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CNN "Erin Burnett Outfront" Transcript: Foreign Affairs

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Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs joins me tonight.

And, sir, thanks very much.

Obviously, two very different responses. The president yet hasn't said anything physically out of his mouth. Prime Minister Cameron obviously coming out several times, talking passionately. Three Americans are dead and something that Leon Panetta and the administration called a terrorist attack immediately.

Do the American people deserve to hear directly from our president about this?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Erin, what I have been focused on in the days since I came back from a trip overseas is making sure that the highest level of our government is engaged, is committed to a full response to this attack by AQIM, one that as you pointed out cost not just the lives of three Americans, three Britons, but 37 foreign nationals. This is a reminder that AQIM, an affiliate of al Qaeda in West Africa, is a lethal threat, not just to our immediate interests but to our allies' interests.

And I think it is important that leaders in the United States such as I have done as the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee chair, make statements positively, make statements that denounce this attack and that suggest our willingness to engage in strong support for actions in Mali that were in part what caused this attack in the first place.

BURNETT: You know, yesterday the president didn't touch on foreign policy very much in his inauguration speech, but he did a little bit. I just wanted to play you a part of what he said. Here's the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform tempered by the flames of battle are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Now, Senator, obviously few would disagree with what he said there. It's pretty basic, eloquently said, as much of what he says is. But with three Americans dead in a terror attack in 48 hours before he was speaking, would it have made sense to perhaps mention that?

COONS: Well, Erin, I'm not going to parse with you exactly what the president said in his inaugural address, his second inaugural address. I'll simply comment that I just returned on Sunday from a visit to Egypt, to Afghanistan, to Jordan, to Israel, with six other senators, a bipartisan delegation. We were supposed to go to Mali a week ago yesterday but were diverted because of the deteriorating security situation there.

And across all these different places, we saw a common theme, which is that the United States needs to continue to be engaged in the world. We need to continue to invest in the military strength, the development efforts, the diplomacy efforts --

BURNETT: Right.

COONS: -- that will push back against jihadists and radical Islam. I think it's vital that the president and leaders in the Congress continue to make visible to the American people the importance of our investing in a strong international presence.

This shocking incident in Algeria reminds us that America's interests can be attacked almost anywhere in the world.

BURNETT: Right.

COONS: Terrorists don't need to attack America to hurt our interests and to kill our citizens and we need a stronger presence around the world.

BURNETT: And to your point, sir, let me just play something on this issue of al Qaeda particularly, al Qaeda linked groups. I recently spoke to the still Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about this issue, about Mali. And I asked him what the U.S. would do about al Qaeda.

Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We've got to go after al Qaeda wherever the hell they're at and make sure they find no place to hide because -- let's not forget, the main -- the main goal of al Qaeda is to attack the United States. And we're not going to allow that to happen again. If we're not going to allow it to happen, we've got to go after them in Yemen, in Somalia and yes, in Mali if necessary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Senator, it seems Panetta is raising his voice. It's not clear the administration is really hearing it or they are fully in agreement. You've said northern Mali has become the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world.

COONS: Right. BURNETT: We've got a defense secretary coming in and a new secretary of state in Chuck Hagel and John Kerry who are known for favoring a light footprint.

Do you think that they are going to take the action that you believe is needed?

COONS: Well, I look forward to raising these questions with them when I get a chance to attend their confirmation hearings -- confirmation hearing in the case of Senator John Kerry or to meet with him in person in the case of Senator Hagel.

I met this morning with Senator Kerry to give him an update on this trip. A number of the senators who were on the trip with me met with him, and I am determined that we make certain that the United States invests in the kind of forward leaning relationship in Africa that will take the fight to al Qaeda in Africa and that will invest in stability in countries where if we don't partner with them effectively, they may slip into the kind of state that Mali's in now.

Just a few short years ago, Mali was viewed as a stable, Democratic ally of the United States and it's come unwound fairly quickly.

I chaired a hearing on December 5th to look at Mali and to look at the situation there and try and raise its profile.

BURNETT: Yes.

COONS: I have gotten great cooperation from the State Department and Defense Department. But as you point out, this incident in Algeria reminds us that it needs attention and investment at the highest levels of the American government.

BURNETT: Well, Senator Coons, thank you very much. We appreciate it. And we will see if the president of the United States does indeed say anything about the three Americans who died in Algeria.


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