Daily Press Briefing - December 8, 2011
Index for Today's Briefing:
- Prime Minister Putin's Comments on Secretary Clinton / Elections
- Missile Defense
- Drone / Reports of Swiss Ambassador Called in to Foreign Ministry
- Virtual Embassy Tehran
- Transition / U.S. Diplomatic Presence / Contractors
- Visit of Prime Minister Maliki to the United States
- Foreign Direct Investment
- Map from Web Site
- NORTH KOREA
- Reports that the Vice Foreign Minister Applied for a U.S. Visa
- DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
- Election Results
- Conviction of a U.S. Citizen Today
- Lese-Majeste Law / Restriction of Freedom of Expression
- Settlement Activity
- Quartet Meeting Next Week
- Mekong River Commission Postpones Decision on Laos' Dam Initiative
- Ambassador Ford's Return
MR. TONER: All right, let’s get at it. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top, and I will not mention hockey in any way, shape, or form.
QUESTION: I have your five dollars. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: Anyway, let’s get right to your questions. Matt, anything?
MR. TONER: Okay. Anyone else? Jill?
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: These comments by Prime Minister Putin that are very personal, kind of unexpectedly personal, about the Secretary. I know she had some comments of her own. But what does the State Department make of this? I mean, it’s getting pretty serious because what they’re saying, they’re alleging, is that the U.S. is tampering with their elections, fomenting people to go out on the streets?
MR. TONER: Well, Jill, you’re right; the Secretary did speak to this in her press availability earlier today in Brussels. And she spoke, I think, very clearly about our motivation. She talked a little bit about the reset and the fact that we value our relationship with Russia, and that the reset has been very constructive in gaining progress in areas where we do share common concerns. But that said, we’ve always been quite clear in talking about our relationship, is that we won’t shy away from addressing other issues where we differ on our viewpoints. And I think that – she said we have a strong commitment to human rights and democracy. And in that context, I think we’ve expressed our views on some of the concerns about the election.
And again, it’s important to note that – as I believe I did yesterday – that this isn’t just the U.S. commenting. This is – these are findings from an OSCE mission that observed the elections. These are concerns raised by the OSCE about the elections. And as I said, there will be a report that’ll have recommendations, so we believe that the – that it’s incumbent on the Russian Government to address those.
QUESTION: But more specifically on this, let’s say, the State Department encouraging people to rise up, the help that the U.S. gives for NGOs – I mean, he had a phrase, if I remember it correctly, that she gave the signal. I mean, it almost sounded like the CIA was giving its operatives a signal by radio to go out and do things. I guess – if you put it on the record for us one more time – but these programs, they are saying, are directly trying to destabilize their country.
MR. TONER: And nothing could be further from the truth. These programs – and the Secretary again spoke to this when she spoke to the National Democratic Institute a few weeks ago – are designed to support a more transparent, free and fair electoral process. They’re not about favoring any political group or any political agenda more than any other agenda. Our focus in any kind of assistance to these NGOs, whether it be in Russia or elsewhere in the world, is about ensuring or strengthening the political or the democratic process.
In terms of signaling, we’ve stood up, as we have elsewhere in the world, and continue to stand for the right for people to peacefully express their views and their democratic aspirations, and we’re going to continue to do so. There’s no signaling involved.
Yeah. Go ahead, Kirit.
QUESTION: Different topic?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: On Iran --
MR. TONER: No, go ahead.
QUESTION: Wait, just one --
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- more on this. How much influence does the U.S. think that it actually has with the average Russian citizen?
MR. TONER: It’s impossible for --
QUESTION: Well, because --
MR. TONER: -- for me to judge that that. I think --
QUESTION: Well, because --
MR. TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, because the Russians are – at least Putin seems to think you have an awful lot, which suggests to me – which --
MR. TONER: It’s a valid question, Matt, and I think what you’re seeing in Russia – what you’re seeing --
QUESTION: I’d hazard a guess that you have about zero influence with the Russian people, but maybe you don’t. Do you think that you have any influence with them?
MR. TONER: Again, it’s not for us to – it’s for us to state what we believe from this podium or from elsewhere, as the Secretary has over the last few days, in support of the democratic process, in support of people’s rights to express themselves freely. What’s happening in Russia is, as you said, going to be dictated by the Russian people. There were concerns raised by the election, and these people are expressing their concerns as well.
QUESTION: Well, do you agree with – do you – whether you think that you – whether you agree or not, that you – that what the Secretary did was sending a signal to the Russians, do you think that the --
MR. TONER: I do not. But go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. But I mean, what kind of influence do you think you have with the Russian people?
MR. TONER: Again, you’re right to note that this is unique to Russia.
QUESTION: I’m not trying to note anything. I want to know if you agree with Putin that you have significant influence over the way the Russian people approach their democracy.
MR. TONER: I think that the Russian people will make their own decisions about their democracy.
QUESTION: I know. So how much influence do you have?
MR. TONER: I think the Russian people make their own decisions about their democracy. I think we, as the – along with the other democratic nations, will stand up for their rights to express themselves, but I believe they can --
QUESTION: Do you think the Russian people are somehow susceptible to outside influence?
MR. TONER: No. I believe they can make their own decisions about their democracy.
QUESTION: And have? And have?
MR. TONER: And are.
QUESTION: One more on this?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Rosalind.
QUESTION: Is there a – well, first off, what is the U.S.’s view on the likelihood that Putin will become yet again president in 2012?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You said “what is the – ”
QUESTION: What is the U.S.’s view on the likelihood that Vladimir Putin will once again become president in 2012?
MR. TONER: Again, we – our relationship with Russia isn’t linked to one individual. It’s government-to-government, it’s people-to-people. And our concern, as we’ve stated before when asked this question, is about the process and ensuring that the Russian people are able to vote in a free, fair, and transparent manner for the next leadership of Russia.
QUESTION: Now the U.S. has – this isn’t the first time that the U.S. has had anything negative – if you’re a Russian listening to the U.S.’s comments – about the political process, about the guarantee of political actors to do their work, of journalists to be able to do their work inside Russia. And when you put that alongside the failure today of NATO and Russia to reach a deal on missile defense and Russia’s ongoing criticism of the U.S.’s intention to have a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Was this situation coming to a boil and Putin is now reasserting himself and saying, “We’ve had it with Washington.”
MR. TONER: Rosalind, I think it’s a very complex relationship that we have with Russia. And again, that’s exemplified by how we’ve characterized the reset in the past, which is that we work cooperatively with Russia in areas where we share common goals and a common agenda, but where we disagree, we disagree. And that pertains to a number of areas, but certainly when we see – or we have concerns about democratic process, we’re going to raise those concerns. Human rights abuses, we’re going to raise those concerns candidly. But --
QUESTION: Don’t --
MR. TONER: -- just to finish – so, this is the nature of the relationship. In terms of missile defense, there was what we believe was a constructive meeting in Brussels. We weren’t surprised that they didn’t reach an agreement. We’ve been very clear, continue to be very clear that we believe missile defense poses absolutely no threat to Russia. And in fact, it’s in both our interests to work cooperatively on that issue.
QUESTION: And finally, was the building struck by the fact this was a very personal criticism and not simply a criticism of Administration policy? I mean he called her out by name.
MR. TONER: Again, we try not to take anything too personally in this building. We’re going to continue to stand for the ideals such as democratic freedom of expression – democratic ideals, rather, such as freedom of expression, and that’s what the Russian people are expressing right now in Russia.
MR. TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- Press TV has paraded, what they claim is your drone, or the – an American drone that appears to be intact. Do you have any comment on that? I suspect you may not, but in case you do --
MR. TONER: I do not.
QUESTION: And then also there are reports that the Swiss has been called in in Tehran in protest over this. Do you have any confirmation or a comment on that?
MR. TONER: I don’t, Kirit. I can take the question. We often don’t have instantaneous communications between our Swiss protecting power, as you probably recall when – with the case of the three hikers, there’s usually a bit of delay. So I’ll check in on that.
QUESTION: Well, they could have sent a remark to your virtual embassy – if they hadn’t have blocked it. (Laughter).
MR. TONER: If they hadn’t blocked it. They’ll clearly need a VPN if they want to – (laughter)--
QUESTION: Did they – have there been any comments on there about this?
MR. TONER: I don’t believe – I don’t know if we have a démarche page there? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Signed M. Ahmadinejad?
MR. TONER: It’s an interesting idea.
QUESTION: If you’re taking the question --
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- on whether they’ve raised the (inaudible) if you could bring up – if you could check whether they brought up the virtual embassy as well in the meeting with the Swiss ambassador.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Speaking of, have analysts here been able to detect whether people have been able to access the virtual embassy through VPNs?
MR. TONER: Well, it’s – as we talked about, in the first 24 hours, we did receive more than 350,000 page views of our site in Persian. And many of those originated from countries where the Persian-speaking community is negligible. So again, some of these – the concept of the VPN is it sometimes routes individuals through third countries in order to mask their identity or their origin.
So we kind of look at that, the number of page views on the Persian site, as some approximate indication of how many Iranians might be looking at the page. But we continue to believe that people are still able to access the site via VPN, via these virtual – I’ve lost what VPN stands
QUESTION: Private network.
MR. TONER: Private network. Thank you.
QUESTION: Don’t you find it plausible that maybe people are just curious and clicking on your site from different countries? I mean --
MR. TONER: Absolutely. But I’m just saying that the Persian site itself would be an indication.
QUESTION: I mean I clicked on it and I don’t speak Persian.
MR. TONER: Page views, my friend. It’s a matter of hits versus (inaudible).
QUESTION: Yeah. But I mean, you’re making a connection – you’re --
QUESTION: You attracted one then. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: Three hundred and forty nine. Nine hundred and ninety nine --
QUESTION: I’m just curious why – how you make that connection. I mean I’m assuming that there would be enough curious people who could just click on a --
MR. TONER: You’re right, Kirit. It’s an inexact indicator and I wasn’t trying to put it out there as some kind of absolute, spot on figure. I just said that some of these – we see some of these routed through third countries that have negligible Persian speaking communities. It could well be English speakers who were just enthused about it. But also it could be a sign that people are, indeed, taking advantage of these VPNs.
QUESTION: But you have no way of knowing for sure, right? That’s --
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: Is there an update on how many page views there have been since the block came into force?
MR. TONER: Good question. I don’t know that I have that of the – I don’t have an update on the numbers that I gave you yesterday. No.
Yeah. Go ahead, Jill.
MR. TONER: Iraq.
QUESTION: What do we have, about three more weeks before the handover? How is it going in terms of being prepared with the operation of the State Department taking over responsibility? And do you have the final figure on the number of contractor companies that you will be using?
MR. TONER: Yeah. I think we talked before about an overall diplomatic presence in 2012 will be about 15-16,000. Of course, that’s a broad-based number of people that includes traditional diplomats or foreign service officers, business and development experts, security assistance staff, law enforcement officers, commercial, financial, agricultural professionals from a variety of different U.S. agencies. There’s going to be – obviously, the embassy in Baghdad, consulates, consulate generals in Basra and Erbil, and a diplomatic presence in Kirkuk. And there’s going to be – we’re kind of breaking down the staff – and core mission personnel, as well as extraordinary support requirements. In terms of contractors, I’ve seen the number – roughly 5,000 contractors.
QUESTION: And these would be security contractors?
MR. TONER: Well, yes. That’s minus, of course, the Office of Security Cooperation, which is the office that’s designated for our continued security support to Iraq. But I believe that’s a rough figure of the security personnel.
QUESTION: What about the negotiations to keep people to train the Iraqi military --
MR. TONER: Well, I think that’s what I talked about. The Office of Security Cooperation would be envisioned as the mechanism by which we could continue to --
QUESTION: Did you finalize these negotiations?
MR. TONER: -- to offer continued security assistance, and that’s going to support training in support of the Iraqi military.
QUESTION: So you finished --
MR. TONER: I think that’s ongoing. We continue to, I think, engage with the Iraqis about the size and scope of that office.
QUESTION: And Mark, just one overall --
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Right now, with three weeks to go, how’s it looking? I mean there is a lot of criticism, as you know, from people who say you cannot – that the State Department will have grave difficulty in dealing, not necessarily with this operation because you’ve done it in other places, but of this scale.
MR. TONER: Well, you’re right. The scale is significant and there are obviously significant challenges to this kind of effort in a place like Iraq with – given the ongoing security challenges. It’s certainly much improved, but we all know that the reality that there are challenges that remain. The size of the core mission is similar to other large country missions around the world, so you’re right, we’ve done this before. But we’re fully cognizant of the fact that there’s going to have to be a substantial security element there. We’re confident that we’re going to be able to meet the deadline.
QUESTION: Anything about al-Maliki’s coming visit to Washington?
MR. TONER: I don’t have any details on that, sorry.
QUESTION: Any plans to have him meet with officials here at State, I mean other than the White House meetings?
MR. TONER: Once we get a firmer sense of that, we’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Is there any guidance on Shaun’s question to Hormats?
MR. TONER: It’s – essentially, I think, he answered it.
QUESTION: That’s the guidance?
MR. TONER: Well, I think that’s our answer, is that we believe this is – we’ve talked before that think this is a --
QUESTION: There isn’t anything more?
MR. TONER: -- beneficial – would be beneficial to both the U.S. and the India. But at this point, it’s a matter between the --
QUESTION: Well, I understand that, but you’re not disappointed in the decision? Are you sure that there’s not more?
MR. TONER: I think we’re – we’re sure.
QUESTION: You’re sure?
MR. TONER: I’m sure.
QUESTION: Can you look?
MR. TONER: Sure, Matt. But I think Undersecretary Hormats answered it adequately. And then the – he had the --
QUESTION: Well, he didn’t say whether you were disappointed or not in this decision, and that’s what I want to know.
MR. TONER: We’re not. We recognize --
QUESTION: You’re not disappointed that a – major U.S. companies aren’t – can’t get access to a huge market?
MR. TONER: We understand that this is a domestic Indian issue. We understand the government’s decision to allow time for a consensus to be forged. We believe that this is a deal that’s in both our countries’ interests. And we’re --
QUESTION: I know. So are you not disappointed that they’re not going ahead with it now? Are you not disappointed that major American retailers are not going to have access to the world’s second-largest market?
MR. TONER: Again, this – the debate that’s going on now in India is similar to debates over economic policy in the United States. It’s a domestic debate right now. We’re very clear on our position. This is good for both our countries. We believe it should go forward, but we’ll allow that debate to play out in India.
QUESTION: I understand. Are you disappointed --
MR. TONER: I’m not going to say whether we’re disappointed or not. We’re – this is a matter for them.
QUESTION: So you’re happy that American producers and retailers --
MR. TONER: I’m neither happy nor disappointed. You’re asking me to characterize --
MR. TONER: There’s an ongoing debate in India --
QUESTION: I’m not asking you to characterize the debate at all. Would it be good, or would you be happy, or happier, if American companies had access to this market right now, instead --
MR. TONER: I think it’s self-evident that by saying we believe this is in the interests of both our countries that we believe this is a big deal.
QUESTION: Then why is it so sensitive for you – why are you not allowed to say that you’re disappointed in the fact that they made the decision to (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: Because we’re going to allow that debate to play out within --
QUESTION: Really? Are you that – is the Department that concerned that the Indians’ skin is so thin that they can’t even – they can’t take even a hint of you being – of disappointment?
MR. TONER: The Indian Government knows how we feel about this.
QUESTION: Are you at all concerned --
MR. TONER: Yeah?
QUESTION: -- and this seems to parallel almost exactly the process with the civil nuclear deal, where they made you a promise and then they kind of essentially reneged, or they claim that their internal political processes weren’t allowing them to deliver on this promise. Are you concerned that the Indian system – that the Indians just aren’t delivering on all this whole raft of agreements that the U.S. is trumpeting as kind of hallmarks of the new relationship?
MR. TONER: Well, I wouldn’t call it a whole raft of promises. Look, they have their democratic system. This is how democracy works. These big policy decisions need to be vetted and agreed upon and reached through political consensus. That process is playing itself out in both regards, and we’re going to let it do so.
QUESTION: And you think that the relationship is so delicate right now, so tenuous --
MR. TONER: I do not. I do not, Matt.
QUESTION: -- that you can’t express disappointment with something that you’re obviously disappointed in?
MR. TONER: We believe that this is a good deal for both our interests.
QUESTION: Have you fixed the map yet?
MR. TONER: (Laughter). Thanks for asking.
QUESTION: Have you?
MR. TONER: Not yet. Not yet. No.
QUESTION: No? Well, do you think that maybe if you fixed the map, that that might satisfy the Indians enough that they would go ahead and let us in?
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Next question.
Do you have a question?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. There are reports that the vice foreign – North Korean vice foreign minister is applying for a visa to the U.S., for a personal visit, I guess. Is – like, do you have any information about that? Can you --
MR. TONER: I don’t, and I don’t know that we can talk about private visa matters. We don’t usually.
QUESTION: Different topic?
MR. TONER: Sure.
MR. TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: A couple days ago, you were talking about they wanted timely results – how the United States wants timely results and how the United States wants to avoid violence, obviously, in the election aftermath. They delayed it by two days; they were supposed to come up with the results today. How does the United States see it? Was the delay beneficial or are you hopeful that there might be less risk for violence? How do you see the situation unfolding now?
MR. TONER: Well, as you know, the explanation for the delay was that they hadn’t received results from all 169 compilation centers throughout the country. I think Kabila supporters as well as the opposition had said that it’s justified if it does mean more credible election results. We are, I think, optimistic that so far, the reaction’s been positive by political actors in Kinshasa. And we’re expecting, I think, that they’ll announce complete provisional results, I believe, today, by 8 p.m. Kinshasa time, which is 2 p.m. our time here. So we’ll just wait for those election – that announcement to come. But these results, as I understand, are still provisional. They have to be certified by the supreme court.
QUESTION: Do you expect to have more to say later today, as the results come out?
MR. TONER: We likely will.
QUESTION: Different topic? Do you have anything to say about an American citizen convicted in Thailand today for having translated a book that was critical of the king?
MR. TONER: Have we – what’s that? I’m sorry?
MR. TONER: I just didn’t get the last part of the question. Okay.
The United States strongly supports freedom of expression around the world. That’s a phrase you’ve heard oftentimes repeated. We consider it a fundamental human right, so we are troubled by the outcome of this case. We also have no higher priority, as you’ve often heard from this podium, other than the protection of American citizens abroad, so we are engaged with the Thai authorities. We’re also – consular officers from our embassy in Bangkok are in close contact with Mr. Gordon as well as his family.
QUESTION: I think his lawyers have said that they don’t plan to appeal, whether they do plan to seek a pardon. Is that part of the conversations that your officials are having with their Thai counterparts, regarding a pardon?
MR. TONER: Well, I don’t want to get into the middle of the legal process and what his lawyer is saying. I just would say that we’ve conveyed our views about the case to the Thai authorities as well as – and are in the process of offering whatever assistance we can to his family.
QUESTION: And you can’t say whether that engagement includes requesting a pardon? (Inaudible).
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: Do you know – have you raised your concerns with the Thai authorities about the lèse-majesté law in general?
MR. TONER: That’s a good question, Matt. You mean in the context of kind of broader human rights concerns?
QUESTION: In the context of your strong support of freedom of expression and the fact that this is a law that restricts freedom of expression.
MR. TONER: It’s a fair question and I’ll take it. I mean, I don’t know, to be honest with you.
MR. TONER: It would seem normal that we would raise concerns about this, as it does limit freedom of expression, but I just – I want to get you exact answer.
QUESTION: Mark, up on this particular case --
MR. TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- do you see it affecting relations with Thailand? I mean, Thailand’s been a close ally, but do you see this as a – something --
MR. TONER: No, again, we are – we are candid when we – obviously, when we have concerns about freedom of expression and human rights concerns. And of course, this involves an American citizen, which makes it even more important. But we don’t see it adversely affecting the overall relationship.
QUESTION: Can we change topic?
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Said.
QUESTION: All right, on the Palestinian issue.
MR. TONER: Mm-hmm?
QUESTION: The Palestinians are claiming that the settlement pace is moving at an alarming rate, and that’s why they are going to go to the United Nations one more time. Now, the last time they did that in February, you cast a veto. Will you do the same thing if they do exactly the same thing?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry, are you saying they’re talking about going to the --
QUESTION: To the Security Council once again, to complain about an alarming rate of settlement activities in the last few months.
MR. TONER: Well, you raised about – I think your – the premise of your question was about new settlement activity. And of course you know where we stand on that. We’re disappointed by recent announcements in Jerusalem and we’ve raised this issue with the Israeli Government and continue to make our concerns about it known. You also know, as we’ve said, that we don’t believe there’s any answers that lie in pursuing a path through the UN for Palestinian Authority. The only way to reach their goal of an independent state is through the negotiating table.
QUESTION: Yeah. But strictly on the settlements, we have noticed that actually activities have accelerated since last February, since the veto was cast. So if – should they go to the United Nations once again, to the Security Council, you’re saying that the Administration will cast another veto?
MR. TONER: What I’m saying is, as we say about settlement activities, as we say about the pursuit of UN membership, these are not productive ways to move this process forward. Our goal remains the – getting them back into direct negotiations.
QUESTION: Has there been any other productive ways to stop the settlement activities over the past 10 or nine months?
MR. TONER: Has there been any --
QUESTION: Have you been successful in persuading the Israelis to stop settlement activities in the last 10 months? And if not, if – you haven’t, so why not the United Nations as a path?
MR. TONER: Well again, neither of these activities get us to where we need to go, and the sooner both sides – both parties wake up to that fact, the better.
QUESTION: Is there an announcement on exactly when the Quartet is meeting with both sides next week?
MR. TONER: I think next week. Next week.
QUESTION: Yeah, they had --
MR. TONER: There are going to be separate meetings with both sides, but I don’t know that there’s a date – specific date yet. I think the 14th --
QUESTION: Yeah, because he said either the 13th or the 14th.
MR. TONER: Thirteenth or 14th is what I’ve heard.
QUESTION: Would you take the question?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Does the fact that you’re willing to say that you’re disappointed in this construction activity, does that mean that – and you’re not willing to say that you’re disappointed in the Indian decision mean that the U.S. relationship with one “I,” being Israel, is fundamentally stronger or better or more solid than your relationship with the other “I,” India, which seems
to – would you --
MR. TONER: Not at all.
QUESTION: No? Well, why? So you’re not disappointed in the Indian decision?
MR. TONER: No. I just – you’re trying to coax this word out of me, Matt, and I’m just not going to go there.
QUESTION: Well exactly, I want to know why. (Laughter.) I want to know why.
MR. TONER: I think I said to Arshad, I don’t like people putting words in my mouth, that’s one reason.
QUESTION: I’m not trying to put – I want to know why you won’t say you’re disappointed in India’s – an Indian decision that you’re clearly disappointed in. I want to know what the calculus is. Is it the feeling of this building that your relationship with India is so tenuous and so not-solid that you can’t express disappointment with a government decision, that you fundamentally are disappointed?
MR. TONER: Our relationship with India is very solid. What we don’t want to do is get in the middle of a domestic political debate about their future economic policy. That’s ultimately a decision – that is ultimately a decision --
QUESTION: Really? But you’re more than willing to get into a domestic political debate in Israel?
MR. TONER: The --
QUESTION: Never mind. Forget about it.
MR. TONER: All right.
QUESTION: Different issue?
MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.
MR. TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- and its neighbors, the Mekong Commission postponed work on a dam that had been quite controversial. How does the United States see this? Does the United States think it’s a positive step to postpone it? How does --
MR. TONER: We do, and I know the Secretary spoke about this, I believe, when she was at the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting in Bali, and said that there’s a very serious question about this new dam and the possible environmental ramifications. So we view it as a positive sign that they’re delaying and looking at --
QUESTION: This is – hold on. This is a domestic political issue for Laos, whether they go ahead with this. And you’re willing to say that you’re happy with – happy that they’ve decided to postpone – or happy that the Mekong Commission decided to postpone it? And there are reports that the Laos have in fact decided to suspend it.
MR. TONER: It’s actually – I mean, you could argue that this is more of a regional issue, but ----
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. Well, so is the other one as well. I want to know, can you ask SCA --
MR. TONER: India – wait, I’m sorry. India and --
QUESTION: Why. Yeah, yeah. I want to know why --
MR. TONER: That’s a bilateral issue, actually.
QUESTION: I want to know – no, it’s not. It has to do with other --
MR. TONER: Between India and the United States, okay.
QUESTION: It has to do with other international retailers as well. I want to know why SCA is so paranoid that they can’t – that they won’t (inaudible) --
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) We’re not. I don’t know how I could be more matter-of-fact about how I’ve talked about this issue, so – anyway, go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Mine’s actually on Syria. A quick question.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. The Arab media is abuzz in stating or analyzing the return of Ambassador Ford to Damascus as backtracking on part of the Administration and Europeans in trying to reach sort of – some sort of a political or diplomatic issue that keeps Asad in power. Is that true?
MR. TONER: Wow. That’s – no, we – (laughter) – that’s – I think that’s a misperception or – of his return. We’ve been very clear why he went back to Syria, and that is to remain as a voice to the Syrian Government expressing our concern and disgust over the brutal repression of the peaceful opposition movement against the government there, and also to bear witness and to work with civil society there as they approach a democratic transition. So nothing could be further from the truth.
QUESTION: So the Syrian president should not in any way interpret the return of European and American ambassadors as loosening of the noose around his neck, should he?
MR. TONER: No.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), in following that, is he still settling in or has he had any meetings yet since he --
MR. TONER: Yeah, I’m sorry I meant to check in with him. I hadn’t had a chance. I mean – but I don’t know that he’s planning any activities over the weekend. I’ll try to update us as --
QUESTION: Whether he has any plans to – meeting with any government officials, ambassadors, or --
MR. TONER: I’ll try to update you for tomorrow.
QUESTION: How about Syria’s treatment of him since he’s returned? Have there been --
MR. TONER: No incidents that we’re aware of.
QUESTION: Still related to Syria, but on Iraq. I mean, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is coming to town, and he gave an interview today to AP, the Associated Press, where he’s saying that a – that toppling of Asad will lead to a civil war and perhaps a region-wide war. Do you agree with his assessment?
MR. TONER: Said, there’s a lot of unknowns in Syria right now, obviously. But the one known thing is that there is a very public and peaceful cry for democratic change there, and we have to support that process and we have to support the Syrian people as they navigate this. And the Secretary’s meeting with the Syrian opposition speaks to our work in helping them chart a path towards a peaceful democratic transition.
QUESTION: Thank you.
The briefing was concluded at 12:57 p.m.)