White House Briefing w/ Dana Perino, 22 Jul 2008
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
July 22, 2008
White House Press Briefing by Dana Perino - July 22, 2008
12:36 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Good afternoon. A couple of announcements. This afternoon at 1:30 p.m., President Bush will make remarks at an event commemorating Colombia Independence Day. In addition to recognizing our shared history and the great strides in democracy and human rights by Colombia under President Uribe, the President will also highlight the need for Congress to bring the Colombia free trade agreement to a vote. This trade agreement would bring economic benefits to the United States and would support an important strategic ally in the hemisphere.
And speaking of trade, this morning in Geneva, in case you missed it, Ambassador Schwab made an announcement demonstrating our leadership and commitment to a successful outcome of the Doha Round negotiations. President Bush, as you have heard him talk about before, has consistently worked to achieve a successful outcome in the Doha Round, generating global economic growth for all countries, especially developing nations.
To move these negotiations forward this week, and in an exchange for ambitious market access for our products, for agricultural and other products, Ambassador Schwab informed her colleagues that the United States stands ready to significantly reduce trade-distorting agricultural subsidies here in our own country. This is an important move, offered in good faith and with an expectation that others will reciprocate and step forward with improved offers in market access.
Also, in Jerusalem today, local authorities are treating the second bulldozer attack as a terrorist incident. They are gathering information, but if it turns out that it was terrorism, all parties must condemn it. Terrorist attacks do nothing to further the goals of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, a goal the President had been advocating for and that both of those countries' leaders have been working towards. And our thoughts and prayers are with those injured in today's attack.
Today the United States Senate is taking up the issue of energy and the high prices that are having an impact on families and businesses across America. Unfortunately, it appears that the Democratically controlled Senate is not planning to allow votes on solutions that will have an impact on our future energy needs.
More than a month ago, President Bush asked Congress to take action to address the need for more American supply of energy, and that, coupled with our conservation efforts would finally start addressing the root cause of the problem of high gas prices, which is supply and demand. And we will be monitoring that debate as it gets underway.
Also a reminder about tomorrow. The President is getting a briefing at one of his regular visits to what's called the Tank, over at the Pentagon, for meetings with the Secretary and Joint Chiefs. I expect they will talk about Iraq, Afghanistan, counterterrorism and broader issues facing armed services, such as care for wounded warriors and support to the military community.
QUESTION: On energy, the Senate voted 94-0 to move ahead on a measure to curb oil speculation, speculation in oil markets. Is that a measure that the administration thinks is worthwhile and could support?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think -- I hadn't seen that vote, but I do think that one of the things that we have said -- I know we have said is that we believe that speculation does cause some volatility in the day-to-day market fluctuations of oil prices. But we believe that the root causes of high energy prices is supply and demand.
So while they can have the vote on speculation and they can move forward on that, we think that it is critical that we start focusing on the resources that we have in our own country and the ways that we can access those resources in environmentally friendly ways, including oil shale, offshore oil drilling and opening up a small bit of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Q: Dana, did you look into the report about the Russian bombers in Cuba?
MS. PERINO: Yes, it appears to be just speculation and hypotheticals right now. I would repeat that what President Bush said to President Medvedev and had said to President Putin beforehand on our missile defense plan is that we want to work with them, we seek a strategic partnership with the Russians. We are working to prevent missiles from rogue nations. We do not believe that Russia is a threat. Nor do we believe that our missile defense system would be any sort of a match-up against the vast arsenal of weapons that Russia has.
So our target is not Russia. In fact, what we would like to do is work as equal partners with Russia, with the Europeans and here in our own country. We've been trying to have a dialogue with them. The Russians have said that they will keep having that dialogue. So on that specific report, I'll decline to comment, since it seems speculative at this point.
Q: Wouldn't you think it's alarming if Russia --
MS. PERINO: I think that commenting on speculative reports is not a good idea. That's all I have on that.
Q: Dana, thank you. Has the President, or will the President be calling India Prime Minister Singh now that he's won a parliamentary confidence vote, and he's planning to push ahead with the civil nuclear deal with the United States?
MS. PERINO: I don't know if he needs to make a call since they just spoke about two weeks ago when they were at the G8 meeting -- and they had a very good bilateral meeting -- and meetings on the side, as well, during the outreach meetings that the G8 held.
And we think that this idea of a U.S.-India civil nuclear arrangement is a good one for everybody. It's good for India because it would help provide them a source for energy that they need, one that is non-polluting and one that doesn't emit greenhouse gas emissions. And we think that we can move forward with this. If their legislator -- legislature lets it move forward, then we can do the same here, and then we'll be able to get this wrapped up.
So I don't know if he necessarily needs to call since he just saw him and expressed his support. But I'll let you know if it changes.
Q: Dana, I know you may not want to comment on Senator Obama directly -- we keep bringing this up, obviously -- but specifically today, Senator Obama had a press conference where he was talking about his meeting with General Petraeus. And obviously, this is not a hypothetical; General Petraeus is still the President's commander and he obviously deals with him on a regular basis. Senator Obama was saying that General Petraeus told him he's against a timetable for withdrawing troops. Obviously we've heard that before, but Obama basically said, I'd listened to the commanders, but ultimately I'd have to make the determination, I see the big picture.
Are you concerned at all that he's sort of setting up a comparison to the way President Bush is operating now, and that Senator Obama is almost operating as if he's a head of state right now? There's been some criticism of that. Is this interfering at all with the administration's efforts in the region?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to comment on Senator Obama's trip, nor his press conference, but I can assure you that President Bush, the Commander-in-Chief, does not allow anything to distract him from his mission to make sure that we win in Iraq.
Q: But have you lost control of the situation at all, with Senator Obama coming out of this meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, for example, yesterday and saying, look, he's for my plan, essentially; he wants to get troops out by 2010? How does that not interfere --
MS. PERINO: Quite the contrary, quite the contrary. I think that people have missed the most important point, which is, the only reason we are even able to have conversations about bringing troops home is based on the success we've had because of the President's leadership and General Petraeus's leadership in implementing the surge strategy, which was an enormously unpopular decision in January of 2007, could not have been more unpopular at the time. But they decided to take it because it was the right thing to do in their mind. A lot of people opposed it, but we went forward, we persevered.
And even in June of 2007, I remember when the troops hadn't all arrived yet, the violence was still quite high. And everybody asked if the surge had failed. Well, here we are a year later, and I don't think anybody in this room would have thought that we would have made the gains that we've made. It's because of conditions on the ground that have changed dramatically and improved dramatically that we're even able to talk about bringing troops home.
We share the goal of wanting to bring troops home. We have offered to talk about aspirational goals for general time horizons where we could look to see hypothetically when we might be able to bring -- have Iraqis take control of their own security in certain provinces. But we're going to need to transition our mission to one of overwatch, counterterrorism, training. Those are the things that we need to be able to do to help support the Iraqis, and they're going to need that support for a long time into the future. And the Iraqis say that as well.
So I think that, quite the contrary; while this trip of his might be a distraction for many -- and maybe a welcome one for the media -- it's not one for President Bush.
Q: But what about the fact -- beyond the media -- the fact that Prime Minister Maliki seems to be agreeing with Obama's approach?
MS. PERINO: We went through this again yesterday, and I think that there's a big difference about a bilateral joint agreement on a general time horizon that is an aspirational goal that will be based on conditions on the ground and what military commanders -- our military commanders and the Iraqi military commanders believe will be their capacity. This is not a -- these will not be dates plucked out of thin air based on an American political calendar, or based on an American inside-the-beltway decision of "we think this would be a good date to remove troops." We want to bring troops home based on success.
And, in fact, the President has already started to do so. We have reduced five brigades this year alone; there could be more to come. I mean, those are decisions that are going to have to be made later this fall when President Bush hears from General Petraeus on his report.
Q: I get that. I just don't understand, though, why Maliki doesn't seem to believe that. He's not adding those caveats. He's saying he wants troops out by 2010.
MS. PERINO: I disagree, I disagree. And I think that people are missing his saying that things will have to be based on conditions. And it's not -- it won't be arbitrary. And I would point you to the statement that the President and Prime Minister Maliki put out on Friday. It is no small thing for two leaders to issue a statement; it is one that was taken with care and with seriousness.
Q: Dana, can I ask you something else for a second? How is President Bush's relationship with Prime Minister Maliki these days?
MS. PERINO: It's very good. I get to sit in the meetings every other Thursday when they have their SVTS and I would say that they have a good relationship. I think the President and Prime Minister Maliki have learned a -- have come a long way together. I think President Bush feels that Prime Minister Maliki is somebody that has gone through a lot, and President Bush has stuck with him through a lot of turbulent times. But they've together worked to implement the surge. And I think that now Iraq is beginning to see the fruit of some of that labor.
And they did also say -- I mean, we can't lose sight of the fact that they're grateful for all that the Americans have done. And we want them to be -- we want our troops to be able to come home, too. We want to transition our mission, but we're just not going to do it willy-nilly.
Q: I guess that's the question -- is there any feeling inside the administration -- if not in the Oval Office with the President, with other people involved in the policy -- that you have stuck by Prime Minister Maliki, and now, all of this media and attention and press about bringing the troops home, is Prime Minister walking down a hallway with Barack Obama -- do you feel that the President has gotten sort of short shrift from the Iraqis, from Maliki?
MS. PERINO: I'm not -- look, Senator Obama is a United States senator, as well, he's not just a Democratic candidate. I realize the role that he's in right now is Democratic candidate going to Iraq. But Prime Minister Maliki has met with many United States senators, including Senator McCain --
Q: They haven't made such a big splash as far as --
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that there's a -- look, we have said for many months that we would try to get the strategic framework agreement finished by July 31st. It is July 22nd. We're nearing the end of those negotiations, though I think it will take a little while longer, past July 31st for us to finalize. I think that it should come as no surprise that as the Iraqi conditions have continued to improve, because of the work that President Bush and General Petraeus have done, that we would start seeing, as we finalize these agreements, people being a little bit more vocal about it. And the fact that the trip coincides with those negotiations I think is more of a coincidence than anything else.
Q: Yes, but would it kill Prime Minister Maliki, while he's saying -- making statements about this, to say, yes, like President Bush has -- because of what President Bush's policy has allowed us to do --
MS. PERINO: I think they have. I think they have. I think that there have been -- quotes have been plucked out of certain interviews that show that the Iraqis are ambitious, that they believe that they are going to be able to take over more of their own sovereignty, more of their own control. We share the goal. We should all be embracing the fact that we are going to be able to start bringing more troops home based on success, if conditions on the ground permit.
Q: Can I follow, Dana? Senator Obama said today that he assured Prime Minister Maliki that he would not support a precipitous withdrawal. And he also said he understood why General Petraeus wouldn't necessarily support his plan. Is he complicating the efforts to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqis on the time horizons, on the document that will authorize the U.S. troop presence in Iraq next year?
MS. PERINO: I don't think so; not that I've heard, no.
Q: I want to ask you how it is that he's not doing so, given that he's basically suggesting to the Iraqis that he might be more in favor of a timetable for withdrawal than the President would be?
MS. PERINO: You have to look back to what Maliki has said in terms of conditions on the ground. There is a big difference between a date that's chosen arbitrarily and not based on conditions and that is not flexible, and something that is not. And I would encourage you to go back and look at those. And President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki have very good relations, as does General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi generals. We've been working on this agreement; we're going to get there. It will be something that we finalize, and we're not going to let this trip be a distraction.
Q: Two questions. Are you going to get a SOFA, or is it going to be something along the lines of a memorandum of understanding, something less comprehensive than what you initially started out negotiating?
MS. PERINO: I think that there's two acronyms that are very similar; there is the SOFA and there's the SFA. One is a status of forces agreement; the other one is a strategic framework agreement. What we're working on is a strategic framework agreement, which would have some aspect of an outline of diplomatic, economic and political ties as well.
Q: And am I hearing from you that there is less space between the President and Prime Minister Maliki on the time horizon than there is between Prime Minister Maliki and Senator Obama on withdrawal?
MS. PERINO: I think we don't know what Senator Obama's plan for Iraq is. I am the spokesperson for President Bush; I follow his policies, I work hard for him. I'm not here to speak for Senator Obama. And he can -- he had a press conference today; he can speak for himself. I'm just not going to do it.
Q: Does President Bush still feel that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism? And what does he say to those who say that it's actually Afghanistan?
MS. PERINO: The President has believed that both fronts are critically important. We have been able to see some tremendous gains in Iraq. And Iraq and Afghanistan are quite different for many different reasons, one of them being just from where they started -- Iraq actually having roads and some semblance of infrastructure, as crumbling as it may have been. But they had an element of civil society that was able to be brought back into the forefront.
In Afghanistan, we're dealing with a fundamentally different issue. There's hardly any roads. There's no electricity. There's hardly any jobs. The oppression was different in terms of -- especially when it comes to women. And so we are working with our NATO allies in order to help bring Afghanistan back, but it's going to take longer there.
One of the reasons we've seen more casualties there is because we have been increasingly taking the fight to the enemy, and the Taliban have come to areas where they haven't been before. And we're very grateful to the French and others, but the French in particular were able to move to the east, which meant our troops could move to the south. We've been sending more troops there, and we think that that's appropriate. But I do think it's very important to remember that in this global war on terrorism, when you look at those two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan, they're very different, especially if you look at where they started from.
Iraq is now able to pay for most of its reconstruction, whereas Afghanistan is flat broke. And that's why we had to go and do the Donors Conference in Paris, which was very successful. But it's going to be a longer haul than Iraq.
Q: But isn't that an argument that Afghanistan is now the central front in the war on terrorism -- not so much the reconstruction there, but Senator Obama's point that it's Afghanistan that's the central front; it is no longer Iraq?
MS. PERINO: I would say that both fronts are critically important. None of the gains that we've made in Iraq are irreversible. And I think that when you look at terrorism across the board, it is a global issue. Even when you look a the tractor -- or the bulldozer incident in Jerusalem today, that is an act of terrorism. You see acts of terrorism in China, where you saw a bus explosion yesterday. And the issue is the ideological struggle between those who would kill innocent people in order to advance their political gains and those who believe in freedom.
The President believes that working together with our allies, the freedom agenda can advance. But it's just going to take some time and we're going to have to win not just on the security side, but on the war of ideas as well.
Q: Dana, on the flip side of not plucking dates from thin air, is there a risk that making recommendations on troop levels, say, after September, or during September or after, goes into the prism of the campaign, that it risks being seen as perhaps trying to influence one side or the other in the campaign?
MS. PERINO: Nothing that President Bush will do will tie the hands of the next Commander-in-Chief, whoever it is, whichever candidate wins. And -- but we do have to -- we are in a war, and if we are at a place where we're able to bring some more troops home, and that's based on conditions and that General Petraeus thinks we can continue to win with less troops, then the President will take that under advisement and make a decision from there. So regardless of the political calendar, President Bush is Commander-in-Chief through January 20th at noon, 2009.
Q: Is the situation still on track for Petraeus to make the next recommendations on troop levels in September --
MS. PERINO: I believe so, yes, in early September, although I think that it might not be as much of a production as before, in terms of coming back and testifying. I don't know all of those details, but -- I don't know whether that would be a report or some sort of an update to Congress. I'm not sure the form it will take, but the timing is on track.
Q: When he goes to the Pentagon tomorrow to do his briefing and stuff like that, do you expect he's going to come out and make a statement?
MS. PERINO: I think it's very unlikely right now. We haven't done statements there the past couple of times. I will let you know if that changes, but right now there are no plans to do so.
Q: Dana, to follow up on Wendell's question, I'm not sure I understood your answer. Are you still negotiating --
MS. PERINO: You all want me to talk about Senator Obama, and I'm just not going to do it.
Q: No, I'm talking about SOFA. Are you still negotiating a SOFA, or no?
MS. PERINO: The document we're working on is the strategic framework agreement, so that is what -- that is the one that's on track right now.
Q: And can I also follow up on the India -- on the deal with India? Is there some concern or some sense of urgency on your side that this might not get any ratification from the U.S. Congress in time -- that it might be running out?
MS. PERINO: Well, we're certainly mindful of the legislative calendar. There aren't that many days left where Congress is going to be in session. But we think that there's enough support in Congress that we would be able to get this done, should we be able to bring it to Congress for a vote.
So I think the timing issue is one that we're aware of, but if we can get it to Washington, D.C. in a format that we can then get to the Congress, I think if they have a vote we'll be successful. We'll just have to see how quickly that can happen.
Q: Because you don't like to talk about Senator Obama -- (laughter) --
MS. PERINO: -- everybody is getting on the air tonight. (Laughter.)
Q: -- do you think the White House would find it appropriate for a foreign politician running for office --
MS. PERINO: Do I think it's okay for --
Q: For a foreign politician running for office to campaign in front, let's say, of the Washington Monument?
MS. PERINO: That's a decision that the Senator has to make and that other people can make judgments on; we're not going to.
Q: Just back to Afghanistan for a minute. Does the President agree that there should be a form of a troop surge in Afghanistan, say, two or three brigades --
MS. PERINO: Well, we are increasing troops in Afghanistan and we are taking the fight to the enemy there. So I don't believe that you'll see an additional 30,000 at the moment. But in terms of in the next few days is there going to be any sort of announcement? I don't know of one that's imminent. But what I do know is that we have said, back in Bucharest on April 26, 2008, that we would be sending more troops. The President did that. In addition to that, other nations of NATO said that they would be sending more troops. We also said that we would be planning in 2009 to look at what the troop posture was and consider what was needed on the ground from the United States perspective and get more troops there.
I'm sure that this will come up in the Tank meeting tomorrow that the President attends at the Pentagon. And then if there's updates from there, we'll provide them.
I think what's really part of the Afghanistan side is just a reminder to think about all the different things that are different when it comes to Afghanistan and Iraq. The terrain, the fact that there's no roads, no electricity, there's no infrastructure, there's no civil society. They are starting literally from scratch on almost every single issue. And President Karzai is to be commended for the work that he's doing, but they have a long way to go.
Especially, think about some of the issues in regards to jobs. One of the things that we are concerned about, and President Karzai shares the concern, is the poppy crops that are basically supporting a lot of these villages. That is something that we're going to continue to try to work on. President Karzai has a way that he thinks can help transition those crops into actual food-producing crops. We hope that that's true. But again, this is all going to take a lot of time. They don't have the natural resources like Iraq does, especially when it comes to oil.
Q: Thank you, Dana. Two questions. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, when asked by The New York Times if he was reprimanded by the Department of State after he called Jimmy Carter a "bigot" for meeting with the head of Hamas, replied, "The only reaction I received was very positive." My question: Does the White House also react positively to this?
MS. PERINO: I don't know about the conversations that were -- that took place at the State Department and between that individual, so I'll refer you to them.
Q: The Scripps Howard News Service director of editorial policy, Jay Ambrose, has just written, "I don't line up with those now carrying on over a New Yorker cover, like some fundamentalist Muslims did after a Danish newspaper carried cartoons that in their view made light of the Prophet Mohammed. And my question, does the White House agree or disagree with Director Ambrose?
MS. PERINO: I'm not going to comment on Director Ambrose.
Q: In a post-9/11 world, and we have these two candidates running for office, is it something that is needed for these candidates to talk to Maliki, to go to talk to General Petraeus, to go around the world -- is it actually something that they need to do as they transition possibly into the presidency?
MS. PERINO: Well, that's going to be up to them to decide. But obviously Senator McCain had been there multiple times in the past several years and knows all of those leaders very well. Is it necessary for them to do? They'll have to decide that. But clearly whoever wins the presidency is going to be dealing with these issues come January 20th.
Q: But I'm talking about specifically now. I mean, leading in -- we have a couple of months before the general election. And again, in a post-9/11 world when we have to -- when the new President has to transition, the possibility of getting this office, is it important right now for them to be talking to these world leaders?
MS. PERINO: I don't think it hurts, and it could possibly help.
Q: Dana, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac standby authorities you want Congress to pass, the head of the Congressional Budget Office said today that, potentially, taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $25 billion if ultimately a lifeline is needed -- an actual full bailout is needed. That's an eye-popping number. Are you satisfied you have protections for taxpayers --
MS. PERINO: Well, the CBO is not a part of the administration, so we've just gotten the report, and we're reviewing it. And so just give us a little bit of time to take a look at it, because they crunched a lot of numbers. We've got to look at the assumptions that they made, et cetera.
But I would remind you, as Secretary Paulson has consistently said, our intention is not to need any sort of federal taxpayer monies in this regard. Having the authorities in place that we've asked for, that we've asked Congress to pass, are important for market stability. That's the reason that he asked for them. We don't intend to use them, we haven't used them yet, and in fact their regulators say that the two companies are well capitalized. I would consider this more of an insurance policy so no taxpayer dollars at this point are on the line.
If any -- if we were to use this authority once we were to get them, Secretary Paulson has said, and the President would make sure, that terms and conditions would be in place to protect the taxpayer.
Q: Dana, you talked about Iraq and Afghanistan as being central fronts in the war on terrorism. Where do you see Pakistan factor into this?
MS. PERINO: My list was not -- I didn't mean to exclude anybody, obviously. That region, especially in the Northwest Territories, is an area of concern as well. Just look what happened to Prime Minister Bhutto, who was assassinated by terrorists. And this is a global war on terror, and it's called that for a reason, and that area is just as troubling as many others.
Q: Thank you.
END 1:02 P.M. EDT