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 24, 2011
12:45 p.m. EDT
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you have any comment on the foreign secretary level talks which were held in Islamabad between India and Pakistan after they issued a joint statement?
MS. NULAND: I would simply say that the talks are ongoing today, as we understand. We are very gratified to see the two sides talking and we look forward to the outcome.
QUESTION: I think it ended today. They issued a joint statement after that.
MS. NULAND: I don't have anything additional for the moment, but I’m sure we can get you some more on our views. But we were just very pleased to see them talking.
QUESTION: And secondly, the Indian consul general in New York has been charged with slavery charges by his former domestic maid. Do you have anything on that? Does he carry his diplomatic immunity?
MS. NULAND: I don't have anything further. It’s a law enforcement matter, as you know.
QUESTION: This morning, Victoria, you put out a statement – or a statement went out in your name – about the flotilla. This is the third warning in three days from this building or people in this building about this. What is the big concern here? Are you – is there a worry that this is going – that this may upend your efforts to get the peace talks restarted?
MS. NULAND: I think this just continues a year of diplomacy and public statements that we’ve had making clear that we don’t want to see a repeat of the very dangerous situation that occurred last year. So we thought it was timely to put out all in one place our views on this issue, and I do commend to all of you the very detailed statement that we put out earlier in the day.
QUESTION: Right. But is there a concern that this may have broader – if it goes ahead, that there may be broader implications for the effort?
MS. NULAND: We have seen some warming in relations between Turkey and Israel, as we talked about I think it was on Tuesday. We want to see that effort continue. We want to see those who want to aid humanitarian situation in Gaza use the appropriate channels. There has been some progress, as the statement makes clear, in opening the way for more humanitarian aid. More humanitarian aid is getting in through legitimate channels. So we’d like to see that process continue and not have a repeat of the dangerous situation we had last summer.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, one of the things that the Secretary said yesterday in – when – in her comments to this was that attempts to go into Israeli waters were provocative and irresponsible. And it’s my understanding that the flotilla organizers do not intend to go into Israeli waters but in – they will stay in international waters. Is that your understanding or is that not your understanding per what the Secretary said yesterday?
MS. NULAND: I can’t speak to the intentions of those involved in the flotilla. I think the Secretary was clear it was in response to a question yesterday --
MS. NULAND: -- as you remember, so that also speaks to the fact that publicly this issue is out there, that we do not want to see the bad situation of last year repeated. We do believe that channels exist for providing humanitarian aid to Gaza in a safe and secure way and that that situation is improving. And we urge all NGOs who want to participate in that to use those channels.
QUESTION: But does a flotilla sitting in international waters off the Gaza – off the coast of Gaza, is that a problem for the U.S.?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t want to get into the Law of the Sea issues here. I simply want to say that we don’t want to see a conflict at sea, on land. We want to see appropriate legitimate channels used for the --
QUESTION: I understand, but in the briefing that just preceded this --
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: -- you talked about wanting to – in another instance, in the South China Sea, the U.S. has been very concerned about the freedom of navigation.
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: And so I’m not quite sure what the U.S. problem would be with a flotilla that stays in international waters, whether it’s off the coast of Gaza or off the coast of the Philippines.
MS. NULAND: I think we’re not talking about a freedom of navigation issue. We’re talking about appropriate and safe and agreed mechanisms for delivering aid to the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: So it’s --
MS. NULAND: So I think the statement speaks for it --
QUESTION: Well, but you believe that Israel is within its rights to defend itself to take on or to prevent ships from going into international waters?
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to speak to international waters, territorial waters. I’m simply saying that we are encouraging those who want to aid the people of Gaza to use the channels that have been established.
QUESTION: All right. And then was – on the flotilla – this is on the Middle East – I just want to know, wondering if there’s any update on the Quartet meeting in Brussels?
MS. NULAND: Simply that they had a good meeting today, they did begin a conversation about when they’re going to meet next, and they’re looking to do that in the next few weeks. But I don’t have any specific announcements out of the Quartet today.
QUESTION: Is there – is the thought that the next meeting would be at the principals level or is it going to be, again, at the – at an envoy level?
MS. NULAND: I think decisions have not been made on that subject.
QUESTION: To follow up on --
QUESTION: Just to – this is a follow-up.
MS. NULAND: Are we on flotilla too or are we --
QUESTION: We’re on flotilla. Just to make sure, does the U.S. consider that blockade legal?
MS. NULAND: I think the main point that we were trying to make in the statement was that we’ve got to use the channels that are safe, the channels that are going to guarantee that the aid get where it needs to go to the people it’s intended for, and to discourage, in strongest terms, any actions on the high seas that could result in a conflict.
QUESTION: Right, but again, that doesn’t answer the question of the legality or the – whether the U.S. perceives that blockade as legal or not.
MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you on legality here. We can take a stronger look at that if you’d like, but again, the reason that the Secretary spoke to this yesterday when she was asked, the reason that we’ve put out this very fulsome statement that points people in the correct direction, is because we want to avoid the problems of last year, and we do believe that there are good and reliable channels for getting assistance to the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: And just one more. I’m sorry. The people who are putting this together have a rather elaborate website, and they say that – on that that the U.S. should be protecting the rights of American citizens, protecting their safety abroad. So that is the argument that they are making. They’re very disappointed and shocked that the State Department would be warning people off. What do you say to that?
MS. NULAND: It is in the interest of protecting both Americans and other citizens from around the world who might be thinking about engaging in provocative moves like this that we were putting out these warnings so strongly in the same season where we had this problem last year. We don’t want to see a repeat, and we do believe that those who want to aid Gaza can do so and need to do so in the correct manner.
QUESTION: You kept repeating that they have available to them --
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: -- proper channels and so on. What – could you share with us some of these proper channels?
MS. NULAND: Well, the Rafah Crossing, as you know, is open again, and we have seen an uptick in the humanitarian aid that is going through there. There are also channels through Israel, and we’ve been relatively encouraged that the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza through these appropriate channels is improving.
QUESTION: But the Rafah Crossing was only recently opened. I mean, until then, it was completely closed. So that’s one issue. And another: Could you clarify for us whether, in fact, the Gaza waters or crossing through the Gaza waters, is that legal or illegal under the Laws of the Seas and so on? Could you clarify that, please?
MS. NULAND: I think that’s the same question that Jill was asking. And I will admit to you I’m not a Law of the Sea expert here, but let me take the question.
QUESTION: Okay. And a quick follow-up on the Quartet: You said that it was a good meeting. Now what constitutes a good meeting? How was the, let’s say, the meeting today different or improved the situation from, let’s say, 24 hours ago?
MS. NULAND: Well, as you saw and as we’ve been discussing here for the course of the last week, David Hale has been involved very intensively with the parties, with the regional states. For the members of the Quartet, I think it was a chance to compare notes on diplomacy that we’ve been doing, on diplomacy that other members of the Quartet have been doing in our shared effort to get these parties back to the table. So, from that perspective, there was a lot to discuss and then to take stock of where to go next.
QUESTION: Can I do a follow-up on the flotilla?
MS. NULAND: Please, yeah.
QUESTION: My understanding is that there were a number of the Americans who planned to participate and went into your – I believe in your Embassy in Athens and sought some advice. Can you tell us what the message to them in person was today?
MS. NULAND: I’m sure that the message to them in person was identical to the statement that we’ve put out today, that we would ask them to use established and reliable channels and to refrain from action that could lead to the kind of difficulty that we saw last year.
QUESTION: When you say that you want – you don’t want a repeat of last year, you want people to refrain from action that could lead to the kind of difficulty that you saw last year, does that only apply to the flotilla organizers or does that also apply to Israel?
MS. NULAND: We’ve been urging all sides, whether it’s the NGOs or whether it’s governments involved, that we not have a repeat of what happened last year.
QUESTION: Right. Well --
MS. NULAND: And I think this speaks to the fact that the neighboring states that – to Gaza have worked hard to establish legitimate mechanisms, efficient mechanisms to get aid in so that people have a way to do this other than to risk provocative action.
QUESTION: Another subject?
MS. NULAND: Anybody – anything else on this? Lachlan?
QUESTION: Just one more on this. Yeah. I don’t think you said it, but people at the State Department have said Israel has a right to defend itself against these flotillas. What exactly would it be defending against, though? That’s what’s not clear to me.
MS. NULAND: Like all states, Israel has a right of national self-defense. Again, I don’t want to get into where the boat might be and Law of the Sea and all this kind of stuff. We are simply saying this is the wrong way to get aid to Gaza. The correct way to get aid to Gaza is through the established mechanisms which are improving, which are open, and which can get aid to the people that it’s intended for.
QUESTION: But it’s just humanitarian aid, so I don’t see why it would be – Israel would have to defend itself if it’s just humanitarian aid coming in.
MS. NULAND: It’s the matter of all states to provide coastal defense, but I’m – again, I’m not going to get into the Law of the Sea issues here. We’re simply trying to make the point that we want this done in a way that not only is going to get the aid where it’s intended, but is going to ensure that we don’t have dangerous incidents.
QUESTION: In general, would you say that the Administration, the U.S. Government, is – would advise anyone against provocative acts?
MS. NULAND: I think that’s a fair point.
QUESTION: It is. Okay. So you don’t see, when the Secretary comes out in support of women who want to drive in Saudi Arabia, deliberately violating Saudi laws and regulations, that – her support of that is – doesn’t mean that you’re not – I mean, I don’t understand where you – if you’re coming out against all provocative acts, it seems to me that that’s a pretty provocative act, and yet she’s supporting that.
MS. NULAND: The Secretary was supporting the right of not only Saudi women, women around the world, to live as men do. She wasn’t encouraging any particular course of action one way or the other. She was simply making a strong public statement of empathy and support for the campaign that these women are on to have these laws changed.
QUESTION: Okay. So a provocative act in support of the Palestinians in Gaza is not okay, though?
MS. NULAND: I don’t think we are supporting provocative acts of any kind. I think you can’t equate these two issues. The Secretary was simply speaking to the aspirations of Saudi women to have the laws of their country changed. She wasn’t encouraging any particular course of action for that.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me try and put it a different way, then. You believe that because there are established – already established means, the Israeli port where things are inspected and the Rafah Crossing, that in this case, being provocative is unnecessary and unwise because it’s just not needed; there are other ways to do it? Is that – that’s the bottom line?
MS. NULAND: That’s certainly the case, and we don’t want further incidents. It’s not in anybody’s interest.
QUESTION: Is the regular blockade a provocative act?
MS. NULAND: I think we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go on this subject.
QUESTION: I’ll ask again. Is the naval blockade a provocative action?
MS. NULAND: We would consider it provocative and it would be dangerous to have a repeat of the situation that we saw last year.
QUESTION: But the current existing blockade, the naval blockade of Gaza, is that provocative action or is it not?
MS. NULAND: As I said, we believe that there are legitimate and efficient ways to get assistance into Gaza and that those mechanisms are working and that we’re seeing, as a result of them, an improvement in the humanitarian situation.
Jill, are we moving on now? Yeah. Thanks. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: The House has rejected that measure backing the Libyan mission, and they’re poised – I don’t know what the latest is – to vote on defunding the mission. Do you have reaction to that and what the implications are? And we understand that Secretary Clinton was up there yesterday urging Democrats to support the McCain-Kerry resolution. This sounds like pretty much a big rebuke of the President and his rationale and also the Secretary.
MS. NULAND: You know our strong view, that we believe we owe it to the Libyan people, we owe it to our allies, both those in the region and those in the NATO mission, to continue playing the limited but pivotal role that the U.S. has been playing until now in the coalition, until the coalition perseveres against Qadhafi and until Libya can begin the new peaceful and democratic chapter that the people of Libya deserve.
We had made it clear – the Secretary did yesterday when she was invited to speak to the Democratic Caucus in the House, and we have, through all our channels – that we supported House Resolution 68 because it would have authorized the limited use of U.S. armed forces in support of the NATO mission, and that we don’t support HR-2278 because it would cut off our ability to hasten Qadhafi’s departure from power by blocking the use of some of those unique military assets like drones that the U.S. can – only the U.S. has and that we could bring to this NATO operation. So we’ve made our views clear in the House. They’ve obviously made their first decision, but this will move on to the Senate, and we’ll see where we go from there.
QUESTION: But does this vote undercut the mission even if it doesn’t pass in the Senate eventually?
MS. NULAND: There has to be Senate action, so we will continue to make clear our view that this is absolutely the wrong time – with Qadhafi on the ropes, with the international community united, with increasing numbers of countries working together to support the people of Libya, to support the TNC and its efforts to bring a better future to Libya – this is absolutely the wrong moment for this kind of a signal. The Secretary, I think you may have heard, when she was asked this question in Jamaica, she said, “Whose side are you on?”
QUESTION: Given the fact that the Senate approval of this is highly unlikely – and even if it was approved, it would certainly not be signed by the President – does it have any practical effect at all? I mean, other than this kind of signal that you’re talking about which is really not going to be much of a signal because legislation is just legislation until it becomes a law, I mean, is it – what is it you’re concerned about?
MS. NULAND: I think you said it well. Legislation is legislation. It’s not even legislation at the moment; we’re talking about House action. And again, we want to reiterate we think now is the time to stay the course, now is the time to ensure that we finish the job.
QUESTION: Right, but I mean, there’s no – is there any practical effect from what the House did today on the mission?
MS. NULAND: Again, it depends on where things go in the Senate, which is the next step because – you know how it works.
QUESTION: But – right, but at the moment, it doesn’t do anything; correct?
MS. NULAND: At the moment, it isn’t – well, we haven’t had anything. We’ve had one bill voted down.
MS. NULAND: I don’t know whether the other bill –
QUESTION: No, no, no. In terms of – I mean, it hasn’t done anything in terms of any effect on the mission, the NATO mission?
MS. NULAND: Correct, because it’s the vote of one house.
MS. NULAND: Please, Jill.
MS. NULAND: Anything else on this? No? On Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Afghanistan. There’s a report coming out for – from Refugees International that says that the situation with refugees is very bad in Afghanistan. 91,000 have fled their villages since last January, and that’s more than double what it was the year before.
So there are a couple of questions that I was asked to give you here: What is the State Department doing to ensure humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan remain secure once the U.S. forces wind down? And how is the State Department addressing the growing number of refugees within Afghanistan?
MS. NULAND: Let us get you a little bit more detail on our current refugee programs in Afghanistan than I have here today. We do continue to support efforts internally in Afghanistan to ensure that refugees are well-managed. With regard to the larger question of security in Afghanistan, I think you know that even as we complete this first stage that the President spoke to, which ends in the fall of 2012, the U.S. is still going to have some 70,000 forces, and then our coalition partners are still there in Afghanistan.
So our goal is not allow more insecurity, but to continue to transfer increasing security responsibility to the Afghans, Afghans getting stronger so that coalition can continue to draw down. So refugees and other folks that need protecting are – we have very much in mind as this strategy evolves with Afghans gaining more strength and the need for U.S. and coalition forces diminishing over time.
QUESTION: And there’s just one other question, if I could.
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: How does the State Department view the Afghan local police? What is the U.S. doing to root out corruption within them and ensure the forces are well-trained?
MS. NULAND: We have been involved very closely with the Afghans in this local – it’s sort of a neighborhood watch program if you will – and much of the focus of our effort with the Afghans has been involved in ensuring good human rights standards, anticorruption standards, good identification, good connections to other security elements, the more formal police structures and military structures. So we have been involved in this program, and we’ll continue to be so along the lines that you are suggesting.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you –
QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up, please?
QUESTION: I want to clarify one thing about that.
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: You said that – as you know, there’s a technical distinction between a refugee and IDP. And when you said internally within Afghanistan you’re doing things to ensure refugee safety, that that would imply that they were refugees from some other country, are you –
MS. NULAND: I’m sorry. Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you talking about –
QUESTION: That was a mistake.
MS. NULAND: I think Jill was talking about IDPs.
QUESTION: I meant internally displaced – IDPs.
QUESTION: Okay, but are – but presumably, some of these Afghan refugees have fled not just their villages, but fled to surrounding countries. So is there – I mean, maybe I’m wrong on that; I’m presuming that. If they’re refugees, they’ve gone to – I don’t know – Uzbekistan or Pakistan or someplace like that.
MS. NULAND: Right.
QUESTION: Were you meaning to address that or were you talking about IDPs?
MS. NULAND: No. I assumed that Jill was talking about IDPs, internally – am I right, Jill?
MS. NULAND: Yeah. That’s – so I should have made the correction myself.
QUESTION: No, no, no. I just wondered.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Afghanistan one more.
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Thank you. Madam, as far as the reconciliation with Taliban and President Karzai’s concern, in the past he complained that Taliban also crossing across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan. My question is: How can you define as far as supporting his views on reconciliation with Taliban that good Taliban or bad Taliban? And what will – if he reconcile with the Taliban in Afghanistan? So what is the future of what will happen to Talibans from Pakistan?
MS. NULAND: Goyal, I think we had this conversation on Tuesday about the standards that we all agree on in terms of Taliban reconciliation, that whether they are resident in Afghanistan, whether they’re resident in Pakistan, we are looking to see an Afghan-led process, a locally-led process, we’re looking to see the Taliban break formally with al-Qaida, we’re looking to see them renounce violence, we’re looking to see that they are ready to support the constitutions of their countries in all of their elements including human rights protections, et cetera. So this is a high bar, this is a serious set of standards, and it’s a process that needs to be Afghan-led, but that we are very much supporting.
QUESTION: May I go one more in the region?
MS. NULAND: Please.
QUESTION: Syria. Nuclear Suppliers Group took action – so how this will play a role or what is the future of India-U.S. civil nuclear program as far as this recent new action by the Nuclear Suppliers Group?
MS. NULAND: I think you saw the White House statement yesterday. We were very pleased with this particular meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. With regard to the Indian relationship to the group, I think we believe that we did make some progress in bringing India closer, and that conversation will continue.
QUESTION: I mean, is there an action or a reaction from India as far as State Department is concerned? Because the deal is still nowhere.
MS. NULAND: Again, I think we made – we feel that the Nuclear Suppliers Group made some progress this time in bringing India closer, but with regard to the Indian view of that, I would send you to Delhi.
QUESTION: On Syria?
MS. NULAND: Yes.
QUESTION: There were reports that pro-government demonstrators yesterday tried to storm Ambassador Ford’s residence. Do you have any – could you confirm or refute these reports?
MS. NULAND: Yeah. These reports were a little bit overblown. As we understand what happened – (laughter) --
QUESTION: (Laughter.) No.
QUESTION: Blown or (inaudible)?
MS. NULAND: They were majorly overblown. I think that’s a fair characterization. As we understand what happened from our Embassy in Damascus, you had some pro-Asad demonstrators who were walking back from one of their rallies, passed the house, they were engaged in some noise and some vandalism that was quickly put down by Syrian security forces. As you know, it is the responsibility of the hosting government to ensure security of diplomatic property. I think we’re relatively satisfied that that happened in this case.
QUESTION: So it’s your feeling --
QUESTION: How many? How many were there?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have a precise --
QUESTION: Could you count them on one hand?
MS. NULAND: My sense was it was a small rabble, how about that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Of perhaps less than five people?
MS. NULAND: I don’t actually have the number, but it – yeah.
QUESTION: Was Ambassador Ford’s safety compromised in any way?
MS. NULAND: No, no.
QUESTION: And he will continue to function in --
MS. NULAND: He will.
QUESTION: -- in Damascus?
MS. NULAND: He will.
QUESTION: And not deterred by this action?
MS. NULAND: He will not be deterred by this action.
QUESTION: I have one. Russia’s foreign ministry this morning came out with a fairly strong statement about the latest U.S. sanctions on Iran, on Iran Air and on the Iranian port, saying that they would raise serious questions and would affect Russian companies in a negative way. I’m wondering if you have any response to that and if you’ve heard anything directly from the Russians, any complaints? I believe they’re asking for some sort of recalibration of this particular set of sanctions.
MS. NULAND: I can’t say specifically, but I believe our Embassy in Moscow has been in consultation with the Russians about this. As you saw from the statement that we put out yesterday, we believe that these sanctions go directly to our concern about the IRGC and its role in Iran, and we believe that they were more than justified.
QUESTION: So complaints like these wouldn’t have any effect? I mean, if Russia or other countries complain that they’re being impacted unfairly by certain elements of these sanctions, that’s not going to go into any decision on changing them or --
MS. NULAND: We believe that these sanctions are within the umbrella provided by UN Security Council resolutions encouraging Iran to cease its dangerous activity and to suffer sanctions if they don’t do so. Again, whenever we have a third government that’s affected, we are happy to have discussions about this, but the sanctions have been issued.