Sixth Annual Washington Ideas Forum

Interview
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Harman Center
Washington, DC
October 30, 2014


MODERATOR: But now let me now introduce Secretary John Kerry. There’s a spot on the State Department’s website that shows a running log of everywhere Secretary John Kerry has traveled. He’s logged well over 300 miles – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon – a testament to the complexity and challenge of his charge.

There is another side to Secretary Kerry not widely known. It’s said of Washington politicians that they are there for you when they need you – not so Kerry. Despite his schedule, he’s the first to call a bereaved family, as he did the Bradlees last week. He’s the first to go to a friend or staffer’s bedside at the hospital. He’s the first with small kindnesses. At age 70, when many of us will be resting on whatever laurels we’ve accumulated, dandling our grandchildren, Secretary Kerry is still spending most of his waking hours serving his country.

Let us now cover some of those 300 miles with the – 300,000 miles – (laughter) – with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons.

QUESTION: Thank you so much, Margaret. (Applause.) Secretary Kerry, we have a lot of ground to cover in 20 minutes, and I thought I would start with --

SECRETARY KERRY: We do, on one of the most uncomfortable sofas I’ve ever sat on too.

QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.) That is duly noted.

SECRETARY KERRY: Truly.

QUESTION: Duly noted. I don't know how you could talk about that from the Senate chairs you had, but I understand.

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay.

QUESTION: Let’s start with – I feel like we need to start with page A1 of The New York Times today, where Mark Landler went through – and to put Mark Landler’s article in context, it’s a very interesting profile of the national security decision-making process and the players in it. And if you contrast it with just a few years ago when you had Hillary Clinton, you had Jim Jones and Tom Donilon, you had various other players in the Department of Defense, that there seemed to be – they were all on the same page. You never saw people speaking off-script.

And I’m really interested to – you were described in there as someone that wasn’t as tightly tethered to the White House, and I’m interested in what your comments on the national security decision-making process are right now.

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it’s extremely effective, and this is a Chatty Cathy town, where – (laughter) --

QUESTION: But it seems to have become more Chatty Cathy than it was a few years ago.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – I mean, I don’t want to get – look, we have much more important things to talk about than that. This is – there’s always people who make a business out of really trying to, I think, gossip and tear things down who may be on the outside who don’t have an ability to necessarily be in the loop of what’s happening.

But I will tell you that the coordination and relationship between Susan and me and Dennis and the team is as tight as I’ve ever experienced. Susan was over at my house the other night. We spent three and a half hours at dinner going over the world, working on things. I have not – I don’t think I’ve missed a national security meeting or a principals meeting, as we call them, even when I’m on the road. If it’s midnight or 1 o’clock in the morning, I’m on the VTC dialing in to Washington.

So I don’t think it’s a very accurate portrayal, and I don’t think it’s particularly important to spend a lot of time on it. I think we are more engaged in the world than we have ever been. We are more strategic.

QUESTION: It’s a more confusing world, a more --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s a much more complicated world. It’s --

QUESTION: What does your dashboard look like? What does the dashboard of the Secretary of State look like when you see, from Asia to Africa --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it looks more like an airplane panel. It’s sort of – (laughter) --

QUESTION: Yeah.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- both sides. Look, I’m not complaining about it. It’s – I think what is happening is, frankly, the result of years of things we’ve advocated and worked towards. And yes, it’s a confusing and difficult moment. But I don’t think we should be intimidated by it. I think we need to embrace it and envelope it and capture it to the best of our ability, and we’re working to do that.

I mean, there’s an enormous amount of – the workings of the State Department – and I saw a couple folks here who have been there – it’s like an iceberg. You see the top whatever percentage, 20 percent or something like that. There’s a huge amount of daily enterprise and monthly, yearly strategic engagement that you don’t see, and that, frankly, doesn’t get written about.

An example of that – I mean, Afghanistan is not on the front pages, but I will tell you that our efforts to work the election, to know that the election was the critical transition moment, began the day I came in and even before when I was a senator. And as I came in, we worked the relationship so that, as things got difficult, I was able to go over and work with Dr. Abdullah and work with Dr. Ghani and pull the thing together. And so we have a sustainable policy in Afghanistan, where there’s now a unity government and something that nobody thought was possible. That was a strategic outcome.

Iraq similarly – it’s not an accident we have a new government in Iraq. And the President was absolutely correct to hold off getting immediately committed to the ISIL effort until we knew we had a government in Iraq that we could work with. And we knew that wasn’t Maliki, but the United States couldn’t just crash in and say, “Hey, you’re out. Here are the guys that are in.” That’s not our – it would be playing into all of the worst stereotypes that have brought us to the difficulties we’re living with today.

So we put in place a clear strategy, working with all of our friends in the region, particularly the Sunni because the Sunni countries have been so angry about the way Maliki was building a Shia army and linking to Iran and creating a sectarian divide. And that’s why it was dysfunctional. So we worked first to get the Sunni speaker to decide not to run again, to get another person who could run quietly behind the scenes.

QUESTION: Sounds like a lot of micro work.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a lot of micro work. And our Ambassador Steve Beecroft and our Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, who practically lived over there during this period, did an extraordinary job of diplomacy. And we worked it. I went over. We worked with Barzani in Erbil to get him to commit, because the Kurds were angling towards independence, to stay with it. We got a Kurd president of the country. Once you had a Sunni speaker and a Kurd president, it was possible to get a new prime minister. And even Sistani – Ayatollah Sistani’s comments that were very much critical to moving Maliki were --

QUESTION: So let me --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- came out of a coordinated effort.

QUESTION: Yeah.

SECRETARY KERRY: The bottom line is the Iraqis made the final choice. We couldn’t. So --

QUESTION: And we can check that off as perhaps a success at the moment. I remember some years ago I was in your committee room when you were chair of the Foreign Relations Committee or – with Richard Lugar. I don’t remember who was ranking and who was chair, but you were both cool on either sides. And David Petraeus was testifying --

SECRETARY KERRY: You mean --

QUESTION: -- on Afghanistan.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- compared to today’s Senate, we actually talked to each other.

QUESTION: Yeah. Yeah. You talked to each other. You seemed to get along. And on this day, David Petraeus was testifying in his ISAF role as head of Afghanistan, and you and Richard Lugar quizzed him about whether what we were doing in Afghanistan fit within a strategic framework for the United States, where our strategic interests were furthered. And both you and Senator Lugar made the point that there was a big difference between being in the silo of Afghanistan and what the other broader strategic issues are.

And I’m interested in whether we’re running the risk, when we think about national security today, of chasing rabbits and forgetting what the – how does Iraq and Iraq solvency fit a strategic plan? How does Afghanistan fit the strategic plan, ISIS – where does it fit within the kind of broad strategic --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s very straightforward.

QUESTION: Yeah.

SECRETARY KERRY: And let me say to everybody that we’re living – the Cold War was easy compared to where we are today. And the immediate post-war period --

QUESTION: Is Putin trying to make it easy for you again, bring it back?

SECRETARY KERRY: I hope not. (Laughter.) That’s a different – no, because he’s doing it very differently and in a way that’s very challenging to the ability to be able to avoid conflicts and begin to harness the energy of the world and move in a similar direction.

The world we’re living in today is much more – look, a lot of countries have economic power today that they didn’t have in the last century. We wanted that. We have about 15 nations today that 10 years ago were aid recipients from the United States. South Korea is an example. Today, South Korea is a donor country, doing what we’ve urged countries to do, which is accept global responsibility.

So now you have more countries with more economic power in a globalized world, and they’re feeling their oats. They’re going to automatically react and say, well, wait a minute now, do we really want the behemoth United States, superpower of the world, telling us all the time what we have to do? And so you have to approach these things a little bit differently. It requires more diplomacy. It requires more dialogue. It requires more respect for people, more mutual interest finding. It’s much more of the world that Henry Kissinger describes in his wonderful book, Diplomacy, where he talks about state interests and the balance of power.

And we’re much more, in many ways, back towards the latter part of the 19th century or even 18th century in dealing with countries. Countries are flexing their muscles and standing up for their own interests and they have some greater economic independence and ability to do it. And then you see the BRICS – Brazil, China, India – standing up and saying – Russia – we want something – a different access, in a sense.

So we have to work harder at it. And my warning to the Congress and to the country is, really, this doesn’t come for free.

QUESTION: Are we getting --

SECRETARY KERRY: American power needs to be projected thoughtfully and appropriately, but if we’re not – I’ll give you an example. Prime Minister Modi from India came here the other day. He came after going to China and going to India – going to Japan, both of whom gave him double-digit numbers of billions of dollars for infrastructure development. China, I think, did 30 billion; Japan did somewhere similar --

QUESTION: How did we do?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- but more. We couldn’t even do a $1 billion loan guarantee, the United States of America.

Now everybody here ought to be shocked by that. We are behaving like we’re the richest country on the face of the planet. We’re still critical to everything that happens in the world. And we are not sufficiently committing the resources necessary to do what we need to do in this world.

QUESTION: So you’re saying American power in the world is living on fumes from the --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, it’s not. We’re doing better than that. And if you look at what we’ve done, look at – we are leading in everything we’re doing in the world. This narrative about the United States disengaging and the President not being committed is just – it’s one of the reasons why I’m here today, because --

QUESTION: But there’s a difference between the argument about disengagement and then going to Brazil, Russia, India and talking to leaders and sensing their doubt in America; that’s a different thing. There’s a doubt out there. It’s palpable.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, but --

QUESTION: How do you fix that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it all came out of one thing, which is somewhat confounding, which was sort of the Syria issue and challenge at that moment. But people seem to be thinking that it’s wiser to bomb for a day and a half and do some damage than it is to get all of the chemical weapons out of a country. We did the unprecedented. We got 100 percent of the declared chemical weapons out of the country and destroyed.

QUESTION: I seem to recall --

SECRETARY KERRY: So that Israel is, in fact, safer today.

QUESTION: I seem to recall that was your idea. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it was shared with a number of people, but let me just make – I want to make a point that I think is key to all of this. You have a world in which masses of numbers of young people – 65 percent of countries throughout Africa, through the Middle East, South Central Asia, et cetera – have populations under the age of 30, 35; fifty percent under the age of 21; and down you go. If these kids are left to no devices or their own, which is what’s happening, madrasas will fill their world, radical wahabi/salafi extremism of one kind or another, something is going to come along and say the world is disappointing you and we’re a better alternative. How else do you get young kids to strap themselves in a suicide vest and think things are better on the other side? But that’s happening.

And the fear I hear from my counterpart foreign ministers in many parts of the world is that that void is not being filled by the West or others. We talk about democracy, we go out and we extol the virtues of our way of life, et cetera, but are we backing it up?

QUESTION: There’s an absence.

SECRETARY KERRY: Are we doing what’s necessary to bring power and electricity so they can share the wealth? And the other thing is, all of these people have mobile devices. They’re all in touch with everybody in the world, all the time, 24/7. They know what’s going on in the world. But they don’t see themselves being able to reach it or reaching it.

And I thought always the dream that America touched people with the most was their ability to be able to reach the brass ring. We have to help them do that more, and that’s a long-term strategy. Other people – I’ll tell you, I’ll share a conversation. The foreign minister of a country in Africa – big country, has a 30 percent Muslim population – and when we went out to dinner, he let his hair down with me and he said, “We’re frightened.” I asked him, “How are you dealing with this Muslim population?” He said the extremists have a strategy. They come in and pay money in poor areas of town, get the young kids, take them out, indoctrinate them, then they don’t have to pay the money anymore. Those young kids become the recruiters or the emissaries or the, unfortunately, the implementers of some policy.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY KERRY: And – but what he said to me that was most important is he said they’re disciplined and they don’t have a five-year plan, they have a 30-year plan. Now, we don’t even have a five-year plan. So we’ve got to get our act together, and that’s what the President is trying to say. That’s what he said at West Point when he talked about the focus on terrorism --

QUESTION: Right.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- that’s what the President is saying in our TPP, our engagement with Asia – the rebalance with Asia, the TTIP – 40 percent of the global economy in Asia, 40 percent of the global economy in Europe and the United States – we’re focused strategically on how do you play the long game here?

QUESTION: Right.

SECRETARY KERRY: And the long game is raising the standards of trade, opening up more trade --

QUESTION: So do you think we’re playing the long game in Asia and the short game in the Middle East?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think we’re playing a long game in the Middle East. I mean, if you – if you – if we – you asked earlier what’s the importance of Iraq --

QUESTION: Josh Earnest came out and made an interesting comment about the U.S.-Israel relationship where he said that relationship transcends individual leaders. It was a very interesting comment.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, but --

QUESTION: So what’s the long game? In a case like Israel, there’s been a lot of talk. Jeffrey Goldberg, my colleague, had a --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I read the article.

QUESTION: -- a spicy word, “chickenshit” thrown out there. But I think the broader question is: What is the American long game in an arena that keeps ripping itself apart.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the long game, as everybody knows from the investment I made much of last year, is to find a way to bring the parties to make peace in the Middle East. We still believe it is doable, but it takes courage. It takes strength. You have to be prepared – both sides have to be prepared to compromise in order to do it.

Here’s what I know, and I think all of you know this viscerally and intellectually. And I’ve asked this question of people in the Middle East. One of the great challenges for Israel is, obviously, not to be a binational state. It wants to be a Jewish state. To be a Jewish state, you clearly have to resolve the issue of two states. If you don’t, and you were a unitary state and people have equal rights to vote and participate as citizens, is Israel going to have a Palestinian prime minister? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Not going to happen.

So therefore, what is the solution here? How do you move forward? And what we’re trying to do is evenhandedly and hopefully thoughtfully strengthen Israel’s ability to be free of rockets – not strengthen; to make it free of rockets, to end this perpetual conflict in a way that provides for the complete security of Israel, which has a right, totally, to be free of tunnels coming into its country, terrorists jumping out of a tunnel with handcuffs, with tranquilizer drugs, guns next to a kibbutz – that’s – no country would tolerate that.

QUESTION: Do you think it’s time for you or the President or someone to be a little bit more evocative in terms of defining what you think a deal would like (inaudible)?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think we need to work quietly and effectively, and we condemn anybody who uses language such as was used in this article. That does not reflect the President, it does not reflect me. It is disgraceful, unacceptable, damaging, and I think neither President Obama nor I – I’ve never heard that word around me in the White House or anywhere – I don’t know who these anonymous people are who keep getting quoted in things. But they make life much more difficult, and we are proud of what we have done to help Israel through a very difficult time.

President Obama is the person who committed to Iron Dome. He made it happen. President Obama has consistently been – he was supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself in the recent – obviously, in this recent war. But at the same time, the President wants to try to nurse the parties together to resolve these differences.

Now, in Iraq, if we didn’t get engaged, I don’t know where ISIL would be today. Maybe in Baghdad; there’d be a hell of a war going on there for sure. Iran may move in even more so to protect the Shia interests in an 80 percent Shia country. What would happen then with Assad and deterioration if ISIL commanded even more territory, it would be a – it already is unprecedented as a terror group in the amount of land, money, and assets that it controls. And it has already threatened Europe, the West, others directly.

So you have no choice here. You have to engage in a way – now, I think we’ve engaged thoughtfully. We built a coalition that for the first time ever has brought together five Arab countries that have actually dropped bombs in Syria against Sunni extremists – unprecedented.

QUESTION: I didn’t think it was possible, actually.

SECRETARY KERRY: Unprecedented. And we are carefully trying to nurse this forward so the Iraqi army does the fighting. The Iraqi army comes back, but not an army that represents one person or one sect; that has a national identity and can bring the Shia – the Sunni tribes in Anbar to the table to reclaim the country. Yesterday in Amiriyah we made some gains – in Zumar, a city south of Mosul, they took it back. This will be slow, it will take time. We’ve been honest with the American people and the world. It’s not going to happen overnight. But it is the best way to push back against religious extremism, and we have united all of the countries in the region in that endeavor. We are flying airplanes into Syria, and Syria’s not trying to shoot them down. We are targeting ISIL; we are trying to build a force that can have an impact on Assad’s decision making so we can get back to a table where we could negotiate a political outcome, because we all know there is no military resolution of Syria.

So that’s where we’re trying to get back to, and we reached out to the Russians. There have been conversations with Iranians, conversations with the Saudis. We’re trying to pull people together.

QUESTION: We’re at the end of our time. There’s so many topics – your views on Assad and his survivability, and others. But I just want to finish – and we really are out of time – but on Iran. If I was thinking about Walter Isaacson’s book on you, which he no doubt will write. He wrote “Kissinger” – we’ve seen Walter up here. He wrote the book, “Kissinger.” If he was writing the book “Kerry” and the opening chapter – I’m interested in whether that entails a deal you helped put together on Iran or not. Yesterday Susan Rice gave a deal a 50/50 chance, which was somewhat higher than I thought it might have. But I’m interested in what happens if a deal with Iran is not achieved. What does the world look like in your world if we don’t go that way? Because it seems then there isn’t a Nixon-goes-to-China moment out there to sort of recreate the sense that America can re-sculpt the global international system.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, we’re living in a very different time. As I said, nations are more developed, they’re more assertive, and it’s not a moment like that. But that doesn’t make diplomacy any less important. It’s in fact more important in many ways, because we don’t have the bipolarity that existed for those 70 years or so. We are working in a very different format. I think the first I’d urge Walter Isaacson if he actually wanted to do that is don’t write the first chapter right now. (Laughter.)

But my – look, I – I’m directly involved, obviously. I’m negotiating face to face with Minister Zarif.

QUESTION: But what odds do you give it?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t. I’m not going to give it odds. As I said to the President recently, I’m not going to express optimism; I’m going to express hope --

QUESTION: Okay.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- and I think achieving it is critical. But I will say this to everybody: We’ve set a very clear standard. There are four present pathways to a bomb for Iran – the hidden so-called secret facility in a mountain called Fordow, the open Natanz enrichment facility, the plutonium heavy-water reactor called Arak, and then, of course, covert activities. We’ve pledged that our goal is to shut off each pathway sufficient that we know we have a breakout time of a minimum of a year that gives us the opportunity to respond if they were to try to do that.

We’re – we believe there are ways to achieve that. Whether Iran can make the tough decisions that it needs to make will be determined in the next weeks, but I have said consistently that no deal is better than a bad deal. And we’re going to be very careful, very much based on expert advice, fact, science as to the choices we make. This must not be a common ideological or a political decision. And if we can do what we’ve said, what the President set out in his policy – the President said they will not get a bomb. If we could take this moment of history and change this dynamic, the world would be a lot safer and we’d avoid a huge arms race in the region where Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, others may decide that if they’re moving towards a bomb, they got to move there too, and obviously it’s a much more dangerous world. And that is not a part of the world where you want massive uninspected, unverified, nontransparent nuclear activities. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.

QUESTION: Ladies and gentlemen, Secretary of State John Kerry. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all. Thanks very much.