Interview With Jake Gibson of FOX

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
September 11, 2014

QUESTION: So thank you very much for this honor. It’s my first time interviewing the Secretary of State, so don’t --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, great. It’s my first time being interviewed by you.

QUESTION: Don’t be nervous. (Laughter.)

So what can you tell us about the Saudi contribution to your coalition, specifically with respect to the provision of military bases for the training of Syrian opposition forces? Obviously, that came up in the meeting today. I mean, is that nailed down? And if so --

SECRETARY KERRY: Actually, it didn’t come up in the meeting today. There was no specific discussion today of a specific role to a specific country. What there was was a group agreement to accept the outline of strategy that President Obama laid down, which includes military action. A number of countries have offered to engage in that kind of action, but over the course of the next few days, weeks, the military team, intelligence team will work with each of these countries, lay down the larger strategy, and there’ll begin to be an integration of each country’s potential activities.

QUESTION: And the Saudis are willing to host training?

SECRETARY KERRY: We didn’t get into a specific discussion of that, but we did get into a discussion that they’re willing to engage in military support. What that amounts to, what it is, is to be determined as we go forward.

QUESTION: I don’t want to say flip-flop, but others would say it about the President suddenly wanting to ramp up support for the Syrian Free Army after resisting for years. What would – how would you answer that?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’d say it’s completely inaccurate that the President resisted supporting the Free Syrian Army. What he resisted was bombing and engaging directly in the civil war. But he has been providing assistance to the Free Syrian Army. That’s an openly known fact. I mean, we have been providing significant assistance. The President has asked Congress for help. Congress has provided assistance and we’ve been engaged in training activities and nonlethal support and other support for some period of time.

QUESTION: You and the President previously expressed concerns about arms intended for the Free Syrian Army winding up in the hands of bad guys – al-Nusrah, al-Qaida, you name it. How do you know for sure this time that it’ll get to them?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, nothing has suggested that we’ve changed the rules by which we are engaged in our activities with the folks that are being trained. So all precautions will be taken, as they have been, to make sure that whatever is being done doesn’t somehow aid the wrong people. And we’ll continue to exercise those precautions.

QUESTION: You are getting a fair bit of static from Congress – not just Republicans but loyal Democrats like Tim Kaine – demanding that the President get authorization for military force. How can you build this coalition with nations around the world without a clear consensus at home?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m convinced there’ll be a clear consensus at home. Seventy-some percent of the American people believe we need to go after ISIL. They understand exactly what the threat is. Seventy-plus percent have indicated in polling that they support the President taking action even in Syria. I think people understand the threat of ISIL.

Now, I understand that Congress wants to know more specifically exactly who’s in the coalition, what it is, and that’s exactly why I’m out here: to help grow the coalition, to seek the definition from various countries what they’re willing to do, and to be able to report to Congress next week on the results. And hopefully, Congress will be persuaded that the President has laid an adequate predicate, that he’s done what’s necessary to put together a solid strategy, and that we’re on the right track here to deal with the very real threat not only to the United States but to many of our partners and particularly to the Middle East region.

QUESTION: Henry Kissinger recently said that Iran poses a more dangerous threat to America and its national security interest than ISIS does. Do you agree?

SECRETARY KERRY: Iran obviously, with its nuclear program, presents an extraordinary threat, and it’s bigger than the kind of threat that ISIS presents, which is why we are dealing with Iran. But as Henry Kissinger knows better than any human being in the world, you don’t have the luxury of choosing to deal with only one very significant challenge. He’s correct; a nuclear program, a nuclear weapon potential in the hands of Iran, is item number one on the President’s agenda. But that’s precisely why the President began this negotiation many months ago. ISIS or ISIL, however you want to call it, is a real and immediate danger and it needs to be taken out now, not later. And that’s precisely why we’re pursuing the strategy we’re pursuing.

QUESTION: In 2007, President George W. Bush said, “I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now, to begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we’re ready. And that would be dangerous for Iraq and it would mean we’d allow terrorists to establish safe haven, and there could be – we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale.”

Do you think that you and President Obama would be prepared to concede that he was right?


QUESTION: Because?

SECRETARY KERRY: Because he’s wrong. Why is he wrong? He’s wrong because while George Bush was president and Dick Cheney was vice president and they had 156,000 troops in Iraq, al-Qaida broke out. The al-Qaida threat in Iraq began while they had 150-plus thousand troops in Iraq. And the fact is that that presence was narrowed down, whittled down over a period of time, and it wasn’t the – the troops that were going to be left in Iraq were not going to be combat troops under anybody’s plan, George Bush’s or Barack Obama’s. The fact is the Iraqis themselves, the government, refused to give the immunities that are necessary for American troops to be left anywhere. And when they refused to give them, the President said, okay, I’m not leaving the troops here.

This is the same challenge in Afghanistan. We’ve made it clear that without a bilateral security agreement, the troops will not be left there. So al-Qaida was there for some period of time, and what happened is that the troops that were trained previously folded when ISIL started to come in much more rapidly than anybody might have ever imagined. And that’s really what has presented the current crisis.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Very nice interview.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it. Thank you.