Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/8/14
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
August 08, 2014
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/8/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:04 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It's nice to hear you all in a good mood on this Friday afternoon. Just a nice little buzz in the room when I walked in. Maybe it was the buzz of anticipation. (Laughter.) Either way, I like it.
Q Pretty close to a real two-minute warning.
MR. EARNEST: Pretty close.
Q Very punctual.
MR. EARNEST: Pretty close.
Q Well, 20 minutes after the scheduled time, however.
MR. EARNEST: Well, come on. (Laughter.) Setting the record straight.
I don't have any announcements at the top, so we'll go straight to questions. Darlene, would you like to get us started?
Q Yes, thank you. To follow up on Iraq and the airstrike outside of Erbil earlier today, do you expect that there will be additional airstrikes today or over the weekend? And can you also give a sense of how long the President thinks or expects this limited campaign will last for?
MR. EARNEST: I'm glad that you described it that way, because the President's -- the authorization the President has been given for military action -- or has given for military action is very limited in scope and was clearly described in the remarks that he delivered last night.
I don't have any operational updates to share with you in terms of additional military action. As you pointed out, the Department of Defense did confirm this morning that a military strike was carried out in Iraq. So any additional updates will come directly from them. The Department of Defense does have significant capability and will be prepared to use that capability in pursuit of the goals that the President articulated last night.
Q What is your best definition of "limited"?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are two specific ways in which the President described -- well, let me say, I actually would describe them in three different ways. The first is, and first and foremost is the protection of American personnel. There are American military and diplomatic officials in Erbil. The artillery position that was maintained by ISIL that was struck by the American military early this morning, East Coast time, was focused on targets that were defending Erbil. And that is why that military strike was authorized, and that's why it occurred. So the protection of American personnel in Iraq is a top priority and one that merits the use of military force.
The second is related to this urgent humanitarian situation that exists at Sinjar Mountain. There is a religious and ethnic minority, a population of thousands of people -- men, women and children -- who are stranded at the top of this mountain. ISIL forces are marshaled at the base of the mountain, vowing to kill those who descend. And that is an urgent humanitarian situation. And the United States military last night, upon the authorization of the President, carried out successfully an airdrop of supplies, food and water, and some basic medical supplies to those individuals who are stranded on the mountain to try to provide some humanitarian relief.
The President has authorized military strikes that could be used to address that situation on the mountain. There are Kurdish security forces that are seeking to dislodge that siege there at Sinjar Mountain. And if American military assets can be helpful in supporting Kurdish forces, then airstrikes could be carried out in pursuit of that goal.
The third is slightly broader, but is related to our belief and commitment to supporting integrated Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces as they unite the country to repel the threat that is posed by the ISIL advance. What will be required for that, of course, is an integrated, inclusive political leadership in Iraq. And it is why this country stands ready to support the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq. There has been significant progress on that front in the last few weeks. There has been the appointment of a President, a speaker and two deputy speakers that reflect the diversity of Iraq's population.
The head of government in Iraq, however, is the prime minister, and the prime minister has not yet been selected. That will be the responsibility of the Iraqi people. Once that government has formed, we would anticipate, and we will certainly be continuing to urge that government to pursue an inclusive governing agenda so they can unite the country to confront the threat that's posed by ISIL. And the United States stands ready to support the formation of that government and that government's efforts to repel the advance of ISIL, and that includes, where necessary, the deployment of military force; it will not include, however, the additional American combat troops being deployed to Iraq.
Q On the humanitarian situation, is there a plan to get those people off of the mountain? And would there be a role for the U.S. in any such operation?
MR. EARNEST: What is being -- the strategy right now is to try to meet the basic and immediate humanitarian needs of those who are trapped in these pretty terrible conditions. That is what prompted the airdrop of supplies that occurred overnight. The second prong in that strategy, as the President described it in his remarks last night, is the possibility of targeted military strikes that could dislodge the ISIL forces that are carrying out the siege of the mountain. That would be in support of Kurdish security forces that are also trying to disrupt that siege. So we will be acting in support of Kurdish forces who are trying to free those who are trapped at the top of the mountain.
But again, this is -- what is not contemplated here is the introduction of American troops in a combat role to alleviate this situation.
Q Can you give us a sense of what the President's involvement on this has been today? We know about the phone call with Jordan's King Abdullah. Has he been in meetings? Is he on the phone with other leaders trying to get allies to join this campaign?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to read out any additional presidential phone calls right now. If the President places additional phone calls that we can read out, we'll try to do that in a timely fashion today.
The President has met with members of his national security team to get an overnight update about the situation in Iraq. He was, of course, as you would expect, briefed on the military strike that was carried out this morning, East Coast time. And the President will stay in close touch with his national security team over the course of the day so that he can be updated as necessary.
Q Thanks, Josh. So as we've seen the ISIS -- or ISIL make gains in recent weeks, the United States has sent military advisers, and the President last night took the action that he took. You and he have said that there's no military solution to this and that the United States should not get dragged into a war. What is to stop that from happening? And what is to stop the Islamic State forces from advancing further into Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me try to take that. You've asked a couple of different questions, so let me try and take those individually.
The first one -- and this is I think in some ways is the most important thing for the American people to understand, that the President said this very clearly in his remarks last night; in fact, I have them here. So let me just -- if you'll indulge me for a second, I'll repeat them. "As Commander-in-Chief," the President said, "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq."
So that is a pretty clear expression from the Commander-in-Chief about what our intentions are and what the limit of any sort of military action would be. And that is a clear enunciation of the kind of principle that's at stake here, which is this belief that there are many challenges facing the people of Iraq right now. And it's the view of the President that those challenges cannot be solved by the American military; they can only be solved through an inclusive government of the people of Iraq. And they've made progress in trying to form that government, and we are hopeful that once that government is formed, that they will pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that's required to unite that country in the face of the threat that exists in that country right now.
If there is a role for the American military to play in supporting the Iraqi people and that inclusive government and an integrated security force that is capable of defending the country, then we'll use that American military prowess in pursuit of that goal as well. It is, after all, in the clear national security interest of the United States for there to be a stable Iraqi government that can preside over a stable Iraq, and a security force that has the necessary capability to address the security situation in that country.
These are all difficult challenges, and I don't mean to minimize them, but we have a very clear point of view that's based on our recent experience about the limits of American involvement in that kind of endeavor. And what that means is this is a situation that is a very difficult challenge, but it's not a challenge that can be solved by the American military. There is support that can be provided by the American military, but this is a situation that will only be solved by the Iraqi people and a government that reflects the views of Iraq's diverse population.
Q So is it the President's belief or hope that the actions that he authorized yesterday effectively will buy time so that the Iraqis will be able to organize their government and their defense forces to repel ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think I would describe it that way and I don't think the President did either. Again, what I would do is -- the primary goal of the mission that the President authorized last night was the protection of American personnel who are in Iraq. The President authorized military action to try to address an urgent, even dire, humanitarian situation on Sinjar Mountain, and more generally, a willingness on the part of the American people to continue to stand with the people of Iraq as they pursue a future that is reflective of the diverse population of the nation of Iraq. And that future is under grave threat by ISIL extremists who are making advances across that country. And our desire -- and it is in the clear interest of American national security for us to support the Iraqi people as they confront that threat.
But again, this is a threat that we cannot confront for them; it is a threat that can only be met and defeated by a unified Iraq in support of an integrated, capable Iraq security force. If that requires the support of the American military, that is support that we're ready to offer. But we'll not offer it in the form of a prolonged military conflict that involves the United States of America, and it will not involve American troops returning to Iraq in a combat role.
Q If I could just ask a question about immigration as well. Border patrol data show a decline in the number of children being apprehended for crossing the border illegally, and adults as well. How does that data factor into the President's thinking, his urgency in acting unilaterally to address the immigration situation?
MR. EARNEST: Let me say a couple of things about the data, and then we'll talk about the President's views.
The first thing about the data that's important to understand is we have seen a downward trend over the last four to six weeks of the rate at which unaccompanied children are being apprehended at the border. However, it's important to understand that compared to a year ago or even two years ago, there still is -- there are still apprehensions taking place at an elevated rate. So while they have come down from the peak that we all saw earlier this summer, the rate is still high when you compare it to broader historical trends.
The second thing -- the second point that I wanted to make on this -- that historical trends also indicate that as the weather cools and as we enter the fall and winter season, traditionally the rates of apprehensions, the rates of those who attempt to illegally enter the country go back up. And the volatility in these numbers is something that the administration remains concerned about, and it is why we have taken some steps within the executive branch to reprogram some funds and to devote additional resources to the border; that even though we've seen a decline in the rate, we want to make sure that the resources are necessary if and when volatility is reintroduced into that situation and the numbers start to go back up. We want to make sure that we are ahead of the curve on that.
It's also why we continue to urge Congress to take action to provide additional resources to ensure the federal government has the necessary resources to deal with that problem. Congress left town for their August recess without acting on the specific request that was forwarded by this administration for additional resources, but we're hopeful that when they return they will take steps to provide those resources.
As it relates to the President's commitment to acting unilaterally to address the problems of our broken immigration system, I'd say two things about that. The first is, Congress's failure -- and House Republicans failure in particular -- to take action on a common-sense proposal to address a problem that we all know exists is evidence of how poorly Congress has performed in trying to address this problem. And because Congress has failed to act, the President is going to use the power that's vested within the executive branch to try to take some steps that will address this problem. Again, those steps will not be as robust or as impactful or as long lasting as the enactment of legislation, but there may be some things that the President can do, using his executive authority within the confines of the law, to address the problem. And if there are, the President will not hesitate to act on them.
The final thing I'll say about this is that immigration over the course of, let's say the last couple of years, in terms of our political debate, was something that was talked about quite a bit, and was -- the need to reform the system was a view that was held pretty intensely by certain segments of the population. But I think many Americans consider this to be something less than a top priority item.
The President considered it to be a high priority because of the benefit -- the economic benefits that exist and the potential for addressing some of these problems in a common-sense way was great. There was an important piece of bipartisan legislation that was passed through the Senate to address some of these problems.
As a result of the media attention around the more recent problems at the border, I think we've seen -- and I think some of the public polling that your new organizations have done on this issue indicates that there is broader awareness among the American electorate that this is a significant problem. That also means there's broader awareness among the American electorate that Congress has done nothing to solve this problem. And in fact, there's broader awareness among the American electorate that congressional Republicans have been actively blocking efforts to solve this problem.
So that only strengthens the hand of the President to make the kinds of decisions that are necessary, again, within the confines of the law, to take executive action to try to solve some of these problems.
Q Josh, President Obama is now the fourth U.S. President in a row to engage in military action in Iraq. He ran for President on a platform of ending the war in Iraq. Was he reluctant to make this decision?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I think the President was determined to use military action to protect American personnel who are in harm's way in Iraq. He was determined to use American military assets to try to address an urgent humanitarian situation. And the President is just as determined to make sure that the United States is not dragged back into a prolonged military conflict in Iraq.
Q Wasn't there a part of him, though, that just thought, given the fact that he had ended the war in Iraq, that maybe this might not be a good idea?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President, on numerous occasions, has amply demonstrated his commitment to using American military might to protect American people all around the globe. That was evident last night; that's been evident in other situations, as well. That hasn't changed.
But what's also evident is the President's determination to ensure that the United States is not dragged back into a prolonged military conflict in Iraq.
Q And let me ask you about something that he said back in January when he told The New Yorker -- when assessing the ISIS threat, he said, "The analogy we use around here sometimes -- and I think is accurate -- is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant." Is it safe to say that ISIS, they're no longer the JVs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is appropriate to say is that there is no question that the Laker uniforms that were worn, to use that analogy a little -- to draw out that analogy a little bit, that were worn by the al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan has been decimated and defeated in Afghanistan. There is no question about that. And that is the result of the many decisions that were made by the President and the courageous service of our men and women in uniform and our men and women in the intelligence agencies.
What is also true is that there are other organizations that subscribe to the violent extremist ideology that's espoused and promulgated by al Qaeda. Many of those groups in nations across the globe are not particularly sophisticated, are focused on local sectarian conflicts that don't pose a significant or immediate threat to U.S. interests or the U.S. homeland.
Q But you don't think ISIS is a --
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish. There are of course a couple of other organizations that do pose a more substantial threat to the United States and our interests. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of them. And you've seen the United States, in concert with our allies and partners, take significant steps, important steps to mitigate the threat that's posed by those organizations that do have designs and some capability to try to strike the United States, and in some cases, even try to strike the homeland.
We do remain concerned about the military proficiency that's been demonstrated by ISIL, and it's why you've seen the President take steps, including the authorization of military force, that would protect American citizens who might be harmed by ISIL.
Q And just very quickly, ultimately, is it up to the Iraqis to eradicate the ISIS threat?
MR. EARNEST: Ultimately, it's up to the Iraqi people, the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government to address the security situation in their country. Again, we've talked about what will be required here. There will be American support that's provide, but there will not be American troops returning to Iraq in a combat role. The President is determined to ensure that the United States will not be dragged back into a prolonged military conflict there.
But ultimately, the challenges that face the nation of Iraq right now are the kinds of challenges that can only be solved by the Iraqi people.
Let's move around just a little bit. Jessica.
Q Two questions on Iraq. The first is trying to get you to flesh out the comparative rationale between military strikes here and no military strikes in Syria for humanitarian purposes.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of differences -- well, there are more than a couple of differences between the situation in Syria and the situation in Iraq. Let me highlight a couple of the most important ones that might illustrate the kind of things that are driving the President's decision-making in these instances.
First, and importantly, the United States' military involvement in Iraq was at the invitation of the Iraqi government. That is obviously an important distinction between the relationship -- to the extent that there is one -- between the United States and the Assad regime. The second thing is, the United States has in Iraq -- and this is something that we have talked about previously -- significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources in Iraq. That ensures that American decision-makers, the American military and American intelligence officers have pretty good visibility into the situation on the ground in Iraq. Those kinds of assets, and that kind of intelligence to that extent does not exist as it relates to the situation in Syria.
A consequence of those intelligence efforts that have been underway in Iraq for some time is that we have enhanced military capabilities in Iraq; that using that intelligence and using the partnership that exists between the United States, Kurdish security forces and Iraqi security forces. There is more capability for us to take the kinds of steps that would be beneficial to the security situation in that country.
So this highlights the need for people who are trying to make decisions about confronting these situations to consider each of them on a case-by-case basis; that while there are lessons that can be drawn from our involvement in other places, there is no direct correlation between action in one place and action in another in terms of guiding the decisions that are made solely by the consequences for American national security.
Q The White House continues to get criticism over not having a signed SOFA. A lot of your critics say that if there was a remnant of American troops, ISIS would not have gotten this big and we wouldn't have come to this point. How do you respond?
MR. EARNEST: I have heard that argument made by some. The argument that those individuals are making is that the situation might be different if there were still tens of thousands of American troops in a combat role in Iraq.
The consequence of that sort of military posture is that right now American servicemen and women would be on the front lines fighting ISIL in cities and towns all across Iraq. The President does not believe that that would be in the national security interests of the United States of America. The President does not believe that that would be in the best interests of the United States military. And there is a fundamental disagreement about that.
However, I would submit that I think the vast majority of the American public would be on the side of the President in reaching the conclusion that the situation in Iraq is a situation that is best resolved by the Iraqi people, by an inclusive Iraqi government, and by a capable Iraq security force that has the ability to represent and protect the interests of every citizen in Iraq.
And the United States can be in a position to offer support, military and otherwise, to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi security forces as they carry out that effort. But the President does not believe it would be in the interest of the United States of America for tens of thousands of American combat troops to be on the ground in Iraq fighting ISIL right now. And that is just an honest disagreement that exists between the President and some of his critics on Capitol Hill, many of whom are in the Republican Party.
Q Okay. What about less than that? Because it's been this -- the argument is "a remnant." So not tens of thousands, less than 10,000 type of troop levels that we left in Afghanistan.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, even if -- so, say you had thousands of American troops on the ground in Iraq, they would still be in a position where they would be on the frontlines fighting ISIL trying to protect Iraqi towns and cities. And the President does not believe that that would be in the interests of American national security.
Q Josh, how was the invitation to intervene in Iraq conveyed to the U.S., and by whom?
MR. EARNEST: It was conveyed by Iraq's political leadership to the American political leadership. In terms of what that conversation was like, or who was on either end of that conversation, I'd refer you to the State Department. But that is an invitation that they have -- that the Iraqi political leadership has talked about publicly.
Q Do you know how -- when it was conveyed?
MR. EARNEST: I do not.
Q Can you tell us if Iraq is the subject of the weekly address tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: I don't believe the President has taped the weekly address, but I wouldn't be surprised if that is the topic.
Q I had two on Iraq. The first was, the State Department said that there was a meeting here at the White House earlier today to kind of coordinate regional partners and allies that might be interested in helping with ammunition or aide supplies. I'm wondering if part of those conversations with allies is included bringing them in for military operations in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: I would actually refer you to the Department of Defense on that matter. But let me say a couple of other things about that that might be instructive for you. The first is that there are these joint operation centers that exist in Iraq. These are operation centers that include American military personnel, officials from Kurdish security forces, and personnel from Iraq security forces. Those JOCs, as the military calls them, are up and running both in Erbil and in Baghdad. And they are important to coordinating the efforts of all those who are involved right now on the ground.
Through those joint operation centers, for example, these Iraqi security forces have been able to deploy assets in support of Kurdish security forces that are operating on the ground. That's been a pretty effective tactic so far and something that we're going to continue to consult with them about.
There are, of course, other partners in the region that the United States has worked with on a variety of issues to try to confront this and other challenges and the broader instability in the region. Those are nations like Jordan; the President spoke to the King just this morning. And we certainly will be in touch with them as we confront the ongoing situation in Iraq. That's also true of nations like Turkey and the UAE. There also are other NATO allies of the United States that are concerned and have made public their concerns both about the humanitarian situation in Iraq and the broader security situation in Iraq. And I would anticipate that we're going to continue to consult with them in the days ahead.
Q Do you want them to lend a hand militarily? Is that something that you guys are interested in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're going to continue to consult and cooperate with them. And if we have any specific asks to make of them, then we'll make those to them directly.
Q And then I just wanted to ask about House Speaker John Boehner commenting on the strikes today. He said that he was dismayed, and accused the President of, for political reasons, kind of refusing to reengage concretely on Iraq. And so I'm just wondering what your reaction to that is.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Speaker might be one of those individuals who suggest that it would be in the core interest of American national security for there to be thousands or even tens of thousands of American troops to be on the frontlines in Iraq fighting ISIL. I'll allow him to state his own position if that's the case. If that's the case, there's just an honest disagreement between the President and the Speaker of the House on that specific issue.
I would point out that there has been extensive consultation between the President and leaders in Congress in confronting this issue. If you'll indulge me for a minute, I'll review some of the highlights of that consultation. You'll recall that just eight days ago the President convened a meeting here at the White House with the congressional leadership to talk about this issue. This was the congressional leadership in both houses, in both parties. It also included members of relevant committees, national security committees on this topic. That was a follow-up to a meeting that the President convened back in mid-June a couple of months ago, with the four leaders of the House and Senate, the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate.
In advance of the President's statement last night and his official announcement of an authorization to use military force in Iraq, there were a number of phone calls that were made from senior members of the President's national security team to members of Congress. This included the bipartisan leaders of both the House and the Senate. It also included the chair and ranking member of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the House and Senate Armed Service Committees, the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, and to even some members of the Appropriations Committee in both the House and the Senate.
So there has been a genuine and sincere effort on the part of this administration to closely consult with members of Congress on this issue. And we certainly welcome the partnership and support of those members of Congress as we confront these very difficult challenges. I would point out that there were statements that were issued by Democrats and Republicans that were complimentary of the decision that the President announced last night.
Q Just really quickly, does talking to Appropriations suggest that you guys are going to seek any additional emergency appropriations from Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point. But it does indicate a sincere commitment to coordinate closely with the relevant officials on the Appropriations Committee. So should that need arise in the future, they'll have keen understanding as to why that request is necessary.
Q Two quick questions. One, can you talk in as much detail as you can about the specific things that happened that President Obama was told that triggered this intervention? Were there particular things on the ground? Was it a particular movement of ISIL in a particular place? And when was he told those things? Can you kind of walk us through that?
And then second, follow up I guess on the last question -- a lot of the reaction from the Hill, while there have been statements from Republicans, yes, we think this is a good idea, most of those statements have said it's too late -- I mean, it should have been done sooner, and they encourage it to be more -- in the words of Mr. McCarthy, a "more fulsome" and a broader, more comprehensive plan than has been put forward. So are there efforts that are going to be underway to kind of lay out what the kind of longer-term strategy of this is at some point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that Mr. McCarthy may be in the category of individuals whose view was raised by Jessica earlier.
Q Right, but he's not -- I mean, he may, but he's not saying he wanted tens of thousands of boots on the ground. But there are lots of people out there who are saying the very limited sort of targets that you guys are talking about should be broadened. And is there some reaction to that? And then the tick-tock --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I only raise to note that it seems likely, even, that Mr. McCarthy may just have a difference of opinion with the President about what our core national security interests are in Iraq and how they're best served. And that difference of agreement will not inhibit our commitment to coordinating and consulting with Mr. McCarthy and his colleagues in the Congress as we move forward in Iraq.
But make no mistake that the decisions that are made in Iraq, in consultation with Congress, will be decided or guided by the President's views about the equities relating to American national security. And it's our view, again, that the protection of American personnel in Iraq is of paramount concern, and there is a stated willingness on the part of the President to act militarily in support of a unified Iraqi government and a more capable and integrated Iraq security force.
Q And on the --
MR. EARNEST: I mean, as it relates to the President's briefings, it's difficult for me to talk in a lot of detail about those from here. The President did receive a number of updates from members of his national security team over the course of the day yesterday. This included Department of Defense personnel. Many of you saw the photo that was put out by the White House late in the day yesterday that showed the President in the --
Q I'm talking about earlier. I'm talking about what was it in the last week or two that led the President to decide after weeks and months of holding back on airstrikes, what was it specifically that sort of triggered in him the decision that, okay, we're going to have to move in this direction? This didn't all happen -- or did it happen all yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there are three things that I can cite for you, probably not in the detail you would like. And if there's additional detail we can provide, then maybe we can follow up with you.
But there are three things that come to mind here. The first is, the urgent reports that we were seeing out of Sinjar Mountain about the dire and deteriorating humanitarian situation in that region of the country, those reports were deeply disturbing and certainly influenced the President's decision to take military action in support of a humanitarian mission there. There's no doubt about that.
Q And those came in --
MR. EARNEST: Over the course of this week -- that we saw those reports over the course of this week.
The second thing that I would note is there were reports of -- and many of these were public reports -- of advances that ISIL was staging in the direction of Erbil. And there was concern about the safety and security of American personnel who are in Erbil. And that also led to the President's conclusion that a more robust military action could be required to ensure the safety and security of those American officials in Erbil.
The third thing I would note -- and this is also an important part of this, and this relates a principle that the President first discussed back in mid-June when there were reports of the significant advances that ISIL had made sort of the first time around here, and that relates to the progress that the Iraqis have made in forming their government. That it was only in the last few weeks that we have seen Iraq's political leadership take the necessary steps to appoint a speaker who was Sunni, and to appoint deputy speakers, one of whom was a Kurd and the other who was Shia, the appointment of a Kurdish president and progress toward eventually appointing a prime minister who would lead the government.
And so the success that they have -- or I should say, at least the progress that they have made in forming that government, in line with the procedures laid out in the Iraqi constitution, was a source of some encouragement that Iraq's political leadership was prepared to pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that will be required to unite the country. But there's a lot of work that remains to be done on that effort, and we're going to continue to urge them to make that kind of progress.
The Vice President, as you know, has been on the phone frequently over the last several weeks, in touch with members of Iraq's political leadership on this issue. You know that he was in touch with President Barzani in the last day or two to discuss some of these issues. So he obviously has played a very important role in both urging Iraq's political leadership to pursue the kind of governing agenda that we believe is necessary, but also closely coordinating with them in terms of their assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq. But if there's additional detail you're interested in, why don't you follow up.
Q Josh, in terms of this authorization for airstrikes, is it open-ended in terms of time, or is there an end date?
MR. EARNEST: The President has not laid out a specific end date. We're going to sort of take this approach in which those kinds of decisions are evaluated regularly and are driven by the security situation on the ground, both as it relates to the safety and security of American personnel, but also as it relates to supporting the ongoing efforts of both Kurdish security forces and Iraqi security forces.
Q And when the President comes back from Martha's Vineyard for those two days, are those meetings going to be related to this?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update on the President's meeting schedule when he does return. I wouldn't be surprised if he does have conversations on this topic when he is back in the White House, not next week, but the week after. But again, the President had planned to return to the White House before this recent announcement. So there are other meetings in the schedule, too.
Q So this had nothing to do with those plans at all?
MR. EARNEST: It did not. It did not.
Q Nothing to do? And you said that a top priority is protecting Americans serving in Erbil and in Baghdad. The President actually has said -- I think he's called it two months ago that the top priority is protecting Americans serving overseas.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q If that's the case, then why not simply evacuate, so like he did in Libya? Why not -- that's one way to make sure they're okay and get them out of there.
MR. EARNEST: That certainly is an option. However, there's very important work that's being done at the consulate in Erbil and at the joint operations center that I mentioned earlier in Erbil.
Q Is that work a higher priority? Because the President said the top priority is protecting Americans over there.
MR. EARNEST: Right. And if we are in a position where we can conduct the kind of military action that will protect Americans but allow them to do the very important work that is currently underway in Erbil, then that's what we would like to do. And that is the -- again, that is what we're pursuing right now.
Q Is there any discussion of a drawdown of personnel -- diplomatic personnel at the consulate?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of, but you can check with the Department of State about our posture when it comes to our personnel in the consulate in Erbil.
Q And in terms of the humanitarian effort here, given that 200,000 or so have been killed in Syria, more than 2 million forced from their homes, how did that not rise to the level of a humanitarian intervention, but this with a significantly smaller number of people involved did?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there has been a significant humanitarian intervention in Syria. It's just not --
Q No, I'm talking about a military intervention.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's my point -- but it was not a military intervention. That the United States remains the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance to Syria and to Syrian refugees who have fled to other countries to escape violence in that country. There has been significant resources that have been dedicated to trying to build up the moderate opposition in Syria to try to counter the threat, both that's posed by the some of the extremist opposition groups in Syria, but also to withstand the assault from the Assad regime.
So the response in Syria has been very robust, but it's important to understand that the situation on the ground in both Iraq and Syria is different, and that has consequences for the kinds of military capabilities and risks that are associated with different responses.
So the President is constantly evaluating both of these situation to determine what is in the best interest of American national security, and that is what's driving the decisions that he's making in both countries.
Sam, go ahead.
Q So you told Jonathan there's no specific end date, but earlier you mentioned that our military engagement will not be prolonged. So I'm wondering if you can give us what the White House's definition of "prolonged" is. And I have a follow-up question after that.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to offer a specific fate from here. But the President is determined -- the President ran for this office determined to try to wind down the conflict in Iraq responsibly and to bring servicemen and women home. So the President has a long --
Q So there's no end date, but it's not going to be prolonged? I'm just wondering what the American people should expect in terms of engagement. Is there a timeframe you can give them?
MR. EARNEST: There's not a timeframe that I can share right now, but there is -- there are two principles at stake here and you are insightful to notice the tension between the two.
Q Thank you, I appreciate that.
MR. EARNEST: It happens to be true, Sam, that there is a determination on the part of the President to use American military force to protect American personnel in Iraq to address the ongoing humanitarian situation there and to achieve a goal that is in the clear interest of American national security, which is a stable Iraqi government that is able to exercise some control over the security situation in that country.
That's necessary because we're talking about a pretty volatile region of the world. And trying to restore some stability to that country in that region is an important goal of American national security. At the same time, the President is determined to ensure that the United States is not dragged back into a prolonged military conflict in Iraq.
One way that we can prevent that from occurring is to not return combat troops to -- or American troops in a combat role to Iraq. And that is something that the President has made very clear, and that is a principle that will also apply in this situation.
So I'm not in a position to offer up a specific date, but I am able to offer a specific presidential commitment that a prolonged military conflict that includes U.S. involvement is not on the table here.
Q My follow-up question was -- I just wanted to get your reaction to the other side of the criticism, or point, I should say. In Peter Baker's piece today, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies said the following -- I'd like your reaction to it: "We cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters." Is she right? Is she wrong? What are your thoughts on that?
MR. EARNEST: I read earlier a statement from the President's remarks last night, and there is a key phrase that I truncated for the sake of efficiency. In light of your question, I should not have cut off because it's important. The President said, "American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq." That's where I ended. He continued to say, "because there's no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq." And that is an indication that the President believes in a principle that I spent some time articulating yesterday, which is that there is no military solution to the underlying problems in Iraq, there's only an Iraqi political solution.
And so our efforts -- including our military efforts -- are in support of an inclusive Iraqi government that can bring some stability and security back to the people of Iraq. It will require them to govern in a way that inspires the confidence of Iraq's diverse population that the government is looking out for their interests and their security.
Q Well, let me rephrase that. I guess her point is that bombing, the use of military force even if it's not on the ground, has the potential to be counterproductive. Is that concern at all shared in this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, of course that is something that is considered, but there are these other principles that are at stake in terms of the protection of American personnel and addressing humanitarian situations and supporting the formation of an inclusive Iraqi government. These are difficult equities to balance. But the President I think has been pretty clear about what he thinks is the best way for us to balance those equities in a way that maximizes the benefits for American national security.
Q Can I follow up, please?
MR. EARNEST: Tamara.
Q I'm hoping to get you to clarify something that you talked about, which -- you talked about the need for a political solution and you said that if the Iraqi government forms an inclusive government, that -- it seems like you're saying there could be more military involvement, and I'm hoping you can expand on that. Does that mean that there would be a broader mission of airstrikes? What are you saying happens if their government forms in a way that is satisfactory to the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are the kinds of decisions that will be made by the President, again, based on conditions on the ground, based on the capability of the American military, and based on the kinds of decisions that are made by Iraq's political leadership. We'll also be evaluating the capability and integration of Iraq's security forces. We'll be testing the degree to which they're able to coordinate with Kurdish security forces to confront the threat that's posed by ISIL. We'll also be monitoring what sort of condition ISIL is in, and whether or not they continue to have capacity and capability to destabilize the security situation in Iraq.
So there are a lot of factors at play here. Despite all those factors, there's one sort of underlying principle, which is that this is a situation that we cannot solve for the Iraqi people. This is a situation that the Iraqi people must solve for themselves. The United States stands prepared to stand with them as they confront this very difficult challenge, but ultimately, it will be the -- responsible of Iraq's government and Iraq's security forces to confront this threat.
Now, as they confront that threat, if military assistance from the United States is necessary, the President will evaluate that request, will evaluate conditions on the ground and some of the other things I just mentioned to determine what's in the best interests of American national security.
What will not occur is the United States will not be dragged back into a prolonged military conflict in Iraq, and the President will not send American troops in a combat role back to Iraq.
Q But it sounds like you're not closing the door to somewhat of a broader mission -- broader than defending the mountain and -- which is not the proper terminology, but --
MR. EARNEST: I understood what you said.
Q -- broader than that or defending U.S. personnel. It sounds like it is potentially broader depending on the political situation.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President indicated in his remarks last night, and even indicated six or eight weeks ago when he first spoke on this topic, a willingness to use military action in support of an inclusive Iraqi government that is successfully inspiring the confidence of the American -- of the Iraqi public and representing the interests of Iraq's diverse population.
There is a longstanding military-to-military relationship that exists between the United States and Iraq. There are longstanding political ties between the American government and the Iraqi government. And the United States is committed to standing with our partners in Iraq as they confront some of these threats. There are some limits, however, and those limits are rooted in the fact that these are only challenges that can be solved by the Iraqi people.
Q Josh, I wanted to follow up. The President said in 2011 when he brought home all U.S. troops, Iraq is not a perfect place, but we're leaving behind "a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq." Why did that turn out to be so wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what happened, Ed, is we saw that Iraq's government pursued an agenda that was not inclusive; that it did not succeed in unifying that country, it did not succeed in even unifying Iraq's security forces. And that meant that Iraq was not able to withstand the pressure and eventually an assault from ISIL.
That is why the President, for a number of months now, has been urging -- well, the truth is, he's been urging this for longer than a number of months, even years, encouraging Iraq's political leadership to pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that would unify the country to make it more strong, more stable and better able to confront the threats that are posed by these extremist groups like ISIL.
Q Right. So if that's what happened before, what is the strategy now? Speaker Boehner, something else he said in his statement was, "I'm dismayed by the ongoing absence of a strategy for countering the grave threat ISIS poses to the region." So just a direct question: What is the strategy to stop ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: The strategy is related to ensuring that they cannot use instability in Iraq as a base of operations.
Q But they are today, so how do you stop them?
MR. EARNEST: And so what the United States is doing is we're doing a couple of different things. The first is, we are taking the kind of action that will ensure close coordination between Kurdish security forces, Iraqi security forces and American military forces to confront ISIL.
The President announced a number of weeks ago that he was sending an assessment team to go into Iraq -- these are military advisers -- who can assess the situation on the ground, who can assess the capability of ISIL, who can assess the capability of Iraq and Kurdish security forces, and offer some advice as they confront this challenge.
The President has also signaled a willingness that if Iraq's political leaders are willing to take the necessary steps to unify the country to face the threat that the American military can come in behind and offer support to Iraq's security forces to confront the threat.
Q But with al Qaeda, the goal has been defeat and decimate core al Qaeda. Is the goal to defeat and decimate ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal as it relates to this very specific situation is the need for Iraq to confront the threat that is posed by ISIL. The difference is -- and let's walk through this, because this is important -- core al Qaeda was operating with virtual impunity in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they were able to set up a terror network around the globe, a pretty sophisticated command and control structure, that allowed the core al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan to order -- to organize, order and carry out catastrophic attacks against the U.S. homeland.
The situation with ISIL, while dangerous, is different, and it is why it is so important for Iraq, with the support of the United States, to confront the threat that ISIL currently poses to the stability of Iraq and to populations, including some minority populations that right now are being persecuted by ISIL in Iraq. And that is what accounts for the different approach in dealing with these two situations, but both the threat that's posed -- well, let me say it this way -- the threat that's posed by ISIL is still one that the President takes very seriously.
They have demonstrated a pretty sophisticated military capability in the last few weeks in terms of the success that they've had in advancing in Iraq, even in the face of some opposition from Iraq's security forces and Kurdish security forces.
Q I understand that ISIS can't today perhaps launch terror attacks against the United States, the key difference from al Qaeda. But Secretary of State John Kerry a short time ago in Afghanistan had a news conference where he was saying that the President believes ISIS is a threat in the region and could be a long-term threat to U.S. security. So there's a fear at least that they could be a long-term threat. Why is the goal not to defeat and decimate them? Why is it just to offer support to the Iraqi government, which you yourself says is in shambles?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think I said that it was in shambles. I actually think I noted the progress that they have made in terms of --
Q Do you think they can stop ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: I think that they have made progress in putting together a unified Iraqi government that can successfully unify the country to confront the threat that is posed by ISIL. That is the key to defeating this threat and reducing the potential that ISIL can attack the United States or our interest and allies both in that region, but eventually around the globe.
Q Last one is -- I don't know if you saw this VICE News documentary that -- where ISIS officials were quoted as saying, "We will humiliate them everywhere, God-willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House." How do you react when a group like that makes a claim of threat like that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see those comments. I think the President spoke pretty forcefully about the United States' resolve and commitment and willingness to use military force to support the efforts of Iraq's security forces to defeat ISIL and prevent them from using Iraq as a base of operations, but also to ensure that we can restore or at least strengthen the security situation in Iraq and that we can prevent the ISIL terrorists from terrorizing minority populations in Iraq.
We have been, as I mentioned yesterday, deeply disturbed by reports that there are Christian villages that are being decimated violently by ISIL. And we have talked quite a bit about the plight of the Yezidi population, thousands of whom are trapped on this mountain. So there are a wide range of actions that have been perpetrated by ISIL that are of deep concern to the United States, and it's why you are seeing the kind of reaction that you've seen from the President and the United States military.
Q Josh, thanks. Some military analysts have described the initial airstrikes as warning shots. Is that how you would characterize the airstrikes that were dropped today? And can you tell us what the actual impact of those airstrikes were?
MR. EARNEST: I think warning shots -- the description of them as warning shots goes to how they will be interpreted by someone else. And that's obviously something I can't speak to. What I can speak to is the stated goal of that military action as described by the Department of Defense. And that specifically was to take out a military asset operated by ISIL that was threatening a city where American personnel were located. And that's why that strike was authorized by the Commander-in-Chief.
Q Do you have any indication that it has slowed their advance to Erbil?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to offer an updated, on-the-ground assessment of the situation -- of the security situation in Iraq right now. I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for that.
Q And on the question of what next steps the President might be considering, would he consider arming the Peshmerga forces?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, we have a strong military-to-military relationship with Iraq's security forces. And the Iraqi security forces have shared some of those assets with Kurdish security forces. We have also demonstrated a willingness and are carrying out efforts to increase the flow of supplies, including arms, to Kurdish security forces as they confront the threat that's posed by ISIL.
These joint operation centers that exist in Erbil and Baghdad have been very helpful in coordinating the activities of the militaries that are acting there. As I mentioned earlier, we have been pleased and continue to encourage efforts to integrate Iraqi air assets with the ground offensives of the Kurdish security forces. And that kind of integration and cooperation will be critical to their success. But to the extent that the Kurdish security forces themselves need additional resources, we're looking to increase the flow of those resources, including arms, from the United States.
Q And, Josh, what can you tell us about the FAA saying that it's prohibited U.S. Airlines and other commercial carriers from flying over Iraq? Can you give us any more information about that? How long can we expect that to last?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to offer up any additional information about that. You should check with the FAA. They make those kinds of decisions independently and based solely on the safety of the traveling public.
Q And I'm just going to try one more on Syria. The President last night, in addition to saying that there was a government mandate from Iraq, said, "When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye." Is he satisfied that he's done enough to prevent that massacre that seems to be ongoing there? More than 170,000 people have been killed so far.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you're conflating two things, right. He was talking about the urgent humanitarian situation on Sinjar Mountain, but you're asking about Syria.
Q But is there not an urgent humanitarian crisis in Syria as well?
MR. EARNEST: Of course there is, and that is why you've seen a strong response from the United States to provide the largest -- the United States is the largest donor of bilateral assistance to Syrian refugees and those who are fleeing violence in Syria. You've seen the United States government closely coordinate with international aid organizations, including the U.N. and the governments that are housing those refugees right now. There are large refugee populations in Turkey and in Jordan, in particular. The United States has provided assistance to those two countries as they have tried to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those who are fleeing violence in Syria.
You've seen the United States take aggressive action to support the efforts of the moderate opposition, to withstand the assault from the Assad regime, and in some cases even to counter that assault. So the United States is invested and is working to try to meet the urgent humanitarian situation in Syria as well. But as I mentioned to Jessica earlier, the situation on the ground in Iraq is different from the situation in Syria and it merits different responses from the United States when you're making decisions that are focused on the best core national security interests of the United States.
Q Understood. But the massacre seems to be ongoing, on a daily basis people continuing to be slaughtered there. So the question is, has he done enough?
MR. EARNEST: It is a tragic situation, and it is why our efforts continue in that country to try to bring an end to that suffering.
Q I'll get to Iraq in a minute, but a couple of other things have happened on the world stage I'd like to get your reaction to. First, the agreement to form a unity government in Afghanistan and the restarting of violence in the Middle East. I imagine the President has thoughts on both. I'd like to get your reaction.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to Afghanistan, the Secretary of State was obviously in Afghanistan over the last day or two to try to broker an agreement between the two presidential candidates there.
Q And you went there with this goal, to achieve a unity government?
MR. EARNEST: We're talking about Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: I think what they have described as -- he went there with the goal to try to broker a political solution to that electoral dispute. And that was centered on ensuring that both candidates remained engaged in the effort to count all of the ballots and inspire some confidence in the electoral outcome of that contest. That's important because it will inspire confidence among the Afghan people in their democratic institutions, and that will increase and strengthen the mandate of the eventual winner of that contest. And that was the goal of the Secretary of State to continue to encourage and support the transition of power in Afghanistan from President Karzai to the next president that will be democratically elected.
Q And on the resumption of violence in the Middle East, to whom do you ascribe the blame and what is the next step?
MR. EARNEST: The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza. We condemn the renewed rocket fire and are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict. We call on all sides to cease hostilities immediately and resume cease-fire negotiations. And we continue to urge all parties to do all they can to protect the lives of innocent civilians.
Israel has agreed to extend the negotiations, but Hamas refused without Israel meeting a list of their demands. Hamas's decision to resume rocket fire will not only put the people of Israel and of Gaza at greater risk, it will do nothing to meet the expectations of the Palestinian people. So it's our hope that the parties will agree to an extension of the cease-fire in the coming hours and ultimately conclude an agreement to cement a sustainable cease-fire.
As you know, there are Americans who are in Cairo who are participating in these negotiations. And we are urging both sides to try to put in place a sustainable cease-fire agreement.
Q U.S. negotiators believe that the requests from Hamas weren't reasonable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's something for them to be -- that's a question to be resolved at the negotiating table. We certainly do not believe that it was appropriate for Hamas to restart rocket fire.
Q On Iraq -- just practically, simply -- how are the Yezidis going to get off Sinjar Mountain? And what is the U.S. plan to do that, because there's scant worthiness to feed them and give them a little bit of water if they're going to be slaughtered in four days as opposed to two. How are they going to get off that mountain?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's a strategy that's in place that is related to, first, meeting their immediate basic humanitarian needs. And that's what the airdrop was. That was the goal of the airdrop.
Q But that only meant partially. As the Pentagon disclosed, it's not feeding or giving water to everyone who is up there. And so we would assume there will be more of those in the coming days.
MR. EARNEST: As needed, the United States military stands ready to conduct additional operations to provide additional life-saving supplies to the individuals who are stuck at the top of the mountain.
Now, separate from that the President has also ordered that military action could be used to try to end that siege. Right now, there are Kurdish security forces that are operating in the region that are countering ISIL forces. And if there is American military might that can be deployed to tip the balance in support of Kurdish forces that are operating on the ground, then we will certainly look for an opportunity to do that.
Q So the idea is to drive ISIL forces away through the air and then create a cordon that the Peshmerga would operate and evacuate those civilians?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Kurdish security forces, the Peshmerga, have been operating in this region for some time. And if there is an opportunity to use military force in support of those ongoing ground operations, then the President has authorized the military to take that kind of action in the hope that the siege of that mountain would be ended.
Q Similarly, in Erbil, the military strike today was to take out a piece of artillery that was firing on the Peshmerga. It seems in both places the United States is offering air support for what it hopes will be a rejuvenated Kurdish Peshmerga force in both places. Is that the overall strategy throughout the U.S. military interaction with ISIL -- rely on ground forces that are Peshmerga to retake land, retake places, retake facilities, dams, electrical plants lost to ISIL with the added benefit of air support, which is what will rejuvenate them and get them back in the field fighting more effectively than they have now? Is that an accurate description of what's going on?
MR. EARNEST: Generally speaking, I would say, yes. But let me take a shot and see if I can describe what the strategy is here. The first thing that's important is it's important to understand that we do have confidence in the Kurdish fighting forces, that we do assess that Kurdish fighting forces are demonstrating a willingness to fight, as evidenced by several attempted counterattacks against ISIL that have been launched over the last several days.
It is true that in some locations, Kurdish forces have withdrawn in the face of better-equipped and more agile ISIL forces. And while the Kurdish withdrawals appear to be orderly, they continue to face challenges about regrouping and redistributing their forces so that they're better positioned to blunt ISIL offenses.
So the Peshmerga, which is the other name for the Kurdish security forces, are a capable fighting force, and they continue to fight ISIL forces in Iraq. What may be necessary in some situations is support from the American military to enhance their fighting position, or to take out key ISIL targets that would allow them to have some greater success.
But again, there are a couple of limiting factors here that are important. The first is the President's determination to not send American troops back to Iraq in a combat role, and to ensure that this is being done in a way that's coordinated with the broader Iraqi security force and coordinate with an inclusive Iraq government.
Q Right. So the reason for the specificity of my question is that the Iraqi army is not currently relevant in this fight; the Peshmerga are, and the U.S. military assets from the air. That's all that's relevant right now. And that seems to me to be a potential turning point, not only in dealing with ISIL, but in the future of Iraq -- because the fighters who are fighting right now to rid Iraq, in the northern part of Iraq, of ISIL are the Peshmerga. And they may have an opportunity to regain facilities or things that are crucial for the long-term interests of all of Iraq, meaning the dam in Mosul, electrical production facilities, other things like that.
And what I'm curious about is if the United States is going to say, well, no, no, don't do that, we're not going to help you with that even though it's crucial to Iraq's future because it's not Mount Sinjar and it's not Erbil. What's the overall interaction with the Peshmerga going to be if they do get back in the fight and start rolling ISIL back?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have seen that the Peshmerga are prepared to get back into the fight. I first want to dispute a little bit the premise of your question as it relates to Iraq security forces. We do believe there's an important role for them to play in this broader fight. That is why Iraq security forces are included in the joint operating centers in Erbil and Baghdad. It is why the United States continues to maintain the close military-to-military coordination that exists.
But the reason -- according to the assessment of our analysts, the reason that we saw a decline in the capability of Iraq security forces is that it was not integrated in a way that reflects Iraq's diverse population. And that is a consequence of failed political leadership -- that when you have a political leadership that is not demonstrating a commitment to an inclusive governing agenda, that's going to have an impact on their ability to command and control and integrated security force.
So that is why this all starts with -- as difficult and challenging and occasionally frustrating as it is, this all starts with Iraq's political leadership making the kinds of difficult decisions that are necessary to form an inclusive government and pursue the kind of agenda that will inspire the diverse population of Iraq and inspire the confidence of Iraq's diverse population in their security forces.
So if the people of Iraq are invested in the success of the government, it will make it easier for the security forces to also be integrated and united, and to better confront the advance that we've seen from ISIL.
Q I think you and I would agree that's all over the (inaudible) stuff. I'm just trying to figure out -- Peshmerga asked for more help outside of Erbil or Mount Sinjar to accomplish military objectives that are relevant to pushing back ISIL. Will they get the air assistance from the United States? Yes or no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that is a decision that will be made on a case-by-case basis. But we are closely coordinating with Peshmerga forces in a variety of settings. We are increasing the flow of arms and assistance to the Peshmerga. And we're closely coordinating our efforts in the context of these joint operation centers both in Erbil and Baghdad. But in terms of -- it's difficult for me to generalize about that situation because these are decisions that are made on a case-by-case basis by the American military that knows this area of the world very well; by the assessment teams that are currently on the ground that the President sent there a few weeks ago; and by American officials who are evaluating these kinds of objectives through the lens of America's national security priorities.
Q Does the President anticipate that developments in Iraq and the Middle East will cause him to change his vacation plans at all?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don't have any changes in the President's schedule to announce.
Q And he'll still participate in that fundraiser on Monday?
MR. EARNEST: The President's schedule for Monday hasn't changed either. But as we always say, the President will be traveling to Massachusetts with an array of communications equipment and national security advisors and other to ensure that he has the capacity to make the kinds of decisions that are required for the Commander-in-Chief. And if there's a need for the President to return to the White House, it's not a long flight from Martha's Vineyard back to the Washington, D.C.
Q So what's necessitating his need to return the following Monday?
MR. EARNEST: As we said earlier this week, the President did want to return to Washington for a day or two to meet in person with some White House staff for some -- for meetings. I'm not in a position to read out those meetings because they're still more than a week away.
Q Thank you so much. The Islamic jihadists think that Jews and Christians are infidels who are being killed in the most terrible ways -- crucified, beheaded, and so forth. How do you change attitudes like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Connie, the United States stands as a beacon for freedom and respect for basic human rights. That is what distinguishes the United States, and it's so critical to the founding values of this country. And we have condemned in clear terms the efforts of extremist groups to target and in some cases massacre minority populations solely because of their religious or ethnic identity. And you saw a willingness last night, from this President, to authorize military force to try to confront an urgent humanitarian situation that was predicated on the evil intentions of this extremist group.
And the President's commitment to those kinds of values, and the bravery of our servicemen and women to take the kinds of actions that are necessary to try to prevent the situations from occurring, again, is inspiring and is something that speaks to the core American values that we hold so dear.
Q How do you deal with people who have these attitudes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the way that we deal with them I think is pretty evident based on the President's strong words and his willingness to take military action against them.
Q And finally, any update on the next Mr. Earnest?
MR. EARNEST: No updates.
Q You've been asked a couple times about the difference between the situation in Iraq and Syria in terms of the response. Just wondering, is it this an instance where Iraq -- this country has a certain special obligation to Iraq and circumstances on the ground in terms of personnel? Like, can you just expand a little bit on that as to why the situation there is necessitating this response versus any sort of similar situation beyond Syria, just anywhere in the country in terms of -- or in the world in terms of what guides the humanitarian response from the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in terms of the core objectives and the core priorities, the President laid those out pretty clearly last night. What is also true -- and I think this is what you're alluding to, and if not, stop me -- but I think what you're alluding to is the significant investment and sacrifice that has already been made in Iraq by hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women who have served that country. They served in very difficult situations. Many of them were injured and many of them died.
And that is evident -- or that is an indication of the United States' commitment to Iraq's success. We have -- that service was in support of the Iraqi people having access to the opportunity to determine the future of their country. And we have been disappointed that Iraq's political leaders have not seized that opportunity in the way that we believe is necessary for Iraq to remain the kind of secure, stable country that I think the vast majority of Iraq's diverse population would like to see.
And that is why the United States does continue to urge Iraq's political leaders to pursue a more inclusive governing agenda. And it does speak to the commitment of the American people to stand alongside the people of Iraq, even in very difficult times, as they pursue and make the kinds of decisions that are required to ultimately achieve the future of their country that they would like to see.
Q So it is that special -- that is that history that plays a role here and makes this situation different than any number of humanitarian situations in the world?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the thing that's harder to -- there's no doubt that the history is pretty obvious. What's harder to assess is what consequence that has for our ongoing national security and how decisions are made about our ongoing national security. So I readily acknowledge the history that you're highlighting, but in terms of what is driving the decision that the President has made to authorize some military action in Iraq, I'd refer you to his remarks in terms of what those priorities were.
Q Can I just ask you -- what role did the President's Atrocities Prevention Board play in the lead-up to this in terms of informing anything that he's done? Did they have a role in any sort of way? And they did a report last year that's remained classified, even though I think some other reports have been released -- can you speak to that at all?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to speak to the report. I haven't seen it. But the establishment of that board I think is a testament to some of the principles that the President discussed last night, which is that the United States does remain a beacon of freedom and protection of basic human rights. That certainly applies in this country, but it applies that principle to populations, including minority populations all around the globe. That means that the United States stands squarely with those minority populations that are being targeted because of their religious or ethnic identity.
So we stand -- the American people stand with the Yezidis and the Christians in Iraq who are being persecuted by ISIL. And the President's commitment to those kinds of issues and strong statements that indicate our support for those populations that are being persecuted is clear, and goes to a core value of what it means to be an American.
Q Can you speak to anything -- any role they did play in the lead-up to making this decision to act as circumstance?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific actions that are taken by the board, but we can look into that for you. I just would say that the creation of the board is evidence of how deeply held the President's views are in this area.
Q Josh, I want to follow up on what Tamara had asked you earlier. You said that between June and now, the formation of a more inclusive government and progress thereof in Iraq was a source of encouragement. And I just want to clarify -- between June and now, was the President's agreement to respond to the request conventional ever communicated as conditional to the Iraqi government on seeing that progress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President was actually pretty clear. I didn't bring his remarks with me. I guess now I sort of regret not doing that. But when the President spoke on this topic on June 13th, he delivered a short statement on the South Lawn prior to boarding Marine One. And in the context of those comments -- and I think it might even have been in response to a question -- the President indicated that the key to solving Iraq's underlying problems and to stabilizing their security situation was the formation of a government that reflects Iraq's diverse population.
And the President was resolute about his commitment that the United States military would not be used to prop up an Iraqi government that didn't reflect the diverse Iraqi population and the diversity of views of the Iraqi people. So it was I think evident to anybody who was trying to divine the President's priorities that a commitment to use military force could not be separated from the commitment of Iraq's political leaders to form the kind of inclusive government and pursue the kind of unified governing agenda that will be required to unite that country in the face of this existential threat from ISIL.
Q So just to follow up -- so separate and apart, you're saying that the President was responding in large measure to the humanitarian and genocidal situation, but you're saying that he would not have done that if the progress had not been seen -- that he had made clear he needed to see -- before the United States would step in militarily?
MR. EARNEST: I'm just not in a position to evaluate that hypothetical situation. Fortunately, we have seen a slightly more optimistic scenario than the one that you've laid out; that we have seen Iraq's political leadership at least take some steps in the right direction of forming an inclusive government. There is still a really important step remaining, which is the appointment of a head of government, a prime minister, in Iraq. And that is not a minor step.
Q Are there any circumstances in which the President will be consulted directly before additional military strikes are taken or is he now out of the picture in terms of approving the actual prosecution of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has authorized the military to use force in this situation based on the limited scope that he has articulated. He will not be in a situation where he is signing off on individual strikes but there will be regular consultation from the President's military commanders to their Commander-in-Chief about the situation on the ground and about the strategy that they're pursuing.
Q And he was advised before 6:45 a.m. this morning what was going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: He is not going to be in a position to authorize individual strikes but he will be regularly consulted by his military commanders about their strategy and about the assessment that they've reached.
I'm going to do three more and then we're going to go. So, Bob.
Q Does that include the Sinjar Mountain situation? Because Erbil may be one thing because we have advisers there, et cetera -- what about the airstrikes on Sinjar Mountain and the people who are surrounded there? Would the President have to sign off on that?
MR. EARNEST: The President has already authorized military action in support of the humanitarian efforts that are underway at Sinjar Mountain.
Q You've been very clear about the importance of Iraqis electing a new inclusive -- forming a new inclusive government and electing a prime minister. What if Prime Minister Maliki is reelected? Is he someone that can lead an inclusive government and that the White House can work with?
MR. EARNEST: Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of Iraq's political leadership and the Iraqi people to determine who should lead their government. And that was not a decision that will be dictated by the United States, and it's not a decision that should be dictated by any sort of outside actor. This should be squarely the decision that's made by Iraq's political leaders and by their people.
And what we're focused on is not just who the person is, but what is the governing agenda that they pursue. And if they pursue a governing agenda, like I said, that has the support of Iraq's diverse population and makes clear to every citizen in Iraq that they have a government that is representing their interests, that is fighting for their future, that that's the kind of government that will succeed in unifying the country. And having a unified country is particularly important when you're facing an existential threat from an extremist group like ISIL.
Q And is there a plan if the political transition falters or stalls?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously are going to continue to stay in regular touch with Iraq's political leaders to encourage them to continue to pursue the kind of inclusive government that they have started to form. We have been encouraging them every step of the way and there continues to be regular consultation with them as they move down this path.
We obviously would like to see them move quickly. If you look at the history, it would indicate that there is not a history of Iraq moving quickly to make these kinds of decisions, but we have seen significant progress in just the last few weeks. So we hope that that momentum will be sustained and that there will be an announcement about a prime minister soon.
Olivier, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh, and thanks for sticking around. First, I have a couple quick ones -- at least, I think they're quick. First, building on your response to Sam about open-ended versus not prolonged. Does the President plan to abide by the War Powers Act provision that calls for him to submit an authorization request within 60 days --
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are some important War Powers Act notification requirements, and the United States will -- and the administration will abide by them, I guess that's where I should start. The administration has been consulting closely with Congress, as I mentioned earlier, and we have consulted with the relevant members of Congress from these committees just in the last 24 hours about the military action that the President has authorized.
Consistent with those consultations, the administration will comply with any applicable reporting requirements in the War Powers Resolution. Sometimes these War Power notifications are classified, sometimes they aren't -- in this case, if one is necessary and if our lawyers determine that it is necessary, I would anticipate that is something we likely would be able to release publicly. So stay tuned.
Q They send notifications, though, but not the request for congressional action, right? There's a 60-day point at which the President is supposed to go back and ask for --
MR. EARNEST: Oh, right. The only thing I can speak to right now is this administration's commitment to complying with the notification requirements of the War Powers Act.
Q And then building on your commendable decision to embrace the hypothetical question asked by my colleague, Jessica, earlier, can this President live with ISIL holding any stretch of territory, whether it's carved out of Iraq or Syria or anywhere else?
MR. EARNEST: That is a hypothetical that's difficult to evaluate because there are a lot of variations on that question.
Q It goes back to Ed's question about sort of the longer-term strategy regarding ISIL.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it does. Let me at least take a shot in one vein and say this: It's difficult to imagine a scenario where you would have a stable Iraq with a security situation that's under control, where ISIL is freely operating in the countryside. And that is why we have worked so closely with the Iraqi government, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces to counter this threat, and it is why it is the belief of the United States that it's only the Iraqis who can confront this problem. The United States stands ready and has already demonstrated a willingness to support them as they do so, but ultimately this is a problem for Iraq to solve.
Typically, on a Friday I would do a week ahead. I think as you all know the President is planning to depart the White House tomorrow morning to begin his vacation with his family in Martha's Vineyard. He is looking forward to spending the next week or so with his family up there.
There is one item on the President's schedule next week -- that's a fundraiser. That will take place on Monday afternoon on Martha's Vineyard. I believe that there will be some press access to the President's remarks at that fundraiser. The President is currently planning to return to Washington next Sunday just for a day or two of meetings here at the White House and return to Martha's Vineyard to spend a few days with his family on Tuesday, and then returning the next Sunday back at the White House to get back to business.
Q -- when he is back in town?
MR. EARNEST: I do not anticipate that there will be briefings at the White House during those two days. Not next week, but the week after when the President is here. So we will -- the President is traveling with members of his national security staff and the President's able Principal Deputy Press Secretary will also be on the trip with him, so you will be informed from highly qualified, in-the-know sources about what the President is up to while he is spending time up there.
Q Is the family going to come back for those --
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the family's travel schedule, we'll have to get you some additional details when that travel begins.
Q But, Josh, there will be some briefings on the Vineyard?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a schedule to lay out for you in terms of what those briefings will look like, but between the President's National Security Advisor, his Deputy National Security Advisor, and his Principal Deputy Press Secretary, we'll keep you well-informed.
With that, I hope all of you get a chance to take a little bit of a break while the President is away as well. And we'll do a briefing in here in a couple of weeks.
2:31 P.M. EDT
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|