Interview With Elise Labott of CNN
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thanks so much for joining us. We’re here in North Africa a year after the Arab Spring. It’s a new region. Most – Islamists are in power in many of these countries. And when you were speaking in Tunis yesterday, you kind of suggested that you have concerns that maybe some of these transitions are faltering and risk being hijacked by extremists.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, that is certainly not my concern. It should be the concern of anyone who is watching these transitions. Let’s take a step back. On the one hand, the elections have gone well. People have been empowered and enfranchised. But democracies don’t equal elections. A lot more must be done to ensure that people’s rights are protected, women’s rights are protected, there’s no discrimination of the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and all the freedoms that really go with a democracy. So as I’ve said, we’re going to listen to what these new governments say and we’re going to watch what they do.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about Egypt, these 16 Americans working for NGOs expected to go to trial today. You’re having talks with them. Where do they stand?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Elise, we are having intense talks at the highest levels of the Egyptian Government because, obviously, we’d like to see this resolved. Our relationship with Egypt is, I think, very important to both countries, and we have a lot of work to do together. We want to support the new Egyptian Government, we want to support the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and we have to resolve this matter.
QUESTION: Are you going to surrender them for trial if you can’t resolve it?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I’m not going to go into any of the legal issues. We’re just trying to get it resolved.
QUESTION: But this is a country – I mean, how do you feel about this? Thirty years, you’ve been supporting the Egyptians, and this is what they do to the Americans?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t want to go making this a dramatic confrontation. It’s a problem. We have problems with a lot of our friends around the world. We’re trying to resolve it.
QUESTION: Okay. On Syria, you’re really making an effort to peel away Assad’s inner circle. Are you hearing from anybody? Is anybody contacting you?
SECRETARY CLINTON: We have a lot of contacts, as do other countries, a lot of sources within the Syrian Government and the business community and the minority communities. And our very clear message is the same to all of them. You cannot continue to support this illegitimate regime, because it’s going to fall, so be part of an opposition that can try to have a path forward that will protect the rights of all Syrians.
QUESTION: But what about the message that the Syrian National Council is sending to those inside Syria? Do you think they’re sending the right message?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think it’s very difficult to form an opposition when you have no place to operate out of inside the country you’re trying to change. In Libya, we had a very effective operation in Benghazi that gave us an address. We could deal with people. It represented Libyans across the country. We don’t have that in Syria. And the Syrian National Council is doing the best it can, but obviously it’s not yet a united opposition.
QUESTION: What are you – how far are you prepared to go to get this aid in? I mean, the shame tactic, it doesn’t seem to be working. And today – and Russian state paper Pravda is calling you the despicable one. I mean, how are you going to get that aid in if they won’t – if President Asssad won’t do it and the Russians won’t pressure him to do it?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that that speaks for itself. I think that the Syrian people themselves need to start acting on behalf of their fellow Syrians. Where are the people inside Syria who are going to demand that men, women, and children cannot be assaulted and left to die, given no medical care, no food, no water. And look, I think that Russia has a commercial relationship, ideological relationship with Syria. It’s made its decision to stand on their side.
QUESTION: Well, are there going to be – are there consequences to the relationship with Russia if they’re not willing to at least help, use their influence to provide the aid?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I mean, I think we’ve already seen some very clear disagreements played out in public between us, but at this point, we’re doing everything we can to marshal public opinion internationally and work with neighbors in the region to try to get that humanitarian aid in.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about Afghanistan. The Embassy’s in lockdown right now?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes.
QUESTION: And employees not allowed to go anywhere?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No.
QUESTION: Okay. Listen, President Obama’s apology has become very controversial. I mean, obviously Newt Gingrich and others have made this apology part of the campaign, but other experts in Afghanistan are saying this apology sends the wrong message, it gives the Taliban the excuse to go against us, to help use our enemies against us. And also, a lot of these attacks that are happening against Americans, these horrible attacks, seem to be in retaliation for something the U.S. is taking responsibility for.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I find it somewhat troubling that our politics would enflame such a dangerous situation in Afghanistan. I well remember during the eight years of President Bush’s administration, when something happened that was regrettable, unintentional, as this incident was, President Bush was quick to say, look, we’re sorry about this, this is something that we obviously did not mean to do. That’s all that President Obama was doing, and it was the right thing to do, to have our President on record as saying this was not intentional, we deeply regret it. And now we are hoping that voices inside Afghanistan will join that of President Karzai and others in speaking out to try to calm the situation. It’s deeply regrettable, but now it is out of hand and it needs to stop.
QUESTION: On Iran and the IAEA report, damning evidence that Iran is continuing to build these underground sites. What do you think is going on at these sites, and are they playing for time? If you’re going to have these talks, is it really that they’re playing for time and those talks would lead to Iran further constituting their program?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we want to know what’s going on in those sites. And the fact that they are secret, heavily protected sites seems to suggest something’s going on the Iranians don’t want the IAEA or the world to know about. That can only raise suspicions even higher than they already are. We have said that we would engage with the P-5+1 to meet with the Iranians if they came to the table prepared to talk about their nuclear program.
QUESTION: Do you think talks will happen?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we’ll – we’re moving toward them. Cathy Ashton has been empowered to negotiate on our behalf, but these latest actions by the Iranian Government, not permitting the IAEA inspectors to see what they wanted to see, are certainly troubling.
QUESTION: Your envoy for North Korea, Glyn Davies, had talks in Beijing.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes.
QUESTION: Any glimmers of progress there?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think modest progress. We’ve always said that we are willing to talk. This is the first time that, under this new leader, we’ve had this opportunity, and we’ll follow through.
QUESTION: Did you learn anything – the way they’re negotiating about Kim Jong Un, is there – do you think there’ll a consistent approach from the North Koreans?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we’ll see, Elise. We are – yeah, there’s a lot of experience in negotiating with previous North Korean leaders, and it’s usually a challenging process, but we have some of our best, most experienced diplomats on the front lines.
QUESTION: You said yesterday that President Obama will be reelected. It’s not – it raised a lot of eyebrows. It’s not really the Secretary of State to say anything about an election, and it seemed to be kind of a campaign statement.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, remember the context of it. I was asked whether the comments in the primary campaign, some of which have been quite inflammatory, represented America. And I represent America, and I know what happens in campaigns. I’ve been there, done that. And I know that things are said that are not going to be put into practice or policy. But I did think I needed to point that out to the audience. And probably, my enthusiasm for the President got a little out of hand. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well – no political juices flowing there?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’m trying to dampen them down. I’ve tried to have them taken out in a blood transfusion, but occasionally they rear their heads.
QUESTION: Does that suggest maybe going back in at some point?
SECRETARY CLINTON: No. No. It just suggests that I want what’s best for my country.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, you have a year left. Last year was a crazy year – (laughter) – with the Arab Spring and so much other things going on – Iran, North Korea. What, this year, do you hope you’ll accomplish? And moving towards thinking about your legacy, where do you hope to have your priorities?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I’ll talk about legacy when I’m done because I don’t like looking back, I like looking forward, and we have an incredibly active year ahead of us. We are looking to consolidate a lot of the work we’ve done the prior three years – in Asia, in Latin America, is Africa, you name it. So there’s just an enormous agenda ahead of us, but we’ll stay focused on what keeps America safe, what promotes America’s values and furthers our interests. And that’s our – those are our three north stars, and we’re following them.
QUESTION: Just to wrap up, I mean, what were the – what are the key things you’d like to see happen by the end of this year?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Peace, prosperity, happiness everywhere. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I think we all would. Thank you so much for joining us.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you.