Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/21/15

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:12 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Let me do a quick statement at the top, and then we’ll get going. 

It’s my understanding that the United States House of Representatives has recessed for the Memorial Day break and is not expected to return until June 1st.  We compliment the House for passing the USA Freedom Act with overwhelming bipartisan support.  Now the Senate must act.  If the Senate fails to pass the USA Freedom Act before leaving for the Memorial Day break, it risks allowing critical national security authorities to expire.

The USA Freedom Act represents a reasonable compromise that strengthens the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s privacy and civil liberties protections while preserving essential authorities for our national security professionals.  We strongly support this bill just as many national security professionals, as well as civil libertarians do.

Indeed, the House passed this bill with the support of 338 Democratic and Republican votes, an even larger majority that a previous iteration of this legislation received last year.  If some Senate Republicans believe, as the President does, that we must be vigilant in the face of terrorist threats, it would be irresponsible to let these authorities lapse, even for a few days.

Fortunately, there’s a clear path forward.  The Senate should pass the USA Freedom Act — a reasonable compromise that strikes an appropriate balance between privacy and security.  The American people expect their elected representatives to take responsible action to protect the country.  That’s why we call on the House to follow the reasonable bipartisan course charted by — I’m sorry — that’s why we call on the Senate to follow the reasonable bipartisan coursed charted by the House, and to do it before they head out on their weeklong recess.

So that’s obviously a key piece of legislation that’s being considering on Capitol Hill today.

One final note.  The Cabinet meeting is slated to start just after two o’clock today.  I’m manifested for that meeting, so we’ll try and move this through quickly so that both I can attend and all of you can as well.

Q    Want to brag?  (Laughter.)

Q    Have you been promoted? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s customary for many members of the President’s senior staff to attend the Cabinet meeting.  So I’ve attended on a couple of occasions.  But there is important business to get done.

Q    You are his Secretary.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, a Secretary of a different sort, I suppose.

So with that, Jim, we’ll start taking some questions.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  The President survived the squeaker in the Senate today on trade.  You had the possibility of a snafu becoming a fubar.  (Laughter.)  But —

Q    Can you define those things?  (Laughter.) 

Q    Could you describe a little bit of what the President’s role was in getting this vote?  I understand he spoke to Senator Wyden last night; spoke to Senator Cantwell today.  Was there activity going on from the White House even as that vote was unfolding, that drama was unfolding on the Senate floor?

MR. EARNEST:  Throughout this process of advancing trade legislation, Jim, you know the White House has been engaged on a bipartisan basis to facilitate bipartisan common ground in Congress.  One principle that we have applied is that in order to pass legislation through Congress that the President of the United States will sign, it must necessarily be bipartisan. 

We know that it’s going to require the support of both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold that is required for nearly any piece of legislation to advance in that body.  And we know that the President is going to apply a test for legislation that lands on his desk to ensure that it is consistent with the kinds of values that he and his party have long advocated.  That means that any piece of legislation that’s going to pass through the Congress and be signed into law by the President has to have bipartisan support. 

So, in this case, the President has worked with both Democrats and Republicans to build that bipartisan support.  It is true that the President convened — or had a number of conversations, even late last night, to build that bipartisan common ground in advance — in support of this proposal.

I’m not going to get into the specific conversations that the President had, but, yes, he was engaged even last night to try to continue to build the bipartisan support that’s necessary to advance what he considers to be the most progressive piece of trade legislation ever considered by Congress.

Q    Did he agree with the tactic of using this vote in order to extract a commitment or a vote on the Ex-Im Bank?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, as you know, has long advocated for congressional action to extend the life of the Export-Import Bank.  He supports that, as just about every one of his predecessors in recent history in both parties has supported the Export-Import Bank.

This President, as previous Presidents have, recognizes the significant economic impact that the Bank has, and that allowing the bank’s authorities to expire would have a negative impact on our economy, specifically negative on the ability of many American businesses to do business overseas, or at least do as much business overseas as they would like to do.

One of the reasons the President is trying to advance this trade legislation is he recognizes that there’s a significant economic opportunity for American businesses overseas.  So the President’s support for the Export-Import Bank is entirely consistent with the kind of economic strategy that this country has employed in terms of opening up opportunities for U.S. businesses overseas.  That’s good for our economy; it’s good for American workers.  We know that, on average, American jobs that are supported by exports pay higher than the average American job.  And that’s why the President is working to advance both of those legislative priorities.

Q    Did he encourage or discourage senators to pursue this particular tactic?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to get into the specific tactics that have been employed.  But the President has been working to advance both of those priorities, and that certainly was part of the conversation that the President had as recently as last night.

Q    On Syria, the fall of Palmyra to the Islamic State in Syria seems to have prompted another round of demands for the President to change his strategy.  And I’m wondering, is there any consideration, ongoing discussions with the national security team about picking up the campaign — more arms, more training?  Anything like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if those are the suggestions, that would be a continuation of the strategy that’s currently in place.  I think that is one element of this narrative that we’ve seen over the last couple of days that’s particularly ironic — people demanding a change in strategy without actually indicating what they believe that change should be.

I suspect that there are some who support changing the strategy and sending U.S. military personnel to go take care of this problem.  There is no doubt that through the bravery and capability of our men and women in uniform, that that would make a substantial difference.  The President, however, does not support that strategy.  The President has never supported that strategy.  The President was opposed to that strategy when it was employed by the previous administration, and he is opposed to that strategy when it’s articulated by I think what’s almost always Republican members of Congress when they do.

What this administration will continue to do is to implement the strategy that the President has laid out, which is to build up the capacity of local fighters on the ground in Iraq and in Syria to take the fight against ISIL in their own country.

But they will have the strong support of the United States and the coalition of 60 countries that the President leads, and they’ll have that support in the form of offering training and equipment to those local fighters.  They’ll be able to get some battlefield advice from coalition personnel that are deployed to Iraq.  And they will importantly have the support of coalition military airpower that has enhanced the effectiveness of these local fighters on the battlefield in those areas where it has been implemented.

Q    Josh, you’ve seen the fall of Ramadi and Palmyra — two major victories for Islamic State.

MR. EARNEST:  No doubt.  But because of this strategy, there has been success in the area of Kobani; that this was an area was there was a lot of handwringing about the gains that ISIL was making in Kobani.  But because of the successful implementation of the strategy that the President laid out, ISIL was driven outside of — out of Kobani in a matter of days.

And based on conversations that I’ve had today, I understand that local forces on the ground in northeast Syria, backed by coalition airstrikes, continue to make advances against ISIL in northeastern Syria.  That is evidence of our strategy working. 

The strategy was implemented in Tikrit just a couple of months ago when, again, there were concerns about gains that ISIL had made in Tikrit and the inability of Iraqi security forces to drive them out of that city.  But when this strategy was implemented, when U.S.-trained fighters were put into the fight and backed by coalition airpower, ISIL fighters — within a matter of a couple of days — were driven out of Tikrit.  And that is an indication that where this strategy has been implemented, it has succeeded.

What is also true is that in the area around Palmyra in Syria, there isn’t a local force there that has been trained and supported by the 60-nation coalition.  We have acknowledged for a year now that our efforts in Syria to build up a ground force that can work closely with the coalition is going to take some time.  There is no natural force that’s there.

And so there is an active training mission that’s taking place in the region to build this force.  But building that kind of force from the ground up is going to take some time; training them, deploying them, and putting them in the fight is going to take some time.  But that is an effort that we have been focused on over the last year or so, and that’s an effort that will continue. 

But we’re going to have — we’re going to be faced with these kinds of challenges until the capacity of that force has been built up and deployed.

Jeff.

Q    Josh, how concerned is the White House about the fall of Palmyra?

MR. EARNEST:  We are deeply concerned by reports that ISIL is attacking and has taken control of the ancient town of Palmyra.  Palmyra is, as you know, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s the home to historic ruins and other artifacts that are, ironically enough, critical to our understanding of this culture and to the history of the Iraqi and Syrian people.  And ISIL’s utter disregard and lack of respect for that heritage is consistent with the kind of ideology that’s propagated by that extremist organization. 

So we’re going to continue to work with our coalition to pursue our strategy.  But again, as I mentioned to Jim, there are limits.  Until we’re able to build up local forces on the ground in Syria who can take the fight to ISIL in their own country, this is going to continue to be a difficult challenge, and one that is not going to be solved overnight, but rather one that will require a long-term commitment.

Q    The President used the word “setback” in his interview with The Atlantic.  Isn’t this more than that?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t think it is.  I think it is a setback.  I think that’s the word that we’ve described over the course of the last week.  It’s actually the same word that the President used, as I mentioned in Tuesday’s briefing, when the President was meeting with the chiefs of defense of the coalition partners back in October of last year.  He noted that this military conflict, like other military conflicts, would be characterized by days of progress and by periods of setback.

And I would acknowledge that we have seen a setback in Ramadi.  I think you could accurately characterize the situation in Palmyra as a setback.  It’s a materially different one, though, because we don’t have this local force on the ground with whom we can coordinate and who we can support with coalition military airpower.  But that’s a ground force that is being trained in the region right now as we speak by the United States and coalition partners.  And that will enhance our ability to take the fight to ISIL on the ground.

But the President is not going to be in a position where he’s going to consider a large-scale U.S. military deployment.  And for those who are calling on a change in strategy, I would encourage them to be specific.  And I don’t think that they will find either a lot of support on the part of the American people for a large-scale deployment of military resources to essentially re-invade Iraq or invade Syria.  The President does not believe that that would be in the best interest of the United States.  It would not be in the best interest of our national security.  And it certainly wouldn’t be in the best interest of our men and women in uniform.   It also wouldn’t make any fiscal sense at all.

Q    Lastly, on a totally unrelated issue, the Boy Scouts of America president, Robert Gates, today said that the group’s ban on adult gay leaders cannot be sustained.  Does the White House have a reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  I actually have not seen those comments.  The President’s views on this topic are obviously well known.  But they’re obviously consistent with the kinds of — with the President’s views about the equal treatment of every American citizen regardless of who they love.

Mara.

Q    Just curious — you’re painting the choices in Iraq and Syria as between what you’re doing now and the way you describe what the President’s critics want as a re-invasion of Iraq or large-scale military deployment of U.S. troops.  I’m wondering if you think those are the only two options; in other words, that those are the only two possibilities.  There’s nothing in between?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not the one that’s advocating a significant change in the President’s strategy.

Q    But is that what you think, that all these critics are —

MR. EARNEST:  I am not really sure what they’re advocating.  We hear them complain about the pace of progress.  There’s no doubt the President would like to see more progress, too.  But he understands that the kind of strategy that we’re currently pursuing is entirely consistent with our national security interests; that in order to address this problem over the long term, we need to build up the capacity of local fighters who can fight for their own country.

Q    Well, what do you say to critics who say we could have a no-fly zone, we could have more trainers, we could have been quicker and more aggressive in our training and equipping efforts?  I mean, there’s a lot of middle ground here between re-invading Iraq and what we’re doing now.

MR. EARNEST:  Except all those things that you just described were worded accurately in the past tense.  There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on here.  That’s part of the way that this works.

Q    You don’t think that there’s anything more we could do now short of the thing that you say the President would not —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I have also said — and I’ve been direct about this as recently as the last time we did this briefing, which was Tuesday — is that the President and his national security team are always looking for ways to refine the strategy in ways where we can learn lessons from those tactics that worked, and apply them in areas where we’re not enjoying the kind of success that we’d like to see.  So that is part of a rigorous policymaking process that is underway here in the administration.  And the President met with his national security team on Tuesday to have a conversation exactly like this. 

But the broad outlines of this strategy that involve building up the capacity of local fighters by training and equipping them, by offering them military advice where necessary to take the fight to ISIL in their own country, and backing them with military airpower, that is the broad outlines of our military strategy, and that is consistent with our national security interests.  It also, in the mind of the President, is the best way for us to succeed over the long term.

If we want to try to finally bring some stability to this region of the world that’s been so volatile for generations, this is the way that we can try to move in the right direction, and in a direction that’s consistent with U.S. national security interests.

Now, there are other parts of our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  It includes things like shutting down the financing of their operations, countering their efforts to recruit people from around the globe, stemming the flow of foreign fighters to this region of the world.  There are a variety of elements to that specific strategy.

But overall, what we’re talking about here is a strategy that builds up the capacity of local fighters to fight for their own country.  And that is a significant departure from the strategy that’s advocated by many Republicans, which is the large-scale American military deployment in Iraq and in Syria that didn’t work so well the last time we tried it.

Alexis.

Q    Josh, you were just describing the phased strategy for degrade — to defeat a long-term goal.  Does the President believe that the part of the strategy that we’re in right now, that the coalition is in right now to degrade ISIL is achieving its aims?  Does the President believe that ISIL is being degraded currently despite facts?  Is that what he’s arguing?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes — that we are in the degrade portion of this operation.  And there is ample evidence to indicate that we are making progress in degrading ISIL capabilities.  And whether you — and there are a variety of ways to illustrate that.  A couple of examples:  The operation over the weekend that resulted in the removing of an ISIL leader off the battlefield, and the confiscation of material that is currently being reviewed for its intelligence value.  It also includes the detention and interrogation of this ISIL leader’s female companion for intelligence information.

There are also metrics that the Department of Defense can update you on.  As recently as last week, they were able to say that 25 percent of the territory that had previously been controlled by ISIL is no longer an area where ISIL can enjoy its freedom of movement.  And I’m not just talking about — that statistic doesn’t characterize uninhabited desert; that statistic refers to populated areas that were previously under ISIL control, where ISIL leaders and ISIL fighters no longer have freedom of movement.  That represents some important progress.

There are also some places where — whether it’s Kobani, or Tikrit, or Sinjar Mountain, or even the Mosul Dam, where we have made some progress, and have been the site of important military progress.

But at the same time, we’re acknowledging that in any sort of military conflict there are going to be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback.  And I think that is evident from just what we’ve seen over the last week or so.  But to go back to your question — yes, overall we are in the degrade phase of this effort, and we are making progress in degrading the capability of ISIL.

Q    And just to add on — to follow up.  Because the President has indicated that he is not static in the strategy — he has tried to suggest that he is open and reevaluating this strategy — is there a period of time, or would there be a trigger during the degrade phase in which the President would reevaluate the strategy if — like, what would be the circumstances that his military leaders come to him and say this degrade phase is not working, the Iraqis are not up to the task?  What would trigger him to reevaluate the strategy?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this strategy and efforts to strengthen it are constantly informed by information on the ground.  We value the kind of strong working relationship that the U.S. and our coalition partners has with the central Iraqi government.  Obviously, they’re the ones who are making the decisions about when military operations are going to be commenced on the ground in certain areas in their country.  They’re the ones who are taking the lead in the fight, but they do so with the strong support of the United States and our coalition partners.

So this strategy is one that is, again, constantly being refined.  That’s part of a judicious application of experience and data to making this policy.  It also reflects the President’s approach to this and other issues.  And that’s something that he presses his team to do, but is constantly informed by information that we’re receiving on the ground and information that we’re receiving from our partners in Iraq. 

Jon.

Q    Josh, you talked about progress against ISIS and being in the degrade phase.  Did you see the briefing that the senior State Department official did yesterday on the situation in ISIS where he described what happened in Ramadi with 30 vehicle bombs going off over the course of a couple of days?  Ten of them, he said, that had the power equivalent to the Oklahoma City Bombing — taking out entire blocks.  That’s what progress looks like?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that’s what —

Q    That’s what degrading ISIS’s capabilities looks like?

MR. EARNEST:  This is what —

Q    Ten Oklahoma City Bombings?

MR. EARNEST:  This is what a military conflict looks like.  And this is what a very tenacious adversary looks like.  And that’s why the President and his team take so seriously this challenge.  But ultimately, Jon, no matter how difficult this challenge is, this is not something that the United States is going to do for the Iraqi government.  And we’re certainly not going to do it for the Syrian government.  There’s going to be the responsibility of the Iraqi people and the Syrian people to take the fight on the ground, for their country, against ISIL.

Q    But I’m just trying to get a sense of your assessment of this, even before we get to what to do about it.  I mean, you seem to be describing progress with some setbacks, and you don’t want to light your hair on fire.  And here you have a situation where the largest — where the capital city of the largest province goes down, and we now have details of what would happen in that battle that describe incredible force by ISIS.  Again, 10 Oklahoma City bombings over the course of less than two days does not sound like an organization that has been significantly degraded, especially when they’re taking over a major capital city.

I’m just talking about your assessment.  Before you figure out what you’re going to do about the problem, you have to have an accurate assessment of how bad the situation is.

MR. EARNEST:  There’s no question that ISIL, over completing their takeover of Ramadi, is a setback.  We’ve been pretty candid about that for a week now.  But what we’re talking about is an organization that is seeking to project their power over a broader region, and they are not succeeding in projecting their power in Kobani and in many areas in northeast Syria.  The area where they project their power is shrinking.  That’s also true in Tikrit.  That’s been true of 25 percent of the territory — populated territory that ISIL previously controlled.  That is an indication that we are making progress in spite of the setback in Ramadi.

Q    Is there any consideration towards additional Special Forces in Iraq?  Again, you’ve described the options as either doing what you’re doing now, or sending 150,000 troops.  But there have been discussions of more assistance to the Iraqis, more trainers forward-deployed to work with the Iraqi forces.  Is it your assessment or is it the administration’s assessment that the Iraqi forces are in such bad shape, or that won’t do any good?

MR. EARNEST:  No, Jon, those are options to be considered, but that’s materially different than a radical change in the strategy that some people are calling for.  I think all of you, as independent observers of this process, if we were to send more military assistance to Iraqi security forces and to put more trainers in the region, I think you might even describe that as a doubling down on our strategy.  Those are decisions that still need to be made in terms of what can we do —

Q    So that’s possible?  That’s something that’s under consideration?

MR. EARNEST:  What’s under consideration are how can we learn from the lessons where we have enjoyed success and made progress, and how can we apply those lessons into this area where we have experienced a setback.

Let me draw a connection between these dots a little bit more distinctly.  The thing that places like Tikrit and Kobani have in common are they are areas where the United States and our coalition partners did have a close and effective working relationship with the fighters who were on the ground.  That kind of relationship we haven’t yet had with the Iraqi security forces that have been fighting ISIL in Ramadi for 18 months. 

And the question is, is there more that we can do to augment those forces that are currently in the region with forces that have recently been trained by the United States and our coalition partners.  Are there others in the country that would join this fight if they were able to get more equipment and supplies from our coalition partners through the Iraqi government?  And what we have said is that we support the efforts of the Iraqi central government to augment their presence in that region of the country; that we’re prepared to support those forces that are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. 

And again, that could be one way that we could apply the lessons learned from Kobani and Tikrit into this specific situation.  But this is something that continues to be a matter of discussion by the President’s national security team, and it’s something that we continue to discuss with the Iraqi central government.

Q    And just very quickly on the Freedom Act — Patriot Act.  Is the administration willing to go along with a temporary extension of the Patriot Act — two months, or maybe even less
— if they’re unable — the Senate is unable to pass the Freedom Act?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s unclear what exactly has the votes to pass the Senate.  We believe that the clearest path forward to making sure that the authorities that I talked about at the beginning that are so critical to our national security don’t expire is the passage of the USA Freedom Act — something that had strong bipartisan support in the House.  We believe it deserves strong bipartisan support in the Senate.  I don’t actually know what the vote count is on that, though. 

Q    But a temporary extension — is that something you’d be willing to — because the way the votes are stacked now, they will first vote if that doesn’t pass — if the Freedom Act doesn’t pass the Senate —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s unclear to me exactly what has the votes to pass.  We believe that the best way for us to do that is passing the bipartisan USA Freedom Act that passed the House with so much support.

Q    But you’re not opposed to a temporary extension of the Patriot Act?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, what we are strongly supportive of is the passage of the — I haven’t seen a specific proposal in terms of a shorter-term extension, and it’s not clear to me that that would necessarily have the votes to pass the Senate.  Fortunately, I’m not the one that’s responsible for counting the votes. 

But what we believe is the best path forward, both as a practical matter in terms of getting this done before the deadline, but also in a way that best reflects the need to give our law enforcement authorities and our national security authorities the tools that they need to keep us safe, while also enhancing the basic privacy and civil liberty protections that American people deserve.

Jim.

Q    Josh, you and others have said this week that there’s no formal strategy review underway.  But what do you call calling in the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Defense Secretary, top intelligence officials, the national security team over to the White House to review what is happening in Iraq and Syria with respect to ISIS?  It doesn’t get more formal than that.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct.  The President does convene formal meetings with his national security team on a frequent basis.  Many of them will be convening in the Cabinet Room here in less than an hour.  So it’s not unusual for the President to convene formal meetings with his team.  I think the question often was, is a formal review of the strategy on the agenda?  And the answer to that is —

Q    It does sound like a semantics game a little bit when you’re saying, well, we’re constantly looking at ways to upgrade the President’s approach.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think so.  I think I’m trying to be as specific with you as possible about what exactly is happening in that room.  And yes, it’s a formal meeting.  There is an agenda.  It’s a nice looking room with padded leather chairs.  And they’re having a formal discussion with senior members of the national security team about —

Q    So does it also suggest that you’re satisfied with the strategy?  That if you’re not formally reviewing it, then you must feel it’s working.

MR. EARNEST:  Jim, what we can also do is we can also take a look at the strategy, take lessons learned from the elements of the strategy that are working well.  And we see that there are areas where we’re making progress because of the strategy that the President has implemented.  And the question is whether or not there are some lessons learned that we can apply in other areas where we would like to see better results.  And that’s the nature of the discussion that the President has been having with his national security team, frankly, for nine months now, but most recently on Tuesday.

Q    And do you believe that ISIS has established something of a caliphate?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t believe that at all.  What we actually see is we see that —

Q    They do control territory.

MR. EARNEST:  They do control some territory — less than they used to.  We also see that ISIL leaders are very concerned about their own security; that they’re not moving particularly freely these days.  They’re justifiably concerned for their safety because they know that the U.S. and our coalition partners have a capacity to take them off the battlefield.  And that capacity was vividly demonstrated over the weekend.

So that is an indication of the kinds of limits that have been imposed on them.  But we’re very mindful of the threat that is posed by ISIL.  We take this threat very seriously.  And that, again, that is why the President convened a meeting with his national security team — a formal meeting — to discuss the situation.  Because we are mindful of the capacity for violence that this extremist organization has demonstrated.

Q    And I know you don’t like to get into 2016 stuff, but —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, sometimes I like to.  I just don’t have the opportunity to do it from here.

Q    Maybe, perhaps not formally so.  Jeb Bush said yesterday that “ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was President.”  He has a point, doesn’t he?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t think that he does.  We’ve sort of been through the history here. 

Q    ISIS didn’t exist when his brother was President.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think that’s missing the point, actually.  But I’ll allow others to critique his position.

Q    I mean, what about that, though?  I mean, ISIS — the larger point there is that because the President decided to complete a full withdrawal from Iraq — and of course we can go back and debate the circumstances around that, but you didn’t have the status forces agreement with the Iraqi’s that you wanted to have and so forth — that that vacuum allowed ISIS to develop into the threat to this country and to that region that they are today.  Isn’t there something to that?

MR. EARNEST:  No, there’s not.  Because, again, the outgrowth of — we know that ISIL was an outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq that did not exist prior to the fateful decision made by the previous administration to launch an invasion of that country.  And that is also a relevant fact. 

Shirish.   

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Governor Bush, among others, on the campaign trail, and a couple of folks in Congress are suggesting that 10,000 is the right number of troops, perhaps, to be sent back to Iraq.  Has that been under consideration at all?  And is that possibly a medium between the situation now and a full-scale reinvasion?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that the — at this point, I’m not going to make any predictions about what specific advice the President may get from his military leaders.  I can say with full confidence — maybe this is a prediction, but I say it with full confidence — the President will not be comfortable with the full-scale reinvasion of Iraq by the United States military. 

That is a strategy that did not serve the long-term interest of the United States.  What the President believes serves the long-term interest of the United States is building up the capacity of fighters on the ground, inside of Iraq, who are willing to fight for their own country. 

And we believe that this will require political leadership in Baghdad that governs the diverse country of Iraq in a multi-sectarian fashion.  We are pleased to see that that is the approach that Prime Minister Abadi has campaigned on and pursued.  That will accrue to the benefit of his nation’s security.  It will also ensure that his nation is better equipped to fight the threat that they face from ISIL right now.

And what the President envisions is the United States and our coalition partners fully supporting Iraq as they take on this threat from ISIL.  That is the way that we can ensure that we have an enduring answer to the threat posed by these extremist groups in the region.  And that’s the kind of partnership that the United States and the American people seek with Iraq and the people of Iraq.

Q    And then on the Patriot Act, Freedom Act, is the President personally engaging on this issue?  Is he making phone calls?  Is he — specifically on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if the President has had any specific conversations on that piece of legislation that’s currently being debated in the Congress.  What I can tell you is I know that there are a number of senior members of the President’s national security team that have been in conversations with members of Congress in both parties over the last several days on this issue.

And when I say this issue, I mean the need to ensure that some of the authorities that are included in the Patriot Act do not lapse because they are critical to our national security, while at the same time, encouraging Congress to implement the kinds of reforms that the President called for a year and a half ago that would better protect our civil liberties and the privacy of the American people.

Q    And then finally, can we expect news of any material kind at tomorrow’s visit to the synagogue?  Or is it more of a community relations type visit? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it would be an opportunity for the President to deliver remarks at a local synagogue where he will celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month.  And obviously the President had an opportunity to talk about some of these issues in the context of an Atlantic interview that he conducted with Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this week.  I think if you take a look at that interview, you’ll see that many of the themes that he discussed earlier this week in that interview are consistent with the kinds of themes that you’ll hear from him tomorrow.

Julie.

Q    Thanks.  The President said earlier that he was going to designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally.  That obviously brings specific security implications, and it’s something that he did not choose to give to Saudi Arabia or any of the other GCC countries, even though they were seeking some formal defense guarantees when they came here last week to Camp David.  So I’m wondering, why the distinction?  Why does he think it’s important to give this designation to Tunisia now?  And why not to some of the other allies in the Middle East who are concerned about their security?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d start out by saying that that is not a designation that was sought by every member of the GCC that participated in the meeting last week.

What I can speak to directly is the reason that the President made this decision as it relates to Tunisia.  And it relates — it starts with the strong diplomatic relationship between the United States and Tunisia for more than 200 years.  I learned this fact today that in 1799, the United States concluded its first agreement of friendship and trade with Tunisia, establishing the first American consulate in Tunis in 1800. 

Q    You just found that out?

MR. EARNEST:  I did.  (Laughter.)  Is that something that all of you knew?  Maybe I was sick that day in Tunisian history class.  (Laughter.)  But the fact is that the legacy of this relationship is one that’s continued for generations and one that was built upon today in the context of the first meeting between a U.S. President and a democratically elected Tunisian President.

You’ll recall that the President was the first world leader to congratulate the people of Tunisia on the successful completion of parliamentary elections last October.  In the context of those elections, we were pleased to see a strong turnout and that the vote proceeded peacefully without significant security incidents.  The United States remains committed to and strongly supportive of Tunisia’s democratic path, including one that strengthens civil society, empowers women and youth, advances economic reforms, and solidifies the foundations of citizen participation in government.   

We also have an important and valuable security relationship with Tunisia.  And the United States has provided substantial security assistance to Tunisia to advance counterterrorism efforts, to advance Tunisia’s own border security and law enforcement efforts.  We obviously have an intelligence relationship with Tunisia that’s valuable to the citizens of both of our countries. 

The point is that the ties between our two countries are strong and important to the citizens of both of our countries.  And based on that mutually beneficial relationship, the President is ready to proceed in the direction of giving them major non-NATO ally status.

And we obviously have strong and important relationships with the other GCC countries who visited the United States and Camp David last week.  I think the fact that the President dedicated his day and traveled to Camp David with all of them is an indication of how important those relationships are.  But the fact is we make these kinds of decisions based on our relationship with each individual country.

Q    Do human rights considerations have anything to do with these decisions?  And are you saying that Saudi Arabia did not seek this status when they were here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to speak to the preferences that were articulated by the individual GCC countries when they were here. 

What I will say about Tunisia is that they have pursued bravely a democratic path that empowers — in particular, a path that empowers women and youth in their country.  That is an indication that there are important shared values between the United States and Tunisia.  The President believes that that commitment to democracy is one that’s worth supporting.  And we have supported Tunisia in a variety of ways — offering security support.  There is some financial support that the United States has offered to Tunisia to strengthen their economy.  And certainly the offering of major non-NATO ally status is another way for us to support the people of Tunisia in their efforts to pursue a genuine democracy in a region of the world that doesn’t have a lot of democracies.

Q    On a very different issue, can I just ask you about the President’s Twitter account that started on Monday?  As you may be aware, it’s been the subject of some pretty hateful comments — some of them overtly racist, some of them bordering on violent and very disturbing images.  Is the President seeing these tweets?   And has there been any discussion among him and his advisors or here at the White House about whether these kinds of conversations should be tolerated, if these people should be blocked?  Is the Secret Service involved in monitoring this at all?  Some of them are of a pretty threatening nature.

MR. EARNEST:  Unfortunately, Julie, those kinds of images and that kind of language is all too common on the Internet.  I’m sure some of you guys see that on your Twitter feeds, as well.  These are the kinds of messages and imagery that was directed at the White House Twitter feed.  It certainly has been directed at the Twitter feed of other White House officials here.  So I’ll let the Secret Service speak to the way that they process these threats and how seriously they take them.

But what we believe is that the President’s new Twitter handle is one that can be used to important effect — to communicate with the American people and to engage the American people.  And we’re pleased with the early response to it.

Q    Will they be blocked, racist comments to his account?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know exactly how this will move forward.  My guess is that if we spent a lot of time trying to block those kinds of messages, we’d probably spend a lot of time blocking people on the Internet.  So again, I’ll let the Secret Service speak to what sort of threat they may — how they assess these threats and how seriously they need to take them.

Justin.

Q    I have some stuff on trade, but first I just wanted to see if you were kind of trying out a shiny new talking point, or actually signaling a shift in policy.  A couple of months ago —

MR. EARNEST:  Now I’m intrigued.  (Laughter.)

Q    Yes.  A couple months ago, when you were asked about ISIS, you’d always say no combat boots on the ground, and today you’re saying not a full-scale re-invasion of Iraq.  And I’m wondering, is there a substantive difference there?  Or is no combat boots on the ground still operative in terms of the President’s strategy?

MR. EARNEST:  No, that aspect of the President’s strategy has not changed.  I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to clarify.

Q    On trade, the enforceable currency language has continued to be a pertinent issue.  Congressman (inaudible) said today that he doesn’t believe the President would actually veto TPA over this.  Senator Portman is circulating a letter from 2007, suggesting that the President has flip-flopped on this issue.  And so I’m wondering both has the President’s position changed from the time that he was a senator because he feels like there’s been success with the enforcement mechanisms?  Has his position not changed?  Or why should Democrats, especially on the Hill, really believe the President’s threat of a veto on this?

MR. EARNEST:  The President’s position on currency, as articulated in the context of the ongoing debate about trade legislation, is entirely consistent with the position that was articulated in this letter back in 2007.  The letter describes concerns with the previous administration’s “refusal to take strong action against China’s currency manipulation.”

We’ve talked a little bit over the last couple of weeks about the success that this administration has had in compelling China in a variety of international meetings to make the necessary changes to their own monetary policy.  And since 2010, China’s exchange rate is up nearly 30 percent on a real, effective basis.  That’s an indication that the United States has taken strong action against China’s currency manipulation.

The other thing that’s notable in that letter is it urges the administration to stand up to trade abuses and to labor in environmental violations.  You’ll recall that the President has called for strong, enforceable labor and environmental protections both in the context of this trade promotion authority legislation, but also writing that into the TPP agreement that’s currently being negotiated.  That is an indication that the President’s commitment to high labor and environmental standards, and countering labor and environmental violations, is one that is being implemented now that the President is in office.  So I think the President’s position on these issues has been entirely consistent all along. 

As it relates to the veto threat, it’s one that — the fact is the President feels very strongly about TPA, and would like to see Congress act in bipartisan fashion to pass it.  But the President is not going to sign into law a piece of legislation that is going to undermine the independence or ability of the federal reserve to make monetary policy decisions that we know are critical to the stability of the United States economy.  And it’s been on display for everybody to see over the last six years what important a role the Federal Reserve has in trying to take steps to stabilize the U.S. economy.  And the President does not believe it would be worth it to jeopardize that capacity on the part of the Federal Reserve.

Q    A quick one on NSA.  I know that you said that you don’t know what has the votes to pass.  Senator Burr is the chair of the Intel Committee, and says that USA Freedom doesn’t.  Clearly we’re kind of coming down to the deadline here.  So I’m wondering if you could kind of explain how you guys are preparing for the seemingly very distinct possibility that this doesn’t get reauthorized.  And also if you could just confirm that you guys are holding briefings in the Situation Room on this with lawmakers.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that there have been a number of conversations between lawmakers and senior administration officials on this issue.  And these are officials from the national security team who are having conversations about how the USA Freedom Act appropriately strikes the balance between giving our national security professionals the authorities they need to keep the country safe, while also protecting the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.  And that’s complicated business.

But the fact that we got — or frankly, more appropriately, members of Congress got 338 Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives to agree that this balance was appropriately reached is an indication that a lot of the hard work on this has already been done.  The fact that our national security professionals agree that this legislation, the USA Freedom Act — the way that it’s currently written — does appropriately strike that balance, I think is a testament to the important and good work that was done in the House of Representatives.  And that’s why we believe it supports — it deserves the support of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.  And we’re making the case very directly to Democrats and Republicans in the Senate as recently as today.

Major.

Q    One piece of housekeeping.  The House will send over sometime today the human trafficking legislation.  Does the President intend to sign it soon?  Do you have any updates on the process or scheduling for that?

MR. EARNEST:  The latest update that I’ve received is that we have not actually taken possession of the bill here.  It’s not been transmitted from Capitol Hill to here.

But obviously this is something that got strong support in the Congress.  We articulated this is a piece of legislation that the President supported, and the President will sign it when he gets it.  I don’t know when we’ll get it and I don’t know when he’ll sign it, but that’s the intent.

Q    Coverage?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if we’ll have coverage of it or not, but we’ll keep you posted.

Q    So, litigating what it is or isn’t in Ramadi, what’s the level of priority going forward to retaking it?  Is that now the top priority as this administration sees it, for Iraqi forces to re-marshal themselves to regain their strength?  And does it now take a second place to Mosul, which has been — according to everything from the Pentagon and State Department
— had been indicating the next most important priority.  Does Mosul now slip behind Ramadi?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, I know that there’s been an opinion expressed on these competing priorities — or what could be portrayed as competing priorities in Iraq.  But the policy of the United States is that these kinds of decisions are decisions that should be made by the Iraqi central government.  After all, we’re talking about Iraqi security forces who would be carrying out those operations.  And so they should be — those forces are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government, so ultimately it will be the Iraqi central government that will make those decisions.

But the situation that exists in Ramadi right now is — I guess outside of Ramadi — is that we have seen Iraqi security forces retreat from the city, but they have established and held a line east of Ramadi and they have been resupplied, and they are reorganizing and making plans to launch a counter-assault.

I don’t know what the time frame for that will be.  I don’t know exactly how that strategy will be carried out.  These are something — again, those are decisions that will be made by the Iraqi central government and probably not announced in advance.

Q    Understood.  But are you saying that the United States is essentially agnostic on these choices?  Because the United States with those who are there — spotters, intelligence gatherers, advisors — would gravitate to one or the other.  Does the United States genuinely not care in which sequence or which order these particular missions are carried out?

MR. EARNEST:  I think you can assume that the United States is deeply invested in this.  And I think that’s evident from the kind of commitment that the President has made in terms of providing support, equipment, training, airpower to support their efforts.

But ultimately, we are mindful of the fact that these are decisions that will be made by a sovereign, independent Iraqi government.  But they’ll do so with the support and partnership of the United States and our coalition partners.

Q    One last thing.  In the Jeffrey Goldberg interview, the headline reads:  “Look, My Name Is On This,” meaning the Iran nuclear deal yet to be fully realized.  Do you, does the White House in any way, does the President wonder, if he is so personally invested in this and the clock is ticking, that he may be wanting this more than the Iranians and that gives them a stronger negotiating point of leverage?  Because as he said, “I’ve done it for six years; this will be my thing for the next 20 years.”  Has he so deeply personalized his investment in this that he may be missing the larger, broader geopolitical consequences?

MR. EARNEST:  I think the short answer to your question is no.  The President is in a position where he is personally invested in this, and he’s personally invested in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon because he understands the consequences that would have for U.S. national security.  But he also is deeply familiar with the consequences it would have for the national security of our closest ally in the region, Israel.  And the President is committed to the protection and national security of the nation of Israel and the people of Israel. 

And even Prime Minister Netanyahu himself — somebody with whom we have had our differences — has indicated that the kind of security cooperation between the Obama administration and the Israeli government is unprecedented because of the kind of commitment you’ve seen from President Obama and the United States to the safety and security of the Israel people.

And the point that the President was making in that comment to Mr. Goldberg is specifically that the President understands the high stakes.  And it’s because the stakes are so high that the President is pursuing this approach.  He believes that this is, by far, the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And he understands why preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is such a priority.

And the President takes very personally the effort to try to move this across the finish line.  But the fact is the people who are under the most pressure right now are the Iranians.  It’s their economy that has suffered bitterly under the international sanctions regime that this administration has implemented in close coordination with our allies around the world.  It’s the Iranian currency that has plummeted.  It’s Iranian trade and exports that have been deeply affected by these sanctions, and it’s the Iranian government that is under pressure from the Iranian people because of it. 

So we are very mindful of the fact that there is significant leverage over Iran.  And that is why we’ve seen Iran for the first time engage so constructively in diplomatic conversations.

Now, this is not a foregone conclusion.  We’re going to need to see Iran make some very specific commitments to this effort.  And they have not done that yet.  We’ve got till June 30th to try to reach those commitments.  But that’s why the President takes this so seriously and why he takes it personally.

Q    But by saying “my name is on this,” it sounds like he could never walk away.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s not true.  I think what — the point the President is making is the fact his name is on it is why he’s not going to sign a bad deal.  That’s the point that — that’s the point here.  He’s mindful of the fact that for decades after this agreement is implemented, if an agreement is reached, that people will consider the impact that it had on U.S. national security and on the national security of our allies in the region, including and most importantly Israel.  And that’s what the President is mindful of as he approaches this agreement.  He’s not going to sign a bad deal precisely because it’s his name that’s on it. 

Kevin.

Q    Josh, thanks.  You talked about the Iraqi security forces on a couple of occasions today.  I’m wondering if from the White House perspective if the President feels like we’re getting a decent return on our investment.  Lots of training, lots of materiel, and yet there’s been criticism that sometimes they tuck tail and run.  I even heard the National Security Advisor yesterday say — questioning the will of some of those who are on the ground, and hoping that that would certainly improve.  How does the White House feel about the return on its investment in training and supplying the Iraqis security forces?

MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, I would say that the early returns have been good, that there are important places where we’ve made progress because of the investment that we have made both in terms of equipment, also in terms of the airpower that we’re using to back those fighters, whether those are fighters that are on the ground in northeast Syria, or fighters on the ground in northern Iraq, including in areas around Tikrit.

The fact is the investment in training — I think it’s common sense that an investment that’s made in that training effort is an investment that you expect to pay off over the longer term.  And you’re not going to see an immediate return on investment when it comes to training.  But the early returns are good.  And over the long term, as this training effort continues, we’ll see more and more capable, trained and equipped Iraqi security forces and moderate opposition forces inside of Syria that can take the fight to ISIL in their own country. 

And that is the only enduring solution to this problem.  And the option of — again, a large-scale, ground invasion by the United States is not one that’s in our best interest.  Our best interests are best served by building up the capacity of local forces, giving them the equipment they need, giving them the training that they need to fight for their own country.

Q    But is it fair to say that sometimes some of their effort leaves a lot to be desired?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s precisely why we’re engaged in an effort to train them because there is some improvement in performance that we’d like to see on the battlefield.  And that’s why those training efforts continue.

Q    You mentioned Syria.  Is it your opinion that ISIS is not spreading throughout Syria and Iraq?  You said earlier that they control less territory.  I’m trying to figure out the disconnect here, because there have been a number of reports that suggest that ISIS is spreading.

MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, I would refer you to the Department of Defense for the latest assessment of this.  But what they have said is in the Iraq-Syria region, that if you look at populated areas that had previously been under control of ISIL, 25 percent of those areas — or up to 25 percent of those areas are areas where ISIL fighters no longer have freedom of movement.  And that’s an indication that they have been pushed back.

There are areas where they have made gains in areas like Palmyra.  But there are also areas where they’ve been in retreat, and those are regions on northeast Syria outside of Kobani.  And that’s an indication that we will have days of progress and periods of setback, and that dynamic is on display throughout the region.  But even if you just consider — limit your consideration to Syria, you’ll see that there are areas where we’re making progress and areas where we’re experiencing setbacks.

Q    You mentioned Palmyra.  Is there any consideration of protecting or helping to protect or preserve some of the major antiquities there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously we are limited in our ability to do that because we do not have the kind of ground force in that region of Syria that we can depend on to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country that can be backed by coalition airpower.  So our capacity there is limited.  There’s no doubt about that.  But that’s why we’re engaged in this effort to train more Syrian opposition fighters who can take the fight to ISIL in more regions of that country.

Q    And lastly, you said there’s a degrade phase and a defeat phase, presumably.  Is the President comfortable with the notion that the degrade phase will likely last for the balance of his presidency?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has indicated that this — over the course of the next 36 months or so, that essentially this is a 36-month military operation that will be in the degrade phase.  And that’s the way that the President has described this operation.  And he has been candid about the fact that this will be a challenge that the next President will have to confront.

Q    Just quickly, I’m trying to understand some of the setbacks and victories and the balance that you apply to what we’re seeing out there.  And this figure of 25 percent, how can that be true if, in fact, in the past couple of days, ISIS/ISIL has captured these major cities and significant places?  Are there other places that we’re unaware of where they’ve lost ground that we’re not aware of?  Because it seems — how can it be true that they’re holding onto this territory, the same percentage, if, in fact, they’re making these gains?  So where’s the progress?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me answer that question a couple of ways.  The first is that when it comes to Ramadi, it’s important to understand that that is a city that’s been contested for more than 18 months.  Ramadi was an area that was under attack from ISIL forces before they even took over Mosul.  And over the last several months, ISIL has controlled between 50 and 75 percent of the city.  What generated the headlines over the weekend is that they were able to take over 100 percent of the city. 

And again, there’s no question that that’s a setback.  I’m not citing that statistic to downplay it, but I’m helping you understand exactly what the situation is on the ground. 

What’s also true is that there are significant areas in northeastern Syria where the United States and our coalition partners have backed fighters on the ground who have been effective in driving out ISIL fighters.  They’ve made important progress in northeastern Syria.  There are also areas like Tikrit, previously — this is a major city previously controlled by ISIL that no longer is.

Q    Yes, but again, it’s your — you’re kind of — some people would say these are false equivalencies perhaps.  For example, Ramadi is a city that’s, like, a two-hour drive from Baghdad.  Does that — is that as significant as Tikrit?  You talk about the Mosul Dam being — but the city of Mosul is still lost. 

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not drawing equivalents.  What I’m suggesting is that there are areas of progress and areas of setback.  And that’s exactly what characterizes any military conflict, and it’s part of this military conflict, too.

Q    I guess the bottom line is, it doesn’t sound very reassuring to most people in the country that, in fact, this is under control, that we are, in fact, winning.  And what is — is there some — and you mentioned the capture of —

MR. EARNEST:  To be fair to me, I haven’t used those two words.  What I have used is — I’ve said that we have experienced important progress and experienced some important setbacks, as well.  And I don’t know whether that’s reassuring.  I think it’s an accurate description of what’s happening on the ground.

I think one thing that’s reassuring to a lot of people is there aren’t 150,000 U.S. military personnel in harm’s way who right now are trying to defend Ramadi from ISIL fighters.  I think that’s reassuring to a lot of people.

Q    It is.  So given the fact that you’re not using words like “winning” and so forth, why should the public be assured that this is under control?  Or is it not?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the public can be reassured about is that we have the kind of strategy that is clearly aligned with the best national security interests of the United States; that we’re not in a situation where we have 100,000 or 150,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground fighting these extremists in Iraq.  Instead, what we have is a more judicious use of American force, which is using our diplomatic influence to build a coalition with 60 other countries to make smart investments in our partners in Iraq to insist that those forces that are getting that kind of capability are reporting to an Iraqi central government that is governing that country in a multi-sectarian way that reflects the true diversity of that country.

All of that is consistent with the national security interest of the United States.  And what we’re seeing is — we’re seeing that because of the pressure that we’re applying, that ISIL leaders are not in a position where they are comfortably residing in Iraq and in Syria using those unstable areas as a safe haven to plot and carry out large-scale catastrophic terror attacks against the United States. 

We’re very mindful of the threat that they pose.  And we continue to apply pressure to them on a daily basis.  And we’re thinking on an hourly basis about what we can do to mitigate the threat that they pose.

But the fact is, this is a situation that we take seriously, but our response is one that is consistent with the national security interests of the United States.

Q    Just lastly, one of the fundamental problems seems to be the lack of reliable forces on the ground to be partners.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s true.

Q    Is there any evidence — or what can you say that any of our other coalition partners are doing to rectify that situation?  Because obviously, one of the enduring problems that the American — concerns of the American people is this perception that we’re doing this alone, that it’s Americans who are leading the way here.  Is there any evidence that any of the other 59, 60 coalition partners are doing something on the ground that is solving this fundamental problem of lack of reliable force there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be clear, the United States is doing what we usually do, which is we are leading the way.  And there’s no doubt about that.  The President is the one who has taken the lead in this coalition.  And there is no doubt that the United States military, because of our capabilities and because of their character, is leading the way. 

But what’s also true is we are getting substantial and critically important contributions from our coalition partners.  I know that there are a wide range of our coalition partners that also have military personnel on the ground that are contributing to these training efforts. 

We can get you a definitive list from the Department of Defense of the large number of countries that have contributed military personnel for this precise effort.  There are some of our NATO allies, for example, that do have a particular expertise in this area, and they do have some skin in the game.

What we’ve also seen is we’ve also seen a willingness on the part of not just our NATO allies but even some of our Arab partners in devoting resources to conducting the air campaign against ISIL in both Iraq and in Syria.  And there was a lot of skepticism early on whether the United States would succeed in getting majority-Muslim countries to actually take part in this coalition.  Not only have they joined the coalition, but we see countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia actually carrying out military strikes alongside American military pilots inside of Syria.

That is a testament to the depth of this coalition and the important role that our coalition partners are playing in this effort.  But people should make no mistake that the United States and President Obama are leading the way.

Q    But given that, you’re talking about a very long-term process of getting this army in place on the ground, the coalition partners.  Is the President satisfied with the contributions of our allies?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, here are some areas where we have made additional asks, where we’ve asked our coalition partners to commit greater resources or to use some of their special capabilities to assist in this effort.  And we have been pleased by the kind of response that we’ve gotten from our partners and our allies around the globe.  They do that because they understand how important this mission is.

Q    And just lastly, one time before you said something about how we are taking the fight to ISIL in their own country.  That’s probably a misspoke or a — because they don’t have a country, correct?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m referring to is the fact that we have local forces on the ground.  These are Iraqis who are taking the fight to ISIL in their own country, Iraqis who are fighting for their country of Iraq.  We’re seeking to do the same thing in Syria, where we’re trying to build up members of the moderate Syrian opposition — Syrians who are fighting ISIL in their own country.

Drew.

Q    You said that it’s not in the U.S. interest to have legions of troops — of U.S. troops back in Iraq, but it’s also not in the interest of the United States to have Iraq Balkanized.  I mean, what if this strategy just takes too long, and the central government becomes irrelevant in the interim?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, fortunately, Drew, what we have seen is we have actually seen Prime Minister Abadi live up to his commitment to govern that country in a multi-sectarian way.  And his success in uniting that country will be critical to their longer-term success of defeating ISIL.

And fortunately, that central government will be able to rely on the United States and our coalition partners for support.  That’s why the United States has invested in training those security forces that are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government.  That’s why the United States and our coalition partners have been committed to providing arms and other forms of assistance to those forces that are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government.

So we’re going to continue to partner with and support the central government of Iraq as long as they continue to pursue this multi-sectarian strategy for governing the country.

Q    Okay, but you don’t — I mean, in Anbar, for example, that’s going to take quite some time.  Is time not a factor here?  Are you just going to do it for as long as it takes?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I guess — to back to your first question, Anbar actually is a pretty good example of this.  We saw that the Sunni-dominated Anbar Provincial Council actually voted in favor of the strategy that was identified by the Shia Prime Minister, Prime Minister Abadi, that involved sending elements of the Popular Mobilization Force to Anbar to assist Sunni fighters in the fight against ISIL.  That’s an indication of the kind of working relationship that we’d like to see between the diverse elements of that country.

In terms of a time frame for succeeding in Anbar, I wouldn’t put a time frame on it.  There obviously is important work that needs to get done, and it’s not — this is a situation that’s not going to be resolved overnight.  But as long as the tribal leaders in that area continue to have confidence in the multi-sectarian intentions and leadership of the Iraqi central government, we’ll be optimistic about their chances. 

Q    Thanks, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Olivier, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Several of the people in my row who are all eager to ask you a question are part of a delegation of Cuban reporters who are here.  Can you give a little bit of a back story on this visit?  Are you trying to send a message?  And to your knowledge, when is the last time a White House press secretary took a question from a Cuban reporter?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not sure when the last time that was, so maybe I’ll give one of them the last question.  It’s my understanding that there are a number of Cuban journalists who are in Washington today to cover the ongoing meetings over at the State Department between U.S. diplomats and Cuban diplomats who are seeking to normalize the relations between our two countries.

But if there is someone in the back that — yes, this young lady.

Q    Thank you very much.  I’m from Cuban National Television. 

MR. EARNEST:  Excellent.  Welcome to the United States and to the White House.

Q    Thank you very much.  Two small questions.  First, do you think that it’s possible to see the scenario in which we will open embassies in Havana and Washington?  Is that future a scenario?  Is the administration committed to being more respectful of the Vienna Convention towards the behavior of the American diplomats in Havana?  For example, do you think the programs for regime change will go on or not?  Do you have any remarks on that?

And on the other way, do you think that President Obama will also use — continue using his executive prerogative to expand the links, the bonds with Cuba? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President did state back in December when he made the announcement about the change in our Cuban policy his intention to work in coordination with the Cuban government to open a U.S. embassy in Cuba and Cuban embassy here in the United States.  That is the intention, and that’s what the diplomats who are meeting today are discussing.  That would be an additional step on the road toward normalizing relations between our two countries.

One of the many sticking points in those conversations has been rules that govern the activities and movement of U.S. diplomats in Cuba.  And so we’ll leave it to them to resolve those differences in those negotiations to make sure that we come under an agreement that will allow U.S. diplomats in Cuba to do what U.S. diplomats do in countries around the world, which is to not just engage the leaders of the government, but also to engage the people.

And in this case, we would welcome the opportunity for U.S. diplomats to have the opportunity to engage more freely with the Cuban people, including Cuban citizens living outside of Havana; that there’s an opportunity for U.S. diplomats to meet with Cubans who may not be a part of or even supportive of the Cuban government.  And having that kind of freedom and ability to engage the Cuban people is an important part of our relationship between the United States and Cuba.  And that is what those negotiations are seeking to resolve.

As it relates to additional steps that can be taken — nothing that I can announce from here.  But the United States, and President Obama, in particular, as he has expressed directly to President Castro, is interested in breaking down some of the barriers that remain between our two countries.  And he believes that the interests of the United States are greatly enhanced by that, that there is an important Cuban market for U.S. goods that would allow U.S. companies to benefit from that kind of relationship. 

But also, the President believes that greater engagement between the United States and Cuba would bring about the kind of change that we would like to see in terms of the Cuban government’s treatment of the Cuban people.  We continue to have significant concerns about the way that the Cuban government all too often fails to respect the basic universal human rights that we hold so dear in this country; that there are too many Cuban political activists, Cuban journalists who see their freedom of speech, their freedom of assembly, their freedom of expression trampled by the Cuban government.  That continues to be a source of significant concern not just on the part of the President of the United States, but by a lot of Americans. 

And it is our hope that greater engagement between the United States and Cuba will help the Cuban people and the Cuban government understand how important it is to respect those basic universal human rights.

Q    And do you think that kind of change will go on underground like it has been doing until now?  Or will it be more openly, more publicly?  You’ve changed the ways in which that kind of change that you want to see — your government wants to see in Cuba.  Would you say that that would be more open?  And do you think that it’s possible to see President Obama in Havana before 2016?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that there’s one person in particular that hopes President Obama will be in Havana at some point in the relatively recent future, and that’s President Obama himself.  I know that he would relish the opportunity to visit the island of Cuba and Havana in particular.

As it relates to the way in which this change in Cuba will be brought about, I think that’s something that the Cuban people will determine.  I think we would hope — and our aspirations for the Cuban people is that they would be able to express their views and even express their dissent in public without fear of retribution.

That’s a freedom that most Cubans do not enjoy at this point.  But we’re hopeful that by making a change in this policy, by facilitating deeper engagement between the U.S. and Cuban people, that that kind of freedom of expression will become more common and, most importantly, will finally be protected by the Cuban government in a way that it isn’t now.

Thanks, everybody.  I’m going to see if I can get to this Cabinet meeting late.

END   
2:26 P.M. EDT