En Route Bangkok, Thailand–(ENEWSPF)–November 17, 2012 – 10 AM EST
See below for a correction, marked with an asterisk, to the transcript.
MR. CARNEY: Welcome aboard Air Force One as we begin our very long journey eastward. I have no announcements at the top. I have with me Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.
As is our custom, Ben will do a little preview for you of the trip to come and take questions on the trip and other foreign policy matters if you want to address those to him. And I’ll be here for other issues.
With that, I turn it over to Mr. Rhodes.
MR. RHODES: Great. So we obviously talked a bit about the trip the other day, but just in terms of the next 24 hours — I don’t want to say tomorrow because it’s unclear what day it is in different timezones.
But obviously our first stop is in Thailand. As we said the other day, we felt it was very important to begin this trip by visiting a U.S. ally. Allies are the cornerstone of our rebalancing effort in Asia. And Thailand is actually the oldest treaty ally of the United States, an ally since 1954 and a key partner in Southeast Asia.
So it was very important for us to send a signal to the region that allies are going to continue to be the foundation of our approach. I think in Thailand we’ll be focused on a set of issues to include counter-proliferation, nonproliferation. We’ve been working with the Thais to deal with how to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For instance, the Thais successfully interdicted a shipment from North Korea that was bound for Hamas — not a WMD shipment, but again, smuggling and weaponry. So we’ll be focused on nonproliferation, counter-piracy. We do a lot of work with the Thais on disaster relief. Obviously they had the tragic tsunami there several years ago.
We’ll also be focused on the economic relations between our two countries, and our efforts at ASEAN and the EAS, where Thailand is of course an important member. And so we can get into those issues later, but the President will be having a bilat with the Prime Minister.
Just to take you through the schedule, we’ll get there, we’ll go to Wat Pho, which is one of the iconic cultural sites in Bangkok. Then the President will have an audience with the King of Thailand, the longest-serving monarch in the world, actually, and a very important figure in the Thai system, also someone who was born in the United States, in Massachusetts, but then became King in 1946. I want to make sure you guys have some good facts here on Thailand.
Q Is he an American citizen?
MR. RHODES: We were asking that question. I’m not entirely sure, but he was born in Massachusetts so it would make sense. But of course he’s led Thailand as King for over half a century. After that royal audience, we will proceed to the Government House. There will be an arrival ceremony. The President will have the bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister; then they’ll do a joint press conference, and then she’ll host him at a dinner tonight.
And then early tomorrow morning of course the President will make history by becoming the first U.S. President to visit Burma when we fly into Rangoon tomorrow morning. But I can stop there and take your questions about any part of the trip or anything else on foreign policy.
Q Can we go straight to Israel and Gaza, and give the latest on the President’s reaction and interactions with the leaders there, and reaction to what’s going on.
*MR. RHODES: Yes. Yesterday the President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’s spoken with him each [nearly every] day since this situation unfolded. He reaffirmed again our close cooperation with the Israelis. They discussed the Iron Dome system, which the U.S. has funded substantially over the last several years, and which has been successful in stopping many of the rockets that have been fired out of Gaza. They also addressed the fact that they’d like to see a de-escalation provided that, again, Hamas ceases the rocket fire, which precipitated this conflict.
The President also called both President Morsi of Egypt and Prime Minister Erdogan as well yesterday. It was the second conversation with President Morsi and his first with Prime Minister Erdogan. And the reason the President called both of those leaders is they have the ability to play a constructive role in engaging Hamas and encouraging a process of de-escalation.
And so the President was speaking to them about steps that could be taken to bring an end to the violence. And what we would like to see is those nations like Egypt and Turkey, that maintain relations with Hamas, to help bring this to a conclusion to bring an end to the rocket fire that we’ve seen out of Gaza, and to allow for a de-escalation in the conflict, generally.
The President also in each of his calls expressed regret for the loss of live, including the loss of civilian life by both Palestinians and Israelis since this conflict began.
Q So I understand you guys talked about this — you’ve talked about trying to de-escalate the situation. What’s the U.S. view about a possible ground invasion of Gaza on the part of Israel?
MR. RHODES: Well, look, I think as I said the other day, the Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and operations. I think what we want is the same thing the Israelis want, which is an end to the rocket fire coming out of Gaza. And if that can be accomplished through de-escalation, that would obviously be a positive step forward.
We believe that the precipitating factor for the conflict was the rocket fire coming out of Gaza. We believe that Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.
However, I think we have a shared view that if you could have a de-escalation that brings an end to this violence that would be a positive outcome. We just believe that that has to include putting an end to the rocket fire that has terrorized far too much of the Israeli population for far too long.
Q Ben, wasn’t a precipitating factor also the targeted killing of a Hamas military commander? And what does the President think about that? That doesn’t show up in the readouts that you have had, that doesn’t get discussed. And also, what does the President think about targeting specifically government buildings rather than just military targets in Gaza?
MR. RHODES: Well, just to be clear on the precipitating factor, these rockets have been fired into Israeli civilian areas and territory for some time now. So the Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rockets for far too long. And that is what led the Israelis to take the action that they did in Gaza.
We wouldn’t comment on specific targeting choices by the Israelis other than to say that we of course always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties. But the Israelis, again, will make judgments about their military operations. We support their right to self defense against these rockets. At the same time, we’ll continue to encourage that all steps can be taken to reduce any possible civilian loss of life.
Q To what extent will the President be holding more calls and paying attention to this crisis over the next few days while he’s in Asia?
MR. RHODES: I would anticipate that he’ll continue to work on it. He’s being regularly briefed on it. It’s possible that he’ll make calls. We’ll obviously keep you updated. He’s made a regular series of calls on this since it began.
I should also note that Secretary of State Clinton has been calling her counterparts. She spoke yesterday to the Israeli Foreign Minister, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, other regional leaders. And Tom Donilon, who’s traveling here, has spoken to the Israeli National Security Advisor every day. So I think what you can see from the President on down through his team, there will be a sustained engagement in this issue. And we’ll keep you updated as any calls are made.
Q Ben, other then Iron Dome, what logistical or material or military support is the U.S. prepared to give Israel as this conflict goes forward, if any, and has Israel asked for anything?
MR. RHODES: I’m not aware of any specific requests of that nature. Again, this is an Israeli military operation that they are carrying out with their own military and equipment. I highlight Iron Dome because it’s a system that we funded significantly and it’s played quite a dramatic role in lowering the threat to Israeli citizens since this crisis began.
Q Has the U.S. told Israel that it will not offer any additional support, but that it respects their right to go forward with what it needs to do?
MR. RHODES: We haven’t had that type of request so what we’ve said is that we respect their right to self defense, understand that they have a need to act when their citizens are facing this threat from rocket fire. But there hasn’t been that type of exchange about potential U.S. military involvement.
Q So just to clarify on that and what you said to my earlier question about possible ground troops going into Gaza, it sounds like what you’re saying is the U.S. is not encouraging — specifically encouraging or discouraging that, but just sort of if Israel makes that decision on their own, respects that decision — is that accurate way of thinking of it?
MR. RHODES: Yes, what I would say is Israel is going to make choices about their own military operations, and we respect their right to self defense and the fact that they’re going to need to take certain actions when there are rockets being fired at their citizens from Gaza. I think there’s a broad preference for de-escalation if it can be achieved in a way that ends that threat to Israeli citizens.
Q So are you — is the U.S. encouraging Israel to try to avoid that if they can?
MR. RHODES: We wouldn’t get into what we’re discussing about their specific military tactics. I think just more as a diplomatic matter and a broader matter, we think that if there can be an effort that brings in countries like Egypt and Turkey that have an influence over Hamas and that we can have a de-escalation that ends the threat that Israelis are faced with, that that would be a positive outcome.
Q And are you guys surprised that some of these Hamas rockets are actually reaching into Jerusalem and do you have any knowledge as to where they — where that kind of fire power is coming from?
MR. RHODES: We have expressed concern — and you’ve heard the President actually speak to this — over the course of the last several years about the growing sophistication of these rockets.
I wouldn’t speculate about the exact origin of individual rockets. Obviously there’s been a sustained smuggling effort to get weapons into Gaza that we have sought to combat. And we’ve sent a very strong message in the region that we oppose any efforts to provide arms to groups like Hamas. We’ve seen that be the case in the past from countries like Iran. But I don’t want to specify on individual weapons that have been used in this conflict.
But as a general matter, we are concerned about rocket fire and that’s why we’ve funded the Iron Dome system, and it’s also why we’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to end these smuggling routes that reach into Gaza.
Q On Burma, can you talk about — a little bit more about what the President may say in terms of Burma becoming an intrinsic part of ASEAN for U.S. policy, Burma becoming intrinsically a part of the ASEAN structure for U.S. policy? And also, have we had any concrete indications of how the Burmese military is moving away from North Korea?
MR. RHODES: Burmese military are what, sorry?
Q Moving away from North Korea.
MR. RHODES: Moving away from — well, sure. I mean, stepping back, what we’ve seen over the course of the last year, year and a half is a fairly dramatic transition get underway in Burma. You had a — Thein Sein elected as a civilian leader of the country. You had a release of a substantial number of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party was allowed to stand for election. You’ve seen steps taken to amend labor laws, for instance, to outlaw child labor and forced labor. You’ve seen relaxations on the restrictions that the media faced.
So all of these open the door, in our view, towards a renewed relationship between the United States and Burma. And we see great potential in that relationship both in terms of what the U.S. can do to advance a democratic transition in Burma, but also understanding that Burma is an important country located in an important region, and can become a partner to the United States in ways that will have broader benefits — economic benefits and regional benefits as well.
That said, the transition to democracy is far from complete in Burma. And I think the President’s message when he goes is going to be one of welcoming the progress that has taken place, noting the truly historic developments that we’ve seen over the course of the last year, but also underscoring that more work needs to be done to ensure a full transition to civilian rule, to ensure a full transition to democracy, and to bring about national reconciliation.
In addition to the democratic reforms, we’ve been concerned about the continued ethnic conflicts in Burma. The government has undertaken a number of ceasefires with different ethnic groups. That opens the door, we believe, towards lasting solutions to very longstanding, violent conflicts within Burma.
But you also see beyond those specific ethnic insurgencies, outbreaks of ethnic violence like in Rakhine state, where the Rohingya have been targeted by local population. Now, the government has actually tried to stabilize that situation at times, but I think the President will be underscoring that national reconciliation is also going to be a part of Burma’s democratic transition.
And again, we see great potential, though, as Burma continues to move in this direction for a deeper relationship.
Q On North Korea, has the military made moves away?
MR. RHODES: So we’ve had a dialogue with the Burmese government about the need to reduce their relationship with North Korea. We’ve seen them take some positive steps in that direction. And what we’d like to see, again, is an end to the relationship that has existed between Burma and North Korea. So there, too, we see that as an issue where they have been moving in a positive direction. We’d like to reinforce that action and, again, see Burma break its ties — military ties with the North Koreans.
I’d also say, we’ve begun our own military-to-military engagement with Burma again after a long period of time. Thus far, that engagement has focused on the professionalization of the Burmese military and also human rights training that we can provide. Over time, I think we can also see that type of bilateral engagement lead to regional engagement. So for instance, the U.S. does a lot of exercises with Thailand and other regional partners; you could begin to see Burma become a part of that effort.
Q We know a lot of human rights advocates have told us, and I know have told you directly, that the U.S. has already rewarded the steps that they’ve made so far and that this is too big a prize — the President — a presidential visit — given how much is left to be done. And on the call the other day you guys said, we’re not declaring victory, but at the same time this is a very big, symbolic step. So how do you respond to those folks who are focused on human rights and point to all the things that Burma has yet to do?
MR. RHODES: We believe it’s very important to show up, and that if we want to promote human rights and promote American values, we intend to do so through engagement. And I think there’s a track record here of the U.S. engaging and seeing positive actions taken by the Burmese following that engagement.
So for instance, following the announcement of the Secretary’s trip and the announcement of a U.S. ambassador, we saw successful parliamentary elections held; we saw prisoners of conscience released; we saw laws passed in the parliament that address issues like labor and child soldiering.
So in other words, when we made those first announcements there were questions raised — and valid questions — about whether it was too soon to send a Secretary of State, whether it was too soon to take some of these steps. But what we saw following that was continued positive action by the Burmese. At this point, we absolutely do not think that they are at the end of the road; they’re at the beginning of the road of a democratic transition.
But that’s why it’s all the more important, we think, for the President to go and to underscore what we believe is a positive momentum in this transition, and also to point forward in his private and public comments to the type of action we’d like to see locked in, in Burma as it relates to political reform, as it relates to economic reform, and national reconciliation.
So we share the concerns that have been raised by a number of groups about some of the continued human rights challenges in Burma. We think that the best way to address those challenges is to engage and to have the President go and deliver those messages directly to Burma’s leaders and people, even as he welcomes the steps they’ve taken.
Q Will his speech be televised in Burma, do you know?
MR. RHODES: I don’t know. I have not looked into that.
Q Is there anything that the U.S. is doing to make sure that people on the ground hear what he has to say along the lines of what you did in Cairo a few years ago?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I’m sure. We can — I can take the question onboard. I know our embassy always takes efforts to amplify the President’s words. We’re also meeting with civil society leaders while we’re there, and we use our contacts to make sure we’re getting our message out. But I’ll check the specifics of your question.
Q On a similar type of question, in Cambodia there are similar questions raised about the President’s trip there. Of course, he’s there because ASEAN is there and the East Asia Summit is there. But is he planning — I noticed there’s no plan for a pool spray or anything after his meeting with Hun Sen. Is there any — going to be any effort for the President or the White House to tell the people of Cambodia what he tells Hun Sen about human rights? In other words, to tell him that we told him, cut this out.
MR. RHODES: Well, I’d say a couple of things. First of all, we are going to Cambodia to attend a summit, and I think it’s fair to say that we would not be having a bilateral visit in the absence of the multilateral business that we’re doing in Cambodia. So the President is going to attend the ASEAN meeting and the EAS meeting.
As it relates to Cambodia’s human rights situation, we have very grave concerns about human rights within Cambodia. The President will raise that certainly when he sees Hun Sen. We’ll raise it publicly in every opportunity that we have to address it. We’ll continue to make clear that we want to see greater political freedom in Cambodia. We want to see a movement towards an election that is credible and fair. We want to see the release of political prisoners there as well.
I think one of the broader messages of the trip, though, is that we want to reinforce that the path that Burma has begun is the right path for the region, and if Burma can continue to succeed in a democratic transition, that could potentially send a powerful message regionally and around the world that countries that take — and this is an important reason of why we’re going and why we’ve taken the steps that we have. When countries do take the right decisions, we have to be there with incentives. If you have a situation like a country in Burma, that had been walled off from the United States, walled off from the global economy, begin to take positive action, you need to show not just the people of Burma but other leaders around the world that if you do the right thing, you’re going to find incentives on the other end of those decisions.
So that’s the type of example we want to set to Cambodia and other countries as well, that you have benefits to be gained from moving in the direction of democracy and respect for human rights.
Q Does that mean that aid to Myanmar is going to be announced as part of this visit?
MR. RHODES: Any what?
Q Any aid?
MR. RHODES: Well, we’ve taken a number of steps recently. For instance, just the other day we eased our import ban to allow Burmese export products into the United States, just as we’ve also lifted or eased our investment ban to allow U.S. businesses back into Burma. There is a — I would anticipate that we’ll be addressing our assistance relationship. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as new announcements, but I’ll keep you posted, yes. I mean, I’m —
MR. RHODES: — the point being that our USAID mission is — has a significant potential now to get engaged in areas that we’re focused on in Burma, like democratic development, education and other areas. So I think the President will be speaking to that.
Q So there may be an announcement, you’re just not going to make it now? Okay.
MR. RHODES: Possible, but I don’t want to — you’ll see. (Laughter.)
Q A Benghazi question. General Petraeus yesterday apparently testified that he knew from the outset that there were terrorist elements involved in the attack on the consulate, included it in a draft report, and then it was — the specifics of who those participants may have been were removed. Do you know where — when they were removed, by whom, and why?
MR. RHODES: On the question of the initial intelligence assessments and the way in which they evolved in the first days and weeks after the attack, again, we in the White House are guided by the information that we receive from the intelligence community, from the CIA and other intelligence agencies. It’s only natural that in the first days after an attack, they’re going to sort through different pieces of intelligence, they’re going to gain a better understanding of what happened, and they’re going to continually update their assessment.
Now, in terms of — I think the focus of this has often been on the public statements that were made by Susan Rice and other administration officials in that first week after the attack. Those were informed by unclassified talking points that we — that were provided to the Congress and to the interagency — the rest of the administration by the intelligence community. So that’s what informed our public statements.
Now, if there were adjustments made to them within the intelligence community, that’s common, and that’s something they would have done themselves within the intelligence community.
What we also said yesterday, though — because this question came up as to whether the White House had edited Susan Rice’s points and the points that were provided to Congress and the administration — the only edit that was made to those points by the White House, and was also made by the State Department, was to change the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” since the facility in Benghazi had not — was not formally a consulate. Other than that, we worked off of the points that were provided by the intelligence community. So I can’t speak to any other edits that may have been made within the intelligence community.
Q Does that mean that nobody at the White House asked the intelligence community to leave that out of their recommended points?
MR. RHODES: I’m saying that we were provided with points by the intelligence community that represented their assessment, and the only edit that was made by the White House was the factual edit as to how to refer to the facility.
Q But why, if the head of the CIA believed that it was something different, why would talking points point people in a different direction? It just doesn’t make sense.
MR. RHODES: Well, I can’t speak to what the process is within the CIA. What I can say, though, is that those points and what Susan said, for instance, indicated that we believed that extremists were involved in this attack. The President himself called it an act of terror, right? So you have an initial impression and an initial judgment, but you get — you’re able to get more specific as you learn more facts and as an investigation proceeds. That’s just going to be the natural progression of events.
So again, I think if you go back and look at even the initial statements we were making, it referred to the involvement of extremists. Naturally, you have to do some work to examine exactly who those extremists are and what the sequence of events were. So I think that even a lot of those initial comments reflected a belief that this was an action that involved extremists; that clearly was focused on attacking Americans; and that, in the President’s own words, constitute an act of terror.
Q Did Petraeus discuss with other people at the CIA and his former advisors and former colleagues what he was going to say in that briefing beforehand since he’s officially no longer part of the CIA?
MR. RHODES: I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the CIA. I’m not aware.
Q It’s a fiscal cliff question.
MR. CARNEY: Bring it on.
Q Jay Carney reemerges.
Q Bring on the cliff?
Q I thought you guys weren’t for the fiscal cliff.
MR. CARNEY: Bring the fiscal cliff question on.
Q There are reports that the negotiators are looking at kind of a two-part process where there’s a down payment agreed upon by the end of this year, the number $50 billion has been mentioned. And then agree also on a framework that would be — that the details of which would be kind of put in — engraved in stone later in 2013. Is that something that the President is looking at? Does he agree with that approach?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Jim, as you know, both the President and his team and congressional leaders from both parties felt that yesterday’s meeting was very constructive. And everyone expressed a desire to reach an agreement that reflected the shared goal of achieving a balanced approach to deficit reduction and an approach that enabled the economy to continue to grow and create jobs.
The President, as he said at the top of the meeting to you, and has said publicly, and certainly said within the meeting, believes very strongly that we should provide security to the middle class in the United States, to 98 percent of American taxpayers, by extending those tax cuts for the middle class right away. And that would be an extremely positive step to take for the economy, for the middle class; especially as we approach the end of the year and the holiday shopping season, it would be greatly reassuring to families and greatly reassuring to retailers. And it would also address in one step more than half of the so-called fiscal cliff.
In terms of how the process moves forward, yesterday was an initial meeting. Staffs — the President’s representatives will be consulting with members of Congress and their staffs in this coming week while the President is traveling. And the President will be meeting again with congressional leaders in the week after Thanksgiving, I expect.
But we don’t want to get ahead of the process, and to speculate about how the balanced approach to deficit reduction will be achieved I think does get ahead of the process.
Q The question was about whether there’s a two-tier solution.
MR. CARNEY: We’re getting way ahead of the process to talk about — to speculate about how we would achieve the goals that all the leaders in the room yesterday expressed. There are a number of steps that I’m sure the President and leaders will consider, but I don’t want to characterize what the process will look like because we’re not near the finish line by any means.
Q Is it true that Secretary Geithner is the point man leading the White House discussions on this, and Jack Lew is sort of the number two on that?
MR. CARNEY: No, both Secretary Geithner and Chief of Staff Lew will be very involved in this process. But we don’t have designated team leaders. They’ll both play very important roles.
Q Will we start seeing any potential new Cabinet members being nominated?
MR. CARNEY: I have no announcements to provide to you either on personnel or on the timing of personnel announcements.
Q Was Pelosi’s comment that an agreement is in sight, she thought, she said that the other day, is that overdoing it a bit?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I wouldn’t want to overly characterize what Leader Pelosi said. I think that — my guess is that comment reflects the sense that the President has and other leaders had in the room that everyone there believes that we need to address these challenges; that we need to take steps to avoid the fiscal cliff; and we need to take steps to get our fiscal house in order. And as the President has said publicly, he very much appreciates the tone of statements made by Republicans, leaders as well as non-leaders, about the need for revenue, and therefore balance in an approach.
And that’s obviously positive, but there is much — there is work to do, and I don’t want to get ahead of the process. And I think — I want to reiterate that the President is very focused on the issue of extending tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people. This is a step that Republicans and Democrats support. It’s a step that should be easy to take, given the unanimity for support for extending middle-class tax cuts.
And it is not simply a positive step for those millions and millions and millions of families who would benefit from it, but it would be positive for the economy and would help us avoid more than half of the so-called fiscal cliff. We need to get that done. We cannot hold hostage tax cuts for the middle class because of an insistence to provide tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of the American people. So I want to reiterate that the President will not sign an extension of the so-called high-end Bush tax cuts.
Q And does the President have any reaction to the iconic American company, Hostess, going out of business, ending iconic American brands like Twinkies and things like that?
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t discussed that with him, no reaction to give.
Q Can I get a quick foreign policy —
MR. RHODES: Yes.
Q Two parter — there weren’t any bilats with Putin scheduled, but I’m wondering whether the President will have — pull aside or some interaction with Mr. Putin during the trip.
MR. RHODES: There’s none planned. He spoke to President Putin the other day as part of the calls he was receiving from world leaders expressing congratulations. So they were able to speak. You’ll have to check if whether President Putin is coming or not to the summit, but no, there’s no bilat planned with Russia. The ones that we anticipate — the leaders that we anticipate the President meeting on the margins right now are Premier Wen of China, Prime Minister Noda of Japan — so nothing on Russia.
Q Do you — obscure Indonesia question, which is I know that Burma or Myanmar is a potential — something that has a lot of potential that the President really cares about. And I’m wondering whether any of that has an emotional tie to his years in Indonesia and its transition from a military regime to a democracy, whether that’s something that he’s talked about at all with you.
MR. RHODES: Well, I’d say two things. I mean, obviously, our relationship with Burma is guided by U.S. interests, U.S. values, and that’s what — that is what has driven our process.
The President I think has expressed two things that I think would be — are relevant to your question. One is, given his time spent in Indonesia, I think he has an appreciation of the dynamism of this part of the world; that Southeast Asia has a great amount of diversity, a great amount of potential, and I think the President has been heartened to see it take off in recent years with the rapid growth of the economy in the region, the advance of democracy in places like Indonesia.
Secondly, the President has spoken about Indonesia’s democratic transition. He did it in the context, for instance, of the Arab Spring when it was first taking place. And in Indonesia what we saw is a military that had to relinquish power. And it took time, and there were difficulties along the way, but because of the decisions that were taken in 1998, we now see an Indonesia that is far more democratic and sets a very positive example. It took time. It wasn’t overnight. So I think people need to understand that a transition from a military-run government to a civilian-elected government is going to take a period of years.
But Burma, like Indonesia, has begun that process and, frankly, can look to Indonesia as a positive example of how you can make that type of transition from military to civilian government, and, by the way, prospers significantly in doing so. There have been some people who’ve said, for instance, that democracies are no longer the best models for development. Well, Indonesia is a good counter to that. They’ve had extraordinary economic growth in the years since they’ve become a democracy.
Q I have two quick questions about Thailand. One is he’s going to see the King, who is obviously not in good health right now. There’s a speculation that when the King dies it will be — create some instability in the country. Is that something the U.S. or the President is concerned about looking forward?
MR. RHODES: I’d just two things. It is true that the King has been an extraordinary figure in Thai history and has been the source of unity for the people of Thailand. Thailand also of course has an elected government. And one of the purposes of our engagement with Thailand is to reinforce the strength of their democratic institutions. They’ve had their own challenges in recent years — in defining a military’s role, for instance, in their political system. We have close relationships with the — across the Thai government and across the Thai military. And what we want to do is strengthen Thai democracy by, again, investing our relationships in the institutions that they’re building — or the democratic institutions that they’re building so that whatever challenge emerges, Thailand’s democracy is strong enough to weather those challenges.
Q And the Prime Minister and her brother — one of the reasons that they’ve had trouble domestically is this health care program for the poor that he originally put in place. I’m wondering if the President can relate to that at all or has thought about that.
MR. RHODES: I think every country has extraordinary challenges in providing health care or helping their people achieve health care. I think we have spent enough time in our own domestic politics working on the health care issue so we’ll refrain from getting into health care debates in other countries. Obviously, the broader goal of caring for the sick and providing health care is one that is shared around the world.
Q Yes, but I just thought maybe it would be a bonding point.
MR. RHODES: Yes, well —
Q He wasn’t kicked out in a coup, but almost.
MR. RHODES: Well, again, what we’ll say is the Prime Minister is Yingluck; it’s not her brother. So she’s the one that we deal with. And it’s not uncommon for the President to talk to his counterparts about their respective domestic challenges, but I’ll leave it to them to figure out what to talk about.
Q Thank you.