Interview With Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
May 29, 2014

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

SECRETARY KERRY: Happy to be with you.

QUESTION: I want to start with a little bit of the news of the day. Overnight, there have been mounting calls for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to step aside, including from Democrats. As a veteran yourself, is this something you think he should be considering at this point?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it’s fair to say that every veteran is deeply concerned about what has taken place. I personally feel a huge reminder from the struggles we had when veterans came back from Vietnam and there were delays and there were problems.

QUESTION: The President said he’s deeply troubled. Are you?

SECRETARY KERRY: Of course. I think anybody is concerned about the fact that those who have served – and the reason I raised the Vietnam thing is simply because everybody said, “Never again.” There was this huge effort to make sure veterans came back and were appropriately thanked, appropriately welcomed home, and obviously, appropriately cared for. And I think everybody’s troubled by the fact that something has gone awry.

QUESTION: I’d like to take you on a tour around the world with us, if you would. Beginning on the continent of Africa, the President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan said today he’s going to undertake a full-scale assault on Boko Haram in the effort to free the Nigerian girls.

As you watch something like this unfold, something so hard to penetrate, do you worry, in the Central African Republic or Sudan or in Nigeria, that there are limits to what U.S. intervention can do?

SECRETARY KERRY: What Goodluck Jonathan is talking about is engaging in self-help, doing what he thinks he needs to do to protect the rights of his people and the sovereignty of his country.

QUESTION: Is there a role for the U.S. in that?

SECRETARY KERRY: We obviously – well, there is a role and we’re playing a role. We have people on the ground that we have put on the ground in order to assist them with several different disciplines – people in the intelligence community, people in the justice community, people in the military community – all of whom have different expertise to bring to the table.

I think an all-out assault – I’m not sure what that means; I’d want to know what that means. It could be very risky to the young women. And there may be a time and a place for that, but I think we have to look at this very, very closely.

I actually hope to be talking to President Goodluck Jonathan somewhere in the course of today or tomorrow. And we are, as I say, prepared to be as helpful as we possibly can. But this is --

QUESTION: Is he asking for your help?

SECRETARY KERRY: This is a challenge everywhere, Gwen. He has not, to my knowledge, specifically said, “I want your help in a military operation with respect to these young women.” But we will obviously have discussions with him about what the right way to proceed is.

QUESTION: Another story unfolding as we speak is Edward Snowden. You said yesterday in an interview that he should man up and come back and face the consequences. He has suggested he’d like to come home as well. Are there conversations on any level taking place about that happening?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to get into the legal process on this. That’s up to the Department of Justice, up to the White House specifically. He should prove his respect for that system. He should do what many people who have taken issue with their own government do, which is challenge it, speak out, engage in an act of civil disobedience, but obviously, accept the consequences of that act of civil disobedience – not find refuge in authoritarian Russia or seek asylum in Cuba or somewhere else. That’s running away from the consequences.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the President said in an interview this morning with NPR that – there were a lot of baseball and sports metaphors about blocking and tackling foreign policy. Does the President get a bad rap, in your opinion, for being weak or not taking the long homeruns instead of the base hits?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t think the President, frankly, takes enough credit for the successes that are on the table right now.

I mean, if you look at what has happened in Ukraine, the President led an effort to try to keep Europe unified with the United States, to put difficult sanctions on the table. Europe wasn’t thrilled with that, but they came along. That was leadership. And the President succeeded in having an impact ultimately together with the Europeans on the choices that face President Putin.

In Syria the President obviously made his decision to strike Syria and appropriately sent that decision to Congress. Congress didn’t want to move, but we came up with another solution, which was to get all of those chemical weapons out rather than just have one or two days of strike. The President has now succeeded in getting 92 percent of those weapons out of Syria. There’s one last transfer that has to take place to get to 100 percent. I believe it will take place.

In addition, the President has engaged with Iran. We were on a course to absolute collision where they were building a nuclear system and the world was standing opposed to that. But the President put in place a series of sanctions, a capacity to be able to bring Iran to the table. We are now in the middle of negotiations. Everyone will agree the sanctions regime has held together. The weapon – the nuclear program has been frozen and rolled backwards, and we now have expanded the amount of time that Iran might have for breakout. That’s a success.

So I think we are as engaged, more engaged than in any time in American history, and I think that case is there to be fully proven and laid out. And I think --

QUESTION: And yet that’s not the generally held impression.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, it’s not. And the reason is there is a general, frankly, not fully informed, not factual conventional sort of process that gets played out in the media. And of course, there is an industry in Washington today of oppositionism, oppositionists, oppose anything. And the Congress and its current pace of legislating tells the whole story.

QUESTION: I do want to talk about Afghanistan because the President, of course, put forward his plan this week to pretty dramatic draw down of forces to under 10,000, half that again in the next year. And even through there has been some applause for the idea that we are winding down in Afghanistan, there has also been criticism that it’s happening a little too quickly, that the timetable’s too fast. What do you say to that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Thirteen years in a war is not “quickly.” In 2009, President Obama put in place the first truly organized, focused strategic approach to Afghanistan. Afghanistan had been cannibalized before that for both troops and talent and money that had gone to Iraq. And when the President came in, he found that in 2009 that Afghanistan was adrift and in danger. So the President increased the numbers of troops – the now well-known surge – and we had up to 160 – 180,000 troops in Afghanistan at one point, and always with a view to trying to train, equip, and prepare the Afghans to take charge of their own country.

The President set a timetable. He said in 2009 we will transfer security responsibility to the Afghans by such and such a date. That was last year and this year predominantly. We’ve done it. They had a very successful election, and they provided the security and they did the planning and they did the execution. That is exactly what the President is now trying to do with respect to the final steps.

QUESTION: You won’t be surprised to hear that Dick Cheney, the former Vice President, called the timetable stupid and unwise, and that it would reinforce the notion that we are weak.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well look, I’m not surprised to hear from Dick Cheney something that’s obviously, number one, negative, and number two, wrong. Dick Cheney was completely wrong about Iraq, and we are still struggling with the aftermath of what Dick Cheney and his crew thought was the right policy: To go in and start a war of choice for the wrong reasons. And they turned topsy-turvy the entire region with respect to Sunni and Shia and the relationships there. So the fact is that they have been deeply, deeply wrong in the policy that they pursued, and any advice from him really has no meaning to me with respect to what we’re doing today.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about Syria. Next week we’re going to watch Bashar al-Assad stand for a third seven-year term, and you and others have said flat out that he should step down. He clearly isn’t going anywhere. And even though you’ve gotten the chemical weapons out, do you wonder whether this was a tradeoff that was worth it?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think that’s not the tradeoff, Gwen. We’re not trading off chemical weapons for Assad staying. We’re getting the chemical weapons out. But the efforts to support the vetted moderate opposition continue and in fact are being stepped up. I just don’t see any way possible for Bashar al-Assad to ever govern whatever you want to call Syria in the future, whatever constitutes Syria – to govern it with any legitimacy whatsoever.

QUESTION: He does it by getting re-elected.

SECRETARY KERRY: No. This is a completely phony, fraudulent effort by Assad to claim legitimacy for an election that nobody in the international community with significance is going to respect. The United Nations is not going to respect it. The global community that is supporting the opposition is not going to support it. So it’s – it doesn’t take you anywhere.

QUESTION: Ukraine. Our Margaret Warner is just coming back from eastern Ukraine, where she watched the elections unfold. And unlike other places – Egypt, for instance – there was great turnout. But Crimea is still gone. The Russian troops may or may not be pulling back from the border. You have said this was a calculated, calibrated strategy. Is it turning out the way you intended?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, at the moment the strategy is putting in place a new president elected by the vast majority of the people of Ukraine. It was a very large, significant turnout, with a huge vote that won on the first round with a supermajority for a newly elected president. I think that’s very significant.

The troops that were on the border are moving back towards Moscow, not towards Kyiv. And the fact is that I think everybody acknowledges that the sanctions that the President put in place have had a profound impact on Russia. And there were greater costs yet to come and might yet come if Russia can’t find a way to become a constructive partner in trying to help strengthen Ukraine going forward.

So there are still danger signs there that we hope will change. There is evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya trained in Russia who’ve come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting. We hope the Russians would actually engage more proactively in efforts to now try to de-escalate, take advantage of the election, build a road forward where Ukraine becomes a bridge between the West and East.

QUESTION: In your conversations with your counterparts in Ukraine and in Russia, do you see any possibility of movement on that front?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re hopeful. I talked to the foreign minister of Russia yesterday. They are hoping that there might be a way to – they express a hope, let me say, that there might be a way to go forward. Obviously, words are not what will mean anything here; it’s actions.

QUESTION: I want to end by asking you about something that you expended a lot of your personal energy on, and that’s on the Middle East peace negotiations, which Benjamin Netanyahu has said are dead, the process is dead. Hamas is clearly involved in this unification plan and moving ahead that has so offended Israel that everybody has walked away from the table. Are you personally disappointed at all that this seems to be going nowhere fast?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, obviously I’m disappointed that the process, what is in place, that that didn’t produce the next step. But I don’t believe that in the Middle East either party can afford to simply maintain the status quo and believe that there’s a road to greater stability and to peace without re-engaging and without coming back at some point in time to the negotiating process.

President Abbas has said that he is prepared to go back to the talks, but he has certain conditions that have to be met. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel are waiting to see what happens with the Hamas reconciliation, with the announcement of a new government, with the question of what that new government may or may not choose to do. That’s an appropriate thing to be doing. We’re all waiting to see what happens.

QUESTION: Are you the last living optimist on this?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not an optimist. I’m a realist. And my reality check tells me that neither side is going to be able to live for the long haul with the status quo without serious problems evolving. So eventually, there’ll have to be some discussion about some management of that process. Whether it’s a full-blown peace process or whether it’s individual steps or not, I don’t know, Gwen. But I know this: that Israel’s security, which is paramount for the United States and for Israelis, will be better protected by finding a road ahead; Palestinian rights and ability to have a state can only come through some kind of political process; and both of those aspirations are what govern life ultimately in that region and the hopes of that region.

So my job is to push it forward. My job is to try to find the optimism and the possibilities, not to give up, and I refuse to give up. I think that we have to find the way ahead. This hasn’t gone away in 40, 50 years, and it’s not going to suddenly just sort of solve itself by itself. That’s our job is to try to push the process forward.

QUESTION: Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you so much.