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Interview With Katie Couric of Yahoo! News

Interview

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Location: Washington, DC

QUESTION: Hi, everyone, and welcome to a special Yahoo livestream from the State Department with Secretary of State John Kerry. Secretary Kerry, thank you so much for joining us.

SECRETARY KERRY: Happy to be with you.

QUESTION: We're going to be talking about the oceans, a subject near and dear to your heart in a moment, but of course, there is a lot going on in Iraq --

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: -- so I need to talk to you about that. The militant group called ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has made considerable gains, as you well know -- Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit, now the northern town of Tal Afar, among others, and parts of Syria. This is the first time we've heard you talk extensively about this topic. What is your reaction to all of this?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it's of enormous concern, obviously, Katie. I mean, this is a challenge to the stability of the region. It is obviously an existential challenge to Iraq itself. This is a terrorist group. It has grown out of, frankly, illicit support that it has received from various places in the region, in the conflict in Syria. But there's a much larger design at play in their efforts. They want to establish a Sunni caliphate, fundamentally, but they also are trying to redress what happened a number of years ago when the balance flipped in Iraq between Shia and Sunni. So you have people who have a Sunni interest. You have people who have an extreme interest. You have people who have anti-Maliki interest. You have people who have anti-Iran, pro -- I mean, there's a whole lot of forces at play here. And that's what makes it much more complicated than just a, gee, these are bad guys, and you react.

Clearly, we are deeply committed to the integrity of Iraq as a country. We are deeply committed to the constitutional process, but we've also had great difficulties with the existing government in their unwillingness to reach out and be inclusive and bring people to the table and be sufficiently responsible in their pluralistic approach to governance. So that also has contributed to this.

And that's why you've really seen so many of these Sunni communities just melt away, because there is an ambivalence. There's a huge conflict in their own minds in their dislike of the existing government, but there are also terror and fear at the hands of a terrorist group.

QUESTION: And we'll dig into that a bit in a moment. But let me ask you this, Mr. Secretary: Do you think ISIS is going to take Baghdad?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don't believe that they will in the near term, certainly, and I don't believe they necessarily can at all, but that remains to be determined by the decisions that are made over the course of the next few days. Our decisions, their decisions, the decisions of the larger community, the decisions that Prime Minister Maliki makes, all of these are critical to what's going to happen.

QUESTION: Again, a more immediate concern: What about the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad? There are reports that some personnel from that Embassy have been moved. How many are still there, and how are they being protected, and how concerned are you?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I'm absolutely convinced that we have the security we need for our Embassy. We watch this every single day. We have had any number of meetings to make evaluations. We don't discuss the numbers of people, but suffice it to say that there are a large number of contractors who have been doing various things around the country and because of the situation around the country, but clearly they're not able to be out there safely at this point in time. So we think it is advisable to reduce those numbers, but we're not doing so with respect to our diplomatic presence or our ability to be able to interact with the Government of Iraq. We're really quite convinced that we have a security situation that will protect the interests of the United States and our citizens.

QUESTION: Lisa Silva asks us on Twitter to ask you, she said: "Can you ask John Kerry what our strategy will be to help Iraq, if at all?" She said, "I served there in 2004." To answer her question, I know the President has said he's reviewing military options. What are those?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I'm not going to go into all of the options, Katie, but I will tell you -- let me say this, first of all. We have nothing but the most enormous respect and gratitude for the incredible sacrifices and commitment that our troops made over many years in Iraq. And they fought hard, brilliantly, to give the Iraqis an opportunity to determine their future. I know that for every soldier who was there, watching this is painful, it's difficult, having committed what they committed and lost what they lost, to see this army melt away the way it did. But this is complicated, and it is not something where the -- any number of forces of the United States would have made the difference or are going to make the difference right now. This is about the internal politics and governance of Iraq.

QUESTION: So you don't think a residual force would have kept this from happening after 2011?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely, unquestionably not, and I'll tell you why. Because whatever residual force was discussed to be left in Iraq would have been, had the Iraqis accepted the terms by which we leave troops anywhere in the world, which they refused to do, but that force would have been non-combat. It would have been not involved in combat. So it was not a combatant force that was being contemplated. It was train, advise, assist, so forth.

We can still do that, and there are ways for us to do that. But the bottom line is that this is an internal struggle, which has gone on for a long time in Iraq. Shia, Sunni. It's got overtones of Iraq's -- of Iran's influence in Iraq. It has very serious implications with respect to other countries encouraging certain kinds of activities, and it's much more complicated than meets the eye.

QUESTION: It's been reported that the U.S. has drones flying over Iraq to gather intelligence, but a lot of analysts over the weekend were talking about the fact that airstrikes are not going to be effective because there are members of this organization scattered among the population at large. So what's your response to airstrikes just aren't the answer here?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important to be able to stem the tide and stop the movement of people who are moving around in open convoys, in trucks, and terrorizing people. I mean, when you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that, and you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise if -- Americans obviously feel very powerfully about not putting boots back on the ground in Iraq, so we'll consider what options are available to us.

But you cannot allow that march, I think. I mean, it's our basic judgment of most people in the region that you can't just let them run whole hog over the country for any number of reasons. And so the Iraq -- Iraqis themselves, however, are now stepping up, partly because you've sort of reach a sectarian line, and to some degree, the elements that have created this fight in the first place are now manifesting themselves in a different way.

My -- I would simply say to those people who ask the question now, the President is evaluating a very thorough vetting of every option that is available. A lot of work has been going on over the course of this weekend. We met at length with discussions on Friday, on Saturday; yesterday I was talking to foreign ministers in the region. There's a lot of work going on right now to make sure that whatever judgments the President ultimately makes have the greatest amount of input and the greatest understanding of what will have the best effect.

QUESTION: I know President Obama has suggested no military aid will come without Prime Minister Maliki instituting reforms reaching out to those Sunnis. But instead there are reports he's flying in Iranian paramilitary forces, mobilizing Shiite militias, so that does not appear to be happening.

SECRETARY KERRY: I don't believe that Iranian troops are coming in and crossing the border, but there is obviously a mobilization of some of the militia, no question about it. And that has its dangers, certainly. We are adamant that Prime Minister Maliki and his government must do a better job of reaching out to all of the representative entities in Iraq and bring them to the table. That has not happened sufficiently.

QUESTION: But Secretary Kerry, is it too late? I mean, how does he do that when the country is imploding?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the country just had an election, and there is a legitimate government formation process that is underway. Until this weekend, there was a lot of discussion taking place among all the political players as to what shape that government might take going forward. This event with ISIL has -- or ISIS, as people call it, it's one and the same -- has overtaken that government formation process. The question now is: Can you stem the tide, stop it where it is, even roll it back, and give the government the opportunity to take stock of what it needs to do to present the people of Iraq with a comprehensive reform package and the confidence that there will be a different kind of governance. That would appear to me to be the best way forward.

QUESTION: Some are suggesting that Maliki should resign.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that's up to the Iraqi people and it's up to the government formation process. I don't think the United States should be issuing instructions or orders. I don't think any country should. But I think we can --

QUESTION: But could that be further destabilizing?

SECRETARY KERRY: --but I think we should work -- it depends, not necessarily at all. If there is a clear successor, if the results of the election are respected, if people come together with the cohesiveness necessary to build a legitimate government that puts the reforms in place that people want, that might wind up being very salutatory. I think it's up to the Iraqi political process to work that.

Now, we clearly can play an encouraging, consultative role in helping them to achieve that transition, and we have people on the ground right now. Our Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk's been doing an extraordinary job over there. Our Ambassador Steve Beecroft, very, very engaged. We are in touch directly with all of the players, and we are working to determine how we can help them to help themselves.

QUESTION: You -- will you reach out to Iran, and how can that country be helpful? Or is that like entering into a hornet's nest, because that will inflame the Sunnis?

SECRETARY KERRY: We're open -- look, we're open to discussions if there's something constructive that can be contributed by Iran if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and the ability of the government to reform --

QUESTION: Can you see cooperating with Iran militarily?

SECRETARY KERRY: I -- at this moment, I think we need to go step by step and see what, in fact, might be a reality, but I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability, a respect for the constitution, a respect for the election process, and a respect for the ability of the Iraqi people to form a government that represents all of the interests of Iraq, not one sectarian group over another. It has to be inclusive, and that has been one of the great problems of the last few years.

QUESTION: If Iran recognizes that, would you be willing to work with that country?

SECRETARY KERRY: Let's see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements. I think we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country, and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart.

QUESTION: How far, Mr. Secretary, do you see this whole thing spreading? Beyond Iraq and Syria, perhaps?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it already has, Katie. I mean, this is the great challenge that President Obama spoke about at West Point. This is why the President has been so focused on trying to free up some resources from an over-resourced effort in one location, Afghanistan, and begin to recognize that the tentacles of radical extreme political Islam -- radical extreme -- not mainstream Islam. I'm talking about a complete exploitation that is taking place in many places -- Mali, in the Maghreb, in the Sahel, in the Levant -- in clear -- in the Near/Middle East.

I mean, all of these things have been happening for some period of time because you have a confluence of events. You have masses of numbers of young people whose aspirations have been quashed in various countries. You have closed economic and political systems that don't meet their aspirations. You have a rise of this extreme distortion of Islam, a radical terrorism that is intimidating people. And you have in some places people like Assad who are trying to crush all those aspirations at the barrel of a gun. That is a very toxic cocktail. It's an incredible mix of forces.

And it's not the United States or anybody. I mean, you -- it is a very comprehensive and complicated process to address all of it simultaneously. I think we're working very, very hard and, frankly, effectively to try to quash the extremism, whether it's in Yemen or in Egypt or in Libya. There are many places where these terrorist forces are trying to take advantage of these opportunities, and it's hard to build governance in the middle of that. But we are working at it in every single one of those places step by step, very carefully.

QUESTION: And to that point, Mr. Secretary, there are thousands of these foreign fighters that are congregating in Syria working with groups like ISIS. How concerned are you that these individuals, these disenfranchised young men, if you will, will come back to the United States or elsewhere and wreak havoc?

SECRETARY KERRY: Katie, we are deeply concerned about the numbers of foreign fighters, and the answer is it's not just the United States that's concerned. All of our allies are concerned. There are people in Syria today fighting from Australia, from Canada, from the United States, from Britain, from Holland, from France, from Germany. I mean, many countries are seeing jihadist adventurists attracted to this cycle of violence. And there is a threat that they could come back to any one of those countries. Just a week or two ago, there was a Frenchman who came back from Syria who went to Belgium and fired on a synagogue and killed people with obvious training that came from what had happened in Syria.

So everybody's concerned about it, and not just in Europe. I was in Tunisia. The president of Tunisia told me they had maybe 1,800 people who had gone there from Tunisia, 1,100 who might have been killed, but they still worried about the 800 who might return and engage in those activities at home.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Lindsey Graham said the seeds of 9/11 are being planted all over Iraq and Syria.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there is no question but that there are people plotting against the United States in different parts of that region.

QUESTION: But what about particularly Iraq and Syria, ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: Particularly Iraq and Syria and ISIS, they clearly are focused not just there, but they're focused on trying to do harm to Europe, to America and other people. And that's why we believe it is so important for us to be engaged and to be leading an effort to try to deal with this, and that's exactly what we're doing.

QUESTION: If this turns out to be a civil war in Iraq, why should the U.S. get involved at all?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it's not --

QUESTION: Why not let the two sides fight it out?

SECRETARY KERRY: The stability of Iraq is critical to everybody. Iraq is a strategic partner in that region and it is vital ultimately to the stability of the region as a whole. No individual, no country, and certainly no country in the region can sit back and allow a terrorist entity to run whole hog over an election, over a constitutional process, and over people who have chosen a government through a legitimate process and allow them to terrorize it simply because they don't like the outcome or they want something else.

We cannot allow that kind of terror activity to gain the upper hand. I mean, you just can't -- it's not acceptable. And when you see it combined with massacres where they're lying people down on the ground and just killing them wantonly, putting them in mass graves and doing this openly and proud of it and advertising it and putting it out on the internet and social media in order to terrorize people and say, "Here we are and here we come," we cannot allow that.

QUESTION: "And come join us."

SECRETARY KERRY: And the United States of America, I think, and President Obama believes deeply, has a critical leadership role, and that is exactly why we have spent so much time in the last few days touching so many bases and pulling together a consensus about the action that needs to be taken.

QUESTION: And Secretary Kerry, I know we're here to talk about the Ocean Conference, as I said, but one last question on this: Over the weekend --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we haven't talked about the Ocean Conference right here.

QUESTION: I know. We're -- no, one last question about Iraq.

SECRETARY KERRY: Okay.

QUESTION: You reached out to foreign ministers from other Gulf nations. What could those coalitions do to intervene here? Because there are also reports that ISIS has been funded by countries like Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

SECRETARY KERRY: We're very, very concerned about exactly that reality. There clearly are divergent interests at play, here, Katie. In the end, the United States of America is going to have to do what President Obama judges is in the interests of the United States of America and protect our citizens and our interests. And if there's a divergence with some other people in the region, so be it.

The bottom line is that this terrorist entity cannot be allowed to run roughshod over the expressed desires of the people of Iraq in an election, no matter how bad the government may or may not have been. And the government formation process is exactly the place and the means by which one works through those differences -- not a group coming from Syria into Iraq and terrorizing the population on a sectarian basis. That is not acceptable and I do not believe the President is going to just sit by and allow that to take place.

QUESTION: You are, as we mentioned, kicking off a two-day summit on the world's oceans here at the State Department. Secretary Kerry, did you give any thought to canceling this given what's going on in Iraq?

SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely not. We do so many things at the same time, Katie, that we can't operate that way. The fact is that this conference has been planned for over a year now, and it is a vital national security issue for the United States. What is happening to our oceans with respect to the combination of acidification from climate change, from emissions all around the world, what's happening to an ecosystem that provides food for billions of people -- not millions, billions of people. This is vital to food security, it's vital to stability, it's vital to security, it's vital to livelihoods for people.

It's also the lifeline for life itself on earth. I mean, the oceans are critical to life on the planet. And so this is a very, very important conference. There are 80 nations represented here, heads of state, foreign ministers, prime minister -- Prince Albert of Monaco is here, he will give one of the keynote speeches -- people who have been leaders on this issue for a period of time. And there will be an action agenda that comes out of it. But I obviously will simultaneously be talking to my colleagues in the Middle East and elsewhere. And as we continue to work on Iraq and as we continue to work the negotiations with Iran and as we continue to deal with the Middle East and as we continue to deal with Afghanistan and North Korea and the host of other issues --

QUESTION: The three kidnapped teenagers.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- the three kidnapped teenagers, we are engaged in all of that. I talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the beginning of the weekend. I talked to President Abbas. We are encouraging both to work together cooperatively, stressing the importance of this.

But the bottom is this, Katie: We can't stop one thing when something else happens here. The State Department deals with a world that is complicated today, and we need to do all of these things simultaneously.

QUESTION: You talk about an action agenda. What are you -- what is the most pressing issue you hope to tackle as a result of this conference?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we want a very specific agenda to get adopted that we can take to the United Nations, that we can all agree on to work internationally that will involve regulating and coordinating on fisheries that are overfished -- too much money chasing too few fish. We will also focus on acidification and climate change and the steps that we can take to try to deal with wholesale changes to the ecosystem. We will also deal with pollution and how countries can take steps to reduce what goes into the water. There are over 500 dead spots, dead zones around the oceans of the world where nothing lives, nothing grows because of what flows --

QUESTION: And 90 percent of the trash is plastic, too.

SECRETARY KERRY: And plastic floats around and fish imbibe it, birds, so forth. There's a huge level of global destruction taking place -- there's no other way to phrase it -- at the hands of human activity. And what we need to do is raise the awareness of this and get people around the world to engage. And our hope is that out of this conference -- and it won't be the last one -- but we need to come together around a specific agenda so it's not just talking, it's not just meeting, but it's a specific set of steps people can take to change what is happening.

QUESTION: Because is it hard to galvanize the political will to actually get something done in this area?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it's really interesting. We were talking a moment ago about the changes in the media, and here we are doing a Yahoo livestream. People get their news in so many different ways nowadays. It's much harder to reach people because of this breadth of -- the broad diversity of choice people have as to where they go, so you have to go everywhere, and all the time in order to build the -- a movement and consensus. And yes, it is harder, but we're convinced this is a compelling issue that will touch the imagination of people all around the world.

QUESTION: Well, you have a very, very busy day ahead.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.

QUESTION: Secretary of State John Kerry, thanks so much for your time, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY KERRY: A pleasure, good to be with you. Thank you.

QUESTION: Really appreciate it. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you very much.


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