White House Briefing w/ Dana Perino, 21 Jul 2008
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
July 21, 2008
12:29 P.M. EDT
White House Press Briefing by Dana Perino - July 21, 2008
MS. PERINO: Hello. Couple of announcements, then I'll take your questions.
As you know, the United States and Iraq are working to conclude negotiations on a strategic framework agreement. This agreement will lay out the future security, political, economic and diplomatic ties of our two countries. Since January 2007, when President Bush announced a surge which sent more troops to Iraq and implemented a counter-insurgency strategy, we have seen a dramatic improvement in conditions on the ground. The Iraqis are increasingly able to be in the lead in combat missions, with us in overwatch. As we saw when the Iraqis security forces took back Basra, Mosul and Sadr City, they can succeed.
It is precisely because we are succeeding in Iraq that we are able to have these conversations today to set aspirational goals for time horizons when we can transition our mission to overwatch, counter-terrorism and training, which is the goal that we share. From there we'll be able to bring more troops home. This is a bilateral agreement and it is solely based on conditions on the ground -- which have improved and are likely to continue, given the trajectory -- as long as we work to cement the gains and maintain sustainable security.
Also today, a U.S. delegation led by the U.S. Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, is meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, along with other major trading nations at a ministerial level meeting in an effort to make progress in the Doha round of global trade negotiations. As you heard President Bush emphasize at the recent G8 meetings, it is critically important that we conclude the Doha round. We want the world to trade freely and we want to make sure markets are open for American agricultural goods, manufacturing goods and also the services that we can provide.
It's important to -- and remember that these discussions are expected to be particularly beneficial to developing countries. Study after study has shown that the best way to help alleviate poverty is through trade. President Bush is firmly committed to a successful outcome to this round and we will continue to be a leader in the discussions. We are willing to make further contributions in these negotiations, but success will only be achieved if others, especially the key emerging markets, make meaningful steps as well.
Q Has anyone reached out to Iraq's Prime Minister and his spokesman to find out what their feeling is about the President's agreement governing the presence of American troops in Iraq? It seems as if they are emphasizing the 16-month formula that Barack Obama is talking about -- both the Prime Minister in the interview with Der Spiegel and the spokesman again today.
MS. PERINO: I don't know if anybody in particular has spoken to them, although I can tell you that Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus meet with them, I think, daily. So I do believe that we've had contact with them, but I also think that Prime Minister Maliki is now on his way to Italy and Germany for his trip abroad. So I don't know.
And I don't know what aspirational time horizon is going to end up in the final agreement. We're not going to negotiate here from the podium -- it obviously doesn't work; it's a tried and true policy and we're going the stick to it. So we'll have to see.
I don't think that we'll be able to finalize this agreement by next Thursday. We're working towards it, but it might take a few more days after that.
Q Well, when the Prime Minister's spokesman said today, we're hoping that in 2010 that combat troops will withdraw from Iraq -- doesn't that seem to be centering on the time table that Senator Obama is proposing?
MS. PERINO: I think -- I don't know what the number is going to be. When I can tell you is that the agreement that the President and Prime Minister Maliki made last Thursday and which we talked about on Friday, after we got through Tony's funeral, is that it will be conditions-based, we agree it would be flexible, we agree it is not an arbitrary date for withdrawal.
Let's be clear, this agreement that we are working on is nothing like the 40 or 50 arbitrary withdrawal plans that we saw many members of Congress support over the past several years. This is an agreement that we can work on based on the success that we've had in the last several months. I don't think anybody in this room would have thought a year ago that we would be having these conversations today.
The success has been remarkable. We don't think that it is cemented yet. We do think that some of these gains are reversible, and the Iraqis understand that. And the Iraqis definitely want to take over their own security. We want them to do so, as well, but we want to jointly do it in a way that makes sure that we don't pull out arbitrarily.
Q Would you prefer that Iraq not talk about a specific date like 2010?
MS. PERINO: We don't think that talking about specific negotiating tactics or your negotiating position in the press is the best way to negotiate a deal. However, we understand that they're a sovereign country and they'll be able to do that. We're just not going to do it on our end.
I don't know what the time horizon is going to be in the -- at the end of the day when we finalize this agreement, but I do know that it will be one that is based on conditions where the commanders on the ground could say, that's a great goal, we're getting -- and as we near it, get nearer to it, if the conditions aren't right, they could pull it back and, or push the date back.
So I think we'll have to see. I think this is based on the discussions that we've had amongst our counterparts and also with the conversation that I witnessed the other day between the President and Prime Minister.
Q Well, do you think that that date of 16 months that the Prime Minister and the government spokesman are talking about is any different from what Senator Obama has been talking about?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to talk about Senator Obama's position. He can articulate that himself. I would just tell you that where we come from, we're not going to talk about specific dates, but we are -- in terms of the press, there will be an aspirational goal, a time horizon that is laid out in the strategic framework agreement. It will not have any discussion about troop levels. The next Commander-in-Chief is going to have to make those decisions. I would hope that he would make them based on conditions on the ground, whichever President it is. Whether or not it's 16 months, or later, or earlier, I just don't know.
Q But the Iraqis may have some say in it, and they're saying that they would like to, you know, in general, give or take a little, like to have most U.S. troops out in 16 months.
MS. PERINO: Well, we would -- we share the goal of trying to bring more of our combat troops home and transitioning the mission. They have proven that they've come a long way. The Iraqi security forces are able now to be the lead in the fight, such as they were in Basra, Mosul and Sadr City, some of the hardest fighting that they had in Iraq. That's tremendous progress.
Right now, though, we're working -- to still work on transitioning security control over Anbar province, for example. They're nearing -- nearer to being able to do that, but they're not quite there yet. And that has been sort of a rolling -- on a rolling basis; the conditions aren't quite right, but we're getting closer. And I think that any date will, again, be tied to this conditions based -- condition that -- condition based condition that we have.
Q Don't you find it just the slightest bit disconcerting that the Iraqis continue to talk about this time horizon while Barack Obama is there, or while he was there?
MS. PERINO: No. Look, I think that we've always said that we are trying to conclude this agreement by July 31st. We're now at July 21st, and any time, in my experience, that you get nearer to the end of a negotiation, the conversation intensifies and sometimes gets a little bit more vocal. So I don't think it's disconcerting, no.
Q Dana, the term "time horizon" has to imply the setting of date, or dates, of some sort in this agreement. How can you say that this is not a change of administration policy when the President had adamantly -- adamantly -- objected to the idea of time lines, time frames, deadline, anything related to time?
MS. PERINO: I just think that it's important that you make the distinction, Matt, that for many years, over -- since, I think it was '05, '06, and '07 -- many members of Congress suggested that we pull troops out in 90 days from X date, or, in six months from today we'll have no more combat troops there. Those were arbitrary dates that tied the hands of the commanders, that did not give any consideration to conditions on the ground.
The whole reason we are able to have this conversation today with the Iraqis is because conditions on the ground have changed radically, and for the better. And we are willing to talk with them about an aspirational time horizon when we would be able to have them take more security control of their country, as well as see them continue to make gains in their political reconciliation, which we increasingly saw even over the weekend, as the Sunnis agreed to come back and rejoin the government.
On the economic side, they just passed a supplemental for their budget. They're increasingly bringing in more revenues and they're paying for much -- almost all of their reconstruction costs. So we're making gains.
Let me also mention that I do think that they've made a tremendous effort in the region, in the neighborhood, to improve the diplomatic relations with their neighbors. And you're seeing that through the Kuwaitis, who have now said that they will send an ambassador for the first time in many years; the United Arab Emirates, who agreed to forgive their debt, which was a good step forward; Jordan has said that they would consider opening up their embassy there, amongst others.
So all of these tracks have been moving forward. We are not setting an arbitrary date for withdrawal that is a date that is plucked out of thin air. We are going to do this based on conditions. Conditions have improved dramatically, and we want to get it on a trajectory that makes sure that that can continue.
Q You're not setting an arbitrary date --
MS. PERINO: That's right.
Q -- but dates will be set, nonetheless.
MS. PERINO: As I just said, there will be an aspirational time horizon where there might be -- for example, something that says, we believe that by X date the Iraqis should be able to take care -- take over security control of Y province. That could be the type of dates we're talking about.
Q But, so then what really is the -- it sounds like a semantical difference. I mean, most Americans are going to look at that --
MS. PERINO: I don't think -- well, if you're making policy and you're the Commander-in-Chief, there's a huge difference between saying that you're going to bring troops home based on -- let me go on -- I don't remember whose legislation it was that would have brought our troops home in 90 days after the passing of the supplemental -- maybe in 2007. But I know that we've gone through several of these fights, and in every -- every time we've been able the beat it back because we think that the best decision-makers on the ground are commanders on the ground, not people in Washington, D.C. plucking dates out of thin air.
And we are able to have this conversation with the Iraqis now because of the success we are seeing in Iraq -- that is based on the surge, which was a extremely courageous decision, one of the most unpopular decisions possibly in presidential history, but one that has worked nonetheless.
Q The AP has a report out of Jordan saying that Prime Minister Maliki told his advisors in recent days that it was time to squeeze the Americans; that because of the political calendar in the United States, it was time to really put pressure on President Bush to get this phrase "time horizon" or something like that into this agreement. Did the White House feel any pressure? Do you think that Prime Minister Maliki is using the political calendar to "squeeze" the U.S. right now?
MS. PERINO: I would tell you that I saw the report. I think it's based on an anonymous source reporting about something they heard in -- that took place in a meeting, so I don't think it's appropriate to comment on it. I've seen enough of those turn out not to be true.
Now, do I think that the negotiations are in their final stages and do I think the Iraqis are trying to put forward their best position and to try to show that they can do more? Yes. But I also know that they agreed -- the President and the Prime Minister and their negotiators -- that any decision should be based on conditions, should not be arbitrary, and it should not tie the hands of our commanders.
Q Is the 2010 time frame that the Iraqi spokesman talked about today and that Maliki seemed to talk about, is that an arbitrary date in --
MS. PERINO: I think that no matter --
Q -- the U.S. government's mind? And --
MS. PERINO: Not if it based on conditions on the ground. So, as I said, say that there's some date in the future -- I won't say which one it is -- say that there's a date in the future and as you get nearer to it something has changed on the ground, or the Iraqi security forces that we thought were going to be ready aren't, or there's some other sort of change, then it could be reevaluated and pushed back.
Q They don't seem to --
MS. PERINO: So it's not a firm, hard, fast date where you all of a sudden take all the troops out.
Q They don't seem to be putting it that way, though. They seem to be simply saying, 2010 will be a good time frame for the withdrawals --
MS. PERINO: That might be what some of them think. That might be what the Prime Minister thinks --
Q Well, it's the government --
MS. PERINO: But I will tell you that it's based on conditions. And do they hope to be able to achieve their goals? Yes. We want to help them achieve their goals, too. We want our troops to come home, as well. We'll only be able to do that if we keep the trajectory that we're on, which is more success in Iraq.
Anybody still on this? Okay, Peter.
Q Who or what provoked this statement that you --
MS. PERINO: My statement?
MS. PERINO: I did, all on my own. (Laughter.)
Q Why did you decide to issue --
MS. PERINO: Because it's the news of the day, that's what you guys are covering, and I thought that I might as well get it out in the open and lay some groundwork for where we are.
Q So it wasn't motivated at all by this spokesman talking about 2010 and --
MS. PERINO: No. We've been talking about this since Thursday -- I don't think we even had a briefing on Thursday. I haven't been in the briefing room for several days, but we've been -- this issue has been in the news since Friday. And I actually came up with the idea all on my own.
Q All right. Second question about the statement. You said that the situation is likely to continue to improve given the current trajectory, but at the same time, you also said that some gains could be reversible.
MS. PERINO: Yes. That's true, and that's why we have to be flexible. And I think we've all -- none of us know what's going to happen in the war. In fact, none of us -- in January of 2004 -- January-February 2005, none of us would have thought we would be where we were a year from then, from February '05 to February '06, when you had the worst of the Sunni and Shia violence. That's what we mean by it's unpredictable, it's why you have to be flexible. And that's why we have to look to our commanders to tell us what the conditions are to make sure that we have the right number of troops there, and that their mission is the one that they should be fulfilling.
Increasingly we're able to be in an overwatch position where we can have the Iraqis' back. That's where they want us to get to, and that's what we're working towards. But it just might take a little while. But in this agreement we should be able to frame up some dates for aspirational time horizons in the future.
Q One related question, one more. Given the recent contacts with North Korea and the weekend presence at the talks with Iran, are North Korea and Iran still part of the axis of evil?
MS. PERINO: We've worked very hard to make sure that our diplomatic efforts are multilateral in nature and that we can bring to bear international scrutiny on issues of nuclear weapons programs. And we've done that, and we are pleased that we are starting to see some fruits of that labor, especially in terms of North Korea.
Iran is a different story. Iran -- they met with the P5-plus-1 this week. We thought that they would have a response; they didn't. The Secretary of State thought that they came up well short and that they're missing an opportunity for a very generous incentives package, and that sanctions -- additional sanctions could be on the way.
Q The other question was, are both those countries still part of what the President defined as the axis of evil?
MS. PERINO: I think that until they give up their nuclear weapons programs completely and verifiably, I think that we keep them in the same category.
Q Dana --
MS. PERINO: Sorry, she was still on the same thing.
Q Yes, on the same subject. Do you think that the Iraqis are feeling pressure to make statements of late -- statements today and statements over the last couple of weeks -- as they are pretty much right now the center point of what's happening with this election -- although somewhat the center point of what's happening in the coming election? Do you think the pressure that they are feeling -- is that why they're saying things that --
MS. PERINO: They might be, I don't know. I'm assuming that they're probably getting a lot of press calls from all over the world and so I couldn't say what sort of pressure they're under. I do know that the negotiations are well underway and that people are working and burning the candles at -- candle at both ends in order to try to get it done.
Q Do you know, does this administration feel that they are changing their stance at all; that they're changing their loyalties to this country?
MS. PERINO: No. I think that if you -- you should go back and look at the things that Maliki has said and that even his spokesperson said again in his statement on Saturday, that they appreciate the sacrifices of the United States, they recognize the role we have played, and that they don't want to move too fast, too soon. But I definitely don't -- I don't think that in terms of changing loyalties, that that is a part of this at all. I think that they are wanting to take back more of their own control. We share the same goal.
You're on the same thing, Roger?
MS. PERINO: Wendell.
Q What if anything was accomplished at the P5-plus-1 talks in Geneva over the weekend?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that what Secretary Rice said is that it reinvigorated the diplomatic process, and that the P5-plus-1 recognized that the Iranians continue to play a game of stall tactics, and that they should continue to be united and make sure that there's no cracks in our position; of which I think that we resolidified the position of the P5-plus-1, that Iran should suspend its uranium enrichment; that we provided a very generous incentives package that they apparently are going to miss the opportunity to accept. Secretary Rice agreed with the other members to allow Iran to have two more weeks, but after that I think that Iran could be looking at -- possibly looking at additional sanctions.
Q So what we gained here was more support for additional sanctions?
MS. PERINO: I would also think that -- I think we gained support for additional sanctions and we gained clarity in the Iranians' position.
Q We expected a formal response this weekend. We had already shrugged off Ahmadinejad's informal rejection of the package. We didn't get a formal response this weekend, and we gave them another couple of weeks. Your critics say that you are not being tough enough on Iran.
MS. PERINO: Well, there are some people that think that we should actually be talking to Iran, too, so I think you're going to get critics from all sides, no matter where you are, as the Commander-in-Chief. But I think that we have developed a good system with the diplomacy that we have engaged in. The fact that there is a multilateral framework with the P5-plus-1 that is united in its efforts to get Iran to halt its uranium enrichment so that we could then have negotiations with them, is one that has paid off because the international community recognizes that the best way to do that is through tightening these sanctions, which is hopefully something that we will be looking at over the next week or two.
But they did give them an additional two weeks, and I know that there would be critics about that -- critics on that, but when we say that we're serious about solving this diplomatically, we mean it. And we did expect Iran to come to the table with a response on Saturday, because that's what they said they were going to do. And the fact that they didn't just proves once again that they're playing a game of stall tactics.
Q So where does it go from here?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think we have this two-week period, but at that same time, I think that the secretaries and the political directors will be talking with one another to see about what the next steps would be if, in fact, Iran does not respond favorably to the offer.
Q Two weeks, then, is a hard and fast deadline?
MS. PERINO: Well, as far as I know --
Q Is the offer removed at the end of two weeks?
MS. PERINO: I don't know how -- I don't know that, but I'll check and see.
Q Related to that, in the mix of sanctions that will be examined then over the next week or two, would gasoline imports be one of those --
MS. PERINO: I don't know.
Q -- in the mix of sanctions?
MS. PERINO: I don't know. Look, we'll see if -- we usually never get that specific when we're talking about possible sanctions. But I'll check on both questions.
Q And I have a related question. The Texas governor has asked -- petitioned the EPA to do a 50 percent reduction on the ethanol waiver. What does the President think about it?
MS. PERINO: Well, it is the EPA -- the EPA Administrator's -- I'm sorry, that is the EPA Administrator's decision to make. I'm not exactly sure where we stand on that, Roger. I know that there's been some discussion about it over at EPA, so I'll check on three things, then.
Q I would think that the President, since he really pushed this mandate -- he signed it into law just last December -- that he wouldn't feel keen toward cutting the mandate in half.
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that -- yes, the mandate in regards to the renewable fuels portfolio standard, we do think it's important because we need to get our country on a path to transition away from traditional oil and gas use. One of the ways to do that is through ethanol. But we know that corn-based ethanol comes with some issues, so to speak, and one of those is environmental, the other one is in regards to food. So all of these things are being taken into consideration.
But I do think that if you look at the percentage of how much that ethanol is affecting corn prices or food prices, it's relatively small. And so all these factors have to be taken into account if you're going to make another change. But I think that the law that was passed in December of 2007 is a good one, and gets us on a path to replace, I think it's 35 billion of traditional oil and gas with ethanol -- or other alternatives or renewables.
Q Would the White House be weighing in on Mr. Johnson's decision?
MS. PERINO: Let me just check on where it is. I'm not exactly sure how that process works.
Laurent -- Olivier. (Laughter.) Sorry, I've done it twice. I called Dan, Mike, and you, Laurent. That's a problem with being here two hours ago.
Q You mentioned this morning that you were monitoring -- the White House was monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe.
MS. PERINO: Yes.
Q They've now shaken hands, signed a deal. Does this have any impact at all on the U.S. push for more sanctions on members of the Mugabe regime?
MS. PERINO: That's not -- I hadn't heard that update, that they had gotten together. But we are -- as I said, we were monitoring it, so I will go back and see if we got any details, because we've truly believed that all of those concerns that were expressed by the AU, the U.N., and the SADC need to be addressed in any agreement, so that we make sure that the Zimbabwean people's will is reflected.
Q And the President said that the event would be -- the Olympic athletes, that they should be ambassadors of liberty and they should represent -- they should -- to the Chinese people and to their fellow athletes, U.S. values of human rights and human dignity.
Does that mean he envisions a role beyond their athletic accomplishment at the Olympics --
MS. PERINO: No.
Q -- and this isn't exactly what the President said he wasn't going to do?
MS. PERINO: I think that the President said that they represent America and those are values that we represent, and he was very proud to have them today.
Q Thank you, Dana. Secretary Rice sent out a little bit of a jolt in her interview over the weekend with CNN in which she said she had made up her mind who to vote for, for President in November, but wouldn't say who it was. Is that different from the President, who says wholeheartedly he'll vote for John McCain?
MS. PERINO: I don't know and I didn't see that part of the interview. But I'll let Secretary Rice speak for herself. I have heard her say she supports John McCain, so I would surprised if there was any -- much of a story there.
Q The other thing is, will -- 10 members of Congress who were just at ANWR are now saying to reporters individually that there's no danger to the environment; we should drill. Will the President meet with the 10 or have any event related to their trip to Alaska?
MS. PERINO: On ANWR? I don't know who the 10 were, but let us check on it and -- we'll check, Scott and I --
Q John Boehner led them.
MS. PERINO: Okay, great. Yes, and we're glad that they went. I'm sure that they learned what the President believes to be true, which is that we should be opening up ANWR for environmentally responsible drilling.
That's it for you? Okay, Victoria.
Q You're talking about aspirational time horizons and the Iraqis are talking about 16 months and 2010. Do you think that they might be negotiating in public, trying to put pressure on you before the agreement?
MS. PERINO: I don't know. I don't know, Victoria. I guess that's possible.
Q You spoke a moment ago about the need to transition from the path of oil to renewables. What is the White House's position on Vice President Gore's 10-year aspirational goal to do that?
MS. PERINO: I didn't know he had aspirational goals too. I don't know; I didn't watch it. I mean, we have lots of our own plans and I'm sure he's got many up his sleeve, as well.
Q Two questions on Kosovo, just so you know. Anything to say on the agenda of today's meeting between President Bush and the Kosovo leaders Hashim Thaci and Agim Cheku.
MS. PERINO: Yes, the President is going to be meeting here just in about 10 minutes, and I will go there. You'll hear from the President and the President and the Prime Minister -- all will have a chance to speak to the pool at the end. The President is meeting with them to underscore his support for Kosovo's independence.
Q One more question. Metropolitan Artemije of Kosovo in a protest today asked President Bush to cancel the meeting with Mr. Hashim Thaci inter alia met in Tehran with Osama bin Laden to plan a jihad war against the Serbs -- any comment?
MS. PERINO: Did you really just use "inter alia" in a question? (Laughter.)
Q (Inaudible) inter alia. (Laughter.)
MS. PERINO: I mean, let's let the meeting take place and then we'll see -- and I'll be available afterwards for you.
Q Thank you. This morning the Attorney General was speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, and he had a clear message for the U.S. Congress, and also (inaudible). What he said was really that those people who are being released are dangerous people as far as terrorism is concerned. My question is that most of the people released, almost 500 of them, they're back on the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now the Prime Minister is going to come visit next week here at the White House, meeting with President Bush. You think this is really the main agent as far as terrorism and those people still now in custody in Cuba that were -- some of them are also from Afghanistan and Pakistan still in custody.
MS. PERINO: Okay. Well, the Attorney General did give a speech this morning about the issues that the Supreme Court decision raised in regards to the Boumediene decision. What we believe is that the Supreme Court decision actually raised a lot more questions than it answered, and that's what the Attorney General is trying to talk about today. And he also outlined some principles that he would like Congress to consider if they were to legislate on this issue. And so I'd refer you to that.
And when it comes to the Prime Minister's meeting with the President on Monday, the 28th, they have a -- with the Pakistani Prime Minister, the President and Prime Minister Gillani have a lot of issues to talk about, and certainly the FATA region will be one of them, and cooperation on counterterrorism. That will be the first priority on the agenda.
Q And second, quickly, as far as going back to Iran, talking about new sanctions -- so far sanctions really have not worked. And also, are you in touch with China, Russia, where they do stand on some of these sanctions that the U.N. is concerned?
MS. PERINO: We've certainly been talking with them in regards to the U.N. issues, and we will continue to pressure them. I think that -- I don't think it's correct to say that sanctions haven't had an effect.
Q Dana, on Iran --
Q Dana. Dana.
Q -- I've been trying to follow up on Iran and Iraq.
MS. PERINO: Okay, Connie, one question. Go ahead.
Q Thank you. Has Iraq given any indication whether it would support sanctions against Iran? And would it come to the (inaudible) if Iran tries to block the Straits of Hormuz?
MS. PERINO: I haven't heard what the Iraqis have said, but I don't think that -- they're not a member of the Security Council.
Q What about the Straits of Hormuz, would they assist the United States?
MS. PERINO: I think that Iraq has made it very clear that they don't want Iranian influence in their country. We certainly don't want to see any Iranian influence in Iraq, especially when it comes to the targeting of our soldiers.
Q Do you have any figures on how much of the construction costs are being paid by Iraq, Iraqis?
MS. PERINO: We can get it for you, but I think it's nearly 90 percent.
Q Thank you.
END 12:55 P.M. EDT