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Background Briefing by a Senior U.S. Administration Official on President George Bush's Meeting with Middle Eastern Leaders
Sea Island, June 9, 2004, 17h20

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to talk mostly about the lunch today on the broader Middle East. The President opened – I should say, before I start, that, as you know, these lunches are not broadcast and, therefore, what I'm not going to be able to do is to give lots of quotations from the leaders who were there. They are able to speak for themselves, and if they want to say specific – repeat specific things that they said, they will. But I think I can give a good flavor of what was discussed at the gathering.

The President began by welcoming all of the guests to this G8 Summit – that is, guests from the region – and noting that this was a region that had problems and a lot of opportunities, and said, perhaps we can help – you will write your history, we're here to help.

Every guest spoke; that is, President Karzai, President al-Yawar, and the leaders of Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen. President Erdogan also spoke. Not all of the G8 leaders spoke.

I want to cover a few subjects that occupied a good deal of time – Afghanistan, Iraq, the fundamental question of reform in the region, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, terrorism.

Afghanistan. It was a good discussion of the changes there and the progress, first with respect to a constitution and moving toward elections. There was also a discussion of economic growth and the fact that the economy of Afghanistan is actually growing quite fast in 2003-2004. There was also some discussion of the continuing problem of drugs, and its relevance in Afghanistan and for the countries that were receiving the drugs. And several times it was noted that this could not have been achieved, all of the economic and social and political progress, without substantial international support, and continuing international support was absolutely key.

On Iraq, where there was also considerable discussion, the role of the coalition in giving the Iraqi people the chance they now have was mentioned several times, and, once again, as in the case of Afghanistan, the important role of the whole international community in supporting Iraq's transition to sovereignty and to democracy. There were several comments on the need for the G8 to continue supporting, both in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, the efforts that were underway.

The recent U.N. Security Council resolution was hailed as an important step. In that, it showed the unity and the will of the international community. And several speakers noted that that sense of unity and continuing will was critical in the case of Iraq.

It was noted that Iraq was a situation in which it had two great blessings: one, it's great natural resources; the other, it's very great human resources. The challenge, several speakers said, was clearly security and achieving stability. There was also some discussion of the importance of coping with the problem of unemployment and of creating work opportunities for people.

On the question of reform, the phrase, "support for homegrown initiatives" was used several times. It was noted that in the last few months, Arab societies, in particular, have looked inward, and mention was made of the conferences at Alexandria, Sona, Istanbul, Aqaba, and the statement on reform from the Arab Summit in Tunis. There was repeated mention of the need for the G8 and the international community to support reform, to continue to support reform in the region, including with resources.

Several speakers noted that the real drive for reform in the region must come from within, and does come from within. Governments are undertaking it because people in those countries are demanding it. Several leaders said, we are doing this not because you demand it, but we are acting because our people demand, and we are acting from conviction. We believe in what we're doing.

Support was voiced by several speakers for the Forum for the Future, which is being established at this G8 Summit, saying that it was a good new mechanism to promote reform, to support reform in the region without implying that there was any one model of reform. The President repeated that, we want to help you and support you in the reforms you're undertaking.

Several people also said that this should not simply be a cooperation between the G8 governments and governments in the region, that civil society, NGOs, business, the private sector must be partners in this, too. It has to be a project of all of society, not just governments.

There was – there were – at a couple of points, there was a discussion of the so-called clash of civilizations, and several speakers noted that they felt there is no clash of civilizations, that there are many models for moving to democracy. And mention was made of the fact that both the Prime Minister of Turkey and the Prime Minister of Japan were at this meeting, and their cultures are very different, and different from West European, North Atlantic culture, but these are cultures that have moved to democracy.

Several people said that those who claim that Islam and democracy are incompatible are wrong. Turkey is a good model of this, there are other models of this. And some of those who claim that Islamic and Arab cultures are incompatible with democracy are just protecting their own situation.

Several people also mentioned that for reform to work in the region, trade was very important because it is going to be important to create economic growth, to create more jobs, to keep up with the growing populations, and trade was critical in that.

There was a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for progress in it, which was a universal view, although, as was stated by one of the speakers from the Arab world, not as an excuse for a failure to reform, but, rather, because it's important in its own right. And there was a general agreement that it is very important to advance on the road map, and important because it is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians for a peaceful Palestinian state to emerge.

Terrorism was a subject that was discussed. The need to assist countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, countries in North Africa, that are fighting terrorism, they need the help of the G8 and the international community in this critical struggle. They need to stop funds from moving to terrorist groups. And several speakers said there is a relationship between the need for reform in the region and the desire to stop terrorism, because the lack of jobs, the lack of good educational opportunities, of economic opportunities, injustice, poverty – all can help terrorists recruit. So the relationship was drawn by several speakers.

At the end of the discussion the President thanked all of those who had come, particularly from the greater Middle Eastern region and Turkey. He called the discussion, fascinating and uplifting, in a reference to the commitment which every speaker from the region made to reform in the region and in his own country.

At the end of the meeting, the bilateral meeting with President Ghazi al-Yawar of Iraq, cameras came in and both President Bush and President al-Yawar made a statement. So I don't really have much to add to that. A few things are probably worth mentioning. President al-Yawar saying that, we'll stay consistent and committed, and we will prevail; President Bush noting, you're writing a new chapter in the history of Iraq, a free Iraq will change the entire region, and that will be the legacy of your new government. President al-Yawar noting how difficult the challenge was, because of the terrible inheritance from the Saddam Hussein regime.

Let's see if there's anything else – oh, discussion of the provision of services – that is, the need to concentrate now, in the next few months, on services like electricity, on rebuilding Iraqi security forces, on the need for aid – American aid and other aid to move, to be available.

I think that's really – yes, that's all I've got, in addition to what the President said.

Q Did the two leaders talk about how the multinational force and the U.S. military is going to interact with the interim Iraqi government? And did the new Iraqi leader express any opinion about whether having NATO in his country would be desirable?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that subject was not discussed.

Q What is the significance of the leaders of Arab nations who aren't here, primarily Egypt and Saudi Arabia ? Why did that happen? What impact, in your judgment, does that have on the movement toward reform? And then, secondarily, do you sense that there's any damage done to U.S. leadership in this area because of the very strong reaction in the Arab world to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First, I think you can't make much out of the attendance list. For example, some of those not attending – Morocco comes to mind – have publicly stated their support for this initiative and, in fact, are participating in one or two of the new programs that will be initiated under the plan of support. The King of Jordan, when he spoke at the lunch, said that Crown Prince Abdullah had asked him to convey his support for this summit and his regards to the President.

So I think the notion that if you're here, you're fully supportive, if you're not here, you're not supportive, it actually does not work that way. We would expect, for example, on the Forum for the Future, that every country in the region would participate, and we have yet to hear from one country that they do not intend to participate. So I think there will be very broad involvement.

We are continuing in discussions – we weren't able to wrap them up in time for this summit, but we're continuing in discussions with the government of Egypt about a couple of ways in which it may wish to participate in programs that are being launched here. So we, as I say, we expect pretty wide participation.

I think the striking thing – you know, if you go back, say, three or four months, and say, you're trying to launch this broader Middle East initiative in June, and you're going to go through a tough period in Iraq, including the Abu Ghraib scandal, do you really think you're going to be able to launch this – I think you would have had a number of people in the G8, and perhaps in the region, saying it will never get off the ground.

So we were very pleased that it, in fact, did get off the ground. We have the participation we wanted. We have the unanimous G8 approval of all of the political declaration and of the plan of support. We had a terrific meeting today, and on we go. So, in fact, the troubles we've gone through in these months have not affected this initiative.

I think the reason for it is the one that was expressed by a number of the speakers from the greater Middle East or broader Middle East, I now have to say, at lunch. The drive for reform is coming from within. It was reflected in all of those conferences in the region. As several Prime Ministers or Presidents or Kings said, their people want these reforms. They're doing them out of conviction and out of the desire of their own populations. That is why, I think, this has not become untracked, because the President's initiative here, in fact, responds to the situation in the region and to the desires of people in the region.

Q Yes, in relationship to the Middle East initiative. We know that the governments of the region have not really talked about such reforms until the U.S. initiative. So in that sense, we must draw the conclusion that they are trying more to respond to U.S. and Western pressure than to pressure from their own people. And we also know that in the past, these governments have undermined their own private sector and their non-government organizations by corrupting them or coercing them.

Now, the document that we read talks about an engagement between the private sector and these NGOs by the governments of G8. What kind of engagement should we expect between the G8 governments and these private sector reformers? And would the G8 provide protection for these people against the pressures of the governments? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First, to respond to the first part of your question, I think governments vary. It's a spectrum. Some of the governments that were here today made – some of the leaders who were here made a point of saying, a number of the things that you were talking about, a number of these reforms we are already doing. One or two governments, actually, I think, put out fact sheets saying – on educational reform, on micro-finance, on political reforms, on elections of a parliament – we're doing that already.

So it's a pretty broad spectrum, and I don't think it's fair to say that these reforms are not underway in the region. They're underway in some places a lot more than other places.

What form will the engagement with the civil society organizations take? Well, one form of it will be the Forum for the Future, which is going to be – I think it's fair to say the best analogy is APEC, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, in that there is a ministerial dialogue – actually, APEC now, there's a summit, too – but it started with a ministerial dialogue and a business community dialogue and a private sector or, let's say, civil society dialogue. We want to have all three in the context of the Forum for the Future. So you would have these three parallel, let's call them, conversations, and one of them would be civil society organizations, NGOs, from the G8 countries, with similar organizations in the region.

Now, how do you protect them? This kind of dialogue does protect them. If you have, in some capital in the region, let's say, or it could be in the G8, you have this forum take place, and the G8 invites organization A and organization B and organization C. I would argue to you that that invitation constitutes a form of protection, because it shows that people in the G8 countries know about this organization and are watching it and value it and wish to engage with it. It makes it a lot tougher for a government that may wish to, to make trouble for that organization.

And without naming the country, I have to tell you, the head of a human rights organization from one of the countries in the Arab League came to Washington in the early part of this year, and we said to this person, how are you doing with your activities promoting human rights? And he said, we're doing a lot better now, and we're doing a lot better because of this trip to Washington. And we're doing a lot better because of this discussion of reform that President Bush started and is now getting much more active in G8 circles, because the government is more reluctant to act against us and, therefore, we have more space to do our human rights work. That's exactly what we're trying to accomplish.

Q You mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was on the table, and you didn't mention the disengagement plan of the government of Israel, which was approved this week. And it's not in the decision, it just mentioned the Quartet decision in the past. Is it because there was no position from Arab leaders and European leaders to the disengagement plan, which is supported highly by the U.S. administration? Could you tell a bit what was – was it discussed, the disengagement plan which was approved by the Israeli cabinet this week?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was mentioned by a couple of speakers, positively, affirmatively, and there was no criticism of it made at all. It was mentioned, and positively.

I will tell you the real-world reason why it is not in the political declaration, which does have a paragraph on the Middle East. That declaration was negotiated over a period of weeks, and closed before the Israeli cabinet decision. So we had that decision, in a sense, on ice – sorry, we had that paragraph on ice before the decision.

There has been talk of issuing an additional statement about the cabinet decision and about the withdrawal from Gaza. That may or may not happen. Time is short, and people are very busy here. But to the extent that it was mentioned, and it was mentioned at lunch, it was mentioned positively, as a way of moving forward.

Q We didn't have any Arab leader coming to speak to us. We would have liked to hear from them. Instead, we had the Turkish Prime Minister. Now, this is a democratic country, Islamic country, and democratic country, but we wanted to hear from the people who are most concerned. And I wonder why none of them has volunteered to come and talk to us.

The second question. Would the United States consider inviting Iran and Syria to the broader Middle East, or because you don't see eye to eye with them, you would exclude them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first point, some of the Arab leaders are staying in the U.S., I think because they have prior plans to visit other cities or perhaps because of President Reagan's funeral. You may have additional opportunities to try to get them to speak about what happened at lunch. I urge you to pursue them.

I'm sorry, the second part of the question –

Q The possibility of the United States and the G8 inviting Syria and Iran, or wouldn't you because you don't see eye to eye with them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, no – I mean, one of the things – we have not wanted to use the term, Arab Middle East, we have wanted to use the term, broader, or wider, or greater, in part because we view Iran as part of the region and hope that Iran would be able to participate, if not immediately than some day, in some of these initiatives. Likewise Afghanistan.

Syria is clearly part of the region. I can't imagine any definition of the Middle East or broader Middle East that would not include Syria. What we have said is that certain of the initiatives could not possibly welcome the participation of countries that we view as state supporters of terrorism. And as you know, Syria and Iran are, for the United States, on the list of states supporting terrorism.

Now, whether that means there are no initiatives here in which they could participate is an open question. Certainly those related to terrorism we would view as highly inappropriate. But there are many initiatives here, and the question of who will participate in which initiative is an open question. We have not really addressed that. We have not addressed the question even with respect to the Forum. What we've said is that we don't want anybody excluded a priori from participation in the Forum. We don't want any – we want an open architecture. So we'll visit the question of the participation of Iran or Syria, Libya, later.

Q You stressed the importance of the road map for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Does the administration have any plans in the near future to launch a new initiative to solve this conflict?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We support the road map, and we believe that it is the appropriate way to move forward. One of the things that has been discussed here, I think in a number of the bilaterals, is what useful steps can be taken now to move forward. If you look at the Quartet statement of May 4th, not only was there a kind of declaration, there was also a plan of steps that could be taken. And I think our view would be, at this point, we need to take those steps. That is, we need to go beyond declarations of support and move into pragmatic steps that can be taken on the economic, political, and security changes that are needed. So that is really what we're thinking of doing. But the Quartet has laid out the steps ahead.

Q I was wondering if you had figures to give us on the plan, for example, for micro-credit and for some other things, specific figures, or broader figures? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Only to the extent, and I don't – I think that figures are not mentioned in the actual plan of support. A number of countries, not including the United States, felt that it was – let's say, felt that they did not want at this point to make specific commitments or did not have the ability for reasons of their budget processes to make specific commitments.

We have some internal work that we've done in the U.S., so we have a sense of what additional commitments we will be able to make. I think I would make one general point about that. If you recall the Africa Action Plan and NEPAD, initially, there was no financial commitment. There was a statement of G8 political support, of G8 political adoption of the Africa Action Plan. In the two, three, four years that followed, very substantial amounts of money have flowed in support of that plan. It's our hope that that is a model here.

First, in the 2004 summit, the G8 makes these political commitments and announces these initiatives in the plan of support. In the next year, and two and three and four years, we hope that there will be considerable amounts that are forthcoming in support of those programs.

I'd also say that President Bush always reminds us, there is no quick fix here. This is the work of a generation. So it will require continued support from the G8 and other countries, EU countries, for a very long time, to achieve the kinds of reforms that we want to see.

Q I want to know whether you expect to get any deal or make any progress on the question of Iraqi debt, whether there was any sign from – particularly the European countries, that they were willing to forgive the sort of amount of debt that Bush is looking for?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The subject came up at one point during the lunch. But I think the general consensus here was that there's a mechanism for that, which is the Paris Club, and that it wouldn't be made a G8 issue.

Q At the Turkish Prime Minister's conference just before, he stressed the issue of human rights and the rule of law in this initiative. I wonder whether the issue of the United States undermining of the convention on torture, the allegations around this that have been raised in the last few days, was this raised? Did the President give the members any reassurances on this matter?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was not raised at the – at this broader Middle East meeting.

Q In response to an earlier question, you said that reform was coming from within, and that it was not these Alexandria declarations and the Tunis Summit was not something in response to pressure. In this respect, I would like to ask you, in your G8 plan of support for reform, you detail a lot of initiatives – NGO support for election procedures and this kind of thing. Now, not so long ago, exactly this kind of initiative, of support for NGO, Saad Eddin Ibrahim's initiative for making known how you have to proceed in elections was funded by European Union, one of the G8 participants. And the man landed in jail because of this. Now, this would seem to be a perfect initiative that would fall under this G8 reform plan. Are you optimistic that this kind of hindrance of this kind of thing would now be excluded under the new willingness of the Middle Eastern governments to work with reform plans?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first, to say that the pressure for reform comes from within the region is not necessarily to say that it comes from every government in the region. As I said before, the governments are on a spectrum, they vary a good deal. Each situation is different, and some are far more enthusiastic about certain kinds of reform than others.

But Saad Eddin Ibrahim is an Egyptian. Any work that he is doing he is doing as an Egyptian in Egypt. The work of NGOs and civil society organizations, the work of private sector business groups is indigenous work, which we should support. And that is the meaning, I think, of what the G8 is saying, when it says it wants to work with governments and NGOs, and civil society organizations, and private sector groups, all of which are indigenous to the region.

I do hope, as I said before, that an increased, more visible commitment on the part of the G8 countries, EU countries, to supporting indigenous human rights groups, for example, will, in fact, give those groups, for one thing, more resources, and for another, yes, in a sense, more political protection.

This has certainly been the general pattern around the world, not simply in the Middle East, but in Eastern Europe and Latin America, in Asia, in Africa. The tension from outside does provide both resources and a form of protection. There is always a certain reluctance on the part of the people on the receiving end, because they don't wish to appear to be working for outsiders, or working on agendas set by outsiders. But this kind of interest on the part of G8 countries we think can help them advance their work. And most of the groups seem to – most of the groups in the region seem to have the same view.

Q I just have a question about this Future Forum. How is it going to supposed to work, like AA meeting, "Hi, I'm a dictator, how can I get help?" The United States government seems to be doing business as usual with these dictators. How can you expect them to change from within?

And also, attention was paid to Burma, and still it didn't work. So how you practically expecting this to work in the Middle East ?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I had not heard the Alcoholics Anonymous analogy before. I'll have to think about that one.

Secretary Powell participates and the President participates in Western Hemisphere summits, where every leader of the Western Hemisphere gets together, essentially annually – there are also foreign ministers level meetings – to talk about the problems of the hemisphere. This happens in the Asia Pacific region, via APEC; it happens in Africa. There are a number of such examples. But there is not an example of where the leaders of the G8 meet with the leaders of the broader Middle East. We think that's a mistake, and that it is a positive step, and one which was welcome today by every member of the G8 which adopted this declaration, and by those who were present here from the region.

Again, the three-level dialogue, as at APEC – we start with foreign ministers and economic ministers, finance or trade ministers, which is the way APEC began, although the dialogue is supposed to be about not just economic issues, but political and social reform, as well. And then there will be the private sector dialogue and the civil society dialogue.

When the President just said, this is the work of a generation, it is an acknowledgment that reform is difficult, Even for leaders who are absolutely committed to it, it is difficult. And it takes a great deal of time in any country. So I don't think that it will be sensible to say, what has this summit achieved or the Forum for the Future achieved, let's say, at the end of the year when we hope to have had the first Forum meeting? This is a program that we want to have on the agenda of the G8 for years, in fact, for decades.

And we think that as in – let's take the example of Latin America or as in Eastern Europe, the work that's been done by a variety of human rights organizations, by the G8, by the United States, by the OECD, by the EU, by the OSCE has had, over time, a significant impact in helping reformers, including human rights advocates, achieve the reforms they're trying to achieve.

Thank you, very much.

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