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‘We have to send a message’ on Syrian chemical weapons, says former Joint Chiefs chairman

April 10, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a statement this afternoon, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Friday’s U.S. missile strike damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft, and that jets could no longer refuel or rearm at that base.

For more on U.S. options in Syria, relations with Russia and the ongoing crisis with North Korea, I sat down a short time ago with retired Admiral Mike Mullen. He served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011.

Syria, first of all. Was the U.S. strike on that airfield justified?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, (RET.), Former Chairman, Joints Chiefs of Staff: I think it was justified.

I think it sent a pretty strong message that the use of chemical weapons, which are banned globally, is not to be tolerated. And I think that was the main message.

What has been a little surprising to me, anyway, is to find out through media that there actually have been several chemical attacks recently. Now, with some belief on my part, and I think a lot of people, that we thought we got rid of the chemical weapons with the regime that President Obama and President Putin put in place.

That’s a bit of a surprise, but I think we have to send the message that this is unacceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that message has been received? What do you think this accomplished?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I think the message has been received. And it was really focused on that.

I certainly have seen the discussion that, after the fact, that that air base was back in operations. That didn’t surprise me, but I thought it was proportional, which I think is important. It was focused on the air force, which has been barrel bombing its people, you know, for some time, and, in that regard, a pretty strong message.

Will it, in fact, be absorbed by Assad and others? I don’t know. I think that’s what we’re going to have to wait and see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think it means that if Assad uses chemical weapons again, the U.S. will strike again?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly, you know, from where I sit, there’s an expectation that, if he continues, obviously, he will continue to pay a price for that.

And so we will see. It’s just such a tragedy to see what he has done to his own countrymen, you know, the civilians, the women, the children, and just the visible images of that chemical strike. I don’t think — I think, in the long run, he loses if he continues to do that. How that happens, what the — I’m not really sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it clear to you, Admiral Mullen, what the priority of the Trump administration is now toward Syria? Is it mainly to continue the fight against ISIS? Is it more now against President Assad? I think many people are having difficulty understanding.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, I think — and I thought General McMaster yesterday on the Sunday show was excellent in sort of framing it, that there is going to be some of both, clearly.

The priority, it seems to me, is ISIS, and that was used for justification for this attack, and in terms of supporting, fighting ISIS, and responding to the use of chemical weapons.

My own personal view is, I think, you know, in the long run — and I don’t know how long that is, but I think it’s a while — that Assad doesn’t have much of a future in that country. I worry a little bit about — quote — “regime change.” We haven’t had a great deal of success with that in years. That’s just really difficult.

That said, I think it’s a strong message, at least from the Trump administration, that we’re not going to tolerate his continuing to certainly use these weapons. And we will see where it goes with respect to the rest of Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Russia. The Associated Press is reporting this afternoon that, quoting a U.S. official as saying they now have concluded that Russia knew about that chemical weapons attack before it happened, and they may even have gone in and bombed the location of the attack in order to hide evidence that chemical weapons were used.

If that’s the case, what can the U.S. do about it?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Well, I think just the strike itself, our strike itself was a pretty strong signal to Russia in terms of starting to draw a line, if you will, in the sand that there are limits, first of all.

Secondly, I think it undermines the use of chemical weapons, certain weapons, certainly undermined Putin. I know Secretary Tillerson is on his way to Moscow this week. And I expect — I mean, I don’t know for a fact, but I expect he will carry a very strong message to Russia.

McMaster yesterday talked about he thought it was important that Russia, in fact, asked themselves what they’re doing and what they hope to accomplish. There’s been a considerable amount of press on deconflicting the U.S. and Russia. And I think that will continue, even though Russia has called it off, per se.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think what will continue?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I think the deconfliction between the forces will continue, although it’s a pretty mixed battlefield on the ground.

I suspect that the militaries will figure out a way to continue to do that. But I think there’s — in the long term, the solution in Syria is politically driven. And I put it in two big pieces. One is, we have to stop the killing. And the other is, we need to let the refugees — we need to let Syrian citizens go home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was part of my question. Can it be done? Can progress be made without Russian participation and Russian agreement?


I have believed for years that Russia was going to be part of the solution even before they went in. Obviously, it became much more evidence when they did go in. And I don’t think there is any way that this can be solved without the U.S. and Russia getting together and figuring out politically what the solution is.

There’s going to be a need to include other political leaders in the region, but certainly the U.S. and Russia are the two key ones.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Admiral Mullen, North Korea, right now, there is a U.S. carrier group on the way to the Korean Peninsula, in the wake of North Korean missile tests.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were part of a Council on Foreign Relations report some months ago saying that the next administration had to make getting China involved in dealing with North Korea a priority.

Is it your sense that the administration is — this administration is doing that successfully? Is that happening? And do you think the Chinese can make a difference?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I think the Chinese can make a huge difference.

And I think, if they don’t, and without them, that the options are pretty drastic and pretty bad pretty quickly. I do think the Trump administration has taken a more regular approach. I see reported that there have been National Security Council meetings on this, so there clearly is a planning process which is going on.

I think the message from the president, the North Korean leadership, and the rest of the world is that there are limits on what he’s going to tolerate. That was clearly priority message in his meeting with Xi Jinping, President Xi Jinping, from China on Thursday. All of those steps, I think, are positive in, again, what is an enormously complex problem.

He’s got nuclear weapons that are buried deeply, that are very difficult to impossible to hit. He’s emerging on more and more capability. And the longer — this is a very tough solution set, no matter what you do.

But I do believe, the longer we wait, the more challenging the solution set becomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The longer the U.S. waits to do what?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: The longer we wait to take some sort of action, whether it’s negotiations or some kind of military operation, depending on what the president would choose, the more difficult those solution sets will become, back to where you — where they started, from the perspective of this solution must go through Beijing.

We need to incentivize Beijing to do this. We need to figure out, if we can, how to incentivize the leadership in North Korea, if there is a possibility to do that — and I’m not sure it is — to avoid what will be a potentially drastic capability that allows that very uncertain leader in North Korea the ability to strike the United States of America with a nuclear weapon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Serious problems in all these directions.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Admiral Mike Mullen, we thank you very much for coming by.