MODERATOR: Hi, everybody. This is [Moderator]. Thank you for joining today’s call and Happy Thanksgiving. I am pleased to have some senior State Department officials here with me today to discuss the Secretary’s upcoming trip that he announced yesterday at the podium to London, Rabat, and Lisbon.
For your reference purposes only, not for reporting, we are going to welcome [Senior State Department Official One] and we also have [Senior State Department Official Two]. We will, of course, have brief remarks at the top, and then we will take questions. A reminder to everybody that this call is on background and embargoed until the conclusion of the call. So we will have Senior State Department Official Number One begin.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator]. So next week, after attending the NATO Leaders Meeting in London with the President, the Secretary will travel to Morocco on December 4th to meet with King Mohammed VI and his government counterparts.
Before I take your questions, I want to open by stressing how much we value our longstanding relationship with Morocco. Morocco was the first country to recognize U.S. independence and was home to our first diplomatic mission overseas in Tangiers, of course, for those of you who are following online.
Morocco is also a critical partner for us across the range of issues, a leader on the African continent, an important voice for peace in the broader Middle East, and a source of stability in the Mediterranean. We appreciate their continued partnership, especially in our multilateral effort to defeat ISIS. We appreciate Morocco’s continued efforts to promote sustainable economic development by prioritizing the inclusion of women in the workforce. Most recently, Special Advisor Ivanka Trump visited to speak with women about new land reforms and to advance female financial independence.
The U.S. has partnered with Morocco on a number of projects that seek to promote high-quality education through the Peace Corps, USAID, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The Secretary’s visit will underscore these close, longstanding ties. He’s looking forward to meeting with Moroccan senior leaders. The Secretary will also meet with our staff of the embassy in Rabat to thank them for their hard work, as he does on almost every trip he takes overseas.
So that’s it for me, and I’ll be happy to take your questions later.
MODERATOR: Great. We’ll turn it over now to Senior State Department Official Number Two.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Before his trip to Morocco, Secretary Pompeo will travel to London on December 3rd and 4th, where he will support President Trump’s participation in the NATO Leaders Meeting. We understand that the NSC has scheduled a background call this Friday, November 29th, at 11 o’clock a.m., to preview the President’s participation in the NATO meeting.
The NATO Leaders Meeting will provide an opportunity for allied leaders to highlight the 70th anniversary of NATO and also progress on increasing defense investments and improving burden sharing. They will take note of implementation of deliverables from the NATO Brussels Summit in 2018 and discuss NATO’s efforts to address emerging security challenges.
Following his trip to Morocco, the Secretary will conclude his trip with a stop in Lisbon, Portugal on December 6, where he will meet with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva. He will, of course, also visit our embassy there. These meetings will provide an opportunity to reaffirm our mutual commitments to democracy and transatlantic security and to celebrate our bilateral cooperation across a wide range of issues.
Portugal is a strategic partner, and the United States values its transatlantic alliance with Portugal. The country hosts the U.S. Air Force’s 65th Air Base Group at Lajes Field in the Azores, a noteworthy symbol of U.S.-Portuguese cooperation. And the United States is Portugal’s largest trading partner outside of the European Union. Ties between our peoples also continue to expand as Americans travel to Portugal for tourism and education in ever more significant numbers.
The U.S.-Portugal bond is based on a shared history and mutual values that bolster our joint efforts to protect democracy and freedom, promote free markets, fair trade, and the rule of law globally. Secretary Pompeo will celebrate these ties during his meetings and discuss the many other ways we can continue to cultivate our important bilateral relationship with Portugal.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’re now going to open it up for questions.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time.
And one moment, please, for your first question. Your first question comes from the line of Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, folks, thanks very much. I had a question on the Morocco stuff. [Senior State Department Official One], is there any indication that Western Sahara will be discussed? There had been some talk – this was a pet project of John Bolton’s and that there had been some talk that there might be a resolution coming down the pike at some point about what to do with Western Sahara. Do you see any indication of that, and will that be a topic of discussion? Thanks.
MODERATOR: Nick, we’re having an issue. I’m really sorry, could you – we’re going to have – give me two seconds. We’re going to have to have you repeat the question. Sorry, we’re having a technical issue.
QUESTION: Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: I can hear you a lot better now, but can you hold on one second before you begin?
Okay, Nick, I’m really sorry about our issues over here. If you could say that question one more time, I think we can hear you better now.
QUESTION: Sure. Just very quickly, will the issue of Western Sahara come up? There had been some talk that this was closer to resolution and just curious if that’s the case, if there is any sign of prospect in this very long-simmering, intractable problem, and whether the Secretary will discuss that with Moroccan leaders.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, thanks, Nick. Listen, so obviously, the Western Sahara is a priority issue for the Moroccans, and we are being engaged with the – with the UN looking forward to moving forward a political solution. Our policy remains the same, that Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible, but without that – but that the Moroccans will raise this. This is an issue that they have conveyed to us as something that is essential for them.
QUESTION: But no sense that we’re closer to a resolution?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s a work in – yet another work in progress. We’re going to have a new envoy appointed from the UN, a personal envoy that appears to be getting closer to being appointed. But in terms of negotiation, there is still a lot of ground to cover.
MODERATOR: Is there another question?
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Lara Jakes from The New York Times. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, everyone.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Lara.
OPERATOR: Ms. Jakes, could you press 1 then 0 again, please?
OPERATOR: Your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, so you can hear me now?
MODERATOR: We can hear you, Lara.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Happy Thanksgiving, again. I’m not familiar with what the State Department’s current policy is on the peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara, so to follow up on Nick’s question, does the State Department or the United States currently support restoring a human rights mandate to the mission in Western Sahara for the United Nations? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The policy remains the same. We just renewed the mandate of MINURSO for 12 months with the same mandate that it had before.
QUESTION: Is my line still open?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It is.
QUESTION: Okay. So just to clarify, the current mandate in Western Sahara does not have a human rights component. So I just want to be clear that we’re all talking about the same thing here, that the United States supports the current mandate without the human rights component. Correct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The United States supports the current mandate; we just renewed it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Jennifer Hansler from CNN. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about what the Secretary’s role at the NATO Leaders’ Summit will be, if he’s having any separate bilats, anything of that nature.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The Secretary is traveling to the summit to support President Trump, and we will defer to his briefers on that particular question. And as I noted, that briefing will take place on Friday.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Shaun Tandon from AFP. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi. Happy Thanksgiving. I wanted to ask again about Morocco. I was wondering how you saw Morocco in the broader Arab world and in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Morocco had recalled its envoy to Saudi Arabia, with which they’ve traditionally had quite close relations. I was wondering, particularly in light of the strong relationship that the U.S. has with the Saudis and MBS, if that’s something that you anticipate to come up? And more broadly, how you see Morocco’s role in the Middle East, what type of role you think it should be playing.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I’m not sure I understood fully the question. Listen, I mean, Morocco’s a – for the United States is a critical CT partner. We have a free trade agreement with them; we do 4.5 billion in bilateral trade. We have some of the most robust military exercises with them in the region. They host AFRICOM’s largest multilateral training exercises, live-fire exercises on Moroccan territory. They are just across the board a leader in CVE and bringing back foreign terrorist fighters. Just a great partner. And those – and doing much in the field of cultural heritage protection as well.
What – now, you wanted something on Moroccan-Saudi relations?
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry, my question was rambling. But how do you find – is that going to be an issue for you? Specifically, there’s been some tensions between the Moroccans and the Saudis recently. I mean, do you want – are you looking for – how do you see that – they’re looking for a broader role of Morocco in the Gulf region.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Listen, I think Morocco plays a great role across the region as an important partner in tolerance, in promoting tolerance, has these quiet ties and relationship with Israel as well, as we all know. As for its bilateral relationship with Saudi, I’ll leave that to the Moroccans to talk about. In all cases where we are asked to try and play a productive role, as we have done in the past with the Gulf rift and the Qataris and the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Emiratis, et cetera. We will try and play a role that can be productive, but this is really a bilateral issue, so you’ll have to talk to them.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.
OPERATOR: Hi. Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for doing this. I just want to follow up on Jen’s question about NATO. I know that President Trump will be taking the lead on that, but especially after French President Macron’s comments about NATO being brain dead and all that, there’s quite a lot of tension. What is the mood with the U.S. delegation? How are you going – how are you going into this? What are the top messages that you will be looking to give to the alliance? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, thank you very much. The United States led the formation of the alliance and still feels that this is a platform that, as we celebrate its 70th anniversary, remains the most successful alliance in history, and that has really been the bulwark of international peace and security for the last 70 years.
So we do not see this as a contentious question. Both the President and the Secretary have very clearly over the years stated their very strong support for the NATO alliance, and we continue to play a key leadership role there. I think that one of the focuses in the meeting this year will be on the success of increased burden sharing. I think that the final announcements that will come out of this will be very positive. They reflect hard work by the President, by the United States Government, by the Secretary, to bring allies onboard for the fact that as the world has changed, the threats have changed. We need to be ready to respond, and that will be a very positive story.
At this point of time, we are on track for 2019 to be the fifth consecutive year of increases by partners and allies. That doesn’t mean we’re complacent. As you well know, not all of our allies have yet met the unanimous commitment they made at Wales to 2 percent funding, nor to the 20 percent of that that is supposed to be a modernization commitment. So that is an ongoing effort. But we have made significant progress, and I think that this will be reflected in next week’s events.
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Courtney McBride from The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you all for doing this, and happy Thanksgiving. To Senior Official Number One, you mentioned Morocco’s status as a key counterterrorism partner, and I’m just wondering: Are there planned discussions specifically on CT as part of the Secretary’s visit? And if so, what objectives do you have for those talks?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, thank you. And listen, they’re a great counterterrorism partner. I am not going to get into the specifics in what they’re going to talk about. Morocco is going to host the Warsaw Process of the counterterrorism working group in – this February. This is a partnership, it’s the mil-to-mil, the IMET, et cetera, across the board. That has been very productive for everyone involved.
I’m sure counterterrorism will come up, but I can’t really put meat on the bones for you on that. My apologies.
OPERATOR: And at this time there are no further questions. Oh, I’m sorry, you have a question from the line of Laura Kelly from The Hill. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello. If you can hear me, thank you and happy Thanksgiving also. I was wondering if you could – going back to NATO, if Secretary Pompeo will bring up Turkey and their – and the S-400s and also Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria as an obstacle to the NATO alliance. Thank you.
MODERATOR: If you look at our press conference yesterday, the Secretary was at the podium and actually just answered your question. So I think that’s it. We will be at the podium at 12:15 with Elliott Abrams, and see you all then.