Interview With George Stephanopoulos of ABC This Week
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Thank you for joining us, Mr. Secretary. And I’m just wondering, did you have any inkling when you gave that forceful speech Friday afternoon that the President was about to hit the pause button a military strike?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President hadn’t made any decision on a military strike, George. I was asked to make the case for why we needed to take action, but the President always maintained the prerogative as to when or what he might decide to do. And I think the President’s made a very courageous and right, correct decision with respect to asking the Congress to weigh in, because the United States is much stronger when we act in unity.
QUESTION: And are you comfortable with Congress waiting until next week for a vote and confident the war resolution will pass?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, George, in a sense we’re not really waiting. We’ve been briefing as of yesterday, the day before, there’s a briefing today. There will be classified briefings Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. As you know the Jewish holidays begin on Wednesday evening. And we think that that helps us build the case, answer the questions of a lot of people who have to vote on a very serious issue.
It also gives us time to reach out to allies, friends around the world, build support on an international basis. And I think, ultimately, we can proceed – the President can proceed and our nation can proceed – from a much stronger position. I think we never lose, ever, in America when the Congress of the United States has a chance to weigh in and join the President in this kind of an endeavor.
QUESTION: But you would lose if you lost the vote, wouldn’t you?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t contemplate that, George. I think the stakes are just really too high here. I mean, let me just tell you what is happening each day as we go by. I can tell you today, Sunday, that we now have evidence from hair and blood samples from first responders in east Damascus, the people who came to help, we have signatures of sarin in their hair and blood samples. So the case is growing stronger by the day, and I believe that as we go forward here in the next days the Congress will recognize that we cannot allow Assad to be able to gas people with impunity.
If the United States is unwilling to lead a coalition of people who are prepared to stand up for the international norm with respect to chemical weapons that’s been in place since 1925, if we are unwilling to do that, we will be granting a blanket license to Assad to continue to gas and we will send a terrible message to the North Koreans, Iranians, and others who might be trying to read how serious is America about enforcing its nonproliferation, counter-nuclear weapons initiatives. This goes to the core of American credibility in foreign policy, and I believe the Congress of the United States will understand that and do the right thing.
QUESTION: I know you don’t contemplate a loss, but what if the votes aren’t there? Will the President act anyway?
SECRETARY KERRY: The President has the right – as you know, George, the President of the United States has the right to take this action, doesn’t have to go to Congress, but he does so with the belief – and this is why I think it’s courageous – the President knows that America is stronger when we act in unity. And I think if each Congress – member of Congress looks at this case carefully, as they will, and makes judgments about what has happened, and then measured it against the stakes for our ally Israel, against our interests with respect to Iran, our interests with respect to Hezbollah, with respect to North Korea, nonproliferation enforcement of an almost 100-year-old prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, as America weighs – as the Congress weighs the potential damage to America’s credibility in the world, I think the members of Congress will choose to do the right thing, and so does the President.
QUESTION: But if I hear you correctly, you’re saying the President is going to act no matter what. Meanwhile --
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I said the President has the right to act and --
QUESTION: So will he --
SECRETARY KERRY: And – George, we are not going to lose this vote. The President of the United States is committed to securing the unity of purpose that he believes strengthens America, and I believe the Congress will see that that’s the responsible thing to do here.
QUESTION: They are already declaring victory in Syria this morning – the Assad regime.
SECRETARY KERRY: Assad has said a lot of things in the course of this. I think the more he stands up and crows, the more he will help this decision to be made correctly. I am very, very confident that as this case is made to people, the Congress will recognize and the American people will come to see. The President is talking about a military action geared to deter the use of chemical weapons and geared to diminish Assad’s capacity, to degrade his capacity to be able to carry out those strikes. The President is not talking about taking over this civil war. The President is not talking about boots on the ground. But the President is talking about doing something that upholds this international norm, and I think makes it clear to Assad that much worse could happen if he were to continue to use these weapons.
The alternative for the Congress and for the world is that you grant Assad and people like him complete impunity and you totally tear down the entire international process of accountability that has been built up over all these years. I do not believe members of Congress or other countries believe that’s in anybody’s interest.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, is there anything Assad can do now to avoid a strike? What if he turned over his stockpile of chemical weapons?
SECRETARY KERRY: We are obviously looking hard at what we can do to try to diplomatically move in ways that could secure the weapons. Russia and others may be able to play a role in that. There are a number of different proposals on the table. But that doesn’t mean the United States shouldn’t proceed to make it clear that the authorization will be given to the President in order to guarantee that we do not have more chemical attacks similar to the one that we saw the other day, and also recognizing that this is one of many attacks that Assad is now engaged in.
I think that the evidence here is so clear and so powerful that it provides us with a number of different options, but the most important one to have authority for right now is the ability to take this strike.
QUESTION: You say that the evidence is so clear, but President Putin – and you mentioned Russia – calling it “utter nonsense” that President Assad would authorize this kind of a chemical strike, the President heading to Russia this week. Your response to President Putin?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I would – and we’ve offered the – our friend – we’ve offered the Russians previously to have a briefing on this. In fact, we sent people over to Russia who provided evidence we had with respect to the last ones. And they chose – I literally mean chose – not to believe it or to at least acknowledge publicly. I think this evidence is going to be overwhelming. If the President of Russia chooses yet again to ignore it, that’s his choice.
But the United States and our friends need to make the decisions that we need to make based on the rational presentation of that evidence. We will lay it out there for everybody to judge. We’ve actually gone overboard in this case, George, to declassify certain things, to put things out there that normally wouldn’t be available in terms of intelligence, and I think it’s going to be very, very hard for anybody, ultimately, to ignore it.
My hope is that the Russians will recognize that Assad crossed a line here. We’re working very closely with the Russians on the Geneva negotiation potential, and my hope is they would rededicate themselves to that and perhaps even join us in an effort at the United Nations to hold Assad accountable.
QUESTION: Finally, sir, one of the other challenges you’re facing in Congress is from those who believe that the President’s strategy does not go far enough. Senators McCain and Graham put out a statement yesterday where they say, “We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict.” Why not go that far?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’ve talked to John McCain and Lindsey Graham. I’ve talked to Lindsey yesterday and I – they’re good friends of mine and I respect them both. And I am convinced that we can find common ground here with them and others so that they are convinced that the strategy that is in place will in fact help the opposition, that there will be additional pressure, and at the same time that this is not just an isolated pinprick, but something that can have a profound impact on Assad’s ability to use these weapons which he has been using and will use again if we don’t do something about it. And I think they will come to that conclusion.
I don’t think they will want to vote, ultimately, to put Israel at risk and not to enforce the message with respect to other interests in the world. But most importantly, I believe they can be and will be satisfied that a strategy is in place in order to help the opposition and to change the dynamics of what is happening in Syria.
QUESTION: And finally, sir, what do you say to so many Americans who worry that we’re going to get sucked into a wider war?
SECRETARY KERRY: This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan. There is nothing similar in what the President is contemplating. We do not need to do that in this case because there are others who are willing to fight, others who are engaged; and the issue here is not whether we will go and do it with them, it’s whether we will support them adequately in their efforts to do it.
I think the President has drawn a very, very bright line with respect to that. He has no intention – zero intention – of putting boots on the ground, and this military action that he is seeking approval for is directed at the upholding of the international norm on the prohibition of chemical weapons. It is not focused on the larger battlefield and interests in the regime. The political effort is totally focused on getting Assad out through the Geneva process, on supporting the opposition, and the President will continue to do that.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for your time this morning.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.