Background Briefing: Preview of Secretary Clinton's Keynote Address at the National Democratic Institute's Democracy Awards Dinner

Special Briefing
Senior Department Official
Senior Official, Office of the Spokesperson
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
November 7, 2011

MR. TONER: Thank you so much, and thanks to everyone for joining us this afternoon. As many of you know, the Secretary will deliver the keynote address tonight at the National Democratic Institute’s Democracy Awards Dinner, and we’re very fortunate to have on hand to walk us through some of the major themes and highlights of her speech [Senior State Department Official].

This is an on-background call, as I said, to preview some of the major themes of the speech, so from here on out, [Senior State Department Official] will be referred to as a Senior State Department Official. So without further ado, I will hand the phone over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, Mark, thanks. And thanks to all of you for joining us. Okay. As you know, tonight’s speech is to the National Democratic Institute, which is one of the premier democracy support NGOs here in the U.S., one of the National Endowment for Democracy family. And the Secretary really wanted to use this forum as an opportunity to address some really fundamental questions about the United States and our role in light of the Arab Spring and the changes in the Middle East.

It’s been a year of dramatic change and of a lot of hope and a lot of anxiety, but we’ve been living with this for a good 10 months now. And people in the region and people here in the U.S. are asking some really fundamental questions about the United States response. Do we really believe that democratic change is in our interests, as the President said on May 19th? Why do we have different approaches to pursuing that policy in different places? What happens if parties that we might not agree with on everything or parties with a religious background win in elections? What exactly is the United States role going forward? And also, what about the rights and aspirations of Palestinians?

So these are some of the big, tough questions that people have been asking that the Secretary has heard as she’s traveled around the region, and she wanted an opportunity to address those forthrightly and frankly with the public.

So the speech is going to essentially take those on one by one. She’s going to talk about the reasons why we truly believe that this historic change is in our interest, that as she said back in January back in Doha – for those of you who were there – that some really deep-seated changes have been underway in the Middle East for some time, creating pressure for reform, creating greater demands on the parts of citizens, in order for there truly to be stability in the region, governments need to be responsive to those demands and aspirations.

She’s going to be talking in some depth about specific places around the region, including talking a bit about what we expect from the SCAF in Egypt, talking about the situation in Syria and the fact that there’s a government there that has responded to people’s legitimate aspirations not with change but with rejection that is destabilizing. So she’s going to be trying to make a more in-depth case about why we believe that this change is in our interest.

She’s going to be talking about these issues of consistency country to country and talking about some specific cases. And then when it comes to the issue of who might win elections and what the future shape of politics in the region might be and how we would feel about that: What if the people who get elected don’t agree with our policy preferences? What if the people who get elected have a perspective rooted in religious ideology? And I think she’s going to be fairly forward-leaning in that regard, including with some specific reference to Tunisia.

Let’s see. She’s going to be talking about kind of the issue that a lot of people raise about – do we really believe that this change is in our interest everywhere, or are there places where we’re not really – where we’re not quite as sure about our interests and how they play out.

She’s going to address specifically what the U.S. role is and is not, and the fact that fundamentally these changes are indigenously driven. And we’ve said many times that we respect the indigenous nature of this change, but what does that mean about the way we’re going to play our role going forward?

She’s also going to address the issue of Palestinian rights and aspirations and the Arab-Israeli conflict and how that fits in.

And then I think another important part of this is that she’s addressing an NGO that played a significant role around the region and around the world in supporting civil society and democratic development, and she’s recognizing that the events in the Middle East have created a significant pushback against that kind of support or solidarity on behalf of democracy activists all around the world. And so she’s going to reiterate our commitment to supporting NGOs and civil society as they work to advance democratic growth.

So I’ll stop there and open it up to questions from you.

Mark, did you want to --

MR. TONER: No, that’s great, [Senior State Department Official]. We’ll just – just for your – all of your planning, we will hopefully be able to push out an embargoed version of the speech shortly. So we’ll keep you apprised of that.

And with that, we’ll open it up to any questions you may have. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1. You will be prompted to record your name. To withdraw your request, press *2. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1. One moment.

Ilhan Tanir, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ilhan Tanir from Vatan Daily. Ma’am, thank you for your detailed account – information on the speech. My question is there are those who argue that this Administration, Obama Administration, did not do enough at the beginning, especially those that point to elections in Iran and afterward the protests, or there are those who argue that this Administration did not support or did not do enough to continue former administration freedom agenda in Middle East, and so on. You must be familiar with these arguments. Would you be able to address this – these concerns, and is any way Secretary Clinton is going to talk about starting from the Administration not only Arab Spring but in general terms from the beginning of the Administration handled this question in Middle East? Thanks so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, thanks. I think this is a speech that’s really about looking forward, not so much looking back. She is going to have some specific things to say about Iran, but I think fundamentally we’re dealing with a region that has changed in dramatic ways and in ways that she recognized, I think, quite early on. And she’s going to be talking somewhat about the work that was done even prior to the Arab Spring, but she’s mostly going to be focused on the road ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Next question.

OPERATOR: Arshad Mohammed, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: You said that the Secretary was going to be fairly forward-leaning, specifically on engaging with governments or parties whose views may not coincide with those of the United States. And I think you said in particular she would do that on Tunisia.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Arshad, can you speak up, please?

QUESTION: Yeah, sure. I assume you’re talking about the Ennahda Party in Tunisia. Can you give us more detail on what the Secretary is likely to say about them and about engaging with the new Tunisian Government?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, I’m not going to preempt, and it sounds like you’re going to have an embargoed text in a little while, so your curiosity will be satisfied shortly. But I think fundamentally, there are a lot of questions posed to us about whether we really mean it and do we mean it if certain types of people win.

And I think our fundamental point is that we’re less concerned about whether – what a party is called than about what it does. We’re less concerned about whether Islamists win or lose than we are about whether democracy is winning or losing in the process. And so if parties come to power that don’t respect the rules of democracy, then everybody loses, and we will be on the side of the citizens in those countries who have put so much hope in the democratic process and who have the primary role in enforcing those democratic standards in their own societies.

QUESTION: One other for me, please. Can you give us some sense of what she’s going to say on Egypt, where the military counsel has, in a variety of ways, having not lived up to the hopes of the people in Tahrir Square, let alone of the international community – what is she likely to say there in terms of respect for rule of law, carrying out elections, et cetera, et cetera?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (Laughter.) Well, it sounds like you’re writing it for me. I think the core point here is, as you said, there have been a lot of questions raised in Egypt since the event – since February 11th, since the referendum in March, about the transition path forward, about decisions made by the SCAF with respect to transition timelines and sequencing and substance. And I think what she has in mind to do is to be fairly explicit about what we expect from any transitional authority that says it is there to implement a democratic transition on behalf of its citizens; what does it need to do. And so she’s going to be laying out, I think, some fairly specific expectations in that regard.

QUESTION: And is there much the U.S. Government can do if the supreme council or the armed forces doesn’t do that? I mean, do you have many sort of arrows in your quiver in terms of negative consequences for them if they don’t meet your expectations?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, look, I think this is a very deep and multifaceted relationship, and so we have a lot of ways of addressing issues, both issues on which we agree and issues where we have concerns. I think, though, that the point of your question is getting to one – the sort of force among the hard questions she’s going to be addressing in this speech, which is what is the role of the United States; where and how do we play that role relative to those on the ground who have been making change happen.

QUESTION: Great, thank you.

MR. TONER: Thanks, and next question, please.

OPERATOR: Ilhan Tanir, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi, this is me again. Quickly, it is about Arab Spring, but Turkey is being discussed as well, more the --

MR. TONER: Well, let’s keep the focus, Ilhan – let’s see if there’s any other questions out there and let’s keep the focus on the --

QUESTION: Sure, sure.

MR. TONER: -- speech itself. Thanks, Ilhan.

QUESTION: The question is whether Turkey will be in any way – using as a model for the Arab Spring going forward.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It seems to me that’s really – the question of whether Turkey is or isn’t a model is something that the peoples in the region are going to answer. It’s – that’s not something that those of us outside can answer for them.

MR. TONER: Thanks. Next question.

OPERATOR: Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I guess the Secretary will answer all your questions tonight.

MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Do we have any more questions?

OPERATOR: We have a question queuing up. One moment.

MR. TONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Kim Ghattas, you may ask your question.

QUESTION: Hi. [Senior State Department Official] and Mark, thanks for doing this. Quick question about the extent to which you feel that the United States is able to play some kind of role in the region to help shape events as they unfold and have an influence in shaping the future of this region when you compare the amount of money that the U.S. can devote to training for elections or any other sort of things that you’re trying to do in the Middle East when you compare that to the millions of dollars that other countries are pouring in, sometimes under the table to, for example, fund specific parties in Egypt. I mean, do you feel that you have any influence at all?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Absolutely, I think that we have influence. I think we have influence not only because we are deeply engaged in the region in a variety of ways, and not only because we have a tremendous stake in the outcome here, which gets to one of her core messages for the evening. But also because the citizens of the region themselves have made clear that they see democratic politics as the way to address their political, social, and economic concerns through democracy. That’s how they want to handle it.

And so I think that all democracies – but particularly the United States as a country with significant reach, significant engagement, significant influence across the region – we all have a role to play, and as I said, we all have a stake in how this turns out. And I think she’s going to be talking tonight about exactly how we view that, both the stake that we have and the way we play that role going forward.

Kim, it’s a good point you raised, that we’re doing this in a resource-constrained environment, but I think it’s very important to recognize that money is not everything. The activists who made revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt did not do it with deep pockets. Ideas matter, relationships matter, and the citizens in the region are demanding something different. I think that the Secretary will be talking about what tools we have available – not only assistance, but well beyond assistance – to create a context in which both countries in transition and countries that are undergoing reform feel the pull to constant forward progress.

QUESTION: So may I ask a follow-up question? I agree with you that the revolutionaries who took to the streets and brought down the governments that they didn’t want anymore did not do that with money. But when it comes to elections, money does play a role because it does signal the amount to which you can organize, you can mobilize, you can bring the vote out. And usually, the revolutionaries who have brought down the government end up being on the losing end of that because, as you said, they don’t have deep pockets, and they don’t have what it takes to organize properly, and they may lose in the face of bigger, more organized parties who could be getting money from other sources other than the U.S.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think that’s a good point. I think she’s going to be speaking at NDI, and NDI is an organization that provides a lot of election and political process-related support in the Middle East and around the world, and it played a significant role in party training and candidate training and training domestic monitors and then fielding its own international election observation team in Tunisia. And so that’s one example of the kind of work that we support, that can help to cultivate a quality, free, fair, open, competitive political process.

And it’s very important going forward – as I said, we’re concerned about whether democracy wins or loses in these elections, and that means that you have to have a quality process. You need an independent elections commission that is well administered and can communicate with the public about how to register and how to vote and what the election is for. You need political parties that understand how to run an effective campaign, how to create a platform that resonates with the public. You need candidates who know how to deliver a good stump speech. And you need a media that’s trained to be an active contributor to public information and analysis about the electoral process. That’s the work that organizations like NDI do.

And what we’ve found, I think, in the months since all of this began is that people across the region – parties, NGOs – are hungry for the tools and skills that groups like NDI provides. So I do think it’s important to emphasize, though, that none of this is about directing outcomes. This is about supporting a quality process. We don’t fund political parties. We fund training activities that are open to a wide variety of political parties. And we’re not doing this to shape outcomes. We’re doing it to promote a quality process.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thanks. I think we have time for just one more question.

OPERATOR: At this time, we have no further questions.

MR. TONER: Okay. Well, that works out well, then. Thanks to everyone for joining us this afternoon, and as I said, we’ll look to get all of you an embargoed copy of the speech as soon as possible. And thanks again, [Senior State Department Official], for joining us.


MR. TONER: Yeah. Take care.

OPERATOR: This concludes today’s conference call. Thank you for participating. You may disconnect at this time.

PRN: 2011/1884