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 Home > News & Policies > January 2005

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 25, 2005

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

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12:23 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. The President had a good conversation this morning with Prime Minister Allawi to discuss the preparations for the upcoming election in Iraq. The President underscored how this election will be an historic moment for the people of Iraq.

And this afternoon, the President looks forward to meeting with a group of African American leaders. The meeting will be an opportunity for the President to discuss his second term priorities, as well as to listen to issues of interest that these leaders may want to discuss.

And with that, I'll be glad to go to your questions. Terry.

Q Prime Minister Allawi probably knows that this is an historic moment. Can you be more specific about what they discussed? This is like the fifth or sixth conversation that he's had with either the President or the Prime Minister since the New Year.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right, he's staying in regular contact with Prime Minister Allawi. And this conversation this morning was approximately five minutes. It was not a lengthy conversation. You heard from Prime Minister Allawi talking about some steps that he's taking to increase Iraqi security forces this morning, as well. But this was a brief conversation, really just to talk about -- continue their discussion about the upcoming elections. I don't think in a five-minute conversation there's a whole lot to read out beyond that.

Q Did they talk about turnout? I mean, as I say, there's been a series of conversations. Did they talk about --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, certainly, they do discuss in their conversations the importance of encouraging broad participation in the upcoming elections. That's what Prime Minister Allawi is committed to doing. We want to do everything we can to help support the Iraqi people as they move forward on holding these elections, and that means making sure there's as secure an environment as possible all across Iraq. And it also means helping the Iraqi Election Commission move forward on setting these elections up, and the preparations that they are taking.

Q Does the President think it's an encouraging sign that the Sunnis say that even though they might not participate in the election, they want to take part in drafting the constitution?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you are seeing throughout Iraq the Iraqi people want to participate in the political process and they want to choose their leaders. They are looking forward to this election. This election will be the first of a number to come over the course of the next year. It will be a significant achievement in the future of Iraq and it will be an historic moment as they move far away from their past of oppression and tyranny and brutality to a future of hope and peace and freedom.

And we're there to support them every step of the way.

And let me point out the widespread enthusiasm that you're seeing in Iraq for this election. There are now some 18,900 candidates that have registered to compete in this upcoming election. You have some 256 political entities that are on the ballot, and there are some 14 million registered voters. We want to encourage as broad as participation in those elections as possible. Prime Minister Allawi is reaching out to all sectors of the Iraqi community. He's reaching out to the Sunnis, he's reaching out to all sectors to encourage broad participation. And I think you're seeing from leaders in the Shia community, as well, that they are committed to moving forward on a political process that is inclusive and a process that is representative of the Iraqi people. They've talked about how, while these elections are a first step, they're going to continue reaching out to all sectors to participate in those elections. And so that is encouraging to see the enthusiasm throughout Iraq for moving forward on a democratic and peaceful future.

Q Scott, how confident is the President that a new Iraqi government will ask for U.S. forces to stay in the country?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, we have a commitment to help the Iraqi people as they move forward on building a peaceful and democratic future. We want to do what we can to support them as they work to increase their own security forces and we help them equip and train those security forces so that they're able to defend themselves.

And I'm not going to get into speculating about matters, but Prime Minister Allawi this morning made it very clear that it's important to continue moving forward on training and equipping the Iraqi security forces. That's what we're working to do; that's a top priority as we work to complete our mission in Iraq. And obviously, you'll look at the security situation on the ground, you'll look at the strength of the Iraqi security forces and their ability to protect themselves and defend their country, and you'll continue to have those conversations with the government about what their needs are. And Prime Minister Allawi talked about the importance of having the multinational forces continue to support those efforts.

Q I mean, let's get to my question, which is, are you saying, then, that he has got a high level of confidence that U.S. troops are going to continue on there, they're not going to be asked to leave by a new government?

MR. McCLELLAN: David, we are there to help the Iraqi people, and our resolve --

Q I know what we're there to do. I'm asking about the President's level of confidence that a new government, democratically-elected government is going to say, you can stay, you don't have to go, because it's certainly a possibility they could say, get out.

MR. McCLELLAN: We are there, and our resolve is firm to stay there and help the Iraqi people build a democratic and peaceful future. There are two important parts of completing that mission. That's training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, which is a top priority for our forces, and doing everything we can to improve the security situation throughout the country. There are a number of provinces, as Prime Minister Allawi talked about earlier today, that are secure and safe for elections to go ahead and proceed. There are some other provinces where we're continuing to work to address the ongoing violence by the terrorists and Saddam loyalists who want to derail that transition.

We always stay in close contact with governments, wherever our troops are stationed, and discuss these matters with them as we move forward. Right now you have an interim government in place that is led by Prime Minister Allawi. And so those are discussions we have with him right now. We'll also continue to have those discussions with the incoming government. But I think that the Iraqi people and Iraqi leaders understand the importance of the multinational forces being there to help to address these security threats and to help to expand the Iraqi security forces, so that, over time, they'll be able to look -- we'll be able to look at our troop strength and make those decisions based on the circumstances on the ground.

Q Just one more on this. Is the President prepared, at some point, to be specific with a new Iraqi government about a timetable for troop withdrawal if they -- a government were to request that of this administration, in exchange for political participation?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, all I can do right now is look to what the current government said, and the current leader of Iraq said that we should not be discussing those types of timetables right now, we should be focusing on training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, and making sure that they're in position to be able to defend themselves from internal and external threats. And we can assess it as we move forward, based on the circumstances on the ground, the security situation, as well as based on the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect and defend their country.

Q Before the war, there were estimates coming from the administration that it would cost about $50 billion. Today, if you add everything up, including the amount that we're going to likely see soon, it will be about $300 billion. What is the White House perspective on why the cost is so much higher than originally anticipated?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, you're talking about a briefing that will be held later today, so I'm not going to get into specific numbers. But we've made it very clear from the beginning that we're going to do everything we can to support our troops as they work to win the war on terrorism. Our troops are on the front lines of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure that they have the resources they need to complete their mission. And we've been very clear that those assessments will be based on the circumstances on the ground.

Q My question is why -- even if you take the -- whatever it is you're going to give -- don't even talk about a specific number because no one talks about that -- but, just in general, why was it that the idea and the planning seems to be so different than what it actually is now? What do you ascribe that to?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President has talked about that before, Dana. He talked about it on your network just last week in an interview with one of your correspondents. And he's talked about what we expected would happen and some of the changing circumstances on the ground. War -- in a time of war, you have to be prepared for the unexpected and you have to be flexible enough to adapt to circumstances on the ground. And it's important that you give the commanders on the ground the flexibility they need to adapt to changing circumstances. And that's what we will always do. That's how you are able to succeed and complete the mission.

Q So you didn't anticipate the insurgency? That's just the bottom line?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President talked about how, when we went into Iraq, that we didn't expect that the Iraqi army, under Saddam Hussein, would flee the battlefield like they did and come back to fight another day -- they did in large numbers.

Q If you're talking about a briefing --

MR. McCLELLAN: Hold on, let me go to Terry.

Q Let me try it this way: The changing circumstances you've just described have meant the men and women of the American military have had to sacrifice a lot, as has just been pointed out --

MR. McCLELLAN: They have, and their families have, as well.

Q Absolutely. We're now looking at $300 billion and counting for the cost of this war and operations in Afghanistan. What sacrifice is the President asking the rest of us to make, especially those at the upper-income levels, perhaps, to make, to help shoulder the burden of paying for this war?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, the families of those who are on the front line in the war on terrorism are making tremendous sacrifices --

Q Amen.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and we talk about that on a regular basis, and our thoughts and prayers always remain with the families of those who are in harm's way.

This is about fighting and winning the war on terrorism. We do that by taking the fight to the enemy and staying on the offensive. We also do it by what the President talked about last week in his inaugural address. Advancing freedom is essential to our long-term security. And the broader Middle East has been a dangerous region in the world for too long. We are committed to doing all we can to support efforts in the region to move forward on -- to move forward toward a free and peaceful future. That's why what we're working to achieve in Iraq is so critical. The stakes are high there. The terrorists recognize how high the stakes are. When you have someone like Zarqawi come out in an audio tape and say that this is an all-out war on democracy, that states how high the stakes are in Iraq.

This is a struggle of ideologies. And there are two very different ideologies, the ideology of hatred and fear and oppression, and the ideology of hope and freedom and opportunity. That's what we're working to achieve. And when we have a free and peaceful Iraq, that will be a significant blow to the ambitions of people like Zarqawi.

Q The cost of that struggle, though, it seems the President is willing just to throw onto the debt of the United States, just to increase the debt of the United States, and increase -- make permanent tax cuts for the very wealthiest among us --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's separate this out, because these are two different matters.

Q Well, money is money.

MR. McCLELLAN: The President -- first of all, this is about the safety and security of the American people. And we will do what it takes to win the struggle of ideologies that we are in. This is a struggle of historic proportions. And the terrorists recognize how high the stakes are. You see that every day with what is going on in Iraq. You see that through messages from a terrorist like Zarqawi, who is doing everything he can to try to disrupt the transition to democracy, because he knows that it will be a major defeat for the -- his ambitions and the ambitions of those who want tyranny and oppression and fear and chaos.

And in terms of -- you're talking -- you brought up the issue of tax cuts. The tax cuts were key to get our economy growing and creating jobs here at home. And that is one of the President's top priorities here at home. And look at the results. We've seen 2.6 million some jobs created over the last year or so here in America because of the policies that we're pursuing.

And in terms of the deficit, the President has a deficit reduction plan. It's based on strong economic growth and spending restraint. By taking steps that we have to get our economy growing stronger and creating jobs, we're also seeing increased revenues coming in. And by working with Congress to exercise responsible spending restraint, we've got a plan to cut the deficit in half over the next five years. And we are --

Q That includes the cost of the war and of the Social Security package --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- we are on track to meet that goal.

Q Does the White House agree with those who say that changing Social Security could benefit African Americans especially? And if so, does the President hope to enlist these African American leaders today in his public campaign?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we are talking about adding a new benefit to Social Security under the President's approach. It's called personal retirement accounts. And under the personal retirement accounts, that will give people the option, if they so choose, to have some ownership in their own -- over their own retirement savings in the Social Security system. And that will enable them to be able to pass on those savings to their heirs if they happen to pass away early. And so that will enable -- I mean, you talk about the African American community, I mean, that's one segment where African American males have a -- have had a shorter life span than other sectors of America. And this will enable them to build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors. And so I think you should look at it from that perspective, as well.

Q Does he hope to enlist these leaders today in his public campaign to support the Social Security --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's let the meeting take place. But I expect he's going to talk about his second term priorities, and Social Security is right there at the top of his second term priorities. So I expect he'll continue to talk about the importance of making sure that we take steps to strengthen it for future generations -- our children and grandchildren -- so that it will be there for them. Most of our children and grandchildren right now do not expect Social Security to be around for them when they retire, under the current system, because it's unsustainable. And that's why we need to act now to permanently fix the system.

Q Scott, on the Social Security issue and the black leaders, the African American community en masse has a tendency to use more of the insurance part of Social Security versus the retirement part. Will that be addressed, as well? Is there any kind of crafting of a proposal to address that, specifically, because of the life span --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, to address the retirement versus --

Q No, the insurance portion -- the insurance portion is drawn out more from the African American community as a whole, versus the retirement portion, especially as African American males' life span does not reach 65, 67, on average. Is that something that they're trying to work out now, as well?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think it's been very clear what the President is doing to work with members of Congress to address Social Security. He's laid out the principles that should guide us as we move forward. He's made very clear what those principles are: no changes for those at or near retirement, the option of personal retirement accounts for younger workers --

Q But are you going to address specifically the black community on Social Security, and there is a racial aspect to it. Wouldn't you think that you would --

MR. McCLELLAN: All Americans are affected by Social Security, so it's not a -- the President doesn't specifically tailor his agenda to specific segments of society.

Q But a disproportionate -- the President has even acknowledged that --

MR. McCLELLAN: This is good for all -- it's good for Americans.

Q -- a disproportionate numbers of black males have a tendency not to reach the life span over time for Social Security, so they don't see it. But the African American community as a whole pulls out of the insurance part of that. And that's what I'm asking you. Will that be addressed? Are you looking at that? Are you looking to get information from these leaders about that aspect?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, when you're talking about the insurance part, I'm not sure exactly what you're talking about.

Q Sickness and --

MR. McCLELLAN: Talking disability?

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, I mean, if you're talking disability, the President has made it pretty clear in the past that people with disabilities shouldn't see any change in their benefit structure. Our focus has been on the retirement savings portion of this and strengthening it for younger workers.

Q But also, these leaders --

MR. McCLELLAN: And the President talked about that in a recent interview with The Washington Post, as well.

Q Okay, and lastly, these leaders are people who supported the President. And I understand that many of these leaders supported him on the issue of marriage, the definition of marriage. And there's a struggle now between Social Security and the definition of marriage. Will the President come out again now defining marriage again, so that these ministers can go in their pulpits and talk to the thousands -- hundreds of thousands of members of the congregation to support them -- because the President, indeed, got 11 percent of the black vote in this last election because many of these ministers went into their congregations saying, vote the Bible.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, a couple of things. First of all, the leaders who will be there today, they're religious leaders, they're business leaders, they're community leaders from across the United States. They represent a diversity of views from within the African American community. Secondly, in terms of protecting the sanctity of marriage, the President is very firm in his belief that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman, and he is concerned about steps that have been taken by activist judges. That's why the President believes it's necessary for us to move forward on a constitutional amendment to protect the sanctity of marriage. He's going to continue speaking out about the importance of protecting the sanctity of marriage and moving forward on a constitutional amendment. And he continues to urge Congress to act on that.

Q Scott, first of all, my personal congratulations to President and First Lady on the second term.

MR. McCLELLAN: Welcome back, Goyal. It's good to have you back. (Laughter.)

Q Just back from tsunami, really pretty bad. So sad to see hundreds of thousands are dead and also millions are homeless. Now, Indian government has announced that they are accepting -- or they are calling on the international community to help India, which was really bad there also. If any formal request came to the White House or to the President to help for India?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've made it very clear that we're in it for the long haul when it comes to helping people of the region who are suffering and people who are working to rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities. That's what we will continue to do. We're continuing to work to get food and water and medical supplies to people of the region who need it. We're also working on the rehabilitation efforts that are underway, as well.

And in terms of India, India is a country that has a better capacity than most in the region to be able to provide relief and help to the people of India. We remain in close contact with them. We've always made it clear that we're there ready to help in any way that they need, if they so request it.

Q You were referring to a briefing later this afternoon on the supplemental. You may not know this, but just before air time, before your briefing, it now seems that the Pentagon briefing on that is very iffy, this afternoon. So I wonder if you --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think there will be representatives from the Pentagon represented at this meeting -- or at this briefing.

Q Will it be here?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes.

Q You won't give us a sneak preview?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll let the briefers do that, and then we can talk about it afterwards, obviously.

Q Scott, does your acknowledgment of a shorter life term, life expectancy of minority males in any way open the administration to considering Ways and Means Chairman's suggestion of considering race, gender and occupation as --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you should ask him exactly what he was talking about. He talked about that the other day. He was expressing his views. We've made it very clear that there are going to be a lot of views expressed during the course of this discussion. What's important is that, first of all, we recognize that there is a serious challenge facing Social Security and that we need to work together to address it now. And there are a lot of people that are going to be putting forward ideas for ways to solve this problem and to permanently fix Social Security. I think the President's views for moving forward are very clear. And he made it very clear at his at his news conference that we're not going to get into the business of responding to every idea that's thrown out there, and ruling things in or ruling things out. We're committed to moving forward in a bipartisan way to strengthen Social Security. And we're looking to all ideas that are consistent with the principles that the President outlined, and we're looking at all those ideas that are consistent with that. In terms of the specific question, that was some views that he was expressing. Those were his views.

Q Scott, with just five days to go before the elections in Iraq, when you talk about the balance between secure versus unsecured areas in Iraq, does the President believe that it's so weighted towards the secure areas that the world will find these elections as legitimate?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, what matters is what the Iraqi people believe and how they view those elections. And I think if you look at some of the recent -- or look at least one recent survey by the International Republican Institute, it points out that -- this was just last week -- over 80 percent of Iraqis polled are either very likely or somewhat likely to vote. So that's another sign that the Iraqi people want to participate in the political process. It also goes on to say that nearly 75 percent of the respondents believe Iraq will be prepared to hold elections. And it also talks about how 70 percent are very confident or somewhat confident in the secrecy of the vote, meaning the ability to freely choose their transitional government.

And keep in mind, this, again, is a transitional government that will, in turn, select leaders of that national assembly, and then will work to draft a constitution. The Iraqi people will vote on that constitution, to ratify it, and then they'll hold elections for a permanent government at the end of December. So this is a first step in the election process, but it's a very important step in that process and it will be a significant achievement.

Q Does it meet with his own threshold, and does he think it will meet with the world's threshold?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's why I just pointed out that what's important is what the Iraqi -- how the Iraqi people view the election. And I think the Iraqi people are excited about the opportunity for the first time to be able to freely choose their leaders.

Q Scott, going back to the talk on the deficit before --

MR. McCLELLAN: We're losing people quickly with the upcoming briefing. Ask your question and then leave.

Q When is the White House going to tell us what steps it forecasts for this year and next?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you've got a briefing coming up here shortly, so I think you should go ahead and ask questions of the briefers, related to the supplemental and budget matters.

Q Would this be including the deficit?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you might want to ask that question in the upcoming briefing.

Q I wanted to ask a philosophical question. American troops have been in Iraq for more than two years, they've been in -- I'm sorry, for nearly two years; in Afghanistan for more than three years. Why is it that spending for both those places is an emergency supplemental, surprise-type appropriation? Why isn't it part of the budget?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's for the same reasons we've stated previously that you have to base it on the assessments of what is needed on the ground. And you look to your commanders on the ground, and you want to make sure that you have the most accurate estimate of what is needed. And so that's why we've done it in the form of supplementals. And this is -- again, when you're talking about these issues, it's not viewed as a constant year after year after year after year expense. It's viewed as a temporary expense to meet our commitments in those areas.

Q But I still don't understand why that could not be accommodated in the budget. There are lots of expenditures that fluctuate year after year with a regular budget. And aside from excluding it from calculations of the budget deficit, why is --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mark, because circumstances change on the ground based on the situation and based on what our needs are on the ground. You had a situation in Iraq where some of these terrorists and Saddam loyalists started using improvised explosive devices, and we needed to make sure that we got our troops additional body armor, both for themselves, as well as for the trucks that they were using to transport themselves, as well as materials. And so you have to look at the assessment on the ground. We look to our commanders in the region to make those assessments.

We've been very clear that we will come back for another supplemental this year, based on what is needed in Iraq. And we didn't know what those needs were months ago. We wanted to -- I mean, we did put in place an emergency reserve fund to make sure that the resources and the supplies and the equipment that we were getting to our troops was not disrupted. But you have to constantly look at what is needed on the ground. And we've said that --

Q You couldn't consult those --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Mark, we've said this from the very beginning, that we would be coming back for an additional request.

Q Scott, a few days ago, Pat Clawson, from The Washington Institute was briefing a number of officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council. And he said that in terms of military action against Iran, the question is not "if," but "when" and "how" the U.S. will act. He insisted also that this was not his private opinion, but reflected the thinking of the administration. Is that accurate? Does this reflect the --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think the thinking of the administration has been expressed by administration officials, by the President and by others. In terms of Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, we've made it very clear how we're working with our European allies to pursue a diplomatic approach to get Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. They've made some commitments and we expect them to abide by their commitments. We will see if they are serious about ending their pursuit of nuclear weapons by their actions.

Q The issue -- is it really the case that you are willing to pursue a diplomatic approach or you're simply letting the Europeans do what they have to do, with an eye to them failing and then going for some kind of military --

MR. McCLELLAN: We're pursuing a diplomatic approach to get Iran to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. That's the approach we are pursuing.

Q A follow on April's question about the marriage matter? As you stated and as the President has stated, his views seem to be clear on the issue, but what's of concern to the Christian leaders, as they have said it, is they don't know what the emphasis of priority is for the President. Can you spell that out for us?

MR. McCLELLAN: I mean, he's made it clear previously that it is a priority and he's stated his belief and why a constitutional amendment is needed to protect the sanctity of marriage. He will continue to speak out about it. I know there are some questions recently because of some comments he made talking about the legislative reality in the United States Congress, particularly the United States Senate. And people should continue to make their views known to members of the Senate. The President will continue to make his views known to members of the Senate. And that's how we can move forward on getting a constitutional amendment to the states and to the legislators for ratification.

Q The President's Christian supporters have been quite vocal about this the last few days, sending a letter to Karl Rove. Are they misunderstanding the President's emphasis, then, on this issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm making it very clear to you what level of priority he places on it. It remains a high priority for the President, for the reasons he has stated and for the reasons I reiterated again today.

Q When Foreign Secretary Straw yesterday met Dr. Rice, did he reach an understanding on the lifting arm sales ban to China? And when the President goes to Europe next month, will he mention that to European leaders --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that -- and, again, I don't have the specifics on the meeting -- I mean, I can get you more information if it's needed, but I think we've made our views clear about why it's important to continue that arms embargo and why we continue to support it.

Q Is it on the President's agenda to talk to EU and NATO leaders?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll keep you posted as we get closer to the trip to Europe.

Q Scott, talking about North Korea, North Korean -- agencies are quoted to have state that the North Korea is now ready to officially declare the possession of nuclear weapons. What is your --

MR. McCLELLAN: To officially, I'm sorry, declare?

Q Yes, position of the nuclear weapon --

MR. McCLELLAN: The position?

Q Possession.

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, the possession.

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: Our view remains the same in terms of North Korea. We hope that they are serious and that they will come back to the six-party talks soon, so that we can talk in a substantive way about how to move forward on the proposal that we outlined at the last round of talks. That's what we believe is important. That's what the other nations in the region believe is important to move toward a nuclear-free peninsula.

Q There's been a war of words going on between the White House and the Senate Democrats over Condoleezza Rice's nomination to be Secretary of State. Andrew Card said the Democrats are playing petty politics. Barbara Boxer shoots back that, well, it's our advise and consent role, and we're going to do it anyhow. I think that makes it your turn to comment on this unprecedented opposition to --

MR. McCLELLAN: I recognize today that the Senate is debating the nomination. I would point out that just last week, Dr. Rice spent more than 10 hours testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She is someone that is highly qualified for this position and will make an outstanding Secretary of State. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recognized that, voted her out of committee 16 to 2. I understand there are a few Senate Democrats who may take a different view. They're certainly welcome to continue debating the matter. But we hope that the Senate will move forward quickly and confirm her nomination, so she can get about doing the people's business.

Thank you.

END 12:53 P.M. EST