Interview With Chris Cuomo of CNN New Day

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
May 28, 2014

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for taking the opportunity.

SECRETARY KERRY: Good to be with you, Chris. Happy to be here.

QUESTION: Rather than just review what is expected in the speech, let’s touch on the issues that will certainly come out of it. The idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan is going to be called by the President a way forward. How is it a way forward when, as you well know, as soon as the U.S. leaves there, the chances that the place descends back into chaos are very high? Isn’t that backwards, not forwards?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I – look Chris, if you want to find the most negative, gloomy prediction, one can find it and lock onto it. But the fact is that every step of the way since 2009 President Obama has put in place a strategy that has thus far worked. We – he set a target for the Afghans to take control of their security. They did, and they’ve done much better than everybody thought. He set a target for them to have an election and to provide the security and the planning and execution for that election. They did, and they did so very successfully.

Life is changing every day in Afghanistan, and the fact is the Taliban did not succeed in interrupting that election the way they had thought they would. Now the President is setting a date for them to assume full responsibility for their security in the nation and for the management of their military when they will be trained and fully equipped. It is only by setting dates that we have been able to meet these milestones. And if you left it open-ended, if you said to the Afghans, “Well, we’ll be here as long as it takes,” you can absolutely bet your bottom dollar, and it probably would be the bottom dollar of the U.S., that they’ll take just as long as they want to.

So what the President is doing is appropriately empowering the Afghans, giving them the opportunity to take control of their future. And that’s the best way for them to step up and do so.

QUESTION: A year from now, do you think life on the ground in Afghanistan is better or worse than it is today?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we obviously hope it’s going to be better, Chris. And everything that has been laid down by the military in their judgment suggests that it will be. The President is not doing this in some – pulling it out of the sky, here’s an idea. This has been based on months and months of evaluation with the diplomats, with the allies, and with our military. Our military commander, General Dunford, believes this is what he needs. So this is done on the best judgment of all of the people who are working this issue, and we believe it affords the Afghans the opportunity to take control of their future.

And you have to measure this from where we were. When we started, when the President came in in 2009, there was no policy in Afghanistan. We were adrift. And the President put in place a surge. We had as many as 180,000 troops there. Now we’re down to 30,000. We’re going to go down to the 10,000 and then down lower. And I’m confident that the Afghans will continue to step up and assume responsibility.

You also look at – I mean, look at other challenges. In the Ukraine, the President put in place a very careful, calculated, calibrated strategy to bring the Europeans along, to not go so far that you provoked Putin but you put in place a policy that could work.

QUESTION: Well, Mr. Secretary --

SECRETARY KERRY: Russia’s economy has felt the impact. We’ve had a successful election there. We’re moving to a transition. President Putin has decided to withdraw some of the troops. We hope that this can move in a better direction. So in fact, with slow, steady, confident programs, we’re having an impact there and elsewhere.

QUESTION: Well, but it’s about – sometimes about the words you choose, right? You say it’s a calculated, calibrated, it didn’t provoke Putin. But others look at it and say it was weak, that lines have been crossed all over the place, and that exactly because you didn’t push Putin you allowed him to run roughshod and really almost threaten the existence of NATO in Ukraine.

SECRETARY KERRY: That is absurd and it’s absolutely wrong on its face, Chris. I’m just telling you it’s plain wrong. NATO has been strengthened. NATO has been awakened. NATO is doing a full assurance program right now with additional troops throughout the NATO countries. The President is going to Poland next Monday, Tuesday. There is a reaffirmation, if you will, of the NATO mission that has come out of what Putin has done.

Russia is not playing with the strongest hand. In fact, Russia has been weakened through this. If you look at the amount of money Russia is having to pour into Crimea, if you look at the economy of Russia, they’ve had huge capital flight. They’ve had to spend billions of dollars to shore up the ruble. Their economy has slowed down; it’s in a recession now. It is very clear that the opposite of what you just laid out has happened. Putin was threatening to come in with troops. In fact, those troops are now being withdrawn. They’ve had a successful election for a president of Ukraine.

I think the President’s policy has worked. I think the European alliance has been strengthened. The unity between Europe and the United States is what has empowered this election to take place and made it clear to Russia that the West is unified and there will be a very severe price to pay for further interference in Ukraine. I just think that what you’ve cited is a sort of industry of oppositionists in Washington who always want to find the negative, but it does not comport with the facts on the ground.

QUESTION: Well, Mr. Secretary, obviously we should all be for optimism, but you’ve given them a lot to work with, starting with Syria, “Don’t cross this line.” Any way you want to define the line, it’s crossed. The situation is still going on in Syria. The Administration likes to cite that 90-plus percent of the chemical weapons are gone, but whatever’s still there is, by all accounts, being used. In Iran, the line, what were negotiated --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, Chris, let me just stop you. Let me just stop you.

QUESTION: It just seems the situations don’t seem to inspire the confidence that you have in them.

SECRETARY KERRY: Chris, again, you’re not dealing with facts. If we had struck with our military for a one or two-day operation in Syria, yes, it would have had an impact for a day or two, but every single one of the chemical weapons that were terrorizing the people of Syria would have still been in Assad’s hands. Instead, we struck an agreement which has now succeeded in removing 92 percent of all of those weapons. The other 8 percent are under control. They are waiting to be moved as the security situation allows it. And the only weapon that we think may have been used is not one that is automatically included under the Chemical Weapons Convention. It’s chlorine.

We are investigating that right now, Chris. And if we find that there has been a use, there will be consequences. But the simple reality is we have done what could not have been done with a strike. We are removing the weapons and taking the threat away. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel just praised President Obama the other day, citing this as an extraordinary accomplishment and one that one could not have imagined a number of months ago.

QUESTION: But Mr. Secretary --

SECRETARY KERRY: So, yes, there’s a problem in Syria. It continues. And the President has decided to increase the support to the moderate opposition. We have a more unified group of nations that are working to help assist that opposition. And obviously, we will continue to be supportive.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, just one point of fact: In terms of who wanted to use military in Syria, initially, that was the President’s idea. I mean, I did the interview with him where he was calling for caution. Three days later, he was ready to use military strikes that you now say would have been ill-advised, and it was only when Congress --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I didn’t – Chris --

QUESTION: -- didn’t come up and support him that we moved to this other plan.

SECRETARY KERRY: Chris, please don’t make up language. I did not say ill-advised. I said it would have done damage, but only a certain amount. It would not have removed the weapons. So don’t put words in my mouth. I said it would not have accomplished the task of removing all of the weapons. So the simple reality is the President did announce publicly what he was prepared to do. Congress was not prepared to support it.

And before we even got to the final vote in Congress, I reached an agreement in Geneva with the Russians and Sergey Lavrov, and we agreed to remove all of the weapons. So instead of a partial solution, we’re getting a whole solution to the problem of chemical weapons. It’s remarkable to me that people simply want to refuse to accept that we’re better off getting all of the weapons out than striking for one or two days and doing damage to some of them.

QUESTION: I understand that, Mr. Secretary. Obviously, the job is to test the arguments that are going to be made by the Administration, and we appreciate you doing so.

Let me switch topics slightly. When you look at situations of American citizens abroad like Kenneth Bae and like the Marine, Mr. Tahmooressi, who is being held in Mexico – we had Tahmooressi’s mother on. She’s hoping for more from you on that situation, the family of Kenneth Bae hoping for more. Isn’t it important that the U.S. do everything it can to bring its citizens back home when they are being held abroad, especially if it is unlawfully? Do you think you can do more there?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, absolutely it’s important to get any citizen back, and we are literally working daily on every single citizen. There is not one – just the other day, I spoke out publicly about Mr. Hekmati in Iran. We’ve raised these issues. We’re raising them constantly. I raised them with Mexican officials when I was in Mexico. We are working on determining whether or not certain evidence that has been presented is meeting the standard that’s necessary to be able to hold that young Marine, and we’re trying to find out exactly what the fact pattern is, but we are working on that. And as recently as last week, I had those discussions with Mexican authorities. We hope to be able to inform the family soon about where we stand with respect to the state of the evidence and what his status will be.

QUESTION: Well, that’s good to hear, Mr. Secretary, especially for that family and the family of Kenneth Bae and all the Americans held abroad. They’re all worried about those issues so it’s good to know that they’re on your agenda. And thank you for your vigorous defense of the foreign policy --

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: -- of the United States.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I’m happy to be with you. Thanks, Chris.

QUESTION: Appreciate you coming on New Day. Okay.