Interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Yesterday, I spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry from Munich, and I started by asking him whether the U.S. is winning in our goal of diminishing and eventually destroying ISIS.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I believe we are on the road to; yes, I absolutely do. And I think the evidence is not in my saying it, but it’s in the facts of what is happening. First of all, the coalition is strong, more committed than ever, particularly in the aftermath of the burning of the Jordanian pilot. The resounding reaffirmations of commitment throughout the Arab world have been heartening and strong.
We have already seen – I mean, here’s what’s happened: 22 percent of the populated areas that they held have been taken back already, and that’s without launching what we would call a major offensive. It’s with the efforts of the Iraqi army, as it’s being retrained and standing up again to reclaim some territory, as they begin to probe. We have taken out a significant proportion of the top leadership of ISIS. Their command-and-control facilities have been attacked, interrupting their command and control. They no longer can communicate the way they were as openly. They no longer travel in convoys the way they were as openly, or where they do they’re at great risk.
Now, there’s a lot more to do. We have said, since the beginning, this is a long-term operation, not a short-term one. But we believe everything, including the governing process in Iraq itself, is moving in the right direction.
QUESTION: Well, I want to – I’m not – I was just going to say not everybody agrees that the U.S. is doing enough. My colleague Richard Engel had an interview with the head of the Kurdish province in Iraq. I want you to take a listen to what he said about the war.
MR. ENGEL: President Obama said there’s a strategy in place to degrade and defeat ISIS. Do you believe him?
CHANCELLOR BARZANI: Well, he’s the President of the United States. When he --
MR. ENGEL: But do you believe there is a strategy in place that will do that?
CHANCELLOR BARZANI: I hope there is. But we need that strategy to be translated into action.
MR. ENGEL: So you’re not seeing it.
CHANCELLOR BARZANI: Not yet.
MR. ENGEL: You’re not seeing the strategy?
CHANCELLOR BARZANI: We have not seen --
MR. ENGEL: That can degrade and defeat?
CHANCELLOR BARZANI: Not yet. I mean, so far, we have not seen any serious action that can quickly defeat ISIS.
MR. ENGEL: Or slowly? Can it work over the long term?
CHANCELLOR BARZANI: It can. It can. But once again, I mean, we are sacrificing more lives and putting many innocent lives at risk by allowing ISIS to survive for a longer period.
QUESTION: Now Secretary, that was Chancellor Barzani. That’s what he was telling Richard Engel. He’s essentially saying they need more support. They need swifter action from the United States. What do you say in response?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, you heard the key word there, which was not quickly, but he said over time it can work. And we have said consistently that this is going to take a certain amount of time. Now, why? Is that because we want it to take an amount of time? No. The fact is that the Iraqi army itself needs to be retrained and stood up. There have to be ground troops involved in order to win this victory. And it’s clear they’re not going to be American, they’re not going to be British, they’re not going to be French and European; they are going to be Iraqi, and that’s the way the Iraqis want it. But they’re not ready to move yet, and it would be a great mistake strategically for them to move before they are ready.
So I understand President Barzani’s impatience. I fully understand it. The Peshmerga have been particularly brave and courageous. We have supplied them with an enormous amount of ammunition, weapons, other things, and others are supplying them, our allies. So I think, as we’ve said from the beginning, people need to be recognizing the importance of putting in place a strategy that can win.
QUESTION: Now, you’re pleading for patience. And it was something that a former colleague of yours in the U.S. Senate, Lindsey Graham, was sort of mocking. And it had to do more with a speech that Susan Rice gave on Friday, outlining the new national security strategy. And he tweeted this. He said, “I doubt ISIL, the Iranian mullahs, or Vladimir Putin will be intimidated by President Obama’s strategy of strategic patience.” And the other implication here, Mr. Secretary, is that patience, waiting too long, is what allowed an ISIS to gain a foothold, that we didn’t react soon enough, and now we’re paying the price for it.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, ISIS gained the foothold that it gained in Iraq principally because the army had been personalized and fundamentally become a sectarian entity. And so within Sunni areas, unfortunately there weren’t enough people with a stake in the game in order to stand their ground because it wasn’t their army. And so there are a lot of reasons for how we got to where we are today. What we need to understand is that we have moved from instant one to buttress Iraq, to build a coalition. People were astonished that we were able to get five Sunni nations to join us in taking on the challenge of Syria.
SECRETARY KERRY: I think we have put together a strong coalition. I just don’t buy into that.
QUESTION: I know that Vice President Biden gave a speech at the Munich conference essentially on Ukraine, saying that the United States would be there to provide assistance to Ukraine. He didn’t quite outline it. But obviously, it was an indictment of what Russia’s been doing in there, the weapons they’ve been providing. How soon will the United States be providing more security assistance, heavier artillery, to Ukraine?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to go into precisely what items are going to be provided to Ukraine, but I have no doubt that additional assistance of economic kind and others – other kind will be going to Ukraine. And we do so understanding that there is no military solution; the solution is a political, diplomatic one. But President Putin’s got to make the decision to take an off-ramp, and we have to make it clear to him that we are absolutely committed to the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine no matter what. And we will stay with that promise.
QUESTION: Is he irrational? Is – do you believe President Putin is a rational actor here? Because you outline the economic sanctions and the drop in oil have had a huge impact. And yet, it has not changed his behavior.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to get into characterizations, except people can draw their own conclusions based on what they see. He is leaving the global community with no choice but to continue to either put more sanctions in place or to provide additional assistance to Ukraine, and hopefully he will come to a point where he realizes the damage he is doing is not just to the global order and the process, but he is doing enormous damage to Russia itself. And I’m convinced – I think most people are convinced – that each month that goes by, that will catch up to him ultimately in Russia itself. The nationalistic card is playing for the moment, but ultimately people want their lives to be better.
QUESTION: Quickly, last question. The Iran nuclear talks, I know that’s also front and center. You have a very, very busy agenda these days. On – is it just a deal or no deal? Or is there a chance that you extend the current sort of temporary deal that’s in place now?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the only chance I can see of an extension at this point in time would be that you really have the outlines of the agreement, but if we’re not able to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made over the course of the next weeks, literally, I think it would be impossible to extend. I don’t think we would want to extend at that point. Either you make the decisions to prove your program is a peaceful one, or if you’re unable to do that, it may tell a story that none of us want to hear.
QUESTION: Is there any scenario that you would run for president in 2016?
SECRETARY KERRY: I have no scenario whatsoever in my mind. I haven’t thought about it. I’m, as you can tell, pretty busy.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) I know. Not even – is it a never say never?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, nobody ever says never, but I’m not – never – I mean, I have no concept of it. Thank you, Chuck.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary Kerry, safe travels. Thank you, Secretary.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.