TOPICS > World > Newsmaker Interview

Kerry defends Obama foreign policy, vows not to give up on Middle East peace

May 29, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry weighs in on the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine, a terror resurgence in North Africa, the long, bloody war in Syria and a Mideast peace process that ground to a halt just a few weeks ago. He joins Gwen Ifill for an extended interview on current foreign policy challenges and why he thinks President Obama doesn’t get sufficient credit for successes.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Happy to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: I want to start with a little bit of the news of the day. Overnight there has been mounting calls for the secretary of veterans’ affairs to step aside, including from Democrats. As a veteran yourself, is this something you think he should be considering at this point?

JOHN KERRY: I think it’s fair to say that every veteran is deeply concerned about what has taken place. I personally feel a huge reminder from the struggles we had when veterans came back from Vietnam and there were delays and there were problems. But there are a lot of issues at stake here, and I don’t know all of the circumstances of what has led to this or what’s involved

GWEN IFILL: The president said he’s deeply troubled. Are you?

JOHN KERRY: Of course. I think anybody is concerned about the fact that those who have served – the reason I raised the Vietnam thing is simply because everybody said never again. There was this huge, you know, effort to make sure veterans came back and were appropriately thanked, appropriately welcomed home, and obviously appropriately cared for. And I think everybody’s troubled by the fact that something has gone awry.

GWEN IFILL: Beginning on the continent of Africa, the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, said today he’s going to undertake a full-scale assault on Boko Haram in the effort to free the Nigerian girls. As you watch something like this unfold, something so hard to penetrate, do you worry, you know, Central African Republic or Sudan or in Nigeria, that there are limits to what U.S. intervention can do?

JOHN KERRY: What Goodluck Jonathan is talking about is engaging in self-help, doing what he thinks he needs to do to protect the rights of his people and the sovereignty of his country. We obviously –

GWEN IFILL: Is there a role for the U.S. in that?

JOHN KERRY: Well, there is a role, and we’re playing a role. We have people on the ground that we have put on the ground in order to assist them with several different disciplines, people in the intelligence community, people in the justice community, people in the military community, all of whom have different expertise to bring to the table. I think an all-out assault – I’m not sure what that means. I’d want to know what that means. It could be very risky to the young women. And there may be a time and place for that, but I think we have to look at this very, very closely. I actually hope to be talking to President Goodluck Jonathan somewhere in the course of today or tomorrow, and we are, as I say, prepared to be as helpful as we possibly can. But this is –

GWEN IFILL: Is he asking for your help?

JOHN KERRY: He has not, to my knowledge, specifically said, I want your help in a military operation with respect to these young women. But we will obviously have discussions with him about what the right way to proceed is.

GWEN IFILL: Another story unfolding as we speak is Edward Snowden. You said yesterday in an interview that he should “man up” and come back and face the consequences. He has suggested he’d like to come home as well. Are there conversations on any level taking place about that happening?

JOHN KERRY: Well, again, I’m not going to get into the legal process on this. That’s up to the Department of Justice, up to the White House specifically.  He should prove his respect for that system. He should do what many people who have taken issue with their own government do, which is challenge it, speak out, engage in an act of civil disobedience, but obviously accept the consequences of that act of civil disobedience, not find refuge in authoritarian Russia or seek asylum in Cuba or somewhere else. That’s running away from the consequences.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Secretary, the president said in an interview this morning with NPR that, you know, this – you’ve just got to take the balls as they come across the plate. There were a lot of baseball and sports metaphors about blocking and tackling foreign policy to try to get to the next place. Does the president get a bad rap, in your opinion, for being weak or not taking the long homer runs instead of the base hits?

JOHN KERRY: I don’t think the president, frankly, takes enough credit for the successes that are on the table right now.

I mean, if you look at what has happened in Ukraine, the president led an effort to try to keep Europe unified with the United States, to put difficult sanctions on the table. Europe wasn’t thrilled with that but they came along. That was leadership. And the president succeeded in having an impact ultimately, together with the Europeans, on the choices that face President Putin.

In Syria the president, you know, obviously made his decision to strike Syria, and appropriately sent that decision to Congress. Congress didn’t want to move, but we came up with another solution, which was get all of those chemical weapons out rather than just have one or two days of strike. The president has now succeeded in getting 92 percent of those weapons out of Syria. There’s one last transfer that has to take place to get to a hundred percent. I believe it will take place.

In addition, the president has engaged with Iran. We were on a course to absolute collision where they were building a nuclear system and the world was standing opposed to that. But the president put in place a series of sanctions, a capacity to be able to bring Iran to the table. We are now in the middle of negotiations. Everyone will agree the sanctions regime has held together. The weapon – the nuclear program has been frozen and rolled backwards. And we now have expanded the amount of time that Iran might have for a breakout. That’s a success.

So I think we are as engaged, more engaged than in any time in American history, and I think that case is there to be fully proven and laid out. And I think –

GWEN IFILL: Yet that’s not the generally held impression.

JOHN KERRY: No, it’s not. And the reason is there is a general, you know, frankly not fully informed, not factual, conventional sort of process that gets played out in the media. And of course there is an industry in Washington today of oppositionism, oppositionists – oppose anything. And the Congress and its current, you know, pace of legislating tells the whole story.

GWEN IFILL: I’d like to take you on a tour around the world with us, if you would.


GWEN IFILL: I do want to talk about Afghanistan because the president of course put forward his plan this week to – pretty dramatic drawdown of forces to under 10,000, half that again in the next year. And even though there has been some applause for the idea that we are winding down in Afghanistan, there has also been criticism that it’s happening a little too quickly, that the timetable is too fast. What do you say to that?

JOHN KERRY: Thirteen years in a war is not quickly. In 2009 President Obama put in place the first truly organized, focused, strategic approach to Afghanistan. Afghanistan had been cannibalized before that for both troops and talent and money that had gone to Iraq. And when the president came in, he found in 2009 that Afghanistan was adrift and in danger. So the president increased the numbers of troops, the now well-known surge. And we had up to 160(,000), 180,000 troops in Afghanistan at one point, and always with a view to trying to train, equip and prepare the Afghans to take charge of their own country.

The president set a timetable. He said in 2009:  We will transfer security responsibility to the Afghans by such and such a date. That was last year and this year, predominately. We’ve done it. They had a very successful election, and they provided the security and they did the planning and they did the execution. That is exactly what the president is now trying to do with respect to the final steps.

GWEN IFILL: You won’t be surprised to hear that Dick Cheney, the former vice president, called the timetable stupid and unwise and that it would reinforce a notion that we are weak.

JOHN KERRY: Well, look. I’m not surprised to hear from Dick Cheney something that’s obviously, number one, negative, and number two, wrong. Dick Cheney was completely wrong about Iraq, and we are still struggling with the aftermath of what Dick Cheney and his crew thought was the right policy to go in and start a war of choice for the wrong reasons. And they turned topsy-turvy the entire region with respect to Sunni and Shia and the relationships there. So the fact is that they have been deeply, deeply wrong in the policy that they pursued, and any advice from him really has no meaning to me with respect to what we’re doing today.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about Syria. Next week, we’re going to watch Bashar al-Assad stand for a third seven-year term. And you and others have said flat out that he should step down. Clearly isn’t going anywhere. And even though you’ve gotten the chemical weapons out, do you wonder whether this was a tradeoff that was worth it?

JOHN KERRY: No, I think that’s not the tradeoff, Gwen. The – we’re not trading off chemical weapons for Assad staying. We’re getting the chemical weapons out, but the efforts to support the vetted moderate opposition continue, and in fact, are being stepped up. I just don’t see any way possible for Bashar al-Assad to ever govern whatever you want to call Syria in the future – whatever constitutes Syria, to govern it with any legitimacy whatsoever. How does a man who has gassed his own people, dropped barrel bombs on them, killed students and children, you know, randomly put whole cities under siege, starved people, tortured people, bombed them with artillery, with airplanes – how does he claim the possibility of putting back together a Syria where he is a member of the sectarian minority and the majority of the people in the country are of another of – are fighting him for what he has been doing to them over these last years?

GWEN IFILL: He does it by getting re-elected.

JOHN KERRY: No. This is a completely phony, fraudulent effort by Assad to claim legitimacy for an election that nobody in the international community with significance is going to respect. The United Nations is not going to respect it. The global community that is supporting the opposition is not going to support it. So it doesn’t take you anywhere

GWEN IFILL: Ukraine. Our Margaret Warner is just coming back from eastern Ukraine, where she watched the elections unfold. And unlike other places, there was – Egypt, for instance, there was great turnout. But Crimea is still gone. The Russian troops may or may not be pulling back from the border. You have said this was a calculated, calibrated strategy. Is it turning out the way you had intended?

JOHN KERRY: Well, at the moment the strategy is putting in place a new president, elected by the vast majority of the people of Ukraine, with obvious problems that existed in Donetsk and Luhansk, and some lesser voting in Sloviansk and other place – but very little. I mean, it was a very large, significant turnout with a huge vote that won on the first round with a supermajority for a newly elected president. I think that’s very significant.

The troops that were on the border are moving back towards Moscow, not towards Kiev. And the fact is that I think everybody acknowledges that the sanctions that the president put in place have had a profound impact on Russia, and there were greater costs yet to come, and might yet come, if Russia can’t find a way to become a constructive partner in trying to help strengthen Ukraine going forward.

So there are still danger signs there that we hope will change. There is evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya, trained in Russia, who’ve come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting. We hope the Russians would actually engage more proactively in efforts to now try to de-escalate, take advantage of the election, build a road forward where Ukraine becomes a bridge between the West and the East, where neither Russia nor Europe have to be engaged in some sort of zero-sum struggle, that Ukraine actually can look in both directions, and Europe and Russia can both be strengthened by an economy that begins to grow as a result of stability. That would be the hope.

GWEN IFILL: In your conversations with your counterparts in Ukraine and in Russia, do you see any possibility of movement on that front?

JOHN KERRY: Well, we’re hopeful. I talked to the foreign minister of Russia yesterday. They are hoping that there might be a way to – they express a hope, let me say, that there might be a way to go forward. Obviously, words are not what will mean anything here; it’s actions.

GWEN IFILL: And – well, and I want to end by asking you about something that you expended a lot of your personal energy on. That’s on the Middle East peace negotiations, which Benjamin Netanyahu has said are dead – the process is dead. Hamas is clearly involved in this unification plan and moving ahead that has so offended Israel, and everybody’s walked away from the table. Are you personally disappointed at all that this seems to be going nowhere fast?

JOHN KERRY: Well, obviously, I’m disappointed that the process that – what is in place, that that didn’t produce the next step. But I don’t believe that in the Middle East, you know, either party can afford to simply maintain the status quo and believe that there’s a road to greater stability and to peace without re-engaging and without coming back at some point in time to the negotiating process.

President Abbas has said that he is prepared to go back to the talks, but he has certain conditions that have to be met. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel are waiting to see what happens with the Hamas reconciliation, with the announcement of a new government, with the question of what that new government may or may not choose to do. That’s an appropriate thing to be doing. We’re all waiting to see what happens.

GWEN IFILL: Are you the – are you the last living optimist on this?

JOHN KERRY: I’m not an optimist. I’m a realist. And my reality check tells me that neither side is going to be able to live for the long haul with the status quo without serious problems evolving. So eventually there’ll have to be some discussion about some management of that process. Whether it’s a full-blown peace process or whether it’s individual steps or not, I don’t know, Gwen. But I know this, that Israel’s security, which is paramount for the United States and for Israelis, will be better protected by finding a road ahead. Palestinian rights and – and ability to have a state can only come through some kind of political process. And both of those aspirations are what govern life ultimately in that region and the hopes of that region.

So my job is to push it forward and my job is to try to find the optimism and the possibilities, not to give up. And I refuse to give up. I think that, you know, we have to find the way ahead. This hasn’t gone away in 40, 50 years, and it’s not going to suddenly – (snaps fingers) – just sort of solve itself by itself. That’s our job is to try to push the process forward.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.

JOHN KERRY: Thank you.