Interview With Lubna Hussain of NBC

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

QUESTION: We’ve seen the Free Syrian Army is not up to fighting ISIS, and U.S. airstrikes require, at the very least, special forces on the ground. What makes you think we can degrade and destroy ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons why, and I’m not going to lay them all out so that they have a chance to take actions to address those deficiencies. But the fact is that I think we have an ability with – over time to be able to locate the key leaders, to be able to go after key facilities, to do things that will significantly degrade them. And the most important thing they’re going to face is a retrained, reconstituted, more powerful Iraqi army, as well as a fortified Peshmerga, and increasingly skilled and capable Free Syrian Army as they receive more training. So I think over time, coupled with American air power and other things that can be done here, I think they’re going to have a tough road ahead of them.

QUESTION: Aren’t we helping Assad by going after ISIS in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, ISIS is really separate from Assad in Syria, except where they choose not to be; where they choose to engage, they engage. But Assad doesn’t control the eastern part of Syria, they do, ISIL does. So I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t think there is a great confusion between Assad and ISIL in Syria.

QUESTION: Why should we think the Iraqi army that fled when confronted by ISIS will stand up to the terror group now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Because we’ve made an assessment in the last – remember that the President, the first thing he did was send a team over of 300 military personnel to make an in-depth assessment of the Iraqi military before we made any judgments about what was possible. And back from that assessment came a judgment that there are a number of battalions sufficient to be able to provide a backstop that are ready and prepared and capable of fighting, and then there are additional battalions that can take some input, some additional training, some additional preparation, and will be.

So we believe, in addition, there are some that buckled under the early onslaught of ISIL that may not have had a sufficient stake in that fight because of sectarian divisions and so forth. And there may be ways of repositioning and retraining that part of the army so you have a greater impact.

So we have confidence in the ability of many different people (inaudible) input to that training. Other countries have offered to be part of the training. And over a period of time, knowing what we know about Iraq previously and about Afghanistan and training, I think we can do a sufficient job.

QUESTION: If you were still a senator, would you accept the President’s assertion that he can expand the military campaign without getting authorization from Congress?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, but I’d probably make an argument that it’s always better to have the Congress’s approval, which the President himself is already making that argument. So the answer is I do believe the President has authority, because we authorized him to go after al-Qaida and its other affiliates. And distinctly, ISIS was al-Qaida and then they tried to sort of effect some kind of a divorce, but that doesn’t deprive it from being an affiliate and, in fact, probably even still al-Qaida.

QUESTION: What if limited strategy of airstrikes and no boots on the ground doesn’t work? Won’t the Administration get drawn into escalating?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. This is a longer process than that. This – we – the President has been very careful to say to people this is a long-term effort. It’s not going to be measured that way – the airstrikes don’t work, what, in four months, six months, a year? I can’t tell you. What I can tell you is that with the coalition that is being built now, there will be a sufficient level of commitment to this task that over time there is clearly going to be an upgrading of capacity of the Iraqi military. And if the new leadership of Iraq fulfills its promises to the Iraqi people, provides a government that is inclusive and competent and addresses the concerns, then you will have a united Iraq that will begin to grow, become stronger, more economically powerful, and that will provide a national pride, if you will, and stake in this effort that will be a very important ingredient of restoring communities to Iraqi control and expelling ISIS.

So I think the ingredients are there. Whether it gets mixed correctly and baked properly over the course of the next months and year or so, we’ll have to see. But I think the President believes the ingredients are there. We’re impressed by the countries that are coming to the table. We had a very productive meeting today, significant commitments of support, and over the next weeks and months we’ll really see more of the story unfold.

QUESTION: President Obama said it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL. This likely means he will spend the rest of his presidency dealing with Iraq after he vowed to end the war there. Has Obama broken his promise to the American people? Didn’t Americans vote for him to avoid yet another prolonged engagement in the Middle East? Will this be another presidency defined by a war in Iraq?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. No. I’m convinced it will not be. If it is in any respect, it will be because this is successful and people see the success beginning to take hold. But the fact is the President ended the war as we knew it in which the United States invaded Iraq, occupied Iraq, basically ran the show for a number of years, and then extricated itself.

Iraq has its own government now. Iraqis are making these decisions. Iraq does not want American combat troops on the ground. Iraq wants to win back its future. And I believe what we are engaged in is not a full-fledged war like we were before; it’s a heightened level of counterterrorism operation, and it will have its own pace, its own dynamic, but it’s counterterrorism, and it is happening not because the Iraq experiment failed but because ISIL came about and invaded Iraq and the military dropped the ball and obviously there were expectations of them standing up that didn’t hold up.

So I believe that we should be encouraged by what the Iraqis did for themselves in the last weeks. They peacefully transitioned their government. They changed for the first time ever to a government that is now unified of different sectarian interests and backgrounds with a view to reforming and strengthening their country and moving to the future. In the end, they’ll decide this; not us, not our airplanes. They will decide it. But I think it’s not a reflection of where the President’s focus will be because there are too many things on which the President is also focused ranging from Iran, the nuclear program, to Ukraine, Middle East, Middle East peace, Africa, Ebola, the economy, jobs in America, education, healthcare – you name it. You have to multitask as President of the United States, and that’s exactly what the President’s doing.

MS. PSAKI: Thank you.