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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
August 21, 2008
Press Briefing by Gordon Johndroe
Press Filing Center
Crawford Middle School
10:50 A.M. CDT
MR. JOHNDROE: Welcome. Welcome to some of our newer faces this morning. Okay, let me start off with a couple of announcements here, and then be happy to take your questions.
President Bush called Pakistani Prime Minister Gillani this morning. The President expressed his sympathies to the people of Pakistan for the recent terrorist attacks that have killed so many innocents there. The President and Prime Minister reaffirmed their mutual support for going after these extremists that are a threat to both Pakistan, the United States and the entire world.
President Bush advised Prime Minister Gillani that he had just spoken this morning to former President Musharraf and that President Bush had wished President Musharraf well and thanked him for his efforts in the democratic transition of Pakistan, as well as the fight against al Qaeda and extremist groups. President Bush expressed to Prime Minister Gillani the United States' strong commitment to working with the Prime Minister and the government of Pakistan to address the ongoing battle against extremists, and to assist Pakistan through its current economic situation.
Also, the President would like to express his profound sorrow for the tragic accident that occurred yesterday at Barajas Airport in Madrid; offers his sincere condolences to the families of the victims who lost their lives in that tragic air accident there in Spain.
And with that, I am happy to take your questions. Yes, sir.
Q Gordon, can you tell us where the negotiations stand with Iraq and the United States, Secretary Rice's talks? And what are the major sticking points in that agreement for the troop withdrawal?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think you probably heard from Secretary Rice, now in Baghdad -- you certainly have some comments from her on the plane, that she made last night on the plane into Baghdad. Discussions are ongoing. We have made some progress in the recent days on an agreement with the Iraqis, but there is no final agreement yet. We will continue to have these discussions with the Iraqis.
And let me just remind everyone why we are having these discussions, why we are able to talk about the potential for more American troops to come home. It's because of the security gains that have been realized since the President ordered five additional brigades and Marines into Iraq last January.
Those soldiers and Marines helped bring additional population security, especially to Baghdad, a capital that was about to fall. The security in Baghdad allowed the government to come together and make some of the political reconciliation -- make some of the political progress that we all sought.
So the conversations that we're having with the Iraqis now are based on the improvement in security and our mutual desire to bring more American troops home. I think the President and every American wants to see American troops come home, but not until the job is done and there is more security, more political progress, and more economic progress inside Iraq. And the Iraqis want to increasingly take the lead in their own country, especially for combat missions, and they are increasingly able to do that because of improvements in the capacity and the skill of the Iraqi security forces.
Discussions continue; they are ongoing. I'm not going to get into the specifics of those discussions. But we are -- they will -- we will continue to have these with the Iraqis over the days ahead.
Q Are you optimistic about getting an agreement soon?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not going to put a time frame on when we're going to get an agreement. It's more important to get it right than to get it done quickly. I think the -- you heard Foreign Minister Zebari say he wants to get it done soon. We'd all like to get it soon -- done sooner rather than later, but more important to get it done right.
Q I mean, are we talking days, are we talking weeks, or are we talking months? I mean, can you just put in that context?
MR. JOHNDROE: I have learned in this job not to put too fine a date on anything, and I will stick with that. And as I said, more important to get it right than to rush the process. But we'll keep on working at it.
Q Gordon, this draft goes to the Iraqi parliament, I guess tomorrow?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not aware of -- I'm not aware of that.
Q Foreign Minister. In any event, is there any role for the U.S. Congress to play in this, as well?
MR. JOHNDROE: We remain in close consultation with members of Congress, the House leadership and Senate leadership, on the discussions with the Iraqis. And so they have been a part of this from the beginning. It was a commitment we made to the Congress, and we'll continue to have those consultations with them.
Q But is thee a vote?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, the agreement as it's working its way through the consultative process right now with the Iraqis is not one that would require congressional -- specific congressional approval because this is the type of agreement, in many cases, that we have with many countries around the world. So it's not a treaty, so it would not require Senate ratification or anything like that. It's a bilateral agreement that would provide the authorities for our troops to operate in Iraq.
Q Gordon, did the Secretary's discussions this morning in Baghdad get to the point where she'll be either coming down to brief the President in person, or that there's something for the President to review, to look at?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'd say the President has certainly been engaged in this process and has been involved in the discussions with Prime Minister Maliki, as well as with his own top advisors. But I'm not aware of Secretary Rice planning to return to Crawford. We'll continue to have discussions. We'll get -- the President will certainly get an update from her. Whether it's by phone or secure video, I'm not sure, but the President will get an update from her on her trip to Baghdad and her discussions there. And I expect that, if not later today, then over the course of the next couple days. He also wants to hear from her about her trip to Brussels and to Warsaw.
Q Gordon, are you aware that NATO has announced that Russia is suspending all military cooperation? That came out of the Alliance this morning. What are the ramifications for relations between Russia and Europe, and Russia and the United States over a move like that?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think the -- for all practical purposes, military-to-military cooperation had really already been suspended with the Russians. We -- NATO cancelled some exercises. And I can't imagine a circumstance right now that we would engage in military cooperation with the Russians until the situation in Georgia is resolved.
So we will -- we are hopeful for the day that we will be able to resume military cooperation with the Russians, hopeful for the day that we're able to resume what I would call normal cooperation with the Russians. Right now the Russians are making some decisions that are not in line with a commitment to become a part of a Europe, whole, free and at peace.
So the practical effects are that there won't be any exercises for the time being. But as I said, I can't imagine a circumstance that, until the situation in Georgia is resolved, that we would engage in exercises with them.
Q A follow-up on that. Is there any impact on the transit of cargo through Russia to Afghanistan?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not aware of any, not aware of any.
Q Some reports are saying in the draft there is a full withdrawing of American forces from Iraq cities by June 30, 2009. Could the administration be okay with that?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know what, I am not going to negotiate from the podium. I'm going to let the discussions take place, in this case, between Secretary Rice and senior Iraqis today; in other cases, between various U.S. officials and Iraqi officials. So I'll stay away from details.
The goal that both the United States and Iraq have is that Iraqi security forces are able to take more of the lead in combat missions, and the United States forces can move into an overwatch role. That has been our goal all along. The President stated that in January of '07, that we want to get to a point where, after sending more troops in, we could begin to pull more troops out. Five brigade combat teams have already come out. We'll wait to hear from General Petraeus in September on his additional recommendations, and we'll see where this goes.
Q Gordon, back to Georgia. There seem to be conflicting reports coming out about what's going on on the ground. What are you hearing about what is really happening there? And is the White House satisfied with some of the latest developments?
MR. JOHNDROE: No. The Russians need to honor their commitment. They made a commitment to withdraw; we expect them to withdraw. The reports we have on the ground are -- if there is any withdrawal it's very limited. And there are opposite reports that suggest there are new, additional troops, or troops that may be digging in. Both of those -- if that's accurate, troops digging in -- what we know is accurate is that the withdrawal is not happening very quickly, if it, in fact, has begun. The withdrawal needs to take place, and needs to take place now.
Q Of course, it's not happening as fast as it -- as the U.S. would like. Is Russia violating the agreement? I mean, do you see this as a violation?
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes, Russia is in violation of the commitments that they have made.
Q And what's the consequences of that?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, I think the first goal is to get them to honor their commitments. We need to see the Russian troops withdraw from Georgia in accordance with the agreement that they have signed. That's the first goal. So we are concentrating on that right now.
There will be further consequences to Russia's action, there's no doubt about it. But Russia has already, I think, begun to suffer some of the consequences of their actions. And their continued reluctance to adhere to the withdrawal plan only further isolates them.
Q In the last several days we've often heard from that podium and others that Russia's actions were a disproportionate response. And I was wondering if you would please -- that a little bit. What does the administration think -- why does the administration think that some response was necessary to what the Georgians were doing? And what level of military force, if any, would have been justified as proportionate, in the administration's view?
MR. JOHNDROE: Let me see if I understand your question correctly. The Russian -- the question is, did the Russians use disproportionate force --
Q You said that -- it implies that there was some proportionate response that would have been justified. What is that level, and why was that necessary?
MR. JOHNDROE: Okay. So, the Russians had and have peacekeepers in South Ossetia. We can understand their desire to protect their peacekeepers. What is -- what was, what is disproportionate is the systematic destruction of the Georgian military and Georgian military infrastructure, as well as civilian infrastructure. If the goal of the Russians was simply to protect Russian peacekeepers, then we do not understand why, and therefore, think it disproportionate, that they moved out of South Ossetia, out of Abkhazia, and into what is considered undisputed Georgian territory.
Q What about stopping the shelling of South Ossetia's civilians, as opposed to Russian peacekeepers who happened to be there? Was that a justifiable motive for Russian military action?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think there are a lot of facts still to be ascertained about what occurred in -- August 6th, 7th and 8th, and so I'd rather not be a fact witness for that right now. We asked repeatedly -- we told both sides repeatedly, the Georgians and the Russians, don't provoke each other; there is no reason for this conflict, which has been simmering for a long time, to flare up right now. And so our focus right now is on the withdrawal of Russian troops, and for both sides to adhere to the agreement.
Q What's the President doing today?
MR. JOHNDROE: What is the President doing today? He made a couple of phone calls this morning, which I read out to you. He received his intelligence briefing. And he's been doing some phone calls back with advisors on the -- back in D.C. He met with Ed Gillespie briefly this morning. As you know, he -- Ed traveled with us yesterday. And then I expect he'll probably do some work on the ranch.
Q At the risk of asking an obvious question, what benefits -- what are the benefits of Russian-NATO military-to-military cooperation? What are we giving up here by seeing this conflict freeze those relations?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, let me step back to the broader relationship. There is, I think, much to be gained for the entire world of U.S., and the U.S. and NATO, working together with Russia. There is much to be gained for the security of the world in dealing together with rogue states like Iran. There's much to be gained if the world works together on economic issues, food security issues, energy security issues. But -- and so working with NATO is just a component of all of that cooperation.
But right now the Russians are signaling by their actions that they're not interested in cooperation. They further isolate themselves. We are hopeful that this is a course that they have not chosen to go down permanently.
Q Governor Crist is calling for an emergency declaration from the President. Is that in the works? Should we expect that soon?
MR. JOHNDROE: FEMA is looking at that right now, and I will check and see if we have an update right after this briefing, and we'll let you know.
Q Do you know if he stayed up to watch the beach volleyball game last night? (Laughter.)
MR. JOHNDROE: He did not stay up, I think, to the very end. But he was told this morning about the results, and you can imagine he thought it was very good.
Q Kerri Walsh thanked him for inspiring them to win the Gold Medal.
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes, well, I think the President finds these Olympians, especially American Olympians, really inspiring. And so I think it's a very cool thing for him and for, frankly, the country as a whole, but especially these athletes. I think we're all probably inspired by them.
END 11:05 A.M. CDT