Interview With David Gregory of NBC's Meet the Press
Secretary of State
SECRETARY CLINTON: It’s great to talk with you from Singapore, David. Thank you.
QUESTION: Let me begin by something that’s very controversial back home, as you well know, the decision by the Attorney General to transfer some of the high-profile prisoners from Guantanamo Bay from the prison there. The self-proclaimed perpetrators of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and make them stand trial in New York.
As you know, the reaction has been fierce on Capitol Hill among mostly Republicans, but some Democrats too, saying that there’s no reason to give these prisoners the rights of the common criminal. On the other side, you have Mayor Bloomberg of New York saying that it’s the right thing to do, to make them stand trial just a few blocks away from where the World Trade Center stood.
Where do you stand on this?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, David, this was a very comprehensively examined decision that the Attorney General and the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense reached in who would be tried in federal court, who would be in the military commission system that the Obama Administration has revised. And I’m not going to second-guess any decision that the Attorney General made, but I think it’s important that Mayor Bloomberg, that our law enforcement officials in New York, all believe that New York City not only can handle this, but that it is appropriate to go forward in the very area where these people launched this horrific attack against us.
I was a senator from New York, and I want to see them brought to justice. The most important thing for me is that they pay the ultimate price for what they did to us on 9/11. And if the Attorney General and veteran prosecutors think this is the best way to achieve that outcome, then I think that they should be given the right to move forward as they see appropriate.
QUESTION: Do you agree with those who say that this exposes New York City to unnecessary risks of terrorism?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No, and I think Mayor Bloomberg, the Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, these are people who put the interests of New York above all else. And they clearly believe that this can be handled in New York. I have the greatest confidence in the law enforcement personnel and leadership in New York City.
Obviously, it’s a very painful experience for families to have to go through. That is something that pains me. But we are a nation of laws, and we have two different venues for holding these people accountable, the military commissions and our federal courts. And the individual decisions that the Justice Department and the Defense Department have made, along with the advice of veteran prosecutors, I think should be respected.
QUESTION: When is a realistic deadline now for Americans to expect the prison at Guantanamo Bay to be shut down?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think as soon as possible. But obviously, there are some challenges. I think that every American should understand that closing Guantanamo was a commitment that President Obama made. It was very well received around the world because Guantanamo had come to represent not the America that we all believe in and that we hold dear – our values and the way we behave. And so closing it is a commitment that the President made that he will follow through on. The timing is kind of dependent upon how we answer all these other issues.
QUESTION: Let me move on to another big issue, and that’s Afghanistan. When are we going to hear the President’s decision about whether to send more troops?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I mean, the President is going to be making that decision when he is ready to announce it. I think he stopped at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska on his way to Asia, and I know that he told the troops there that he’s going to make a decision that will give them the support they need for the mission that he asks them to fulfill, and that he’s also going to make the case to the American public both to support the mission and, as always, to support our troops.
QUESTION: But let me zero in on a key issue here, and that, of course, is the issue of how many troops. We know General McChrystal is requesting 40,000 troops or perhaps more. General Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, weighed in on this topic and it was reported on this week, as you well know. This is what The Washington Post said on Thursday, and I’ll read it for you:
“The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the past week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until President Karzai’s government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban’s rise. The ambassador also has worried that sending tens of thousands of additional American troops would increase the Afghan Government’s dependence on U.S. support at a time when its own security forces should be taking on more responsibility for fighting.”
QUESTION: It’s been reported that you actually support as many as 30,000 additional troops being sent to Afghanistan. Obviously, Ambassador Eikenberry reports up to you. What is your response to those cables and to that point of view?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, David, of course, I’m not going to discuss any of the confidential advice that anyone has provided me or the President during this process. But I think what you obviously know is that there are many different views about how best to work with the Afghan Government. And one of the points that we are stressing is that our goal is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida. That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. It’s about our national security. We do want to see the Afghans be able to defend themselves, which means being able to stand up a security force that is capable of fighting the Taliban, which is a part of the syndicate of terror that was basically inspired, funded, and directed by al-Qaida. But we’re going to expect more from the Afghan Government going forward, and we’ve got some very specific asks that we will be making.
QUESTION: Do you believe that President Karzai is an effective partner, a reliable partner, and that sending more U.S. troops would actually be effective?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, again, I believe that he has his strengths and he has his weaknesses. Certainly, there are many improvements in Afghanistan over the last eight years, but there has not been the kind of open, transparent, accountable government that stood against corruption, that delivered services to people, that I think the people of Afghanistan are seeking and that we would all like to see for them. And particularly, we have some work to do to assist and mentor and train an Afghan security force.
What I hear all the time from people in Afghanistan and reports from others who are talking on a regular basis to people across the country is that the basic attitude in Afghanistan is they do not want to see a return of the Taliban. That was a horrible period that they remember all too well. They do want security. They want a government that can protect them and can deliver at least some services, whether it’s from the central government or the local district government. They also want to make sure that we help them create a security force that can then take over.
As one person memorably said, look, we want your help to enable us to defend ourselves, and then we want you to go. Well, that’s a pretty good summary of what want to do. We want to get al-Qaida. We want to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat those who attacked us. And we want to be able to give the Afghans the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves. We’re not interested in staying in Afghanistan. We’re not interested in any long-term presence there. We came to do a job, and unfortunately, it wasn’t done over the last eight years.
QUESTION: Define the exit strategy, if that’s the President’s view.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I’m not going to define the President’s view and I’m not going to define the exit strategy from a mission that he hasn’t even yet announced to the American public. And I guess I would just put this in a larger context with making these points, David.
Number one, I have traveled consistently for the last nine months. I think I’ve been in more than 40 countries. I’ve met with countless leaders. I’ve done a lot of public diplomacy, getting out there, listening to people. I don’t think I can overstate how damaged our country was in the eyes of people around the world when President Obama took office. And we’ve been working very hard to just get us back to a point where we can have the kind of open, candid conversations that lead to decisions being made that will benefit the United States and move us toward goals like more peaceful, prosperous outcomes for us and – on many parts of the world.
Secondly, I think it’s important to underscore that we see the fight against al-Qaida and the syndicate of terror in the security interests of the United States. I think that kind of got lost the last eight years with a lot of talk about how it wasn’t important to get bin Ladin, that we were there for some other reason. No, it’s critical to get those who attacked us. That is what we are there for. And what we are trying to do is to assess the best way forward so that we can go anywhere in the United States and anywhere in the world and say the same thing: You have to understand that we believe this syndicate of terror is a threat not just to the United States and our friends and allies, but to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and many others.
QUESTION: Let me turn to the issue of China, where you and the President head next. The lead of a New York Times story out this morning about the President’s visit there says this: “When President Obama visits China for the first time on Sunday, he will in many ways be assuming the role of profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker.” With that as the backdrop, with China holding so much U.S. debt, $2 trillion worth, what is your assessment of U.S.-China relations?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that our relations are on a positive, cooperative basis with a comprehensive agenda that we are exploring together. Secretary Geithner and I co-chair the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that we started this year, because we didn’t want to just have an economic dialogue, we wanted to have a much more comprehensive engagement. I think that there is evidence that there are some positive results already. The Chinese have stood with us in the sanctions against North Korea. The Chinese are part of the P-5+1 effort to try to engage Iran on its nuclear program. We are seeing signs of a cooperative relationship.
Now let me go to the premise of your question. When I ran for president, I started saying all the time that, in effect, we were ceding our fiscal sovereignty and that China was our banker. So it’s not news that that’s going to be in the papers on the eve of our visit to China. We have to get back to fiscal responsibility. It breaks my heart, David, that in 2001 we had a balanced budget and a surplus, and if we had stayed on that path we were heading toward eliminating our debt. Well, here we are eight years later, thanks to wars that weren’t paid for, thanks to financial collapses and so many other crises that we inherited. But the President understands clearly that we have to get back some control over time of our fiscal sovereignty.
QUESTION: Can I ask you something different about China, which is in light of the fact that China has a robust espionage policy against the United States, that they are cooperating with Iran in international affairs. Are they hurting our national security interests?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, look, we are well aware of not just one country but many countries that try to gain advantage, not just politically and strategically, but commercially vis-à-vis our own country. And we are also well aware that many countries have relationships with those with whom we do not. But I think it’s more significant that China signed on to our P-5+1 statement in New York, China has been at the table as we have been pushing Iran to fulfill what they agreed to in principle to send out their low-enriched uranium so that it can be reprocessed elsewhere.
So I think it’s a much more complicated and mixed story. But I travel on behalf of our country and I meet with leaders from all over the world every day, and I have no illusions going in to any meeting that anybody stands for America’s interest besides me. The task is to look for where we can find common ground and common interests. It is significant that China signed on to the toughest sanctions ever against North Korea, because we worked very hard to make the case that those sanctions were not just something that America or South Korea or Japan wanted, but they were in the interest of China.
Similarly, in my conversations with Chinese leaders, I make it very clear that a nuclear-armed Iran will destabilizes the region that produces the oil and the gas that China desperately needs and for which they have contracts. So why wouldn't we try to stabilize the region by preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place?
So that’s what diplomacy is about. I mean, you don’t – you start from the premise of what are your security interests, what is it that you wish to present, and how do you make the case that what you’re seeking is also in the interests of your counterpart?
QUESTION: Before I let you go, you know whenever I get a chance to talk to you, I like to ask you about a little bit of politics. And I know you’re over there in Singapore and you may not have heard --
SECRETARY CLINTON: I’m out of politics.
QUESTION: You may not have heard, but Sarah Palin has a new book out. And in, it she writes this: “Should Secretary Clinton and I ever sit down over a cup of coffee, I know that we would fundamentally disagree on many issues. But my hat is off to her hard work on the 2008 campaign trail.”
Is this somebody you’d like to sit and have coffee with, and do you plan to read the book?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I absolutely would look forward to having coffee. I’ve never met her, and I think it would be very interesting to sit down and talk with her. And I’ve got more than I can say grace over to read. But obviously, in the next week, there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to her book, and I’m sure that I’ll see excerpts printed and snippets of interviews as I channel surf in Singapore and in Shanghai and in Beijing. But I’m ready to have a cup of coffee. Maybe I can make a case on some of the issues that we disagree on. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: So maybe there’s a summit meeting here. What do you think her brand of conservatism – how does that impact the Republican party?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I truly am out of commenting on politics. That is something that is not appropriate for the Secretary of State. But I am an active observer. And obviously, these are questions that you and others are going to be asking, and I look forward to hearing what people answer.
QUESTION: It was worth a shot. Secretary Clinton, thank you very much.
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Thanks, David. Good to talk to you.