President Obama Delivers Remarks to State Department Employees
Thursday, January 22, 2009; 4:03 PM
JANUARY 22, 2009
SPEAKERS: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
FORMER SEN. GEORGE MITCHELL, D-MAINE, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR THE MIDDLE EAST
FORMER AMBASSADOR RICHARD HOLBROOKE
[*] CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you very much. And welcome to the State Department. Please be seated.
We are delighted to be joined this afternoon by President Obama and Vice President Biden for this very important announcement, but it is also absolutely a delight to have the president and the vice president here with us today. It is an indication of the president's commitment to a foreign policy that protects our national security and advances our interests and is in keeping with our values.
So we, Mr. President, take great heart from the confidence that you have placed in us.
Today, we start the hard work to restore our standing and enable our country to meet the vexing new challenges of the 21st century, but also to seize the opportunities that await us. The president is committed to making diplomacy and development the partners in our foreign policy, along with defense.
And we must be smarter about how we exercise our power, but, as I said this morning, upon entering the building, the heart of smart power are smart people.
And, Mr. President, we have them in abundance here in the State Department, USAID, and our related agencies.
Today, you will see an example of the kind of robust diplomacy that the president intends to pursue and that I'm honored to help him fulfill. Nowhere is there a need for a vigorous diplomatic approach more apparent than in the two regions that epitomize the nuance and complexity of our interconnected world.
CLINTON: Many of you in this building, many of your Foreign Service and Civil Service and foreign national colleagues have been engaged on behalf of issues related to the Middle East and to Afghanistan and Pakistan for years, sometimes, as we know, at great peril and personal sacrifice.
That work has been invaluable, and it will continue to be the underpinning of everything our government does to achieve peace and stability in these regions.
At the same time, we know that anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail to produce a lasting, sustainable peace in either place. That is why the president and I have decided to name a special envoy for Middle East peace and a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Given the magnitude of the issues confronting us, we will bolster the excellent work that is done daily here, as well as in our embassies and outposts around the world, and particularly in these two regions, by an intensive push undertaken through the efforts of these two seasoned diplomats.
Mr. President, by coming here to the State Department and through your announcement today of these two positions, you are through word and deed sending a loud and clear signal that diplomacy is a top priority of your presidency and that our nation is once again capable of demonstrating global leadership in pursuit of progress and peace.
We are honored to have you join us on only the second day in office. We are grateful to you for highlighting these urgent issues and the collaboration needed to address two of the biggest foreign policy challenges of our time.
I know that everyone here at State and in our various embassies, and consulates, and other outposts throughout the world look forward to working closely with these two exceptional public servants as we strive to protect and advance America's interests and find a path to peace and greater harmony in these vital areas of the world.
I am pleased now to introduce someone who is no stranger to this department, who has been a friend and partner as a senator, as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and now as our vice president. There are few people who have been so devoted to promoting diplomacy and development as our guest, Vice President Joe Biden.
(APPLAUSE) BIDEN: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Madam Secretary, let me begin by saying congratulations. It was a bright day for the whole department and the Foreign Service when you walked through that door. And so congratulations to you.
Mr. President, your choice of our colleague, Senator Clinton, is absolutely the right person, in my view, at the right moment in American history.
We've come here today to the State Department to send a very clear message, a clear message at home as well as abroad that we are going to reinvigorate America's commitment to diplomacy. This effort will be led by Secretary Clinton.
I believe -- and as I know you do, Mr. President, because you chose her -- that she has the knowledge, the skill, the experience, as well as that sort of intangible commodity of having personal relationships with many of these world leaders, which makes her uniquely -- in my view, uniquely qualified to put diplomacy back in the forefront of America's foreign policy.
For too long, we've put the bulk of the burden, in my view, on our military. That's a view not only shared by me, but by your secretary of defense, as well. And our military is absolutely, to state the obvious, absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, not sufficient to secure the interest of this great nation.
In a moment, Mr. President, you're going to announce two new powerful weapons in our -- I guess the secretary is going to announce -- two very powerful weapons in our diplomatic arsenal. They've faced and helped resolve equally challenging issues as the ones they face today in -- throughout their careers, from the Balkans to Northern Ireland.
Both -- both are outstanding public servants. And both are very, with all full disclosure, Mr. President, very old and close friends.
Mr. President, if you'll permit me, I'd like to thank them.
BIDEN: I'd like to thank them for their willingness to come back into government to take on two of the most vexing international dilemmas that we face and requires their -- their incredible capacity.
And so I compliment the secretary on her recommendations and your choices. And I look forward to -- with following you, Mr. President -- to reinvigorate diplomacy in the world. It is the key, ultimately, to our security. I thank you.
CLINTON: The president and I feel very grateful for the willingness of both of these extraordinary Americans to serve. And it is also fitting to thank their families. Both Mrs. Mitchell and Heather is here, and Kati, Richard Holbrooke's wife, is here, along with other family members.
These are very difficult assignments. They are disruptive of settled and successful lives. And we thank them for taking on these responsibilities.
It's my great honor to introduce the man who the president and I have asked to be the special envoy for Middle East peace. He will lead our efforts to reinvigorate the process for achieving peace between Israel and its neighbors.
He will help us to develop an integrated strategy that defends the security of Israel, works to bring an end to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that will result in two states, living side by side in peace and security, and to achieve further agreements to promote peace and security between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Senator Mitchell will also work to support the objectives that the president and I believe are critical and pressing in Gaza, to develop a program for humanitarian aid and eventual reconstruction, working with the Palestinian Authority and Israel on behalf of those objectives.
It is a great personal pleasure to introduce George Mitchell, a man who is well known inside this department and across Washington and America, who has been willing to accept this important assignment.
MITCHELL: Thank you. Mr. President, Madam Secretary, I'm grateful to you for your kind words and for the confidence that you show in me and in Ambassador Holbrooke.
It's a great honor for me to be able to serve our country again, and especially to do so with my friend and distinguished colleague, Richard Holbrooke.
I don't underestimate the difficulty of this assignment. The situation in the Middle East is volatile, complex and dangerous. But the president and the secretary of state have made it clear that danger and difficulty cannot cause the United States to turn away.
To the contrary, they recognize and have said that peace and stability in the Middle East are in our national interest. They are, of course, also in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians, of others in the region and people throughout the world.
The secretary mentioned Northern Ireland. There, recently longtime enemies came together to form a power-sharing government to bring to an end the ancient conflict known as the Troubles. This was almost 800 years after Britain began its domination of Ireland, 86 years after the petition of Ireland, 38 years after the British army formally began its most recent mission in Ireland, 11 years after the peace talks began, and 9 years after a peace agreement was signed.
In the negotiations which led to that agreement, we had 700 days of failure and one day of success.
MITCHELL: For most of the time, progress was nonexistent or very slow. So I understand the feelings of those who may be discouraged about the Middle East.
As an aside, just recently, I spoke in Jerusalem, and I mentioned the 800 years. And afterward, an elderly gentleman came up to me, and he said, "Did you say 800 years?" I said, "Yes, 800." He repeated the number again. I repeated it again. He said, "Ah, such a recent argument. No wonder you settled it."
But 800 years may be recent, but from my experience there, I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings.
I saw it happen in Northern Ireland, although admittedly it took a very long time. I believe deeply that with committed, persevering and patient diplomacy, it can happen in the Middle East.
There are, of course, many, many reasons to be skeptical about the prospect for success. The conflict has gone on for so long and has had such destructive effects that many have come to regard it as unchangeable and inevitable, but the president and the secretary of state don't believe that.
They believe, as I do, that the pursuit of peace is so important that it demands our maximum effort, no matter the difficulties, no matter the setbacks. The key is the mutual commitment of the parties and the active participation of the United States government, led by the president and the secretary of state, with the support and assistance of the many other governments and institutions who want to help.
The secretary of state just talked about our long-term objective, and the president himself has said that his administration, and I quote, "will make a sustained push, working with Israelis and Palestinians, to achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security."
This effort must be determined, persevering and patient. It must be backed up by political capital, economic resources, and focused attention at the highest levels of our government. And it must be firmly rooted in a shared vision of a peaceful future by the people who live in the region.
At the direction of the president and the secretary of state, and in pursuit of the president's policies, I pledge my full effort in the search for peace and stability in the Middle East.
CLINTON: Thank you very much, Senator Mitchell.
I next have the great personal pleasure of introducing the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ambassador Holbrooke will coordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve United States' strategic goals in the region.
This effort will be closely coordinated, not only within the State Department and, of course, with USAID, but also with the Defense Department and under the coordination of the National Security Council.
It has become clear that dealing with the situation in Afghanistan requires an integrated strategy that works with both Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole, as well as engaging NATO and other key friends, allies, and those around the world who are interested in supporting these efforts.
It is such a great decision on the part of the ambassador to respond to the call that the president and I sent out, asking that he again enter public service and take on this very challenging assignment. And we are grateful that he has.
HOLBROOKE: Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Madam Secretary, Senator Special Envoy Mitchell, I thank you so much.
It's an extraordinarily moving thing for me to return to this building again, having entered it so many years ago as a junior Foreign Service officer.
As somebody whose career was determined in that initial decade of my life in the Foreign Service, I want to tell you, Mr. President, that I know that the Foreign Service and the Civil Service and the Foreign Service officers serving around the world will appreciate and remember the fact that you chose to come to the department on your second day to demonstrate what you have with this fantastic team.
And if I may, on behalf of all Foreign Service officers, active and retired, I want to thank you so much.
I'm also honored by the presence of two good and close friends, Vice President Biden and, of course, my boss, immediate boss, Secretary Clinton, and to share the podium with a colleague from the Irish days and many Senate events, Senator George Mitchell.
I thank you for your confidence in offering me this daunting assignment, and all I can do is pledge my best to undertake it. I see -- thinking of my early years in the Foreign Service, I see my former roommate in Saigon, John Negroponte, here. We remember those days well. And I hope we will produce a better outcome this time.
I also have to thank Kati, my two sons, David and Anthony, and my stepdaughter, my beloved stepdaughter, Lizzie (ph), and her fiance, David, especially for coming down here today. And I hope that I'll be able to see you sometime in the next few years.
Mr. President, Madam Secretary, Mr. Vice President, you've asked me to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan, two very distinct countries with extraordinarily different histories, and yet intertwined by geography, ethnicity, and the current drama.
This is a very difficult assignment, as we all know. Nobody can say the war in Afghanistan has gone well, and yet, as we speak here today, American men and women and their coalition partners are fighting a very difficult struggle against a ruthless and determined enemy without any scruples at all, an enemy that is willing to behead women who dare to teach in a school to young girls, an enemy that has done some of the most odious things on Earth.
And across the border lurks the greater enemy still, the people who committed the atrocities of September 11, 2001.
We know what our long-term objective is. I hope I will be able to fill out the mandate which Secretary Clinton has mentioned to help coordinate a clearly chaotic foreign assistance program, which must be pulled together, to work closely with General Petraeus, CENTCOM, Admiral Mullen, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General McKiernan and the command in Afghanistan, to create a more coherent program.
If our resources are mobilized and coordinated and pulled together, we can quadruple, quintuple, multiply by tenfold the effectiveness of our efforts there.
In Pakistan, the situation is infinitely complex, and I don't think I would advance our goals if I tried to discuss it today. I wish to get out to the region and report back to the secretary, the vice president, and the president.
But I will say that, in putting Afghanistan and Pakistan together under one envoy, we should underscore that we fully respect the fact that Pakistan has its own history, its own traditions, and it is far more than the turbulent, dangerous tribal areas on its western border.
And we will respect that, as we seek to follow suggestions that have been made by all three of the men and women standing behind me in the last few years on having a more comprehensive policy.
So I thank you again for your confidence in me. I look forward to working for you, with you closely, and following a joint effort to do better than we have in the past.
Thank you very much.
CLINTON: Well, we are not only honored and delighted, but challenged by the president coming here on the second day. This puts the pressure on everybody.
And yet, Mr. President, we feel up to that challenge. We want to do our very best work in furtherance of your goals.
You set a high standard in your inaugural address as to what we are aiming toward, and I pledge to you, on behalf of the thousands and thousands of dedicated public servants who serve you on behalf of diplomacy and development, that we will give you our very best efforts. It is an honor to be working to fulfill the goals that you have set for our country.
Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Please, everybody. Thank you. Be seated. Thank you so much.
It is my privilege to come here and to pay tribute to all of you, the talented men and women of the State Department. I've given you an early gift, Hillary Clinton.
You -- in her, you will have a secretary of state who has my full confidence. And I want to thank Chairman Kerry and the Senate for acting swiftly to confirm her, because we have no time to lose.
My appearance today, as has been noted, underscores my commitment to the importance of diplomacy and renewing American leadership. And it gives me an opportunity to thank you for the services that you perform every single day.
Sometimes I think the American public doesn't fully understand the sacrifices that you and your families make, the dedication that is involved in you carrying on your tasks day in, day out.
And I know I speak for Joe Biden, as well as everybody else on this stage, when we tell you that we are proud of you. You are carrying on a vital task in the safety and security of the American people.
And part of what we want to do is to make sure that everybody understands that the State Department is going to be absolutely critical to our success in the years to come, and you individually are going to be critical to our success in the years to come. And we want to send a signal to all kinds of young people who may be thinking about the Foreign Service that they are going to be critical in terms of projecting not just America's power, but also America's values and America's ideals.
The inheritance of our young century demands a new era of American leadership. We must recognize that America's strength comes not just from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from our enduring values. And for the sake of our national security and the common aspirations of people around the globe, this era has to begin now.
This morning, I signed three executive orders. First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.
Second, we will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who have been held there.
And, third, we will immediately undertake a comprehensive review to determine how to hold and try terrorism suspects to best protect our nation and the rule of law.
The world needs to understand that America will be unyielding in its defense of its security and relentless in its pursuit of those who would carry out terrorism or threaten the United States. And that's why, in this twilight struggle, we need a durable framework.
The orders that I signed today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be just as our cause and that we, the people, will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security. Once again, America's moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership.
We are confronted by extraordinary, complex and interconnected global challenges: the war on terror, sectarian division, and the spread of deadly technology. We did not ask for the burden that history has asked us to bear, but Americans will bear it. We must bear it.
Progress will not come quickly or easily, nor can we promise to right every single wrong around the world. But we can pledge to use all elements of American power to protect our people and to promote our interests and ideals, starting with principled, focused and sustained American diplomacy.
To carry forward that effort, we are going to be calling on your hard work and perseverance in the months and years to come. Given the urgency and complexity of the challenges we face and to convey our seriousness of purpose, Secretary Clinton and I are also calling upon the two distinguished Americans standing with us today.
It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors. To help us pursue these goals, Secretary Clinton and I have asked George Mitchell to serve as special envoy for Middle East peace.
George is renowned in this country and around the world for his negotiating skill. He brings international stature and a lifetime of service. His years in the Senate were marked by strong leadership and bipartisan achievement. His efforts on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland were indispensable in reconciling a painful and protracted conflict.
Time and again, in public service and private life, he has acted with skill and acted with integrity. He will be fully empowered at the negotiating table, and he will sustain our focus on the goal of peace.
No one doubts the difficulty of the road ahead, and George outlined some of those difficulties. The tragic violence in Gaza and southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the challenges at hand and the setbacks that will inevitably come.
It must also instill in us, though, a sense of urgency, as history shows us that strong and sustained American engagement can bridge divides and build the capacity that supports progress. And that is why we will be sending George to the region as soon as possible to help the parties ensure that the cease-fire that has been achieved is made durable and sustainable.
Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats.
For years, Hamas has launched thousands of rockets at innocent Israeli citizens. No democracy can tolerate such danger to its people, nor should the international community, and neither should the Palestinian people themselves, whose interests are only set back by acts of terror.
To be a genuine party to peace, the quartet has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel's right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements.
Going forward, the outline for a durable cease-fire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire; Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza; the United States and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot rearm.
Yesterday I spoke to President Mubarak and expressed my appreciation for the important role that Egypt played in achieving a cease-fire. And we look forward to Egypt's continued leadership and partnership in laying a foundation for a broader peace through a commitment to end smuggling from within its borders.
Now, just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.
OBAMA: I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who've faced suffocating poverty for far too long.
Now we must extend a hand of opportunity to those who seek peace. As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza's border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating.
Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them. The United States will fully support an international donor's conference to seek short-term humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction for the Palestinian economy. This assistance will be provided to and guided by the Palestinian Authority.
Lasting peace requires more than a long cease-fire, and that's why I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security.
Senator Mitchell will carry forward this commitment, as well as the effort to help Israel reach a broader peace with the Arab world that recognizes its rightful place in the community of nations.
I should add that the Arab peace initiative contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative's promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.
Jordan's constructive role in training Palestinian security forces and nurturing its relations with Israel provide a model for these efforts. And going forward, we must make it clear to all countries in the region that external support for terrorist organizations must stop.
Another urgent threat to global security is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism. There, as in the Middle East, we must understand that we cannot deal with our problems in isolation.
There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the Al Qaida and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is truly an international challenge of the highest order.
That's why Secretary Clinton and I are naming Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to be special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ambassador Holbrooke is one of the most talented diplomats of his generation. Over several decades, he's served on different continents and as an outstanding ambassador to the United Nations.
He has strengthened ties with our allies, tackled the toughest negotiations, and helped deliver a hard-earned peace as an architect of the Dayton Accords. He will help lead our effort to forge and implement a strategic and sustainable approach to this critical region.
The American people and the international community must understand that the situation is perilous and progress will take time. Violence is up dramatically in Afghanistan. A deadly insurgency has taken deep root. The opium trade is far and away the largest in the world.
The Afghan government has been unable to deliver basic services. Al Qaeda and the Taliban strike from bases embedded in rugged tribal terrain along the Pakistani border. And while we have yet to see another attack on our soil since 9/11, Al Qaida terrorists remain at large and remain plotting.
Going forward, we must set clear priorities in pursuit of achievable goals that contribute to our collective security. My administration is committed to refocusing attention and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan and to spending those resources wisely. That's why we are pursuing a careful review of our policy.
We will seek stronger partnerships with the governments of the region, sustain cooperation with our NATO allies, deeper engagement with the Afghan and Pakistani people, and a comprehensive strategy to combat terror and extremism.
We will provide the strategic guidance to meet our objectives, and we pledge to support the extraordinary Americans serving in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, with the resources that they need.
These appointments add to a team that will work with energy and purpose to meet the challenges of our time and to define a future of expanding security and opportunity.
Difficult days lie ahead. As we ask more of ourselves, we will seek new partnerships and ask more of our friends and more of people around the globe, because security in the 21st century is shared.
But let there be no doubt about America's commitment to lead. We can no longer afford drift, and we can no longer afford delay, nor can we cede ground to those who seek destruction. A new era of American leadership is at hand, and the hard work has just begun. You are going to be at the front lines of engaging in that important work.
And I'm absolutely confident that, with the leadership of Secretary Clinton, with wonderful envoys like Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, with the dedicated team that is before me today, that we are going to be able to accomplish our objectives, keep America safe, and bring better days not just to our own country, but all around the world.
Thank you very much, everybody.
Source: CQ Transcriptions