.
At the same time, there needs to be a follow-through on all the commitments that the government has made in terms about respecting the rights of minority populations, in terms of cracking down on acts and incidents of violence against vulnerable populations. And so that’s something that we’ve seen, frankly, there be a very mixed record on. At times there is cooperation; at times it slips back. And I think the point is that there needs to be a sustained focus on ensuring peace in this area, in terms of cracking down and holding accountable those who commit acts of violence against civilians, at the same time that, again, there’s an effort that allows the international community to support these vulnerable populations.
So this has been an ongoing focus of the United States and the international community for years, and ultimately the measure of success is only going to be when people are allowed to live without fear, to return home or resettle to places that they so choose, and to not have the type of threat of violence that has hung over them for so long.
I’ll take one more question. Yes, so the woman there. Yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you. Patty Culhane, Al Jazeera English. You’ve repeatedly called for both sides to show restraint, Israel and Palestine. Do you feel the Israelis are showing restraint right now? And you also mentioned earlier that you were trying to help Israel find the perpetrators. What exactly is the U.S. doing in that role?
MR. RHODES: Well, on the second question, the – frankly, we’ve just offered to provide whatever assistance we can. And --
QUESTION: Did they accept it?
MR. RHODES: Yeah, they’ve accepted, but at the same time, in their own neighborhood, they tend to have substantial intelligence resources and law enforcement resources. But insofar as we have any information, we are going to share that with them. We have had a dialogue with their security officials, for instance, so this has been a topic of discussion in terms of seeking to determine whether we can provide any additional support on the intelligence and law enforcement side. But they have, again, tended to have the clearest understanding of what is taking place when it pertains to issues in their immediate environment.
On your first question, look, I think Israel clearly has a very deeply held belief that they need to provide for the security of their citizens. And when you have three teenagers who are abducted and killed, there has to be a response and that there has to be an effort to find those responsible and bring them to justice. And there has to be an understanding in the Palestinian leadership that there should be cooperation with Israel in those efforts. And President Abbas has, I think, made very constructive statements to that end in offering the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority. But Israel needs to be very careful to not be so heavy-handed in its response that they’re further destabilizing the situation, and they need to respect the dignity of the Palestinian people. And so that’s what we’ll continue to urge going forward, and ultimately that’s what’s going to be in their best interests.
MODERATOR: Do you want to take a follow-up?
MR. RHODES: Sure.
QUESTION: I have just one quick follow.
MR. RHODES: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are launching airstrikes an attempt to find the perpetrators?
MR. RHODES: Well, I won’t get into tactical advice to the Israelis. I mean, clearly some of those are related to rocket fire from Gaza. But no, I mean, I think generally they should be precise and they should not cast a net that harms innocent Palestinians in their actions.
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