For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
August 25, 2008
Press Briefing by Tony Fratto
Press Filing Center
Crawford Middle School
12:06 P.M. CDT
MR. FRATTO: Good afternoon, everyone. The President today had his normal briefings. He also went on a bike ride early today; has been in touch with some of his senior members of the administration back in Washington. Also this afternoon, the President will host the 100 Degree Club Run. I'm not sure we'll actually get to 100 degrees out there, so we'll see. I know there's some squawking from past members of the staff who have actually achieved the 100 degree run whether it's going to be hot enough.
I have a couple announcements, and then I'll get to your questions. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs, Reuben Jeffery, is leading an interagency delegation to Tbilisi, Georgia, to assess the economic and reconstruction needs for the country. That's August 25th through 27th. The delegation includes high-level representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Commerce, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, and USTR, and also from the Treasury Department.
During the visit, the delegation expects to meet with senior officials in Georgia, as well as representatives from the NGO community and the private sector. The purpose of the trip is to serve as a fact-finding mission, to do an assessment for the economic and reconstruction needs of Georgia since the conflict broke out there, to try to determine what the preliminary damage assessments are, and to express support for Georgia's economic development and reconstruction effort.
The goal of the trip -- I'm sorry -- the trip gives us an opportunity to move forward both here in the U.S. government, and also with our counterparts in Europe who want to support Georgia's economic and military reconstruction.
Also another important announcement today. The President made an important move in his continued dedication to improving management and conservation of our marine resources. He has sent a memo to Secretary Kempthorne, Secretary Gates and Secretary Gutierrez, asking them to make an assessment and then recommend whether to designate specific areas in the Pacific as marine protected areas. The areas under consideration include the remote islands and atolls in the Pacific Ocean -- the Rose Atoll near American Samoa, and the waters surrounding the northern Mariana Islands.
These areas are host to some of the world's most bio-diverse coral reefs and habitat, and some of the most interesting and compelling geological formations in all of our oceans. This is the first step in a process. These agencies will go out and assess the appropriateness of these areas to be considered for marine area protections.
As you know, the President has a longstanding commitment to ocean conservation and preserving our oceans for future generations. In 2004, the President issued his Ocean Action Plan to promote an ethic or responsible use and preservation of our oceans and the coastal resources. And so this is another step in that process to help to maintain these really incredible areas of the Pacific that we can do, and preserve them for -- even for sport fishing also, but also because of their uniqueness to the ocean environment.
And with that, I'll take your questions. Olivier.
Q Tony, what message is Vice President Cheney going to be bringing to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I think the message he'll be bringing -- the President wanted the Vice President to visit the region to consult with leaders in this obviously strategically important region. Developments lately in Georgia have increased the importance of this visit. The President -- the Vice President had intended to visit the region for some time. He added the Ukraine to his visit, and as you know, Georgia and Ukraine are aspiring NATO members, and we support their membership. So the Vice President will be delivering America's -- the word of America's support, and also consulting on how these leaders in the region see the future playing out.
Q Any chance the Vice President might go to Russia to make the West's case directly, face to face?
MR. FRATTO: I'm not expecting that, no.
Q Tony, earlier this month, the Vice President's office said that Russian aggression must not go unanswered. And he talked about serious consequences for the relationship with Russia, as have other leaders in the government. Is it clear yet how the White House wants to answer Russia's aggression?
MR. FRATTO: Well, it hasn't gone unanswered. In fact, I'd say it's been loudly answered both by the United States -- but really, this isn't really about the United States and Russia; this is about Europe and Russia, and our relationship with Russia and Georgia. And I don't think there's any question that Russia's reputation has suffered since it took these disproportionate military steps in Georgia. And you see that in various ways.
Now, I know a lot of people have asked the question as to what is the cost to Russia. There's been costs in terms of their reputation; there's costs in terms of the ability and willingness to do business in Russia, for example. But what we're focused on, and I think it's shown by Secretary Jeffery's trip to Georgia, is how can we best help Georgia right now, and how can we help them and support them and preserve that democracy in this critical region, and also help their economic development.
Q So beyond those consequences that you named, in terms of reputation around the world, is the White House no longer considering additional specific consequences?
MR. FRATTO: We're reviewing our entire relationship with Russia, both for the medium term and the long term. As I said, clearly in the short term, I think they are paying a price for the disproportionate actions that they've taken. But our focus right now is on supporting Georgia.
Q Tony, is the U.S. still unsatisfied with the extent of Russian withdrawal from Georgia?
MR. FRATTO: Well, there's no question that Russia hasn't lived up to the cease-fire agreement, if that's what you're asking -- have they -- yes. You know, there are six points in that agreement, and we still see large numbers of Russian troops in undisputed territory. We still see them maintaining checkpoints. We still see the activity in Poti. So there's no question that Russia remains in violation of that agreement.
We continue to encourage them to live up to the commitment that their President made that they would fully withdraw and live up to the agreement. At the same time, we're trying to move in the OSCE monitors and try to get up to a substantial number; our goal is to get a hundred monitors in the region. That's the international mechanism that we talked about that's part of the agreement. We want to make sure that gets in place, and that all Russian troops can pull back to where they were on August 6th. So the answer to the question is, yes, we're still concerned that Russia still remains in places where they should not be.
Q The President in May submitted to Congress the civilian nuclear agreement between the United States and Russia. Will the administration still press for that to go forward, or will you withdraw?
MR. FRATTO: I think -- we have another civil nuclear agreement in the queue ahead of that that we're really focused on right now, and that's the India civil nuclear agreement, and that's generating a lot of work and time and energy on our part to get that done. We were able to work that through the IAEA, and now working with the Nuclear Suppliers Group and trying to get that through the Nuclear Suppliers Group and eventually for presentation to our Congress.
Like I said, with respect to our relationship across the board with Russia, we're reviewing that and we'll think about it in terms of the midterm and the long term, based on the choices that Russia makes. And we are still hopeful that Russia will make choices that will return it to its previous efforts to integrate more closely into the international economic community, into Europe, and to be a positive force in cooperation with Europe and the rest of the world.
So that's the choice that we'd like to see Russia make. And so it's less a choice of what the U.S. government or Europe and other countries make; the question of choices really falls on Russia.
Q Do you anticipate this agreement being completed this year -- the Russian agreement?
MR. FRATTO: I can't speculate on when or how that would get done. Like I said, we're focused on the other civil nuclear agreement right now.
Q -- Cheney's schedule. As I understand it, he has accepted the Italy conference thing -- that was planned in advance. Was Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan added after this conflict?
MR. FRATTO: I believe Georgia and Azerbaijan had already been on their -- on the trip as they planned the trip before the conflict in Georgia. Since then Ukraine was added.
Q Tony, I have two questions. The first one is still on Russia. Now the Russian parliament has passed a resolution to approve Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. If the President of Russia decides to sign that, what's the U.S. response and what's the U.S. --
MR. FRATTO: Well, the status of those two regions in Georgia are not a matter for any one country to decide; they're a matter for the international community through the mechanisms at the United Nations. So those two regions are part of U.N. resolutions -- resolutions, by the way, that Russia has supported in the past. That is the force of law today. As you heard the President say last week, the two regions are part of Georgia. They're in Georgia, they're part of Georgia, as a matter of these U.N. resolutions. And that's where the matter stands.
How we go forward in dealing with the two regions and what their interests are and the interests of Georgia are should be a matter of peaceful negotiations and discussion among the parties. That's where we would like to get to.
Q Is the President watching any of the DNC tonight?
MR. FRATTO: I don't know. I didn't ask him whether he'll be watching. I can check and see whether he plans to or not. I'm sure there's also a baseball game on tonight, too, so -- (laughter.)
I'm sorry, John, yes.
Q Prime Minister Maliki has made statements about the negotiations -- the status of negotiations with the security agreement with Iraq. Can you just once again give us the American view on how things are going and where things stand now?
MR. FRATTO: Sure. I know there are always reports out there in the press and I'm not sure I saw exactly what Prime Minister Maliki said. But clearly from our perspective, we've been working with the Iraqi government for a long time on this agreement. It's a critical agreement between two sovereign countries in this region, and we want to see this bilateral agreement put in place, to take effect once the December 30th U.N. agreement runs out.
We're discussing goals. As you know, you've heard us speak about different kinds of timelines or aspirational goals that may be acceptable. I don't have anything to announce on that.
An agreement has not been signed, and so from our perspective, there is no agreement until there's an agreement signed. There are discussions that continue in Baghdad. We'd like to let them continue and to continue to show progress. What we're focused on is getting a good agreement, not getting an agreement by a particular date. So we'll continue those discussions.
Stepping back, I think what we're really pleased about is the fact that we're having these discussions with a sovereign, democratically elected country that is -- that wants to have a relationship with the United States going forward, and the fact that the only reason we can have these discussions today is because of the success of the surge. And as we continue to see security gains on the ground in Iraq, and we can have the return on success that the President talked about because of those security gains, that's a good thing for us, that's a good thing for Iraq. And so we have these mutual goals. But any decisions on troops will be based on the conditions on the ground in Iraq. That has always been our position; it continues to be our position.
Q Secretary Rice, who is apparently en route to Tel Aviv, was asked about her reaction to Senator Biden being named to the Democratic ticket.
MR. FRATTO: Apparently. I saw that.
Q And she said, "Senator Biden is obviously a very fine statesman." She went on to say that he was a very supportive committee chair, and before that, ranking member for the State Department and for our diplomatic efforts. And she ended by saying he's "a true, true patriot." What are -- what is the White House's reaction to the naming of Senator Biden?
MR. FRATTO: The White House's reactions to Senator Biden being selected?
Q Does the President agree with that assessment?
MR. FRATTO: Obviously -- let me just say this -- I mean, for Senator Biden to be selected to run on his party's ticket for Vice President is a great honor. It's a great honor for anyone who has that opportunity to run in a national election like that, to aspire to represent the country; and so a very personal thing for him and his family. Obviously, we're -- we would be happy for him.
As for Secretary Rice, I think Secretary Rice has made clear who she intends to vote for, and that will be Senator McCain and whomever he chooses to join him on the ticket.
Q -- her assessment, though, that he is a great statesman and a true patriot?
MR. FRATTO: That he is a great statesman? He's done tremendous work over a long period, and I know he has been supportive of Secretary Rice's State Department.
Q Tony, when you say that the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a matter for peaceful negotiations and discussions among "the parties," can you talk -- which parties we're talking about here?
MR. FRATTO: Well, I'm talking about the people in the region -- I'm sorry, of the two regions, the Georgians, and at the United Nations, just as the past discussions have been.
Q The Olympics closing yesterday, and coinciding with the deportation of seven -- or, eight Americans who tried to protest there -- what's the President's reaction to that? And is he at all concerned that some of the messages he made -- statements he made publicly in Beijing didn't seem to go anywhere with the leadership?
MR. FRATTO: Well, we think over time they do have an impact. We think our relationship with China has had a positive impact on freedom and human rights in China. We would like to see more liberalization of human rights and religious freedom in Russia as -- I'm sorry, in China -- as you heard the President make clear numerous times on that trip. It was maybe an opportunity missed for the Chinese to demonstrate their willingness to be more open and to allow more freedom of speech, freedom of religion, while the world was watching. And so I would say perhaps we're disappointed that they didn't take the full opportunity that was offered to them while the world was watching during these Olympics.
Q Tony, on the Iraq negotiations again, please. You said the negotiations aren't final, and that's certainly consistent with what Iraqi officials said today. Are you able or unable to address the specific assertion of Mr. Maliki that the timetable is one that's now been agreed on?
MR. FRATTO: No, I'm certainly not going to get into any discussion on specifics of really any part of the agreement. That's something we try to avoid doing from the podium, and I think we'll continue to do that.
Q Tony, is there any White House response to Hamid Karzai's concerns about the attacks on areas in his country that have resulted in severe civilian casualties?
MR. FRATTO: We're -- obviously it's an emotional issue in Afghanistan. There is an investigation underway to determine what exactly happened there. We believe from what we've heard from officials at the Department of Defense that they believe it was a good strike. I don't have information that I can share in terms of whether or how many civilian casualties there were. I should tell you, though, first of all, we obviously mourn the loss of any innocent civilians that may lose their lives in these attacks in -- whether they're in Afghanistan or in Iraq, in any of these conflict areas.
What's also important to remember is that NATO forces that are operating in Afghanistan take every precaution to try to avoid innocent civilian casualties. And you need to stand that in stark contrast with the militants and the Taliban in Afghanistan which put innocent civilians in harm's way as a tactical move to try to prevent NATO from taking the action that's necessary to stop them.
So we certainly understand President Karzai's concerns. Our people on the ground in Afghanistan are in communication with the government of Afghanistan. But we'll await the results of the investigation that's going on there.
Okay? Thank you.
END 12:25 P.M. CDT