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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough
Barack
Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough
June 3, 2009
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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

7:20 P.M (Local)

MR. GIBBS: Thank you guys for coming. We'll do this in a couple of different waves. First I will have Ben Rhodes come up and walk you guys through a little bit of the structure of the President's speech tomorrow, with a full understanding that the President is still working on the text. Next we'll have Denis McDonough walk you through a readout of the President's meeting with King Abdullah today. And then at the conclusion of that we'll take some questions.

Ben.

MR. RHODES: Thanks. Well, as Robert said, the President is still working on the final text of the speech, so we'll get that when we have it. But he tends to work on these things to the wire.

Just to talk a little bit about what the structure of the speech is -- the President really sees this as an opportunity to continue a dialogue he's had since his inauguration -- you saw that in his Al Arabiya interview, in his Nowruz message, in his speech in Turkey, among other things -- to really start a new chapter of engagement between the United States and Muslim world.

Now, the foundation of that engagement as he sees it is the ability to engage each other on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests. And in that light, he feels it's important to speak very openly and candidly about the very full range of issues that have caused some tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, and then also present a great deal of opportunity for partnership in the future.

To begin with, I think he'll take on directly some of the misperceptions that may have emerged as well as some of the differences that have emerged. I think he'll acknowledge the need for us to get to know each other better. As he has said, he'll, for instance, discuss the relationship between Islam and America within America, particularly in light of the contributions of American Muslims.

But then what he will do is really go through in a very thorough way a broad range of issues that have been at the forefront of the agenda: violent extremism and the threat that it poses, and what America has done in response; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what we're doing there, and what we hope to do in the future in partnership with Afghans and Pakistanis. He'll discuss Iraq, both what we have done there and what we are doing in the future, again, to transition to Iraqi responsibility for Iraq. He'll discuss of course the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the broader Arab-Israeli issue, and acknowledging the fact that this has been a very important source of tension and passion for people of all faiths within this region and around the world, and he will discuss in some detail his view of the conflict and what needs to be done to resolve it. He will discuss both what that means in terms of Israelis and Palestinians and the United States and the Arab states, as well.

Then there's a broader set of issues that have also been -- or presented both causes for tension in the past but partnership in the future that have to do with areas such as democracy, human rights, and related issues to that. And so I think you'll see a forthright discussion in those areas.

And finally, though, the President is very committed to the positive partnerships that can be developed not just on the issues that I just discussed, where he thinks there's actually a very broader convergence of interests than has often been acknowledged or is often reflected in the debate, but also on issues that really matter in people's lives, in terms of economic development, in terms of education, in terms of health, in terms of science and technology; and the fact that as he said in Turkey, this can't just be what we're against; it has to be what we're for and what we can do together. And I think you'll see some concrete steps towards developing partnerships in these areas so that we can deepen engagement between the United States and Muslim communities, and point towards opportunity for all of our people.

And so that's really the broad framework of the speech. There's obviously a lot more that will be contained within that. There's a lot -- I don't want to preview the details of what he'll say on some of these more pressing challenges. I'll obviously leave that to him; he's far more equipped to do it. But that gives you a sense of it.

And there's been some interest in the process of the speech. The President has obviously been focused on the speech for a long time, dating back to the campaign. I will again, though, highlight that he's been focused on it as a part of an engagement, not an engagement in and of itself. So this is one step, not the final step. There will be further communication to come, just as we've already done a number of things.

But in terms of this speech, what he was very clear with us was to cast a wide net both within the U.S. government and outside of the U.S. government. So we talked to a broad range of experts in the government, but also in Washington and beyond. He was very adamant that that include Muslim Americans; there's a great number of Muslims who work in very important positions in the U.S. government on some of these issues. And he got engaged in this at a very early point and has basically provided all of the vision for what should be in the speech and a lot of the content. And for the last week he's really just been frequently holed up with his draft and editing it very heavily.

So we've benefitted from a broad range of views; we know the interest that is in the speech and we believe that we've reached out and tried to hear from and understand a lot of the views that are out there. But at the end of the day, the President has personally also been very invested in this, and I think you'll see that in the speech he gives tomorrow.

Thanks.

MR. GIBBS: Let me just bring Denis back in here to give you a readout of the meetings thus far.

MR. McDONOUGH: Thanks, Robert. And thank you, Ben.

The President and the delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia this afternoon at the airport and were greeted by a full official welcoming ceremony. From that we went to a series of delegation meetings, one at the airport very briefly, and then another at His Majesty's Farm. The meetings there consisted of a delegation meeting followed by a working lunch, including the entire delegation; then another short delegation meeting that was covered by the pool that I think you all saw. And then after a short break, the President and His Majesty went into a meeting, one on one, which I just confirmed is still going.

So obviously, as Robert suggested over the course of the last couple of days, the purpose of the visit is to stop in and see a very strategic and critical ally of the United States, to discuss a range of issues as it relates to energy, as it relates to Middle East peace, as it relates to Iran and other matters, and as much as anything, to underscore our shared interests in the region, as well, as Ben just talked about, the continuing effort the President has been undertaking here since the inauguration to reenergize a dialogue with the Muslim world.

The one thing I can report -- I'll be able to report more I think after we have a readout once the meeting finished, but it did start at about 5:00 p.m. and I think now it's 7:30 p.m. or so local, so it still continues, and we'll give you a further readout on that when it finishes up.

MR. RHODES: I should just add one more thing. As I went through the checklist in my head -- and it's really tough when Denis comes up here and I realize how short I must be at this podium -- but Iran, he'll also discuss the issues of nuclear proliferation and our ongoing efforts to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran on those issues.

MR. GIBBS: So with that we'll take a few questions. Yes, ma'am.

Q: I have one for Ben and one for Denis, if that's okay.

MR. GIBBS: Sure.

Q: Ben, when you talked about how the President is going to talk in some detail about what each of the parties should do in Mideast peace, does that mean that he's going to talk specifically about settlements with respect to Israel and the Arab states, giving more money to the Palestinians, and get down in the weeds like that?

MR. RHODES: I mean, what I'd say is, without, again, preempting the speech, the key issue is that the fundamental issues that have been at the core of the conflict are ones that he will address. You know, he's addressed settlements in recent days; he's addressed the question of the role of the Arab states; the obligations, frankly, of all sides. So what you'll see is a robust discussion of how to make progress and how to finally break this stalemate.

And with that, I'll let his words tomorrow speak for themselves. He's not, as we said, presenting any detailed plan, but he is addressing, again, in a very robust way, what he thinks needs to be done on all sides, and also, frankly, just how he personally views the conflict. So with that, I think I'll leave the rest for tomorrow.

Q: How is that not a plan, though? I mean, what's the distinction in his mind between talking specifically about what each side should do and talking about a plan for peace?

MR. RHODES: Well, again, without getting into too much, some of these things are things that have already been agreed to; they're things that are responsibilities that -- under the road map, for instance. So that's how I would draw that distinction. I mean, in a sense that these responsibilities will lead to peace, he will be addressing how to achieve peace. In the sense that he's going to revise dramatically those responsibilities, that's what I'd put aside.

Q: And then quickly for Denis. Did the President make any progress or raise with the King the issue of working on Taliban extremism in Pakistan and the issue of the Yemenis at Guantanamo?

MR. McDONOUGH: Again, I don't want to prejudge. We haven't had a chance to debrief with the President since the meeting is still going on, but those were certainly among the issues that he was intending to address.

The bottom line I think -- and this goes to Ben's question -- and the speech -- is, just your question, Jennifer, underscore -- your questions underscore that this is a very broad dialogue that the President is going to continue to engage in in the speech in Cairo tomorrow; that it started with his first televised interview being with Al Arabiya. It continued obviously with outreach around the Nowruz message; the speech and the student discussion in Ankara and Istanbul.

So this is a very robust and wide-ranging discussion that's been going on now for some time. Obviously your question about -- Israeli-Palestinian question and issues is a part of it but it's not all of it. And so I think what Ben and the President are working on together is a very robust set of issues that continues a very broad dialogue. And I think he's looking very much forward to it.

Q: Does the administration have any reaction to the bin Laden tape and the timing of it? What does it say about whether al Qaeda has been squeezed by the President's outreach? And in Turkey the President said he would present some specific programs on health care, education, and trade for the Muslim community. Can we expect that in the speech tomorrow?

MR. GIBBS: Let me handle the first part, and then I'll turn the second part over to someone else. Obviously we've seen news reports of the message but not had an opportunity to review it in its entirety. I think the reports we've seen are consistent with messages that we've seen in the past from al Qaeda, threatening the U.S. and other countries that are involved in counterterrorism efforts.

But I don't think it's surprising that al Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the President's historic efforts and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world.

MR. RHODES: Just to your second point, he will be addressing some specific initiatives in areas like health and education and development, and he'll be doing so from the standpoint, again, of so much of the discussion, when it comes to the set of issues we've talked about here today already, sometimes overlooks the kind of tangible issues that matter in people's lives. When you discuss mutual interests between the United States and the Muslim world, as the President has, that of course pertains to issues of peace and security, but it also pertains to opportunity and innovation and the ability for people to pursue a better life.

And I think he's committed to exploring ways to not present -- I mean, committed to exploring partnerships; that are initiatives that won't just be the United States doing something, it will be opportunities for the United States to partner with Muslim communities, Muslim-majority countries, to make progress on issues like health, education, economic development. So it's really a sense of concrete partnerships that can be undertaken to make a difference and to also both increase opportunity for people, but also that's a key part of building bridges and broadening the engagement so that there's engagement at a broad level of society and people, and not simply, again, the very important other issues but also the additional things that really matter in people's lives.

MR. GIBBS: Before I take another question, there's one thing I meant to outline in the beginning that I want to just go through for people -- I was asked this I believe either yesterday or the day before -- but just some of the efforts that our government was undertaking to ensure as many people around the world were exposed to what the President's remarks tomorrow. So let me go through a couple of different efforts.

Out of the State Department, callers worldwide can register to receive free text messages of the speech in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English on www.america.gov/sms/html.

Q: Can you repeat the languages again?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, and I've got -- it's Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English. Callers will receive text messages during the speech and have the option to reply and give feedback to the State Department. The State Department will collect and post feedback on the Web site that I just gave you. Obviously this speech will be Webcast on whitehouse.gov. There will be links to fully translated transcripts of the speech in 13 different languages, which we'll give you in a second.

In addition to that, I mentioned this -- sort of the aspect of social networking -- the full speech, the speech excerpts and videos with translations, where applicable, will be pushed not only on the White House's YouTube site, but on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts. And just to give you a sense of the impact that something like Facebook can have, Facebook is the largest social network in Muslim countries, reaching close to 20 million users. For instance, there's 10 million in Turkey, 4 million in Indonesia, 1.2 million in Egypt. We will create a special event page where subscribers can receive text messages and do live chatting during the speech and watch the video online. And Facebook is doing a promotion of the event in Muslim countries.

And that is obviously in addition to -- I know networks in a number of countries around the world are going to show the speech, or plan to show the speech live with real-time translation.

Ed.

Q: Robert, there's a report in an Israeli newspaper suggesting that the President stopped into meeting with the Israeli Defense Minister at the White House yesterday -- I think he was meeting with General Jones. Can you talk about what he said? Because this paper is claiming that the President suggested there was some sort of ultimatum that within four to six weeks he wanted the Prime Minister to come forward with new positions on two-state solution as well as settlements. And there's a perception that you're pressuring the Israelis right now, so can you talk about that?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, let me have Denis --

MR. McDONOUGH: Thanks, Robert. Thanks, Ed. I haven't seen the report but it doesn't sound exceedingly accurate. The President did stop by a meeting in General Jones' office yesterday for about 12 minutes, discussed a range of issues -- I think we sent a readout on that yesterday -- that include obviously the Israeli-Palestinian issues, larger Arab-Israeli peace efforts, the role that Senator Mitchell is playing, concerns about proliferation of technology -- nuclear technology -- and other matters.

But the idea that there was some kind of ultimatum given is not accurate. The fact is that I think what the President is trying to do is create some space for commitments that have already been made in the road map and elsewhere to be fulfilled. He was very clear on that during the visit of President Abbas last week. I think those of you who work where we work every day heard that, as it relates to incitement, as it relates to security, as it relates to governance.

And so the President, in that same vein, I think was also clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu on his visit, and in the short meeting yesterday with the Defense Minister Barak, underscored our interest in a range of issues. But, again, the idea of an ultimatum of that sort is not accurate from the meeting, but not also accurate from what the President is trying to accomplish.

MR. GIBBS: Jake.

Q: I have a couple questions, Robert. One, what do you hope the average man on the street in a Muslim country will take away from the President's speech tomorrow?

And then for Mr. Rhodes. Does the President plan on mentioning at all his father's Muslim roots in the speech tomorrow?

MR. GIBBS: Let me let Denis do the first one, I think, just in terms of the man on the street.

MR. McDONOUGH: I think you've heard the President talk about in the course of the last couple of days that he wants the Arab and Muslim worlds to get to know a little bit more about America, wants America to get to know a little bit more about the Arab and Muslim worlds. I think the takeaway will be in the best circumstances an audience that recognizes that we, the United States, and they have mutual interests in a range of issues as it stems from extremists who have killed thousands of Muslims -- innocent Muslims, just as they did thousands of Americans, including on one day in September when all they wanted to do was go to work; will underscore our shared interest in the dignity of all people, the opportunities that they have as it relates to health and education.

But the bottom line is I think what they'll hear is, as Ben suggested, a good deal of truth-telling about our range of issues and concerns, as well as our common and mutual interests across the board.

MR. RHODES: And all I'd say on the other question is simply that the President will be making a broader point that, in some sense -- and this relates to what Denis said -- in some sense, we've let differences drive a lot of relationships instead of the things we hold in common. And we've also let artificial categories emerge -- divisions -- and Islam in America, for instance, can't be divided by definition because Islam is a part of the American story through American Muslims.

And of course, the President's family demonstrates that there are many Americans, as he said in Ankara, who are either Muslim or have Muslims in their families or can trace their lineage to Islam. So that is a part of a broader point that, again, there's more convergence of experience and interest than has been acknowledged in the past at times, and that we need to build off of that common ground in order to make progress on this set of issues.

Q: Robert, one question for you, and then one for Denis. In terms of the outreach that you've done to make sure that people hear the speech, obviously this White House has done a lot of that at a number of events. Would you describe what you've done in this case to be extraordinary and above what you've done for previous efforts?

And for Denis, could you tell us a little bit just about what the President's message was on energy and anything you can about the early feedback from the first meetings on that subject?

MR. GIBBS: On the outreach question, I mean, obviously I think we have a fairly sophisticated, in general, outreach program that uses some of these tools. But I think it's very -- I would very much characterize the efforts that are being undertaken here as far broader; again, through either setting up special links on these social networking pages to draw -- to not just draw people into see the speech, but also to discuss it. Obviously throughout the world embassies are reaching out to the media in their countries to assure them that translations will be available. Obviously in I think in bigger countries in the world you'll see the speech actually broadcast live.

So there's a tremendous amount of outreach. I think I would -- at this point, too, I think this would be a good place also to caution -- and I did a little of this in the last couple of days -- and that is, both the President, the entire foreign policy team, and everybody that's been involved in this speech -- I think obviously the speech of tomorrow is important, but it's also important to realize that this is one of many events in a continuing dialogue that the President believes not only should happen but, in all honesty, must happen to continue to make progress on many of the issues that Ben outlined that the President will discuss tomorrow.

This is not a one-time event. Obviously, as Ben outlined, there have been points throughout his first few months in office that have noted his outreach. This is obviously a bit more high profile, but it is part of that continued dialogue that has to take place. All our problems and all of our outreach efforts are not going to either be solved or culminated in one speech. And I think that's the way the President certainly looks at it.

Denis, do you want to do the --

MR. McDONOUGH: Sure. I would just -- I'll just piggyback a minute on Robert's point, I mean, both as it relates to traditional media. I think what we've been struck by is the extent to which there is a demand at our embassies to get access to the speech. So, for example, as we've worked on languages into which we ought to have this translated, there's been a lot of demand from embassies throughout the Arab and Muslim/Islamic world, which really stretches from Morocco to Indonesia, to have it translated into languages in those countries.

And so there's a lot interest in it, for the fact that this is a very broad set of issues that people are interested in, but also because it's been an ongoing process, as Robert underscores. We've also learned by doing a little bit here, so we're identifying new social networking sites like Orkut, for example, which is a networking site that's particularly popular and accessed in South Asia. So we're learning kind of as we go along here.

As it relates to the readout of the meeting, I'm just not going to get into any particular specifics until we have a better sense of how the one-on-one meeting went.

MR. GIBBS: Chip.

Q: Back on bin Laden, you said that this is largely consistent with past messages, but some of the analysts have said that the language of this that is directed at the American people, threatens the American people, is a step beyond what he has done before, since President Obama has been in office. How would you -- what would you say to the average American who sees or reads these words, and given his history, finds them chilling if not frightening?

MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, again, I haven't had -- we haven't had a chance to analyze the full message. But I think Americans have seen these types of threats before. I don't -- from the reports we've seen, these seem very consistent with what has happened in the past. And again, I would reiterate I think this is much more of an effort to upstage and to try to become a part of a story seeking a different way.

Q: Can you give an assurance to Americans that there's nothing to fear here?

MR. GIBBS: I can give the American people every assurance that everything is being done to protect them and to protect our homeland, as we've done since we took office.

Yes.

Q: There are reports that the U.S. has urged Cairo University to invite members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other human rights groups. Can you talk a little bit about --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, Denis can talk a little bit about it.

MR. McDONOUGH: Thanks for the question. Thanks, Robert. The fact is, I think as we talked to many of you last Friday night, that we wanted to make sure that the speech -- that the President in his speech had an opportunity to speak to the full range of political representation in Egypt and really across the Muslim world. So the process by which invitations are made is that we from the States had folks that we were interested in making sure were invited; the embassy obviously in Cairo played a leading role in identifying people to invite; I think the Egyptian government had people that they would like to see -- wanted to see invited.

And so it's hard for me to disaggregate who was -- who invited which specific group of people. I got an email earlier today from somebody asking if we had pressed for the inclusion of a particular group. I think the bottom line is that the President wants to have an opportunity to speak to the broad range of political representation in Egypt, but really across the region.

Q: -- (inaudible) -- toward Israel for the countries in the Middle East and the neighbors of Israel? And what does he specifically expect from them to move the peace process forward? For Denis.

MR. McDONOUGH: You know, I just want to underscore again that this is one piece of a much broader picture that the President will be addressing tomorrow; albeit an important one, but just one. But I think you heard it in the President's meeting with President Abbas and obviously from day one when the -- the first day the President reported for duty in the Oval Office, he picked up the call and called the leaders of this region to discuss with them the range of issues that are at play in the peace process.

So specifics, I'm not going to get into many of those, but I think there are some things that certainly make sense, including obviously support for the Palestinian Authority and its ability to extend its writ of governance, support for opportunity for Palestinians and so forth.

So we'll hear some more about that tomorrow, but we'll also hear more about that from Senator Mitchell in his efforts, and certainly Secretary Clinton has been leading the charge on this, as well.

Q: Do you foresee the President inviting Muslim leaders, political leaders specifically from Arab countries to America in the coming months or the next year or so as part of his effort to --

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that -- we've already begun to do some of it. Obviously he's spoken to leaders on the phone throughout his time, and I do believe -- I believe this will be -- this is something that the President will continue to do throughout his time in office. Again, the speech shouldn't be seen as a one-time event. Just as you go from the Al Arabiya interview and now, I think it is very safe to assume that moving forward, the President will want to strongly build on the foundation that has been laid, but to understand that one speech is not enough; that we've got much more outreach to do and many more meetings to do. And I think that will be a focus of his administration.

Let me go to Chuck and I'll come back.

Q: Robert, back to -- it seemed as if you were sort of intimating that you guys think it's an empty threat. I mean, how seriously think this threat --

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I haven't seen the whole thing. I don't think the rhetoric on the tape seems markedly different from what I've seen in the reports, and I don't think the motives and the timing are all that surprising.

Q: So you're not being dismissive of it? I mean, it just seems like --

MR. GIBBS: I'll let you characterize what I just said, but it wasn't a long quote. I'd prefer just to go ahead and use that.

Yes, ma'am.

END 8:14 P.M. (Local)



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough," June 3, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86240.
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