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Middle East Digest - February 10, 2009

February 10, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
February 10, 2009

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 February 10, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Let me just check the clock here – good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the briefing. I have – I don’t have anything.


QUESTION: You don’t? Okay, I have something – a couple questions.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: But I’ll start with one. The White House this morning announced that the President has appointed Bruce Riedel to lead an interagency review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. I may be dense here, but I thought that was what Holbrooke was going to be doing, and that that was the whole reason why his title was Special Representative and not Special Envoy, like Mitchell.

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t seen – I know that this was in planning, but let me just outline again what Ambassador Holbrooke’s responsibilities – his mandate is, and that’s to coordinate amongst all U.S. Government agencies who have involvement with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Riedel is going to be, you know, sort of overseeing this review of our policy, but that is separate from what Ambassador Holbrooke is doing. Ambassador Holbrooke is out in the region. He’s going to be coordinating, as I said, amongst the various agencies – excuse me, various U.S. Government agencies, and contribute to this review process, and of course, continue to work with the (inaudible) in the region.

QUESTION: So Holbrooke is not leading a review?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t actually seen the announcement, but my understanding is that Bruce Riedel would head this – chair this overview.

QUESTION: Well, I’m sorry. I still don’t understand the distinction. It seems like – it seems like you have two people essentially doing the same job.

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t think that’s the case at all, Matt. Again, I’ll have to refer you back to the announcement because I haven’t – haven’t seen it. I’ve been in a meeting, as you know, and at a press avail. So – but again, just to focus on what Ambassador Holbrooke is doing – and he, again, is going to be – he is the Special Representative to Afghanistan-Pakistan. He will be basically – (cell phone rings) --


MR. WOOD: That’s okay. Ambassador Holbrooke will be coordinating amongst all the U.S. Government agencies involved, and he will be helping to shape our overall policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, speaking of Holbrooke, then --

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: What exactly has he been up to today?

MR. WOOD: Well, I --

QUESTION: Or yesterday, for that matter?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I can give you yesterday. I haven’t gotten the readout of his talks today, but let me give you what I have.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke arrived in Islamabad yesterday. He met yesterday with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Qureshi, Prime Minister Gillani, President Zardari, Interior Minister Malik, Chief of Army Staff Kayani, and the Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha.

Ambassador Holbrooke is in Pakistan, as he said, to listen and learn the ground realities of this critically important country, and he’ll report his findings back to the Secretary and the President upon his return.

So that’s what I have for today. We’ll try and get you a, you know, more detailed update, but this is basically all I have.

QUESTION: Following up on that --

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton said specifically, February 5th in a press availability, that Richard Holbrooke would be – is co-chairing the ongoing policy review at the White House.

MR. WOOD: That could very well be his title. I haven’t seen, as I said, what’s come out of the White House on that. But I believe that Mr. Riedel is a chair – is the chair, but it could be very well that it’s been decided that, you know, they’re co-chairing. I don’t know. I haven’t seen the release, so I’d have to refer you to the White House for more specific details, only because I haven’t seen it.


QUESTION: I – go ahead.

QUESTION: I’d like to stay on Pakistan for a second. Do you know if he raised the A.Q. Khan issue?

MR. WOOD: Ambassador Holbrooke? I don’t know. It didn’t come up. I think – I wanted to get back to one issue. You --

QUESTION: When you say it didn’t come up, what do you mean? It didn’t come up in his conversations, or you just --

MR. WOOD: Well, like I said, I don’t --

QUESTION: -- you don’t --

MR. WOOD: I don’t know.

QUESTION: It didn’t come up in your briefing – okay.

MR. WOOD: It didn’t come up in my briefing.

I wanted to get back to a question yesterday about with whom in Munich, you know, the Pakistani foreign minister met from the U.S. Government. Deputy Secretary Steinberg met with Foreign Minister Qureshi and expressed very clearly and straightforwardly our concern about the court decision. And, you know, the Deputy Secretary also sought assurances from the Pakistani Government that A.Q. Khan would not continue to be a proliferation risk.

And so the Pakistanis clearly understand where we’re coming from on this issue. They are obviously sensitive to our concerns, and we’ll just have to see how it goes from here. But I wanted to get back to you on that question that you had.

QUESTION: Have they given you assurances? Can you say that they have given you assurances?

MR. WOOD: They’ve assured us that they’re going to take steps to make sure that he is not a proliferation risk, but --

QUESTION: Can you accept those assurances?

QUESTION: Are you satisfied by them?

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly, we have to take them at their word. But of course, you know, we’ll have to see what comes out – see if there are – you know, see how things play out with regard to these assurances. I can’t give you further clarity on it until we see how things go.

QUESTION: One other thing on – just on Pakistan to close out with that.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: There’s a – we have reports that Pakistani officials urged Holbrooke to talk to the moderate Taliban. Do you know if that’s correct? Have you --

MR. WOOD: I haven’t heard that at all. Not at all. I don’t believe that to be the case at all.

QUESTION: And just for – related in the area. Do you know if the Polish Government has asked for help in the investigation into this Polish worker who was beheaded by --

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware that they have asked us for assistance. But of course, should they come to us with a request for assistance, we will do whatever we can.

QUESTION: Richard, back to Arshad’s --

MR. WOOD: Richard?

QUESTION: The question on Afghanistan that he was talking about – Pakistan and the Taliban

QUESTION: Robert, Richard --

QUESTION: I mean, you – you kind of said – you kind of said that as if you were surprised to hear the idea. I mean, Secretary Clinton, in her confirmation hearing and in the written answers, pretty much said that that’s what the Administration is considering. So it doesn’t sound that odd that they would talk about talking to the Taliban.

MR. WOOD: It’s been very clear up until now that we have no – we are not talking to the Taliban.

QUESTION: No, not that you are, but that you’re considering it. I mean, she clearly said it on the record.

MR. WOOD: Well, that certainly is a possibility. We’re undertaking a review. But at this point, what I can speak to at this point is that there are no plans right now to talk to any elements of the Taliban.


MR. WOOD: That’s the best I can do for you on that.

QUESTION: No, but that’s not what the question was. The question was --

MR. WOOD: Repeat the question.

QUESTION: -- are you talking about the possibility of it? I mean, not that you’re planning any talks. But I mean, this Administration has said, you know, across the whole board that that’s what – that that’s part of the new strategy, is to possibly talk to people in the Taliban or extremists in the area, kind of like – similar to the way you did in Iraq. But --

MR. WOOD: Well, a strategy isn’t possibly to do something. A strategy is when you make a determination that you’re going to take a particular action. What I’m saying is that there is a review underway with regard to our overall policy and strategy toward Afghanistan. But I can tell you, at this point, as I’ve said, that we are not talking to the Taliban. I can’t tell you how the review is going to end up. But what I can speak to is what our policy is right now with regard to the Taliban.

QUESTION: Could I ask you a question --

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: -- just sort of shifting gears? Nick Spicer, Al Jazeera. Helen Thomas asked President Obama a question last night about – which he did not answer – about whether any Middle Eastern country or countries had a nuclear weapon. Could you answer that? And does this Administration want that or those countries to participate in a generalized movement of disarmament that’s happening with Russia and elsewhere?

MR. WOOD: Our policy has been that we would like to see a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. We -- also what’s important is to take account the reality that there needs to be a general political settlement in the region. That is our policy, has been our policy for quite some time hasn’t changed.

QUESTION: What about Israel – Israel’s reported nuclear weapons?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t get into reports. I’ve basically given you what our policy is with regard to the question.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke’s trip -- is there any possibility that he meets with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan situation?

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware that he has any plans to meet with Iranian officials.

QUESTION: What about Indians?

MR. WOOD: Well, he is going to go to India, so I assume he will meet with Indian officials.

QUESTION: I’d like to pick up on the Secretary’s comments on Iran about missile defense. She seemed to be suggesting that while you’re not there yet, that the U.S. decision on whether to go ahead on missile defense, in large part, rests on Iranian behavior and what it decides to do, and kind of suggested that if Iran were to rethink its decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon, that the U.S. might reconsider its plans at missile defense.

MR. WOOD: Well, Elise, I think the Secretary’s remarks were pretty clear and straightforward. I don’t have anything to add to them, basically.

QUESTION: Well, and it also raised – it also raises the question is that this might be something that you could use with the Russians. If you tell the Russians that if they pressure the Iranians not to – or if they go along with the idea to get Iran to control its – to stop reprocessing that they might get something out of it, too; i.e., that you don’t go ahead with the missile defense plan. Is that in -- is that calculus being – being looked at all?

MR. WOOD: Very interesting calculus, Matt. But I don’t have any comment on your calculus. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: On the Middle East, and I won’t ask about the Israeli elections, but --

MR. WOOD: Thank you.

QUESTION: Equally important is the Palestinian leadership. As you know, there are some talks in Cairo later this month, in fact, on the 22nd, about a possible unity government. I know we’ve talked about this before, but since Mitchell’s been back, since there have been more conversations with the Europeans about this issue, are you any closer to giving the idea of a unity government some chance, unlike what happened a couple of years ago when the Bush Administration didn’t really give the unity government a chance for the Palestinians?

MR. WOOD: Well, all I can say is that I understand that the Egyptians are trying to help facilitate, you know, discussions amongst the various Palestinian factions. And you know, what’s important here is that, in the end, we have a Palestinian partner that’s committed to working with Israel to resolve this – you know, this endless conflict. And that’s something that the Palestinians are going to have to work out amongst themselves. We think it’s important to support the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas.

And Senator Mitchell, in his discussions in the region, was very clear that the United States is committed to trying to bring about a two-state solution. He wanted to try to be as helpful as he could on the ground. He wanted to take the pulse of various leaders in the region to see where and how we can make progress.

And one of the issues, of course, that comes up – that came up during these discussions is the importance of the Palestinians, you know, coming together in some way and being willing to work with the Israelis. Hamas, as we’ve said time and again, has an opportunity to play a positive role, to be a partner for peace. Up until now, Hamas has chosen not to do so. So what we hope to see come out of this process is a Palestinian – the Palestinian people being able to move forward toward a peaceful Israel and in security and, you know, stability.

QUESTION: Just one more on Abbas. The Bush Administration tended to put down an emphasis on the personality rather than the institution. Is that the way it’s going to be in this Administration at least at the beginning, or is –


QUESTION: – is Abbas not indispensable?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, no human is indispensable on the planet. What’s important here is that we strengthen Palestinian institutions. That, in the long run, is going to be what will provide, we think, the best basis for a Palestinian state. Personalities – I mean, you have them, you deal with them. But the critical issue is developing and strengthening these democratic institutions.

QUESTION: Just one more quick question. I’m not asking you about the specifics of the Israeli election, but rather, about the issue of settlements. One of the parties is calling for the continuation and expansion of settlements. How would that work with what George Mitchell is trying to do? Eight years ago he said settlements undermine the Palestinians. Does the Administration have a perspective on that?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, settlements, you know, clearly have been a concern to a number of, you know, players in the region. Senator Mitchell went to the region, as I said, and listened to, you know, the various parties. And look, we’ve got a long way to go. We want to get back to that peace process. We want to take a look and see what we can build on from the Annapolis process. But we’ve asked and continue to ask both parties to live up to their obligations to try to help us move toward that two-state solution. We continue, as I said, to call on the parties to do this. But, you know, our policy has been very clear with regard to the settlement issue.

QUESTION: So that is to – the obligation is to stop the settlements?

MR. WOOD: What we have said is to all parties adhere to their obligations, and we’ve been very clear about that.

QUESTION: And when the new Israeli government is formed, are you going to sort of get straight in there with the Middle East negotiations with the Israeli government, or are you going to kind of give it a bit of time to settle – for the dust to settle?

MR. WOOD: Well, first, let’s give – let’s let there be a new Israeli government, and then we can obviously engage. But at this point, I don’t have anything beyond that right now. We obviously – when there is a new government, we will certainly engage, and – because we’ve got a lot of work to do. And we look forward to working with the new Israeli government when it does come into place.

QUESTION: Actually, speaking of money, I forgot to ask, are you planning more humanitarian or any other kind of aid to the people of Gaza, in addition to the 20 million that were announced a couple of weeks ago?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know if there’s something in the pipeline. I can take a look and see on it, but I’m not sure there’s any – if we have any update to that. If we do have an update, I’ll – we’ll be happy to get that information to you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. WOOD: Thank you.

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