The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
March 10, 2011
Briefing by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on Libya and the Middle East
Via Conference Call
2:48 P.M. EST
MR. VIETOR: Thank you very much, everybody, for getting on. We appreciate you taking the time. Today we have the President’s National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, who are here to talk a little bit about Libya and take some questions from you.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Tom.
MR. DONILON: All set? Thank you, Tommy. And thanks, everybody, for taking the time this afternoon. We thought it would be a useful exercise to spend some time this afternoon not just talking about Libya, which I’m prepared to do, and Ben is as well, but also to talk about how we’re thinking about the broader set of events in the Middle East.
And we do view them as a broad set of events. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the change, the historic change that is sweeping the region. And we are engaged, as I know many of you know, in efforts really across the region, from Tunisia all the way to obviously our ongoing efforts in Iraq.
And I thought what I’d do at the outset here is lay down several principles that inform our approach and have informed our approach from the outset. I’ll then talk about a couple of specifics. I also want to talk about an issue that we haven’t spent a lot of time talking to you all about in recent days, which is Iran. I have a couple of things to say on that. And then I’d be glad to take your questions.
First, with respect to our overall approach, essentially how we think about this and how we’re approaching the challenges, and let me make a couple of observations.
First, the turmoil in the region, the events in the region, present challenges as well as historic opportunities for the United States and for the people of the region. These are indigenous movements, first and foremost, and they do offer an opportunity to transform the narrative that defined the Arab world for decades. Democratic movements that have emerged can also counter and are countering, I think, the extremist narrative of violent political change that al Qaeda and affiliated groups, as well as Iranian exported violent revolution that have -- are seen as narratives in the region.
This is a strong counter-narrative. This is really an important point I think. These are indigenous movements. They are movements by people seeking more representative and responsive government. They run quite counter to the narratives of al Qaeda and the Iranian narrative -- and I’ll talk about that in a minute. These really are movements that are tremendous examples of people pursuing their aspirations in a non-violent fashion. And it’s a critically important point.
As I said, there’s enormous opportunities in this current situation. And as you all know, I am charged day in and day out to plan to avoid ranges of possible negative outcomes in situations, but I think we also have to prepare to take advantage of the profound movement here and really not be paralyzed in any way by the potential downsides, but really be prepared to embrace the positive upsides of what’s going on in the region.
Second, our efforts are based on a set of key principles that the President articulated from the outset. One, we oppose violence and repression. Two, we work in the approach to this situation from the perspective of a set of universal values that the President articulated quite clearly. And three, we support a process of political change that opens up societies and leads to governments that are more responsive to the aspirations of the people of the region.
Third, we strongly support reform as the basis for stability in the region. We support peaceful and meaningful democratic transitions throughout the region. In particular, we support the right to free expression, political participation, confidence in the rule of law, and governments that are transparent and responsive and accountable to their people. We believe that such reform is the basis for stability in the region.
Next, it’s not only political reform that’s important here -- and I want to make this point very strongly -- it’s also the economic change and economic reform, and we are very, very focused on this. It is key to the success of these transitions to representative and responsive government. We are very tightly focused on a range of efforts here to promote economic change and economic reform through our own bilateral assistance efforts, by leveraging our leadership in the international financial institutions that are focused on this -- on reform in the region, and, frankly, through our efforts with wealthier nations in the region who also need to work with us and work with their fellow nations in the region in order not to miss this opportunity.
This is a very important piece of what’s going on here. And indeed, that will be an important focus of Secretary Clinton’s trip to the region next week, where she’ll be in Tunisia and in Egypt.
… One more topic and then I'll take questions -- on Iran. And the reason I wanted to raise it is that -- and some of your papers have had these stories about how somehow the changes in the Middle East that we've seen over the last couple of months work to Iran’s benefit. This is really an important point to think about.
In sharp contrast to the activities in Tahrir Square in Cairo and throughout the region, Iran has really laid bare its hypocrisy. It applauds universal rights of others in the region but continues to suppress its own people, including mass arrests and killing those who dare speak out against the regime. It’s not a surprise from my perspective -- who has been at the forefront of our efforts with respect to trying to deal with the Iranian nuclear program -- that it’s trying to divert attention. It’s had grave difficulty delivering economic progress. The leadership is out of touch and its narrative of exporting the Islamic revolution has been discredited across the region, as well as within Iran.
Iran is isolated on its nuclear program and support for terrorism. We are continuing to enhance that isolation. And the bottom line is this: The Iranian narrative really does, I think if you do a sharp analysis of this, fall in a quite empty way across the region when compared to the historic changes underway. …