THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
The Briefing Room
4:40 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I just wanted to tell you very briefly what I could about today's meeting. As many of you already know from the Prime Minister's own conversation with you out at the stakeout, he had a very productive meeting with the President this afternoon. It started out with a very human touch, with the Prime Minister bringing in his son, Saaded al-Hariri , who is a '92 Georgetown graduate, to meet the President, who, as you all know, is also a Georgetown graduate. And then we had the opportunity to meet with you all and then a chance for about 15 or 20 minutes for the President to talk to the Prime Minister about the work that he has undertaken to reconstruct Lebanon and the work that lies ahead on that issue in particular.
Also in the meeting on the Lebanese side was the Finance Minister, the Lebanese Ambassador here in the United States, and the Prime Minister's Director General. On our side, in addition to the President, of course, was the Secretary of State, Mr. Lake, our Ambassador to Lebanon, Mr. Jones -- first name, Richard -- and also the NSC Director who is responsible for Lebanon, Richard LeBaron.
Their meeting was mostly about the efforts that are underway that are led by the Prime Minister to reconstruct Lebanon to make it a stronger state economically, and to get its security forces ready for that day when we all hope is not too far off when there might be a comprehensive peace in the region, and when Lebanon would need the type of security forces to protect its own territory. As the President said very clearly in the photo opportunity, our goal is to support the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Lebanon. And we are all pushing for that day when Lebanon will be free of all foreign forces and able to assert its sovereignty over all of its territory.
There was a discussion of the travel ban and the desire I believe on both sides to see the day come quickly when that could be lifted. There will be a review of that, as is our practice, every six months. The next time for that review will be in February. We want to take a hard look at that. We hope we will reach the time when that ban could be lifted because so many Lebanese-Americans in particular, and other U.S. business representatives would be able to travel and be able to participate in the reconstruction of Lebanon in a very helpful, we believe, way, and also profitable way.
But our prime concern is, was, and will remain the safety of Americans who are travelling in that area, and we will have to evaluate the security situation very carefully before any moves are made in that direction. And that is what will be the measure of our ability to change that travel ban.
There was a general discussion of the security situation and the Prime Minister articulated very forcefully the need that he sees to have an effective security force, both the normal security forces and a police force. But I believe, as the Prime Minister himself said, there wasn't a specific -- a discussion of specific weapons system or specific transfers that might be required for that to take place.
I'll take your questions if you have any.
Q Mike spoke earlier about the political reality of Syria's influence on Lebanon. To what degree was there any discussion -- I know it's only 15 minutes -- any feeling out of this meeting that Syria is on its way to a sense of thinking on its own, acting on its own without Assad's influence? Speaking specifically to the sovereignty issue.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. I think that what Mike was indicating today and what we all know is that the time when all foreign forces depart Lebanon is likely to be the time when we have a just, lasting, comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. Now, that's something that we're all working on very hard, something that Dennis Ross is trying to push forward on even as we move through the weekend, when they resume the talks in Taba, particularly on Hebron. But there are some political realities that we all have to deal with until that day will come.
Q Excuse me, did you say that they didn't discuss specifics on any military or defense --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They didn't discuss specific weapons systems.
Q Did it come up generally? Was there a general request on the part of the Lebanese side, as I believe there was in meetings with Secretary Christopher yesterday, for such -- for any types of arms systems? And was there a response to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to -- I can't speak to what was discussed yesterday. In today's meeting there was a general discussion of the need for adequate security in Lebanon and to get ready for that day when we would have the type of peace settlement where Lebanon would be able to control all of its territory and all foreign forces would be out. But there was not a discussion of specific weapons systems.
Q Again, to be clear, did the Lebanese side, in that general discussion, generally request that whatever equipment may be necessary when that day comes might come from the United States? Did they even raise that as an issue, like we'd like your help when that comes?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They've made very clear in other discussions that they're quite interested in American materiel to help modernize their security forces.
Q I guess a follow-up is, what is the United States -- this may not have been a part of the discussion, but just generally speaking, what is the United States prepared to offer?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not prepared to get into a discussion of specific systems. We've had some good conversations on that in the past about some specific articles of excess defense material that we might be able to provide, which would be consistent with our interest and theirs. But I'm not prepared to get into listing those.
Q Anything generally speaking?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q In general terms, is the U.S. prepared to discuss -- to even discuss the transfer of lethal hardware, or is the discussion relegated strictly to things involving transportation vehicles and things of that sort?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think I'm going to leave it where I have right now and not get into a discussion of exactly how to define the weapons system which would be appropriate.
Q Is this going to be followed up in any way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Very much so. The discussions between our two governments will continue. One of the things that I should mention, should have mentioned earlier, in fact, is that the United States will very much support a Friends of Lebanon conference where we can get together with other potential donors for the reconstruction of Lebanon. We hope to be in a position soon to announce something very specific on that. We're not there yet, but we hope that that day's going to come quite soon.
Q No, I meant follow it up on this defense issue.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Discussions will continue. I'm not in a position to predict when they would be conclusive.
Q David, on the travel ban, you said they'll address it again in February?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: February is it.
Q What's the venue or format?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, semiannually, we review the ban, and that's when the anniversary date will come, or the semiannual point will come up. That date was not picked today, nor does it have any particular significance except for that was when the six-month anniversary will arrive.
Q Was there any sense that during that review there might be new considerations given to the security situation of Lebanon?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We will evaluate very carefully as we approach that date. We want to be in a position where U.S. businesspeople can travel to Lebanon, but we can only do that in a situation where that is consistent with their safety. And that will remain our foremost measuring stick.
Q What is the primary threat at this point to Americans traveling to Lebanon?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The same as it's been over a number of years -- the groups that operate in that area who threaten Americans on a rather frequent basis.
Q The threat of abduction and further hostage-taking?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q And that has not abated?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it's something that we felt that during the last six-month anniversary had not reached -- abated sufficiently for us to feel comfortable in lifting the ban and allowing Americans freely to travel. There have been a number -- we have allowed a number of Americans, for humanitarian reasons, family reunification reasons, on a case by case basis to travel, but have not lifted that ban on a general basis or at all for commercial travel.
Q Is there any satisfaction that the Prime Minister has any stronger control over these sorts of groups that would pose a threat? I mean, you say it hasn't abated, but any direct --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that's it, it hasn't sufficiently abated.
Q I mean, it hasn't sufficiently for the travel ban, but just beyond -- just underneath the travel ban sort of high bar, is there --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We think that the type of strides that Lebanon has made under the Prime Minister's leadership, particularly in reconstruction and becoming a more normal place to live after the years of violence has contributed significantly to improving the security situation. But we're not where we need to be yet, or at least we weren't during the last anniversary review. We will look very hard at that in February. But we will look hard at it with the measuring stick being the safety of Americans.
Q When the President says he wants -- the United States wants to strengthen Lebanon's sovereignty, is that with the view that it's tied into the Middle East peace process and that there are things that can be done bilaterally?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there are things that can be done an are being done bilaterally, as we work with them, as we try to organize this Friends of Lebanon group, as we try to help in their reconstruction. But I think, ultimately, it is part of the -- it is one of the tracks in the Middle East peace process, and it will be tried to an ultimate solution there.
But Lebanon occupies a very important place economically and culturally in the Middle East, and can make a contribution that probably no other state can, and no other state's people can. And we're wanting to work very hard with the Lebanese government to help in that reconstruction so that a strong Lebanon can reassert itself in the area.
Q Who is involved in the Friends of Lebanon group?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we'll be making an announcement soon on that, on some invitations to be issued.
Q Can you, on another subject perhaps, give us a little extra detail on Mike's hint about Tuesday's speech on NATO, or is that all we're going to get?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think Mike gave you about as good a tease as we can give right now.
Q How about a date? Would it be a date --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Watch this space.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you.
END 4:51 P.M. EDT