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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
September 09, 2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you on this cheery Tuesday afternoon. We all settled? All right, Nedra, would you like to get us started, please?
Q Yes. Can you tell us why the President is giving a primetime speech tomorrow? That certainly raises the stakes of what we should interpret — the scope of the speech that it’s in primetime.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, the President is looking forward to giving an address to the nation at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow. In the interview that he did with “Meet the Press” on Sunday — it was taped on Saturday — the President talked a little bit about the progress that we have made thus far in terms of our taking the fight to ISIL and protecting the lives of Americans in the region.
The President noted that the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq would be a key turning point in this effort. As we saw from the news last night, the Iraqi Prime Minister was sworn in, and he takes office alongside a cabinet and other senior members of the government that reflect the true diversity of the nation of Iraq. The President believes that’s important because Iraq’s political leaders need to unite that country, to confront the threat that they face from ISIL in their country, and to take the fight to ISIL in their country.
The President indicated in the course of the interview that he taped on Saturday that after the formation of this inclusive Iraqi government, and based on the progress that we have made so far in terms of building an international coalition, taking some steps to order military strikes that have beat back ISIL, that we would enter the next phase. And what the President will talk about in the speech tomorrow is what that next phase entails.
Generally speaking, at the core of that next phase is understanding and protecting the core national security interests of the United States and protecting the American people. So there are a couple of different ways in which the President will talk about this in ways that are important.
The President will talk about our continuing efforts to support the Iraqis. Now that they formed an inclusive government and united the country, there’s an important role for the United States and the United States military to play in supporting the Iraqis as they take the fight to ISIL in their country. The U.S. will continue to work, using our diplomatic influence around the globe, to build international support for the efforts that are underway by the Iraqis.
That strategy will also include supporting the Syrian opposition as they take the fight to ISIL in their country. The President several months ago gave the commencement address at West Point where he talked about his proposal for ramping up the kind of assistance that the United States currently provides to members of the moderate Syrian opposition. So the President has talked about that.
Our efforts will continue as we build and strengthen the international coalition to confront that threat that’s posed by ISIL. That means engaging regional governments in this effort. There are senior members of the administration that are traveling to the region this week. That also means continuing to engage members of the international community, including our allies in NATO in this effort. And ultimately, all of this is directed toward, as I mentioned, our core national security interests that include degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
So this is part of what you’ll hear from the President tomorrow. And the President is certainly looking forward to the opportunity to deliver that address.
Q But it’s rare for him to speak in primetime —
MR. EARNEST: It is.
Q — so I’m wondering why he chose to do it that way. What does that mean?
MR. EARNEST: It means that the President believes that this is a high national security priority. And when you have priorities like this that emerge, the President believes it’s important for the American people to understand what progress we have made so far. And the progress that we’ve made so far is important and substantial. The President also believes it’s important to communicate with the American public about a key turning point, and the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government is a key turning point.
And the President wants to make sure that he’s clear with the American public, with all of you who cover this administration so closely, and with members of Congress about what our strategy is going to be moving forward. The President believes that congressional consultation is really important. That’s why he’s meeting with the four congressional leaders of Congress — bipartisan, bicameral leaders of Congress here at the White House later on this afternoon.
So this is an important opportunity for the President to communicate a very important message about our priorities and our national security to the American public. And the President is looking forward to the opportunity.
Q Does he plan to lay out any specifics of his plan to the lawmakers this afternoon? Does he have an ask that he wants them to take back to their caucuses?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes strongly in robust congressional consultation, and so I am confident that the President and the congressional leaders will have the kind of meeting that reflects the seriousness of the situation. But because that meeting hasn’t started, I don’t want to get ahead of any message the President may communicate in the context of that meeting. We are going to work at the conclusion of that meeting to try to provide you a readout to give you at least some sense of the issues and priorities that were discussed in that meeting.
Q Congressman McKeon said he doesn’t really think there’s time to have a robust vote on the Hill since they only have a few more days that they’re meeting before the election. Does the President think there’s time for Congress to weigh in effectively?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did not see those comments from Congressman McKeon. What I’ll say just as a general matter — it’s hard to respond directly to his comments. So just as a general matter, let me say that the President does believe in robust congressional consultation. That’s why the President is convening the meeting with the congressional leaders at the White House today.
I would note that over the August recess — the last five or six weeks that Congress has been out of town — that has not prevented the President and others members of his staff from consulting regularly with members of Congress about this dynamic situation. In the last week alone, the President, the Vice President, members of his national security staff and Cabinet have consulted with dozens of members of Congress from both parties about the situation in Iraq and Syria as it relates to ISIL.
Senate and House staff have received classified briefings this week, and all members of the House and Senate will receive briefings from the administration on Thursday, in just a couple of days. I also know that the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees in the House and Senate are convening hearings next week. And I understand that Secretaries Hagel and Kerry will be testifying before those committees next week.
So that is an indication and just gives you a little snapshot of this administration’s commitment to robust consultation with Congress. The President believes that’s important because he understands that Congress has and should have a role as these important decisions are being made. And the President would certainly welcome support from members of Congress, however they choose to show it, for the steps that we’re taking to confront ISIL and mitigate the threat that they pose to American national security interests and the homeland.
This is a priority, because the President believes that when you have the executive branch and the legislative branch, Democrats and Republicans, bridging divides to present a united front both to our enemies but also to the international community, it only strengthens the hand of our country as we confront those threats. It makes it easier to build strong international coalitions. It certainly makes it easier to unite our country as we take the steps that are necessary to confront those threats.
So congressional buy-in, as the President described it, is very important; it’s a priority. And the President would certainly welcome the opportunity to have it.
Q What’s the status of the $500 million that the administration invested for aiding the moderate Syrian opposition? Is the administration still seeking that $500 million? Has the amount changed, or is that in flux?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I believe you’re referring to the proposal that the President announced at the West Point speech that I mentioned earlier. The President does believe that there would be value to the United States, in conjunction with the international community, working to ramp up the assistance that we provide to members of the moderate Syrian opposition. This would have the effect of taking the fight to ISIL in Syria. Because of the leadership, or lack thereof, of the Assad regime, and because of the atrocities that they have perpetrated there against the Syrian people, ISIL is essentially operating in a virtual safe haven in Syria. That’s a dangerous situation. And providing additional assistance, ramping up our assistance to members of the — or elements of the moderate Syrian opposition would have the effect both of taking the fight to ISIL, but also taking the fight to the Assad regime.
Now, this is something that the United States has been clear about what our role is and what our role is not. This does not — the President does not envision a scenario where we would send American combat troops to be on the ground in Syria. The President also does not envision a scenario where the United States is acting alone to support these elements of the moderate Syrian opposition. There is a very important role for other regional governments to play, and we’ve been encouraged by the reaction that we’ve gotten from the — over the course of the last couple of weeks in the context of the conversations that we’ve had with regional governments in terms of their interest in supporting our efforts and in supporting the moderate Syrian opposition.
Q Okay, so what’s the status of that request for the money?
MR. EARNEST: The President continues to believe that it is important for the United States to ramp up our assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition, and it certainly is one important way that we could ramp up our assistance to them.
Q I mean, you still want Congress to give that particular sum?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, of course.
Q I wanted to ask briefly about Ex-Im. There’s news this morning that a temporary extension may be happening. And what’s the White House position on having a temporary extension for Ex-Im Bank? Would that help?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve read news reports of these proposals; I haven’t looked at the specific proposals themselves, so I can’t comment on any specific proposal. But I have — I was heartened by the fact that some of these news reports indicated that Republicans were supporting an extension of the Ex-Im authorization. That’s important because we have talked at some length about the important role that the Ex-Im Bank can play in supporting our economy and supporting jobs here in the United States of America.
This not a controversial position; this is a position that’s espoused by the Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has not consistently, you might say, supported the administration’s economic priorities. But in this case, the Chamber of Commerce and the administration agree that reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank has significant value. President Reagan, when he was in office, on at least one or two occasions signed legislation extending the life of the Ex-Im Bank.
So this is certainly consistent with previous positions taken by previous Republicans and even leading Republicans, so we certainly would welcome Republican support for extending the life of the Ex-Im Bank.
Q Even if it’s temporary?
MR. EARNEST: But at this point, I don’t have a specific reaction to some of the proposals that have been floated because I haven’t seen them other than in news reports.
Okay, let’s move around just a little bit here. Alexis.
Q Josh, the President in the past has talked to the American people about reaping the savings from ending the Iraq war. Can you say how he will present to the American people what it could cost, how long it will last, how it will be paid for in terms of the strategy and the initiatives he’s going to describe?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alexis, in the context of the speech that the President is preparing for tomorrow, I wouldn’t expect something that’s quite that detailed. But the President is very interested in communicating clearly with the American public about what our priorities are and what our plans include, and what our plans don’t include.
And it’s important to note that the President, as much as anyone else, has certainly learned the lessons that are evident from previous military activities in Iraq — specifically those are that the United States cannot — again, it at least does not serve our interest to put the United States in a position in which we are bearing the load of the responsibility for providing security in the nation of Iraq.
What we need to do, and what the President believes that we need to do, and the strategy that the President has laid out, envisions supporting Iraq’s government and Iraq’s security forces as they take the fight to ISIL in their own country. And there is an important and meaningful role that the United States military can play, but the President is not contemplating putting combat boots — American combat boots back on the ground in Iraq.
That is what starkly differentiates the President’s strategy from the previous conflict that was fought there. And that has consequences on a variety of measures; most importantly, it has consequences for our national security, but it also has consequences for the kind of — the scale of the budget commitment that’s required.
Q Well, if the President is not going to use this speech to describe a price tag to the American people, what is he going to be talking to members of Congress and the appropriators about in terms of their role in approving money? He’s talked about the need for additional resources, so how detailed are they going to get?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would anticipate that they will have intensive consultations. The President believes in the value of those kinds of conversations taking place between members of his national security team and the relevant committee leaders or political leaders on Capitol Hill. But again, I’m not in a position to read out those detailed discussions that are taking place at this point.
Move around a little bit. Richard.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. The first one — will the President tomorrow describe — even if you have tried earlier in this briefing — the direct threat of ISIL on the American people and the allies by extension? Yesterday, you used during the briefing expressions like, some analysts believe that there are dozens of individuals; some reports believe that there’s a risk these individuals can come over. The previous administration was criticized for being vague in its argumentation. Will the President be more precise in order to avoid being accused of being too vague?
MR. EARNEST: Let me say a couple things about that, Richard. The first is — the thing that I can state as unequivocally as possible is that it is the assessment of the intelligence community — and this is something that’s been repeated by senior members of the intelligence community and senior members our military leadership as well — that there is no evidence to indicate that ISIL right now is actively plotting to hit the homeland. It is important for people to understand that.
At the same time, the United States remains concerned about the threat that could be posed by individuals with Western passports, even some American citizens who have traveled to the region and taken up arms alongside ISIL. These are individuals who, if they have chosen to do this, have obtained military training and are battle-hardened. They’ve also demonstrated a willingness to risk their life for their cause. That means that these individuals do pose a threat back here in the United States. And the President — at the direction of the President, the United States has mobilized elements of our intelligence community, elements of our law enforcement community, and even elements of our national security community to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by these individuals. And we’re working intensively with our partners around the globe; this includes multinational organizations like INTERPOL, who have a role to play here.
And this is part of something — of an effort that is ongoing 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure that this is a threat that we’re trying to mitigate.
Q Josh, do these individuals deserve such a military deployment, as is going to be announced? They can come over, take a machine gun, prepare the stuff, but do they deserve — especially if there are dozens of them — that the U.S. and the allies and NATO put so many energy and equipment and money on such an operation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the foreign fighter threat is a threat that we are concerned about and something that we have expressed on many occasions. It’s not the only threat that is posed by ISIL.
The other concern that we have is that they are clearly destabilizing an already volatile region of the world, and that is why it is in the interest of regional governments in particular to exercise some influence both politically and diplomatically, and in some cases even militarily to try to confront this threat, to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
The other concern that we have is right now ISIL is operating in a virtual safe haven in Syria. And this is another important lesson that our nation has learned in the last 15 years or so, that it is very dangerous for terrorist organizations, extremist organizations, to be able to occupy and operate in a safe haven, or a virtual safe haven like we see in Syria. The reason for that is right now, as I mentioned earlier, the United States is not aware of any active plotting that’s underway to attack the homeland. But if ISIL were to establish a safe haven in Syria, there certainly is a risk that their attention could turn toward the West. And that would, indeed, be a very dangerous situation.
So there are a variety of risks that we’re trying to counter and mitigate as a part of this broader strategy that, again, involves the United States military, but does not rely solely on the United States military. The components of the strategy that involve our intelligence agencies and involve our diplomatic agencies and our diplomatic influence is a critical part of making progress on the strategy that that the President has laid out.
Q Very last question, Josh. What does the President say to the allies to convince them to sign on? How long will they be solicited? Will the President — does the President — their help will be needed? And what form, classic question, will victory take?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by — in terms of building the coalition, we’ve been gratified to see that this has not required a lot of arm-twisting; that there is — the President alluded to this in the interview that he did over the weekend, he alluded to the fact that regional governments, the Sunni-led governments in the region recognize that these extremists pose to their government. And we have seen their response be to readily be interested in cooperating with the growing international coalition to confront this threat.
The President also — and I think he mentioned this in the news conference that he conducted on Friday — talked about how ready our NATO Allies were to contribute to this effort, that they recognize the threat that’s posed by ISIL — both by foreign fighters that have traveled to the region, some of whom traveled bearing passports from their countries.
In other cases, we had NATO Allies concerned about the prospect of ISIL getting comfortable in a safe haven in Syria or along — or even over the border between Syria and Iraq.
So it is pretty clear to the international community what vested interests they have in this outcome, and we have been pleased the way that so many members of the international community have responded to the President’s leadership on this issue.
In terms of our ultimate success here, the President was pretty clear about our goal being to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Even within this country, among congressional leadership, too, even today you hear them say, we don’t know what the plan is; the President needs to tell us what the plan is. So if this consultation and robust consultation has been going on for some time, to such an extent, where is the big disconnect there? And why do you think Congress still doesn’t even know what the plan is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I won’t speak to or try to assess the motivation of some critics of the President who may suggest that he doesn’t have a strategy. That will not deter this administration’s commitment to consulting with members of Congress and describing to them the strategy that the President is pursuing and has been pursuing for some time to confront this threat.
Failing that, I assume that each of these members of Congress has televisions. And if they are unsatisfied with the consultation that they’ve gotten, I certainly would encourage them to contact members of this administration to reach out to them personally. But if they’d prefer to gather their news through the television, which I’m sure many of you in the front row would prefer, then we would strongly encourage them to tune into the President’s address at 9:00 p.m. tomorrow night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern; 8:00 p.m. Central — (laughter) — to check it out.
Q Okay. And when you say that the President will lay out a plan, I mean, today we’re hearing calls from congressional leadership to deliver the military objectives and the ends by which they will be achieved. Will the President do that either in the meeting today with them or in his speech tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, those who are carefully listening to the President describe his strategy understand that our strategy is much broader than just the military strikes the President has already ordered. I would point out that the military strikes that the President has already ordered in Iraq have yielded some significant success. Those military strikes in support of Iraq security forces and — Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces blunted the ISIL advance on Erbil. Those American military strikes assisted Kurdish forces as they retook the Mosul Dam. The use of American military force was instrumental to ending the siege of Sinjar Mountain and the siege of Amerli. These were two locations where religious or ethnic minorities were under grave threat by ISIL forces. And more recently, you’ve seen the American military take steps in support of some Sunni tribes in the Haditha Dam in western Iraq.
So the elements of the President’s strategy related to the use of military force in Iraq has yielded some success. But people who focus only on that success are missing the other critical elements of the strategy that are critical to our success.
Again, I mentioned this earlier, I’ll say it again: Those who expect that military action alone will ensure our long-term, sustained success in Iraq have failed to learn the lessons of the last decade. It is critically important for us to build a genuine international coalition. It’s critical for the United States to lead the way in encouraging the Iraqi government to govern in an inclusive way to unite that country so that it’s Iraqis who are taking responsibility for securing their country and Iraqi security forces who are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground in their country.
Those are core elements of the strategy. And to focus only on the military elements of the strategy is to fail to learn the important lessons that our nation has learned over the last decade or so, and fail to understand what the President’s comprehensive strategy is. That strategy is predicated on protecting American national security interests. And the President does not believe that it is in the interest of the United States to send 100,000 or 150,000 American combat troops back on the ground into Iraq.
There may be some who disagree with that. But that is not the strategy that the Commander-in-Chief — that this Commander-in-Chief is going to pursue.
Q Okay, and last question. When you mentioned protecting American security interests, part of the strategy that has been laid out also includes humanitarian aid, supporting Iraqi forces. Why hasn’t targeting ISIS leadership been part of that stated plan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will allow members of our intelligence community and military community to talk about some of the tactics that they may be recommending to the Commander-in-Chief.
I will say a couple things, however. The first is one of the first things that the President ordered back in June, once ISIL had made this dramatic advance across western and northern Iraq, was a significant increase in what the military describes as ISR — this is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. And these were assets that were deployed to Iraq to give this administration, the Commander-in-Chief, our military greater insight into conditions on the ground — to better assess the condition of ISIL forces; to get a sense of what their strategy was; to try to get behind enemy lines and get a better understanding of the conditions on the ground.
And we have made very important progress over the last two or three months where significant resources have been dedicated to this effort, and that has been benefited some of the military actions that I’ve described before. And I would anticipate that as our intelligence improves and crystallizes, that our military capabilities will expand accordingly.
Q On that question of targeting individual leaders, does the military currently have the authority, based on what the President has already authorized, to go after ISIL leadership in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, as it relates to those specific tactics, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. The President has been clear about what goals he is currently ready for our military to act in support of. Those goals right now are related to the protection of American citizens who are in Iraq. These are our military and diplomatic officials who are either at the embassy in Baghdad or at the consulate in Erbil.
We’ve also — the President has also ordered the military to take action in support of efforts to avert humanitarian disasters, such as the siege at Sinjar Mountain and Amerli that we discussed earlier.
But as the President also referred to, again, in the interview that he conducted over the weekend, is that now that we have the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government, that we’re ready to enter the next more offensive phase in this strategy. The President will talk a little bit more about that tomorrow.
Q But just so I understand what you’re saying — so you mentioned protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq, the specific humanitarian crises, and I guess one you didn’t mention but it’s been mentioned in the past is infrastructure. So is it a correct interpretation to say that specifically going out and targeting ISIL leadership in Iraq doesn’t fall into one of those three categories? Or does it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to get into the specific tactics that may or may not be considered by the Department of Defense as they’re providing advice to the Commander-in-Chief. But the President has laid out what these broader goals are, and the other element that I didn’t mention is supporting Iraqi and Kurdish security forces in some counterterrorism operations. That’s been something that the United States has been supportive of for quite some time in this region of the world.
But I don’t want to get ahead of — it’s not that I don’t want to get ahead of anything, it’s that I’m not in a position to provide any more detailed guidance that the President has received from his military advisers beyond the goals the President has laid out for them.
Now, the thing I’ll point out is I’ll just point out that now that there has been the formation of this inclusive Iraqi government, it does open us up to the next phase in the strategy. And the President will talk a little bit more about that tomorrow.
Q And Tony Blinken said the other day that this effort to defeat and destroy ISIL may not be finished by the time the President leaves office. I’m wondering if that includes airstrikes. I mean, could we still be seeing the kind of sustained campaign of airstrikes in Iraq two and a half years from now when the President is leaving office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think those kinds of — that’s an important question; it’s also difficult to predict exactly how these kinds of things play out.
I think the President has been clear that this is not the kind of problem that we anticipate that we’re going to solve right away. Part of that is because coalition building takes some time, and we’ve also seen this terrorist group demonstrate some pretty sophisticated military capability. So this is a difficult challenge, but the President is confident that by uniting the international community and engaging regional governments, that having an effective local Iraqi government, that the world will prevail over this very terrible organization.
Q But you don’t rule out the possibility that U.S. fighter jets could still be fighting combat missions over Iraq in January of 2017 when the President is leaving office?
MR. EARNEST: I would hesitate to make predictions on just about anything —
Q But you don’t rule it out. I’m not asking you to predict what’s going to happen, but you don’t rule it out, I mean, given what you just said about how this is a long —
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has been clear that this is not a short-term proposition. But in terms of whether this lasts a year, a year and a half, two, two and a half years, I would hesitate to make any predictions about that.
Q Okay, just one last question. The Sotloff family is saying that Sotloff was sold to ISIS by the so-called moderate Syrian opposition. And I’m wondering if you — and I assume this is the same moderate opposition that you’re now talking about ramping up U.S. military support for. Do we have any information? Is that correct? Was he turned over by the very rebels that we are now talking about ramping up support for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start, Jon, by just saying that the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House continue to be with the Sotloff family as they grieve for the loss of their son. And everybody here is grieving alongside them.
As it relates to the specifics of this matter, based on the information that has been provided to me, I don’t believe that is accurate. But I do know, at the same time, that this is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation. So this is something that they’re looking into all aspects of this, including how Mr. Sotloff may have come into the hands of ISIL. Ultimately, ISIL is responsible, and they have claimed responsibility for this despicable violent act that the world has seen and has been roundly condemned. But for questions about that investigation, I’d refer you to the FBI.
Let’s move around just a little bit.
Q Josh —
MR. EARNEST: I’ll come back to you. Scott.
Q Josh, on another subject — Larry Summers is speaking over at Brookings this afternoon. And they’ve got a report out on lifting the oil export ban (inaudible). Is the administration giving another look to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the first thing, Scott — the only reason that we’re having a conversation like this is because the President’s all-of-the-above energy strategy is working. We have succeeded in enhancing our energy security, in cutting carbon pollution, and in spurring economic growth.
Since the President took office, U.S. production of electricity from wind has more than tripled. Production of electricity from solar is up more than tenfold. And production of oil and gas has grown each year. And today, the United States of America is the world’s leader in oil and gas production. That is a pretty strong testament to the policy that this President has put in place to pursue an all-of-the-above approach to energy.
I mean, I’ll tell you that at this point there is no change to our crude oil export policy, but we have said many times that we’re pleased that domestic oil production is going up. That’s a good thing; it’s certainly good for our economy. And there are some communities across the country that have benefited from this tremendously.
We’re always taking a careful look at these dynamic energy markets, and assessing the sort of economic, environmental and security opportunities and challenges that may exist. But at this point, I don’t have any change in policy to announce.
Q Josh, I asked you this yesterday. I want to give you another chance — ask it again. Is the speech an opportunity for the President to tell the country that airstrikes in Syria have now been authorized?
MR. EARNEST: If the President has an announcement to make about Syrian airstrikes — or airstrikes by the U.S. military in Syria, he’ll announce that. I won’t announce that from here.
Q Okay. To follow up on Jon’s last question — if there is an ongoing investigation into whether or not moderate Syrian rebels handed over an American journalist who was then beheaded by ISIL, why would the President even consider adding more arms or support for the moderate forces that may have turned over an American who was beheaded by the enemy he’s now trying to confront and defeat?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say two things about that. The first is, as I mentioned to Jon, that information does not match the information that I’m currently aware of. There is a broad FBI investigation into Mr. Sotloff’s disappearance and his death, because the President is determined to ensure that those who are responsible for his disappearance and death are brought to justice.
All of that said — and that is why part of the investigation is related to how Mr. Sotloff came into the hands of ISIL — that said, you are underscoring something that is really important for people to understand. And this has been a difficult challenge for not just the United States, but for other countries to confront, and that is vetting the individuals who are part — who are elements of the Syrian opposition to ensure that the support that we’re providing is going into the hands of the right people; that there are extremists who are operating in Syria, like ISIL, and the last thing that we want to do would be providing support, even inadvertently, to individuals who have the kind of extremist ideology that we’ve seen from ISIL.
So the United States has been engaged in a very careful effort to vet individuals who receive assistance from the United States, or even receive assistance from other countries. And that is difficult work. But over the course of the last several years, we’ve made a lot of progress in building the kinds of relationships and better understanding who are the individuals that make up the elements of the Syrian opposition, and give us a better sense of those individuals who the United States is willing to support because they are actually fighting to install a government in Syria that actually reflects the will of the Syrian people. That is, after all, the root of the situation that we’re trying to get to here.
Q And the crux of my question is, why not freeze the whole question of additional aid until this particular matter is resolved to the full satisfaction of the FBI and the President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the support for the moderate Syrian opposition is a core component of the strategy here. And the reason for that is simply that it is very dangerous for ISIL to be operating in a virtual safe haven anywhere in the world. It’s particularly dangerous for them to be operating in a safe haven in a region of the world as volatile as Syria and Iraq.
Second, the President does not believe it is in the national security interest of the United States of America for us to send American combat troops on the ground into Syria. I think the President described that as a profound mistake.
So as I was discussing this question with somebody yesterday — it may have been even with you — that the reason that we are supporting Syrian opposition fighters to take the fight to ISIL in Syria is simply that it’s their country. And so we need —
Q Right. But one of the points of the speech tomorrow night is to sustain and build public support for this strategy. And one element of the strategy may be to provide materiel and financial support to people who might have been implicated or involved in handing over an American journalist who was then beheaded by the enemy we’re trying to defeat. How do those things line up?
MR. EARNEST: This is precisely why it’s so important that we are careful and that we thoroughly vet individuals and specific elements of the moderate Syrian opposition to make sure that we are not providing assistance to those individuals that don’t have the kinds — that aren’t fighting for the kinds of things that we believe in.
Q And the dinner last night, was it an opportunity for the President to tell the assembled group, foreign policy experts, what he was going to do, or have them advise him on what to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, any sort of gathering like that will be most effective when there is an exchange of ideas. And so the President used the opportunity of this dinner to meet with national security and foreign policy experts, including many who previously served in the government under Presidents of both parties. And the goal was to describe to them the President’s observations coming out of his foreign trip.
The President spent a lot of time talking with our NATO Allies while we were in Wales and also convening some other meetings on the sidelines on a whole range of issues — everything from the situation in Ukraine to the situation as it relates to ISIL. So the President was able to give them some insight into his thinking and to share his observations based on the many conversations that he’d had with our allies and partners over the last several days.
It also was an opportunity for him — for the President to hear from some of these experts about their perspective on the situation, and all of this taking place in advance of some of the conversations that the President is having with senior members of Congress, and certainly in advance of the national address that the President will deliver on Wednesday night, it was very valuable.
Q So this was part of a process to continue to form the strategy the President will present to the nation? So it wasn’t fully formed as of last night? He’s still adding to it as he draws near to the speech? Is that a fair interpretation?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I also think it’s fair for you to assume that even after the President speaks on Wednesday night that he and his team will continue to work and refine the strategy.
What we’re seeing is a very dynamic environment on the ground. Two weeks ago — maybe even fewer — less than that, nobody would have predicted that the Iraqis would be able to come together and form this inclusive government a couple of days before their constitutional deadline. So what we’re seeing are some fast-moving developments in the region, and I would anticipate that as the President develops a strategy, it will be one that’s continually refined.
Q This may sound to you like a flip question; I don’t mean it to be at all. But if I listened to you correctly today, you said the President will tell the country there will be no ground troops involved, there will be no tactical operational details, no timeline for victory, no cost associated with the pursuit of victory. Why should anyone watch?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they should watch because the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief will be communicating directly with the American people about a core national security priority. And in the context of those remarks, the President will lay out what he clearly sees as American interests in this situation. He’ll talk about the risks that the United States faces. And he’ll talk about the strategy that he has put together to confront those risks, to mitigate them, and ultimately to degrade and destroy ISIL.
Q But you know the audience wants to know how we’re going to win — Mr. President, tell us how we’re going to win. And I don’t hear, based on what you said, that President is going to tell people that tomorrow night.
MR. EARNEST: It’s because I don’t have the speech in front of me. But I would encourage you to tune in on Wednesday night and hear directly from the Commander-in-Chief about his assessment of this critical national security priority.
Q To follow on that, how is the President going to get — go before a country that’s as war-fatigued as this country is and not give any sense of timeframe? What is he asking for? Is he going to say, this is going to be months or years? And if not, then why not? He ran for this office on basically ending a decade-long of war, and now he’s asking the public to come along with him on a venture into that — even from when he started it has gotten much more deeply involved than when he initially said. And so how does he get up there and not give any sense of a timeframe?
MR. EARNEST: Carol, the President ran for this office because he believed that he was the best person to protect the core national security interests of the United States of America. And this President took office with the belief that removing, drawing down our 150,000 troops in Iraq was in the core national security interest of the United States of America. This President took office promising to actually add and increase our presence in Afghanistan because he believed that should be part of the strategy, and that that was part of the core national security interest of the United States of America.
What the President is doing now is he’s making decisions about the core national security interests of the United States. And he has done that in a way that reflects the kind of comprehensive, thoughtful strategy that the American people would expect from their Commander-in-Chief. It includes elements of our intelligence, as I described earlier, in terms of increasing our knowledge of the situation on the ground. It includes diplomatic engagement using the influence of the United States of America to enlist our allies around the world and regional governments in this fight. And, yes, it includes the deployment of military force that has already enjoyed some important success in Iraq.
So the President has laid out a core strategy that does reflect our core national security interests. When it comes to the timeline, I think the President has been honest about this for a month or more that this is not a short-term proposition.
Q But what does that mean?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it means that I think the American people need to expect that this is something that will require a sustained commitment. And that is why this administration is so deeply engaged with our partners around the world and in the region to demonstrate that we are determined to use America’s influence in the world — whether that’s our diplomatic influence or our military might — to unite the international community and to work alongside the Iraqis as they take the fight to ISIL in their country; that ultimately, there is a core national security interest that is affected by the expansion of ISIL.
That’s why we’re going to be engaged in a comprehensive strategy, working with the international community and the Iraqis, to degrade and destroy ISIL, simply because it’s in the core national security interest of the United States. And I’m not going to stand up here and neither is the President tomorrow going to stand up here and make precise predictions about how long it’s going to take. But I think the President —
Q He sets timetables all the time.
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has been pretty clear about the fact that this is not a short-term proposition.
Q When you say — can I ask —
MR. EARNEST: April. Oh, I’m sorry.
Q When you say that he’s going to outline a more offensive phase in this —
MR. EARNEST: To be clear, that’s what he said in his interview with “Meet the Press” on Saturday.
Q When he says something like that, like — so should we expect that he’s going to detail that there’s going to be new types of airstrikes in Iraq? Is it possible that he will announce a decision on Syria by tomorrow? I mean, you were asked yesterday whether or not he had made that decision yet and you said no.
MR. EARNEST: I did. And the reason is simply that when the President has made that decision, he will be the one to announce it. It won’t be me.
What the President was trying to illustrate and what I’m trying to illustrate today is that we’ve been very clear about what our strategy for dealing with this situation has been over the last several months. And the core principles at play here, again, were protecting the lives of Americans in the region, preventing humanitarian disasters. We’ve seen ISIL prey upon vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities in the region. The United States has used our military force to counter that in support of Iraq and Kurdish security forces who are taking the fight to them on the ground.
We have — as we have been for some time — invested in some elements of counterterrorism. And we’ve done all of that, and limited the — the President has ordered all of that and has limited those activities to those core priorities because, as he described earlier, he doesn’t want to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Air Force; that ultimately, it needs to be the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces that step up and take the fight to ISIL.
And there can be a role for the United States to play in terms of building international support to work and help with the Iraqi, whether that’s doing more to ensure that the Iraqi security forces have the proper equipment. In some cases, that may be providing additional training to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. In some cases, it may be enlisting regional Sunni-led governments to doing some diplomacy and politics with Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq. They obviously have some military capability. And winning them over to the side of the international community to take the fight to ISIL could be a very valuable strategy.
There also is a role for the American military to play in terms of supporting Iraqi and Kurdish security forces as they take the fight to ISIL. And the next phase means that now that the Iraqi government has formed and it’s inclusive, and they have demonstrated a commitment to pursuing the kind of inclusive governing agenda that will unite the country, it’s easier for the United States to come behind them and support them as they take the fight to ISIL.
But the important thing for people to remember is that we’re not going to do that alone. The United States is only going to do that with the strong support and active involvement of the international community. And that includes our NATO Allies; that means our allies around the world; that includes enlisting these regional governments, these Sunni-led regional governments that have arguably more at stake in the immediate-term at least than anybody else.
I’d even note that the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, spent the last three days in China discussing a range of issues important to our bilateral relationship. But part of the conversations that she was having with her Chinese counterparts and with Chinese leaders was about this international coalition to confront ISIL. So this is a multi-faceted effort. And it is a multi-faceted strategy that recognizes that the President feels a responsibility to lead an international coalition, to build an international coalition, and to do so in a way that ensures that we’re not relying solely on the might of the American military.
There is no doubt that the American military can play an important role in tipping the scales here. But if we’re going to have an enduring solution to this problem, we’re going to need the Iraqis to step up and take responsibility for the security of their own country.
Q Josh, you called on me. You called on me.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, April. Go ahead. I’ll come back to you Stephen. (Laughter.) Very chivalrous of you, Stephen.
Q I’ll yield.
MR. EARNEST: I’d expect nothing less. (Laughter.) Go ahead, April.
Q Josh, I want to go back on success versus winning. Years ago, the press secretaries who were standing there during the Bush years steered us away from using the word “win,” saying that — when they were talking about — a while ago, the war in Iraq, saying that it was totally different than what we were used to. And they were using words like “success”. And fast-forwarding to today, you’re using the word “success” instead of “win”. What is the definition of “success” when we deal with ISIL this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has been very clear about what our goal is, and our goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Degrade and destroy. So what does that mean? Does that mean that you’re going to get the heads? You’re going to deal with the people here? You’re going to stop it here as well as over there? What does that mean?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, what the intelligence community assesses right now is that ISIL is not currently actively plotting against the homeland for the United States — of the United States.
Q But they’re going there — places like Minnesota. I mean there are components, fringes that are going over there, fighting for ISIL and then trying to come back here. Is it an approach over there as well as here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that the — we certainly are concerned about the threat that is posed by these foreign fighters. These are the individuals that you’re describing, some of whom have Western passports and are traveling to the region and taking up arms to fight alongside ISIL. There is a strategy that is in place to mitigate the threat that is posed by those individuals.
But ultimately, if we degrade and destroy ISIL in the region that we’re discussing here, then there’s no fight for these individuals to travel to. So that’s not the only element of our strategy for confronting the threat that’s posed by foreign fighters. But if we’re able to degrade and destroy ISIL in the region between Iraq and Syria, then that certainly would be an important part of mitigating the threat that’s posed by foreign fighters.
Q I don’t mean to belabor the point, but the way we understand that this is they’re finding out about ISIL through websites and going over there, ISIL is different from al Qaeda where they are training them over there and say, go do what you want. They don’t have to, like with Osama bin Laden, say this is what we want to do, and he gives approval. They’re trained over there to go back and do the ISIL bidding here, wherever. So it’s a different component.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s not — there’s an evolving assessment here. But I think it’s important for you to understand what our concern is. Our concern right now, April, is that you have individuals with Western passports who are traveling to this region, taking up arms alongside ISIL. They’re getting training. They’re being equipped. In some cases, they’re being even further radicalized. They’re also demonstrating a willingness to put their life on the line for their cause. That makes them dangerous individuals.
We don’t yet know right now of any sort of broad plot that’s being conceived of by ISIL to hit the homeland. We are concerned, however, that individuals may return from the fight to carry out acts of violence in this country. So we’re concerned about the threat these individuals pose. Right now there’s no indication, according to the assessment of the intelligence community, that there is an active plot underway to strike the U.S. homeland. So there’s a little bit of a difference in the assessment of the intelligence community and what you’re describing.
But we are taking steps to mitigate the potential threat that exists, and it’s one that we’re concerned about.
Q And what’s the length of the speech tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: The speech is still being written. I would not anticipate —
Q What’s the length of the draft? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s a draft because — I described it as a draft, or you accurately described it as a draft because it’s likely to change between now and tomorrow night.
Q What’s the length?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll get you some more guidance tomorrow as we get closer to a final version.
Q This evolving strategy clearly depends significantly on the new Iraqi government being more inclusive and unified than the last one. But what happens if it isn’t? It’s pretty difficult to think of a precedent of a unifying and non-sectarian government working over a long period of time in that part of the world.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple things about that. The first is it would have been hard even just a month or two ago to envision the peaceful transfer of power in Iraq. But yet, that’s exactly what occurred. I think what gives the — I think there are two things that give us some confidence.
The first is that we are hearing the leaders of Iraq say the right kinds of things; that we are hearing this diverse Iraqi government. Ostensibly, that’s part of the key here is that we have a Shia, who is the new Prime Minister, we have a Kurdish President and a Sunni Speaker. That is an indication that there is a diverse government leadership in place to lead and unite a diverse country.
The second this is, we’re hearing those leaders say the right kinds of things — that they are interested in uniting that country to confront the threat that’s posed by ISIL. And this sort of relates to the second thing, which is, it has never been more clearly in the interests of Iraq’s political leaders to govern in a more inclusive way than it is right now.
Iraq faces an existential threat from ISIL. And if they fail to unite that country to meet that threat, it undermines and threatens the government and the nation as a whole. So it is clearly in the interest of Iraq’s political leaders to govern in an inclusive way.
So we’ll see, Stephen. I think the truth is, we’ll see — that that will be the test, is to not just listen to their words, but watch their actions. But there is reason for some cautious optimism about this.
Q Josh, speaking of the stakes tomorrow night, when you’ve got this ABC News-Washington Post poll today saying 55 percent believe the President is not a strong leader and 52 percent believe this has been a failed presidency, how does he make his case to the American people when a majority of the public doesn’t believe he’s been a strong leader?
MR. EARNEST: The President will make his case based firmly on what he believes is in the best interest of the United States. That’s the case that he has put together, and that is the case that he will make.
The President was elected because of the American people’s confidence in his ability to make these kinds of very important decisions. And he was entrusted with a responsibility to protect the core national security interests of the United States, the President making decisions based on that judgment and based on his analysis of what those core national security interests are. And that’s the strategy that the President will discuss in his speech tomorrow night.
Q The last time he spoke to the American people in primetime — a year ago tomorrow, actually, on Syria, when he said, look, I’ve gone to Congress, we’re going to pull back for now; there’s a diplomatic initiative on the chemical weapons and we’re going to pursue that instead of military action right now — and he said, “The idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular…after all, I spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Iraq, our troops are coming home from Afghanistan.”
To Carol’s question a moment ago about him running for office, wanting to end wars, and you said something to the effect of he believes it was in the national security interest of the American people to get out of Iraq. If he’s now here one year later making the case potentially for expanded military action in that region, does it not suggest that maybe he was too quick to get out?
MR. EARNEST: It does not, Ed. And the reason for that simply is that we cannot be in a position — the President believes firmly that the United States should not be in a position of placing the burden on our American military to be solely responsible for providing security in Iraq. We’ve tried that; it didn’t work.
The American military, thanks to the bravery and service of so many of our men and women in uniform, made tremendous sacrifices and tremendous gains in Iraq to try to create and stabilize — to create a stable security situation in Iraq. But that was not sustainable because we saw a failure on the part of Iraq’s leaders to govern in an inclusive way that would unite the country to take advantage of that stable security situation to lead Iraq into prosperity.
So ultimately, the lesson that we need to take from that — and certainly the lesson that the Commander-in-Chief takes from that situation — is that we cannot rely solely on the American military to provide security for the Iraqi people. Ultimately, what we need to do is we need Iraq’s political leaders and Iraq’s security forces to take responsibility for providing security in their own country. That is the focal point of this strategy. And it will involve the international community providing support to the Iraqi people and to Iraq’s government. It involves the American military, because of their tremendous capability, and again, because of the bravery and service of our men and women in uniform.
There are important things that we can do to support them in this effort, but ultimately it’s Iraq’s people, Iraq’s government, and Iraq’s security forces that need to be responsible for securing the nation of Iraq.
Q On the military use — he also said in his speech a year ago, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria” — he was consistent on that; “I will not pursue an open-ended acRead more
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