White House Press Briefing by Jay Carney, March 23, 2011

Aboard Air Force One En Route Andrews Air Force Base–(ENEWSPF)–March 23, 2011 – 4:06 P.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY:  Okay, good afternoon, everyone.  We have no opening statements, but I have with me again today Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, and Dan Restrepo, who is the Senior Director at the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere.  And so we’re all here to take your questions.

How do you want to start?

Q    Jay, I’m interested in any kind of readout you can give us of the President’s meeting today on Libya?

MR. CARNEY:  I’ll let Ben take that.

MR. RHODES:  Well, the President this morning had a call with his senior national security team on Libya.  That included Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton — or actually, no, I’m sorry, I think Secretary Gates was meeting with the Prime Minister of Egypt.  So it was Secretary Clinton, Admiral Mullen, General Ham, Tom Donilon, Bill Daley, and Denis McDonough and Tony Blinken.

The President started by getting an update from General Ham on military operations in Libya, including the progress that’s been made around Benghazi and also the efforts to protect the people of Libya in Misurata, as well as, again, the enforcement of a no-fly zone, which is increasingly being done by allied and partner planes.

They also reviewed the ongoing discussions at NATO about the transition that will take place regarding command and control efforts and the enforcement of a no-fly zone.  And they reviewed diplomatic progress on a range of other issues associated with our efforts in Libya.

Q    So what is the update on progress?  Is there any more clarity as of this meeting in terms of Qaddafi’s ability to take on his own people or the timeline of transition to other forces for the U.S.?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I think, first of all, it’s very important to point out that, in the first instance, this intervention was taking place to prevent an imminent humanitarian catastrophe, a potential massacre of thousands if not tens of thousands of people in major population centers like Benghazi, Misurata, and other places where Qaddafi’s forces were advancing.

And I think it’s important to underscore that Qaddafi’s forces have pulled back from Benghazi.  And right now we’re similarly focused on trying to protect the people of Misurata as well.

So in the first instance there’s this immediate humanitarian objective I think that is the focus, frankly, of this phase one, along with the shaping of the conditions for a no-fly zone.

In terms of the timeline on transition, I think that is still being discussed at NATO.  Those discussions will continue.  I think as I said yesterday, there is an agreement that NATO is going to play a very important role in the command and control.  Again, the exact structure and relative participation of different countries is what they’re continuing to discuss, and they will do so, again, tomorrow.  But again, I think this is going to be a matter of days in which you see a movement towards a transition with regard to command and control.

Similarly, you already see an increase in the extent to which the no-fly zone, the enforcement of the no-fly zone piece of the effort in Libya right now is being undertaken by allies and partners.  You see, again, a number of allies stepping up with different contributions as well.

So at the same time that we’re working through the command and control issue, we’re working to get contributions, clarity on contributions from a broader and growing range of coalition partners.

Q    Ben, on the subject of coalition participation, Germans are stepping back from their involvement in the coalition.  Do you have any reaction to —

MR. RHODES:  Stepping back from —

Q    I believe the Germans are stepping back, reducing their involvement in the coalition.

Q    They’ve pulled their ships.

MR. RHODES:  Well, look, Germany — I mean, I think there’s no secret that Germany has had reservations about participating in military enforcement.  They abstained from the resolution, so I don’t think that — so, again, I think their hesitancy to be a robust participant in this has always been something that we were aware of.

Again, I think if you look at a broad range of countries, to include of course the United Kingdom and France, but also Italy, Spain, the Dutch, several other European partners, the Turks are talking about what their contribution might be, as well as Qatar.  And then we continue to talk to other Arab states like Jordan and the UAE.  Different countries are going to have different contributions to make here.  I think we’re pleased that you see an expanding — most of those countries that are coming forward with contributions, and at the same time that we are getting those efforts onboard, we are working through the final issues related to command and control, which, again, is an important thing to get right on the front end so that you have the best structure in place.  And, of course, what you want, as I think I said yesterday, is a situation in which you have the full capacity to make use of the — NATO’s unique ability to bring command and control assets to bear to a situation like this while also recognizing that you have a coalition that extends broader than NATO itself as well.

So, again, those are the discussions that are taking place in Brussels; they’re ongoing.  We’ve made progress each day.  And we expect to have this transition in place in a matter of days.

Q    Ben, in the congressional briefings, Congress was reportedly told that this is not a war.  Can you confirm that?  Can you elaborate on that?  And if it’s not a war, what’s the right way to characterize this operation?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I mean, I wasn’t in those particular briefings.  But again, I think what we’ve said is that this is a military operation that will be limited in both duration and scope.  Our contribution to this military operation that is enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution is going to be limited — time limited to the front end, and then we’ll shift to a support role.

So I think what we’re doing is we’re enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution.  We’re taking — we’re undertaking a military operation to protect the people of Libya.  But that military operation is going to be, again, limited in both time and scope, and that’s the position we took to Congress, although I wasn’t in the precise briefings, so I couldn’t —

Q    But it’s not going to war, then?

MR. RHODES:  Well, again, I think what we are doing is enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone.  Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end.  But again, the nature of our commitment is that we are not getting into an open-ended war, a land invasion in Libya.  What we are doing is offering a unique set of capabilities over a period of days that can shape the environment for a no-fly zone.

Q    What have you been doing during the flight, the President been doing during the flight, and what sort of communications have there been?

MR. RHODES:  He’s spoken a number of times to Tom Donilon to get updated on the situation.  Beyond that, he hasn’t made additional calls.

Q    Are there any plans today, once he gets back, to call any world leaders?

MR. RHODES:  None that I’m aware of.  I expect that there will be a number of calls to foreign leaders over the next coming days.

Q    Ben, how do you respond to the critics who have said that the administration viewed it as essential to get international coalition support for this operation, including Arab League support, but has not viewed it as similarly essential to get congressional support for this operation?

MR. RHODES:  Well, look, I’d say two points about that.  First of all, we would like congressional support.  We’ve consulted with Congress throughout this process, again, consulted before we took military action, and continue to brief Congress and, again, welcome congressional support and believe it’s very important to have a very close and ongoing dialogue with Congress about what we’re doing in Libya.

In terms of the importance of multilateral support, I think that it’s fundamental to America’s interest that the President of the United States would ensure that we are not undertaking this action alone.  Were we to do so, the costs would be far greater for the American military, the American taxpayer.  Again, the questions around timeline and the enduring nature of our responsibility to enforce a no-fly zone would be far more ambiguous.  So, again, by taking the time to get international support for this effort, not only did we increase the legitimacy of the effort, and not only did we expand the number of partners both in the region and around the world who are supportive of this effort, but we’ve reduced the cost significantly to the United States in this undertaking.

And frankly, it also is a uniquely international challenge when you have — and regional challenge — when you have somebody undertaking these kinds of atrocities.  It’s important that it not just be the United States’ responsibility to deal with that but that you have regional powers and international partners participating as well.

Q    What’s your latest information on Muammar Qaddafi’s status — his physical status, his political status?

MR. RHODES:  Well, again, I think what you’ve seen in recent days is Qaddafi’s own forces that had been advancing at a very rapid pace across Libya are no longer making those advances; that you had masses of Qaddafi’s forces advancing imminently on Benghazi, for instance, which is what caused us to take the urgent action that we did.  And they are no longer doing that, and they are pulling back from Benghazi.

So — and you have similar instances around the different parts of the country where, again, his forces are facing a challenge that they didn’t before, and it’s affecting their ability to harm the Libyan people.

Again, as to his own political standing, that’s something that we’ll watch closely.  We certainly saw the comments that came out from him yesterday.  But what is clear is that he is no longer advancing in a way that poses the same threat to the Libyan people as it did a week ago.

Q    I thought he was still being pretty aggressive in Misurata, his forces there.  Are you concerned about what’s happening in that situation?

MR. RHODES:  We’re concerned about it, but I think you’re actually seeing some indications that the effort of the coalition is, again, is focused on Misurata and is having an effect there.  So that is certainly an area that we’ve been concerned about, continue to be concerned about.

When the President spoke at some length about the situation in Libya on Friday, he singled out a number of population centers, and the first two were Benghazi and Misurata.  And so, again, those are — that is something we’re concerned about, and I think you’ve seen over the course of the last day or two Misurata be a focus of the coalition.

Q    What does the intelligence tell you about who it is that the allied forces are fighting exactly?  Qaddafi’s forces?  How many are actually Libyans?  How many are mercenaries?  Where are the mercenaries from?

MR. RHODES:  Sorry, say that one more time.

Q    Who are the people we’re fighting?  How many of them are Libyans?  How many are mercenaries?  Where are the mercenaries coming from?

MR. RHODES:  Well, there have certainly been — there are certainly forces that are Libyan that are loyal to Qaddafi who have been — played an important role in these advances.  There are a set of military units that are particularly close to Qaddafi, again, that have been playing an important role, even as you had some military, particularly in the east, essentially defect from under Qaddafi’s rule.

There’s also been clearly the use of mercenaries as well.  And that’s, for instance, why the U.N. Security Council resolution also authorizes actions to try to prevent — try to work with the neighboring governments to try to prevent the flow of mercenaries into Libya so that he cannot draw upon that as a source going forward.

And when you look at, again, some of the additional efforts — I know there’s so much focus on the efforts in the air — but the enforcement of the arms embargo, which NATO agreed to carry out going forward, and the enforcement, again, of the — stopping the flow of mercenaries is a further part of the tools that we have to bring to bear in terms of diminishing Qaddafi’s own resources and his ability to brutalize his own people.

Q    Is there any thought being given to a presidential address to explain to the American people a little — in more clarity what this mission is and those issues about how long it will last, et cetera?

MR. RHODES:  Look, I think — I’d say two things.  First of all, the President thinks it’s very important to communicate clearly and consistently with the American people about something as important as the type of military action that we’re taking in Libya.  I would argue that we have communicated on a very regular basis over the last several days.  You had the President make a statement on Libya on Friday at the White House in which he laid out precisely the case for why he felt this was important, why he felt it was in our interest, what we were doing, who the coalition we were doing it with was, and what the type of timeline would be for our engagement.  He had that statement on Saturday where he spoke to the initial authorization of the use of force.  And of course, over the course of the last two or three days at press conferences, he’s had the ability to speak to Libya, as well as in interviews.  And in a letter up to Congress, he again detailed his case for the intervention.

That said, we’re certainly going to be looking for additional opportunities for him to continue to speak to the American people about the situation in Libya, again, keeping in mind that part of that is speaking to a dynamic and fluid situation in which we will have a responsibility to both explain, again, very clearly what we’re doing, but also updating people on the evolution of our engagement and the evolution of our involvement and what is transpiring in Libya.

So, again, without specifically speaking to one speaking appearance, it’s certainly going to be the case that the President will continue to address the situation in Libya in the coming days.

Q    Jay, do you have any details about the President’s schedule tomorrow and Friday?

MR. CARNEY:  As of now there are no public events tomorrow.  He has meetings in the White House, a full day of meetings.  And then on Friday, also no public events, with the exception of the Greek Independence Day reception Friday evening.  That obviously could change, but as of now that’s the schedule.

I just wanted to add one other thing on one of the questions that Ben answered, and that is we obviously take very seriously, as Tom Donilon, Ben and others have said, the need for congressional consultations.  And we have done them and will continue to do them.

I would also say that it’s important to remember that in the run-up to this action, we were criticized somewhat — in fact, fairly frequently — by those who felt like we weren’t moving quickly enough, and now some are criticizing us for not going — for going too quickly, and what the President did was make an action based on — make a decision based on an imminent threat of a humanitarian nature to a great number of Libyans, and he has done that with a great number of consultations with Congress that will continue.  But I think it’s important to remember where we were a week ago and where we are now.

Q    Jay, can you or Ben on the schedule just tell us precisely why the President is leaving early or left early from El Salvador, and whether concerns about him being seen sightseeing at the time of this military action played into that decision?

MR. RHODES:  Look, insofar as we left early, it was by an hour.  I think all it was was we felt that there was a good opportunity for him to see the cathedral and the tomb of Oscar Romero yesterday, and this morning he was able to have a call that he’s had every single day on this trip, basically the same secure conference call with the same people, while his family, again, was able to engage in a cultural stop.

So, I mean, it really was just a matter of scheduling, nothing beyond that.

Q    Question for Dan?  Just very quickly, do you think that this trip achieved its objectives, particularly with the distractions?

MR. RESTREPO:  It certainly did.  One of the primary objectives of this trip was to underscore the importance of the Americas for the United States and for President Obama.  I think we saw that throughout.  It was also about setting a course on a relationship of working in partnership with countries throughout the Americas as we have an increasing number of capable partners in the region.

I think we made significant progress on moving the economic and commercial relationship with Brazil forward that will benefit the United States in the medium to long term; in Chile as well made important progress on cooperation on disaster response, on trade, both in terms of enforcement of the existing trade agreement between the United States and Chile and particularly intellectual property rights enforcement improvements by the Chileans, as well as moving forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And then in El Salvador, underscoring the importance of setting in motion and working with the Salvadorans to set in motion sustainable economic development that also has medium- to long-term benefits for the United States, as the President discussed yesterday with regard to immigration.  And on citizen security, evolving our relationship in the region on citizen security as we’ve brought more partners to the table, more capable partners in the region — Colombia, Chile, Canada, Mexico — to work together with the United States and the countries of Central America to address something that very much has a bearing on the well-being of the United States.

So, all in all, I think the trip was very successful in underscoring the importance of the Americas to this President and to the United States.

Q    Thank you.


4:25 P.M. EDT