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Western Hemisphere and Caribbean Daily Press

Western Hemisphere and Caribbean Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
December 22, 2008




View Video

12:36 a.m. EST

QUESTION: Pretty sparse.

MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, no, no, this is a robust showing here, absolutely Matt, you discount just because people aren’t in the front row.

Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for joining me for this late briefing. The Secretary of State had some interviews this morning, so I’m down here a little bit late to answer whatever questions you may have. All right, Gollust, you’re saving me there again. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: In those interviews, the Secretary made some comments that would seem to indicate that the United States is going to make some kind of a new diplomatic push on sanctions on Zimbabwe. Is that a correct –

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we’ll see. We’ll – we’re going to – we’re continuing a process of consultation on Zimbabwe in the international community. And the fact of the matter is the composition of the Security Council does change in January. This was as noted by the questioner in that interview.

And simply put, it’s hard to imagine how this situation can continue. I wrote down a couple of facts here that are just astounding. The annual inflation rate in Zimbabwe is 231 million percent. It’s just – I don’t know what that factors out to be on a daily basis, but just absolutely astounding and an indicator of what a disastrous state the Zimbabwean economy is in. We have 1,100 deaths from cholera thus far, and the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe is 90 percent. Simply – the situation simply can’t continue under those circumstances. And I think any of Zimbabwe’s neighbors who believe that the problems in Zimbabwe will remain in Zimbabwe and contained there are just fooling themselves.

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So we’re going to continue working on this issue. The United States has put in place a variety of different sanctions itself. There’s a limit to what effect those will have. Thus far, Robert Mugabe continues in office. And as you heard from Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer, we don’t think that that is – and you’ve heard from the President and the Secretary – the Secretary of State previously, we don’t think that that can continue.

QUESTION: Mugabe made some references today, according to press reports there, to the need for total revolution in industry and business in Zimbabwe. And we have had – Bloomberg News has had some indications from ZANU-PF officials that he may try to declare a state of emergency and take over and nationalize all the industries there. Do you have any comment about that? And what can you tell us about the situation with the aid offer that the U.S. had originally made? Jendayi Frazer made references to that previous aid offer in the event of a power-sharing agreement. But that’s now off the table, I gather?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we continue with our humanitarian aid. And we have an ongoing program to try to address, for example, what is going on with the spread of cholera in Zimbabwe and try to treat those who have it, and continue to work on ways to prevent it from happening. We have a long history of projects in Zimbabwe which are focused on water quality. And that’s really where the problem with cholera comes from when you have that sort of bad quality of water.

You know, in terms of nationalizing the industry, I hadn’t seen the quotation. But I just have to wonder, what industry? What’s left? Ninety percent unemployment, 231 million percent annual inflation? What is left to nationalize? I mean, this isn’t a case of somebody driving the economy into a ditch; it’s over a cliff. So – and again, this comes back to the situation with Robert Mugabe. He has destroyed the political system in Zimbabwe. He has destroyed the economy. He has created a humanitarian crisis in that country. It just simply can’t go on.


QUESTION: Do you get any sense that there is any new movement in South Africa, for example? The new opposition party that’s been established there had made some statements today, too, about – saying that neighbors of Zimbabwe should withhold commodities, supplies to Zimbabwe, to force a political change there.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I don’t know if that’s -- the right answer is to, you know, cut off the food supply to Zimbabwe. You know, people who are --

QUESTION: I don’t know if they were talking about food. They were talking about commodities, like – I think other types of commodities.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. You know, I haven’t seen what they said. But we have said it before, and I think it’s still the case, there is unused leverage on the part of the South African Government with respect to Zimbabwe. They should use it. Everybody who has influence with Zimbabwe should use it. Angola, they have leverage with Zimbabwe.

QUESTION: Are you looking for South Africa to close its border?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, again, I don’t have a particular prescription for you. I’m not sure that closing a border is necessarily the right thing to do when -- if you have people that are fleeing a disastrous situation or fleeing for their lives for fear of political oppression. It will -- this is a political question.

The fact of the matter is Robert Mugabe and those who are around him are still there, in part, because they still have the political support, or at the very least, countries have not come out and spoken out against Robert Mugabe and those around him and what they are doing to the country. So without that political support, it’s hard to imagine that that regime could continue in power.

QUESTION: Well, U.S. officials have kind of indicated that the U.S. is looking for South Africa to close its border, and that would squeeze the regime within weeks.

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, again, I don’t have – standing up here, I don’t have a – you know, a particular prescription for you. But I would just caution that actions like that could potentially have unintended consequences. Clearly, what you want to do is, you know, make sure that there isn’t any support that continues to go directly to the regime and has a direct effect of keeping it in power.

What you don’t want to do is in any way worsen the humanitarian situation there, which is really dire.

QUESTION: Is – are we still on – is she going to be doing anything on the piracy issue – Jendayi while she’s out there? I mean, do you have any new developments in terms of working with other countries?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, she was in – Jendayi was in Kenya to speak with and meet with members of the Transitional Federal Government in – from Somalia. She met with them at the airport there, and that was to try to get at some of the political root causes of the situation in Somalia.

In terms of piracy, we continue to work the issue. I think we’re working with various governments around the globe to generate forces that could operate under the UN Security Council resolutions, implement them, also working on the issue – separate issue of peacekeeping forces and how to institutionalize those peacekeeping forces there. But nothing new to develop – nothing new to report in terms of specific developments.

QUESTION: Do you have anything, kind of expanding on Secretary Rice’s comments, that in her final days, it’s just like Thomas Jefferson, that she was – that they were both dealing with pirates?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Well, it’s just a historical fact. You know, we came – Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, came into office dealing with the Barbary pirates, which led, one could argue, directly to the creation of the United States Navy. And here we are, 200-plus years later, dealing with pirates once again. So I guess we have long experience in dealing with pirates. We were ultimately successful with the Barbary pirates, and I expect that we will ultimately be successful in dealing with this situation as well.

Yes. What?

QUESTION: More on Zimbabwe?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Does the State Department have any sort of plan – if some – something does break loose in this situation and Mugabe somehow either does depart his position, does leave from his position, what is the U.S. prepared to do to help Zimbabwe under a – under a new government that is not Robert Mugabe --


QUESTION: -- and that you would find acceptable? And do you have a specific financial plan, specific aid plan, that’s like ready to go?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. I know John Herbst and his folks do exactly what you’re talking about; they plan for these kind of contingencies. I haven’t spoken with John recently. Maybe we can get him down here, if he’s comfortable talking about those kinds of things. But I know that they are looking at Zimbabwe and what we might do.

QUESTION: One more on Africa?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, go ahead, Goyal.

QUESTION: Sean, political or humanitarian, whatever the question, for the last seven years, so many people have been dying in Africa and not much attention, I think, has been given for the long term, not just one-time aid or something. And also, Africa is rich in many ways in minerals and oil and everything, but also poorest on this planet. Eight years Secretary Rice has been visiting the region many times, and I think she has done in somewhat – what – nothing done in the past. But let me ask you, what do you think under the new administration of President Obama things will change in Africa than what we have seen or seen today?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I’ll spare everybody here the --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCCORMACK: -- the long soliloquy on what we have done with Africa, working with Africa. And that’s important; we’ve partnered with African nations to exactly your point about making sure that there is a long-term development and prosperity and expansion of democracy in Africa, things like Millennium Challenge Corporation, things like working to implement the African Growth and Opportunity Act, things like the President’s PEPFAR program. So I guess I would not sign on to your description of how the Administration has dealt with Africa over the past eight years.

And in terms of the next administration, they’re going to have to make their own decisions about what they continue, what they don’t continue, what new programs, what new efforts they come up with.

QUESTION: Has Secretary given any advice on this issue, what the new administration should do?

MR. MCCORMACK: She will provide her advice about the various challenges and opportunities in American foreign policy to the Secretary-designate, but she’ll do that in private.

Yeah, back here.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m wondering – there have been reports that the North Koreans are objecting to food aid workers under the WFP speaking Korean. In light of that, are those sort of stipulations complicating the delivery of U.S. food aid to North Korea, and what’s the current status of that? I know it’s --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, that’s right. I know. We were going to send – we are sending a mission there. Let me check for you. In terms of food aid workers not speaking Korean, I guess I just don’t know quite what to say to that, being as they are in a population and working with people that speak Korean. But let me check on specifically the status of our mission.

QUESTION: Right. And perhaps of the 500,000 tons that were announced back in May, how much has been delivered?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll check for you. I don’t have it off the top of my head.

Yeah, Elise.

QUESTION: On Guantanamo, the German foreign ministry has said that it’s developing possible plans to resettle some of the detainees in Germany if you can’t find a place for them. Portugal’s Foreign Minister has publicly said --


QUESTION: -- that it might be willing and is kind of encouraging other European nations. Could you – and John Bellinger, I think, has kind of welcomed the effort. Could you speak to this? You know, if there are already discussions going on or would this fall to the next administration, and what about discussions with other countries?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, this has been an ongoing effort over the years, and specifically with respect to the Europeans and Foreign Minister Luis Amado’s letter, which I think came out last week or the week before, it was an important step forward for the European countries, because quite frankly, we have been working with countries around the world to try to deal with this problem of, well, you can criticize us for keeping these individuals off the street, many of whom are quite dangerous and pose a threat not only to our populations but, you know, European populations or other populations around the world, yet many of these countries have previously been unwilling to work with us to either resettle or to in some way detain these individuals under circumstances where they won’t pose a threat to others. So the steps that the – that you refer to of the German Government looking at this potentially, the Portugal – Portuguese Foreign Minister writing a letter on behalf of the EU – these are positive steps forward.

I don’t have anything new to report for you vis-à-vis individuals that are being resettled. Typically, DOD does that. But it does give you an indication that the wheels are starting to move forward on this. Because ultimately, you know, we don’t want to have – we would love to see Guantanamo closed down. The President said that was one of his goals But the fact is, when you get down to the hard business of governing and making very, very difficult decisions and being responsible for protecting populations, a lot of these decisions don’t look so easy when you get up close. And it really is testament to the work of Secretary Rice, as well as John Bellinger I’ll have to say, a lot of others in the Department and throughout the government, that we have gotten to this point with the Europeans.

QUESTION: Do you think these kind of moves could help you close Guantanamo earlier?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, clearly, that’s not going to happen under this Administration. We’ll see. You know, there being a shared burden in dealing with dangerous individuals certainly won’t hurt the effort to eventually close down Guantanamo.


QUESTION: Hi. India has repeatedly asked Pakistan to hand over suspects related to the Mumbai attacks, but so far, Pakistan has refused to do that. Is the United States willing to put more pressure on Pakistan to achieve something in that regard?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the specific arrangements for bringing to justice those responsible for these attacks is something that Pakistan is going to have to deal with, and then they should be talking to the Indian Government about this. They have populations that are affected by it. And certainly, we would have concerns about that as American citizens were murdered in these attacks.

So there’s – we are still at the stage where we are urging Pakistan every single day to do whatever it can to prevent future attacks and to track down and get off the street those responsible for these attacks. We will get to a stage at some point where, you know, we look very closely at exactly what is the final disposition of these individuals who have been arrested over time.

So I can’t offer a specific policy prescription for you at this point, but it is important that Pakistan and India continue to talk and to work through any differences through dialogue and diplomacy that they might have, and that every single day Pakistan focus on the task at hand, and that is to prevent any further attacks.

QUESTION: One follow-up. There’s a militant leader called Masood Azhar who – and there’s been some very confusing reports as to whether --


QUESTION: -- he’s been detained or not. Is that a concern of yours that there seem to be these odd reports with different facts in them?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. It has been known on occasion to happen even in this government where there are conflicting reports that happen. I’ll leave it to the Pakistani authorities to describe whom they have detained and who are they – who they are looking to detain.

QUESTION: Can I just follow, Sean, quickly?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: The hotel where the terrorists attacked is now open and ready to do the business. I see a few days ago terror warning to India from this building, and that’s what the terrorists and who attacked India like to see because they didn’t like the booming economy of India and the U.S.-India relations. So do you have any new warnings that you have issued? That’s why the – for warning for Americans to travel to India? And also, there’s high-rise tension on the border between India and Pakistan, troop movements in --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. I’ve seen those reports. I can’t confirm them.

In terms of the travel warnings, look, these are done in a separate channel We’re – our regional bureaus working with the Consular Affairs people and the security people decide upon these things completely separate from the Public Affairs channel. We are merely a distribution system for those, if you will.

Look, the United States Government – and this is enshrined in law – has a responsibility to warn the publics if it has specific, credible information that itself would act upon with respect to its own employees. So there are certain responsibilities there that are just triggered by the law. And it’s also a responsibility of a government to try to help protect its own people, its citizens. Ultimately, people are going to have to make their own decisions about traveling and where they go and what they do, but they should at least have the information that they need to make an informed decision.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: On the troop movement --

MR. MCCORMACK: Like I said, I’ve seen the reports. I can’t confirm them for you.

QUESTION: Following up on her question earlier about North Korea --


QUESTION: -- could you tell us the outcome of the U.S. visit – delegation’s visit to Pyongyang last week? Could you check that for us?

MR. MCCORMACK: That’s what I was going to check into.

QUESTION: Yeah. And also on the – on North Korea, have you had any contact with North Koreans after the Beijing talks, Six-Party Talks?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not aware of any. Robert, do you know?


MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not aware of any contact. We’ll – again, we’ll check for you on that. If so, we’ll let you know.

Yes, in the back.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Sean – sorry. South Korean newspapers reported Kim Jong-il went to a few places last weekend, last week. Do you have any comments on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I – you know, I don’t know his whereabouts or his state of health. We’ve really actually deferred any comment on that.

QUESTION: And Secretary of State mentioned that only the idiots could trust North Koreans. So at this point, how many percent do you trust North Koreans?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, do we – how much do we trust the North Korean Government --

QUESTION: Right, how many percent do you trust North Koreans?

MR. MCCORMACK: -- with respect to verification measures? We don’t. That’s why we have a – that’s why we’re trying to negotiate a verification regime. I think the Secretary put it in pretty plain language how we view it. We would like to get to a point where we can work effectively and have a more normal relationship with the North Korean Government. I think that all the other governments in the Six-Party Talks aspire to that state. We are nowhere near that yet.

And from our point of view, although we’re going to continue working on it, the process isn’t going to move forward absent a verification regime. And why is that? Because there isn’t that trust, and there is a reason why that trust doesn’t exist. It’s because of a long history of North Korean behavior.

QUESTION: So you say the U.S. is not an idiot? (Laughter.) It means you are not trusting them completely?

MR. MCCORMACK: I can say yes, I can, with 100 percent assurance, say that, yes, we are not.


QUESTION: Really? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Just related to the North Koreans, not in general, other areas? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCORMACK: In general, Matt, I can offer that same assurance, 100 percent not.

QUESTION: Thank you.



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