Interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 22, 2014

QUESTION: Joining us now on set, the Secretary of State John Kerry. Great to have you on board, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Good to be here. Thank you. Good to be back.

QUESTION: Let’s start with a kind of overarching question here: Who is in the coalition in the Muslim world and beyond standing with us?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we have more than 50 countries total now. But in the immediate vicinity in the region, I think you saw we had a conference in Jeddah in which every single Gulf nation and the surrounding neighbors joined up one way or the other to be active in the coalition. That includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait.

QUESTION: You bring up Qatar. I mean, they’re also helping ISIS in their own --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no, there’s no evidence at this point, right now, Joe, that anyone is currently funding ISIS in any way whatsoever. Now, in the beginning, individual countries in the region – multiple – made decisions about who they would support to try to get rid of Assad. And in theory, in many of their minds was, okay, this is the first war is get rid of Assad, the second war is we’ll get rid of them.


SECRETARY KERRY: And it was kind of expedient that didn’t work – expedience that didn’t work.

QUESTION: Aren’t the Qataris, though, being far too passive in trying to track down people in their own country who continue to fund --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think there --

QUESTION: There were reports this past weekend that – out of London that some of the biggest funders are coming out of Qatar.

SECRETARY KERRY: Some of the biggest funders individually are coming out of a number of countries in the region still, and that is a major focus of our coalition effort.

QUESTION: Are you disappointed with Qatar’s behavior over the past several months?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no – I mean, you keep coming back to one kind. The answer is we’re disappointed in any country that is allowing foreign fighters to move in, that’s allowing financing to come from individuals. Bahrain has stepped up and they’re hosting a conference in a few days which will be very, very important to help coordinate the activities, which we’ve gotten very good at. The Treasury Department is outstanding at focusing on financing, being able to track people, the sanctions that we’ve had in the last years that really --

QUESTION: Has the money flow slowed down?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- have raised our skill level. Beg your pardon?

QUESTION: Has the money flow slowed down?

SECRETARY KERRY: Money – state money has – yes, state-sponsored support has stopped, to our – best of our knowledge at this point in time. Individuals in countries are still funding. Now, in case of ISIL, ISIL robbed a bank, a big bank in Mosul.


SECRETARY KERRY: And ISIL, regrettably, has been able to sell some oil, and that is a major issue --

QUESTION: Who do they sell it to?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they’ve been able to smuggle it out. It’s been able to get out into the marketplace. And we have to make sure that it can’t move through Turkey or through Syria or out through Lebanon. There are various channels, and that will be a major target of our efforts.

QUESTION: So let me ask you about the overall strategy, especially as it pertains to arming the Free Syrian Army. I feel like nobody has gotten enough information in terms of why we should trust them. Can we trust them? What credible information do we have that this can be effective by arming the Free Syrian Army?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Mika, we’ve been working now with the Free Syrian Army for several years. I mean, you’ve had a pretty active debate about arming, not arming, and so forth. The debate’s been in Washington, too. The fact is that we have gotten very good at knowing who they are and vetting them. We’ve been doing 20 years of vetting now. It began in Iraq, it moved to Afghanistan, which, by the way, an enormous success yesterday for everybody in the decision of the Afghan leaders to come together to form a government. We’ve been working at that diplomatically for months intensively.

Also, they’re putting – this is a story that hasn’t been as focused on, but Iraq. Iraq is an incredible story of the Iraqis coming together themselves to put their government together, to have new people come in, a breath of fresh air to embrace a unity effort to deal with ISIS. So those are positive signs in, obviously, a sea of troubles. But --

QUESTION: A sea of troubles. It’s a shame that you took over as Secretary of State at a time when nothing was happening.

QUESTION: Exactly. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: We are involved deeply, heavily, in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. Two principal points of contention: one, Syria, where they’re engaged in a civil war that’s taken hundreds of thousands of lives; the other, Iraq, where despite the progress that’s being made is still a dysfunctional government. You mentioned oil shipments and smuggling across the Turkish border. It’s a 500-mile-long border. We have an air base in southern Turkey that the Turks are very reluctant to allow us to use for military operations in either Iraq or perhaps in Syria.

Is Turkey our ally? What is the story with Turkey?

SECRETARY KERRY: Turkey is our ally. Turkey is also a member of NATO. I was in Ankara just a few days ago. I had a long meeting with President Erdogan, with now Prime Minister Davutoglu, who I know well from the last years. And they have absolutely pledged to be effective and to be deeply involved in helping to deal with this challenge.

Now, the proof will not be in the words. The proof will be in the actions. And we’re not going to take anything to the bank on the basis of a verbal interaction, but at least we know that they are committed – that’s the beginning – and now we’re beginning to put together the specific tasks that each nation will undertake, Mike. And that was the reason for the discussions in Paris the other day. We had 26 countries, four international organizations, all committed to this effort. And here in New York we’re going to continue those meetings. We had a major meeting at the UN Security Council on Friday; 37 countries spoke out publicly for the first time for the world to hear them condemn ISIL and commit to this challenge and to deal with this.

So General Allen is pulling the pieces together. I have huge confidence in him, as does President Obama. And over the next days, the strategy will unfold, the participants will unfold, and we really have to just give it a little bit of time.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, one of the most troubling elements of this conversation for a lot of Americans is this question of whether or not ground troops will be used. The President says we can do it without ground troops, at least not our ground troops. A lot of other people, including General Dempsey last week at a hearing said there are scenarios what I could see – where I could see advising the President to introduce ground troops. Can you say this morning that American men and women won’t be packing up their things at air bases here in the United States and flying there and fighting again in places like Syria and Iraq?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not in combat operations, Willie. No, they won’t be doing that. But let me answer your question with a question. In the Middle East, given the experience we’ve had with both Iraq and then, of course, in South-Central Asia and Afghanistan, if ground troops were needed at some point in time – and I’m not saying that they are, but if they were – are we better off with those ground troops being American, or should they come from the region? I think the answer to that is self-evident.

So the President is correct to say that Americans are not going to go back in there because we’ve learned a lot. And this is a fight for the region. Every country in the region is deeply threatened by this, and that includes Iran, includes Lebanon, includes all of the neighborhood. And it is absolutely fair and appropriate for the world to expect that that region will fight for itself.

QUESTION: So what countries would introduce their own ground troops?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not – Mike, I’m not going to get in now to who’s willing to do what at this point. The judgment of everybody is that a great deal can be accomplished, and perhaps even the whole deal can be accomplished, by training the Free Syrian Army in the open. Saudi Arabia has agreed openly to do that training in Saudi Arabia. That’s a remarkable step forward. Countries in the region – multiple – have made commitments to be part of military action. And I think we have to let the beginning begin and we’ll see as we go forward.

QUESTION: So getting back to Turkey, which would be a key player I would think, we had the release of hostages over the past few days. Is that likely to get them to be behave more like an ally? What’s it going to take to get Turkey to act in good faith?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me be very clear, Mika. Turkey had a serious challenge with 49 hostages. And Turkey came to the meetings. Turkey was in Jeddah. Turkey was in Paris. I met with the Turkish foreign minister here on Friday. And I met with President Erdogan in Ankara, and he committed that Turkey has a deep interest in making certain that ISIL is taken on. They are threatened. Turkey is threatened. Their border is threatened. Their security is threatened. And they are committed to doing this, but they first needed to deal with their hostage situation. Now the proof will be in the pudding, as I said, and we will work with them very closely in the days ahead.

QUESTION: Just to go back to the beginning of why we’re even having this conversation, Secretary Kerry, is the question of ISIS and how dangerous a threat it really is to the United States. And there’s been some questions. Some have said there is no imminent or direct threat to the United States. How dangerous is this group, and have you all seen direct threats to the United States?

SECRETARY KERRY: This is one of the most dangerous groups that I have seen in my time in public life. Why? Because they have a radical extremist philosophy, cult-ish attitude. It’s not a religious outlook; it’s a self-described cult that is evil. They are avowed genocidists. They have already set out to kill Yezidis, to kill Christians, to kill Shia. They have declared enemy anybody who isn’t them and doesn’t adopt their way of life.

But more than that, unlike al-Qaida, they’ve conquered major territory. They have access to assets that al-Qaida never had. They have access to funding that al-Qaida never had. They’re beginning to set themselves up as an organized entity to rule this swath of territory which is a threat to the region. You could lose – you could have lost Baghdad, you could have lost Erbil, you could have lost those oil fields, you could have had an entire regional reversal had the United States and others, frankly, in the region not stepped up and helped the Peshmerga and helped the Iraqis to be able to stem the tide.

Now, they are plotting externally. In Australia, they just arrested a group of people who were alleged to be about to do spectacular, horrendous, grotesque atrocities.

QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that’s coming to America?

SECRETARY KERRY: And – well, we have over a hundred fighters there from America. They have passports. They can come back here. That’s why foreign fighters are such a focus, and President Obama will chair a UN Security Council meeting this week to deal with foreign fighters. But we learned with al-Qaida you cannot leave this extremist cultism ungoverned spaces to plot whatever they want. They are dangerous to every country in the region, and you cannot have a challenge to the norms of international behavior, to rule of law, to states, and leave it unchallenged.

QUESTION: All right --

SECRETARY KERRY: And that is what’s at stake.

QUESTION: Secretary of State John Kerry, always great to see you.

QUESTION: Secretary, great to see you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

QUESTION: We saw you in simpler times about a year ago, simpler not only for the United States but for the Boston Red Sox. (Laughter.) Game six in Boston.

SECRETARY KERRY: There’s your expert right here.

QUESTION: There we are.

SECRETARY KERRY: You know, that was one of the great nights. Really incredible.

QUESTION: It was a wonderful night.

SECRETARY KERRY: I will never forget that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.).

QUESTION: Are you going up to the last game --

QUESTION: Absolutely.

QUESTION: -- with – Jeter game?

SECRETARY KERRY: Jeter. Oh, that’s worth its weight. That’ll be a good game there. And Boston fans will treat him well. That’s a wonderful night. It’s a great night.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, great to see you. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you for coming.