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Daily Press Briefing
Tom Casey, Deputy Spokesman
Washington, DC
January 24, 2008

INDEX:

EGYPT / PALESTINIANS

Discussions with Egyptian Government / Securing Border with Gaza
Hamas Taking Advantage of Incident / Regional Discussions
Concerns About Tunnels and Smuggling / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Egyptians Capable of Handling Sovereign Responsibilities

KOSOVO

Policy on Supervised Independence Has Not Changed / Ahtisaari Plan

SYRIA

Hosting Conference for Palestinian Rejectionist Groups

VENEZUELA

President Chavez’s Public Relations Efforts in the U.S.
CITGO Charitable Efforts are Welcome / Not Personal Vehicle for Chavez

SERBIA / RUSSIA

Bilateral Agreement Between Russia and Serbia / Energy Diversification Necessary

IRAQ

Query on Senator Biden’s Comments
Plans for Status of Forces Agreement when UN Chapter 7 Resolution Expires
Agreement will Help Normalize Bilateral Relationship Between the U.S. and Iraq
Agreement Will Not Limit Options of Current or Future Administrations

MACEDONIA / GREECE

Name Issue is Sensitive / Both Parties Need to Work to Resolve the Issue

BURMA

Joint Statement from U.S., UK, and France
Davos was Good Opportunity to Pressure Burmese Regime


TRANSCRIPT:

View Video

12:38 p.m. EST

MR. CASEY: All right. Well, good afternoon, everybody. I don’t have anything to start you off with, so let’s see what you may have as questions today.

QUESTION: On Gaza?

MR. CASEY: More on Gaza. Well, I don’t think I have a lot more than what we talked about this morning. But just to make sure we have at least something more than a two-minute briefing, I’ll go through what we do have again.

We’ve been in contact with the Egyptian Government, both David Welch with the Egyptian Ambassador here in Washington as well as Frank Ricciardone, our Ambassador to Egypt. He has spoken with a number of Egyptian officials, including, as I understand it, President Mubarak.

We share the concerns of the Egyptians about this situation. Certainly, we all want to make sure that the border is properly controlled and secured. The Egyptians are working towards that end. And certainly, we hope that they will be able to do so in the next few days.

We understand and also appreciate the fact that Hamas is trying to take advantage of this incident to use it not only to let individual Gazans try and purchase consumer goods on the other side of the border but potentially to smuggle in arms and other materials to support their fighters. And that is something that we and the Egyptians are concerned about.

We’re certainly going to continue to work on this issue and discuss it with the Egyptians as well as with the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority Government. I think it’s important to all of us that there be an appropriately secured international border there between Gaza and Egypt.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied --

MR. CASEY: Yes. Oh sorry, keep going.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied with the Egyptian response that they’re doing their best to control that, or is there any political element in what they’re doing?

MR. CASEY: Well, again, we understand that this is not the easiest situation for them to deal with, know they’re making efforts to do this. I’d leave it to them to talk about sort of the specifics of how they’re moving forward. Certainly, we want to see this dealt with as soon as possible. It’s in Egypt’s interest to do so. It’s in ours. It’s in everyone’s.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, just following on from that, Tom, when people like Under Secretary Burns say that the Egyptians need to do as much as they can to secure the border as soon as possible, what concrete help can the U.S. provide to help Egyptians achieve that goal, given the limits of manpower that they have and other points that they – and treaty obligations that they highlight? And could you perhaps spell out a little bit for us, sir, how worried you are about some kind of increase in violence in Gaza should this (inaudible) to go on for much longer with the smuggling in arms that you fear?

MR. CASEY: Well, we’ve all talked about some of the concerns about the tunnels and the smuggling of material across the border. As you know, there were elements of the Army Corps of Engineers out in Egypt fairly recently for discussions and consultations with Egyptian officials about that. We understand that this is not the easiest situation for them to deal with, but it’s something that they recognize that they do have to respond to. And that’s something that we’re prepared to assist them with as they might see fit.

But this is – you know, we are confident that the Egyptians are capable of handling their own sovereign responsibilities along the border. But certainly, again, it is a difficult issue. We want to continue to work with them on it. If they have specific kinds of help, we’re prepared to consider those requests. I’m not aware that they’ve asked for anything specific beyond what’s already been discussed previously.

QUESTION: But you’re not suggesting anything yourself, you’re awaiting requests from them; is that right in terms of --

MR. CASEY: Well, again – yeah, again, look, this is an issue that there’s a great deal of discussion on, both in terms of general security along the border as well as in response to this specific incident. But it’s, from our perspective, up to the Egyptians to determine how they would like to proceed. They’re a sovereign nation and this is their border with Gaza and ultimately it’s their responsibility. Certainly, if they want to have any suggestions from us, I’m sure we’ll be happy to put some ideas forward. But I think that they’re capable of understanding what their needs are.

Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION: Mr. Casey, on Kosovo. According to a press release of the American Council for Kosovo, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton with statements are opposing the independence of Kosovo against almost, as they said, 25 percent of the Serbian territory. I’m wondering do you take those statements under consideration?

MR. CASEY: Mr. Lambros, I think the key to your description of all three individuals is “former,” so they’re certainly free to express their views and opinions. U.S. policy remains consistent on this issue.

QUESTION: A follow-up. Moscow has wrote today that the American-led attempt to seek within the Security Council and recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration independence while Resolution 1244, which reaffirms Kosovo as a part of Serbia is still in effect, would set off a possible uncontrolled crisis in the area. How do you respond, Mr. Casey, since you are supporting the Annan plan – excuse me, the Ahtisaari plan and 1244 resolution?

MR. CASEY: Yeah, the Annan plan refers to --

QUESTION: It slipped my mind.

MR. CASEY: That’s okay. That’s all right. You know (inaudible).

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CASEY: No, look, certainly, we believe that moving forward with the Ahtisaari plan is a way to prevent a unstable and potentially violent situation from developing in the region, and we’re going to continue to move forward with it.

QUESTION: One more?

MR. CASEY: Let’s let Samir get in here.

QUESTION: Tom, do you have any comment on the conference hosted by Syria yesterday for all the rejectionist Palestinian groups that called for – they opposed the negotiations with Israel and insisted that liberation must go before (inaudible) states?

MR. CASEY: Well, unfortunately, Samir, it shows yet again that despite many comments made by the Syrian regime, there certainly is still an effort underway to continue their support for some of these Palestinian rejectionist groups. And that’s unfortunate. We very much were appreciative of the fact that the Syrians came to the Annapolis conference and did so in what we hoped would be a spirit of support for the will of the Palestinian people to live in peace with Israel and to have a two-state solution. It’s unfortunate to see them hosting these kinds of events which really aren’t anything more than a grouping of individuals who basically stand opposed to what we believe to be the overwhelming wishes of the Palestinian people as well as the Israelis.

Dan.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about --

MR. CASEY: Okay, Nina. (Laughter.) Then we’ll go back to Dan. That’s okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about Chavez’s efforts to improve his image in the States? He’s spent (inaudible) million, apparently, and there’s a big CITGO initiative providing cheap heating oil to America’s poor. What do you make of all this?

MR. CASEY: Well, I’m not sure what impact, if any, his public relations efforts may have in the United States. Certainly, I think U.S. policy with respect to Venezuela is pretty clear. We want to have good relations with Venezuela. We historically have had very good relations with Venezuela. But we certainly also need to be able to express our concerns about some of the actions that have been taken by that government.

In terms of the activities of CITGO or support for charitable efforts here in the United States, I think anything that provides support for needy individuals is a good thing and to be welcomed. And you’ve seen that from various municipalities where CITGO’s operated. It’s certainly one of the companies owned by the Venezuelan Government, but I’m hard-pressed to consider it a Chavez personal vehicle.

Yeah.

QUESTION: On the Balkans, Mr. Casey –

MR. CASEY: We’ll give you one more on the Balkans. You’re getting an extra Balkan shot for today.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you.

MR. CASEY: Take an extra shot of espresso in your coffee.

QUESTION: Two questions. (Inaudible) announced yesterday that Russia has broke Serbia’s own monopoly. The deal will also allow Moscow to send more natural gas to Europe through South Stream pipeline. What is your position since you are concerned too about Southeast Europe?

MR. CASEY: Well, I don’t have any great amount of detail about this, a bilateral arrangement between Russia and Serbia, and certainly they’re free to do that.

In terms of energy resources, as you know, Mr. Lambros, our concern is that there be diversity both in supply and in transit routes for energy resources so that we don’t have issues that have come up in the past where supplies have been choked off, either because of technical issues related to pipelines or pumping stations or because of concerns about energy resources being used in a political way.

QUESTION: And one more --

MR. CASEY: Let’s let Dan – I think Dan had – let him get one thing in here first and then we’ll let him get in.

QUESTION: Yes, just – Joe Biden just gave a press conference when he said – on terms of the possible agreement with Iraq this year. He said nobody knows what the Administration is proposing and he said he had no idea whether they were proposing a long-term security arrangement which would require congressional approval or a short-term status of forces agreement, which wouldn’t – and which he considered would be nonbinding. He said he had written to the Secretary and received no response or clarification on this. Can you help him on what is such a major feature of Administration foreign policy?

MR. CASEY: I will try not to personally think that I need to offer assistance to the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who, after all, does have oversight authority for the Department of State. But let me see if I can talk to you a little bit about the specifics of plans for a status of forces agreement with Iraq and some other things.

First of all, as I think we all know, the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq has, until now and through the end of this coming year, been governed under Chapter 7 UN Security Council resolutions. The Iraqis have told us and told the United Nations that once the current resolution expires at the end of the year, they would like to move towards a more normalized relationship with the United States and with other countries that may continue to have a troop presence in Iraq. And to do that, what we are looking at is the kind of vehicle that we use for relations between U.S. military forces and more than a hundred countries throughout the world, which is a status of forces agreement.

But let’s be clear about what those are. Those agreements basically outline the terms under which U.S. forces legally operate in the country. It includes things like, you know, whether they respond to the Uniform Military Code of Justice or whether they come under local government or local court authorities. It includes the kinds of arrangements that allow for duty-free transshipment of materials for troops and those kinds of things. It’s a very basic agreement that, in many ways, is similar to the kinds of structures that we have in place in Iraq under the current Chapter 7 resolution. And in many ways, I think it represents a real change in the terms of the situation in Iraq. It’s an opportunity for us to move away from a UN mandate and towards a more normal bilateral relationship between our countries, which I think would be welcomed by many individuals.

In fact, there’s been legislation passed by Congress specifically asking us to negotiate a status of forces agreement to follow on measures to this UN mandate. And that’s also important for the U.S. military as well and – well, you can talk to some of my colleagues over at the Pentagon. Certainly, we want to make sure that any place in the world that U.S. troops are deployed, that there is a clear legal mandate and understanding of the environment they operate in. And that’s why we have these kinds of status of forces agreements all over the world.

Now there has been some comments that I’ve seen from other quarters that express concern that this agreement would somehow be establishing bases or in some way trying to limit options of policymakers now or in the future and that’s certainly not the case. What this arrangement does is make sure that whether it is this President or any of his successors that they have the full range of policy options available to them. Certainly there’ll always be the decision of the Commander-in-Chief and U.S. military leaders over what level of forces to have and what military operations will be.

I do think it’s pretty reasonable to assume, if you look at the history of what has gone on and look at statements made by representatives of both major political parties in this country that most likely options in Iraq will include some desire to be able to fight al-Qaida to provide training for Iraqi forces or do other kinds of activities there that respond to U.S. policy needs.

And so I think if you look at what is envisioned, and remember these are negotiations that have not even begun yet, certainly what we are trying to do is normalize and regularize a relationship between the United States and Iraq so that we are in a position to be able to carry out whatever operations are chosen to be engaged in by the U.S. and Iraqi Government cooperatively.

QUESTION: So just to clarify --

MR. CASEY: Sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry. Just to follow -- to just clarify, as a Status of Forces Agreement, it would not require congressional approval, nor would it in any sense lock in U.S. forces in Iraq and into the medium and long term.

MR. CASEY: Well, again, it’s a agreement that establishes the basis for having troops there. It is not a specific commitment of forces in terms of numbers or operations. Those are obviously things that are determined by the military commanders and ultimately by the President.

Yeah.

QUESTION: That was my question, so it’s not expected that it would have provisions of how many forces, how many U.S. forces or how long that it would stay in the country. It’s not expected that those things would be in this agreement.

MR. CASEY: No. I mean, it’s a basic framework agreement for normalizing the relationship. It’s not something that establishes force levels either minimum or maximum or determines specific operations. And I think, you know, you can look at the kinds of agreements that we have with other countries around the world, including longstanding allies in Europe and Asia. And obviously over time, while the Status of Forces Agreements have remained fairly consistent, the missions, the numbers of troops, the kinds of troops have changed and adjusted in accordance to the needs of policymakers in this country as well as in the host country. So there is no anticipation that this is somehow going to forever lock in stone a particular level of troops or a particular set of activities – activities or goals. Again, it’s a legal framework.

QUESTION: And --

MR. CASEY: Yeah. And – and what did I leave out?

QUESTION: And the next president, what’s their relationship to this agreement? They can tear it up, they can keep it, they can --

MR. CASEY: Well, look, the – again, the Status of Forces Agreements allows you to have a legal basis for operating in the country. The decisions that will be made by future presidents of this country, as well as let’s us – please, and I keep on trying to emphasize, future prime ministers and presidents of Iraq, since this is not a one-way street here, are obviously going to be up to their discretion.

We all want to see a time when Iraq is fully capable of handling its own security needs without the presence of any foreign forces and that’s the goal we’re all working towards. I do think, though, and when you listen to things that current candidates out there are saying, I think it’s pretty reasonable to assume, though, that there will be some kinds of U.S. military presence or operations beyond the end of the current UN mandate and that there will be a need as we work not only with Iraq, but with other countries over time to do things like respond to and fight al-Qaida wherever they may be.

We also have, I think, an enduring commitment to try and help the Iraqis achieve that kind of sustainability and that kind of ability to control their own security and that probably means some kind of ongoing role in terms of training and helping to support Iraq’s security forces. So this is certainly not an effort to tie anyone’s hands. This is very much an effort to provide current and future policymakers with a full range of options available to them.

QUESTION: So Tom --

MR. CASEY: Yeah, David.

QUESTION: You’re saying that SOFA agreements notwithstanding, the Bush Administration doesn’t intend to – in any way, to commit U.S. forces to Iraq after it leaves office?

MR. CASEY: Well, again, look, we believe that we need to have a long-term relationship with Iraq, a relationship that involves our diplomats, that involves economic reform, and that, for some time, will involve a military relationship. But how that relationship evolves, the specifics of it, how many diplomats will we have in our embassy, how many troops will we have on the ground, these are all the kinds of decisions that get made by policymakers here in Washington with the input from those in the field.

We believe that it’s important that we lay the groundwork now to be able to have that kind of sustainable relationship because it’s important that whoever is president next has a full range of options available and knows that U.S. forces that are there, for however long they are there, have a solid, legal basis and have a solid basis that’s acceptable not only to us and the broader international community, but the Iraqis as well because again, this is a cooperative effort and a cooperative arrangement.

And I do think one of the things that’s been missed in some of the comments that have been made about this over time is that this is actually a positive change and a positive move forward to be moving away from a mandated international community Chapter 7 resolution as a basis for troop presence to something that is much more similar to, in fact, is very much the model that we use for regular bilateral military relations between the United States and most other countries in the world.

QUESTION: So the Bush Administration doesn’t intend to foreclose any options of a -- that a future administration might have vis-à-vis Iraq.

MR. CASEY: Look, if anybody is worried that this agreement somehow ties the hands of future policymakers, it’s just simply not true.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Was there any reference to a permanent base or bases in the agreement?

MR. CASEY: No, we’re not seeking permanent bases in Iraq and that’s been a clear matter of policy for sometime. So no, the agreement is not a basing agreement.

QUESTION: But if it requires – I mean, the Iraqis require or made reference to it, how would the U.S. respond?

MR. CASEY: Well, again, you have to separate – separate out two issues here. One is the foundation and the legal basis on which our troops would operate in whatever term they are there. The second are the tactical decisions and arrangements as to how you proceed. But again, those are the decisions that are made by U.S. commanders on the ground working with their Iraqi counterparts, and ultimately blessed by policymakers. But there’s no intent on the part of the U.S. to establish permanent bases in Iraq whether that’s through this agreement or any other kind of agreement.

Yeah, Dan.

QUESTION: Just to follow up –

MR. CASEY: Just to follow up, okay.

QUESTION: When the President compared, as he did on his recent trip to the Middle East, this agreement to the understanding that the U.S. has with Kuwait, that’s just in terms of the modalities of day-to-day operations not to any kind of long-term presence. I just wanted to make sure that that gloss on the President’s comments was correct.

MR. CASEY: Well, I’d – you know, I’ll leave it to the White House to give you a – try and give you an interpretation of his comments. As I recall hearing them, it was again trying to establish this context that I’m talking about. It’s regularizing and normalizing our relations – our military relations with Iraq just as we have regular or normalized relations with Kuwait and many other countries not only in the Middle East but in Asia and Europe.

Okay, Mr. Lambros, one last shot.

QUESTION: On FYROM. Mr. Casey, the Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis warned FYROM the other day saying, “It is quite obvious that 15 years of negotiation carried out under UN mandate and with participation of a personal envoy of the UN Secretary General had not been carried out to decide what Greece will call some state. This could be done unilaterally and without negotiation.”

Mr. Casey, how do you see the refusal of Skopje to find a solution for 15 years, keeping in consideration too the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest this coming April?

MR. CASEY: Well, Mr. Lambros, as you know, we understand that this is a very sensitive issue in Greece and in Macedonia. That’s why we think it’s important that there be a compromise between the parties and a mutual understanding arrived at under UN auspices on the issue of the name. Certainly, we wish it would have been resolved earlier, but we want to continue to encourage both countries to continue to work at it because I think it’s important that they do achieve a resolution that can satisfy both parties.

QUESTION: It’s been 15 years, Mr. Casey.

MR. CASEY: Well, some things take more time than others, Mr. Lambros.

Dave has got one more.

QUESTION: Can you discuss the origin --

MR. CASEY: Thanks for trying, Charlie.

QUESTION: Can you discuss the origin of the Burma statement that we just received from Davos? Whose idea was it? What do you hope to – I mean, the economic forum doesn’t have much to do with Burma, so what are you trying to achieve there?

MR. CASEY: Well, first of all, I do hope that you’ve all seen it now. We did put out a little earlier this morning a joint statement by Secretary Rice and the UK and French Foreign Ministers on Burma. This was something that came about as a result of discussions among the three of them over time. Certainly, as you know, this is an issue that we have paid a great deal of attention to. And in general, I think you can say that the decision was made among the three of them that they thought the fact that they all were, at various points in time here, at Davos and that so much of senior policymakers’, business leaders’ and others’ attention is focused there that this would be a good opportunity to remind people of the importance we place on this issue and also to encourage them to continue to take actions to press the Burmese regime to do what we all want to see happen, which is a release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, the entry by the government, by the regime into a real and honest dialogue over the future of the country, as well as taking some of the other steps that we’ve talked about.

So it was an opportunity when there was a critical mass, if you will, of world leaders and influential people together in one place to simply remind them of our united position on this and to hope to encourage additional pressure to be placed on the regime to change their behavior.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CASEY: Okay. Thank you, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:07 p.m.)

DPB # 16



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