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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice
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Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice
September 18, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:19 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. In order to even enliven more greatly the week ahead, to describe in great detail the week ahead and our events at the U.N. General Assembly, we have our U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice with us. We'll walk you through some of that, we'll take some questions, and then we'll do our regularly scheduled TV programming.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Good afternoon, everyone. In anticipation of President Obama's historic first visit to the United Nations next week, I'd like to talk to you a bit about the work we've been doing at the U.N. over the past eight months to advance our interests and make Americans safer, and how the President intends to use his time up in the United Nations next week.

The United States has dramatically changed the tone, the substance, and the practice of our diplomacy at the United Nations and our approach to the U.N. as an institution, as well as our approach to multilateralism in general. We start from the premise that this change is necessary because we face an extraordinary array of global challenges -- things like poorly guarded nuclear facilities, terrorism by al Qaeda and its affiliates, nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea, genocide and mass atrocities, cyber attacks on our digital infrastructure, pandemic disease, climate change, international criminal networks and organizations.

These transnational security challenges can only be dealt with in cooperation with other nations. They can't by definition be dealt with by any single country in isolation. In the 21st century America's security and well-being is in fact inextricably linked to the security and well-being of people elsewhere. And the United Nations is thus essential to our efforts to galvanize concerted international action to make Americans safer and more secure.

So in both the Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly, we're working to forge common purpose with other nations. And let me briefly go over the principles that have guided our new approach to the U.N.

First, we work at the U.N. to promote America's core national security interests. On North Korea, we negotiated a unanimous Security Council resolution imposing the toughest sanctions on the books against any country in the world today. We also continue our work in the Security Council to ensure that Iran meets its nuclear obligations and to deal with pressing crises in places from Congo to Somalia. Second, we participate constructively. Rather than throw up our hands and walk away, we're trying to roll up our sleeves and get things done.

So consider the United Nations Human Rights Council. In May, we changed course and sought a seat on the council, and we won that seat with 90 percent of the votes cast. We joined this troubled body fully aware of its many flaws. But we recognize that we can't fix it or contribute to fixing it simply by carping from the outside.

Third, we stand firmly on principle and resolute on issues that matter most to us. But we're not picking petty battles simply for the sake of being contrary. In the past, we've sometimes let ourselves be defined as much by what we stand against as what we stand for.

So we've changed course. We've embraced as our own the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which we had previously shunned. We've rescinded the Mexico City Policy that barred U.S. assistance to programs that support family planning and reproductive health services. We signed the first new human rights convention of the 21st century, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We reversed course to back a statement at the General Assembly opposing violence and discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. We no longer balk at mentions of reproductive health, or oppose references to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Fourth, we seek constructive working relationships with nations large and small. While we pursue more effective cooperation among members of the Security Council, the 15 members of the Security Council, we're also mindful of the fact that the United Nations consists of 192 member-states. All of them vote in the General Assembly. And more than half of the U.N.'s membership consists of small states with populations of less than 10 million people.

So we work with the vast majority of countries on the basis of both mutual interest and mutual respect to try to bridge old divides and resist the efforts of a handful of customary spoilers to prevent shared progress.

Fifth, we meet our obligations. As we call on others to help reform and strengthen the United Nations, the United States has to do its part as well. And we are. We're paying our bills. We've worked with Congress to pay our dues in full and on time. And thanks to the strong support of Congress, we've been able to clear U.S. arrears to the U.N.'s regular budget and those to its peacekeeping budget, which accumulated from 2005 to 2008. We'll meet our 2009 obligations on the peacekeeping budget in full. And if the administration's FY 2010 budget request is fully funded, we'll keep current on both our regular and peacekeeping accounts, allowing us to start to move towards ending the practice begun in the 1980s of paying our bills to the U.N. and other international organizations nearly a year late.

And finally, we push for serious reform. The U.N. needs both greater efficiency and greater effectiveness. Each dollar must serve its intended purpose. It must be spent cleanly and wisely, be it for development or peacekeeping. We need peacekeeping operations to be planned expertly, deployed more quickly, budgeted realistically, equipped seriously, ably led, and ended responsibly.

In January when I went up for my Senate confirmation hearings, I testified that we would be pursuing four broad long-term priorities at the United Nations: a focus on peacekeeping, development, climate change, and nonproliferation. The President's visit to the United Nations next week will highlight the administration's focus on each of those four priority areas. So let me take you through briefly some of the major events on the President's agenda in what I hope is a fair reflection of chronological order.

On Tuesday, September 22nd, President Obama will deliver remarks at the Secretary General's summit meeting on climate change. This is a head of state-level meeting to open up -- open to the entire U.N. membership. So it's an opportunity for the President to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to addressing the challenge of climate change, and discuss solutions with a truly diverse global audience at the highest levels.

The President will also host on the 22nd a lunch for heads of state and government from sub-Saharan Africa. This event will focus on how the United States can work in partnership with African governments to strengthen African economic and social development. The talk will focus primarily on three topics: job creation, especially for young people; creating a more conducive climate for trade and investment; and ways to mobilize African agriculture to create jobs and help feed the continent. Also on the 22nd, the President will have a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and attend a climate change dinner hosted by the Secretary General.

On Wednesday the 23rd, the President will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama for the first time. He will then deliver his historic first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, and address his view of international cooperation in the 21st century and the need to move beyond old divisions to focus on the future. He will lay out a new direction that he has set for American foreign policy, and talk about our mutual responsibilities to make progress on several key priorities that will advance our common security and prosperity.

Also on Wednesday, the President will host a meeting with countries that contributed the largest numbers of police and troops to the United Nations peacekeeping operations. This is an opportunity for the President to focus attention on reforming and strengthening U.N. peacekeeping for the 21st century, and to recognize the largely unheralded contributions of those that are providing the backbone of these critical peacekeeping operations. The same day, the President will attend Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's annual lunch for heads of state and government. He will meet with President Medvedev of Russia in a bilateral meeting. And that evening he will host, with the First Lady, the traditional U.S. reception for visiting heads of state and delegation.

On Thursday, September 24th, the President will chair a summit-level meeting of the United Nations Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. This summit will focus on these topics broadly, very much consistent with the themes that the President outlined in his speech in Prague. This is only the first -- excuse me, only the fifth ever summit-level meeting of the Security Council, and the first time an American President will ever have chaired the United Nations Security Council.

Our goal in this regard is to underscore the global reach of proliferation threats, the broadly shared obligation to respond to these threats, and the positive steps that have been taken to reduce nuclear dangers, and the essential role of the Security Council in addressing growing and pressing nuclear threats. So it's a very full agenda, one that we look forward to as a means of underscoring both the value of the institution of the United Nations and the work that needs to be done by us and others to reform and strengthen it to make it as effective as it needs to be to address 21st century challenges, to live up to its potential, and be what its founders envisioned it could be.

So with that I'm happy to take your questions.

Q: Are there times that you can give us for all these events, or are those still in flux right now?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I'm not prepared to give specific times for all of these.

MR. GIBBS: We'll have, I think, a schedule later.

Q: Okay. Actually, I had a more substantive question also. Are there other meetings going on around that you can tell us about, either out of State or out of your office, in terms of the Middle East peace process or in terms of lower-level outreach to other governments, including some in the Middle East that you could tell us about?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, first of all, this week at the United Nations General Assembly is full of all kinds of meetings -- bilateral and multilateral, small group, large group -- some of which are chaired and hosted by the United States that we're participating in. I've outlined for you what we're doing at the presidential level for the most part. The Secretary of State has her own very full schedule. I, too, will be joining in those meetings with the President and the Secretary to a substantial extent, and doing some meetings of my own, as will other U.S. government officials at various levels. It's a very busy time, and then of course other countries are hosting their own set of meetings. So there's no shortage of activity and an opportunity to advance our agenda on all these fronts.

With respect to the Middle East, I'm not in a position to announce anything other than what I've just described, but I think it's fair to say that when the State Department is in a position to outline the Secretary's schedule, you'll see a variety of meetings related to that region and every other.

Q: What's the main theme of his address to the U.N.?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think I shared with you, Helen, the main theme is that we face a pressing array of global challenges. We need the kind of cooperation and leadership from a wide range of countries to meet those challenges effectively. We can't afford to get bogged down in the traditional North/South or other customary divisions that have hindered effective international cooperation. Everybody has a responsibility. The U.S. is leading anew, and we're looking to others to join.

Q: Could I just do a quick follow-up -- I'm sorry -- could you tell us any other meetings going on that have to do with Cuba, Iran, or Syria?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Not aware of meetings related to Cuba. With respect to Iran, this is a topic that I think will come up in a number of different meetings. We've talked about taking stock of where we are with Iran with our partners during this period of time. That will happen not only in a format of P5-plus-1 -- the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council: Russia, China, France, the U.K., and the U.S.; plus Germany. There will also be discussions at the G8 level.

So I think this will --

Q: I meant with them.

AMBASSADOR RICE: No.

Are you doing this or am I? Do you want me to call --(Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry. Chip.

Q: Is the President expecting any concrete advances or agreements, anything that you can hold in your hand and say, this is what we accomplished during these three days?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, yes, with respect to the United Nations Security Council summit, we are expecting agreement on a meaningful, comprehensive United Nations Security Council resolution on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament.

Q: Anything else?

Q: That will be the only thing where we'll see a resolution of sorts that's offered by --

AMBASSADOR RICE: That's the only place that we could get a resolution and that we --

Q: How about in the bilaterals, will there be anything concrete, or will it be behind the scenes negotiations leading to something else down the road? Are you hoping for any kind of announcements, anything concrete?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, I'm not going to presage what may come out next week -- that would be a little bit counterproductive. But allow me to say that these are important bilateral meetings with important leaders and partners and they will undoubtedly be effective in advancing our agenda and our interests.

Q: Two quick housekeeping things. You didn't mention the Clinton Global Initiative speech; is he still doing that? I think that's --

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I --

Q: Okay, so that's not off the schedule?

AMBASSADOR RICE: No. No.

Q: And you didn't mention anything on Monday. Does he have any kind of U.N. or global leader-related events on Monday when he first gets there?

AMBASSADOR RICE: No.

Q: Okay. And then just quickly on the --

MR. GIBBS: Letterman.

Q: Right. (Laughter.) There had been a lot of talk that there could be a trilateral meeting next week, and you obviously didn't mention that. Is there any hope still that there could be one, or is that off the table?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I'm not in a position to make any announcements or predictions on that.

Q: So it's still possible?

MR. GIBBS: I'll go with what she said. (Laughter.)

Q: Ambassador, you had sort of hinted at this idea that the U.N. needs to reform itself and that was going to be one of the things that was one of your goals. The President at the G8 said when we asked why are all of these summits happening, why is there a G8, a G20, now a G20 -- a second one this year -- and it's likely more could come out of the G20 than out of the U.N. as far as the deliverables. What are the ways to measure if this reform effort that you're putting out with the U.N., what are going to be the easy ways for us to see that maybe the U.N. is reforming itself, maybe it can be a useful international organization again?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, Chuck, that's a broad but important question, and there are many different ways in which we are working to encourage reform and renewal of the United Nations. And indeed there has been significant progress in that regard over the last four or five years. Some of that has come in the form of greater management efficiency, transparency, opportunities for cost savings -- we're pursuing all that.

In the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal, the U.N. went through a very substantial set of internal management reforms. A lot of our focus now is on implementing those reforms and making sure that what was promised from them is actually delivered. But beyond that, we are looking in particular at streamlining and making more effective U.N. peacekeeping over the long term. This is the most costly and most important, arguably, instrument that the United Nations employs to protect civilians and enhance peace and security internationally. It accounts for some 70 percent of the U.N.'s overall expenditures. There are 15 operations around the world, some 115,000 troops, police, and civilians deployed -- more than ever before -- taking on far more complex challenges than ever before.

And we are working with the institution and other member-states to make those deployments more swift, more effective, and make sure that we're getting an optimal bang for our significant resources; looking for opportunities, for example, to consolidate logistical support in places like Africa, where there are a number of different operations present that will yield cost-savings, efficiencies, but also we hope greater effectiveness of those operations.

Q: What's our leverage?

AMBASSADOR RICE: We're the largest contributor to the United Nations, and we are --

Q: But now we're all paying our bills --

AMBASSADOR RICE: -- also acting now very much as a responsible and constructive participant in the United Nations context. And so when we talk about making the institution more effective and more efficient, it's not from the vantage point of wanting to see it fail; it's from the vantage point of wanting to see it succeed.

Q: Is there a summit-level meeting of the P5-plus-1? Will the six leaders get down -- sit down together? And what do you need to do to prepare for the October talks that -- there's a lot of set up with Iran?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, the P5-plus-1 will meet at the ministerial level. But obviously the President will interact with the leaders individually of the P5 throughout his time there, including in the Security Council summit context. I will leave it to the State Department to outline our preparations for the October 1st meeting, but suffice it to say that the meetings in New York will be an important opportunity for the United States to concert with its partners and be very plain about our shared objectives, what we expect of Iran, and what will define a productive outcome.

MR. GIBBS: Jonathan.

Q: Can I ask another question about the -- another angle of the reform question? What are the next steps for China and some of the world's other rising powers to have more of a stake and more of a say in global institutions such as the U.N. and some of the other ones? And will be there any movement next week or any steps taken next week towards that goal?

AMBASSADOR RICE: China has a big stake and is playing large already at the United Nations; has been, as you know, a member of the Permanent 5. It acts in that role very much in an active way. China is one of the countries with which we work quite closely on the Security Council.

But it's also a major player in the General Assembly where it has traditionally come to work with and sometimes on behalf of the non-aligned movement, which is part of a phenomenon that I alluded to earlier where activity in the General Assembly has in the past often broken down in the form of bloc politics -- non-aligned and sometimes Western and developed on the other hand.

These sorts of blocs and divisions are outdated. They often don't serve the national interests of the countries that participate in these blocs. And part of what we are beginning to see, and certainly what we think is essential to tackle the challenges that I described at the outset, is for countries to move beyond those traditional reflexive bloc affiliations and look at ways to step up individually and collectively to meeting 21st century security threats.

Q: So that's more of an ongoing conversation, you don't expect any --

AMBASSADOR RICE: No, I don't -- no. and I'm not quite sure what you envision when you ask that.

Q: It's more of the IMF/World Bank, so I'm just trying to figure out if there's anything going on at the U.N.

AMBASSADOR RICE: No, not in that context.

Q: Ambassador Rice, will the President talk about the missile defense shield in either the General Assembly session or the Security Council session on Thursday? And why does it appear that the President didn't really reach out and talk to either the Czech or Polish leaders about it until the night before he announced it here?

AMBASSADOR RICE: We've been in regular consultations with our allies in the Czech Republic and Poland, going back many months. This has been a dialogue that didn't begin this week and I think there's some misperceptions about the extent of engagement and interaction on this subject. Obviously the President wanted to reach out in advance of any announcement and do so at his level, and did so I think quite appropriately.

Whether this comes up during the course of next week, I think probably not likely to be a major theme next week. I can't exclude it will come up, but it's not directly germane to the main themes of the visit.

MR. GIBBS: April just gave me the evil eye, so I'll call on her. (Laughter.) I get it a lot.

AMBASSADOR RICE: I've seen April's evil eye. And her beautiful smile.

THE PRESS: Ohhh! (Laughter.)

Q: Don't talk about. (Laughter.)

Q: That's why she's an ambassador and Gibbs isn't.

MR. GIBBS: One of the many reasons. (Laughter.)

Q: Ambassador Rice, back on Africa, something that you were very close to during the Clinton years -- what realistically can happen on this expansion of trade with Africa in the next four years? And then also, going back into peacekeeping in Africa, and then also the issue of -- will those issues be on the table as well?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, the lunch that the President will host with sub-Saharan African heads of state and government is, in my knowledge and experience, unprecedented. It's an opportunity for him to engage with leaders from African countries on the issues that are frankly most pressing to them: how to deal with the youth bulge and find and generate employment opportunities for their people; how to promote trade and investment; and how to feed those that go without every night.

So this is a very important opportunity to underscore that we share an interest in addressing those challenges. Promoting trade and investment -- part of this is to hear from African leaders what they feel would be, in the current context, the most appropriate vehicles. As you know, over the last 10, 15 years, the United States has taken a number of important steps to try to open up the U.S. market to goods and services from Africa. That's had some substantial benefit. But job creating investment that is both international and domestic, or regional, is still very much something that we have an interest in encouraging and promoting, and the Africans more than anybody have an interest in promoting.

With respect to Somalia, what are you asking in particular?

Q: Somalia with the extremists leaving the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, going there, trying to reconstitute -- building up their arsenals of members, as well as a top al Qaeda leader being killed over there. Is the President going to be talking to them about possibly helping to regain a foothold of democracy in that country, something?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, our goal in Somalia obviously is to help support both a peace process, the new transitional federal government, which is the best hope that Somalia has had for quite some while, and the African Union peacekeepers that are there very much on the front lines of supporting the nascent government. We want to see a Somalia that is stable; that is not serving as -- or able to serve as a safe haven for al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists; that can end the years of humanitarian suffering and move to a responsible government that's able to assert its authority over all of that territory.

So we're providing active support diplomatically to the transitional federal government. Secretary Clinton, when she was in the region, met for the first time with the Somali President. And we're providing material support and humanitarian assistance, and even some development assistance in Somalia, in an effort to try to consolidate the fragile progress that's been made.

Q: What's being done to get the extremists out of there? What is this government doing? Is AFRICOM taking an active role?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think that there's a variety of efforts underway in support of the authorities in Somalia to prevent and root out those who are planning or plotting or engaged in terrorist actions.

Q: Regarding the nuclear nonproliferation resolution, what do you expect it to say and what concrete changes or policies might come out of it?

AMBASSADOR RICE: The resolution focuses -- first of all, let me be careful and say it's not final; it's still being negotiated. But I think it's close enough where I can give you some sense of where it's heading.

It will focus on three broad areas. The United States and other international efforts, particularly among the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council, the nuclear powers, to move in a direction that is reinforcing of the goal that the President articulated of a world without nuclear weapons. So there is a significant disarmament aspect of this.

Very importantly, without a country-specific focus, means to strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. And we hope that this effort of 15 countries to come together in support of some very important goals and plans will give impetus to the 2010 nonproliferation review conference, NPT review conference that will happen next year at the United Nations.

The third area relates to securing loose nuclear materials, a very important goal that the President has long articulated. It will look forward to the meeting that the President has convened next year here in Washington in March on this subject.

And so in those three areas it will, I anticipate, strengthen the normative as well as the substantive basis for action in each of those areas.

Q: What are some specific disarmament steps that might come out of it?

AMBASSADOR RICE: The resolution you will have an opportunity to see in the coming days when it's in its final form. But I think that gives you --

Q: When would that be?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Probably by very early next week.

Q: Thank you. First of all, when you meet with your fellow ambassadors to the U.N., what is the wish you have most often to do differently than your predecessor? And second, what is in your eyes the biggest achievement so far of the new cooperative approach at the United Nations?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, it's interesting. We don't hear a lot of "we wish you would do X and Y" now. I'm hearing a lot of, "I'm glad you've done X and Y and Z." And I don't say that to be flip. But in all honesty, whether it's joining with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; whether it's working constructively, even in difficult circumstances, to try to find a rational outcome to the negotiations that were underway over the global financial crisis; or whether it's our successful efforts to negotiate the North Korean sanctions regime -- we are seeing the fruits of the new administration's change in policy and approach at the United Nations. And we're, frankly, fortunate -- I'm fortunate to hear a lot of positive reinforcement in that regard.

I think the most important accomplishment thus far is what I just mentioned, is the fact that we came together quickly and unanimously on two occasions to increase the pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and its missile development and proliferation activities.

MR. GIBBS: Jeff.

Q: Ambassador, climate change talks are essentially stalled. What does the President hope to achieve with his address on Tuesday? And what are the concrete outcomes that may result from that?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, I think first of all the Secretary General of the United Nations viewed this summit as an opportunity to bring together all of the countries of the world to try to galvanize progress in advance of Copenhagen. Clearly, the road is rough ahead. And I don't think anybody comes with any illusions. But I think it is significant that you will have many heads of state -- from the most vulnerable and fragile countries that are struggling to adapt to the effects of climate change, that need the technology and support to develop in spite of climate change, and you'll have the most significant countries that contribute to climate change -- all together and seriously addressing this problem, acknowledging its reality, not denying science and fact, and talking about ways quite concretely that they can take steps nationally and collectively to address this challenge.

The President will underscore the importance we attach and the seriousness with which we view the challenge of climate change, and he will underscore that this is very much a shared challenge, that everybody has to step up if we're going to succeed in making concrete progress.

Q: Has he underscored that before -- his commitment?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Not before the entire global audience.

Q: Well, he has in some sense on the campaign in front of a global audience, and in his inauguration speech. But the root of the question is, besides rhetoric -- both from the U.S., and from other countries that will be present at that meeting -- what moves the --

AMBASSADOR RICE: This is not a negotiation.

Q: I know it's not.

AMBASSADOR RICE: I think it's -- we need to be clear. This is a series of seminars and speeches and discussions in groups large and small to -- there will be an opportunity for some heads of state to drill down into particular challenges, whether it's the challenge of adaptation or mitigation or financing. But in the broadest sense, this is -- as I tried to explain at the outset -- an effort to give political momentum and impetus. It's not a negotiating session.

Q: Will the President raise the Olympics at all, either formally or informally?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I can't answer that with certainty.

MR. GIBBS: I'm sure he will with people that are --

Q: One more on Iran, if I might. The talks coming up -- the Iranians have made very clear that although they're going to talk, they're not talking about suspending their program. President Ahmadinejad is going to be at the U.N. Are you hoping he's going to get an earful there?

AMBASSADOR RICE: From everybody or --

Q: Well, from everybody. Or from the President --

AMBASSADOR RICE: I don't expect that they will have a direct engagement. I think he may find that there are many Americans who are outraged by not only his comments of today -- which were hateful in again denying the Holocaust -- but also express their serious condemnation of what has transpired in Iran over the last several months in the wake of the elections. I would not be surprised if there were public gatherings that reinforced that message. And I think other governments that will be listening to Ahmadinejad's speech will be listening carefully as to whether he reprises many of the same themes that we've heard in the past or has anything different to say.

Q: I guess my question was whether you're expecting other governments to reinforce your message to him at the U.N.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Yes.

Q: Do you expect the delegation from the United States to walk out when he speaks or when the leader of Libya speaks? And if they come up to try to approach the President, how will the President handle it?

AMBASSADOR RICE: I don't want to presage or guess what they might say or what would be the appropriate response. That's in the realm of the hypothetical.

With respect to the Iranian leader, I don't think there's much likelihood that there will be an interaction. There's no obvious venue in which that would occur, and certainly we have no meetings or anything of the sort planned.

And with respect to Qadhafi, Libya holds a seat at present on the United Nations Security Council, and Libya will be present at the Security Council summit.

MR. GIBBS: Jeff.

Q: Is that following through with what then-Senator Obama promised or pledged in his campaign, that he would have conversations and reach out with world leaders? Why not have some type of formal or informal discussions with President Ahmadinejad?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Well, I think we have been very clear that there is an offer that was made by the P5-plus-1 in April. There is now of late been a response to it, albeit quite a vague response, and the opportunity in the venue for discussions will be October 1st.

MR. GIBBS: I'm going to let the Secretary get -- I'm sorry --

AMBASSADOR RICE: Thank you. (Laughter.)

Q: They promoted you. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: -- the Ambassador get back to work. And thank you for coming.

AMBASSADOR RICE: Thank you all. I look forward to seeing many of you next week.

MR. GIBBS: Let me do just a brief -- I'll fill in the week ahead that was not done. On Monday, the President will deliver a speech on the economy at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, where he will be joined by Dr. Jill Biden, who teaches at a community college in the Washington, D.C. area. As the Ambassador just mentioned, later the President will travel to the United Nations in New York.

On Tuesday, the President will deliver remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative. On Thursday, following meetings at the U.N., the President will depart New York in route to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to host the G20 summit. In the evening, the President will host a working dinner with G20 leaders. And then Friday there are a number of sessions -- there's a lunch with G20 leaders, followed by a press conference at the end of that afternoon. In the evening, the President will return to the White House and spend next weekend in Washington, D.C.

Q: Where in the day --

MR. GIBBS: Say it again?

Q: On Tuesday, where in the day?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have the times. My sense was that that was in the afternoon. But I don't know that we have final times for some of those things yet.

Q: Is there a subject on that speech?

MR. GIBBS: I have not seen a draft yet. Fire away.

Q: Mrs. Obama's speech today on health care, is that the kind of thing -- I mean, should we expect to see her pace kind of ramp up, just like the President has been on health care? Or is this more of a lone event?

MR. GIBBS: No, I think she's -- this was I think something that -- on a topic that obviously she and the President care deeply about, and an issue that she has worked on before. And I think if -- she's obviously a very popular figure in America. And if she can help out, we're happy to have her.

Q: What other plans to keep her -- to put her out front more on that topic?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I know of.

Q: Robert, did the President hear Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments about the Holocaust being a lie? And if so, what was his reaction?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know if the President per se heard that. I think regardless, we've heard that type of rhetoric before. Obviously we condemn what he said. And I would point to what the President said in Cairo: Denying the Holocaust is baseless, ignorant, and hateful; promoting those vicious lies serves only to isolate Iran further from the world.

Q: Following up on the question for Ambassador Rice, how should we interpret the response about a possible meeting on Middle East peace with Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu?

MR. GIBBS: I don't have anything to add to what the ambassador said. If we have announcements to make, we'll do that.

Q: Do you have a reaction -- just a last bit on that -- a reaction to an Israeli official said today they would consider stalling building for nine months instead of six months -- settlements -- in an effort for Middle East peace.

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously something like that I think would be very helpful to the overall process and continue the progress that I think former Senator Mitchell and the whole team believe is -- that we're seeing on this front, and we hope to continue that momentum.

Jake.

Q: Robert, the announcement yesterday was heavily based on intelligence about Iran's missile system, what they're building, what they're struggling with. How can you be confident, given the track record of our intelligence agencies, that that is accurate information?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the President, the national security team, have confidence in the information and the assessments that they were given about -- without getting specific -- the current development where Iran is focused and where they're having some challenges.

Q: Have there been major changes in the intelligence capabilities the United States has for that region of the world? I don't think I need to point to you -- point you to failures that they've had in the past when it comes to Iran, Iraq, other countries in that area. What makes you think that this intelligence is correct?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what's important is that a series and a group of people have confidence in it. Again, something I stated yesterday -- we have the very same players in Secretary Gates and in General Cartwright, the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, based on intelligence and based on technological assessments, determined in '06 and made a recommendation to then-President Bush who have, based on newer intelligence assessments and upgraded and better and more tested technology, made a recommendation to President Obama that he accepted. It's the same team, it's the same players that are making those judgments, and they have confidence in -- again, without getting detailed -- in those assessments.

Q: And then, did the President have any response to the fact that when he mentioned the Baucus bill yesterday in College Park, the Baucus bill was booed?

MR. GIBBS: Not that I know of.

Q: Is he throwing in the towel on the government plan?

MR. GIBBS: We went over this I think this time yesterday, Helen, and nothing has changed in the --

Q: I know, but you never answer very clearly. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Well, I -- then don't take --

Q: You're the first one from that podium to be like that. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Then don't take my word for it, Helen -- can somebody go print me a copy of the President's speech and we'll give a highlighted version to Helen where --

Q: No, no, the speech -- he's never pushed for the plan.

MR. GIBBS: We're doing this all over again, Helen. There's been no intervening event that would change the rather fuzzy and unclear answer I gave yesterday.

Go ahead.

Q: To follow up on Jennifer's question about the First Lady, she was really tying the push for reform to women's -- equality for women and trying to get women sort of involved in the push for reform. Is this sort of part of the strategy now, to really get women involved in this push?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what the First Lady highlighted was an aspect of health care reform that we believe is very important -- the burden that it puts on those that are primary caregivers for families and what they have to go through either with the skyrocketing cost of health care or in the event that they don't have health care.

Look, I think this is an issue, Dan, that touches men and women at every income level regardless of what you do for a living. So I think this was simply addressing one aspect of that, knowing that everybody is struggling with the high cost of medical care. They're watching skyrocketing premiums. Their employer may be dropping their coverage. They may not have coverage. All of that I think is important in health care reform.

Q: But it really seemed like a personal touch to really tell women, you know, if you believe in equality for women --

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think this is -- the work/family balance is something that the First Lady has spent a lot of time living, thinking about, and talking about as First Lady.

Q: And just another question on the President's media blitz this weekend. On Monday, when you look back at everything the President was able to do in terms of showing up on these shows, will you feel that this has been a game-changer? Will it have helped advance the reform game?

MR. GIBBS: I've done this before. I'm hesitant to look at every moment and every debate as some massive inflection point.

Q: Well, surely you think it's important to do it the way that you did it.

MR. GIBBS: Well, hold on, I'm simply addressing one premise of your multi-premised question. Obviously I have some say in what the President does for media. Obviously if I didn't think it was important, I'd have at least a good hour and a half chunk of time that I'd be wasting on the President's schedule. Obviously we don't believe that's the case.

I don't think that we're going to look back at a series of interviews as a game-changing moment. I think it is important that the President continue to speak to a host of different audiences, to reach as many people as possible to talk about the benefits of health care reform.

We've talked about this before, that people are getting their news from so many different places and so many different outlets that we're going to use the President to communicate through that fragmentation.

Chip.

Q: Along those lines, and since this is the very day he's taping the modified "Full Ginsburg" -- I know you've been asked it before -- but are people just going to start tuning him out if he's out there this much?

MR. GIBBS: No -- Bill's line may have been the best this morning. We're sifting through your questions of overexposure in between your interview request invitations. So, no. (Laughter.)

Q: Well, just because we want him doesn't mean that people are necessarily listening.

MR. GIBBS: Let me contemplate that for a minute. (Laughter.) I think I can free up at least 15 minutes on the President's afternoon schedule. (Laughter.)

No, you know, this is true in all the research that we see and in the research that you do. The American people understand the big challenges that our country has, and they want to hear from the President of the United States about the choices that we have and the decisions that we're making and the importance of each and every thing that he's spending his time on.

There's nothing that denotes that people are spending less time thinking about health care or watching the President.

Did I stump you? Okay, Chuck, go ahead.

Q: Everything at the G8 seemed to indicate that these meetings next week, they would be -- we would know the direction of our relationship, negotiations, whatever you want to talk about it when it comes with Iran. By the end of next week, I mean, will it be clear that there's been -- there will be something tangible that everybody will be able to take away with: Okay, this Iran thing is headed this way or it's headed this way? I mean, is it -- is it fair to say that next week is sort of a fork-in-the-road moment?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think -- no, because I think, quite frankly, the fork-in-the-road moment is going to come with the Iranians. There's a decision point that they're going to have to make about the road in which they take on this.

Q: Right, but when is that deadline?

MR. GIBBS: But let me -- well --

Q: I thought it was this week -- or next week.

MR. GIBBS: Well, hold on. Let me -- let me just -- let me finish my answer. Obviously, this is a topic -- as Ambassador Rice said -- that comes up in our discussions. We'll just start next week. It's omnipresent. I think you heard her mention a ministerial-level meeting of the P5-plus-1, additional leaders that the President will talk to, including throughout the U.N. General Assembly and the G8. And I also think, though, that October 1st is an important meeting to determine how serious the Iranians are at addressing the multitude of international questions about their illicit nuclear weapons program. I think that's why -- when I mentioned the fork in the road, I think they've got some decisions that they're going to have to make, that their failure to answer or failure to even talk about I think will further galvanize the international community.

Q: I guess, should we anticipate -- whether it's in the communiqué on Friday at the G20 --

MR. GIBBS: I guess I wouldn't look for one moment. I think this is something that is going to happen throughout the next several weeks, up to and including October 1st.

Q: On another topic, yesterday Speaker Pelosi compared the violence that she's seen now that's sort of the -- to what she said she saw in the '70s in San Francisco, the implication being that it eventually led to the death of Harvey Milk. Is this a helpful -- is this helpful to have her think about this in those terms? I mean, this is now the second -- President Carter earlier this week, and Speaker Pelosi. I mean, these are not columnists.

MR. GIBBS: I'm glad we delineated that. Look, I don't have anything to add to this than what I think I said in the last couple days. The President, his belief is that political disagreement, even passionate political disagreement has happened throughout our history as a country isn't likely to change any time soon, and doesn't think it should. I think what he would tell you is that as we have that passionate, political disagreement, as we talk about different avenues of policy that we can and should take, that we ought to be able to do that in a way that's civil in tone and civil in manner. I think that's what the President would tell you.

Q: There was an implication, though, that she believed that leaders -- and it sounded like she was just saying that leaders in the Republican Party ought to stand up -- if they see stuff, then they ought to denounce it. Do you guys --

MR. GIBBS: I think -- look, I think there's an obligation -- I think there's an obligation for all of us involved, right? Not just leaders, spokespeople, any participant in this debate to ensure that passionate political debate is about the important issues that are at hand, and that it's done in a civil way. I don't think -- I don't think it's helpful for either side of the political debate to unnecessarily or offensively characterize an action, or a person, or anything like that. That I would say to friends on the right and friends on the left.

Q: Is there enough self-policing going on now, or no?

MR. GIBBS: I think that's something that each member and each person involved in this is going to have to ask.

Q: A follow up to Chuck's -- why then, the uptick in passion in the last eight months that we're seeing -- why is there more of a negative against this President with outspoken words and people than other Presidents in harsher times?

MR. GIBBS: Let me fall into a role that I have disabused of desiring to do previously. I think if I was standing -- I think if somebody was standing up here a year ago or two years ago in a previous administration, they might say that passions ran quite high about the President then. I've certainly seen in reporting, people and historians noting that passions have always been high, particularly around important issue debates.

So I don't think that -- and I'll reiterate what I also said the other day, which was, we're in a culture and a society that tends not to cover the middle of the road of this debate; it tends not to show on the evening news or on the radio or in the newspaper those that quietly register their opinions.

Q: Okay. But passions ran high on the issue of privatizing Social Security -- you did not hear people screaming at then-President Bush. Also, during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton -- passions ran high. Both of these former Presidents were in the well of the House and spoke in the well of the House. No one stood up and raised concerns, screamed at them --

MR. GIBBS: -- again in a position of doing this for a previous administration. I think passions ran high -- I recall passions running high around our involvement in Iraq.

Q: No.

MR. GIBBS: What, I didn't answer that truthfully either?

Q: No one did that to him -- he had a shoe thrown at him in another country. But, I mean, but that was another country; that's not here --

MR. GIBBS: I might count that. (Laughter.)

Q: That was from a foreign journalist. I'm talking here, American citizens.

MR. GIBBS: Thirty seconds to respond. (Laughter.) No, again, I think I've exhausted said topic.

Mark.

Q: Let me ask you on that, does President Obama -- (laughter.)

Q: Thank you, Mark.

Q: Does President Obama feel he's catching more heat --

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: -- than any of his predecessors?

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: Is he worried that opposition necessarily leads to violence?

MR. GIBBS: No. Again, I think that what the President would say is that we all have to check our emotions despite the depth of our beliefs; that we can have these kind of debates, important political debates, without doing so in a way that makes anybody feel uncomfortable or that could lead to what you're suggesting. I also happen to believe that it takes away from what you're debating. I think that's also one of the things the President --

Q: Would you ever say race was a factor? Would you ever?

MR. GIBBS: I addressed this the other day.

Q: Would you ever? I'm not talking about the other day, I'm talking about down the road.

MR. GIBBS: Well, now I'm not only a spokesman for the Bush administration, I am --

Q: No, no, you've had a former President --

MR. GIBBS: -- I am looking into my crystal ball and answering question from --

Q: -- a leader, a leader of the free world to say this. He is not some "Joe Blow" off the street. You've had other major leaders --

MR. GIBBS: No, he was the 39th President of the United States --

Q: -- white major leaders, mainstream major leaders say this, and you cannot discount it.

MR. GIBBS: I don't discount it. I don't discount the views of former President Carter. I don't discount the views of Speaker Pelosi. I don't discount the views of anybody. April, you and I have had this discussion alone in my office. We've had this discussion now in front of whomever might be watching. And it's -- the answer is the same.

Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, in today's interviews and in the health care rallies that he did yesterday and last Saturday, does President Obama believe there are still minds to be changed on the health care issue?

MR. GIBBS: Sure. I think --

Q: In Congress, as well?

MR. GIBBS: I hope in Congress. And certainly amongst the American people, I think those that watched the speech came away with a better understanding of what the President wanted to do. I think those that watch him talk about his health care reform plan have a better sense of how it impacts them, how it changes the costs that they pay, and how it makes health care more affordable. So in that way, I think it's beneficial.

Q: On missile defense, Prime Minister Putin called the President's decision "correct" and "brave," and he said he expects future concessions -- maybe reviewing Jackson-Vanik. Is Putin misreading the President's decision? I mean, was it a concession? Are there future concessions down the line?

MR. GIBBS: No, again, this was a decision -- again, don't take this from me, take this from a four-star general who was in charge of this in a previous administration and has purview of this in the Pentagon. What was announced was something that is deployed faster, that uses tested technology, that addresses the most current threats and still provides the flexibility to better address future threats.

Now, don't quote me or General Cartwright. Let's quote General Scowcroft -- big coddler of the Russians: "I strongly approve of President Obama's decision regarding missile defense deployments in Europe." He's saying the President made the right decision because, again, the right decision flowed not from any external event but from an intelligence assessment, from technology upgrades, quite frankly from testing -- and a threat that denoted that, instead of -- based on our intelligence, the intelligence assessment said instead of three to five long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, far greater likelihood was medium- to intermediate-range missiles.

I know you -- Hans, have you seen -- you see some of the video that some of the TVs are showing, right? You see when the -- the video of the Iranians testing this, right? They test these in multiple numbers at a time, right? So if you have -- if you have that happen -- let's just say -- if you have that happen and you have 10 ground-based interceptors, in concrete, and somebody fires 10 rockets, what do you have to do? You have to be perfect, right?

But to address a greater threat, we now have a mobile system, as General Cartwright said to me yesterday, there's 128 holes in an Aegis that can react to multiple missile launches.

Q: So Prime Minister Putin is wrong in reading this as a concession, and that this heralds some sort of loosening or opening up of trade with Russia?

MR. GIBBS: We still have -- we still have a vibrant missile defense system in Europe. I think that is not the position that the Russians would like the Americans to have. But I will tell you this, as the President said, he always believed that the criticism from Russia was unfounded, as he said yesterday in his comments.

Q: And Troy -- what are we going to get in Troy? Is that -- why Troy?

MR. GIBBS: A big horse. (Laughter.)

Q: Does that make you Helen? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: No. That's Helen. She reminded me of that earlier today.

We'll give you a sense of that later on in the weekend. But it's focused primarily on the economy.

Q: Any topic that's going to happen there, that there are two House seats that --

MR. GIBBS: I can check, I don't --

Q: Is there a health care component to that?

MR. GIBBS: I assume he'll talk about health care, but it's not focused on health care, no.

Wendell.

Q: Does the President object to either the House or Senate amendments banning federal funding for ACORN?

MR. GIBBS: I don't know that we've seen that -- I don't know the degree to which Leg Affairs has looked at it. I think the President shares the outrage of what he saw on the tape, and I'd leave it at that.

Q: On the question of overexposure, can you tell us a little bit about what he hopes to talk about? Anything beyond health care? Is he going to make big news? Is that your hope? Or are we just going to hear more explanation?

MR. GIBBS: I do love -- well, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to hold my tongue.

I assume that --

Q: Go ahead, let us have it. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I do love that -- I do love that at least half the questions the other day, at least --

Q: We don't hold back with you.

MR. GIBBS: That's true. At least half the questions were -- I thought it funny a couple days ago, right in this row, right here, I got asked about why the President wasn't more involved in a national conversation, and then I think the next question was, why is the President so overexposed? And I thought --

Q: Well, could you answer those two questions? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: -- and I thought -- I thought to myself, maybe we should have a short time-out, maybe a quick caucus, and we can just pick one question.

Q: Well, is he going to talk about the national conversation? What beyond health care -- (laughter) -- is he going to try and achieve --

MR. GIBBS: That might be the best answer I got all day. Is he overexposed? And as a follow-up, is he going to talk about the thing we asked that he wasn't talking about right before the question about his overexposure?

I think the President will talk about -- I'd be surprised if he didn't get asked about Afghanistan. I'd be surprised if he didn't get asked about missiles. I'd be surprised if he didn't get asked about the economy and what's going to happen at U.N., the G20, and probably stuff with Iran.

Q: What would surprise you?

MR. GIBBS: What would surprise me? (Laughter.) Coming to a consensus about whether the President needs to be more involved in certain issues or overexposed.

Q: Thank you, Robert.

MR. GIBBS: I'll take a few more questions.

Q: Robert, next week will be the four-month sort of deadline or lead-up to the President's date, deadline that he has set for closing Guantanamo. Is there some drop-dead --

MR. GIBBS: Four months until the date?

Q: Yes. Well, four months out -- I think it's January 22nd; that will come next week.

MR. GIBBS: I didn't -- I thought it was like --

Q: We created a new -- (laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I know, I was going to say -- (laughter.)

Q: Next week is going to be the eight-month anniversary of the month --

Q: I don't know if you were going to briefing next week because there's no filing center, so in any event, what's the -- is there any internal -- is there any internal timeline for resolving this? And isn't there a point at which -- a lot of outside experts are saying four months is not enough time to pick a facility, get permission, set it up, fill it with people and guards and all these kinds of things. Isn't there a point at which the President's promise becomes undoable?

MR. GIBBS: No. Well --

Q: No, there's no point? I mean, the day before, he could announce a site?

MR. GIBBS: Okay. In the event that it's not done by the day in which he said it, I will declare it undoable. The President believes and the team believe, as they continue to meet about this, that we are -- that we still can meet the time table that the President originally outlined in the executive order. We are continuing to work through a whole host of issues, many of which you mentioned, working on reform of military commissions, and seeking the swift and certain justice of -- for those that are there. I think that's -- but I think we are on a timeline that is doable and the team will continue to work to make that progress.

Q: And can I just follow up on that? As part of the Senate language -- I saw the statement that you released yesterday -- I'm still a little unclear whether the White House is comfortable with Senator Inouye's language that basically bars bringing any Guantanamo detainee to the U.S. for any reason at any time.

MR. GIBBS: Let me talk to Leg Affairs and see if I can get some more clarity.

Q: Just a quick question. On the trilateral -- potential for a trilateral meeting with the Middle East parties next week, is there any chance that the U.S. would go into that meeting without an agreement that negotiations would resume?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let me not talk about an agenda for a meeting that we've yet to announce.

Q: Can I also ask, is the U.S. actively pressuring or urging Abbas to take a part in the meeting next week?

MR. GIBBS: We are actively involved in trying to bring both sides together to continue to advance the progress that we think we're making on Middle East peace.

Q: Robert, is human rights on the agenda of the President's discussion with the Russian President?

MR. GIBBS: I believe they've talked about it in the past and I assume that that would continue now, yes.

Q: And on a domestic political front, is the President going to campaign at all for the two gubernatorial candidates whose elections that are coming up further?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, I assume as we -- obviously we've made stops for each and I assume as we get closer to election day we will do so as they extend invitations.

Thanks, guys.

Q: Are you overexposed, Robert? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I'm underappreciated, Mark.

Q: Awwww!



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice," September 18, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86641.
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