Interview With David Gregory of NBC Meet the Press
Secretary of State
QUESTION: And good Sunday morning. I’m joined by the Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to Meet the Press.
SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to be with you, David. Thank you.
QUESTION: Let me get right to it. It’s been a jarring 48 hours in the run-up to a potential conflict with Syria. On Friday, the President dispatched you, the Secretary of State, to make the case to the country and the world that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and you spoke with passion and great strength. This is what you said:
“It matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.”
That was Friday. Saturday morning, the President decides, in an abrupt change, to delay and seek congressional authority. You were making the case for a military strike. Why the abrupt change?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the case remains the same, David. The President of the United States has made his decision. His decision is to take military action in response to this outrageous attack, this affront against the decency and sensibilities of the world. I mean, Bashar al-Assad now joins a list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war. This is of great consequence to Israel, to Jordan, to Turkey, to the region, and to all of us who care about enforcing the international norm with respect to chemical weapons.
QUESTION: And that I understand --
SECRETARY KERRY: So the President has made the decision. He has made the decision that he believes we need to take a military strike. But the military understands that whether that happens this week or next week is not going to make the difference with respect to sending the message. The message remains the same. And it’s a message, I might add, that any President of the United States and any Congress ought to seek to enforce. Use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, and we cannot – cannot – stand by and allow that to happen and create an impunity for its use. That would be the end of the chemical weapons norm, and that’s why the President has made the decision.
Now, why go to Congress? Because the United States of America is stronger when the Congress of the United States, representing the people, and the President of the United States are acting together. And the President wants that strength represented in this initiative.
QUESTION: You’re making the case, Mr. Secretary, which I understand, as you made it on Friday. I think I’m still trying to understand the abrupt shift. I know that you and others on the national security team, based on my own reporting, were opposed to the President seeking congressional authority --
SECRETARY KERRY: No, that’s --
QUESTION: -- thinking that he didn’t need it. The reaction from the Syrian state media is that this is a beginning, they say, of an historic American retreat. Do you feel undermined? Do you think the United States has undermined its leverage in the world, its credibility, having ramped up the specter of military action as being imminent and then saying, well no, we’re going to go to Congress first?
SECRETARY KERRY: David, I completely disagree with the fundamental premise that you set out. No, I did not oppose going, nor did anybody else that I know of originally. The issue originally was: Should the President of the United States take action in order to enforce the credibility and the interests of our country and to deter Assad from using these weapons and to degrade his capacity to do so? That was the issue, and that’s the issue that we debated. There was no decision not to do that, and the President has the right to do that, and we argued – argued – we discussed the options in the context of his right to take that action.
The President then made the decision that he thought we would be stronger and the United States would act with greater moral authority and greater strength if we acted in a united way. He didn’t think it was worthwhile acting and having the Syrians and a whole bunch of other folks looking at the United States arguing about whether or not it was legitimate or should he have done it or should he have moved faster. He believes we need to move. He’s made his decision. Now it’s up to the Congress of the United States to join him in affirming the international norm with respect to enforcement against the use of chemical weapons.
QUESTION: But you look at the polling. Our NBC News poll released late in the week, 50 percent of those asked oppose a military strike. The British vote in parliament failed as a vote for military strikes. And the abrupt shift now, does it undermine U.S. credibility or will it be seen as careful deliberation?
SECRETARY KERRY: I hope and pray it will be seen as careful deliberation, as an appropriate exercise of American constitutional process. The United States is strongest when the Congress speaks with the President, when the American people are invested because we’ve had an appropriate vetting of all of the facts.
Let me just add this morning a very important recent development that in the last 24 hours we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin.
So this case is building and this case will build, and I don’t believe that my former colleagues in the United States Senate, in the House, will turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norm with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons which has been in place since 1925. The Congress adopted the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Congress has passed the Syria Accountability act. Congress has a responsibility here, too. And I think that Congress will recognize that and realize that our interests with respect to Iran – we are hoping we have a diplomatic resolution of this standoff on the nuclear program in Iran, but if we don’t, Iran will read – importantly – what we decide to do with respect to the enforcement of this convention in Syria.
QUESTION: Mr. --
SECRETARY KERRY: Likewise, Israel. Israel is at risk, Jordan is at risk, Turkey is at risk, the region is at risk, and we believe that the Congress of the United States will do what is responsible.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I just want to underline the news you made this morning. This is a sarin gas attack perpetrated by the Assad regime, this is a slam dunk case that he did it?
SECRETARY KERRY: We don’t – the words “slam dunk” should be retired from American national security issues. We are saying that the high confidence that the intelligence community has expressed and the case that I laid out the other day is growing stronger by the day. We know where this attack came from. We know exactly where it went. We know what happened exactly afterwards. We know that preparations were being taken before for this attack. We know that people were told to use their gas masks to prepare for the use of a chemical barrage. We also know that after it took place, they acknowledged that they had done it and were worried about the consequences and whether the UN inspectors were going to find out.
I think this is a very powerful case, and the President is confident that as that case is presented to the United States Congress and the American people, people will recognize that the world cannot stand aside --
SECRETARY KERRY: -- and allow an Assad or anybody else to break an almost 100-year-old acceptance that these weapons are not to be used.
QUESTION: So here’s the fundamental question: The President’s made his decision, you say, to take military action. If you go to Congress and Congress says no, you don’t have our authority to strike, will the President move forward with military action against Syria anyway?
SECRETARY KERRY: David, let me be very blunt. I do not believe the Congress of the United States will turn its back on this moment. I think the interests that we have with respect to potential future confrontation – hopefully not – but the challenge of Iran, the challenges of the region, the challenge of standing up for and standing beside our ally Israel, helping to shore up Jordan – all of these things are very, very powerful interests --
QUESTION: Understood. But if Congress says --
SECRETARY KERRY: -- and I believe --
QUESTION: But if Congress says – if Congress says no?
SECRETARY KERRY: I believe Congress will pass it. I believe Congress will pass it.
QUESTION: If Congress says no, the President will act regardless of what Congress says?
SECRETARY KERRY: I said that the President has the authority to act, but the Congress is going to do what’s right here.
QUESTION: You know there’s a debate and the debate will continue in Congress about the future of Assad and what the United States actually ought to do. The President talked about narrow, limited action, almost punishment against Assad. You’ve called Assad a murderer and a thug. In the past, the President has said that he has to go. You know Senator McCain and others have said that they would only support a strategy that ultimately topples Assad. Why not go beyond something that’s limited and narrow? Why not try to erode his conventional capability and indeed even try to topple him from power?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me draw a distinction here, David. The President of the United States has said that Assad must go, and that is the policy of the United States. But we do not believe that this military action the President has decided to take should be more than an effort to try to deter and prevent the use of chemical weapons and to degrade his capacity to use those weapons. So the military operation is not calculated to become involved in the effort to topple him, but the political operation and the support for the opposition is. And the President of the United States, as you know, has declared that we will provide additional support to the opposition. We do not believe there is any scenario under which Assad can continue with any kind of authority whatsoever to govern in Syria.
And so yes, the policy is politically through the Geneva process, through our commitment to the ultimate negotiated settlement that will have to take place, there is no future for Assad in that governance. But this military operation is specifically geared to prevent a future chemical attack and to deter and to degrade the Assad capacity to be able to do that. And let me be clear: Whatever the President ultimately decides to do in that context, I assure you Assad will feel its impact and they will know that something has happened.
QUESTION: Before I let you go, how can Americans feel confident that America’s first strike against Syria in this civil war will be its last?
SECRETARY KERRY: David, that will depend on whether Assad decides to use chemical weapons or not. The President of the United States does not intend to and does not want to see the United States assume responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is not what he is setting out to do. What he is setting out to do is enforce the norm with respect to international Convention on Chemical Weapons, and it is targeted to do that. It will clearly have an impact on Assad’s military capacity.
But we will continue and we will even, I think, sharpen the focus of our efforts to support the opposition, to work with allies and friends in the region, all of whom understand that Assad has lost any legitimacy as the leader of Syria and to try to hold Syria together with a political solution that can be achieved through the Geneva process. And we will continue to work with Russia in conjunction with us in that effort to try to achieve that political settlement. That is our top priority. That is the fundamental objective of all of our efforts; it is to recognize that there isn’t ultimately a military solution; there has to be a negotiated political solution, and the President remains deeply committed to that.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.