Interview With Margaret Brennan of CBS

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Erbil, Iraq
June 24, 2014

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, both you and the President have said that a safe haven for ISIS is a national security threat for the United States. But that safe haven already exists, and it’s in Syria. Now it’s in Iraq. So how do you actually reverse those gains?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, it’s not a safe haven at this point in time.

QUESTION: Syria’s not?

SECRETARY KERRY: I would say it’s not particularly safe. They’ve been kicked around and attacked by the moderate opposition and by others there, including Assad, so they’re moving around, and may be one of the reasons that they chose to move into this other territory. But look, the bottom line is the President and I stand by that, absolutely. And the President is carefully putting together an appropriate counterterrorism strategy to deal with this, but you have to deal with it thoughtfully. And that is exactly what we’re doing.

If the President were to just make some decision to strike here or there, there’s no backup, there’s no “there” there in the Iraqi Government, it could be completely wasted. It’s not a pathway to victory. So what you need to do first is get the government formation done here in Iraq. You need to have leadership that can unify Iraq, reconstitute the military, the army itself here in Iraq, and help them to be able to push back.

There will also be a need to – and President Barzani talked to me about this here today. He said there’s no pure military victory here; you’ve got to have a political solution. And a political solution will involve empowering the people in the communities where they are now to push back against them. That’s what happened originally in Anbar Province, in Fallujah way back a number of years ago, and so you’ve got to sort of put together an appropriate strategy, which is precisely what the President is doing.

QUESTION: But as that political process goes on, on the battlefield ISIS is making gains and the Iraqi army just walked away. I mean, is the U.S. willing to strike at safe havens in Syria and in Iraq?

SECRETARY KERRY: The President is going to make the judgment based on what Iraqis themselves determine they’re prepared to do and based on the security threat that is defined over the course of these next days. The President --

QUESTION: But nearly every Iraqi leader --

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just answer. Let --

QUESTION: -- asked you for military help.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President – sure. I’m sure he’d like to have the United States have – become his air force. But the question is: Is he prepared to become a legitimate government? Is the government here prepared to do what’s necessary?

QUESTION: Maliki, you’re talking about?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not just Maliki. Will they all come together in a unified government that has the ability to make whatever the President decides to do a success? It would be a complete and total act of irresponsibility for the President just to order a few strikes, but there’s no government, there’s no backup, there’s no military, there’s nothing there that provides the capacity for success.

So what we are doing is a deliberate, careful, thoughtful approach, listening to the people here, listening to the allies, listening to the partner countries in the region, and putting together something that can work. And the President always reserves the right, as he does anywhere in the world in any crisis, to use force if it’s going to be to the advantage of a particular strategy. And he reserves that right. But he and I and our government are insisting that the constitutional process needs to be respected in Iraq, there needs to be a unity government that is prepared to stand up to ISIL, prepared to reconstitute the military, prepared to make the decisions that actually can turn the present --

QUESTION: That takes time.

SECRETARY KERRY: No – well, it’s happening very rapidly right now. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been here. In the next few days, they will be meeting and deciding. In about a week from now, they will convene as a Council of Representatives in order to elect a speaker, elect a president, and then move to the election of the prime minister. And if in the meantime there’s a need, the President obviously reserves the right to do what might be necessary. But his focus and mine is on the issue of government formation so we’re not making some decision about American force in a vacuum, but it’s, rather, tied into a prospect for success in the long run.

QUESTION: Did Prime Minister Maliki tell you whether he will be making himself a candidate in this new government?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it’s up to Prime Minister Maliki to make that announcement publicly to people.

QUESTION: He didn’t indicate to you?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we had a private conversation about what he may or may not choose to do, but it’s up to him to decide when or if he wants to make his intentions known publicly. What I do know he has committed to is to form this government as rapidly as possible, to live up to the constitution, and to see the Council of Representatives convened as rapidly as possible.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, CBS and New York Times had a poll that shows a real sharp rise in dissatisfaction with how this Administration is specifically handling Iraq. Two-thirds of them do not think the President has done enough to explain American goals in Iraq; 52 percent disagree with how he’s handling the violence. I mean, have you learned anything on this trip that will lead to a change in that policy and perhaps address some of those questions and skepticism?

SECRETARY KERRY: What I’ve learned is – on this trip – that there’s a great dissatisfaction here in Iraq with the current government. And I ran into a universal sense of a commitment, a desire by Iraqis to make up for the mistakes that have been made in the past. Now, what that means in terms of personalities or individuals who might fill one role or another, I can’t tell you. That’s up to Iraqis.

What we did impress on people – what I did impress on people – was the urgency of their making this decision, of following the constitutional process, and providing a framework within which the friends of Iraq have an ability to be able to be helpful. Without a government that is confident and prepared to move forward and bring the unity that is necessary, it’s very difficult to see how you can be successful in taking on ISIL, at least in its current format. Now --

QUESTION: But then every Iraqi leader you met with yesterday asked for military help, and they feel very anxious. They want that now. Are they expecting too much of the United States?

SECRETARY KERRY: They also, every single one of them, before they want the military help, said we have to have a government that works. And we have to have --

QUESTION: Before they have military strikes, they want this cohesion --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well no – not in every case before, no. Some, in fact – there were a couple who weren’t supportive of the action, but the point is what they did say was that they want to have a government that is representative of everybody. And what they expressed was significant dissatisfaction with the status quo. Now even Prime Minister Maliki expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo and ways in which he thought that some of these things could be changed.

So what is critical now, Margaret, is that in order to be able to be – but there’s nothing that the American people would react to more adversely than a bunch of bad choices about how to suddenly engage military in Iraq without a real plan. So the President --

QUESTION: But it also looks like an excuse for inaction.

SECRETARY KERRY: No. There’s no excuse for inaction. I wouldn’t be here if we were looking for inaction. The President of the United States is trying to move this process forward in the – in what I think is a thoughtful and focused, disciplined way, so that we have a structure in Iraq which will give the greatest capacity for success. And the President reserves the right to use force, as he does anywhere in the world, if it is necessary.

But he wants to do so, if he were having to do so, and it was the decision he ultimately made, with knowledge that there’s a government in place that can actually follow through and guarantee that what the United States is working towards can actually be achieved. That has not been true these last years. And that’s one of the reasons why there is expressed dissatisfaction in America and elsewhere about what is happening in Iraq. So we look forward to that decision-making process taking place as rapidly as possible. That’s the only way forward that’s successful.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we’re out of time, but --


QUESTION: -- thank you very much.


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