Interview With Michele Kelemen of NPR
Secretary of State
QUESTION: So nine countries, a busy time. I want to first start with the policy shift that you announced on Syria, direct aid to the Syrian Opposition Council. Do you think that’s really going to be enough to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculus?
SECRETARY KERRY: You can’t look at it freestanding, all by itself. The important thing is to look at the series of steps that the President and other countries are taking. The President began by putting sanctions in place. That strips away some of the money that fuels the Assad war machine, makes it harder for him to survive.
Number two, the President worked very hard with Secretary Clinton over the last year to pull the Syrian opposition together, identify them clearly, help them to unify. And then the President has provided more humanitarian assistance and more engagement. He’s been visibly engaged in terms of his clarity about Assad needing to cede power.
Now he has ratcheted it up, and he has ratcheted it up by sending me on a mission to Rome to come together with other foreign ministers in a unified fashion, all of whom have agreed to ratchet up what they’re doing. Now some of them are providing lethal aid. That’s no secret. And so that will increase, together with the U.S. assistance to – directly to the military council as well as to the Syrian Opposition Council – Coalition. So that’s a lot of things happening at one time.
Now, what the President really wants is a peaceful resolution of this. And he feels strongly that the immediate answer is not to empower more killing; it is rather to try to say to President Assad there is a solution. It’s the Geneva communiqué, which offers a transitional government, chosen by both sides, that has mutual consent and then has full executive power to transition the country to a democracy, to a chance for everybody to vote for their leadership. Now if Assad doesn’t want that, then he’s asking, obviously, for yet another ratcheting up of other countries and other efforts.
QUESTION: But you’ve met Assad before. From what you know of him, I mean, is he crazy enough to think he can shoot his way out of this situation or even use chemical weapons?
SECRETARY KERRY: I believe that President Assad, until recently, has calculated that he could shoot his way out of it. I think that has been his calculation. And that is why I said in going to Rome we need to take steps to begin to change his calculation.
Now, rather than put everything on the table at once, we’re trying to offer him what is a rational choice, which most people in the world would say is a reasonable way to approach this, so you don’t box somebody in or create chaos in these initiatives. There are real dangers here. We’re trying to avoid the state of Syria imploding. We’re trying to avoid extremism being fed. We’re trying to walk a very careful line, where we know what the preference is. It is a negotiated transition. But if he doesn’t change his calculation, that won’t happen.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask about your stop in Egypt, because you announced $190 million in budget support for the Egyptian government. What did President Mohamed Morsy tell you that convinced you it’s time to release this money?
SECRETARY KERRY: President Morsy agreed that we needed to move forward on the IMF and that he would do so and that he felt he could do it within a specific span of time. And I think it’s up to him to tell you what that might or might not be. But he suggested that he had a full understanding of the need to do that, as well as to try to reach out to the opposition and be more inclusive and deal with some of the problems in the streets that we have all spoken out about. Now, there are many considerations in the relationship with Egypt. And our hope is that the democracy that he has talked about can come to fruition.
I can’t sit here and tell you that I know it will. I can’t tell you there’s a guarantee that the things that he said he wants to do can, in fact, be affected. And if they are not, then Egypt is going to have a very difficult time in the days ahead. But we thought it was important for the United States, as a matter of good faith, to follow through on the promise President Obama made a year ago, that they would be helped in their transition if they chose to do the right things. And that’s a very small amount compared to the size of their problem.
QUESTION: But this is a time of austerity for the United States. I mean, can the U.S. afford – I’m not just talking about Egypt – but can the U.S. afford the kind of foreign policy that you want to lead?
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me say to you very directly, first of all, this is President Obama’s foreign policy, and the President and I agree 100 percent that Egypt is vital to the region, to our interests. And to not try to be engaged on behalf of the people – I want to emphasize – the President’s policy is not to go there and support President Morsy, it’s not to go there and support a particular party. It is to go there and support possibilities for the people of Egypt and support the country itself, which is important to American interests.
Now, let me give you an example. Egypt has been – was critical in helping to bring out peace in the Gaza Strip. President Morsy personally intervened. President Morsy has personally helped to make sure that that peace has held, and he is cooperating with Israel on the security in the Sinai and cooperating with Israel in terms of extremism and intelligence. So for the American people, the amount of money that we’re investing in Egypt compared to its importance to us in the region for stability, for peace, for the future possibilities, is minuscule. And we could pay a much higher price down the road if Egypt is in turmoil and chaos and the region feels those implications.
QUESTION: You’ve traveled as a senator to all these countries that we’ve been to, everyone – everywhere we went, so they knew you for many years. But I wonder what was surprising to you about what it was like being America’s top diplomat on this trip.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, obviously there’s greater focus. I mean, you – each word means more, each relationship is played differently, and so you have to think, needless to say, about the implications of that in terms of policy and potential missteps. I mean, that you do feel. I mean, you can actually – as a senator, you just don’t have those stakes riding on it.
QUESTION: And you’re part of a team now, which seems to be very centralizing on foreign policy.
SECRETARY KERRY: I like being part of a team. I’ve always been – I’ve been part of a team a lot of my life, one way or another, and I understand hierarchy. I served in the military. I am pleased to be part of President Obama’s team particularly, because as you know, I supported him in ’08. I asked him to give the keynote address at my convention in ’04. I’ve admired him and respected him. I think his vision that he has about America’s role in the world and the stakes for us in terms of extremism and the numbers of unemployed youth in many parts of the world and the challenges of spreading democracy and of helping people to have their full rights – I think he has the right vision at the right time, and it’s an honor to be able to work at trying to implement it.
QUESTION: Well, thank you very much for letting me tag along.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you for doing so. Glad you are.