QUESTION: Good morning again. It seems like we've been talking about nothing but health care in Washington for months now. But last week, the Administration shifted the focus to the life-and-death issue surrounding nuclear weapons--what to do with them and what to do about them. The Administration began a major push. Tomorrow, 46 world leaders will be here in Washington to talk about how to keep terrorists from stealing or buying nuclear weapons. The President and his Russian counterpart signed a major agreement Thursday that will reduce the size of both countries' stockpiles.
And, perhaps, most important--the Administration announced a major change in nuclear strategy telling non-nuclear nations that as long as they do not acquire nuclear weapons, we will not attack them with our own nuclear weapons. The idea being that they are safer from nuclear attack without these weapons than with them. That sparked immediate criticism. So that's where we started our joint interview with the two secretaries at the Pentagon.
But already, the critics on the right, especially, are saying we're giving away too much, Mr. Secretary; that if, for example, we're attacked with biological or chemical weapons, that the attacker won't have to worry that we won't use nuclear weapons against them. So why was this a wise change?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, first of all, the negative security assurance that we won't use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, in conformity with -- or in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty, is not a new thing. The new part of this is saying that we would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that attacked us with chemical and biological weapons.
SECRETARY GATES: But there are a couple of things to remember about this. First of all, try as we might, we could not find a credible scenario where a chemical weapon could have the kind of consequences that would warrant a nuclear response. We were concerned about the biological weapons, and that's why the President was very clear in the -- why we are very clear in the Nuclear Posture Review that if a state -- if we see states developing biological weapons that we begin to think endanger us or create serious concerns, that he reserves the right to revise this policy.
But there's one other piece of this that I think folks have missed, and that is that if a non-nuclear state attacks us with chemical or biological weapons, that it says, and I quote from the Nuclear Posture Review, that country will suffer a devastating conventional retaliation and we will hold the leaders and the commanders in that country personally responsible.
QUESTION: Are our non-nuclear weapons so good now, Madam Secretary, that we don't have to rely on nuclear weapons anymore?
SECRETARY CLINTON: We rely on both, Bob, and I think that's the point that Secretary Gates is making. We have maintained a strong, robust nuclear deterrent, as set for in the Nuclear Posture Review. But we have also in this Administration moved toward a global strike capability to enhance our conventional response. And we have an enormous amount of firepower conventionally, and it is also clear that this is putting everybody on notice. We don't want more countries to go down the path that North Korea and Iran are, and some countries might have gotten the wrong idea if they looked at those two over the last years. And so we want to be very clear: We will not use nuclear weapons in retaliation if you do not have nuclear weapons and are in compliance with the NPT.
But we leave ourselves a lot of room for contingencies. If we can prove that a biological attack originated in a country that attacked us, then all bets are off if these countries have gone to that extent. So we want to deal with the nuclear threat first and foremost, because that's the one that we face right today.
QUESTION: You did make an exception to North Korea and Iran, and explain to me what that means, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY GATES: Well, because they're not in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. So for them, all bets are off; all the options are on the table.
QUESTION: Do we still reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first if we think our security is in danger and requires that?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes. Now, that's not our preference and we make it very clear that we want to maintain a strong deterrent. We see that primarily for the purpose of deterring bad actors against us and responding if necessary. But we did not go so far as to say no first use.
QUESTION: Talk about missile defense, and that is, using missiles to shoot down missiles. Are we still going to rely on that? Because I think some of the statements coming out of Moscow have disturbed some people, because -- am I correct in saying the Russians have said they'll withdraw from this treaty if we press on with missile defense?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, that's not exactly what they said. First of all, in any treaty, in previous arms control treaties, there is a provision which basically states the obvious: that either country can choose to withdraw if they determine that it's in their interest to do so. What the Russians have said is that they're concerned about our continued development of missile defense. We have made it very clear we are pursuing missile defense, and there is absolutely nothing in the new START treaty that in any way impinges upon our efforts to pursue and perfect missile defense.
We also have, on a regular basis, reached out to the Russians to say, "Cooperate with us." We would like to see a joint effort on missile defense, because we don't see the principal threat in nuclear terms coming from Russia. We see it coming from state actors like Iran or non-state actors like a terrorist organization like al-Qaida getting a hold of nuclear material. So missile defense remains not only alive and well, but we're going to be deploying it in Europe to protect our European allies and partners from a potential attack by Iran. And we're going to continue to try to work with the Russians to convince them that this is in their interest as well as ours.
QUESTION: So we're not backing off at all on going forward with missile defense, a missile defense system?
SECRETARY GATES: Not at all. And not only are we putting significant additional resources into the budget for missile defense, particularly the theater level and regional missile defenses that Secretary Clinton was talking about, but we have also -- we're putting over a billion dollars into continuing the development of the ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska that have the longer-range capability.
QUESTION: Let's talk a little bit about Afghanistan. The president of Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai, is scheduled to come here May 12th, I think it is. Is he still welcome here?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Absolutely, and we're looking forward to his visit.
QUESTION: Well, what about him? I mean, we hear all these reports. I mean, the latest was that he may be on drugs. We hear him talking about he's going to join the Taliban. We hear that he's trying to blame everything on the United States and the New York Times -- the corruption in his country. What's going on with this man?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, first of all, I think he sees himself as the embodiment of Afghan sovereignty and so he is sensitive to public statements that he thinks are not aimed just at him but at Afghanistan, and I would say at his family. And so I think there is a sensitivity there.
But the reality is, first of all, this statement about the drugs and so on is just stupid. The -- General McChrystal is meeting with him regularly. They have traveled together to Kandahar recently. He is playing -- President Karzai is playing a very constructive role in beginning to set the framework for the Kandahar campaign with the local shuras, the local tribal leaders and elders.
So the working relationship with him on a day-to-day basis is still going quite well. And the truth of the matter is, I think that this is a period -- there have been a lot of critical articles and they're very sensitive. I think what we don't realize is how many of these foreign leaders read all that's in the American press.
QUESTION: Well, Madam Secretary, you talked to him, what, last week --
SECRETARY CLINTON: I did.
QUESTION: Or this week maybe it was. Do you think he's stable?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Absolutely, Bob. I have to say that some of these outlandish claims that are being made and accusations that are being hurled are really unfortunate. This is a country that is under enormous pressure. This is a leader who is under enormous pressure. And I wonder sometimes how anybody can cope with the kind of relentless stress that you face after having been in some military activity or war footing for 30 years, which is what the reality is in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Well, I take your point, but even our own ambassador there, Mr. Eikenberry, said that he did not consider him a reliable partner. It was one of the reasons that originally he opposed this surge of troops we put in there.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think what you're hearing from Secretary Gates and me today is we consider him a reliable partner. We know how difficult it sometimes for foreign leaders, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the world, to separate our free press and everything that it says and everything that it claims from what our government policy is. And it is difficult when you go in to see a leader on a regular basis, as our military and civilian representatives do in Kabul, and there's some article making some outlandish claim. And a leader often thinks, "Well, it wouldn't be printed if the government weren't behind it." And so we do have some explaining to do, if you will, and that's not just true in Afghanistan. We see that in many different countries around the world.
QUESTION: Well, now there's a big operation coming, what, in Kandahar, I suppose. And it's my understanding that he has still not signed off on that. Is he going to be a part of that, and are we going to have to go it alone there or can we expect his cooperation there, Madam Secretary?
SECRETARY GATES: No, he absolutely is a part of it. The campaign actually is already underway in Kandahar. It's not going to be like a big, conventional battle. That's not what we expect to develop in Kandahar. And so one of the things that's important is what we did in Marjah, which was President Karzai going down to the area, talking to the tribal leaders, talking to the local officials, getting their views, letting them be heard about what their concerns were. He's already made a couple of these trips to the Kandahar area with General McChrystal. And so he is very much participating in setting the stage, if you will, for this next phase of the campaign.
QUESTION: I'd just like to hear from both of you, how do you evaluate the situation in Afghanistan now? Where are we? We'll soon have 100,000 troops there.
SECRETARY GATES: I am -- from our perspective, I am modestly optimistic. I think that the military campaign is going very well. The way they set up Marjah to have the civilians, both Western civilians and Afghan officials come in right behind the military, I think has worked well. General McChrystal speaks incredibly highly about the civilians in the field that are backing up what he's trying to do. So I think General McChrystal's view is that things are proceeding pretty well.
QUESTION: Let me ask you also both about Iraq. We had some very bloody attacks there just last week; 90 people dead, 300 wounded. Is our withdrawal still on schedule? Will it be prudent for us to continue to draw down those troops?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Our withdraw is on schedule. We share the dismay of the Iraqi people and their leadership in this continuing campaign of terror and violence that is meant to destabilize this effort ongoing to form a new government. This is a -- democracy is new to the Iraqis. The election was extremely successful. More than 60 percent of Iraqis from all communities came out and voted. There wasn't any clear winner, and so there has to be a consensus and a coalition put together. That is happening as we speak.
And clearly, the terrorists intend to try to foment sectarian violence. That has not occurred. They're trying to destabilize this effort at political governance. It is necessary to move onto the next stage. So both our military and our civilian leadership in Iraq are committed to working to get to a point where we have a new Iraqi government, and then we're working with the Iraqis not only as we withdraw our military troops, but on the civilian side to assist them in assuming greater responsibility.
QUESTION: Last question.
SECRETARY GATES: I would just say the terrorist group is al-Qaida in Iraq, and we know this and we know what they're trying to achieve. The remarkable thing is, despite all these bombing, that sectarian violence has not rekindled.
QUESTION: A big gathering of, what, 46 leaders from around the world coming to Washington this week for this big conference on nuclear proliferation. We know there's going to be an enormous traffic jam. (Laughter.) What else can we expect Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY GATES: Well, personally, I'm leaving the country. (Laughter.) This is really more in Secretary Clinton's area, but my expectation is, first of all, it's an extraordinary achievement to get that number of leaders to come to Washington to talk about this subject. And the key front end piece of the Nuclear Posture Review, where this is different than any in the past, is the focus on nonproliferation and on gaining control of nuclear materials around the world.
SECRETARY CLINTON: And, Bob, that's what we're aiming to achieve. We are seeking to get agreement and a work plan about how each country will do its best to better secure the nuclear material that it has within its borders to prevent the transit of nuclear material. I'm sure that there will be discussion of some of the smuggling incidents that the IAEA has proven to have happened in the last years. But this is a very big part of President Obama's agenda on nonproliferation.
QUESTION: My thanks to both.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you.