Robert Wood
Acting Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
February 10, 2009


Index for Today's Briefing
  • SOUTH ASIA
    • Special Representative Holbrooke's Mandate / Holbrooke Coordinating Among USG Agencies
  • PAKISTAN
    • Special Representative Holbrooke's Meetings in Pakistan
    • Foreign Minister Qureshi's Meeting with Deputy Secretary Steinberg on A.Q. Khan
    • Government of Poland Request for Assistance with Investigation of Worker's Death
    • USG Not Talking to Taliban
  • AFGHANISTAN
    • Afghanistan Policy and Strategy Under Review
  • MIDDLE EAST
    • US Would Like to See Nuclear Weapons-Free Middle East / Need for Political Settlement
  • ISRAEL / PALESTINIANS
    • Egyptians Facilitating Discussions Among Palestinian Factions / Importance of Palestinian Partner Committed to Working with Israel / U.S. Supports Palestinian Authority under President Abbas / U.S. Committed to Two-State Solution / Hamas has Opportunity to Play Positive Role / Strengthening Palestinian Institutions / Settlements of Concern to Players in the Region / Building on Annapolis Process / Call on all Parties to Adhere to Their Obligations / Will Work with New Israeli Government
  • UKRAINE
    • Ukraine Should Work with IMF to Implement Program / Ukraine an Important Partner for the U.S.
  • MISCELLANEOUS
    • Reviewing Policy with Regard to Human Rights Council / Human Rights a Very High Priority / Secretary to Raise Human Rights on Trip to Asia


TRANSCRIPT:

12:34 p.m. EST

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

Matt.

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) --

QUESTION: Sorry.

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.

Yes.

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.

QUESTION: No --

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.

Lambros.

QUESTION: Yes, on FYROM. Mr. Wood, the prime minister of FYROM Nikolas Gruevski stated that he met with Secretary Hillary Clinton last Thursday and they discussed bilateral issues. May we have a readout what they discussed exactly?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’ll have to check, Mr. Lambros, and see what we --

QUESTION: Can you, please, because I want to find out if --

MR. WOOD: -- might have on that. I’ll check.

QUESTION: -- finally they met, because he stated that in the television.

MR. WOOD: Okay, I’ll look into it for you.

Let me go to someone else then we can -- on that question or --

QUESTION: No.

MR. WOOD: Okay. Please.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thanks, Robert. Is anybody in the State Department meeting with Swiss Secretary of State Michael Ambühl? And if so, are they discussing Guantanamo Bay?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. I’m not aware that there is a meeting with the Swiss. We’ll look into that and see if there is, indeed, somebody meeting with that representative, and we’ll try to find out what the subject matter is.

Elise.

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: Yesterday, you put out an answer to a question that you took in the briefing about the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and you said that U.S. officials had gone as observers, but had not taken part. Representative Frank Wolf issued a very harshly critical statement of the State Department late yesterday about the Administration’s failure to speak up in the – in this review process. And he sort of posed it as a series of questions: How could the United States remain silent when what he described as some of the world’s worst human rights violators came up for discussion?

Is your position any different now on this? Do you have any intent to actively participate in any of these sessions?

MR. WOOD: Well, Arshad, as I’ve said over the last couple of days, for one, we’re reviewing our policy and strategy with regard to the Human Rights Council. Certainly, I can understand many people want to see us enunciate our policies very early on. You know, it does take time. We want to make sure that we’ve done a thorough review and that we not rush this. We want to get it right.

Let me just be very clear: With this President and this Secretary, human rights is a very, very high priority. We’re very concerned – we’ve been very concerned about the operation of the Human Rights Council, and we want to take a look and see how we may engage with the Human Rights Council. But this is all part of the review, and as soon as we have completed that review, we will certainly make clear what our policies are.

QUESTION: And no one should conclude from the decision not to participate in the session on China that the Department was deciding to sort of pull its punches ahead of the Secretary’s trip to China?

MR. WOOD: No, what – we’ve had someone sitting – an officer from our mission in Geneva who’s been sitting, taking notes. So we are obviously, you know, going to take a broad look at this issue. But again, I just want to reemphasize that human rights is a high priority item for the President and the Secretary. The Secretary speaks to the issue quite a bit. And you know, as soon as that review is completed – and I can understand people wanting it to be finished as soon as possible. We want that as well, but we want to make sure it’s thorough – the review – and that we get it right. And that’s what’s important here.

QUESTION: Robert?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: Just for the – since they – we often say words are important here, are you trying to intimate that human rights was not a high priority for the previous administration?

MR. WOOD: Not at all.

QUESTION: Because in your first answer to Arshad, you said for this President and this Secretary. I’m just wondering --

MR. WOOD: No, I wasn’t intimating at all, Charlie. I was just making very clear where this Administration stands with regard to human rights.

QUESTION: Can you look into – apart from the Geneva and all that, just in general, ahead of this trip, can you ask for – on our behalf how big an agenda item the whole human rights thing will be when the Secretary visits China, and also Indonesia, which has had its own problems in this area?

MR. WOOD: Let me just say, Matt, that during this trip --

QUESTION: You’re going to give me a general answer, but I’m --

MR. WOOD: You haven’t, you know, let me --

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m giving you the best sense of it I can give you on this.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) as specific as possible, or if this answer is general, as I think it’s probably going to be --

MR. WOOD: No --

QUESTION: -- can you ask around and find out exactly, you know, what issues in the human rights area she’s going to be raising?

MR. WOOD: Now, look, Matt, on this trip, human rights is going to be an important issue. The Secretary will raise the issue, when appropriate, where she thinks she can have the most effect, and you can count on that. I don’t think anybody is going to be able to tell you exactly, well, in this particular meeting, you know, the Secretary is going to raise issue X or Y. She is going to do what she thinks is best in terms of trying to communicate our goals and objectives on the human rights front, and you can rest assured that this is an issue that she cares deeply about and that will come up on this – during this visit. And she will raise it, as I said, in an appropriate time.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, can you look into what specifics she will raise?

MR. WOOD: Well, when we have – look, when we’re ready to talk more specifically about the trip, we will be happy to do that.

QUESTION: That’s –

MR. WOOD: But at this --

QUESTION: Right. That’s what I’m asking for.

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m saying in an appropriate time.

QUESTION: The one thing that I would ask is whether there are particular – and again, at the appropriate time, whether there are particular – there are names of particular dissidents or people who are incarcerated whom she may raise in her meetings.

MR. WOOD: Well, we will try to do the best we can when we’re in Asia to give you that kind of, you know, information. But I’m not going to be able to do that here or be able to get you something at the podium. So – a limitation.

QUESTION: I understand.

MR. WOOD: Okay.

Nick.

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 –

MR. WOOD: No.

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: A new topic?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: There are some reports that Ukraine is close to defaulting on some IMF loans and is looking to the United States, Russia, and other – not Russia, sorry – the U.S. and other countries in Europe to possibly help them with financial aid. Have they talked to you about that, or is that something you’re considering?

MR. WOOD: Well, I know that Prime Minister Tymoshenko has reached out to a number of countries on this issue. And we very much support Ukraine’s program with the IMF. And we believe the Ukraine should work hard with the IMF to make sure that it implements that economic program, as has been outlined. But as I said, we’re a strong supporter of Ukraine’s IMF program.

QUESTION: So does that mean that you are going to support it by helping it not to default on its loans?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, I can’t tell you what we will or will not do at this point. You know, should Ukraine come to us, we would obviously –

QUESTION: Well, apparently, they have come to you.

MR. WOOD: Well –

QUESTION: Could you finish the sentence: Should Ukraine come to us…?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, should they come to us, we would certainly be – we’d look at what they have – look at their request. But I can’t give you promises from this podium because I’m not aware that they’ve actually come to us on this. But if they have – and I’ll take your word that maybe they have –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: Hmm?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: Well,Oh, you know, I would just say that we would try to be as supportive of the government as we could be.

Yes.

QUESTION: How exactly would you do that? Where would this money come from?

MR. WOOD: Well, look – (laughter) –

QUESTION: Actually, the Senate is about to vote on something that seems to vastly outweigh anything that Ukraine might ever need or want.

MR. WOOD: Ukraine is an important partner for the United States. We’d have to take a look at a request, should one come in.

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.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:57 p.m.)

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