James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I don’t have any announcements to get us started, so we’ll just go straight to questions.
Julie, would you like to begin?
Q: Great. Thanks, Josh. I had a couple of questions to follow up on the announcements the President made last night. To begin, the Brits said today that they will not be participating in any airstrike campaign. And I know that officials said last night that more announcements on commitments would be coming over the next few weeks. But in terms of airstrikes, is it your expectation that there will be other countries who will be joining the U.S. in that part of the mission? Or is that something that is going to be left to the U.S. alone?
MR. EARNEST: Julie, shortly before I came out here, someone read to me a statement from a spokesperson at Number 10, indicating a slightly different position than the one that you articulated. And it is consistent with our view that we do anticipate that our allies, including the British, with whom we a have a special relationship as you know, will be active participants in supporting the international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Any announcements that they have to make about how they will contribute to this effort will be for them to make, not for me. But the President, when he met with Prime Minister Cameron last week in Wales, in the context of the NATO Summit, came away pleased with the level of commitment and interest that he heard from our NATO Allies, including the British.
As it relates to what other countries would participate in military action in Syria, we’ll allow those other countries to discuss what level of commitment they’re prepared to make. But the President has indicated that he is ready to order military action in Syria, predicated on what he described as a core principle of his presidency, which is to deny a safe haven to those individuals who would seek to do harm to the United States of America. And we are confident that military action that is required will be strongly supported by an international coalition.
Q: I’m not really asking though about specific countries here. I’m just asking more broadly if when it comes to airstrikes, that’s something that will be kind of under the U.S. purview alone, or that will specifically be something where other countries will join in.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if other countries are prepared to make a commitment about the military action that they would either support or undertake themselves, we’ll allow them to make that announcement.
We are pleased, however, with the robust engagement that we have received already from our allies around the world and from other governments in the region who have a clear stake in the success of the strategy that the President has articulated.
Q: In terms of the President’s request for Congress to authorize the train-and-equip mission for the Syrian rebels, it appears that there is some support among leadership, including John Boehner, to move this forward, but a lot of open questions about how exactly that’s going to get done. At this point, does the administration have a preference whether that gets done in the CR or whether there’s standalone legislation?
MR. EARNEST: It’s our preference that Congress would add Title 10 training authority to the continuing resolution. And the reason for that is simply that the President needs this authority as soon as possible in order to direct the United States military to ramp up our assistance to the Syrian opposition. And that’s particularly important now because of the response that we have gotten from countries in the region, partners who are ready to support this effort.
For example, I know that the Saudis have publicly announced their commitment to host a training operation. That is an important commitment, and we want to ensure that we can follow up quickly on that commitment by doing our own part. In order to do it, however, the President needs authority from Congress, and that’s why we’re asking Congress to act urgently to give him that authority. The easiest way for us to get that done would be adding it to the continuing resolution that members of Congress are prepared to pass as early as the beginning of next week, I’m told.
Q: Is there any scenario in which the administration could move forward with this Pentagon train-and-equip mission without congressional authorization?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that for the Pentagon to carry out a training-and-equipping mission using its Title 10 authority, it would require specific congressional authorization. But as you point out, Julie, this authority is not authority that has attracted significant controversy in the past, so it should be the kind of authority that is granted to the administration without a lot of drama.
Q: If I could just ask —
MR. EARNEST: But let me just say — I would, however, expect that members of Congress would ask questions about this authority. And over the course of the day today, I know that there are all-member briefings that are being hosted in the House and the Senate that will be led by senior administration officials to discuss with members of Congress the strategy that the President has laid out.
So there will be an opportunity for members of Congress, who do have questions about granting the administration this authority, to ask them and to get specific answers from senior administration officials. Again, it shouldn’t be something that’s particularly controversial, but the administration welcomes interest and questions about the programs that we can ease any concerns they may have.
Q: And if I could just ask finally whether you see any irony in using as your legal justification for these airstrikes an authorization for military force that the President himself has called for repeal of.
MR. EARNEST: The President did give a speech in May of 2013 — so a little over a year ago now — where he did describe — let me just quote his sentence and then we can talk about it a little bit. The President said, “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate.” Two sentences later, he went on to say, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.”
So the President is ready to engage in a conversation with members of Congress as it relates to this specific AUMF. And we welcome or would welcome a show of support from the United States Congress for the strategy that the President has laid out. We have been gratified to see some public statements of support from members of Congress, including many Republicans, for the President’s strategy. And if there are additional steps that Congress would like to consider, we would welcome them.
But the President is confident that he has the authority that he needs to order military action along the lines of the broadened systematic airstrikes that he described yesterday.
Q: Under an AUMF he wants repealed.
MR. EARNEST: Under an AUMF that he believes continues to apply to this terrorist organization that is operating in Iraq and Syria. And in the same speech where the President talked about his desire to refine and repeal the AUMF, the President talked about the need to confront and defeat and continue to take the fight to terrorist organizations that either do or could wish violence and harm to the U.S. homeland.
So these — we have also articulated that the decision by members of Congress to express their support for the President’s strategy could take a variety of forms, and it is a decision for members of Congress to make. It would be a decision or a show of support that this administration would welcome.
One potential show of support could be a refined AUMF. But again, that’s not necessary because the President has the authority, the statutory authority that he needs. And that’s why we have and will continue to closely consult with members of Congress about all aspects of the strategy that the President is pursuing, because we believe that it is important for the United States Congress to indicate their support for the President’s strategy; that it demonstrates to certainly our enemies, but also to our allies and to the American people, that the elected representatives of the most powerful nation in the world are united behind a specific strategy — in this case, a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q: Josh, are you saying that the U.S. will act alone on airstrikes if you have to, but you don’t think you’ll have to?
MR. EARNEST: The question that you’re asking necessarily sort of jumps head a little bit here, and that’s why it’s a difficult one to answer.
The President has made clear that he is prepared to order military strikes in Syria against ISIL, primarily because it relates to a specific core principle of his presidency, which is that he will act to deny individuals or organizations that seek to do harm to the United States a safe haven anywhere in the world.
Right now, there is concern about the virtual safe haven that ISIL appears to be operating in, in Syria. The President is prepared to deny that.
What we have also seen are strong statements — privately — from our allies — some public, but mostly private — from our allies that they share this goal; that they understand the concern that the United States has about a safe haven in Syria for ISIL. After all, a safe haven in Syria for ISIL would also pose a threat to many of these other countries as well, including regional governments.
So there is a pretty clear set of incentives — or interests that are lined up here. So the President is prepared to take military action, but he is also determined to ensure that the United States assembles the kind of international coalition that would ensure the United States is not acting alone; that we are working closely and cooperatively with our allies in NATO, with our allies in other countries around the world, with our partners in the region who have a significant stake in the outcome.
And you’ve also heard — seen other signals from the administration to indicate that there may be even other countries with whom we are not allies, but who are — have an interest in the resolution of this situation that is consistent with the interest of the United States of America.
For example, the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, was in China earlier this week, where she and her counterparts discussed the threat that’s posed by ISIL. Again, China is not an ally of the United States, but we do have a relationship with them that allows us to cooperate on a wide range of issues. This could potentially be one of them.
Q: Do you have to have the Syrian rebels trained up before you would launch airstrikes in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: I think the answer to that is not necessarily. The President will order military strikes at a time that he believes is consistent with our broader strategic interest. The President does believe that we need to ramp up the assistance that we are providing to the Syrian opposition.
For some time now, the United States has been providing both military and non-military assistance to the Syrian opposition. The President believes that we should ramp up that assistance. However, he needs authority from the United States Congress to ramp up that assistance in the way that he would like and in the way that he believes is necessary.
But one is not predicated on the other primarily, because the goal of those — of any military action that the President orders would be to deny ISIL a safe haven there.
This also seems to be an appropriate time for me to remind you of another principle that the President has articulated, which is the President will not send American combat boots to fight on the ground in Syria. He will not do that. He is, however, prepared to order military action in Syria related to airstrikes. And these airstrikes would both be effective in denying ISIL a safe haven in Syria, but would also be used eventually to support the efforts of the Syrian opposition to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in Syria.
Q: When the President spoke to the Saudi King yesterday, did the King himself say he would agree to host this training mission? Or how did that process work?
MR. EARNEST: What I can say for sure, Steve, is I know that this is an issue that the President and the King discussed in the context of our efforts to cooperate and coordinate our actions with Saudi Arabia to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. Those consultations and that cooperation is ongoing. I believe that Secretary of State John Kerry, if my memory serves me correctly, is actually there today, meeting with his counterparts in the Saudi government, as well as other leaders –or senior officials from other governments in the region.
So our consultations and our level of cooperation is deep and will continue. And it was at some point after that conversation that the Saudis did announce their willingness to host a training camp for the Syrian opposition. But in terms of the details of how that business was transacted, I’m not able to present them in this context.
Move around just a little bit. Justin.
Q: I just wanted to nail down the Title 10 thing, and I’m sorry to go into the weeds a little bit.
MR. EARNEST: That’s okay. That’s why we have these sessions, to go into the weeds.
Q: So when Julie asked her question you said that it was your understanding the Pentagon could carry out a training-and- equipping mission under Title 10, that they would need authorization to do that.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q: But Senator Levin and the Pentagon have both said today that they have some authority to train and equip the Syrian opposition right now. So is the difference here that this would be going from a covert sort of operation into the open? And how, I guess, is money related to that? So does the Title 10 authorization allow the Pentagon to go into a different type of budget that they can’t access now? Is that what the real ask that you’re going for is?
MR. EARNEST: You’re asking me a tricky question. I think you realize that in the way that you’re phrasing it. (Laughter.) Let me just —
Q: Well, but it is holding up the CR right now, so —
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t suggest it was an illegitimate question. I just said it was a tricky one, particularly one in the context that we are talking right now.
So in this context, I’m not going to be in a position to discuss any aspect of any sort of potential covert program that may or may not exist.
Title 10, however — ramping up our assistance to the Syrian opposition under Title 10 would be something that would be done overtly, and it would be done — and it would require funding to support it. That would also be overt and publicly discussed.
The President proposed in his West Point speech that he delivered back in June *May dedicating $500 million to this Title 10 training and equipping effort. And we would like to see — we obviously want to ensure that this program is funded appropriately, but the concern right now on the part of the administration is that we want to get the program up and running quickly to follow up on the commitments that have been made by some of our regional partners, including the Saudis.
So we are hoping for prompt action by the United States Congress to give this authority to the administration so that this program under Title 10 can get started as soon as possible.
Q: So I mean, maybe to re-ask Julie’s question, maybe you can’t answer it — but when Senator Levin says that the Pentagon currently has some authority to train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition, is he wrong?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not quite sure. I don’t mean this to sound pejorative, as it might in other settings — I don’t genuinely know what Senator Levin may be referring to. So in terms of that, I’d go ask him.
What we’re referring to is this Title 10 authority that the President originally asked for back in June that we want Congress to act on quickly so that we can be responsive to the encouraging signals that we’re receiving from our partners in the region.
Q: And then, this might be another long shot, but I know that the President and Speaker Boehner spoke yesterday about sort of efforts to shoehorn this into the CR, and then now they’ve pushed off a vote until next week; there’s a lot of talk about separating it. So I’m wondering if you can just — I know they’re private conversations, but provide what your guys’ understanding of sort of the status of this on the Hill is.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s my understanding, as Julie pointed out, that the Speaker is supportive of this effort. I know that there are a number of other Republican members of Congress who have indicated their support for this authorization. I know that there are Democrats who share this view, too.
My guess is that this has to do with the complicated nature of legislating. And the role of the administration is to be clear about what our requests are — in this case, we are being crystal clear about our desire for authority to begin this program under Title 10. The other thing that we can do is to try to answer as many questions as possible for members of Congress who are deciding whether or not it is appropriate to grant this administration the authority.
And so we are engaged in an effort to closely consult with members of Congress. There are individual telephone conversations starting at the highest level on this issue to make sure that members of Congress understand exactly what is being requested. And as I mentioned, there are these broader briefings that are being convened by senior administration officials. I know that there’s a White House official involved, and officials from some of the other foreign policy agencies, including the Department of Defense and Department of State, that would be on hand to answer questions about this program or any other aspect of the strategy that the President articulated last night.
Q: Are there any other presidential calls to — like, specific calls to lawmakers?
MR. EARNEST: Probably. (Laughter.)
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the President will get the public support for this? Or maybe you think he has the support for it. And how do you keep that support going when the administration has said this is a years-long effort? As you know, we’ve talked about it a lot, that this is sort of more where — we say that a lot — just that we’ve gotten out of war, now we’re going back into military action. How does he get the public on board? Will he give speeches? Talk some more? What’s the engagement there?
MR. EARNEST: And you’re talking about our broader strategy as it relates to degrading and destroying ISIL? I would anticipate — the President does feel a responsibility to communicate with the American public about our strategy and about his decision — what he has described as the most difficult decision that a Commander-in-Chief has to make, which is to send our men and women in uniform into a conflict.
And the President does feel a responsibility to communicate with the American public about these issues. That is, after all, why the President elected to deliver an address in primetime last night. With the generous cooperation of America’s television networks, that speech was carried by — over the airwaves, and I assume was watched by a large number of people all across the country.
That is important because the President considers it to be a core priority of the Commander-in-Chief and as the top elected official in the country to communicate with the people who have elected him to this office — particularly when it relates to issues of such great importance, and issues that are related directly to American national security. So I would anticipate that the President will continue to talk about this issue and continue to provide updates to the American public about the status of our strategy.
What we have seen is a pretty dynamic situation, fast-moving and changing. We have seen important steps that were taken by the American military already in Iraq that have yielded important gains. They blunted — Kurdish security forces and Iraqi security forces worked to blunt an ISIL offensive on Erbil. They did that with the backing and support of American military airstrikes. Kurdish security forces were successful in retaking the Mosul Dam, which they did with the support of the American military under strikes that the President himself authorized.
We’ve also seen the American military carry out some important humanitarian actions at Mount Sinjar and in the Iraqi town of Amerli to avert humanitarian disasters. There were — in those two locations, there were religious and ethnic minorities that were under siege from ISIL forces who were vowing to perpetrate acts of violence against them.
So there has been — what we have seen is a pretty active situation, and the President does want to do everything that he can to communicate with the American public as our strategy moves forward.
Q: Does he think he has the support right now for what he announced last night?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I do think that the President laid out a case about why it is important for our country to take the steps that he outlined. And I think given the significance — or given the stakes of this situation, I do think that the President has the strong support of the American public. And I think that’s indicative of the bipartisan comments that we’ve seen from members of Congress and others indicating their backing of the President.
I also think that the American people are heartened that there is a track record here — that the President took the time to explain our strategy and to explain how it’s analogous to the success we’ve had in other contexts to implement a counterterrorism strategy that is in the best interest of the United States of America.
Let’s move around. Zeke.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Yesterday, both the President and senior administration officials made clear that the limitations that existed on American airstrikes in Iraq before both the humanitarian and defense roles, that both those limitations were being lifted and that the mission would expand. So what are the new rules of engagement now for CENTCOM, which has said they’ve conducted these strikes under a blanket authorization from the President? What did the President authorize the Pentagon and say, you can strike this, you can’t strike that? What’s now fair game? What isn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has been actively engaged over the last several weeks with his national security team, including planners at the Department of Defense, reviewing targets that are available. These targets have been exposed because of the President’s early decision to ramp up our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that were operating in the region. By improving our visibility into the situation on the ground, Pentagon planners have been working with some success to develop additional targets.
As the President offers guidance to the Department of Defense about the targets that are presented to him, that’s how the decisions will be made about the rules of engagement, as it were. So that’s not something that I could lay out from here other than to generally describe to you that, yes, we have entered a different phase in this campaign principally because of the formation of an inclusive central government in Baghdad.
That means that the American military can more successfully use its military might and sophistication in support of a united Iraq, a united government, and a more unified security force as they take the fight to ISIL in Iraq. And it also means that as they do that, we need to ensure that a core principle of the Obama presidency is not violated, which is we need to ensure that ISIL does not get a safe haven in Syria from which they could potentially plot, plan and execute terror plots against the United States or our interests.
Q: That account, though, seems to be a little different than what we’re hearing from the Pentagon that there was — when they strike a Humvee or an ISIL checkpoint or a mortar position, or we’ve gotten those notifications — three or four airstrikes a day every day for the past month, almost month and a half now — has the President selected each of those strikes, all 155 now? Or has he said — what we know there was obviously — if there’s anything that’s a threat to Erbil, that we’d go after. Was the President involved in selecting this Humvee versus that Humvee? Or —
MR. EARNEST: He was not. So let me take another crack at this. The President was not responsible for personally signing off on each of the 150-160 or so strikes that have been publicly announced by CENTCOM.
The President did lay out for them some criteria for those actions that were predicated on this broader strategy of placing the protection of American citizens and the execution of humanitarian operations at the top of the priority list.
The strategy has broadened and will include a more systematic set of airstrikes in Iraq and potentially in — well, in Iraq and in Syria.
But in terms of the specific guidance that the President has offered to the Pentagon, I can’t get into a lot of detail about that guidance. But I can tell you that the President is actively reviewing options that have been presented to him by the Department of Defense and the professionals over there who have been hard at work on this for a number of weeks now.
Q: Has that guidance been transmitted already to the Pentagon? Or has this President still not decided which of the — just how broad or how narrow to tailor that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are still some presidential-level decisions that have to be made. But the President has made a decision to broaden the systematic wave of airstrikes both in Iraq and in Syria to deny ISIL a safe haven.
Q: Sorry, one more, not to belabor the point, but just in terms of civilian populations, ISIS has taken over a number of Iraqi cities. So far, the strikes haven’t taken place very close to those cities; they’ve been centered around various ISIS strongholds and checkpoints and the like. So how will the President expand the campaign into Iraqi cities? Will he? Or will he avoid them and try to get ISIL fighters between cities or in the open?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly any time the President authorized American military action, he’s concerned about the potential for collateral damage and any impact that that could — that those military strikes could have on innocent civilians who are — particularly in this case, innocent people who are caught in the crossfire. So these are very difficult operational decisions that will have to be made on a case-by-case basis. Many of them don’t rise to a presidential level, to the level of the Commander-in-Chief. But commanders in this area are keenly aware of this concern.
And the other thing that’s important to keep in mind here as we’re talking about specific targets on the ground in Iraq — that these American airstrikes would in many, many cases be in support of ground offensives that are carried out by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. So it’s important to remember that for all of America’s military might, the President is not contemplating sending American combat troops in a combat role back onto the ground in Iraq or in Syria, but rather airstrikes that could be used in support of ground offensives by Iraqi security forces or Kurdish security forces.
Q: Obviously, when you’re talking about reviewing targets with the Department of Defense and advisers, are you talking about targets in Syria at this point? I just want to be clear.
MR. EARNEST: The President has gotten guidance about targets that are available and would be critical to denying ISIL a safe haven both in Iraq and in Syria.
Q: Are there many of them in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t characterize the guidance that the President has received from his military planners.
Q: Okay. And when asked in the past about the President seeming to downplay groups like ISIS just a couple of months ago, the administration has responded by saying, well, ISIS has been able to grow quite a bit in six months. So how does the President feel confident that equipping and training elements of the moderate Syrian opposition is going to work? How does he know that there’s going to be enough time, and that they’re going to be capable if ISIS is able to grow so quickly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do want to clarify one thing that you cited there, Michelle, which is that the description that we have had about some of the extremist groups that are operating in this region of the world — and when I say “region” I mean broadly in the Middle East — that some of these extremist organizations are sophisticated, are large, and have pretty broad aspirations. Some of these organizations are rather small and have rather narrowly tailored local or even sectarian interests. And so when the President has discussed the threat that is emanating from the region, from these terrorist groups, he believes it’s important to differentiate from those smaller organizations that only have local aims, and larger organizations that may have aims or ambitions that extend beyond the local region.
Now, ISIS doesn’t fall cleanly in either of those categories. It is obviously a large and sophisticated organization that has demonstrated a pretty substantial military prowess. They made substantial gains across Iraq in a short period of time. That said, the Intelligence Community has assessed that they’re not actively plotting to strike the U.S. homeland. But our concern is that given their military prowess, that they could at some point — particularly if they can rest easy in a safe haven — turn their attention to the West and pose a rather dramatic threat to the West and even to the United States homeland.
So as it relates to the question that you’ve asked about the Syrian opposition, the important element here to understand is that the United States has been providing assistance to the Syrian opposition; this is both military and non-military assistance to the Syrian opposition for over a year now. That strategic decision has been a source of some criticism by some of the President’s political opponents who have urged him to take more decisive action to arm the Syrian opposition sooner. They suggest that if three years ago, once Bashar al-Assad started perpetrating these widespread acts of violence against his own people, that if the United States had acted more quickly to dump a bunch of arms into that region and arm the opponents of Assad, that we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in right now.
The President drew a different conclusion. The President assessed that it would be particularly important for the United States to have a good sense of who exactly we would be arming and equipping. And that is why the President has been deliberate about vetting the elements of the Syrian opposition. And over the course of the last three years, the United States has gotten much greater clarity about which individuals in the region we can rely on and count on and work with, and which individuals, frankly, that we can’t.
It’s not difficult to contemplate or imagine a scenario where if the United States had put — dumped a bunch of arms into that country three years ago, that members of ISIL or other extremist groups would be toting American arms as they wage their campaign of violence throughout that region.
So the President has been very deliberate about this. So then the question becomes, why do you have confidence that the Syrian opposition can be successful? And our confidence stems primarily from two things. The first is this training — this effort to provide military and non-military support to the Syrian opposition has been underway for over a year. Their capacity is expanding and improving.
Secondly, and arguably even more importantly, based on the decision that the President announced last night, these Syrian opposition fighters will now be operating with the backing of the United States military. That is to say these opposition fighters will have American aircraft taking airstrikes in support of their ground operations. There is no doubt that will significantly enhance their capability on the battlefield.
Q: And maybe you heard on CNN last night your former boss get into it with Senator McCain. And even today on the Senate floor, we heard him saying that it was the Iraqis who wanted a residual force to stay there. If you heard the back-and-forth, who’s right in this?
MR. EARNEST: I heard a little bit of the back-and-forth. I heard enough of the back-and-forth that I’m tempted to defer all questions about Senator McCain and his criticism to my former colleague. He acquitted himself quite well, I believe.
Q: He’s on the payroll, though. So —
MR. EARNEST: I guess he’s on a different payroll now, right? Let me say — my observation from that exchange was one you probably heard me share before, but I’ll do it again since you asked. Since 2002, Senator McCain and Barack Obama have had very different views about our strategy in Iraq. That is true — that’s been true since 2002. The differences in the strategy that they were advocating was extensively litigated in the context of the 2008 presidential election. We had a national debate about this.
Senator McCain repeatedly articulated his view that expanding and ramping up the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and extending the time period by which American troops would be based in Iraq, was in the best interest of American national security. The President of the United States articulated a very different view. It’s the President’s view — and this is a view that he ran on in 2007 and 2008 — that we needed to wind down the war in Iraq and bring our troops home. And there was a broad national debate about this, and the American people spoke very clearly at the ballot box in November of 2008. And I say all of that as someone who has extraordinary respect for Senator McCain’s service to this country and for the sacrifice that he has made for our nation’s safety and security.
Q: Josh, I’m going to ask you two questions on two different subjects. I want to first start with last night to a couple of months ago when the President said during his speech, this big foreign policy speech, when he said, just because we have the biggest hammer doesn’t mean every problem is a nail. How hard was it for the President, when he was — he dug in at that time, basically talking about he’s not going to take a lot of military action and people calling for it — to last night? How hard was it? And what was the tick-tock around here? How did all of that play out?
MR. EARNEST: What the President laid out last night, April, was a comprehensive strategy for confronting this challenge. And I mentioned this in a conversation that I had with some of you yesterday about how overlooking the centrality of diplomacy to our strategy is to not fully appreciate the comprehensive nature of the strategy the President has put in place.
It is critically important that we build an international coalition in support of the strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The President is determined to ensure that the United States is not going it alone. That is why all of this was predicated on the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government. Ultimately, it needs to be the responsibility of Iraq’s political leaders, Iraq’s government, and Iraq’s security forces for taking the fight to ISIL on the ground in their country. The United States and our military can act in support of those security forces, but ultimately it needs to be their responsibility.
So the formation of an Iraqi central government and the United States using our influence in the international community and our political influence with Iraq’s political leaders to prod them toward this conclusion has been critical to our success. The formation of an Iraqi central government that is so critical to our broader success in this endeavor did not involve the United States military; it involved the dogged efforts of diplomacy by the State Department and others who are invested in this region.
So frankly, this also included the United States making the case to other regional governments that had influence in Baghdad to convince them to make the same case that the United States was making — that Iraq’s political leaders needed to unite that country to confront the existential threat that’s posed by ISIL.
The second component of the strategy has been predicated on regional governments taking an active role in supporting this international coalition to take the fight to ISIL. The kinds of conversations that Secretary Kerry is having in the Middle East right now as we speak is an important part of this strategy to make sure that we are drawing upon the diplomatic and political resources of these regional governments, building strong relationships. Many of these regional governments have strong relationships with Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq. Those tribal leaders can play an important role in taking the fight to ISIL in their country. And getting them engaged and enlisted in this effort is a core component of our strategy. And again, that doesn’t involve the United States military; that involves the political and diplomatic influence of the greatest country in the world in advancing that effort.
And as the President travels around the world — he went to the NATO Summit — and as he engages with world leaders on this issue, enlisting them in this effort is also a critical part of our strategy. In some cases, they’ll provide humanitarian relief, in some cases they’ll provide diplomatic support, in some cases they’ll provide financial support, and in some cases, yes, they’ll also provide military support as well.
So the point is that — you’re right, that just because the United States has the biggest hammer doesn’t mean that everything is a nail. We need a comprehensive strategy that recognizes that for all of the skill and courage that’s been demonstrated by the American military, there are other resources from which we can draw that will enhance the safety and security of the United States. And the President is committed to ensuring that we’re using all the elements of American power to advance our interests in the region and in the world.
Q: But that “hammer,” if I’m correct, encompasses airstrikes. That hammer encompasses even the 475 people that are going over in support — not necessarily boots on the ground, but support. What did it take for the President to change his mind from not striking the nail to striking the nail?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President — on a number of occasions in countries around the world, the President has demonstrated his willingness to use the hammer of the American military to protect our national security interests. And you can take that up with the number of terrorists who have been removed from the battlefield in places like Somalia and Yemen and even Pakistan.
Q: And my last question. The President in the latter portion of his speech talked about the leadership of this country, and he talked about one of the components of that leadership was Ebola. Senator Coons is calling for the United States to do more when it comes to the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Is there plans on horizon here to do more and listen to Senator Coons and the African leaders for more help when it comes to Ebola?
MR. EARNEST: The President in the interview that he did with Chuck Todd over the weekend identified countering Ebola as a top national security priority. And the President and the United States have already dedicated significant resources to trying to assist the international community, support public health organizations, and offer support to these local African countries as they confront this threat. The President made clear that it is clearly in the interest of the United States to make these kinds of investments as early as possible, and the President will be looking for ways to ramp up our assistance even further.
There have already been significant commitments that have been made by the CDC, HHS, USAID, and even the Department of Defense already to provide logistical and technical support to these efforts. And the President is certainly considering additional ways that may be necessary to further increase our support to contain Ebola and to meet the needs of those individuals who have already been affected.
Q: So what are those considerations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when we have announcements to make about additional commitments, we’ll let you know. But the President considers this, again, to be a top national security priority. And it will continue to attract the focused attention of the President and senior members of his national security team as a result of that.
Q: Question about the funding for, again, the moderate Syrian opposition. In terms of your request for Congress, the request that was made on June 26th came six days after the House had — the full House had passed its spending bill for the Defense Department. And obviously, some lawmakers were taken off guard. When you go and ask them, why is it that you haven’t provided the $500 million that the administration has been asking for, one of the things that they come back with is this idea that they have not gotten the specifics they’ve been wanting to hear from the administration about how that money has been spent?
I have one other question, but could you explain exactly what has been the administration’s approach in conveying the details of this request and securing the support of it?
MR. EARNEST: I’m going to attempt to answer your question in a way that I might regret, which is to get into the details.
Q: You’re going to get into the weeds. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes, so wish me luck. Here’s the way I understand that this works. The $500 million request that was made by the administration was in the context of a level of funding for overseas contingency operations, and that is where that exists.
And I know that there is a level that’s been set by the Congress for overseas contingency operations in the continuing resolution. So that’s why we’re not focused right now on the financial — the budgetary aspect of this. We’re focused right now on the authority aspect of this. We are — and again, it’s urgently needed authority. We need to capitalize on the interest that has already been expressed by regional governments to support this effort.
And as it relates to the funding, we’re confident that we’ll be able to make the funding work. What we need explicitly, however, is the Title 10 authority that requires an act of Congress.
Q: And so, in other words — and, by the way, was June the first time you specifically asked in that overseas contingency funding? That was the first time you asked for that money, however, correct? Had you raised it earlier?
MR. EARNEST: I believe so, yes.
Q: And then just a separate question, as you might be familiar with — the Post reported today that General Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, had made his recommendation in terms of how to proceed against ISIL would to be send a limited number of ground troops into Iraq, primarily Special Operations to advise there. Can you just elaborate a little on why the White House and the administration decided not to accept that advice?
MR. EARNEST: Quite simply, the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief decided that it is not in the best interest of American national security to send American combat troops in a combat operation to act on the ground in Iraq. And that is predicated on a number of things.
But the President did make a decision, as you will note from the speech last night, to send additional American military personnel to Iraq to serve in an advise-and-assist capacity, to bolster the capacity of Iraqi security forces. But those individuals will not be engaged in combat operations. They are merely there to advise and assist the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. There are additional personnel that will be deployed to the joint operations centers to improve coordination between the United States military and the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. There also were military personnel that were sent to further ramp up our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts that are underway in Iraq.
But people should just understand that that is a total of about 475 military personnel. So there were personnel that were added to the region, but it was limited to that group of about 475 for those specific missions.
Q: Can I ask about another partner in the coalition? Turkey, which people sort of view as extremely important to this effort because it can seal off its border and prevent foreign fighters from going back and forth, and potentially because it could be a place for basing, is a country that has a problem because 49 of its diplomats are being held by ISIS. When Secretary Hagel went there earlier this week, he didn’t obtain any tangible commitments from the Turks, and some people are saying that until they resolve this problem of their hostages, they’re going to be extremely reluctant to do anything too overt against ISIS. Are you concerned that that’s going to be an obstacle to getting the Turks on board given this vital role they have in any coalition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the Turks decide for themselves about the appropriate way for them to contribute to this effort. I will observe a couple of things.
The first is — let me repeat from here our call for those hostages to be released immediately, and safely returned to their homes. Let me also point out that this illustrates that the nation of Turkey has a vested interest in the success of the strategy that the President laid out to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
As the President pointed out in his remarks, this organization describing itself as the “Islamic State” is a bit of a misnomer. They are not Islamic. No religion condones the killing or terrorizing of innocent individuals, certainly not the religion of Islam. It’s also not a state because it’s not recognized by any other states, and it’s certainly not recognized as a state by the individuals who are subjugated to them.
But it does illustrate that there are Sunni-led governments in the region that do have a significant stake in this outcome, and that is why you’re seeing the intensive efforts of Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry, and even President Obama, who met with President Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO Summit last week, to engage them in this effort and to ensure that the resources of these regional governments that do have a significant stake in the outcome are included in this broader international coalition.
Q: And can I follow up on one other country? Iran — the President didn’t mention Iran last night. Does the administration view there to be any scope for coordination or even communication with Iran, since there are obviously common interests that we share with Iran, in this case? And if not, what role would the U.S. like to see Iran play going forward in the campaign against ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, Iran, like other nations in the region, does have an interest in not seeing an organization like ISIL wreaking havoc in their neighborhood, and even potentially on their borders. So Iran, like the other countries in the region, does have an interest in the degrading and destroying of ISIL.
That said, the administration has previously — and I will, again, rule out military coordination between the United States and Iran. There have, however, been some conversations that have taken place between Iranian officials and U.S. officials on the sidelines of the ongoing P5+1 talks. But I do want to emphasize that those conversations took place on the sidelines of those talks, not in the context of those talks.
In terms of what we would like to see Iran do, I think we have previously indicated that because of the threat that’s posed by ISIL, and because of the critical role that will and can be played by an inclusive, unified government in Iraq, that we would hope that Iran would be generally supportive of the kind of inclusive government in Iraq that is necessary to unite that diverse country to face down the existential threat that’s posed by ISIL.
We saw some indications, public statements from Iranian leaders who, in the government-formation process, did indicate their support for this kind of inclusive government. And that kind of political support would continue to be welcomed.
Q: Going back to the authority under the 2001 AUMF, that was for the use of force against al Qaeda and associated groups, but al Qaeda and ISIS have now split. So can you explain how that still applies?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a very good question and an important one. It is the view of this administration that the 2001 AUMF continues to apply to ISIL. Let me explain to you why.
The first reason is simply that there is a long history here; that for a decade or more, ISIL was actually known as al Qaeda in Iraq, and that there was important coordination and communication that was taking place between the leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq and the al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden. Second — so that long decade-long or more relationship is not something that can be disregarded as the result of one internal disagreement that was aired in public.
The second is there are indications that even after that public disagreement that you mentioned of continued ties between al Qaeda fighters, or al Qaeda operatives, and ISIL — in fact, there are some al Qaeda operatives who have indicated that they actually believe ISIL is the true inheritor of Osama bin Laden’s legacy. So these ties between ISIL and al Qaeda persist.
Third, we have seen ISIL continue to carry out the kinds of brutal tactics that they employed under the previous name. We’ve seen them perpetrate terrible acts of violence against Iraqis and, tragically, we’ve seen them carry out two terrible, heinous acts of violence against at least two American citizens. So the tactics of al Qaeda in Iraq have not changed simply because they’ve changed their name.
And the fourth — and this is also important — the ultimate aspiration of al Qaeda was always the formation of an Islamic caliphate. As their new name suggests, ISIL harbors the same ambition. So it is the view of the United States that the — and the Obama administration, that the 2001 AUMF continues to apply to ISIL because of their decade-long relationship with al Qaeda, their continuing ties to al Qaeda; because they have continued to employ the kind of heinous tactics that they previously employed when their name was al Qaeda in Iraq; and finally, because they continue to have the same kind of ambition and aspiration that they articulated under the previous name.
Q: So despite the split, just to be clear — the President, legally speaking, believes that ISIS and al Qaeda, legally speaking, continue to be the same?
MR. EARNEST: It is the assessment of the President’s national security team that the 2001 AUMF continues to apply to ISIL for the reasons that I laid out.
Q: Josh, I’ll get to a couple of ISIL questions in a minute. But the President made a statement just before you came out about sanctions against Russia, and this tantalizing line that they will impose “economic costs to Russia, especially in areas of importance to President Putin and those close to him.” Please elaborate.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would like to, but as we’ve discussed in this format a couple of times, before sanctions are actually implemented it’s unwise for me to send clear signals about what interests may be targeted by a particular sanctions regime. So we wouldn’t want to telegraph our plans in advance in a way that —
Q: But you are.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but in a way that would allow those who are targets of the sanctions regime to execute some maneuvers that might allow them to escape this dragnet here.
Q: Do you consider this a significant new step — bringing this economic pain closer to Putin and closer to those whom he either trusts or has longstanding financial or personal relationships with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it demonstrates the determination of the international community to take the kinds of steps that impose significant economic costs on Russia for the decisions that are made by President Putin in Ukraine. They also indicate, or demonstrate, that Russia will face additional costs and further isolation if they continue to undertake the kind of destabilizing, counterproductive actions that they’ve taken in Ukraine thus far.
Q: Based on your understanding of what these sanctions will do, in the past some in Russia who have been subject to sanctions have scoffed at their economic impact on them, taking to social media and other forms. Do you think after these sanctions take effect they will feel them in ways they haven’t before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the numbers actually do a better job of indicating the true impact of the sanctions than the tweets of a couple of Russian officials. There are clear metrics by which we can evaluate the success of the sanctions regime that’s been put in place. We have seen the Russian Central Bank expend significant sums of money to try to prop up their currency. We have seen significant private capital flight from Russia; no longer do private investors consider Russia to be such a prime area for investment. We have seen international organizations downgrade their economic projections for Russia based principally on the further economic isolation of the country. So there’s a lot of ways to evaluate the impact that the sanctions are having.
Q: Well, the reason I ask is Vladimir Putin is a very wealthy figure in Russia. He has become wealthier as he has ruled that country. Those close to him are also extremely wealthy. And if I’m reading the President’s statement correctly, you are trying to zero in not just on the Russian economy itself and sectors of it that are potentially vulnerable, but to these people — Putin and those close to him — for particular economic pain. I’m just asking, do you believe they’ll feel it after tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to prejudge the sanctions too much. But the United States has previously imposed sanctions on some Russian officials, and we do intend — in concert, in coordination with our European allies — to take additional steps to impose additional economic costs and further isolate Russia for their actions in Ukraine.
I’ll point out — let me just reiterate something that the President said on Friday, which is the President is committed and is willing to begin to roll back some of those sanctions if we start to see the kinds of actions from the Russians that we would like to see. But because we haven’t thus far, the international community is prepared to act in coordination to impose additional economic costs on them.
Q: Back to Iraq. So this administration has said all week that it is pleased with the formation of this new unity government, and yet it does not have an interior minister, it doesn’t have a defense minister — at least one that’s separate from the Prime Minister, who is currently occupying that job and those other two I just mentioned. And there are also those who are experienced in analyzing Iraqi politics who say many of the other cabinet ministers are warmed-over figures from the Maliki regime. Is this really a completely formed government? Number one. And number two, as unified or as inclusive as it could possibly be to achieve the kind of things this administration has said are essential to turn the tide against ISIS within Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, we are pleased to have seen a peaceful transfer of power in Iraq. That was a very important step in that nation’s history, and does send a clear signal about the commitment of Iraq’s political leaders to trying to unite that country to face down the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
As someone who is employed by a democracy, the success of a democracy depends on a continued commitment to refining and strengthening that democracy. Our democracy has been in place for more than 200 years now, and we are engaged in a daily effort to strengthen and improve our democracy.
What we would like to see and what we hope to see is the continued commitment of Iraq’s political leaders and Iraq’s people to invest in and strengthen their democracy.
So that said, there was a very important step that was taken earlier this week — to appoint a cabinet that reflects the diversity of that country. It is important that they actually follow through on the mandate that they have to govern that country and to lead that country in an inclusive way, so that they unite the country, strengthen the security forces, and face down the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
The United States and the international community will stand with them as they do it. But ultimately, no one can do it for them. It will be the responsibility of Iraq’s people to do —
Q: More precisely, is the administration content with the situation where the cabinet has two of the key posts — interior and defense — held by the Prime Minister? Or do you want other figures who are more representative, more inclusive to eventually be appointed to those posts?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s the responsibility of Iraq’s political leaders to determine who will serve in the Iraqi government. We’re not going to dictate outcomes here; we never have.
Q: Right. But is our support and enthusiasm and rhapsodic embrace of this unity government contingent upon doing things that are more —
MR. EARNEST: I’ll call that a compliment. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, I was —
MR. EARNEST: Rhapsodic. No one has ever accused me of that before. (Laughter.)
Q: There’s all this enthusiasm for a unity government, which has two key cabinet posts held by the Prime Minister. I’m just wondering, is that really good enough?
MR. EARNEST: We have been gratified to see the peaceful transfer of power that took place a couple of days ago.
Q: That’s a separate question.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not really a separate question. We have been pleased —
Q: You can have a new Prime Minister that’s peaceful in a transition, but then when you form a cabinet where two of these vital posts are held by the Prime Minister, that seems a little bit insufficient, doesn’t it?
MR. EARNEST: There certainly is additional work to be done, and the United States and the international community will be watching Iraq’s political leaders and the leaders of that government as they set about governing and leading that country. And we will continue to call on them to govern in a way that unites the diverse populations in Iraq to ensure that every citizen in Iraq can feel like they have a legitimate representative in Baghdad, and somebody in their central government who is looking out for their interests.
That’s what it means to govern in a way that unites the country. That’s critically important when your country is facing an existential threat like Iraq is right now at the hands of ISIL.
Q: Just to follow up, one last one on Juliet’s question about Special Operations. Is that a permanent declaration — the President will not introduce Special Operations forces either into Iraq or Syria? Or just this particular recommendation was rejected and others can be proffered in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, you know that it has been publicly reported that earlier this summer there was an operation in Syria —
Q: Sure, yes. We already know that. I’m talking about going forward.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what that is an indication of is that the line the President is drawing is about a sustained combat operation — a ground war, if you will — in Iraq and Syria. The President will not allow the United States to be dragged back into a ground war. And that is why the President is not contemplating deploying additional combat troops on the ground in either Iraq or Syria.
Q: But he remains open to mission-specific applications — Special Operations forces if the need arises?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not willing to broadly take anything — to broadly take anything off the table.
Q: So he’s open to it.
MR. EARNEST: The President, I think, has been really clear about what his intentions are, and ruling out the kind of ground war in Iraq and Syria that involves American personnel that the President does not believe would be in the interest of our national security.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I’ve got a couple for you. One is, you mentioned U.S. airstrikes being in support of these — the future-trained moderate Syrian opposition. Those folks have two enemies in Syria. They have ISIL — maybe more than that, but let’s just stipulate the two — ISIL and Assad. As the President looks at targets in Syria, which you’ve also mentioned, is he ruling in or ruling out possible American strikes on Syrian government forces?
MR. EARNEST: The focal point of the operations that the President has authorized are related to preventing ISIL from obtaining a safe haven in Syria. And if there are elements of ISIL forces or — as we’ve demonstrated in Iraq — other logistical elements of the ISIL fighting forces that can be neutralized through the use of American military power, that’s something the President won’t hesitate to order. But ultimately, the goal here is to prevent ISIL from obtaining a safe haven.
Q: I get that, but they’re kind of having a pincer movement here, quite deliberately on the part of the Assad regime. So I don’t want to — your comments either, but are you saying that somewhere down the line the President could view a military strike against Syrian government assets to be in legitimate support of this broader goal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President is focused on right now, and the authorization that he feels he has under the 2001 authorization to use military force, is to take the steps that are necessary to prevent ISIL from establishing a safe haven in Syria and succeed in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. That is the focal point of our operations there.
Q: That actually helps a little bit for my second question, which is a little bit broad and a little bit hypothetical. But what does a victory look like here? I mean, you’ve talked about destroying ISIL; I honestly don’t know what that means. What does it mean?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t bring my Webster’s Dictionary with me up here. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, don’t do that. Come on.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you know —
Q: But you guys keep talking about that. I understood it when he said —
MR. EARNEST: I actually think that’s a pretty illustrative phrase to use to describe the situation that we envision. We’ve talked about the threat that ISIL poses in the context of foreign fighters. We’ve talked about the threat that ISIL poses in the context of gaining the kind of safe haven that would allow them to plot and carry out conspiracies that could lead to catastrophic attacks on the West or even on the American homeland.
Those are the two principal threats that we are concerned about as it relates directly to American national security. There are other interests that we have here. There’s clearly the — ISIL forces wreaking havoc in this already volatile region of the world is not in our best interest. And we have, therefore, an interest in acting with the international community to try to stabilize the situation. We can do that in a way that doesn’t require the introduction of American ground combat troops to Iraq or Syria, but rather we can deploy a tried-and-true counterterrorism strategy that this administration has used successfully in other contexts.
And essentially, that means building up support for fighters on the ground, ramping up our support to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and ramping up our support to Syrian opposition fighters. It means building an international coalition and it means using, selectively, American military might to aid those fighters who are taking the fight to the terror elements on the ground in their own country.
And ultimately, that is the strategy that we’re using to accomplish this broader goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q: — better grasp on the strategy than on the end state here. As you invoke Yemen and Somalia as models for this campaign, those two conflicts seem to be ongoing — and, to be perfectly honest, it looks more like making both of the groups in question a manageable problem, to use a phrase. Can you tell us why that’s the — I assume you’re going to tell me that’s the wrong take, but those conflicts look open-ended; they don’t seem to be winding down any time soon. They seem to require a perpetual commitment of American military force. Is that what’s going to happen here? We’re going to pin ISIS down in a corner somewhere in Syria or somewhere else, and as long as they don’t threaten the United States we’re content to carry out these kinds of missions for the foreseeable future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that we cite those examples, Olivier, is that, particularly in Yemen, the United States has been engaged in an effort — in a counterterrorism strategy to degrade the capacity of the terror organizations that are operating in that region of the world. Our goal is obviously to ultimately destroy them, as well.
This counterterrorism strategy — again, I’ll shorthand it here, but it’s important for people to understand — this is the strategy that the President has deployed with some success in these countries. By building up the capacity of ground troops in those countries, in Yemen and Somalia, by building an international coalition — in some cases that’s African Union fighters; in some cases that’s fighters that are from other countries — we are succeeding in mitigating the threat that is posed by these terror organizations.
And in both of those situations, the President has selectively and strategically brought American military might to bear in support of those ground troops to mitigate and counter the threat that’s posed by AQAP, specifically in Yemen, and al Shabaab in Somalia. Just last week there was news out of Somalia that the leader of al Shabaab was killed in a military strike. That is an indication of the success that that strategy is having in mitigating and countering the terror threat from those organizations.
Now, you do point out something that’s important for people to recognize. Both in Somalia and Yemen, the United States remains vigilant about the threats that are emanating from those countries. That is to say, there’s still more work to do in those countries. But what has been put in place is a counterterrorism strategy that has succeeded in degrading the threat and making those organizations less capable of threatening the American people. That strategy has been successful, and there is an analogous — each of these situations is different — but there’s an analogous strategy that the President intends to deploy to this situation, as well.
Q: Josh, I wanted to ask — I want to go to Iraq and Syria. But first, NFL — on Monday, you commented on the Ray Rice situation because I asked you a question about it. But later that night you put out another statement because the President wanted to comment on that, and to the effect said, men have to lead the way in showing respect for women. So since a lot has happened since Monday, I wonder if the President believes that the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, has handled this investigation in a way that is respectful to women?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard the President comment specifically on the actions or the way that — or the handling of the situation by the National Football League.
Q: You have the National Organization for Women saying that Goodell should resign. Does the White House have any view on that?
MR. EARNEST: We do not.
Q: Okay. The President said he wants buy-in from Congress. One thing that Speaker Boehner — he has expressed support for some aspects of this strategy it seems, but today he said, “An F-16 is not a strategy. And airstrikes alone would not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. And the President has made clear he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground.” In the case of Syria, it seems like it would be the Free Syrian Army. How does the President make the case to people like Speaker Boehner that they’re the appropriate people to be ground troops when just a few weeks ago the President was mocking the Free Syrian Army?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I would describe the President’s words that way.
Q: When he said they were doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and that it was a —
MR. EARNEST: Those are all honorable professions.
Q: They’re honorable, yes, but not necessarily warriors. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct that they are not.
Q: And he also I think used the word “fantasy,” which is not usually a positive word, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, but that was a description of our critics who had suggested that if the President had armed these individuals three years ago that we’d be better off. As I pointed out in response to Michelle’s question —
Q: Right. So he seemed to have a dim view of arming them, however, is the point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, he did not, Ed. What he had is he had a view that it would be unwise to begin arming these individuals before they had been thoroughly vetted. And it is the view of this administration that had arms been dumped into this already very violent, chaotic situation before a proper vetting of the opposition figures, we would actually probably be in a much worse, more violent situation than we find ourselves right now.
So because of the support that we have already provided to the Syrian opposition over the last year, that support has taken both military and non-military forms. The capacity of the Syrian opposition is bigger, is broader, is stronger. And there’s no question that those opposition fighters will be more effective when they have the backing of the United States military.
Q: Last thing. The President — you cited a few moments ago that the President has this defining principle of the administration, I think you said — you come after America, there’s not going to be a safe haven for you. I thought a few weeks ago the President said the defining principle of his foreign policy was “don’t do stupid stuff.” What happened to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that the President and members of his administration would believe that arming Syrian opposition members without vetting them would qualify as something that would be stupid. That’s why the President believes —
Q: But isn’t it obvious that a President shouldn’t do stupid stuff? Like that would not be what you were prefer to do, right?
MR. EARNEST: One would hope. One would hope.
MR. EARNEST: But certainly the administration believes that it is important to vet members of the Syrian opposition. That is why now, three years later, we are in a position where after vetting them, we do have a much better sense of who these individuals are, whether or not they can be trusted. We have an established relationship with them. And that will make the assistance that we can provide them that much more effective.
That is why over the course of the last year the administration has been providing military and non-military support to the Syrian opposition to expand their capacity. The President wants to ramp up that assistance. That’s why he’s asking Congress to give him Title 10 authority to do exactly that. And we are confident that with the backing of the United States military, these Syrian fighters will be even more effective.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about the President’s statement and your reiteration today that the line is drawn at a ground war. Given the escalation that we have seen just over the last couple of months both in the rhetoric from “JV team” to “cancer” last night, from what was largely a defensive posture of protecting Americans on the ground, protecting infrastructure, protecting Yezidis, Christians, other minorities who were in danger of extinction, to what he outlined yesterday, which was an offensive posture — how do you speak to the concern that so many people have about mission creep?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say the last point that you raise I think is the most important one, so let me start there. Back in June — many of you will remember this — back in June, when ISIL made this dramatic advance across western and northern Iraq, there were a lot of questions that were raised in the international community about what the response should be. And the President on his way to a trip to North Dakota stopped on the South Lawn in front of the microphones, standing in front of Marine One, and delivered a statement and answered some questions that explained what our strategy was going to be.
And the President indicated back then from the very beginning that our strategy would be predicated on the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government, and that he did not want to be in a position where the United States was providing military support to a government that was governing in a sectarian fashion.
The reason for that is simple: There needed to be an incentive for Iraq’s political leaders to change course. The fact that they were governing in such a sectarian way previously is what led to the significant weakening of Iraq’s security forces. So by providing an incentive to Iraq’s political leaders to form an inclusive government that would actually succeed in uniting the country, the President indicated a willingness, after the formation of that inclusive government, to bring to bear American military force in a way that would do more to support the efforts of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces who are taking the fight to ISIL on the ground.
So we’ve been candid about the fact that we have entered a new phase. After the formation of this Iraqi government, a couple of days in advance of their constitutional deadline, that we’ve entered a new, more offensive phase. And that means the United States deploying additional military might to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
It’s important, however, to understand that we would do that in support of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces that are fighting on the ground and with the full cooperation and coordination and input of the broader international community; that we have regional governments and allies around the globe that have asked us to contribute to this effort.
And this multifaceted effort that includes the use of American military force is part of this next phase of the operation. But it does, however, relate to a core principle the President has articulated — not just in the context of ISIL’s advance earlier this summer, but in the context of his broader presidency, which is this principle that individuals and organizations will not be — who seek to do harm to the United States of America will not be allowed to establish a safe haven anywhere in the world. We will go where is necessary to deny them that safe haven.
And that is exactly the strategy that the President has laid out for dealing with ISIL. The President has done his best, and I think he has succeeded, in trying to communicate clearly with all of you and with the American public about what our strategy is for dealing with this situation, and how he wanted to pursue the kind of outcome that reflected American national security interests.
Q: Let me ask you, then, in that context about — and you mentioned it, 475 additional troops to advise and assist — which does bring the number to about 1,600 in Iraq — and about 150 of them are in forward positions, the most dangerous positions. So again, it leads to the question of slippery slope and the concern a lot of people, including the American people, have about the escalation of putting American troops in harm’s way.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is that the other individuals, the other American servicemembers who are in harm’s way are those American pilots who are conducting these airstrikes. Those airstrikes are not without risk. They involve making themselves vulnerable to carry out their missions. Obviously, the level of vulnerability they face is different than a large-scale occupation by ground forces, but it is a risk nonetheless. That is why the President reiterated in his remarks last night his appreciation and admiration for the courage and service of our men and women in uniform.
That said, what’s also different is you’re talking about, yes, 150 American servicemen — or American personnel who are in forward positions, who are working closely with Iraq and Kurdish security forces as they take the fight to ISIL. I would just point out that that is a pretty stark difference than the 150,000 American servicemembers who were on the ground in Iraq when this President took office.
So the President has been very clear about the constraints that he has imposed on — or at least the limits that he has imposed for pursuing this strategy. And the American people can have confidence in that strategy and in the limits that the President himself has imposed.
Roger, I’ll give you the last one.
Q: Thank you. You were talking about the threats to the West a few moments ago. Islamic militants have been tracked through the social media discussing how to enter the U.S., partly through the Mexican border and elsewhere. You also have the problem of Americans with passports going over there and then coming back posing a threat. What steps are being taken to tighten borders and deal with the passport issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that, as a factual matter, we don’t put a lot of stock in reports that the — that right now, that extremists are attempting to enter the United States through the southern border with Mexico. I know that there are some senior officials in the American government, if you will, who are making that accusation. That certainly doesn’t reflect the observation and analysis of our intelligence community.
That said, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Homeland Security has talked extensively, including most recently in a speech that he delivered yesterday, about the efforts that are underway to counter the threat that is posed by foreign fighters. Foreign fighters, it’s a bit of a misnomer –so let me explain to those who may be watching that these are individuals with Western passports — Americans — who have traveled to the region in Syria and Iraq to take up arms and fight alongside ISIL. These individuals are dangerous because they are now battle-hardened. They’ve received training and equipment, and demonstrated a willingness to die for their cause.
These individuals also have a passport in their back pocket, and it means that they could, with very — in an almost unfettered way, travel back to the West and potentially carry out acts of violence.
That is why the United States, for months now, has been closely coordinating with our partners around the globe to try to mitigate this threat. We’ve been doing this through intelligence channels, through law enforcement channels, through diplomatic channels and even through national security channels to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to try to protect the American people and Western interests from this threat.
There are organizations like —
Q: Any specific steps though?
MR. EARNEST: We are constantly assessing the security posture of the United States, particularly when it comes to border security. And we will make changes to that posture as needed to protect the American people. Sometimes the changes to that posture, that security posture is evident to the traveling public; sometimes it’s not.
But rest assured there are national security professionals and law enforcement professionals who are hard at work at this moment, and they are 24 hours a day, seven days a week focused on protecting the American people from this specific threat.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
END 2:36 P.M. EDT