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 March 23, 2011
QUESTION: -- bring us up to speed on diplomacy around the attempts to get command and control set for this operation? Will – is the Secretary going to participate in this meeting next week in London? If not, who will represent the U.S. at – if it will be represented at all?
MR. TONER: Well, to the second part of your question about London, I don’t have anything to announce yet on that. Obviously, we remain in close contact. We’re aware of the meeting that was proposed. And obviously, the Secretary and others remain in close contact with our allies and partners in the coalition, but nothing to announce specific to that meeting. I mean, as soon we get information, we’ll let you know.
More broadly speaking, meetings did continue in NATO today. They – we are working closely – I know that the Secretary and others spoke yesterday to the – to our position, which is that we believe that NATO does have command and control capabilities that are significant and important to the current mission, and we want to see some kind of system emerge or some kind of resolution that maybe contains those command and control capabilities.
QUESTION: Can --
MR. TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Right, but where do things stand right now in terms of –
MR. TONER: Well –
QUESTION: -- who’s going to be running this? I mean --
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- the thing is that – can you tell us anything at all about the meeting of the – or if there was a meeting of NATO ambassadors to – or ambassadors from NATO members to the U.S. meeting here today?
MR. TONER: I can tell you that Under Secretary Burns did consult with an extensive group of representatives from the Washington-based diplomatic corps on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
QUESTION: And –
MR. TONER: I don’t have many – I don’t have more details than that. I just --
QUESTION: All right. Well --
MR. TONER: -- can confirm that he spoke to them.
QUESTION: Then where do things stand at the moment?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, things – look, I mean, the discussions continue in Brussels. They’re still working out what this will look like, but we’re confident that there will be some kind of NATO command and control aspect to this and that they will reach a resolution and that, as we’ve talked about, the U.S. in the beginning of this had a significant role to play, but that that’s going to transition over the coming days to a broader coalition.
QUESTION: Is there no thought that it might have been a good idea to get command and control laid out before you started firing missiles into Libya?
MR. TONER: Well, again, first off, in answer to your question, there was a tremendous sense of urgency. And let’s take a step back and remember the end of last week when Libyan forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi and that Qadhafi was saying that he was going to show no mercy on the residents of Benghazi, and we were on the verge of a sweeping humanitarian catastrophe. And so we worked within the UN to implement a resolution that brought assistance, that ended the assault on Benghazi and elsewhere, and is focused on that humanitarian assistance aspect. As we said from very beginning of this, from the very outset, we’re now going to transition into a broader coalition with Arab partners and with our partners in NATO, and we’re working on that process, but it’s still being worked out.
QUESTION: I understand that you’re answering my question –
MR. TONER: But there was an urgency there that I think your question didn’t mention.
QUESTION: Well, yeah, but I’m not asking – but I’m not – you’re being defensive, and you don’t need to be.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: I’m just asking you, isn’t there – wouldn’t it have been better to have had the command and control situation sorted out before --
MR. TONER: But NATO’s been planning for a no-fly zone. The – I mean, I don’t want to get into too much of the arcane details of how NATO works, but there is a plan for implementing the no-fly zone that’s been in the works for many weeks now.
QUESTION: And how many NATO members are actually flying planes to enforce that no-fly zone now?
MR. TONER: I don’t have a number, but –
QUESTION: Well, not too many, and --
MR. TONER: Well –
QUESTION: -- it seems like there’s quite a bit of disarray.
MR. TONER: Well, but Matt –
QUESTION: At least there was.
MR. TONER: But again, what we’re not talking about is how many NATO countries are currently flying planes over Libya. What we’re talking about is, again, this command and control capability that NATO has and can bring to this coalition that we believe is important.
QUESTION: Mark, when you say that –
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- discussions are continuing in Brussels, President Sarkozy’s office last night issued a communiqué describing his conversation with President Obama and telling us that the two presidents agreed on the means of using NATO’s command structure to support the coalition.
MR. TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: That was the exact language. So aren’t we to infer from that communiqué that, in fact, an agreement has already been reached?
MR. TONER: Which is why we – which is why I say we’re confident that an agreement’s going to be reached, but –
QUESTION: It hasn’t been reached, or –
MR. TONER: No, NATO is more than the United States and France. I mean, it’s a consensus-driven organization. But those discussions continue, and we’re confident that they’ll reach a conclusion soon.
QUESTION: Yeah. Have you garnered any success in sort of inducting Arab governments --
MR. TONER: I didn’t hear you. He just coughed and I just missed your – garnered any success in?
QUESTION: It’s okay. Are you having success in sort of bringing in Arab countries into the coalition of enforcement? Because the President yesterday spoke to the Qatari amir, he spoke to the leaders in the UAE, and to Saudi Arabia.
MR. TONER: And certainly, those discussions continue and I don’t have anything new to announce. And again, our operating procedure on this has been to allow other countries to characterize their support. But again, this is something that we’re working through, and I would just say to give it some time. We do believe we will have greater Arab support in this coalition.
QUESTION: And just a quick follow-up.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: And the only countries that have modern aircraft that the United States supplied them, like the United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they have F-15s and F-16s, why do you think they are so reluctant? I mean, they are – they issued a resolution calling for the no-fly zone. Why, in your estimate, is there reluctance on part of the Arab governments?
MR. TONER: Well, you’re right; they did issue a statement calling for UN assistance and assistance from the international community to end what all agreed was an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Libya. Again, there was an urgency to act, and the U.S. and others brought their capabilities to bear to begin implementing 1973 as soon as possible. As we move forward, we’re going to see that support grow. We’re going to see the participation of other partners and allies in the process. But I don’t want to judge or tell you who those countries might be.
Way in the back and then I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: Mark, thank you. Are you in a position to say how this operational command by NATO backed up by some sort of political command structure headed by an as-yet-unnamed committee would actually work? Are you able to explain?
MR. TONER: I’m not. And I’ll really leave that to the NATO planners to hash out. I mean, again, I just – I mean, NATO really does have a unique capability here. We believe that that element will be preserved in whatever moves forward.
Kirit – sorry, Lalit and then --
QUESTION: As the U.S. tried to broaden this coalition, what do you have to say to countries, big countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and also South Africa – who are not supporting your military operations in Libya? Is it an issue of concern to you that these countries are not supporting you?
MR. TONER: Look, Lalit, you asked me this question in a different variation the other day. It’s really for those countries to determine their actions on this. There was broad support for action, for international action in Libya, and we acted upon that – the Arab League statement that asked for us to act, asked for the international community to act in Libya. And I’m not going to judge them or judge their actions. It’s really for them to characterize why they voted or why they acted the way they did.
Yeah, in the back.
QUESTION: Is the Arab countries’ support to the coalition a special condition for the Turkish prime minister? Because the president and the prime minister have agreed too on this NATO command issue, but is --
MR. TONER: Is Arab participation --
QUESTION: Yes, (inaudible).
MR. TONER: -- a particular requirement for Turkish --
MR. TONER: That’s really for the – again, I’m not here to characterize what the Turkish position may be.
Go ahead, James.
QUESTION: Are we at war in Libya?
MR. TONER: We are implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973. It is clearly a combat operation or combat mission. As the President made very clear, there will be no U.S. ground force involved in this and that the U.S. role is upfront – frontloaded, if you will, on this. But that’s going to obviously recede into a more – a broader international coalition as we move forward to implement the no-fly zone.
QUESTION: So you would not say we’re at war?
MR. TONER: I think we’ve – you love these sweeping characterizations and I appreciate it.
QUESTION: This isn’t about what I love or do not love. (Laughter.) But the question on the table is: Are we at war in Libya or not?
MR. TONER: I would say it’s a combat mission, clearly. But beyond that, you can parse that out.
QUESTION: One further thing. Secretary of State Clinton on Friday here stated that the secretary general of the United Nations had appointed a special representative to conduct some kind of dialogue with the Qadhafi regime after the hostilities had ended. She specifically said the secretary general appointed a special representative, a former Jordanian foreign minister. She went on to say – and I’m quoting Secretary Clinton – “We will obviously want to have the international community involved in any kind of dialogue with the opposition and with the Qadhafi regime.”
Today, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “It seems to me that if there is a mediation to be done, if there is a role to be played, it is among the Libyans themselves.” Do you see a contradiction there?
MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll leave it for --
QUESTION: The Defense Secretary is saying this has to be done by the Libyans themselves. Secretary Clinton told us, “Obviously, we will want the international community involved in any dialogue.”
MR. TONER: Look, James, there’s – what Secretary Gates – and again, I don’t want to parse Secretary Gates’s words. I’ll ask you to go to the Department of Defense and ask them. But clearly, he was talking about the internal situation in Libya. But there is an international component to this that Qadhafi himself engendered when he turned arms against his own people and created an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. The President’s been quite clear on this, the Secretary, Secretary Gates, that we did not ask for this role, but it was Qadhafi who chose this role. And the international community has reacted.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Perhaps you could parse the Secretary’s words, then?
QUESTION: Could you clarify to us the statement made by Secretary Clinton on contacts by Mr. Qadhafi trying to reach some sort of an exit out of Libya?
MR. TONER: Well, I mean, the Secretary said what she said. It’s – we have been hearing a lot of things. But again, it’s – ultimately, what’s clear is that Qadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead his people and should leave power immediately.
QUESTION: Yeah, but --
MR. TONER: But I can’t really get into the specifics.
QUESTION: Did he make contact – did he try to contact the United States of America to see a way out of Libya?
MR. TONER: Not that I’m aware of, not directly, no.
QUESTION: Can you --
QUESTION: Not directly?
MR. TONER: I don't know beyond that, James. I’m saying that I can’t speak to that from the U.S. Government.
QUESTION: Can you update us on contacts – U.S. contacts with the opposition in Libya?
MR. TONER: Can I – I’m sorry?
QUESTION: Can you give us an update about these contacts?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we remain in – I don’t have much of an update. We remain in contact and in consultation both with opposition members on the ground and outside of Libya, and we’ve spoken to that. I don't have a rundown of who we’ve spoken to when, necessarily, over the last 24 hours. And again, this has been at the level of the Secretary when she was in Paris -- what was that?
QUESTION: Ten days ago.
MR. TONER: Ten days ago. Thank you. Down to folks within our Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. Ambassador Cretz is one of those individuals. But we remain in contact with members of the opposition and we’ll continue to do so.
QUESTION: How about her contact? Has she had any calls today on --
MR. TONER: Sure. She has – just one moment. Well, in addition to the Matsumoto call, she spoke with Botswanan President Khama and also just – I think just before coming down here, she was speaking to or about to speak to Rasmussen, NATO secretary general.
QUESTION: So --
MR. TONER: So I don't have a readout from that.
QUESTION: Well, hold on. In the last two days she’s spoken to the president of Gabon and the president of Botswana about Libya?
MR. TONER: Right. I mean, yeah. I mean, I believe they touched on the situation in Libya. And I think Gabon – or Botswana – sorry --
QUESTION: Do either Botswana or Gabon have anything to contribute to --
MR. TONER: Botswana is a member of the African Union, and obviously, we’ve talked about this yesterday. That goes without saying.
QUESTION: They all are.
MR. TONER: But I mean – but – and obviously, so is Libya. So there’s obviously a dialogue there that we’re looking for --
QUESTION: Well, I just don’t – what is the – I mean --
MR. TONER: -- and appreciative of their support. I believe they played a leading role within the AU in condemning the violence, but that’s for really the Botswanan Government to define.
QUESTION: Well, I understand. But are you looking for something from them, looking for something additional out of the AU or out of those two countries in general?
MR. TONER: I think we’re reaching out. Well, I think it’s all a part of our efforts that we’ve talked about to reach out to all international organizations that have relevance to the situation in Libya. And certainly, the African Union is one of those, and we’re talking to members within the African Union about the situation in Libya because, certainly, it affects them within their organization and within their region.
QUESTION: Right. But – yeah, but there are countries that one might argue have more – might have more to offer.
MR. TONER: I can’t really – I mean, I --
QUESTION: South Africa, Nigeria, country – and yet you’ve reached out to --
MR. TONER: And we’re going to continue to reach out to countries within the region. But that’s – you asked me to characterize or qualify it, and that’s the best I can I do.
QUESTION: Yeah, but I’m trying to – okay, well, I mean, does she have any plans to talk to --
MR. TONER: I don’t have a – no, I don't have a call list in front of me.
QUESTION: -- the president of Zambia, or I mean, is she going to be talking to the leaders of African countries that actually might have some kind of military hardware or personnel to contribute?
MR. TONER: I don't have anything to tell you on that right now.
QUESTION: What is the purpose of the U.S. effort to internationalize this? I understand you wanted international sanction from – which you got from 1973.
MR. TONER: Right.
QUESTION: But what is the purpose of – why does the U.S. want to take a backseat in the next phase and hand off command and control and political authority for that command and control to somebody – to some other group? What is the fundamental reasoning behind that?
MR. TONER: Well, again, this isn’t something – I would argue somewhat with the premise of your question which is that this is something the United States is seeking to do. From the very beginning, this has been an international effort. Has the U.S. played a particularly prominent role in the beginning stages of the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolution 1973? Certainly, for a lot of the reasons we’ve talked about here and at the Pentagon and elsewhere, at the White House, obviously, that we were able to react swiftly along with other allies and partners, we brought certain capabilities that were crucial to those early stages.
But, again, this has always been an international effort. We’ve always said that we’re going to work within that framework to bring pressure to bear on Qadhafi, because it just – this is not about the U.S. versus Libya at all. It’s about the international community seeing what’s going on in Libya and being outraged and asking for --
QUESTION: And why then do you wish to take a lesser role going forward? I mean, you’ve said that on the record that there’s no ambiguity about the fact that the United States, you say, will take a – will play a less prominent role going forward. Why? Is it because it’s expensive, is it because you have military commitments elsewhere, is it because you’re afraid that --
MR. TONER: I won’t argue with either of those qualifications.
QUESTION: But what is the --
MR. TONER: But – no. I mean, I won’t – I mean, those are obviously considerations. But it’s also about the fact that this is an international effort and that it requires not just the United States. It requires all of the partners and allies who decided to take action via UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to engage on this and to be committed to its implementation. And I think we’re seeing that.
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is it plausible that the United States will finance this war effort that costs about 100 to $150 million a week using – utilizing Libya’s frozen funds in U.S. banks?
MR. TONER: I don’t --
QUESTION: Is that something that is being considered?
MR. TONER: No. Not that I’m aware of.
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: In one of P.J.’s last briefings he described a telephone call between the Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa and our Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman. To your knowledge, are there any lines of communication still open since the hostilities began between U.S. Government officials and Qadhafi regime officials?
MR. TONER: I believe there are always lines of communication. I don't have any more details, but I believe we still have lines of communication open to --
QUESTION: You can’t give me any information about that?
MR. TONER: I’m not aware that they’ve been utilized. I’m not aware that – but I think they still exist.
QUESTION: Mark, is Mr. Qadhafi --
QUESTION: (Off mike.)
MR. TONER: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) is part of the desire for the United States to play a more – a less prominent role the hope that Libya or the Qadhafi regime will not retaliate just against the United States should it be angry at the role the United States has played? I mean, Pan Am 103 took place a matter of years after the U.S. bombing in Tripoli. Is part of your reasoning for taking – for stepping back to try to mitigate the potential risks to the United States from Libyan retaliation?
MR. TONER: I mean, we always take the threat of terrorism very seriously, and we’ve seen, as you just noted, that Libya certainly has carried out horrific acts of terrorism that have cost American lives in the past. But I don’t think that’s necessarily – it’s always pertinent, but not to what we’re trying to do, and I would back away from your question that says that we’re somehow trying to internationalize this thing. It’s not about us trying to internationalize anything. It’s about us, again, from the very beginning of this, working with – within in the UN and within NATO with likeminded partners and allies. The Arab League has been very clear publicly on where it stands on this, that this situation needed to be addressed, that there was an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. But – so –
QUESTION: But mitigating risk –
MR. TONER: So I feel like –
QUESTION: -- of retaliation is or is not a factor in your – in this?
MR. TONER: I would say it’s not a factor insofar that we’re trying to somehow distance ourselves from what’s happening in Libya right now. We are engaged in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and we’re working with our partners in – and we’re going to continue to work with them as we move forward.
QUESTION: Change of subject.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: One more on Libya. Just one more quick one. Mark, is Colonel Qadhafi listening to the U.S. or the UN Security Council resolution today?
MR. TONER: Is he listening?
QUESTION: Yeah, is he – does he care or listen or –
MR. TONER: I haven’t spoken with him, so I don’t know. But we certainly –
QUESTION: That line of communication is still open – (laughter).
MR. TONER: That’s right. I don’t have his number personally.
QUESTION: No, I mean, do –
MR. TONER: But no, it’s a fair question. I just don’t have a good answer for you. That’s why I made a joke. We hope that he is, and we hope that his associates are listening to what’s happening in the world. And again, we hope that he makes the right decision to step down from power.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Are you making any kind of contingencies for the Arab diplomats, the Arab ambassadors in this town that come from (inaudible) countries, where there are uprisings, such as Yemen and Libya and so on? I mean, the Libyan ambassador was saying that he is afraid that he might lose his diplomatic place over the next couple days. I mean, he lost his office, he lost all these things. So how do you deal with this situation? How do you handle the continued legal presence of these Arab diplomats in town?
MR. TONER: In Washington, D.C.?
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
MR. TONER: Well, we’ve – I think we’ve been pretty clear about the status of the Libyan diplomats and the Libyan Embassy, and to my knowledge, that’s really the only country that’s been affected by our policy choices at this point and our decisions at this point.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: So –
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Libya in the meantime? Is there any protecting power of Libya at this time?
MR. TONER: There is. I’ll try to get you answer for that. I believe so.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. TONER: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Just on this command and control structure once it does exist. First of all, it’s still on track to exist within days, not weeks, as the President said? And number two, are you confident that it will be nimble enough and agile enough to make decisions that will not endanger troops or forces of other nations?
MR. TONER: Absolutely. I mean, again, this is someone who worked at NATO and has seen it act before in places like Kosovo and, obviously, right now in Afghanistan, it certainly is able to do that.
Yeah, go ahead.
I’m sorry. Are we off of Libya? I just need to – okay, great. James, you have the floor.
QUESTION: On Yemen – thanks – President Salih’s days are obviously numbered. By his own account, he has offered to leave by the end of the year. By other accounts, this could occur significantly more swiftly. Given the importance of Yemen and President Salih to our counterterrorism efforts, this has to strike you with some apprehension. And I just wonder if there is any planning underway for a sort of post-Salih era.
MR. TONER: Well, you are correct that the situation in – it’s an understatement to say that the situation in Yemen is fluid, which is a word we like to throw about. And we’re obviously aware of the fast-moving events of the last 24 hours. We’re obviously watching the situation very closely. Speaking to your broader question, our interests in Yemen go beyond specific individuals. We, along with the people in the Government of Yemen, have a strong interest in combating terrorism, and our counterterrorism cooperation is, of course, ongoing. And – but just to go back to the situation there on the ground, Yemen needs to address the problems that are clearly at the heart of the protests, and indeed, as I’ve said in the past couple of days, part of our assistance to Yemen is to help them address some of these socioeconomic conditions that are – frankly, that are causing some of the protests, but also make the kind of extremist behavior a viable option.
QUESTION: So if Salih is gone, we will not – our counterterrorism interests will not suffer?
MR. TONER: I can say that – I just go back to what I said, which is that they’re not – they go beyond one individual. They’re government to government.
QUESTION: And so are we planning for a future without him?
MR. TONER: Again, we’re not going to try to judge the outcome, what may happen in Yemen. It’s still an evolving situation.
QUESTION: The reason –
MR. TONER: President Salih has made some – as you saw, some announcements about handing over power. So it appears that in the longer term, however you define longer term, that that may be a possibility. So of course, we’re aware of that.
QUESTION: The only reason I bring it up is because Secretary Gates speaking in Cairo stated quote, “We haven’t done any post-Salih planning.”
MR. TONER: When did he say that? I’m sorry. I didn’t –
MR. TONER: Today in Cairo?
QUESTION: Is it accurate to say we’ve done no post-Salih planning?
MR. TONER: I think, as I said, what you asked me specifically about was our cooperation on counterterrorism and our assistance of the Government of Yemen. And what I can say is that assistance is going to continue, and it’s about the government to government aspects of it and not necessarily tied to one individual.
MR. TONER: In all seriousness, it is a very serious situation. The United States is alarmed by the violence overnight in Dara’a by security forces against civilians. We’re deeply concerned by the Syrian Government’s use of violence, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions and extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who’ve been injured or lost their lives. We call on the Syrian Government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against these peaceful protestors.In the back.
QUESTION: Mark, if I may, two questions, a new topic. Just to follow up on Syria, what is this doing --
MR. TONER: By the way, if anyone wants to leave, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.
QUESTION: What is this doing for the newly established United States diplomatic relationships with Damascus do you think?
MR. TONER: Well, it was precisely – we wanted to establish those relations and send an ambassador to Syria – sorry. We really wanted to just to – we had, obviously had, diplomatic relations. But we wanted to send an ambassador to Syria precisely so we could have the kind of discussion with the Syrian Government that was candid, that was frank, and that allowed us to express our views on its behavior and conduct. So we believe it’s – this a perfect illustration of why it’s important to have high level representation in Damascus.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) my second question, just to (inaudible) new topic, do you have reaction to this morning’s bombing in Jerusalem?
MR. TONER: Kirit, that was your question?
MR. TONER: Yeah, okay. Well, I just would echo the --
QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to speak to this --
MR. TONER: She will speak to this in 10 minutes. But very – just to condemn in the strongest possible terms the bombing that took place in Jerusalem today. And as Matt correctly noted, I expect the Secretary will have more to say on this in a short time.
QUESTION: But don’t worry. We’ll use your quotes, not hers. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: I do want to say on the – (laughter) – American citizens, we don’t have any reports of any American citizens injured or killed, but, obviously, we’re working closely with the Israeli authorities on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.