The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.
From the Daily Press Briefing of June 3, 2009
QUESTION: A lot of democracy activists have said that they wish that, you know, because President Obama – this is his first address to the Muslim world, that perhaps he could have not done it in a country which is an authoritarian regime, that he could have taken a populist Muslim country like Indonesia or Turkey, where democracy is flourishing there. What do you think that this kind of message sends to the oppressed throughout the Arab and Muslim world?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, I think Cairo is one of the great cities in the world. It’s an appropriate venue for this speech. I think it certainly is in stark contrast – I understand that we have a message from Usama bin Ladin today, and so you have the leader of the free world speaking from one of the great cities in the world and you have the – bin Ladin speaking from an undisclosed location. And I think that speaks volumes in terms of the contrast.
Clearly, Egypt is a strategic partner with the United States. You know, 30 years ago, it took a risk for peace in reaching a peace agreement with Israel. It has been a significant partner in trying to work out these challenges. The President is going to have a bilateral with – along with Secretary Clinton with President Mubarak coming up, which is not to say that we don’t have issues with Egypt. Obviously, whoever it was who attacked Ayman Nour the other day should be identified and brought to justice.
So I do think that this is – will be part of an ongoing dialogue that we have with the – with Egypt. The Secretary, I expect, will have some meetings on the ground with those who represent civil society in Egypt while she is there.
QUESTION: Well, as you know, I mean, the Bush Administration made kind of democracy in the Middle East, you know, a big cornerstone of its foreign policy, but a lot of people were disappointed with the results. I mean, how do you think that President Obama and this Administration is going to push ahead on issues of democracy in the Middle East? Do you think it’ll be more private, more bilateral, or --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it’s going to be – obviously, what you’re seeing from the administration in its first five months is a return to high-level engagement in the Middle East, at the presidential level, when appropriate. We’ve had a number of our most seasoned diplomats put into positions where we can have dialogue, with Iran if they’re willing, with Israel and Palestine. George Mitchell will be going back out to the region in the next couple of weeks.
So I think, again, the speech in Cairo will be vitally important. I think much of the world will stop and listen tomorrow morning. But again, it is a speech that is part of a dialogue. It continues the President’s outreach that he began with the Nowruz message, with his trip to Turkey. We’re not going to solve all the problems of the region with one speech, but this is going to be an ongoing part of significant engagement in a variety of ways with the Islamic world to solve the challenges that we both face.
QUESTION: But just --
QUESTION: To follow on that, you’ve been speaking about the Islamic world. The President, on a number of occasions, starting in his inaugural address, has spoken and addressed himself to the Muslim world. And there are a number of foreign policy analysts with whom I know you’d be familiar who are arguing in op-eds in various places yesterday and today that the very use of this phrase, “the Muslim world,” is a mistake, because it assumes a monolithic bloc of Muslims --
MR. CROWLEY: Quite the opposite.
QUESTION: -- and it equates the factory worker in Dearborn, say with a terrorist in Jakarta, with a devout individual in some other part of the world. So is it not a mistake to adopt the view that is usually propagated by extremists that there is one Muslim world?
MR. CROWLEY: And there is not. I mean, this is – Islam is one of the world’s great religions. It is a global religion. But the countries of the Islamic world are quite varied, and I don’t think we believe that there is any monolithic aspect. I think that is actually what bin Ladin believes.
QUESTION: So why has he addressed himself to, quote-unquote, “the Muslim world?” He uses that phrase. You’re speaking of the Islamic world. If it’s – if there isn’t one such world, why do you keep using those phrases?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think it is vitally important. It’s something the President pledged during his campaign that he would begin to build a new relationship with countries in the Islamic world that are important to us. Our standing in the world – in that part of the world is – has been under siege for the last few years, and it’s very important, if we are going to address not only global challenges but also the challenge of political extremism in the world, having a new dynamic will be very important to resolving that.
QUESTION: So you think the phrase is perfectly appropriate?
MR. CROWLEY: I think the fact that the President is going to use a speech in Cairo to continue a broad dialogue with the Muslim world or the Islamic world is quite important.
QUESTION: I have a question about Pakistan. What is the U.S.’s --
QUESTION: Can we stay on the speech, though? Can we just have one more on – one more on the speech
With all the problems that you’ve mentioned – you talk about Iran, you talk about the Middle East peace process, you talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan – I mean, with so many kind of pressing national security and foreign policy concerns, how do you --
MR. CROWLEY: You don’t think this one’s important?
QUESTION: No, I’m just – I do think it’s important. But I’m just – I’m talking about the speech in particular. How do you – are you – can you say that democracy is not going to take a back seat to some of these issues that you need to address for national security reasons?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, democracy is important. The question is how you sequence that. I’m not going to – there have been a lot of – the United States is a great believer in democracy, but it is also a believer in responsible governance. And so I think beginning with the President’s conversation today with the Saudis, continuing with the President’s conversation with President Mubarak, what we do in the immediate term and how the world progresses politically and economically and socially in the future, these are very important. They’re inseparable from the larger challenges that we face. At some point in time, for countries like North Korea, countries like Burma, other countries, you have to turn towards responsible governance where you are empowering your people rather than oppressing them.
We are not going to have the same conversation in every country of the world. As the President has said, we are not going to lecture. We’re not going to try to impose these solutions. But we are going to encourage in ways that are appropriate, continued reform across the Middle East, around the world, to make sure that we are getting to a point where we are able to and we’re building capacity around the world to address the significant challenges that we face.
QUESTION: Can I switch topics?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure, please.
MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: It has – well, it’s been only five months, but there has been quite a lot of energy put into this by the Administration on all sides in terms of the outreach to various parts of the Muslim world. What evidence do you see so far, even however small it might be, that this is producing any kind of results or any kind of the positive reaction that you’re looking for?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think the election of the President itself and the statement that makes about U.S. society has communicated a great deal to the rest of the world. We do have literally --
QUESTION: Right. What evidence are you seeing of a response to that?
MR. CROWLEY: -- a different face on U.S. foreign policy in both President Obama and Secretary Clinton. We are showing a renewed capacity to engage the world as partners, not as lecturers. And I think this has created opportunities for us. Now, we recognize that that one speech is not going to solve all of the world’s challenges. It’s not going to reduce the honest differences that we have with people or governments. But certainly, it creates openings for us to work together to see if we can – where we can solve these challenges, where we can still have respectful differences where they occur. And I think that – with this speech, but it’s really the broad – it’s within the broader context that a significant reengagement by the United States, our willingness to take a leadership role but do so in partnership with other countries, that is going to be most significant. It creates opportunities for progress, but obviously there are no guarantees of success.
QUESTION: In Pakistan, the mastermind of the Mumbai terrorist attack has been released by the (inaudible) today. Do you think it is helpful in the war against terrorism when you – when the Pakistan army is fighting with the Swat – militants in Swat Valley, then you have a terrorist being released there?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we continue to impress upon the Government of Pakistan the importance of bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. We believe the Government of Pakistan should continue its investigation to ensure that all those who are responsible for the attack are, in fact, brought to justice. We do respect the rule of law and we – but we just want to make sure that Pakistan is, in fact, acting aggressively against extremist elements within its borders. Clearly, in the military campaign that you see over in the Swat area, they are, in fact, doing that.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on that?
MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, just talking about the problem in Pakistan. When the terror attacks happened, India chose to actually take a diplomatic track as opposed to retaliating against Pakistan, and at that time the U.S. supported that. So this time, are you worried that maybe troops will stay with – at the India border instead of concentrating on the Afghanistan side if tensions build up between India and Pakistan?
MR. CROWLEY: I think we’ve been involved in an intensive, lengthy dialogue with Pakistan on its military priorities. We stand ready to help Pakistan in a wide range of ways. But we are, I think, satisfied that Pakistan has aggressively worked to deal with the extremist elements. And as we are doing today, we recognize that the military action has created a significant impact on the ground with roughly 2.5 million displaced persons. And we along with other countries are trying to make sure that we can help build capacity within the Pakistan Government to be able to support its population during this difficult time.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up please? Just a quick one, please. (Laughter.)
As far as --
MR. CROWLEY: Goyal, you never have a quick follow-up. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thank you. As far as these issues of terrorist attackers being released by Pakistan, will be brought out during the Mr. – or Ambassador (inaudible) visit to India or also during Ambassador Holbrooke visit in Pakistan?
MR. CROWLEY: Ambassador Holbrooke’s trip is primarily focused on the humanitarian situation in Pakistan. That said, he will return to Islamabad, I believe, tomorrow night and will have a wide range of additional meetings with various government officials after that.
QUESTION: P.J. --
MR. CROWLEY: So I wouldn't rule out that he’ll address some other issues.
QUESTION: In India when Ambassador --
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take the question. I don’t know.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I promised Samir.
QUESTION: Yes, it’s great to see you here, Colonel Crowley. There’s a report in the Post today saying that Secretary Clinton had a phone conversation on Sunday with the Syrian foreign minister. Can you give us any readout on this, and if she touched on the elections in Lebanon?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m aware of the call, Samir. I don’t know precisely – it was not a very lengthy conversation. I think they talked primarily about the possibility of upcoming travel to Syria. I’ve got nothing to announce at this point, but obviously we have had – we have conversations. Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman, Dan Shapiro of the NSC have made two trips to Damascus. We are trying to improve our communication between the United States and Syria. I think it was more within that context.
QUESTION: Travel by --
QUESTION: Will this be travel by her?
MR. CROWLEY: When we have – not by – I’m not aware of any travel by the Secretary of State to the Middle East. But yeah, I think, as I said earlier, Senator Mitchell will be going out to the region in the next couple of weeks. And when we have more information to tell you, we will.
QUESTION: So – but can you connect those dots between Senator Mitchell’s travel and going to Damascus? Because it’s – is one of the issues that he’s going to be looking at on this trip when he does go to the region the restart of Israel-Syria indirect talks? Is that his key reason for going to Damascus, if indeed he does go to Damascus --
MR. CROWLEY: I think first of all, we have not had a great deal of diplomatic activity with Syria in recent years. Obviously, we have not had an ambassador there since the assassination in Lebanon. So we are willing to restart diplomatic activity. That’s the reason why Secretary Feltman and Director Shapiro have made multiple trips to Damascus. We will probably have other delegations going to Syria in the coming days, and when we have something to announce, we’ll tell you.
But I think obviously, we have multiple interests with Syria. Number one is activity that occurs within Syria that affects the situation in Iraq. Syria itself obviously has a significant issue with refugees from Iraq. We clearly want to evaluate the potential for discussion between Syria and within the context of the Middle East process. I would expect all of these issues would be part of a discussion if and when that takes place.
QUESTION: But you seem to want to have your cake and eat it. I mean, on the one hand, you’re sanctioning them to death --
MR. CROWLEY: And what’s wrong with that? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: On the one hand, you’re – one hand, you’re reissuing sanctions, and yet on the other, you’re – you know, you’re playing cozy with them. So which way are you going?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I don’t – there’s always been this idea that when we talk to a country, we’re doing them a favor. You know, when we talk to a country, we’re pursuing our own national interest. Syria is an important country in the Middle East. It can act constructively if it chooses. At times in the recent past, it has chosen to act less than constructively. But obviously, it’s a player. We want to be engaged with Syria. We want to see what’s possible, what the Asad government is willing to do. That’s why we’ve reopened dialogue with Syria, and we will see where it goes as it develops.
QUESTION: Sorry, just one more thing. Are you planning – did the Secretary discuss sending U.S. military commanders to Damascus? Was that part of the phone conversation?
MR. CROWLEY: Again --
QUESTION: To discuss Iraq?
MR. CROWLEY: -- we are – when we – there will be, I expect, U.S. delegations going to Syria in the near term. When we have something to announce, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: You mentioned that – you referenced the recording by Usama bin Ladin today. Are you confirming the authenticity of that tape?
MR. CROWLEY: I have no idea.
QUESTION: All right. Then on North Korea real quick. A group of Republican senators has written a letter to the Secretary urging her to relist North Korea on the terror list. They specify certain unnamed ongoing terrorist activities. Do you share that assessment, and where do you want to go with that?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me – maybe I’ll pick up on the bin Ladin issue first. I mean, I don’t know if it’s authentic. I think normally we assume that it is. I don’t think the timing is of coincidence. And bin Ladin’s message is exactly what you would expect. Everyone on earth, Muslim or not, understands that bin Ladin is entirely invested in promoting a clash of civilizations, one that the President made clear in Turkey, does not exist.
So I think there’ll be a contrast between bin Ladin’s vision of intolerance and perpetual conflict, and the President’s message tomorrow offering a vision of a peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, and interconnected world for the 21st century.
QUESTION: And in relation to the Usama bin Ladin tape, are you aware of reports that there is an al-Qaida recruiting tape that apparently indicates that al-Qaida is seeking to wage biological attack on the United States somehow through Mexico?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not familiar with that.
QUESTION: Just – do you believe that Usama bin Ladin is still alive? And also --
MR. CROWLEY: I have no idea.
QUESTION: Now, these days there are no more videos, but only audio. And how are we sending messages? And somebody must be knowing where these messages are coming from, where he delivers them?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, al-Qaida has had a very significant and sophisticated media operation. You know, bin Ladin has been able to communicate. Al-Zawahiri has been able to communicate. And I think that’s why – that’s one of the reasons why it’s important for the United States to communicate. I think that’s why the President has – is making this speech tomorrow night. We welcome this debate. We think it’s a debate that we’ll win.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: On Israel, you’ve called on Israel and the Palestinians to abide by their Roadmap obligations. I was wondering if you thought that you and Israel share the same understanding of what Israel’s obligations are under the Roadmap. You may be aware that the former chief of staff of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon published a letter – published an opinion piece which seems to suggest that they have a different understanding of what their Roadmap obligations are. And of course, there is this ongoing debate about the letter sent – exchanged between President Bush and –
MR. CROWLEY: I suspect there is an ongoing debate in this room, but not necessarily outside of this room. (Laughter.) I mean, we are focused on commitments that both sides have made in the Roadmap. The President and the Secretary have been very clear on the obligations that both sides have. We’ve had several meetings with Israeli officials in recent days. We do not believe there is any confusion about the nature of those obligations.
QUESTION: So is the U.S. Administration bound by the Bush letter?
MR. CROWLEY: We are focused on the Roadmap and the obligations that both Israel and the Palestinians have said that they will undertake, and we’re going to hold both of them to them – to that.
QUESTION: So it means you are not bound?
MR. CROWLEY: I would suggest that you keep focusing on the Roadmap.
QUESTION: But, P.J., when you talk about contrasting the Cairo speech with Usama bin Ladin’s tape, aren’t you actually serving the purposes of that tape by attracting attention to that? It struck me as unusual for someone to put basically the President of the United States and a leader of terrorists, an odious person somewhere hiding in a cave basically on the same level in saying –
MR. CROWLEY: I certainly did not. And I actually don’t think that most people who will be watching the President in the morning, I don’t think they’re going to put them in the same stature either.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.