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Secretary Kerry Interview With Chris Hayes of MSNBC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 5, 2013

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for making the time today. I really appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m very happy to be with you.

QUESTION: There’s a pretty shocking video by The New York Times posted today. It’s Syrian rebels executing captured soldiers, gunshot to the back of the head, naked. If the U.S. attacks Syria, do those men in those videos become, by definition, our ally?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. In fact, I believe that those men in those videos are disadvantaged by the American response to the chemical weapons use because it in fact empowers the moderate opposition. We all know there are about 11 really bad opposition groups – so-called opposition. They’re not – they’re fighting Assad; they are not part of the opposition that is being supported by our friends and ourselves. That is a moderate opposition. They condemn what has happened today, and they are – and we are busy separating the support we’re giving from any possibility of that support going to these guys.

QUESTION: How confident can you be, though, that that support can be cordoned off or quarantined in any way?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it is being, because there’s a very careful vetting process that’s taking place where people have to come out of Syria and they spend a period of time. They are trained appropriately after being vetted, and then they go back in. And the Turks, the Jordanians, the Qataris, the Saudis, the Emiratis, a lot of people are involved in that process. But there are jihadists who have been attracted to the chaos of Syria.

Now, most importantly, Chris, we’re not remotely talking about getting America involved directly in between any of those forces. The President is not talking about assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. What the President is trying to do – and what we believe is important to America’s national security interests, and to humanitarian interests, and to the interests of Israel and Jordan and Lebanon and all of our friends in the region – is that you hold Bashar al-Assad responsible for use of chemical weapons, and that you degrade his ability to use them again and deter him from using them again. That’s what’s really important here, and that’s all that we’re talking about in this.

QUESTION: So I think that part of the confusion or trepidation from folks is, aside from that, what is the Syria policy the day after the missiles land? Is it the U.S. policy that we want the rebels to win?

SECRETARY KERRY: The U.S. policy is that we want Assad to leave office through the Geneva communique process that has already been agreed on, which the Russians have signed up to, whereby there is a transition government put in place with the mutual consent of the opposing parties. That means the Assad regime has to agree, the opposition has to agree. And that is the negotiation that Russia and the United States have joined in mutually supporting to take place in Geneva. But you can’t get there while Assad is in this state of belief that he is able to gas and massacre the people of Syria into defeat. He will not negotiate.

Now, that’s not the calculation of what the President has proposed in the military strike he is seeking to get authorization for. That is specifically to enforce the international norm, almost a century old now, that came out of World War I, out of the horrors of World War I, whereby 189 nations have signed an agreement that we will not use chemical weapons in warfare. And Bashar al-Assad joins with Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein as being somebody who has crossed that line. We are trying to enforce the international norm against that behavior, and that’s all that this military strike seeks to do.

QUESTION: In terms of longer strategy, though, I mean, you evoked Hitler and Saddam Hussein before. I think there’s some confusion about how can it be the case that this is a Munich moment or --


QUESTION: -- and there’s a diplomatic solution. If this is a murderous thug war criminal, what possible negotiated settlement can there be with him?

SECRETARY KERRY: The Russians, who are supporting him, and the Iranians, others, have suggested that you could have a agreed-upon settlement whereby you have a transition government, because it’s in everybody’s interest to preserve the state of Syria and to have stability restored to the region with a peaceful transition. Now, how do you achieve that if the parties themselves are unwilling to come to the table? In the case of – well, I won’t go into other cases. Let me just say it very simply: The President is not asking Congress to authorize him militarily to engage in that transition. He wants to enforce the almost century-old prohibition against the use of weapons. Would that have some downstream impact on Assad’s military capacity? Sure. But the purpose of that is to exclusively deal with chemical weapons.

Then, day after, the President is supporting, the United States is supporting the moderate opposition, as are many friends of ours – France, England, others. Many in the region are supporting the moderate opposition as they battle for the future of Syria that will be democratic, free, and protecting all minorities. Now, that is a fight that will go on for some period of time without the United States of America being engaged in that fight directly.

QUESTION: If we strike Assad, what happens if he uses chemical weapons again? It seems that we have then committed ourself to an escalated --

SECRETARY KERRY: I disagree. First of all, let me make this clear: The President – and this is very important because I think a lot of Americans, a lot of your listeners, a lot of people in the country are sitting there and saying, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to be Iraq. This is going to be Afghanistan. Here we go again.” I know this. I’ve heard it. And the answer is no, profoundly, no.

Senator Chuck Hagel – when he was Senator, Senator Chuck Hagel, now Secretary of Defense, and when I was a senator, we opposed the President’s decision to go into Iraq. But we know full-well how that evidence was used to persuade all of us that authority ought to be given. I can guarantee you, I’m not imprisoned by my memories of or experience in Vietnam; I’m informed by it. And I’m not imprisoned by my memory of how that evidence was used; I’m informed by it. And so is Chuck Hagel.

And we are informed sufficiently that we are absolutely committed to not putting any evidence in front of the American people that isn’t properly vetted, properly chased aground and verified. And we are both convinced that what we are putting before the American people is in the security interests of our country and it will not lead to some further engagement. There will be no American boots on the ground. This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan. This is not even Libya. This is a very limited, targeted effort to reduce.

Now to answer your question, what happens if – again?


SECRETARY KERRY: The authorization we are asking to allow for the opportunity so that Assad knows: Use it again, then you can get hit again. Our belief is that that will not happen, that Assad will not strike back. He hasn’t struck back once against Israel when Israel’s held him accountable for the use of certain missiles or the preparation of the use of certain missiles. We are quite confident that the Russians and Iranians fully understand the limitations of this potential action with respect to chemical weapons. And both of them have condemned the use of chemical weapons.

QUESTION: But isn’t Assad fighting for his life? He saw what happened to Qadhafi. He knows.

SECRETARY KERRY: He is fighting for his life, but that fight for his life is a fight that will be related to the opposition and to the days ahead in which the United States will not be on the ground and will not be engaged. Our effort is to preserve this international norm regarding the prohibition of the use of these terrible weapons that people saw the other day, Chris, in these horrible scenes in the social media, of these children who were snuffed out at night in their sleep, parents, grandparents, everybody, killed by gas, by something that the world has condemned and said we will not use.

Now, if we don’t stand up to that together with the people who are prepared to stand up with us – and there are many, and the French are prepared to, and others in the Middle East are prepared to, and our friends in Turkey, and others in Poland and other places in the world. We have more people prepared to stand up today and join the United States then actually we could use in the limitations of this kind of action. But if we don’t do this, Assad will have a message that he can use these weapons with impunity. We will have turned our back on the next batch of children, on the next batch of parents. We will have turned our back on the international norm. We will have lost credibility in the world.

And I guarantee you, if we turn our backs today, the picture we all saw in the paper today and the media of those people being shot, that will take place more because more extremists will be attracted to this because they will be funded as the only alternative in order to take on Assad.

QUESTION: You have made this case more strenuously, passionately, more out front than anyone else in the Administration, I think, it’s fair to say. Given the experience you had in Vietnam, and given the experience of the Iraq war, how do you feel about being the public face of this intervention?

SECRETARY KERRY: I feel confident that what I am doing is informed by my own lessons of war and informed by my opposition to war, but informed also by my years of supporting certain military actions where they’re important to the security of our nation. I believe this is important to the security of our country. I believe that if we don’t do this, that we will have sent a horrendous message of permission to a man who has already shown his willingness to use weapons of mass destruction. I believe that if we don’t stand up, our friends in the region – Jordan will be more fragile, potentially at risk; Israel will suffer the greater potentiality of these weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah; that Iran will feel emboldened. Iran, whom we are already in a major confrontation with over the potential that they may be developing a nuclear weapon – Iran will read this. And they could read it in the wrong way, which could create an even more dangerous confrontation down the road.

So of course I’ve thought a lot about this. I know the lessons of war. I don’t believe this is taking America to war. I believe this is enforcing a very limited military action, not going to war, that will, in fact, stand up for the notion that you should not use chemical weapons – something we – and by the way, we have protected our troops with this prohibition. In World War II, in Vietnam, in Korea, in both Iraq wars, people didn’t dare use chemical weapons against our troops because they know there is a prohibition and that would unleash even greater wrath of our nation. We need to stand up for that same principle now.

QUESTION: In terms of the lessons, and because the American public is so informed by these last 12 years, Donald Rumsfeld has said your leadership on this issue, the President’s leadership has been feckless. You have seen architects of the Iraq War from the Bush Administration coming out and criticizing the Administration, criticizing the policy. How do you respond to seeing the architects of the Iraq War come in and criticize you personally and criticize the President?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t pay it – it doesn’t – it just doesn’t make a difference to me because they’re so discredited by their own judgments that it’s hard to see that they have a judgment today that is relevant to this. I’ll listen to people whose judgment I clearly trust and respect.

But with respect to this particular moment, from the moment that I had been sworn into office I have been working with our allies, working with the opposition to define the ways in which we can guarantee that weapons are not going to the worst actors out there, the ways in which we can guarantee that the future of Syria will be a democratic future, but also to guarantee that we are not presenting to the American people the same shoddy intelligence that was presented to the American people back in Iraq, that we do not make that mistake, that we will not put American boots on the ground, we will not take over a war that is a civil war in which the United States clearly has no business being directly involved.

QUESTION: Can I ask about --

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re not going to do that.

QUESTION: We – can you – you unilaterally declare that you’re not taking responsibility for a civil war when the rebels on the ground are going to see this American intervention as possibly a door opening to further intervention, and that is going to affect the way they conduct themselves.

SECRETARY KERRY: We have made it crystal clear to them, we make it crystal clear now in every statement that we have made, this action has nothing to do with engaging directly in Syria’s civil war on one side or the other. It has to do with enforcing a norm of international behavior that has protected people against chemical weapons, and it is one of the things – chemical, biological, nuclear warfare – we have decided as a world we are going to protect people against those weapons.

And this measure that we’re asking the Congress to authorize will have a profound impact on the judgment of the North Koreans and the Iranians and others as to whether or not the United States will stand up for the policies that it adopts and whether or not the United States, when it says something, means what it says.

QUESTION: Is the President calling members of Congress, Democratic members of Congress, to get them to vote yes on this?

SECRETARY KERRY: The President will be directly communicating to the members of Congress. The Vice President, we are all engaged in trying to define with clarity what this is but also, Chris, what it is not. It is not Iraq, it is not Afghanistan, it is not even Libya. There will be no American boots on the ground. We are not sliding through a back door into a war. We’re not going to war. The President is taking a limited military action to enforce a very important principle.

QUESTION: Will the President address the American people to make that case?

SECRETARY KERRY: I am confident the President will address the American people.

QUESTION: Finally, your colleague and friend and the man who took over your seat, Ed Markey, yesterday voted “present.” He was so apparently un-persuaded by the testimony you gave in front of that committee. What is your reaction to Ed Markey voting “present”?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s not what Ed told me. Ed told me that he felt that he hadn’t had a chance to read the intelligence report in its entirety, he didn’t want to read the public version, he wanted to read the full version. So we will talk again, and my hope is that when he feels fully informed he’ll make the right decision.

QUESTION: Thanks you so much for time.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. I’d like to mention that – yeah, I’ll just mention – I think you should mention it – Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY KERRY: -- have strong feelings about this being the correct action. And I think people really need to look hard at what this is standing up for and also what it is not as an action.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you, sir.

PRN: 2013/2085

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