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Media Availability with Secretary Gates from Cairo, Egypt

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
March 23, 2011

            SEC. GATES:  First, I would like to thank the Field Marshal Tantawi, Prime Minister Sharaf, and our Egyptian partners for hosting me in Cairo.  It's always a pleasure to be back in this vibrant and historic city, especially during a time of monumental promise and change, both in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.

            I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm America's unwavering commitment to our bilateral relationship and to the Egyptian people.  Furthermore, my visit provides the opportunity to advance our defense partnership and to provide continuing economic and political support as Egypt goes through its period of transition.  This is the message I conveyed to Prime Minister Sharaf today, and I look forward to reaffirming that message with Field Marshal Tantawi tomorrow.

            America's historic relationship with Egypt remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa.  The U.S.-Egyptian defense partnership is robust and it is enduring.  It has grown over the past 30 years, and it is an integral part of the way our two countries pursue our common interests and advance stability in an often tumultuous region.

            Thank you.

            MR. MORRELL (Pentagon Press Secretary):  Okay.  Why don't we start with one of our Egyptian writers?  Yes, please, go right ahead.

            Q:  (Inaudible)  I would like to know, are you blaming -- (inaudible) -- of this -- of this massacre?  And -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. GATES:  Are we planning to directly --

            Q:  Target.

            SEC. GATES:  -- target Gadhafi, and do we have a timeline for ending operations?

            The answer to the first question is no, we do not.  That is not within the mandate of the United Nations Security Council resolution, which limits the operation to a no-fly zone and taking humanitarian steps to try to protect the Libyan people.

            In terms of timeline, I have said that the American part in this operation will begin to recede.  We took on primary responsibility, but not exclusive responsibility, for suppressing air defenses, and we look forward to turning over primary responsibility for sustaining the no-fly zone to our coalition partners.  The U.S. will continue to support that effort.

            And that no-fly zone -- the no-fly zone is not time-limited by the Security Council resolution, so I think that there is no current timeline in terms of when it might end.

            MR. MORRELL:  Lita?

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, just to follow up on that, you had said that getting a coalition like this together was a difficult prospect, but the idea of no timelines, does it seem as though this is sort of an open-ended and an ill-defined conflict?  Has -- you had expressed concerns about this going on.  Where is this going?  And is there an end that you can shape?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that the key to this was Gadhafi's use of his air forces to attack -- in some cases -- attack Libyan people, but primarily to use it to -- use his air power to move troops around, resupply them and so on.  The humanitarian part of it was intended to prevent him from using his armor and other military capabilities essentially to slaughter his own people.

            I think we will be assessing this as we -- as we go along in terms of when his capabilities to do those things to his people has been eliminated.  But I think -- I think no one was under any illusions that this would be an operation that would last one week or two weeks or three weeks.

            MR. MORRELL:  How about from Mina here.

            Q:  I want to know what's your assessment of the situation in Bahrain after -- (inaudible) -- there.

            SEC. GATES:  Well, the situation does seem to have calmed.  Our assessment is basically the same assessment that I had when I was in Bahrain a couple of weeks ago, and that is that the opposition and the government should sit down together and talk about the long-term relationship between the government and the Shia majority.  We are for stability, Bahrain is one of our closest allies, and that was the reason that I visited there, was to see what the prospects were that the two sides could come together.  And quite honestly -- and I know that there's been some rumor out here that I had a different purpose when I was in Bahrain -- but the sole purpose of the visit was, first of all, to express our support for the government, but then to encourage the government to reach out to the opposition, begin the negotiations and begin a process that would resolve some of the issues.

            MR. MORRELL:  Go ahead, Tom.

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- how do you assess the popular revolts today all across the region?  What do you think of the successes, and what risks do you see moving forward from today?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, first of all, it's important to differentiate between the general and the particular.  I think the -- each country has its own particular reasons that gave rise to the -- to demonstrations and to the manifestations of popular discontent.  But on the whole, in general terms I would say, it derives from a number of things.  It derives from political rights long denied, it derives from economic grievances, from demographics, from a large number of young people who are educated, between the ages of 20 and 35 or so who can't find jobs and can't find fulfillment in their lives and, therefore, expressing their frustrations. 

            But I think what makes the situation really so extraordinary is that -- is the speed with which this has spread across the entire region, regardless of the diversity of the governments that are involved.  It's hard to remember this entire phenomenon is less than three months old at this point.  So I think in a -- in a way, one looks on it with some wonder, but also the need to try and work with the governments of the region, with interim governments, with new governments, with existing governments to bring about change but do so in a way that is stabilizing in the region and not destabilizing.

            MR. MORRELL:  How about this woman here.  Yes, ma'am.

            Q:  (Inaudible)  There are fears among the Arab world and particularly in Egypt that the -- (inaudible) -- of the military -- (inaudible) -- in Libya could be just like what happened in Iraq.  (Inaudible) -- their fear that it's not designed for occupation?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think there are dramatic differences.

            The first is that the action by the U.N. Security Council originated with a resolution from the Arab League and from the Gulf Cooperation Council.  And so it came from the region itself, asking that the United Nations take action to prevent Gadhafi from killing his own people.  Also, you have the United Nations Security Council Resolution that authorizes this.

            A further difference is that the president has made clear that the United States is not going to be in the lead on this operation for the longer term, and in fact, for more than a week or so begin -- from the beginning of the operation.  And then, we'll expect the primary role to be played by coalition partners, as we recede into a -- into a supporting role.

            The president, further, has made quite explicit that there will be no American ground troops in Libya.  So there are a number of differences, I think, between the action of a coalition -- not just the United States, but of a large international coalition -- in Libya, and Iraq in 2003.

            MR. MORRELL:  Adam.

            Q:  And just to clarify what you just said, are you saying that from Saturday, when this started, the U.S. is going to be taking a support role, and the others will be in charge?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't want to be pinned down that closely.  But what we've been saying is that we would expect this transition to the coalition, to a different command and control arrangement, to take place within a few days.  And I would still stand by that.

            MR. MORRELL:  This gentleman here.  Sir, do you have anything?

            Q:  Yes.  I want to have your comments about your last visit to Russia and how all this was carried?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that, interestingly enough, there is -- there is a continuing process of change and modernization going on in Russia, as well.  It's a process that started 20 years ago and – and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it is still a work in progress.  It's obviously a great power.  It is a country that has an enormous military strength.  It clearly has great economic strength, because of its reserves of oil and gas, but as President Medvedev has made clear, the Russian economy is overly reliant on oil and gas and needs to develop the other parts of its economy as well.  So he has a process of change going on there.  And frankly, I think -- I think we're encouraged by it.  But it's one that also needs, I would say, to ensure that it has due regard for human rights and for the rule of law.

            MR. MORRELL:  Okay.  Yeah, right here, yes.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, in your meetings thus far, in your meetings tomorrow, do you think that the timeline laid out by the military council here for having elections in only a few months is reasonable and practical?  Or do you -- I understand it's an Egyptian decision, but do you worry that it's so fast that you'll essentially shut out some of the opposition movement?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I'm absolutely not going to second-guess either the Supreme Council or the interim government.  What I would say is that what is important is that new elements of civil society in Egypt came to the fore during the past two months, and there is new political space in Egypt.  And I would simply say that we believe it is important to allow those new elements that have become active in Egyptian politics -- some of them, for the first time -- to have the time to develop political parties and to develop organization and structure so that they can play the role -- so they can play the same kind of leading role in Egypt in the future that they played in bringing about this change in the first place.

            MR. MORRELL:  Forgive me, I can't see your name card, ma'am.  Let's see, at the head of the table, do you have a question?

            Q:  No.

            MR. MORRELL:  Do you have a question?

            Q:  Okay.  I just want to ask you about the -- (inaudible).

            SEC. GATES:  Well, the first thing I'm going to do is repeat in person what I have told him on the telephone on a number of occasions, and that is to express our country's admiration and respect for the way in which the Egyptian government protected the people in this process of change.  From our very first conversation, the field marshal told me that the Egyptian army is of the people and that it would protect the people.  And in everything that ensued, he and the Egyptian army kept their word.  So that -- that will be the first thing that I will say to him.

            And then -- and then we will go on to talk about our bilateral agenda, our military-to-military relationship, and how we can help -- how we in America can help this transition process in Egypt go forward.

            MR. MORRELL:  All right, Whitlock.

            Q:  Sir, back to Libya briefly.  You mentioned the Arab League and -- (inaudible) -- the United Nations to act.  Why haven't we seen any Arab participation in the military coalition so far?  When do you expect that to happen?  And is this a wariness on their part of the Arab public opinion becoming less supportive of the effort?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I know that at least one country is participating, but I don't know if they've announced it yet, so I'm hesitant to do so myself.  But there is -- there is at least one participating, and a number are providing support and assistance -- for example, overflight rights and access and so on.

            MR. MORRELL:  Yes, sir.  Do you have one?

            Q:  Yeah.  What is the chance of Russian mediation to end this crisis in Libya?  And in light of the fact that Egypt has over 2 million expatriates in Libya, is there any cooperation, coordination between the two governments in Libya, if this -- any coordination?

            SEC. GATES:  Between the -- between Gadhafi and the opposition?

            Q:  No, no, no, between Egypt and the Western -- (inaudible).

            SEC. GATES:  We have been in touch on this.  The ambassador's probably in a better position to assess that or comment on it than I am.

            It seems to me that if there is a mediation to be done, it is -- if there's a role to be played, it is -- it is among the Libyans themselves.  This matter, at the end of the day, is going to have to be settled by Libyans.  It's their country.  And I don't know what value outside engagement in that political process, in terms of trying to bring the two sides together or something -- I don't know what value there would be in that.  I mean, Gadhafi has basically sworn that he will -- he will show no mercy to anybody who has been in opposition.  That's not exactly an invitation to negotiate.

            MR. MORRELL:  How about Dan De Luce.

            Q:  Going back to that part on the -- (inaudible) -- diverse governments and so on, you said before that there's no going back to the status quo ante.  What about for the U.S. and the U.S. military's relationship with many of these governments and countries?  Is there also a sense that the U.S. won't be able to sustain the status quo in terms of its -- (inaudible) -- in terms of the security relationships, that the U.S. will have to reassess -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. GATES:  Actually, I think -- I think there are potentially new opportunities for us.  I think that -- you know, I would point to the long-standing relationship between the United States military and the Egyptian military, and the constructive role that the Egyptian military played in the events of the past -- of the past couple of months.

            I think that -- so for existing governments that undertake a process of reform and that -- and that we work with today, those relationships will continue.  And I think where there has -- where change is under way, we may have even greater opportunity.

            MR. MORRELL:  I think we've gone through all of our Egyptian friends.

            Yes, Michael Evans.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that there is no intention to target Gadhafi himself.  Yet is there not a serious risk that -- (inaudible) -- are certainly not going to be any ground troops, but there's certain actions we have and you will -- you will come to a stalemate where Gadhafi is in his bunker refusing to move, the opposition rebels are not able to get into Tripoli, no one in between.  How is -- is there any possible solution other than the one that you have said is not the solution to get rid of Gadhafi?

            SEC. GATES:  I think there are any number of possible outcomes here, and no one's in a position to predict them.  Whether there are major defections, further major defections within his own ruling circle, whether there are divisions within his family, there are a variety of possibilities, it seems to me.

            MR. MORRELL:  Yeah, Bret.

            Q:  I wanted to ask you, have you been able to assess in any way the capability and strength of the opposition groups in Libya to defeat Gadhafi's forces so long as they have support, so long as the no-fly zone is in place?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, obviously one of the considerations in the U.N. Security Council Resolution was to exercise a humanitarian role, and where we are seeing him position his armor, his tanks and so on to shoot essentially defenseless civilians, we are taking action against that.  You saw that on the highway outside of Benghazi a couple of days ago.  So I think that -- again, I think there are a number of different possible outcomes here.

            MR. MORRELL:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. GATES:  Yeah, I'm sorry.  That --

            Q:  Well, my question was, have you been able to -- (inaudible) --

            SEC. GATES:  I haven't seen -- I haven't seen -- I think that's been very hard for us to assess, frankly, partly because the -- of the nature of this.  Most of these -- most of the uprisings against Gadhafi took place by towns and cities where people in those towns and cities rose up against him.  In some cases, parts of the military garrison in those cities rose up, so it wasn't as though you had an alternative army moving back and forth across Libya.

            And so I think -- I think a lot of people who were in opposition and who -- and who played a role in the early days have hunkered down.  And it may be that the changed circumstances where he can't use his aircraft and where he's more challenged in using his armor, they return to the fight, but we just don't know that now.

            MR. MORRELL:  Charlie.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Charlie -- (inaudible) -- CNN.  Still on Libya, please, sir.  Coalition commanders are saying there's no formal cooperation between their forces and rebel forces inside of Libya.  On the other hand, some rebel forces are saying that in fact they are communicating and coordinating directly with coalition forces.  Can you help us understand -- (inaudible) -- there and what you think should happen?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think there are some communications.  And quite frankly, I think one of the -- one of the channels that I've heard is our former ambassador or DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] who knows some of these people and has been on the phone with them.  That's about the only specific channel that I've heard of.

            Q:  Would you like to open additional channels directly to -- (inaudible) --

            SEC. GATES:  Well, that seems to have been working so far.

            MR. MORRELL:  Rachel.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, you talk often about how Libyans need to determine their own future.  The U.N. security resolution mandates the protection of civilians, but just talking about some of the civilians, many of them are armed rebels.  Are you concerned that the U.S. has chosen sides in what could become a very long civil war?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think if you call "choosing sides" preventing having the coalition, under the auspices of the Security Council resolution, prevent Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people, I suppose you could call that taking sides.  But in terms of much beyond that, I don't -- I don't think that much has happened.  I think these folks are still mainly fighting on their own.

            MR. MORRELL:  Bill.

            Q:  On Yemen, the president has said he would call elections by end of this year.  What's your reaction to that?  Do you think it will be enough to -- (inaudible)?  How does the United States see a post-Saleh cooperation in Yemen?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, again, I think things are obviously -- or evidently very unsettled in Yemen.  I think it's -- think it's too soon to call an outcome.  We have had a good working relationship with President Saleh.  He's been an important ally in the counterterrorism arena.  But clearly, there's a lot of unhappiness inside Yemen.  And I think we will basically just continue to watch the situation.  We haven't done any post-Saleh planning, if you will.

            MR. MORRELL:  (Name inaudible.)

            Q:  Sir, if Gadhafi is a man, as you've say, who slaughters his own people, why wouldn't we have as our objective to take him out of the scene?  A lot of Americans are having difficulty understanding why we're not going all the way in trying to remove Gadhafi.

            SEC. GATES:  Because we're operating under a U.N. Security Council resolution that does not mandate that, and we are part of a large coalition.

            MR. MORRELL:  Viola.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, on Libya, how clear are the goals in this case of military intervention like this compared to previous U.S. military interventions that you can compare it to?

            And on Egypt, is there any thought of -- (inaudible) -- trying to have a discussion about how to adjust military aid perhaps?  There's been some talk in some circles in the United States that funneling some of that money into, for example, economic aid -- (inaudible) -- aid, et cetera, and perhaps putting more money into economic aid and less on the military side.

            SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I think I want -- speaking as the secretary of defense, I would like to sustain the military-assistance relationship that we have with Egypt.  I think it has shown extraordinary results.  By the same token, I think the United States is eager to do what we can to help in the -- in the way of economic assistance, given our own budget stringencies.  And what was the first part of your question?

            Q:  The first part was about --

            SEC. GATES:  Oh, the military goals?

            Q:  -- (inaudible) -- and the goals -- (inaudible).

            SEC. GATES:  The goals are -- the goals are quite clear.  It's to establish a no-fly zone over Libya and to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the country.  Those seem to me to be pretty clear.

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- clearer than it has been in previous interventions or not?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, that's a very broad phrase in terms of previous interventions.

            MR. MORRELL:  David Ignatius.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, did you hear anything today from the prime minister or have you heard from -- through other channels any Egyptian request for additional assistance or different kinds of assistance?

            And are you at all concerned about the economic stability and security of -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, the Egyptians have made clear that -- and it did come up today -- that they do see a need for economic assistance, not just from us but from all their friends.  Clearly they see the connection between political progress and people seeing concrete improvements in the quality of their lives, which means a growing economy.

            I think that the key here is the stability that the -- that the Supreme Council has brought and the -- and the naming of the interim government that we hope, in the short term, will allow for a return of the tourist trade, which is an important source of income, but also as private business people see a process of democratization going forward in this transition, that they will see opportunities for investment in Egypt, which is, at the end of the day, both inside Egypt and from external investment the long-term solution to their economic problems.

            MR. MORRELL:  I think we have time for two quick last questions.

            Cheryl, do you have anything?

            Q:  Yes.  You mentioned the other day that the military part was only one part, and I was hoping you could kind of explain what you meant and say something about how the other -- (inaudible).

            SEC. GATES:  With regard to Libya?

            Q:  Yes.

            SEC. GATES:  Well, the comment that I made the other day is that the international community has a tool box, and there are things in there other than hammers or in addition to hammers.  Economic sanctions is one.  The International Criminal Court action is another.  So there are -- I think there are several tools that are not military that have the potential to have some impact as well.

            MR. MORRELL:  Very last one with Lita.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, I just wanted to get a quick reaction from you for the bus bomb that exploded in Jerusalem.  There's been a lot of recent violence there.  And do you see things deteriorating?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't know that -- first of all, let me say I don't -- I don't know very much about what has taken place in Jerusalem with this -- with this bombing.  It's obviously a horrific terrorist attack.  And I extend sympathy to the families of those who've been injured.

            But I think that -- I don't think I would characterize the situation there as deteriorating.

            Q:  How would you?

            SEC. GATES:  I'm sorry?

            Q:  How would you characterize it then?
           
            SEC. GATES:  Well, I -- you know, I mean, Israel has faced a continuing challenge with terrorism for a number of years -- although this is, as I understand it, the worst attack to take place in several years.  But one attack, as horrible as it is, doesn't make for a trend.

            MR. MORRELL:  All right.  Thank you all for coming.  Appreciate you taking the time.

            Q:  Thank you.