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Obama: 'US Cannot Be in Isolation'


President Barack Obama speaks during a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the East Room of the White House in Washington, April 17, 2015.

In a sweeping defense of his expansion plans for enhanced American trade worldwide, President Barack Obama on Friday said the U.S. cannot be in isolation.

"We cannot stop a global economy at our shores,” he told reporters during a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “We’ve got to be in there and compete."

His comments were the first since a deal was made between Republicans who head congressional tax committees and a key Democratic senator to advance a proposed controversial trade agreement called the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Paul Ryan this week changed the TPA to add provisions intended to protect human rights, make the bill's contents public, and other concessions in order to win the support of Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate finance committee.

"In many respects, this is the most far reaching and progressive trade promotion authority that we’ve seen going through Congress," Obama said Friday.

President Obama said his trade advance will protect working class Americans but admitted support within his party was divided.

“The politics around trade have always been tough, particularly within the Democratic Party," he said.

President Obama’s comments came at a wide-ranging press conference in which he touched on hot button issues including Russia-Ukraine, Iran nuclear negotiations and the battle against the Islamic State group.

Earlier, Obama and Renzi affirmed the strong ties between their two countries, stressing common goals of stabilizing global security and improving their respective economies.

"This morning, we focused on our shared security," as well as on economics, trade and Libyan unrest, Obama said.

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Obama said the United States and Europe should maintain sanctions against Russia until it implements a cease-agreement in Ukraine, as Moscow warned that the arrival of U.S. paratroopers to train Ukrainian solders could "destabilize" the region.

"At minimum, we have to maintain the existing sanction levels until we've seen that they've carried out the steps that they're required to under the agreement,'' said Obama.

The U.S. and Europe have imposed a series of sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year and subsequent support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. and European officials say Russian military forces have crossed into Ukraine to support the separatists, a charge Russian officials have repeatedly denied. President Vladimir Putin repeated that denial Thursday in an annual televised question-and-answer session in which he took questions from members of the Russian public.

Meanwhile, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Friday in Moscow that the presence in Ukraine of instructors from "third countries," besides Russia or Ukraine, is "by no means conducive to conflict resolution, by no means fosters an environment conducive to the implementation of the [cease-fire] agreements, but on the contrary, could seriously destabilize the situation."

Violating the sovereignty of Ukraine or any other country "carries a cost for Europe and for the world," Obama said.


The American leader noted the European country has greatly shaped the United States. "The United States would not be what we are and who we are without the contributions of Italian Americans," Obama said.

The prime minister, who took office a year ago after serving as mayor of Florence, said he looked to the United States for guidance in for helping Italy climb out of economic recession. Renzi, head of the center-left Democratic Party, has pushed economic reform.

Over a working lunch, the two will focus on economic issues, "clearly the top priority of both our peoples," Obama said.

The president is pushing a trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which he predicted would create opportunities for businesses and workers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Refugee surge

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Renzi said Italy does not want the Mediterranean Sea to become a cemetery and has already taken a leadership role to confront that humanitarian crisis. It also is the responsibility of all counties in the region - Europe, North Africa and the Middle East - to stop human trafficking in close cooperation with the United Nations, said Renzi.

Referring to Thursday’s throwing of Christian migrants into the sea, Renzi said that was an isolated incident, adding that there is no clash of religions in Italy.

Likeminded countries in the region, Obama said, need to coordinate their political actions to counter terrorism and prevent Libya from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Libya, Obama said, should make more efforts internally to counter the problems facing the country.

Thousands of migrants -- most from war-ravaged areas of Africa and the Middle East -- make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Europe. Humanitarian groups estimate around 500 have died this year as a result of hunger, thirst and exposure in overcrowded and poorly-equipped vessels.

Italy has played a lead role in rescuing those attempting dangerous Mediterranean crossings, but it’s straining to accommodate the humanitarian needs.

Italy’s coast guard has rescued more than 3,000 people trying to cross the Mediterranean since April 10 and approximately 8,500 in the past year, the U.N.’s refugee agency estimates.

This year alone, at least 500 are dead or missing, it said in calling this week for "legal, safe alternatives for those fleeing conflict and persecution" and more resources to aid in search, rescue and monitoring operations at sea.

"Stopping human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea is a priority" for Europe and Italy, Renzi said. Many of those undertaking the dangerous maritime crossings pay exorbitant rates to smugglers, often traveling on rickety or overcrowded vessels.


Italian news media said Renzi was seeking a U.S. commitment to use armed drones in Libya against counterterrorism threats, but Obama told reporters that the subject did not come up in the morning session.

The terrorist Islamic State group has exploited the chaos in Libya, Obama said, and it will take more than weapons to stop it.

“We are not going to be able to solve the problem with just a few drone strikes,” the president said, citing tribal factions and the lack of a central government. “The answer, ultimately, is to have a government that can control its own borders.”

He said the United States would continue working with Italy and like-minded nations on counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing efforts and would continue trying to influence Gulf nations to peacefully settle disputes.

Renzi thanked Obama for his efforts to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba and for the U.S. role in negotiating the framework deal to contain Iran's nuclear program.

Renzi is Italy's fourth prime minister since Obama took office in early 2009.

In an opinion piece for Turin’s La Stampa, former Italian Ambassador Stefano Stefanini wrote that to "get Italy to play" at the top level in international relations, Renzi must forge "an understanding with Washington based on a strong bond of shared values and of solidarity in a dangerous world. That bond needs to be reaffirmed."