For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
February 28, 2007
Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EST
MR. SNOW: Good afternoon. Let me begin with an announcement. President Bush will welcome Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand to the White House on March 21, 2007. President Bush looks forward to consulting with Prime Minister Clark on common efforts in the war on terror. The two leaders also will review efforts to advance and strengthen bilateral relations.
Also, in response to Helen's question this morning, the government of Iraq has extended official invitations to regional neighboring countries, Egypt, the five permanent members of the Security Council of the U.N., the Islamic Conference Organization and the Arab League for a conference to be held in Baghdad on March 10, 2007.
Also, just to clarify a point that came up in the gaggle this morning, if, in fact, topics like EFPs and such like come up in that conference, obviously we will address them. But there will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings. These are organized by the Iraqis and these are on issues that are pertinent to Iraq.
As for whether the United States has changed its policy dramatically, it has not. And I will give you a little more detail on that. There were many contacts with the Iranians with regard to Afghanistan throughout 2002 and 2003, through the Bonn 6-plus-2 process, as they were standing up the government in Afghanistan. And there was also an offer by the United States to work diplomatically with the Iranians on border issues.
The Iranians were at the Iraqi Compact meeting at the United Nations last September. Secretary Powell was in a meeting with neighbors in Sharm el-Sheikh in November of 2004. You also know Iranian representatives participated in a number of meetings subsequent to the Madrid Donors Conference; that was in October of 2003. And afterwards, there were subsequent meetings in what was called the International Reconstruction Facilities Fund for Iraq, including February of '04 in Abu Dhabi, May of '04 in Doha, October of '04 in Tokyo, and in July of '05 at the Dead Sea. The meeting involved roughly 70 countries. So that is at least a glimpse of a number of occasions on which the U.S. and the Iranians had been seated at the same table in multilateral negotiations.
Q Why are you so defensive about going the diplomatic route?
MR. SNOW: We're not. As a matter of fact, we've been going the diplomatic route all along. We're not being defensive. What we're trying to do is clarify, because it's important that people understand that this administration is serious when it comes to the Iranians about a precondition for bilateral negotiations and also for diplomatic relations, which is they can't be working toward a nuclear weapon.
And we've laid out very clearly -- not just us, but the P5-plus-one, the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany -- in conversations with the Iranians, they've made it clear what the conditions are. We want to make sure those waters don't get muddied. And the Iranian people also understand that we look favorably upon the Iranian people, but we take a dim view of the Iranian government's activities when it comes to terrorist activities.
Q I think that's pretty well-known, but is your muscular naval foreign policy toward Iran boomeranging in terms of Congress and so forth?
MR. SNOW: No, as a matter of fact, I think what you're seeing is -- we have two carrier battle groups in the region, but I think if you take a look, for instance, at the David Ignatius piece today in The Washington Post, what you see there is a reflection of the success of diplomatic efforts when it comes to the Iranians.
The President has made it really clear -- and I don't know why everybody seems determined to try to turn this into a military standoff --
Q He put a naval officer in charge of all the ground troops in Iraq.
MR. SNOW: Well, yes. No, actually, the person in charge of the ground troops in Iraq is David Petraeus. The person -- you're talking about Fox Fallen, of course, who is a naval officer who is the head of Central Command. In any event, I'm just trying to clarify. These are important distinctions to make and we tried to make them.
Q Given that the IEDs have been so devastating to American troops in Iraq, why wouldn't this be a big focus of this conference?
MR. SNOW: Well, it may be. I'm certainly not going to rule it out. But again, the Iraqis are the ones who are convening the conference, and they're the ones who are going to have control of the agenda.
Q Well, do we have no input on the agenda? I mean, we have a big investment in Iraq.
MR. SNOW: We do, and part of that investment is to allow the Iraqis to take much-needed steps toward building capacity not only on the military and economic front, but the diplomatic front. And the idea that the United States will dictate terms to them seems contrary to our stated purpose, which is to help them build it. We're going to consult with the Iraqis, of course, but they're going to do what they think is important. Perhaps the topic will come up. Again, I'm not going to rule it out; I'm just not going to rule it in.
Q Tony, is he to be anxious to dissuade anybody from interpreting this as some change in policy.
MR. SNOW: Yes, because I think a lot of the press accounts yesterday just got it wrong, and I think it's important to get it right.
Q What is wrong with saying -- well, why are you hesitant to embrace this sort of school of thought here that the administration has heard what the Baker-Hamilton group suggested, they've heard the calls from the Hill, as Secretary Rice talked about yesterday, and you're open to engaging on all fronts in a way that is you're embracing something that you were pushing away before? What's wrong with that --
MR. SNOW: We were so good that we pre-heard it. As a matter of fact, we pre-heard it as early as 2002 if you want to take it that route, Jim.
Q I'm not sure I follow.
MR. SNOW: Well, what you're saying is -- this is not a response to the Baker-Hamilton commission, although it does comport with one of the recommendations.
Q -- Secretary Rice bring that up on the Hill yesterday, then?
MR. SNOW: Because what she was doing is everybody uses Baker-Hamilton as a talking point. She said, here, here is something Baker-Hamilton recommended that's --
Q Well what's wrong with saying, yes, we're flexible, we're going to try it on all these different fronts, as opposed to going out of your way to knock down any impression that perhaps you're flexible diplomatically?
MR. SNOW: No, we're not -- that's -- here's part of the problem we're having, is that you are applying labels that don't really seem to apply to the situation. We -- "flexible diplomatically"? I mean, what exactly do you mean, "flexible diplomatically"?
Q I don't understand what the problem is, why you're going so far out of your way to say, what we're doing now shouldn't be interpreted as reaching out diplomatically to Iran and Syria.
MR. SNOW: Because we don't want it to be seen as a --
MR. SNOW: Because this is an Iraqi initiative, and the one thing -- you do not -- you know, Jim, one of the things they want is diplomatic recognition. They need to deliver. They need to deliver. You do not strengthen your hand by showing "flexibility" in the absence of activity on the part of those parties, especially when you have taken a public negotiating position on it.
It is -- what is going on is of a piece with what has been going on for years. You and I had a conversation about this and you, to your credit, had a readout of a number of these occasions in the past where there had been the presence of Iranians and U.S. negotiators at multilateral forums. This is no different in principle than those.
On the other hand, what you're defining as flexibility is -- I think what you're saying is, if the U.S. gives up on the precondition that has been agreed upon in an international forum -- then, yes, absolutely --
Q That's not what I'm saying.
MR. SNOW: Well, I'm telling you what the real effect is. Because if you're saying that you want to throw away the conditions that were laid down by the P5-plus-one in dealing with the Iranians, and also the conditions that were negotiated with members of the Security Council in putting together a Chapter 7 resolution against Iran --
Q He didn't say that.
MR. SNOW: Yes, he did, because that would be the practical effect of it. The practical effect --
Q I'm not smart enough to come up with all that, Tony.
MR. SNOW: Well, then I'm trying to school you. I'm just trying to school you because -- see, what you're saying, Jim, what you're saying, "Why can't you be flexible?" -- because to meet your test of flexibility --
Q No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying, why are you so invested in being -- in talking about --
MR. SNOW: -- in principle?
Q No. No. Let me finish the question. Why are you so dug in on talking tough while you're going to do something in the next month or two that you have clearly stayed away from embracing up to this point?
MR. SNOW: Wait a minute. This is where you've got it completely -- what do you mean we've stayed away? I have just read for you a whole list of occasions on which the United States --
Q The Secretary of State is going to sit down --
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q -- and I know that some of those --
MR. SNOW: And she sat down --
Q -- and didn't even shake a hand or acknowledge in some of those situations.
MR. SNOW: She was in the meetings with them in September. Colin Powell was with them in Sharm el-Sheikh and through the Bonn process. So you --
Q Apparently, they didn't talk to each other and didn't shake hands hello. There was no -- this sounds like -- the tenor of what's about to happen sounds entirely different. And I'm just wondering --
MR. SNOW: I don't think it is. The Iraqis are putting together a meeting and it's going to be a businesslike meeting. If you're expecting suddenly new chummy relations, you've created a scenario that is not justified by the facts on the ground or the precedence.
Q One more follow on this. Could it be that you're concerned -- if you are seen as embarking on a new policy, is the concern that the old policy was wrong?
MR. SNOW: No, the concern is you guys are getting it wrong and I don't know how to get you to get it through your heads that it's not new. I mean, it's not new. What's going on here is something that has a long-seated precedence. There are multilateral forums where, if the Iranians are there, we're not going to walk out. The Iraqis -- we have always said if they invite us to this regional forum, we will be there. They invited us; we're going to be there.
There's going to be a follow-up at the ministerial level, which likely will include key diplomats from those countries, as well as from G8 countries, and Secretary of State Rice and Mr. Larijani and others will probably be in attendance. But this does not mean that there are going to be sidebars where we're having one-on-one talks with the Iranians. It doesn't mean that there's going to be any departure from past practice. It does mean that if issues come up that are going to be of interest, like EFPs or so on, then, yes, we'll certainly discuss them in the open forum.
Q You're not saying we didn't put a stamp of approval on this with the Iraqis --
MR. SNOW: Of course, we did. We're very happy that this is going on.
Q We pushed it, didn't we?
MR. SNOW: We have encouraged it.
Q Will the President ask the sovereign government of Iraq to put EFPs on the agenda?
MR. SNOW: I don't know -- the President is not going to make a request. The government of Iraq --
Q Well, why not? The President says he doesn't believe in meeting just to meet, so what's the point of it then?
MR. SNOW: Well, the point of it is this is a meeting, actually, where you've got the Iraqis who have real challenges in dealing with the neighborhood -- as you can tell, the Iranians and Syrians have not been uniformly friendly, and it is important to try to build better relations with those on matters of security, economy and other things.
This is not a meeting just to meet. There are very serious pieces of business to do on the economic front and on the security front, especially, and if this issue does come up -- and this is a --
Q EFPs are high on your security agenda.
MR. SNOW: Absolutely.
Q That's eminently clear, so --
MR. SNOW: High on our security -- they're an important -- they are an element. But also you don't want to overstate, there are plenty of challenges in Iraq. You've got al Qaeda challenges, you've got sectarian violence challenges. So we're trying to keep this in proportion. But is it a concern of us with the fact that the Quds forces, it's traceable to Quds forces? Yes, sure.
Q Tony, yesterday the President's new Director of National Intelligence testified on Capitol Hill for the first time, and said, U.S. intelligence believes that Osama bin Laden and his number two are alive in Pakistan and reestablishing training camps. If you really have bin Laden on the run, how is he reestablishing training camps?
MR. SNOW: Well, that's a question -- that's an intelligence matter that I'm not going to be able to go into.
Q But how can you continually say the leadership is on the run and --
MR. SNOW: Well, you take a look also at statements that have been made by generals in recent days -- General Schoomaker the other day had a comment that I was asked about, which is he thought bin Laden had been marginalized. The question is whether al Qaeda -- I think the bin Laden question may be separable from the al Qaeda question. It's clear that al Qaeda is trying to gain strength --
Q But isn't he the leader of al Qaeda?
MR. SNOW: Well, I don't know. It's a real question about who assumes operational command. One of the things we've found is that the command structure has been degraded significantly and that remains the case. But in terms of trying to characterize precisely how the command structure looks or how it operates, it would be inappropriate to comment from the podium. But certainly, if you take a look, over and over you've had key members taken out, and also reports in the press that the leadership had become much more decentralized, as had the activities of al Qaeda. Indeed, you had the correspondence between Ayman al Zawahiri and Abu Musab al Zarqawi where you had Zawahiri basically asking for money from Zarqawi, when he was head, and also begging him -- it looked as it al Qaeda in Iraq in some cases at least had some leverage over al Qaeda leadership, wherever it was hiding.
Q There was also a report this morning that two Army combat brigades are being sent to Iraq without desert training -- the Associated Press has a story out today -- and that it's because they're being rushed to Iraq to help get the surge in place.
MR. SNOW: Again, let me stress, what happens is, a lot of times you will also do training in theaters, as well as equipping in theater. The generals have made it very clear, and military commanders have made it clear, nobody is going to go into combat activity without proper equipment and training. Period. So if things --
Q But the story flatly says that two brigades are going in without desert training in California. So that doesn't sound like --
MR. SNOW: All right, I understand.
Q -- they're getting the training.
MR. SNOW: Well, but they can get desert training elsewhere, like in Iraq.
Q Tony, what's the upshot on your talks on the senior administration official transcript?
MR. SNOW: I have spoken with the Vice President's office, and the ground rules that were laid out are going to remain in effect. (Laughter.)
MR. SNOW: Well, I will direct that to them. They said that the opinion is that everybody on the plane had agreed to ground rules, and they were not inclined to change them.
Q But didn't the Vice President change them in his comments?
MR. SNOW: I don't think so. I mean --
Q -- when he identified himself?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, I will not comment on a senior administration official briefing. I will simply tell you that that is the opinion of the Vice President's office. And for further -- if you wish to go back and get them to referee it, you may do so.
Q While we're on this -- can I just continue? Can you explain --
MR. SNOW: Please. This is riveting.
Q -- on the topic of senior administration officials, why -- explain why that device is ever used, and why the public isn't entitled to know who's talking when the people they pay them do what they're paid to do?
MR. SNOW: Well, as you know, sometimes, for instance, when we have senior administration officials who will brief in this room, it is important for matters of confidentiality, in terms of -- they're able to be more open with you, as senior administration officials, and also it denies people an opportunity perhaps to -- in any event, I'm not going to get -- look, I'm not going to get myself stuck in the endless sort of spin cycle of trying to deal with rules on senior administration officials. If you would like those briefings to cease, we could probably make that happen, but I think you would be poorer for it, and we would, too.
You've been around this town long enough to know, Ken, that there are times when it is deemed appropriate to do so. And people do participate in those, as you did. So, I mean, it was a question that may have been posed at the time, but apparently no objection -- the objection was not made at that time and venue.
Q Tony, does the President's economic team believe yesterday's market dive was an anomaly?
MR. SNOW: I don't think there's any use at this point in trying to characterize from this podium what happened in a market on any given day. It is worth reiterating what I said before, which is if you take a look at the trend lines, you've got the strongest international economy maybe ever. China's stock market has doubled in value over the past year. You have a number of vigorous and growing economies. The most vigorous and growing of which is the United States of America, growing more rapidly than any industrialized country, for now I think 42 consecutive months of growth. And, furthermore, the economic fundamentals remain sound and it's one of the focuses of administration policy to keep it strong and keep it growing.
So there is always danger in trying to do spot characterizations of what happens in a market because that then becomes a factor as investors take a look -- administration officials says, X. I would rather not give them something to react to. I would rather have investors remarking to -- reacting to market fundamentals, rather than Press Secretary remarks.
Q Understanding that, is the thought here at the White House that there's no conclusive reason for the decline yesterday?
MR. SNOW: Again, I'm not going to --
Q The main point of discussion, will it be at the lunch today with his economic team?
MR. SNOW: Okay, this is -- thank you. The President's economic team meets every Wednesday for lunch. The President is not there. The President is having lunch right now with an author, and I read that out earlier. But what happens is the economic team, which includes the National Economic Council Director, it includes the head of the Council of Economic Advisors, the Budget Director, the Chief of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Staff, the Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of Commerce -- that's kind of the basic team. Once a week they meet.
There is also -- the President also has a working group. That involves Treasury, the Fed, the SEC and the CFTC -- the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. At a sub-ministerial level, a sub-cabinet level those guys talk every day, so there are sort of normal communications between them. As far as the President's working group, the general practice is for them to meet at least once a month; they quite often do so more frequently. But the President is not doing a sit down today with economic advisors.
The sit-downs that he's done in the past -- again, yesterday he called Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary, and said, how do you read what's going on. I will allow that conversation to remain confidential between the two. But Hank Paulson is not only the top economic policy-making official in this administration, but somebody who has long and considerable experience with China, as well. So the President wanted to get his opinion on it.
Q Did you not talk with him today to get an update on how he felt the morning was going?
MR. SNOW: I don't know if he's talked to him today or not. It looks as if markets have rebounded -- at least the Chinese market today. And who knows what's going to happen? Again, I don't want to try from the podium to make a guess about how the Dow Jones Industrial Average will --
Q Just to follow, the other day the former Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, said it was possible the U.S. economy could slide into a recession by the end of the year. What do you say to that?
MR. SNOW: Actually, if you take a look, there's a follow-on story on that and I think Chairman Greenspan has questioned that characterization. If you take a look, Ben Bernanke today, the new Fed Chairman, was on the Hill, and repeated basically what I said, which is the fundamentals look very strong.
Q So you disagree with that assessment from --
MR. SNOW: I think Mr. Greenspan characterizes what -- that assessment of what he said.
Q Tony, I've got a domestic question, but I wanted to just follow up on one thing on the Iran story. You gave a real quick response a couple minutes ago and you said something about a meeting on the sidelines. Are you ruling out any sidebar-type meetings with them at all?
MR. SNOW: Yes.
Q How about the Syrians?
MR. SNOW: Yes. I mean, again, let me -- that is barring action on things that we've said to both you need to do. If between now and the 10th of March, the Iranians suspended reprocessing and enrichment, then you'd have a different ballpark. If the Syrians had changed their attitude toward Hamas and Hezbollah, okay, then -- you see what I mean. So there are a number --
Q I have a domestic question.
MR. SNOW: Okay, I'm sorry, yes.
Q On the President's trip tomorrow down to the Katrina zone, what's your assessment of the pace of the recovery? There's one study out that says that it has stalled out.
MR. SNOW: Well, I don't want to get into trying to assess. The President led the charge to get $100 billion appropriated by the Congress. And that money has been put together in grant packages so that state and local officials, who should have the most expertise in where the money ought best to be used and how best to use it, it goes to them. They have to fulfill certain requirements in order to have that money available. But there are still billions unspent available.
As I did note, there seems to have been a very significant increase in activity in terms of housing loans being granted in New Orleans just within the last few weeks. But I think rather than grading it, the most important thing is the President wants to see progress on all fronts -- reconstruction, and also dealing with social services.
You know, it's important to have law and order and good schools, and one of the things he's going to do tomorrow is visit a charter school. As you may recall, Peter, when he went to Wall Street, he had a talk about income differences, the income gap. And one of the things he pointed out is that there is a significant earnings difference, on the average, based on people's educational attainment levels. He feels very strongly about that -- that's one of the hallmarks of No Child Left Behind -- and insistence not merely that people get diplomas, but the diplomas mean something, that people get an education. And when he is in the region tomorrow, he will be looking at economic reconstruction efforts, but he also will be looking at education, which is a key part.
Q Why are there billions unspent? Where's the roadblock in the pipeline?
MR. SNOW: Again, I'm going to leave that -- I will direct that to people who are more directly involved. You can talk to Don Powell, or you can refer it to state and local officials, because frankly, there's a lot of controversy down there and people are busy swapping charges. The most important thing is, work it out and get help to the people.
Q One more on this. You put out a fact sheet on the first anniversary, and the President said, over $77 billion of the $110 billion has been dispensed, or was available for the states to draw from. What is that ratio now?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I know we put together some numbers about a week ago. We can get those for you, because we do have an update.
MR. SNOW: Dispense or available -- although a significant amount has, in fact, been dispensed at this point. We do have numbers on that. We'll get them to you.
Q To get back to the markets, do you know if there was any outreach to the Chinese government beginning yesterday into today?
MR. SNOW: No, I don't.
Q What about any discussions with either Chairman Bernanke or Greenspan?
MR. SNOW: You mean between the two?
Q No, no, between the administration and either Chairman Bernanke or Chairman Greenspan?
MR. SNOW: No. Again, I think what the President -- we're taking a look at what's going on, and what we do see is a strong global economy with strong fundamentals, and the importance is to build on those fundamentals.
Q Was the working group working yesterday?
MR. SNOW: Look, again, these guys consult every day, so I'm sure that there were conversations among members of the working group. I don't -- I can't tell you whether the principals had a conference call or anything to that extent.
Q Tony, on the New Zealand announcement -- go Kiwi -- it's been ages since the New Zealand Prime Minister has been invited here. Does this mean the U.S. can resume an allied relationship with New Zealand, despite the nuclear and the environmental policies? And will President Bush hold a lunch, or a dinner, or a press conference with her?
MR. SNOW: My goodness, Connie. We just announced it. Get to us when we're a little closer to the day.
Q Could you look into it, please?
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to -- I mean, at this juncture I daresay we haven't finished scheduling things. So when it comes to dinner or luncheon, bowling on the lawn, we don't have that stuff.
Q Is it a state or official visit?
MR. SNOW: Again, I've read to you what I have, and that's all I have. I have these sentences that are on this here sheet of paper and no more. But we will endeavor to get you more.
Q I appreciate that. They appreciate that, also.
Q Tony, as far as bombing in Afghanistan was concerned, yesterday Taliban claimed responsibility, that Vice President was the target. And my question is that was there any -- they were trying to give any message to the leader or to U.S., or also if there is any plan of expanding NATO or -- any other countries are joining as far as more forces are concerned in Afghanistan?
MR. SNOW: That's a good question. As I pointed out, we do know that the Danes are going to be increasing their participation somewhat. I don't know what the readout is going to be. You know, we are committed to having more resources in Afghanistan, as the President has said. But as far -- and going back to the Taliban question, we don't know. I mean, somebody has made a claim; I don't know whether it's legit or illegit. But the point is that we're working with NATO to make sure that we have the right capability, once again, like in Iraq, to help the Afghans be able to stand up for their own, for themselves.
So, for instance, in recent announcements you've seen that there have been very vigorous targets in terms of increasing the number of people in the army and in the police forces who are getting trained up and made capable. And you're seeing more joint operations and interoperability and that sort of thing. So, again, I think at this juncture I can't give you any specific numbers on what's going to happen.
Q On China, has the President has been briefed? Because in recent days Vice President Cheney and also Dr. Rice and also congressional leaders on the Hill, they are worried about the Chinese threat, the emerging threat. And recently the Vice President also spoke about this. This week, during the hearings on the Hill they were worried about the Chinese building up --
MR. SNOW: Well, we're aware. Look, China is a nation that clearly has ambitions. The most important thing we are working with them on right now are the six-party talks. They have been important allies. We also are working with them on a number of other fronts, including economic and trade fronts. The problem with that is it is such a vague question that it leads only to mischief, and I would rather avoid mischief on that.
Q Back to Katrina. The President took a lot of flak for not mentioning Katrina in the State of the Union speech. In hindsight, was that a mistake?
MR. SNOW: It's not -- you know what? "In hindsight," I'm just not going to play the "hindsight" game.
Q Well, but, plenty of people thought it meant he was downgrading the issue.
MR. SNOW: Yes, but he wasn't. It's hard to argue that somebody who has put on a push to spend $110 billion on a problem, as ever downgrading it; who gets very regular briefings on it as downgrading it; and somebody who has people report to him directly as downgrading it.
We understand that somebody can take a non-mention in a speech and try to use it for their own political purposes. But the fact is that the President is committed and he's done it. I mean, $110 billion, it speaks for itself.
Q Tony, on Iran and Syria and Katrina.
MR. SNOW: Whoa. Is that separate questions? (Laughter.)
Q They are. They're not linked.
MR. SNOW: Good.
Q Does the meeting, this Iraqi meeting with Iran and Syria, does this constitute the fulfillment, partial fulfillment of the Baker-Hamilton commission report?
MR. SNOW: To the extent -- again, this is done because the Iraqi government -- the Iraqi government has been involved in a number of activities like this. I mentioned before the Iraq Compact. That is economic outreach. It involves the neighbors and it involves a neighborhood. And, in fact, the Iranians and Syrians were part of that, along with the United States. So this is certainly not unprecedented.
And to the extent that the Baker-Hamilton commission had said that they wanted to see vigorous regional involvement, yes, sure. But this is not done so that the Iranians could say, okay, check, we got Baker-Hamilton satisfied. They're doing it because it's the right thing to do and it's good for them. And they've done it on the economic front. It's important to continue on the security and political fronts.
Q So how long has this administration known that this was in the works to possibly have this meeting?
MR. SNOW: Don't know for sure. But it's certainly something -- again, we have not discouraged it. They've been discussing it for some time. It's been mentioned any number of times from here.
Q The reason why I ask is because Congressman Elijah Cummings, who was part of the CBC meeting, as well as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he said when the CBC met with President Bush, President Bush said, let's let the surge work, and then we will implement Baker-Hamilton. And my question is, is this considered part of what he said --
MR. SNOW: Okay, let me -- first, I'm going to be clever about this for reasons --
Q No, be truthful and straight.
MR. SNOW: I'm going to be truthful, but I'm going to be truthful and indirect, for the following reason: We do not comment directly on behind-the-scenes confidential meetings with members of Congress. So let me tell you why the President --
Q This Congressman said it --
MR. SNOW: Let me tell you why the President, on a number of occasions, has said he would like to get to Baker-Hamilton. That is the way he has phrased it in any number of occasions.
When he talks about getting to Baker-Hamilton, what he's really talking about is what he calls the over-the-horizon presence, where the Iraqis are able to provide basic police and military support and stability for provinces and at the city level, so that the United States forces can back away from those areas and engage primarily in support and border enforcement -- border integrity activities.
And the President has always said that -- well, not always, but he has said frequently, that he thought that at this juncture -- a year ago, he and most of his military advisors thought we would be at "the Baker Hamilton point" right now. But obviously, sectarian violence flared up, and we are not at that point.
So when he talks about trying to get to Baker-Hamilton, that's what he's discussing. He's not talking about the particulars about whether you have direct negotiations with Iran and Syria, or whether Iraq has -- none of that. He's talking about the overall emphasis of Baker-Hamilton, which is a U.S. presence that is lighter, and that has succeeded in the task of enabling the Iraqis to build that capacity to take care of their own basic police work and security operations, and also that they've made the political deals that are necessary for long-term stability, and you've begun to get economic growth so that the United States can get back -- again, use the term of art -- over the horizon, deal with some border security issues, and eventually bring its folks home. So that's what he was referring to.
Q All right. Now on Katrina. This is a significant trip -- six months since the President has been down there; major disparities between Mississippi and Louisiana. Is the President --
MR. SNOW: Disparities of what sort?
Q Check disbursements.
MR. SNOW: That's a function of state or local government, at the state and local governments.
Q When is this administration going to stop saying it's a function of the local and state, and finally say, look, let's work this out, to help, because people are still out of their homes, people are still wanting to go home. When do you say when?
MR. SNOW: Well, again, what you're saying is that we, in fact, should say -- because, number one, you need to express not only faith, but also recognize the solemn responsibilities of state and local governments do. If you are, in fact, trying to assume those responsibilities, I guarantee you there would be plenty of complaint. But as I just pointed out, and I'm sure you're aware of this, there has been a dramatic change in the check-cutting pace. Now, I gather that there is a much higher goal for New Orleans than there has been in the past --
Q Four-hundred versus thousands -- that's a --
MR. SNOW: No, I think the number is now in the thousands in New Orleans, and rising rapidly. Double-check with Don Powell, but the numbers are changing. We certainly think it's important and imperative -- when you have, again, billions of dollars unspent that could be used for housing and to reconstruction in New Orleans, it's important to get that money in the pipeline, so the people who do want to get their homes rebuilt, and people who do either want to live in New Orleans or return to New Orleans get the help that Congress has appropriated for them.
Q Well, another aspect of revitalization in a Katrina-hit area is insurance. There's a congressional hearing today on that. To what extent, or is the President at all planning to address this issue, as far as the affordability of insurance, or even availability of insurance in this area now?
MR. SNOW: I don't know. I'm not even going to try to fake it.
Q Does he acknowledge it's a problem?
MR. SNOW: Well, I think what happens is a lot of times when you have a disaster, you do have, in fact -- look, a lot of times you've got to take a look at the ways states and localities handle insurance issues. That also tends to be one where you have differing rules and regulations. But I think, Paula, it is a lot more complicated than simply saying that it is a federal problem. It has many layers. And that's why I am wary of trying to give you an answer that has not been fully researched and thought out. We will do some homework, but I think you deserve better than having me try to make it up.
Q Tony, in the spirit of spring training, I have somewhat of a curve ball for you. A Massachusetts Congressman today is calling for repeal or overturning of "don't ask, don't tell" in the military. Does the President favor the policy?
MR. SNOW: The President supports the military policy. We will see what happens if Congress comes up with something.
Q Tony, thank you. Two questions. Since the President's one-time election opponent is the only Vice President ever to win the Academy Award's Oscar, did the President send him congratulations?
MR. SNOW: I'm not aware that he did. But I will send mine.
Q Is this because -- the fact that you don't know that he sent him congratulations due to the fact that the President believes the award should have been for science fiction?
MR. SNOW: No, I don't. But that was very clever. That was a good one.
Q Thank you very much.
Q No, it wasn't.
MR. SNOW: Front row disagrees.
Q Did the President watch the movie?
MR. SNOW: I doubt it.
Q As far as the March 10th regional conference goes, is there a particular reason why it's happening in March, that it didn't happen six months ago, or a year ago? Were there events that precipitated it happening --
MR. SNOW: No, I think what you've had is a period of time where, for one thing, you had an Iraqi government that really first started forming up last May, and they've had a series of challenges. They have already had an Iraq Compact meeting in September at the United Nations. I can't tell you about the precise timing, but what you have seen is an Iraqi government that is getting more and more deeply involved in some of the preconditions that people think are necessary -- much more vigorous security operations and revamped security operations in Baghdad and Anbar. You have the announcement now of the framework oil law. There is continuing conversations about political reform, deBaathification reform, election reform, and so on. So I don't want to guess exactly why, but they're doing it, and we think it's a good thing.
Q This regional conference, is it something that the administration has been urging the Iraqi government to put on, to do over the past year?
MR. SNOW: I don't know, but we've had conversations about it, and we certainly encourage them in trying to do this sort of thing. But, again, Iraq has got a sovereign government. We talk about a lot of stuff with them. But certainly, we are very happy that this is going to take place. We think it's a positive step.
Q Thanks, Tony. If security is going to be the main issue on the agenda of this regional conference, and if the United States still sees Iran and Syria as part of the problem, not a solution, why do you believe the United States should be present at this meeting, with the exclusion of any bilateral meetings?
MR. SNOW: Because the Iraqis invited us.
Q And that sovereign country just said they could take care of their own interests.
MR. SNOW: But again, the -- what?
Q They could still defend their own interests with their neighbors. Why does United States --
MR. SNOW: We're not defending their interests. They asked us to participate. And we said, if they asked us to participate, we would. Are you suggesting that we say, now, we don't want to? I mean, I think it's an important sign of our respect and support for this government that we are going to attend the conference. And the follow-up conference, you have G8 countries, too.
Look, the Iraqi challenge, obviously, you've got folks in the neighborhood, but also Iraq is trying to develop capacity politically, diplomatically, economically. Doesn't do that by itself, and it does need interaction and support from a wide variety of nations. We've seen it with the Iraq Compact on the investment side. And you want to make sure what they build is strong and vigorous a capacity on the diplomatic side as possible, as well. They invited us and we're coming.
Q How do you feel about sitting with Iran, and just recently, President Bush accused them of threatening the security of U.S. troops?
MR. SNOW: No, I think the President was pretty clear about it. As far as we can tell, these weapons have come from Iran, but we've also said, we do not know who signed off on it, and that sort of thing. But we've been there before. Look, the President referred to Iran as part of the "axis of evil," and we've sat down with them any number of times in multilateral forums since then.
The point is that we think the Iranians can do a lot that will be conducive to peace in the region and good for them and good for their people. We're going to continue doing whatever we can to encourage them to do it. And if they want to have bilateral relations, it's up to them.
END 1:17 P.M. EST