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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Obama Administration's 2016 Foreign Policy Priorities

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications
Washington, DC
January 13, 2016




1:45 P.M. EST

 

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MS BLUM: Well, good afternoon. My name is Orna Blum. I’m director of the Foreign Press Centers, and I’d like to welcome you all here for a very special briefing on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy priorities for 2016. And I’m very pleased to welcome back to the Foreign Press Centers Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. He’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. Anyway, thank you very much. Mr. Rhodes, over to you.

MR RHODES: Thanks.

MS BLUM: And a quick reminder to everyone in New York – please come to the podium if you have a question. And for those of you who are here as well, please give your name and your outlet before asking your question. Without further ado, Mr. Rhodes.

MR RHODES: Great, thanks. So I’ll just make some brief opening comments and then I’ll take your questions. Last night you heard the President lay out in his State of the Union his view of the big things that the United States of America has to get right in the years ahead. And one of those elements, of course, was our leadership in the world, with a focus on what we’re doing to protect the United States against the threat of terrorism and to counter ISIL, but also outlining a broader view of leadership that addresses global challenges and mobilizes collective action, lifting up, I think, examples of that type of leadership: the recently completed nuclear deal with Iran; the recently completed Paris climate agreement; the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership; the international effort against Ebola; the opening that the United States has pursued in Latin America, particularly through the normalization of relations with Cuba; some of our development work that we’re pursuing, particularly in Africa – so laying out essentially the affirmative agenda and vision of leadership on behalf of collective action that the United States is pursuing in addition to addressing the important threat of terrorism.

In that context, of course, there are a number of elements that we would urge Congress to work with us on. That would include an authorization of military – the use of military force against ISIL, which Congress has yet to authorize even though we’ve been engaged in this military effort for more than a year; lifting the embargo against Cuba, which we believe has failed to achieve its purpose, is outdated, and only, frankly, prevents us from taking additional steps to improve the lives of the Cuban people; approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which we very much want to accomplish this year, which would, again, open new doors to greater trade and cooperation in the Asia Pacific; and removing some of the onerous restrictions related to closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Again, that’s just a brief overview. We have a busy year ahead where I believe foreign policy will be a significant focus of the President in terms of his time and attention. The counter-ISIL campaign will be front and center in everything we do, but also we’ll want to see these various issues that I referenced implemented effectively over the course of the year.

He has some near-term engagements that will give us opportunities to do that. We’ll be welcoming the prime minister of Australia here to the United States, one of our key allies in the counter-ISIL campaign as well as one of our key allies in the Asia-Pacific region, which has been a focus of our foreign policy. He’ll be welcoming President Santos of Colombia here in the coming weeks. You heard him reference last night our support for Colombia’s efforts to resolve a decades-long civil war and provide the security and prosperity that the Colombian people deserve. In February we’ll also be hosting a first-of-its-kind summit with the leaders of ASEAN in Sunnylands, California, which I think demonstrates both the central focus of the Asia-Pacific to our foreign policy, but also the central focus of ASEAN in our view of the architecture of institutions and arrangements in the Asia-Pacific.

So we will be getting off to a busy start even as we then will have a substantial amount of foreign travel. Already on the books we have multiple trips to Europe, including the Hannover Messe in Germany in April and the NATO summit in Poland in July; multiple trips to Asia, including around the G7 in Japan in May and the G20 and ASEAN summits in China and Laos in September; and certainly travel to Latin America and other regions as well.

So happy to get into any of those particular issues, but with that, why don’t I stop and move to questions about specific issues or about our agenda for the year. So yes, right here.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Ching-Yi Chang with Shanghai Media Group. We know President Obama yesterday mentioned China three times in his State of Union as a comparison to military and the economic power of United States. And I’m just curious, what does he hope to achieve in Asia rebalance in his final year, especially in the area of economy and military? And you just mentioned he will visit China in September. That would be his last visit to China. So what’s his expectation, and will he visit Vietnam, by the way? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Well, look, first of all, in terms of the comments last night, I think some of this frankly addressed elements of the political rhetoric here in the United States that in many cases, in opposition to the President, turns into talking down the position of the United States. And that was the dynamic that I think he intended to call out, very correctly.

With China generally, and then in terms of the Asia-Pacific, I think we see elements of cooperation and competition in the relationship. On the positive side of the ledger, one of the biggest issues that he focused on domestically and internationally yesterday was climate change. We would not have achieved the Paris agreement without the cooperation the United States and China had on that issue, both in terms of the announcement made in Beijing during his last trip and the subsequent cooperation leading into Paris.

So there’s an example where, as two of the largest – the two largest economies in the world, we were able to forge that type of practical cooperation. At the same time, there are elements of competition and there are areas where we’ve had differences – on cybersecurity, for instance. We are going to work very closely with China on a whole range of issues related to the Asia-Pacific. So on that score, as we look to the year ahead, number one, we want to make sure that there’s a response to the recent nuclear test from North Korea and the provocation and the potential – well, the provocation and the very real threat that it poses to our allies, South Korea and Japan, but also to the world. So we’ll be working with China through the UN Security Council and also in our own bilateral discussions about how to demonstrate to North Korea that that is a path that leads to greater costs, consequences, and isolation.

More broadly, our agenda I think encompasses economic, security, and political components. On the economic side, the approval of TPP is clearly high on that list. We see that as the foundation and the platform for U.S. economic and commercial engagement in the Asia-Pacific going forward – as well as, frankly, a model of a trade agreement that we’d like to see take hold in terms of high standards that – similar to what we’re pursuing in Europe with the T-TIP discussions. With China, we’re having discussions around a bilateral investment treaty and other deepening of commercial ties. So there’s a lot on the economic space.

On the security space, some of our partners in the Asia-Pacific are with us in the Counter-ISIL campaign. I think there’s a shared view of the need to counter terrorism around the world. Within the Asia-Pacific we’ve taken steps to modernize our alliances and to deepen relationships with emerging partners. We’ve had just the other day a good decision in the Philippines that will allow our access agreement to go forward. That’s part of a broader rethinking of how the U.S. is postured in the region – to support our allies, but also to help build capacity in terms of issues like maritime security, on issues like responding to humanitarian disaster, counter-piracy. And then on the maritime issues, I think clearly that’s going to be high on the agenda this year with the ASEAN summit in Sunnylands and the discussions that will lead into the EAS in September.

And there, what we’d, again, like to do is make clear our commitment to upholding freedom of navigation, but try to find ways to reduce tensions, encourage parties and claimants in places like the South China Sea to resolve those issues through international law, have ways of de-confliction and de-escalation where there are potential irritants. Our military-to-military engagement with China is a part of that. So I think maritime security and territorial issues will be clearly on the agenda this year as well.

And then there’s a people-to-people dimension. We have sought to increase our people-to-people ties with both China – through efforts like our 100,000 Strong program that – with the Chinese, and with ASEAN where we have a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. So I’m sure that’s not a fully inclusive list, but it gives you a sense of the breadth of how we’ll be engaging the Asia-Pacific. Vietnam – the President would very much like to go. I don’t have – we don’t have a specific date or announcement yet at this time.

Yeah, Andrei.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ben. My name’s Andrei Sitov. I’m a Russian reporter with TASS. Thank you for doing the briefing and thanks to our friends at the FPC for hosting it, as always.

Did I detect a touch of schadenfreude yesterday in the President’s brief remark on the Russian economy? You’ve said many times that you don’t really want to hurt the Russian people economically, but sometimes, to be frank with you, it feels like you do. So what is the real attitude there?

And since you mentioned North Korea and it’s obviously on everybody’s mind, Russia has many times called for real cooperation with the U.S. on missile defense, on assessing threats together and countering the threats. Why can’t we do that? Thanks.

MR RHODES: So, good questions. Look, on the first point, we would absolutely prefer to not have sanctions in place on Russia, to have the Russian economy grow and have the Russian people benefiting from a growing economy. The sanctions are tied very directly to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. And those are necessary both because it’s important for us to support the sovereignty and security of Ukraine, but also because the international order depends upon there being consequences when we see those rules violated. That’s our perspective. It has been from the beginning.

At the same time, we’ve made very clear that if we see the Minsk agreements implemented, if we see that type of progress and follow-through so that you have, again, the Ukrainians, the separatists, the Russians adhering to their commitments, we would be, of course, open to rolling back those sanctions. So the preferred outcome for the United States is that there is an implementation of Minsk; there is, again, a respect for the sovereignty of Ukraine; and that there is a re-engagement with Russia economically that I think would be beneficial to the Russian people.

I think the point the President was making is simply that there are costs that go along with certain types of actions. Even as we have had these very strong differences, we try to identify areas where we could cooperate with Russia, and in fact, I don’t think you would see a nuclear deal achieved with Iran without Russian cooperation. And in fact, Russia recently played a critical role in receiving the stockpile of enriched uranium that was shipped out as a part of that deal.

And President Obama has said this directly to President Putin in their repeated discussions, and they spoke on the phone this morning, by the way. And the issues they touch on are often Syria, Ukraine, and again, in both Syria and Ukraine, if Russia would play a more constructive role, we would welcome that. That’s our preferred outcome. We wouldn’t – we have no intention of being in opposition to or punishing Russia for its own sake; insofar as we have sanctions in place, they’re tied very directly to the situation in Ukraine.

QUESTION: Missile --

MR RHODES: Missile defense. Well, we’ve made this point, and in fact, the North Korean example is not a bad one in the sense that we’ve said from the beginning of this Administration that our missile defense programs are not directed at Russia or upsetting the strategic balance. They’re directed at threats from countries like North Korea and Iran. In fact, in recent years, we’ve deployed additional missile defense resources to Northeast Asia expressly because we want to make sure we are better able to deal with a threat from North Korea to ourselves but also to the Republic of Korea and Japan and to the entire region.

So we’ve been open to discussions with Russia about missile defense cooperation. We pursued those early in the Administration. We got fairly far along but we could not reach that type of agreement. And I think Russia in particular viewed the missile defense system that NATO is deploying as potentially posing a threat down the line. We continue to assert that that is not the case, and we can lay out how the system that is envisioned is meant to deal more with the threat from a country like Iran – which, by the way, we continue to see launching ballistic missiles.

So I think we are open to dialogue on this issue, but the key sticking point here, I think, has been a Russian belief that our intentions are directed at Russia. I think we believe we can show both technically and otherwise that what we’re really concerned about are threats emanating in places like North Korea and Iran.

Yeah, we’ll go here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Very nice, Mr. Ben, to meet you here. Jennifer Chen, reporter with Shenzhen Media Group. I just would like to know, will Obama Administration put more efforts in Asia Pacific region last year, and is there any adjustment or new policy in that region?

MR RHODES: Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

MR RHODES: Yeah. I think you will see more – I mean, I think you’ll – we – this has been a sustained focus, but we are very intentionally going out of our way to say the President is going to host the ASEAN leaders at Sunnylands, he’s going to be going to Asia twice at least to the countries that are hosting summits. I would expect that there’ll be additional stops on those trips. So he will be – will be receiving Prime Minister Turnbull but also certainly other leaders down the line.

So I think you’ll see the President spending a lot of time here because he believes that part of his most important legacy is going to be positioning the United States in the Asia-Pacific both economically through vehicles like TPP and through our bilateral relationships, but politically engaging at the highest levels and shaping the international architecture in the Asia-Pacific – APEC, ASEAN, EAS, and how that is a hub for cooperation. And people-to-people ties, as I was discussing – and I think you’ll see him engaging this Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, again – that we have a much more enhanced and elevated engagement across the board.

We’ve launched a number of new initiatives. Some of this is implementation, so – agreement on TPP from Congress, we have a maritime initiative that he announced in the Philippines that has significant resources behind it, I think. Identifying who the partners are in that maritime cooperation is going to be important. On climate change and clean energy cooperation with countries in the Asia-Pacific, it’s going to be critical to the implementation of the commitments that were made in Paris. That will be an area of focus this year. We’ll want to deal with the regional challenge posed by North Korea, working with the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and others, Russia.

So there’ll be a broad agenda. I think you’ll see the need to successfully implement a lot of the major initiatives he’s pursued over the years – whether it’s trade, climate change, or maritime security – and perhaps new initiatives in areas related to the priorities that he’s pursued as President. We’ve been very interested in elevating, for instance, our efforts to set standards as it relates to cybersecurity. It’s a bilateral discussion we’ve had with China but it’s also a multilateral discussion we’ve had at the G20, for instance.

So it will be a focus. You’ll see, I think, him spending a lot of time on it. I think we’d like to see the successful implementation of a lot of the things we worked on. And we’ll want to leave the next president with the United States positioned on a much more sustained and high-level basis to be a partner in the Asia-Pacific.

We’ll go here.

QUESTION: Irina Gelevska, Macedonian TV. You mentioned the NATO summit in Poland in July. Yesterday, Macedonian Premier Gruevski had a meeting with the Vice President Biden, and the Vice President gave support for Macedonia to join NATO. Do you expect that maybe in July, Macedonia will became member of NATO?

MR RHODES: I think, clearly, NATO has an open-door policy and supports the aspirations of states that meet the requirements to join NATO. With respect to Macedonia, I think July would be a highly accelerated timeline, so I think there’s a process that will likely play out over a longer period of time. You see a country like Montenegro; it took a significant number of years to, again, meet the requirements and thresholds to come into entry as a NATO member.

So again, I think that we support aspirations. We have an open-door policy. We also then have a series of specific steps, capabilities, dialogue with NATO that has to take place before we could get to complete membership. And I think that’s a process that will likely play out this – this will certainly be discussed in July. NATO aspirants are often part of the dialogue around summits so that we can review progress that’s been made, and so we’ll be able to take stock at that point as to how far along that progress a country like Macedonia is.

Yeah.

QUESTION: You mentioned North Korea several times. Hi, my name is Alicia Rose from NHK. You mentioned North Korea several times. What is the role of Japan and South Korea in addressing these – this issue? And also, do you have any expectations for the elections that will take place in Taiwan this weekend?

MR RHODES: So look, Japan and the Republic of Korea are absolutely central to our response to North Korea. And that’s why as soon as you saw the nuclear test you have President Obama, his first calls are to the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea.

I think there’s a role to play in terms of us making clear our ironclad commitment to their defense, manifested by our significant military cooperation, our alliance, our presence in those countries. We work together in terms of demonstrating our joint capabilities in the face of North Korea’s actions. I think we work together on a bilateral basis with each country in terms of joint exercises. We’re discussing capabilities like missile defense that are directly relevant to defending our populations against a threat from North Korea. So there’s a whole series of things that we do in the context of our alliances that I think are important in showing resolve in the face of North Korean provocation.

Then separately, I think we obviously want to consult with them as we’re pursuing potential responses in the UN Security Council or even unilaterally. And so as we’re reviewing issues related to sanctions, for instance, or efforts to further isolate North Korea, we consult with both Japan and South Korea about those steps.

And we also, frankly, believe that just as we want to have very strong and close relations with our allies, we encourage good relations among our allies. So the recent effort to address the comfort women issue, to acknowledge the history, to speak to the grievances of these women who suffered, and also to show that there’s reconciliation there and an ability to move on and improve relations – that was an important step. And we continue to encourage closer ties between Japan and South Korea. We think in the long run that’s good for all of us because we share so many interests in common. So this will be an issue that we’ll continue to be consulting with both countries on.

MS BLUM: (Inaudible.)

MR RHODES: Yeah, we’ll go to New York for one now. Oh yeah. So again, we will defer to --

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Erol Advovic. I am a correspondent for Avaz, A-v-a-z, daily from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. And I guess I would go back for a little to Balkan affairs again. In general, sir, can you tell us, is there any space for Balkans to be on your list of priorities of Obama Administration for this year? And to put in the recent developments’ lights, just days ago in Belgrade, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitriy Rogozin met Prime Minister Vucic of Serbia, offering him a very dangerous rocket system – S-300. So my question I guess again is: Do you think that United States should support more openly not only aspiration of the countries like – beside Montenegro, but Bosnia and Herzegovina, to move forward NATO integration, especially just in the light of these developments? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Yeah. So first of all, on the Taiwanese election, we obviously will respect and welcome the – whatever expression of the Taiwanese people emerges from that election. It’s up to them to make determinations about their leadership. So again, we welcome – we welcome that election. We will respect and work closely with whoever the winner is. Our Taiwan policy and our “one-China” policy will obviously remain the same. But I think it’s a testament to the vibrant democratic culture that you see in Taiwan that you see these campaigns and the election that’s coming up.

On the question about the Balkans, look, this is something that we work on very closely given the nature of the U.S. role over the last two decades in places like Bosnia and places like Kosovo. So I’d just break it into different issues. One is we have close security relationships with a number of countries. There are concerns about terrorism and migration in the Balkans, as in the rest of Europe, and those are issues that we work through on a very regular basis. We also work to try to support the long-term political and economic success of countries in the Balkans, and the U.S. has invested a significant amount in those efforts.

With respect to Russia and NATO, first of all, we see it’s very important – the key principle, of course, should be that the countries of the region are making their own decisions about their future, about their future arrangements, their future relationship with the European Union, their future relationship with NATO. We don’t, frankly, think it’s in the interests of the region for it to be seen as caught in some Cold War style, zero-sum game between the United States and Russia. That is not a constructive way, we think, for the region to be approached.

So as we look at questions of NATO membership, we do not make those decisions with Russia in mind in terms of we’re seeking to have a tug-of-war about whether this country is going to be aligned with or against Russia. What we look at are the very specific NATO criteria consistent with our open-door policy. What are the defense capabilities? What are the defense capability requirements of membership? What is the political and public support for NATO membership in the country? So there are clear guidelines that have been laid out over the years, and again, that allows us to come to a judgment that a nation wants to join NATO, that a nation has the capabilities to add value to the alliance, and that the alliance, again, will be there and is fully supported as a consensus-based organization in terms of accepting the profound Article 5 commitment that goes along with membership.

So we will continue to view these issues on that basis. And again, I think it’s important for us to not accept the mindset that this is going to be about United States and Russia or even NATO and Russia, but rather it’s about the security of individual countries, the security of the transatlantic community broadly.

We’ll go here in the middle.

QUESTION: Thanks for that. This is Eleni Argyri, Greek TV. So Greece is entering the sixth year of economic recession and harsh austerity, and on the top of that it has to deal with thousands of refugees that arrive every day from Syria. So is the President willing or planning to, while his last year in office, to encourage the Europeans to find an effective solution regarding the Greek debt? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Yes. I mean, this is something he’s worked on over the years. Greece has maken* very significant decisions. They’ve made significant sacrifices. And Europe has, I think, at critical junctures worked to try to resolve issues with Greece. Our interest is in seeing not just, again, addressing the profound structural issues in question, but also seeing a return of greater opportunity and growth for the Greek people.

So what we will continue to be doing is encouraging our European allies to work together – and that includes Greece and other members of the European Union – to address the issue associated with Greek debt. We’re not going to be prescriptive. It’s not our determination as to exactly what structure that takes, but I think we can offer support in different ways. We can offer ideas and we’ll continue to do so. But we don’t want to put ourselves directly in the middle of those discussions, but rather be encouraging that the situation continues to be resolved in a way that addresses the Greek people’s interest in getting out from under the situation they’ve been in and restoring economic growth and opportunity over the long term.

I would add that the additional pressure of the refugee issue comes into play here too, and we support efforts to find ways to provide resources to those countries that bear a significant burden with respect to refugees. So this is something we’ve talked to the Greek Government about, we’ve talked to the German Government and other European leaders about, and the President will continue to do that this year.

We’ll, yes, go over here. Yeah, you – yeah, let’s go --

QUESTION: Thank you. Donghui Yu with China Review News Agency of Hong Kong. I have a follow-up question on Taiwan, because many people are concerned that the outcome of this election may cause another round of tension in the Taiwan Strait. And also, many American scholars called for Obama Administration to play a more active role in facilitating the communication between the two sides and to push for formulating a new form – new base for coexist peacefully in the Taiwan Strait. So what message will you convey to the both sides? What will the United States do after the election? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Well, look, we have supported good cross-strait relations. We don’t think that escalation of tension is in the interest of either side. We believe, in the context of the election, that China, like the United States, like any other country observing this, will want to see the election play out and respect the result. Again, this will take place in the context of our “one-China” policy, our three communiques. But in the aftermath, it’s – I don’t want to prejudge a hypothetical circumstance. What I would say is that we would want to be supportive of cross-strait dialogue, of there being an avoidance of tension, and there being the ability for these issues to be addressed, again, peacefully through dialogue no matter who the winner is.

And that the – that’s the type of role the United States has played. Even as we have a longstanding relationship with people on both sides of the strait, a longstanding defense relationship that was manifested in the recent arms sale with Taiwan, what we want to see is calm and dialogue. And we will think through what the best ways are to support that effort when we have greater clarity about both the election results and how that is – how that’s playing out.

Yes, we’ll go right here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Rhodes. Martha Avila with RCN TV, Colombia. President Obama has said several times, including last night, that he supports the peace process in Colombia. But what does that mean – more resources to Colombia? And the most important, is the U.S. willing to free FARC members from the U.S. jails, even if that implies a presidential pardon?

MR RHODES: So first of all, we support the peace process. We want to make sure it’s good for Colombia, just as I know President Santos wants to make sure it’s a good deal for Colombia. And so at different stages we’ve been involved, and over the last several months we’ve had an envoy to the discussions in Havana to help work through with our own expertise some of the various difficult issues that have to be addressed around dealing with accountability, around dealing with security, around dealing with the variety of issues that emerge in these discussions.

In terms of resources, the United States has provided enormous resources over the years through Plan Colombia to Colombia’s security. I think we’ll continue in the coming years to provide resources for Colombian security, and I think we would think through what are those security requirements in the context of an agreement. Do they change? Do they shift to different issues? And so this is something I think President Obama will want to discuss with President Santos, which is, again, how do we ensure that we continue our security cooperation, our security support for Colombia? Does that evolve in the world of an agreement if an agreement is reached?

So there will be resources, and we’ll want to think through does that look very similar to what we’re currently doing in terms of our security cooperation, or does that, again, address specific elements associated with an agreement. And I don’t want – they’ll have that discussion when President Santos is here.

In terms of FARC members in the United States, it has not been an issue in the talks. Again, I think if you’re talking about people being freed from the United States, that’s not something that we have supported. We frankly don’t think that should be necessary to reach an agreement. So we’ll see what happens in the final weeks of these discussions. But again, it’s not – we’re aware, obviously, of the potential for that being an issue, but it has yet to be an issue in the talks. And what we’re most focused on is ensuring that if an agreement is reached, it is an agreement that addresses the security needs of the Colombian people, it addresses the need for accountability, and it addresses the need for there to be reconciliation within Colombia.

But I think you’ll see this as a focus, because we have an envoy there. Secretary Kerry is invested in this. President Obama will talk to President Santos about this. When they met in Manila, they had – President Santos kind of updated President Obama on where they were, and that led in part to the meeting we’ll have here in Washington. And I’m sure the elements of your question will potentially come up in that meeting.

Yeah, let’s see. Yeah, go behind – the lady behind you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ben. I’m Manar Ghoneim, Middle East News Agency, Egypt. Last night, Mr. President was not so optimistic regarding the situation in the Middle East, and this was obvious in his address last night. But regarding Egypt, I’m just asking if the President has any plans to further cooperation with Egypt regarding its fight of Daesh in Sinai or regarding the Libyan border, because Egypt is still suffering from the borders with Libya.

And another question: What does the White House see the inauguration of the recent parliament in Egypt? Thank you.

MR RHODES: So I think the President was aiming to be realistic in his address last night in communicating to the American people and to the world that there has to be a recognition that some of the challenges that are being faced in the Middle East today are going to play out over a long period of time, particularly if you look at the type of conflicts that we see in Syria in particular, but also in other countries – in Yemen, in Iraq and Libya.

With respect to Egypt specifically, we have had extensive discussions with them about ISIL and their presence in the Sinai. We are concerned about ISIL’s efforts to gain a foothold in the Sinai, so we share information. Many of the capabilities that we provide to Egypt through our security relationship are ones that are directly relevant to the capacity to go after terrorist organizations in places like the Sinai, so it’s built into our security relationship as well.

With respect to – and I should just add, I think, Egypt benefits from a resolution to the crisis in Syria. That as with every other country in the region, our strong case is that you’re not going to see a resolution to the issue with Daesh without a resolution to the Syrian civil war in the long run. And so Egypt’s support along with the other countries in the region for that political process will be important. And again, our belief is that part of that political process will have to involve Bashar al-Assad leaving power.

The situation in Libya does pose a significant threat to the stability of the broader region. We’ve had discussions with Egypt about this as well. Number one, as in Syria, there’s a security dimension and a political dimension. On the security side, we ourselves have been concerned about the efforts made by Daesh in places like Sirte to establish a foothold in Libya. We’ve actually taken action against the leader of Daesh in Libya.

At the same time, we believe there has to be a resolution to the political impasse inside of Libya, and the recent UN agreement to bring together the different factions in the country into a unity government provides an opening. And Egypt’s support for that process is critical, because different neighbors and different countries in the region have relationships inside of Libya. And if you get Egypt and United States and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates able to support the unity government as well as our European allies, Italy, that can make a difference in helping stabilize the situation going forward.

Was there any other --

QUESTION: The parliament.

MR RHODES: The parliament. Yeah, well, look, we welcome the seating of the parliament. We’re going to continue to, obviously, work with the Egyptian Government. And I think, as has been the case in recent months and years, we’ll be clear if there’s something that concerns us. Recent questions, for instance about Facebook and their ability to have a presence in Egypt, we’ll raise concerns about those issues. If we see progress, we’ll welcome the progress. So as Egypt wrestles with these political questions going forward, we’ll support their stability. We have the foundation of our relationship. I’m sure there’ll be areas where there’s going to be disagreement with certain actions, and we’ll raise those and we’ll do that with President Sisi, with the parliament, and with the broader government.

Go to New York.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing that. We really appreciate it. I have – my name is Gulveda Ozgur. I am from a Turkish news channel based in New York. My question is about the Administration’s current Syria strategy, and yesterday President Obama once again asked the Congress to give him authorization for military use in Syria. And my question is twofold. First, if the Congress gives the President the authorization, how would that change the current strategy of the United States in Syria? And if the Congress does not give them the authorization, how would that affect that strategy? What shall we expect to see on the ground to change? Thank you.

MR RHODES: So it’s a good question. So in any event, we will continue to prosecute our campaign against ISIL, to wage the war against ISIL. The fact of the matter is an AUMF, however, could do a number of things. First of all, it just sends a message politically from the United States to the world that we are invested in this fight; that it’s not just the President; it’s the President and Congress, it’s both parties in Congress, that are invested in the fight against ISIL. And that’s why the President said it’s one thing to make statements about the need to confront terrorism. Congress should be able to take a vote, and frankly, it’s hard to understand what the reason is why they wouldn’t take a vote other than potentially the fact that the President supports an authorization for the use of military force.

But the second one is important because the current authority for what we’re doing against ISIL is rooted in the 2001 AUMF, the post-9/11 AUMF that dealt with al-Qaida and its associated forces. And ISIL is an outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq, and so we believe we have the legal basis in the United States to be going after them.

However, the threat has changed and clearly evolved, and ISIL is not a part of al-Qaida anymore, and in fact, ISIL is in conflict with al-Qaida. And what we see is ISIL setting up not just in terms of their safe haven, but different branches in places like the Sinai, for instance, in places like Libya, and developing their own relations with what were previously al-Qaida affiliates in places like, potentially, Somalia.

And so our authority should reflect the new reality of the threat. Waging war against a terrorist network based on the situation in 2001 is not as effective a way of providing the tools to go after a terrorist network as you would have in 2016 with an AUMF that has passed this year. So essentially, provide the clear authority and the political statement for the authorization of the use of military force against ISIL. In doing so, frankly, we can better understand and clarify here’s how we see the threat today and here are the authorities that the President of the United States needs to go after that threat.

Because otherwise, we could be in a situation where, one year from now, two years from now, three years from now, we’re still waging war under the legal authority granted to President Bush after 9/11. You could have a situation where al-Qaida core in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a shadow of its former self is not the principal threat, but essentially, we’re using the authority that was designed for the organization when they were in the vanguard when in fact now we have ISIL as much more front and center in terms of the focus of our military action.

We’ll go here.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. This is Heba El-Koudsy from Al Sharq Al Awsat Newspaper. Was there discussion on peace talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition, which will be held in Geneva on 25th? You have a specific vision about the list of the representatives that will chair – that will join this discussion from the regime, the Syrian regime, and the opposition? And what’s your evaluation of the Saudi participation and the Iranian participation in this discussion?

My other question regarding Iran in light of its missiles test and in light of yesterday and U.S. Navy: What’s your evaluation and – besides that Iran support for the Syrian regime? What’s your – do you think that Iran is challenging the U.S. Administration? What’s your evaluation of the situation with Iran?

And last question: What exactly – sorry for that. What exactly your timeline? What’s the Administration timetable for Assad to leave power? Thank you.

MR RHODES: Good questions. So on the first question, we believe that a lot of work has been done under the umbrella of the Vienna process to identify the opposition that will participate in those discussions. And the meeting in Saudi Arabia I think brought together a very broad group of opposition parties and identified participants for that meeting.

We’ve encouraged there to be, again, an inclusive approach to the opposition groups. We’ve encouraged the opposition themselves to work together in identifying who the lead voices are. So we don’t necessarily want to be picking the negotiators ourselves, but rather we want to get – we’ve been aiming to get the opposition together in a room and have them be able to determine what is an inclusive set of negotiators on their side. And again, I think we’ve made progress and I think that Saudi meeting was critical to the process.

We think that the success of Vienna will depend in large part on continued support from all of the different countries, so it’s important that Saudi Arabia and Iran are both involved in that process. We want the United States and our partners, Saudi Arabia and others, at the table. But Russia and Iran, given their relationship with the regime, I think need to be at the table as well.

With respect to the timeline, just because it’s related, Vienna lays out a timeline for constitutional reform and eventually elections. We have said that Assad has to go as a part of that transition because the Syrian people themselves are not going to accept the legitimacy of the transition if they don’t know that it’s going to result in Assad’s departure. The vast majority of the Syrian people clearly reject his rule. We’ve said as a practical matter he cannot restore legitimacy in control of the country. And frankly, not only the United States but many – most of the countries in the region, of course, share that view. So this can’t succeed unless there’s clarity about the fact that Assad is going to leave as a part of the transition.

We’ve said that doesn’t have to happen at the very beginning because there’s clearly going to have to be some process of negotiation, but we are going to have to establish clarity about the fact that he is leaving as a part of this transition. I couldn’t pinpoint for you today exactly when that takes place on the timeline, but what we’ve said to Russia very clearly, and to Iran, is unless it becomes clear that he is leaving, this process will eventually break down because the opposition and the other countries involved in the region are not going to support it. So this will be the critical issue that has to be resolved in the coming months.

With respect to Iran, we don’t see that there’s any particular challenge to the United States taking place. We see a number of things. One, the nuclear issue is being resolved. The Iranians are meeting their commitments and we surely should be able to reach implementation day, in which case they have taken their key nuclear steps and then received the sanctions relief. We said during the nuclear negotiations and after that we fully expect that that’s not going to resolve all the issues between the United States and Iran, or Iran and the international community. They’re going to continue to engage in behavior that we reject – ballistic missiles, support for terrorism, activities in the region. The ballistic missile launches that they undertook are part of a pattern of behavior that we’ve seen for many years. We reject it. We oppose it. We don’t see it as a new development, though. We see it as in line with Iranian behavior over the years, and we’ll respond to it in that form. And as we’ve said, we’re working through the development of new sanctions designations related to those launches.

The event yesterday we see as not as a part of any strategy from Iran. I mean, what you have here is a situation where U.S. vessels apparently are in Iranian waters, and in fact, what happened was we were able to resolve the situation very quickly. We did not see any hostile intent from the Iranians. We did not see a strategic decision to go into international waters and apprehend these vessels. This was more a situation where there was a problem with our vessels – they’re in Iranian waters – and frankly, because of our diplomatic contacts with Iran that we didn’t have several years ago, we were able to very quickly address the situation.

We’ll take two more. We’ll go right here. Yeah.

QUESTION: Mr. Rhodes, thank you very much for doing this for us, and FPC, thank you so much. My name is Wada, Hiroaki Wada. I’m with Japan’s Mainichi newspaper. Let me go back to North Korea. President’s speech yesterday, Secretary Kerry’s speech today – they both didn’t mention North Korean nuclear test. Is it an indication that the Administration is not really attaching very much importance at the high – top level on this issue? And is there anything new you plan to do to stop North Koreans pursuing their nuclear and ballistic missile programs? They have – you have been doing a lot. You have been cooperating with your allies in the form of Six-Party Talks and also through the United Nations Security Council. But those international pressures, it seems to me, and all people here in Washington agree, that were successful in stopping North Koreans doing a lot of things in terms of nuclear experiments and also the ballistic missile advances. For example, do you plan to do more to pressure China to apply more pressure on North Korea, or do you plan to do, for example, do more in interdiction of North Korean vessels in hopes of stopping or slowing down nuclear or missile programs? Thank you.

MR RHODES: So we do an extraordinary amount, as you say, to address the issue. And first of all, I think we do consider additional measures. We do consider additional sanctions that can be applied. Obviously, North Korea’s economy is not exactly a model of growth and prosperity to begin with, so it doesn’t make it a very large sanctions target. But we do have an impact and we’re currently considering through the UN Security Council and through our own measures whether there are additional actions that can be taken to apply economic pressure on North Korea.

Similarly, we do work hard to interdict – well, I should also add, we work to ensure that other nations are not engaged in military cooperation with North Korea. It’s something I’ve worked on, for instance, personally with respect to Myanmar, and you’ve seen, I think, progress in terms of that relationship not being what it once was. But I think we also look at interdiction of course. Both we don’t want to see proliferation coming from North Korea or going to North Korea, and that’s something that I think we’ll continue to work through as well.

China – this has been an intense area of focus, and I think it will continue to be. And we – again, we believe that China can apply additional pressure, should apply additional pressure. We understand their concern about instability on the Korean Peninsula, but the fact of the matter is the current status quo is destabilizing, where you have nuclear tests. So we’ll continue to press that case with China.

It is important that we develop our own capabilities to respond, as I said. So whether you’re talking about the recent overflight we did with the B-52 or you’re talking about missile defense capabilities that provide greater assurance that we can protect our citizens, talk about our military cooperation and presence in Japan and Korea. That’s critically important.

On the first part of your question, I think clearly this is of huge priority to the President. When this happened, he reached out, called President Park, called Prime Minister Abe. He personally has been engaged in overseeing how we’re thinking through responses. The fact of the matter is if there’s one thing I know about the leader of North Korea, it’s he likes attention, and probably would like nothing more than the President to spend a lot of time talking about him in the State of the Union. We didn’t particularly feel compelled to give him that attention. Because frankly, the way in which you show strength in the world should not be defined by the occasional provocative launch or test of a device while your own people are starving, you have no economy to speak of, you have very little in the way of political relations. We don’t seek to elevate him personally. So that was our thinking in that regard.

But we will continue to speak to it, particularly in the context of our concerns about nuclear weapons and our alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan.

I’ll just quickly take one last question. Here, we’ll go here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ben.

MR RHODES: We’ve talked before, we’ll talk again.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Michail Ignatiou from Mega TV, Greece. A few months ago, you told us here, and I quote, that, it’s not acceptable for big countries to redraw maps and change borders. And I’m sure that everybody is agree with you. But why --

MR RHODES: Well, not everybody. Apparently, yeah. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But why, Ben, you let your ally, Turkey, to maintain occupation troops in Cyprus and using for this occupation American arms, and you accept that Turkey redraw the borders in Cyprus? What is the difference between Cyprus and Ukraine? Because you did – you had – you gave us this statement talking about Ukraine.

MR RHODES: Well, look, we are deeply invested diplomatically in supporting the ongoing UN process to resolve this issue, and we want to see the reunification of the island into a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. And I think you’ve seen some progress this – the last year or so. This is a particular focus, by the way, of Vice President Biden’s. So as we look to the year ahead, I think you’ll see Vice President Biden continuing to engage on this issue involving Cyprus.

So again, I think in this case, the principle is the international community is engaged. Clearly, the status quo is not one that we believe is the right one. We believe that there should be a resolution and a reunification, and that’s going to be the focus of our diplomatic efforts. And hopefully, this can be a year where you finally see a willingness to take those steps because that would be in the interest of people in Cyprus, and certainly, I think we share the interest of Greece, and Turkey has taken some steps to support a resolution, but we’ll have to test whether that can be followed through on.

Sorry to not get to everybody. I will try to come back more often this year around our travel and various engagements, but look forward to engaging with all of you over the course of the year.

MS BLUM: Thank you very much. That concludes our briefing with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Hope you’ll stay in touch. We have a number of briefings and tours coming up in a busy season ahead. Thank you.

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