Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, everyone. It's a pleasure, as always, to be here with you today. I'm sorry I'm late. (Laughter.)
Q: It's a dollar a minute. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Okay. Let me run through some paper that we are going to distribute to you a little bit later -- maybe right after the briefing. Why don't we try that. First, we've got a statement announcing that the Vice President and Mrs. Clinton will attend events surrounding the U.N.'s World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagan later this month. I believe, if I'm not mistaken, the Vice President is actually going to speak on March 12th. The First Lady will speak on March 7th.
MR. MCCURRY: Stop that. (Laughter.) This is the World Summit on Social Development; it brings together world leaders and representatives of nine governmental organizations to discuss critical social issues, poverty, unemployment, and social disintegration. It will be an interesting discussion.
All right. Nice try on that one. We'll try another one. (Laughter.) We also have an announcement that the Deputy Secretary of State, the honorable Strobe Talbott, will lead a presidential business development mission to Haiti on March 7th and 8th. He's going down with representatives from the International Trade Administration, as well as the Department of Commerce. Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger will also be part of that delegation along with 20 business executives and members of Congress. They are continuing the work that President Aristide has already started to both privatize and liberalize the Haitian economy so they can be attractive to both foreign investment and also to private sector business interests that have a desire to develop commerce and develop business opportunities there.
President Aristide has been taking a number of steps to liberalize the Haitian economy; among them, lowering tariffs. He's signed the Uruguay Round. He's reaching agreements with the IMF on overall economic policy goals; and -- say again?
Q: We stipulate on this one. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: All right. You don't need anymore on this. (Laughter.) Tough audience today. What did you guys eat for breakfast? All right. Let me try another one.
Q: Okay, one more try.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, let me ask you first: Is there anyone who would be interested in information about the President's telephone call with Prime Minister Rabin of Israel?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, you would?
Q: Best for last. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: How about per chance the President's meeting with Prince Saud, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia?
Q: Oh, sure. Now, you're on to real news.
MR. MCCURRY: Ahhh, all right. I know if I got out here --
Q: I haven't heard anything really good yet.
Q: What else is on the menu?
MR. MCCURRY: Let me do some -- let me do a readout on that. Actually, some of you had asked for that, and so I will provide both.
The President had a short but productive phone call with Prime Minister Rabin this morning. He was actually returning the Prime Minister's call from yesterday. Prime Minister Rabin was calling, I think it's fair for us to say, because he's upset and somewhat alarmed by the action taken in the House of Representatives to cut back on funding in the FY '95 supplemental bill for debt forgiveness for Jordan.
Jordan is Israel's partner in the peace process. Israel and Jordan have reached peace agreements, as you know, and now deepening their bilateral relationship. The Prime Minister called to tell the President that he believes that Israel's security interests lie in stronger support for the peace process and in the United States making good commitments that it has publicly voiced in the past to support the peace process. And the Prime Minister said if we get into a situation where the United States, having made commitments to the Middle East peace process, suddenly reneging on those commitments, it could be harmful not only to the process of peace as it exists between Jordan and Israel, but for the entire process and for some of the negotiations Israel is participating in with her Middle East neighbors.
So the President obviously is aware of this. We have been concerned and have been in discussions with Congress about the decision by the House to cut funding. The President told the Prime Minister in candor that we face a very tough audience now on Capitol Hill; in fact, for those of you who covered the President's speech last night, you know the President made a very strong argument about the need to struggle against isolationism. Well, this is an example of the tilt towards isolationism that you now see in the Republican- dominated Congress -- the effort to cut back funding to take away support for a process that could deepen and nurture the peace in the Middle East.
I mean, those who oppose funding debt forgiveness for Jordan ought to ask themselves the question: How much more expensive would conflict in the Middle East be? How much more expensive would it be to prepare for war than to deepen and nurture the bonds of peace that are now developing between Israel and Israel's neighbors? So the President assured the Prime Minister that he would do everything he possibly could, working with those in the Senate who believe that we need to reach out and accept the mantle of leadership in this world to reverse the action by the House and to restore the funding necessary to forgive Jordan's debt, so that Jordan and Israel working together can build on their economic relationship.
That -- just let me -- following on that theme, the President also had a meeting this morning with Prince Saud, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia. And again that was in support of the Middle East peace process. The President had invited the Foreign Minister here to really build on and follow up the work that we did at the Blair House on February 12th when the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State met with the Foreign Ministers of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization. I think the President wanted to again encourage Saudi Arabia to coordinate closely with the United States as we work together in the Middle East peace process.
And the President was delighted that Prince Saud again reaffirmed King Fahd's support for efforts to end the boycott the Israel. The two also discussed developments in the Middle East peace process, specifically the need to provide assistance and support to the Palestinians as they begin to accept their responsibilities under the Declaration of Principles. They also talked about the need to keep tough sanctions in place on Iraq. And they discussed the Israel-Syria track of the Middle East peace negotiations.
Many of you know, I believe, that Secretary Christopher will depart March 7th for a trip to the Middle East. Secretary Christopher has also met this afternoon with Prince Saud to continue the conversations that began here between the Prince and Tony Lake, the National Security Adviser, and then joined by the President.
So the President obviously has been spending some time today on something that again reflects U.S. engagement in this world, our leadership and our support of the Middle East peace process. And it provides, I think, a very stark reminder that what the President talked about in his speech last night is very much a part of the debate now going on between the President and the Congress.
Q: Can you go over again the ramifications of withdrawing or cutting foreign aid and the debt forgiveness? You mentioned preparing for war.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the peace process depends on Israel and her Arab neighbors being able to show tangible benefits to their people that the risks that they take for peace can produce a dividend, a better quality of life, a better lifestyle and better conditions for those who have lived long with conflict which erodes the economic strength of not only Israel, but Israel's neighbors, as investments go more to military expenditures as against economic development. And part of what we have done successfully in the Middle East peace process is encourage international support to both Israel and Israel's Arab neighbors as the peace process develops and as the dynamic moves mores toward peace.
And a lot of what we do in encouraging not only economic development, but growing commercial ties, trade ties between Israel and Israel's neighbors would be in jeopardy if suddenly the support, the economic support necessary to show tangible reward for peace are withdrawn or evaporated. And that's exactly what's happening. The House has basically said we're not going to go ahead and provide the funding necessary to forgive Jordan's debt, which is a commitment that has been made by the President with support from members of Congress to both King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin -- that we would take away the sums necessary to forgive Jordan's debt and reduce it I think from expenditure of $275 million down to $50 million. And that is -- just, again, it is sort of yanking out one of the pillars of American leadership in the world by taking away our ability to support and nurture the peace process that is changing so dramatically the Middle East.
Q: Do you think that could lead to a war?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the options -- and Prime Minister Rabin has said this before -- in the absence of a peace process that is growing, that is dynamic and that is deepening Israel's relations with her neighbors, the alternative path is to prepare for the likelihood of conflict. That is especially true as Israel thinks about the need for a comprehensive peace in the region, including Syria. And he has said so publicly on numerous occasions.
Q: That's a pretty cheap price, $225 million -- you think they may go to war over it?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that that's the point I'm making. The point is that the costs of peace are infinitely more desirable than the expenditures necessary to keep armament and keep a region in balance if it is facing a climate of escalating tension. And that's the point that we try to make often is that the sums and expenditures that U.S. taxpayers put into the peace process are infinitely better than facing the prospect of more conflict in that troubled region, and the likelihood of the pattern of violence, conflict and, at times, war that has been the history of that region.
Q: Has the President heard from King Hussein?
MR. MCCURRY: The President intends later today, if possible, to talk to King Hussein about this. This is a case where the thinking of the King and the thinking of the Prime Minister are similar, although they both approach it from the needs and strategic vital interests of their own country. Prime Minister Rabin's point is that it is in the strategic interest of Israel to see the benefits of peace accrue to the citizens of Georgia. There are many reasons why that helps limit tensions that might otherwise exist between the people of Israel and the people of Jordan.
Q: The President's role in the balanced budget amendment --
Q: Wait, wait, can we follow -- can we stay with this for a second?
Q: How much -- would you mind walking us through the numbers, how much money?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I can -- I can do it, some of it from memory, if you don't mind, and then we can make sure that I get it right. (Laughter.)
If I'm not mistaken, we have helped Jordan retire a significant amount of its outstanding foreign debt already. There remains, if I'm not mistaken, a total of about $410 million in outstanding debt that the government of Jordan is responsible for, the Kingdom of Jordan. To retire that debt entirely, we had requested in FY '95 supplemental spending, the amount of, I believe, $275 million. That's the amount of actual expenditures necessary to retire that volume of debt.
The House, as part of its adjustment of the figures in the supplemental request, reduced that from $275 million to a level of $50 million -- five, zero -- which I think is only enough, if I'm right, only enough to retire about $125 million of Jordan's outstanding debt. So you would still leave, Jordan in that case, with a sizable international debt obligation, which obviously takes away its capacity to sustain economic development for its own citizens and to do things that it would otherwise wish to do on behalf of its own people.
Q: May I ask -- and I don't want you to think I'm naive, which I am about this, or isolationist, but we have a debt of $4.65 trillion, is our national debt --
MR. MCCURRY: That's right.
Q: Do you not think it's reasonable for the Republicans to be looking in this area to cut, hoping other countries cut their debt?
MR. MCCURRY: We think it is more than time for the Congress to get down to the business of writing the FY '96 budget. It's hard work. But this is an expenditure that, in the long run, for citizens of the United States of America could produce a very handsome dividend, which is reduced expenditures to protect the security interests of our long and steadfast ally in the Middle East, Israel.
Now, your question is, do you walk away from those international commitments that the United States has made, which is ultimately a question: Do we stay engaged in that process, do we continue to try to support peace in the Middle East, or do we walk away from our allies like Israel? I mean, that's ultimately the question here when you think about are you going to continue to accept the responsibilities that history has now placed on the United States to lead in this world.
Q: Well, presumably, peace in the Middle East would benefit the rest of the world. Are there any other countries contributing to the retirement of Jordan debt?
MR. MCCURRY: On that specific question I'm not sure I know the answer. I believe that's true, because I think the United Kingdom, among others, has also done limited debt forgiveness. But in the larger sense, you remember back in October of 1993 when we convened here in international donors conference to help support the Middle East peace process; so, yes, countries from Japan to our European allies to other G-7 members have been very supportive of these processes and have devoted their own national treasure to that end. That's a case, again, where we share the burden with other countries in the world.
Q: You said that the $275 million request would be sufficient to retire the outstanding debt of $410 million?
MR. MCCURRY: Right.
Q: How does that work?
MR. MCCURRY: Being no expert in international finance, I'm not sure. But it's interest obligations -- it's the way they structure the credit instruments. I think it's principally the interest payments on what the outstanding debt is.
Q: If the President is so troubled by these cutbacks in aid and other aspects of the Republican national security bill, why didn't he point the finger more directly last night, instead of pulling his punches and talking about isolationism as something that was emerging from both parties?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because he was making -- look, this is an argument -- placing it in the context of American history, one that has gone on for decades and decades. And it is not necessarily only one party, although, historically, it has been mostly one party that has been associated with isolationism in the aftermath of victories and great wars. And the point of our engagement in the world not only after the aftermath of our success in the Cold War is to say we have to remain engaged in this world and we have to continue to show that the United States will lead and will accept its responsibility, because in the end that pays a dividend to the people of the United States.
We have a global system in which not only do we trade with democratic nations, but we enjoy safer, more secure relations and we advance our own objectives in the world community by working with those countries we share common interests with. So that is the classic formulation of the argument in favor of engagement and world leadership, one that the President made last night, at a time when you see specific examples like the one that I've just described of a desire on the part of some in Congress to pull back, withdraw, and to, in a sense, walk away from the commitments that we've made internationally.
Q: To follow up, has the White House heard complaints from others who would suffer with these cutbacks, like the Russian government, whose complaints might not be as popular as the Middle East?
MR. MCCURRY: We have heard almost -- foreign countries follow very, very closely the political debates in the United States, and almost from the day after the election we began hearing from countries that were concerned about whether or not the United States would meet its commitments and its obligations to lead -- from those nervous about North Korea's nuclear program that wanted to know whether we would remain engaged in the agreed framework, to those who wondered whether we would keep our commitments to NATO. Our European allies asking the question, would we continue to participate in the process of deciding how NATO would reconfigure and redefine itself for the 21st century, to our friends in Russia who asked whether our commitment would remain to help democratization and liberalization of the Russian economy. Yes, across the board, we're asked the question, will the United States continue to step up to its responsibilities, or will it walk away.
And this President has answered that question in the affirmative. There are those in the opposition party who have a different answer. And it is a point of engagement upon which the President's vision of where America will be in the 21st century is just at odds with those in the opposition party.
Q: I guess I'm asking, though -- Yeltsin complained about the cuts in the housing for Russian officers, and why have you chosen not to advertise those complaints?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, those have been complaints that have been raised, that have been addressed in meetings that we've had with the Russians. Again, those are a part of the fundamental commitments we've made. We have made commitments to the Russian Federation that have allowed us to proceed with our proliferation goals, have allowed us to continue to participate in the denuclearization work that is going on, the removal of warheads that would otherwise be aimed at the United States. So, across the board, we have made commitments, whether it's in the Baltics or whether it's in relationships we have with Ukraine and others who are former nuclear states of the former Soviet Union, to be engaged because it's in our security interests, ultimately, and we think we need to make good on those commitments. So we'll continue to press that case to this Congress at a time when this Congress seems to want to withdraw and turn in the other direction.
Q: On this issue, what happens now with these cuts -- for example, the Jordanian cuts? And also for two days now the White House has been making a blanket anonymous attack on Republican new isolationists. Who? Dole gave a speech yesterday; all the presidential candidates who are on record --
MR. MCCURRY: Interestingly, the Majority Leader declined to cite specific elements in the Contract For America that we would point to precisely as those examples of isolationism. But the sponsors of the provisions I've been talking about here concerning the Middle East are well-known, and it's not -- we are making an attack because it's not personally directed in any individual member.
It is the question fundamentally for the Republican Party of what vision do they articulate as they look to the future, and who will speak to that vision. Now, the Majority Leader said some things yesterday in his speech that we have a great deal of agreement with, as the National Security Adviser told you yesterday. If anything, Senator Dole yesterday embraced an internationalist vision that is remarkably similar to President Clinton's, and we appreciate his support.
But he defined some areas of disagreement, and that is fair to do. Now, the U.S. -- the first part of your question, where do we go from here? Clearly, the House has acted; we go to the Senate. The President indicated to Prime Minister Rabin he would press this issue. The President has just concluded a lunch with some Republican members of the Senate in which this subject did come up. And he will continue to raise with the Senate the need to reverse this, to kind of keep our commitment to the Middle East peace process, because it is an example of how we can make a huge difference in this world if we just stick to it and not walk away from the responsibilities that we face in this world.
Q: But you are, Mike, fighting a battle on a foreign policy front for a President who's pledged to be domestic. How do you turn this back around?
MR. MCCURRY: Because -- you're missing the point of what the President of the United States said last night. There is no distinction in this new world in which we live between domestic policy and foreign policy. When we fight for our interests overseas, we are creating opportunities for Americans to work, to expand market opportunities, to live lives in which their children will be more secure because they won't face the threat of global war. And they won't face the threat of, in the case of Russia, won't face the threat of a nuclear Russia that is at odds with the United States and pointing missiles in our direction.
In the case of the Middle East, they will see that our commitments there to our allies endure, and that our children grow up in a world in which that conflict is one relatively free of trouble. That's an enormously hopeful thing, and the President of the United States never indicated to my memory in the 1992 campaign that he would not see any disconnect between what America can do in this world and what matters to average citizens here at home.
In fact, one of the positive things about the world we live in now is that you can lead in this world, advance our economic interests, and it makes good sense because it's in the interest of the American people. That's the argument that the President made in some fashion last night.
Q: Mike, speaking of tricky security versus economic issues, recently the administration has reemphasized security arrangements with Japan. And, yet, now the auto and auto parts issue has come to what looks at a crisis point. First of all, what's going on with those negotiations, and second of all, given the emphasis on economic security versus traditional security concerns, does that detract from your ability to deal more forcefully with Japan on trade issues?
MR. MCCURRY: No, because our relationship with Japan has been premised on what we like to call the Three Great Pillars. We have economic interests that we pursue with them that have been largely defined by the trade issues, or have been preoccupied by the trade issues in recent years, but we also enjoy with them a range of political work that we do on global issues, from environmental protection to U.N. peacekeeping to others, as well as the more directly security-related issues that represent our own military interests in Asia.
Now, we have always had very good, cooperative relations with them in working through the security issues and the political issues. But the trade issues have been an impediment otherwise in the relationship. Now we've made some progress on trade issues.
Specifically on where they are with autos, I'd refer you over to USTR and Ambassador Kantor can tell you more about the status of those talks. But that has been one of the -- few of the remaining areas within the overall framework of the Japanese trade talks that needs additional attention. We've made good progress in the other basket under that dialogue.
Q: Mike, Ambassador Kantor's accepted an invitation to go to China. Can you say when he's going to go, what the purpose of the trip is, and whether the United States is willing to negotiate with China about entrance to WTO?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe he's announced -- was he going to hold a press conference or say something about that today. He's going there to mark the completion of the discussions on trade that we've just had with China to kind of pull that together and most likely to continue to talk about the World Trade Organization and what role China might play in the future in the World Trade Organization. But I'll leave that to Ambassador Kantor. I believe he was going to publicly deal with that today.
Q: Has the President had any conversations with any senators today about the balanced budget amendment, even asking them to keep the faith? Dianne Feinstein has come under a lot of pressure from Republicans --
MR. MCCURRY: Rita, I didn't have a chance to get a full readout on his lunch, but I -- he mentioned briefly he had a good conversation with the three senators that he saw for lunch, and I believe the subject of the balanced budget amendment did come up. But the President will have more to say on that later if the Senate does in fact proceed to a vote.
Q: He'll come out either way no matter what the vote is, right?
MR. MCCURRY: He will -- we're thinking it's nice out; I may have him -- we may have to do something with the pool. We're just working on that right -- we may not come here, but we'll do something one way or another after the vote.
Q: To follow up on that, in the hours before the vote, have the Democrats, Democratic leadership asked President Clinton to make any calls or do anything more?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've had -- been a lot of staff contacts with the leadership on the minority side. We do not detect in our discussions any real changes in where people are following the work that the President did this weekend. So I'm not aware of anything further. He has had some conversations with members of the Senate today, but I don't think they've been designed to try to persuade them one way or another on the amendment, because I think most people at this point know how they're going to cast their votes.
Q: Would the President welcome the opportunity to address this issue repeatedly during the 1996 campaign?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that you will hear the President repeatedly in the 1996 campaign talk about the steps that he has taken to reduce federal spending, to curb the growth of deficits, to reinvent federal government and to do the hard work of balancing the budget which is, after all, where we go next in this saga. We go next to the question of who is actually going to get down to business and roll up their sleeves. That's what we did when we presented our FY 1996 budget proposal to the Congress. And now the Congress has finished this debate about the Constitution for whatever its merit, it will have to get on with the real work, which is the work of writing a '96 budget.
Q: Will he announce any initiatives when he speaks after this, or do you think it will just be a straight comment on --
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the President will say let's get on with business. And you'll hear him as soon as the vote occurs.
Does anyone know, by any chance, if there's any change of when the vote's going to happen -- 2:20 p.m.? So we'll try to have him as soon as we have a result announced from the chair after that.
Q: Could you discuss his role in this just a little bit? Is he, as the one senator suggested, the driving force behind - - How much credit or blame does he take or accept --
MR. MCCURRY: I suspect that there will be plenty of armchair analysts providing their own opinions about the President's role in this fight. The President is satisfied that he made himself entirely clear about the consequences for our national economy of this amendment. He made it clear that his opposition was rooted in the belief that this would not protect the economic recovery that the President has fought for; and it would not do the real work of cutting federal spending, which the President has done so successfully in the last two years; and that, ultimately, it would not provide the kind of protection for Social Security and the social insurance programs that really help those in need in our society, and I think the President is quite confident, and he's made that case well publicly and made it persuasively, privately, to members of the Senate who are interested in discussing the issue with the President.
Q: So, in other words, the President has no qualms about anything that opponents may have to say on the subject as --
MR. MCCURRY: The President would, depending on how this issue arises in the course of political debates in the future, will be more than anxious to talk about the record that he has compiled in cutting federal spending, reinventing government, and doing the hard work of trying to bring the enormous federal budget into balance.
Q: Now that our favorite candidate, Carlos Salinas, has dropped out of the WTO presidential sweepstakes, do we have a new candidate that we're backing?
MR. MCCURRY: We are assessing the implications of the withdrawal of President Salinas from the race. We believe that the new director of the World Trade Organization should enjoy a consensus behind him or her. That doesn't prejudge in any sense who that candidate should be, and we will continue to consult with our trading partners about that position.
Q: When you talk about "enjoying a consensus," does that indicate that the United States believes that it would be simpler if there is another candidate at this point, an outside candidate that comes forward?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to speculate on that. I said that we are assessing the implications, and we'll continue to consult with our partners.
Q: Mike, on a question that I asked yesterday, do you have any more on the plan up on the Hill to -- I guess now to actually make Medicaid funding optional for cases of abortion in cases of rape and --
MR. MCCURRY: This is a provision that's developing. It was supported by Republicans in the House on the Appropriations Committee that will allow states to not -- to have the option of not using federal funds to pay for abortions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.
This administration takes a very dim view of that point -- of that amendment. That is, if you want to look at it, it's just a back-alley approach to taking away a woman's right to choose. Under the guise of state's rights, once again the extremists in the Right to Life movement are sort of dictating to their supporters in the Congress which direction they want the debate on abortion to go.
We think the welfare reform debate, which is what this bill is -- what this amendment is attached to that bill, the welfare reform ought to be about putting people to work. And it should not be about abortion. And we should not try to go back and fight again that type of debates that we've had in the 1980s. This is just really back to the future once again for House Republicans. And they have got to -- they keep trying to find the avenue to go back and examine the fundamental privacy right of women to make their own right to choose their own type of reproductive health. And what that has to do with welfare reform is, frankly, a little bit of a mystery.
Q: Mike, it doesn't take away choice at all, it just reduces taxpayer spending.
MR. MCCURRY: It could allow individual states to say that in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the life of the mother, in which women are at their most vulnerable having been victims of crimes, that they won't have access to the type of health care they might otherwise choose. And that is beyond outrageous.
Q: It limits access. It cuts taxpayer spending is what it does.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are lots of ways to cut taxpayer spending, but, frankly, this is not one that the administration thinks is very wise.
Q: But the President wasn't reluctant to reverse policies of his predecessors. Why shouldn't Republicans, now that they have new power to reverse previous policies?
MR. MCCURRY: This Republican majority is trying to do quite a number of things that this President thinks are unwise and will do everything to try to stop.
Q: Yes, but you said they shouldn't go back to the future and try and undo things, or open arguments that have already been settled. Obviously, they haven't been.
MR. MCCURRY: That is our view. If you can say, yes, they do -- as we look at it, the 21st century, and think about the role of women in that society, if the Republicans believe we should go back to the last century and have women in that condition, perhaps that is something worthy of having a debate about in this country and surely we will in 1996.
Q: And in 1995.
MR. MCCURRY: And in 1995.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:49 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269968