President Obama and King Abdullah of Jordan Hold Media Availability

CQ Transcripts Wire
Tuesday, April 21, 2009 1:01 PM




QUESTION: ... when do you expect that actually to happen? And how does the Arab peace initiative feature (OFF-MIKE)

OBAMA: Well, first of all, we have gone out of our way to compliment the efforts of those Arab states that were involved in formulating the Arab peace initiative as a very constructive step.

And, obviously, King Abdullah has taken great steps to ensure that that sustains itself in terms of Arab support, even while we have seen a breakdown in negotiations. That's a significant achievement for which King Abdullah and others deserve credit.

So we -- we want to continue to encourage a commitment on the part of the Arab states to the peace process. I have assigned a special enjoy, George Mitchell, who is, you know, I think, as good of a negotiator as there is and somebody who, through assiduous work, was able to accomplish or help achieve peace in Northern Ireland. We want that same perseverance and sustained effort on this issue, and we're going to be actively engaged.

We have obviously seen the Israeli government just form recently. Prime Minister Netanyahu will be visiting the United States. I expect to have meetings with him. I've had discussions with the Palestinian counterparts, as well as other Arab states around this issue.

My hope would be that, over the next several months, that you start seeing gestures of good faith on all sides. I don't want to get into the details of what those gestures might be, but I think that the parties in the region probably have a pretty good recognition of what intermediate steps could be taken as confidence-building measures. And we will be doing everything we can to encourage those confidence- building measures to take place.


OBAMA: OK, the -- I actually have a list, guys. I'm sorry. We've got to be fair.

Jennifer, you always get a question, so you're not getting one today.

Steve -- Steve Collinson, AFP? Go ahead, Steve.

QUESTION: What are you -- what -- what is your comment on the rhetoric yesterday from the Iranian president directed towards Israel? And given that kind of talk and the recent imprisonment of a U.S.- Iranian journalist, do you think that will make it more difficult for you to push forward your diplomatic outreach with Iran?

OBAMA: Well, sadly, the rhetoric is not new. This is the kind of rhetoric that we've come to expect from President Ahmadinejad.

When I said during the course of the campaign and repeated after the election that we were serious about engagement with Iran, it was with no illusions. I was very clear that I found many of the statements that President Ahmadinejad made, particularly those directed -- directed at Israel to be appalling and objectionable. As I've also said before, Iran is a very complicated country with a lot of different power centers. The supreme leader, Khamenei, is the person who exercises the most direct control over the policies of the Islamic republic. And we will continue to pursue the -- the possibility of improved relations and a resolution to some of the critical issues in which there have been differences, particularly around the nuclear issue.

But there's no doubt that the kind of rhetoric that you saw from Ahmadinejad is not helpful. In fact, it is harmful, not just with respect to the possibility of U.S.-Iranian relations, but I think it actually undermines Iranians' position as the world as a whole.

We weren't at the conference. And what you saw was a whole host of other countries walking out and that language being condemned by people who may be more sympathetic to the long-term aspirations of -- of the Iranian people.

OBAMA: So I think it actually hurts Iran's position in the world. But we are going to continue to take an approach that tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options off the table. OK.

Is there somebody...


OBAMA: Go ahead.

QUESTION: I just want to follow on the previous question. You sent Senator Mitchell to the region to listen.


QUESTION: Is he done with the listening now? And -- because all the signals we heard from Israeli government, basically, that they're not (OFF-MIKE) in the two-state solution.

Your position is strongly (OFF-MIKE) so I wanted to -- to ask, also, His Majesty, President Obama said that there's positive elements within the Arab (OFF-MIKE) but he didn't say what he (OFF-MIKE) about. Can you tell us if you have noticed any tangible results (OFF-MIKE) and can the Arab peace initiative be the baseline for a peace process in the Middle East?

OBAMA: OK. Well, first of all, I think it is very important to recognize that the Israelis now have had a government for a few weeks, and it was a very complicated process for them to put a coalition together.

So I think more listening needs to be done. They are going to have to formulate and, I think, solidify their position, so George Mitchell will continue to listen both to Arab partners, to the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis.

But I agree that we can't talk forever, that at some point steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground. And that will be something that we will expect to take place in the coming months. And we will help, hopefully, to drive a process where each side is willing to build confidence.

I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I have articulated that publicly, and I will articulate that privately. And I think that there are a lot of Israelis who also believe in a two- state solution.

Unfortunately, right now what we've seen not just in Israel, but within the -- the Palestinian territories, among the Arab states, worldwide, is a profound cynicism about the possibility of any progress being made whatsoever.

What we want to do is, is to step back from the abyss, to say, as hard as it is, as difficult as it may be, the prospect of peace still exists, but it's going to require some hard choices, it's going to require resolution on the part of all the actors involved, and it's going to require that we -- we create some concrete steps that all parties can take that are evidence of that resolution.

And the United States is going to deeply engage in this process to see if we can make progress.

Now, ultimately, neither Jordan nor the United States can do this for the Israelis and the Palestinians. What we can do is create the conditions and the atmosphere and provide the help and the assistance that facilitates an agreement.

Ultimately, they've got to make a decision that it is not in the interests of either the Palestinian people or the Israelis to perpetuate the kind of conflict that we've seen for decades now, in which generations of Palestinian and Israeli children are growing up insecure in an atmosphere of hate.

And my hope is, is that the opportunity will be seized, but it's going to take some -- some more work, and we are committed to doing that work.

KING ABDULLAH: I couldn't have said it better myself, Mr. President. I think we're looking now at the -- at the positives and not the negatives and seeing how we can sequence events over the next couple of months that allows Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs to sit around a table and move this process forward.

OBAMA: Now, did I already -- are one of you Nadia?

QUESTION: That was me.

OBAMA: That was you. OK, so, Nadia, I was going to call on you anyway.

Jake, you always get questions, so I'm going to -- I'm going to try somebody else.


OBAMA: I'd better give an American, since there's -- you know, so that we're -- so that we're going back and forth.

OBAMA: And, Sheryl, you always get in, so I'm just trying to see if there's anybody unusual.

All right. You know what? I'll go back to -- I'll go back to Jennifer, because she had her hand up before Sheryl or -- or Jake.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to ask you about the interrogation memos (OFF-MIKE) you were clear about not wanting to prosecute those who -- who carried out the instructions under this legal guidance.

OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: Can you be that clear about those who devised the policy? And then, quickly, on the second matter, how do you feel about investigations, whether a special -- special commission or something of that nature (OFF-MIKE) to go back and really look at the issue?

OBAMA: Well, the -- look, as I said before, this -- this has been a difficult chapter in our history and one of the tougher decisions that I've had to make as president.

On the one hand, we have very real enemies out there, and we rely on some very courageous people not just in our military, but also in the Central Intelligence Agency to help protect the American people, and they have to make some very difficult decisions, because, as I mentioned yesterday, they are confronted with an enemy that doesn't have scruples, that isn't constrained by constitutions, aren't constrained by legal niceties.

Having said that, the -- the OLC memos that were released reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings. That's why I've discontinued those enhanced interrogation programs.

For those who carried out some of these operations within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance that had been provided from the White House, I do not think it's appropriate for them to be prosecuted.

With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the perimeters of various laws, and -- and I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there. As a general view, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards. I do worry about this getting so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations.

And so if and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break it entirely along party lines, to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take.

I'm not suggesting that, you know, that should be done, but I'm saying, if you've got a choice, I think it's very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage, but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way.

And the last point I just want to emphasize, as I said yesterday at -- at the CIA when I visited, you know, what makes America special, in my view, is not just our wealth, and the dynamism of our economy, and our extraordinary history and diversity. It's -- it's that we are willing to uphold our ideals even when they're hard.

And sometimes we make mistakes, because that's the nature of human enterprise. But when we do make mistakes, then we are willing to go back and correct those mistakes and -- and keep our eye on those -- those ideals and -- and values that have been passed on generation to generation.

And -- and that is -- is what has to continue to guide us as we move forward. And -- and I'm confident that we will be able to move forward, protect the American people effectively, live up to our values and ideals.

And that's not a matter of being naive about how dangerous this world is. As I said yesterday to some of the CIA officials that I met with, I wake up every day thinking about how to keep the American people safe, and I go to bed every night worrying about keeping the American people safe.

I've got a lot of other things on my plate. I've got a big banking crisis, and I've got unemployment numbers that are very high, and we've got an auto industry that needs work.

There are a whole things -- range of things that during the day occupy me, but the thing that I consider my most profound obligation is keeping the American people safe.

So I -- I do not take these things lightly, and I'm not in any way under -- under illusion about how difficult the task is for those people who are on the front lines every day protecting the American people. So I wanted to communicate a message yesterday to all those who overwhelmingly do so in a lawful, dedicated fashion that I have their back.

All right? Thank you, everybody.


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