Hillary Clinton on National Security and the Islamic State
A Conversation with Hillary Clinton
Former U.S. Secretary of State; Candidate, 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination
Host, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS
Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state and candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, joins CNN's Fareed Zakaria to discuss U.S. foreign policy and national security in the aftermath of the recent Paris terror attacks. Speaking in the wake of terror attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, that killed scores, Clinton outlines her plan to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Clinton outlines how the United States should work with its allies in Europe and elsewhere to counter the threat of extremism in the Middle East.
HAASS: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Mayor, welcome. I’d like to welcome you all to the Council on Foreign Relations.
For those of you who do not know us, we are an independent, nonpartisan, membership organization, a think tank, and a publisher, dedicated to being a resource for our nearly 5,000 members, for government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other citizens to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing this and other countries.
Consistent with this mission, we are making ourselves a resource for the presidential candidates and their staffs, as well as for the American people, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. I’ve written to the Democratic and Republican candidates alike, offering briefings from our experts, as well as the opportunity for them to come here to the Council and speak and take questions from our members. So far, we have had Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, and Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia. This Tuesday in Washington, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is scheduled to speak.
Today, however, we are pleased and honored to host the former secretary of state and former senator from the great state of New York, Hillary Clinton. Today’s conversation will be conducted by Fareed Zakaria, one of this country’s leading thinkers on international relations and American foreign policy. Fareed was also managing editor of our in-house magazine, Foreign Affairs, and is host of a show, coincidentally named “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” (Laughter.)
The format for today is that we will first hear remarks from Secretary Clinton on the critical topic of U.S. national security in the wake of Paris, after which she will take some questions from Dr. Zakaria, and then from CFR members. We aim to accomplish all this in the span of one hour, so that we can conclude by roughly 11:30.
Madam Secretary, Senator, I want to welcome you back to the Council on Foreign Relations. The podium is yours. (Applause.)
CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, Richard. And thanks for the great work that the Council does under your leadership. It truly is an important resource for us all.
Fareed, I look forward to having the conversation with you, everyone here at the Council.
And, Mr. Mayor, thank you very much for being here and for everything you are doing and will do to keep our city safe and strong. I’m very grateful.
I wanted to come here to our city, which has shown such resilience in the face of terrorism, to talk about the events of the past week and the work we must do together to protect our country and our friends. When the United States was hit on 9/11, our allies treated that attack against one as an attack against all. Now it’s our turn to stand in solidarity with France and all of our friends. We cherish the same values. We face the same adversaries. We must share the same determination. After a major terrorist attack, every society faces a choice between fear and resolve. The world’s great democracies can’t sacrifice our values or turn our backs on those in need. Therefore, we must choose resolve and we must lead the world to meet this threat.
Now, let’s be clear about what we’re facing. Beyond Paris, in recent days, we’ve seen deadly terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, and a Russian civilian airline destroyed over the Sinai. At the heat of today’s new landscape of terror is ISIS. They persecute religious and ethnic minorities, kidnap and behead civilians, murder children. They systematically enslave, torture, and rape women and girls. ISIS operates across three mutually reinforcing dimensions—a physical enclave in Iraq and Syria, an international terrorist network that includes affiliates across the region and beyond, and an ideological movement of radical jihadism. We have to target and defeat all three.
And time is of the essence. ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach, and capabilities. We have to break the group’s momentum, and then its back. Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS.
But we have learned that we can score victories over terrorist leaders and networks only to face metastasizing threats down the road. So we also have to play and win the long game. We should pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, one that embeds our mission against ISIS within a broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS or some other network.
An immediate war against an urgent enemy and a generational struggle against an ideology with deep roots will not be easily torn out. It will require sustained commitment in every pillar of American power. This is a worldwide fight, and America must lead it.
Our strategy should have three main elements: one, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilities the flow of fighters, financing arms, and propaganda around the world; three, harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.
Let me start with the campaign to defeat ISIS across the region. The United States and our international coalition has been conducting this fight for more than a year. It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria.
That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign, with more allies’ planes, more strikes, and a broader target set. A key obstacle standing in the way is a shortage of good intelligence about ISIS and its operations. So we need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East, an even closer partnership with regional intelligence services.
Our goal should be to achieve the kind of penetration we accomplished with al-Qaida in the past. This would help us identify and eliminate ISIS’ command and control and its economic lifelines. A more effective coalition air campaign is necessary but not sufficient. And we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, air strikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS.
Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East. That is just not the smart move to make here. If we’ve learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them. But we can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission.
Now, the obstacles to achieving this are significant. On the Iraqi side of the border, Kurdish forces have fought bravely to defend their own lands and to retake towns from ISIS, but the Iraqi National Army has struggled and it’s going to take more work to get it up to fighting shape. As part of that process we may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility, including embedding in local units and helping target airstrikes.
Ultimately, however, the ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight. But that won’t happen so long as they do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS.
Now, we’ve been in a similar place before in Iraq. In the first “Sunni awakening” in 2007 we were able to provide sufficient support and assurances to the Sunni tribes to persuade them to join us in rooting out al-Qaida. Unfortunately, under Prime Minister Maliki’s rule, those tribes were betrayed and forgotten.
So the task of bringing Sunnis off the sidelines into this new fight will be considerably more difficult. But nonetheless, we need to lay the foundation for a second “Sunni awakening.” We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to gets its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation, and finally, stand up a national guard. Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition should do so directly.
On the Syrian side, the big obstacle to getting more ground forces to engage ISIS beyond the Syrian Kurds, who are already deep in the fight is that the viable Sunni opposition groups remain understandably preoccupied with fighting Assad, who, let us remember, has killed many more Syrians than the terrorists have. But they are increasingly under threat from ISIS as well, so we need to move simultaneously toward a political solution to the civil war that paves the way for a new government with new leadership, and to encourage more Syrians to take on ISIS as well.
To support them, we should immediately deploy the special operations force President Obama has already authorized, and be prepared to deploy more as more Syrians get into the fight. And we should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units. Our increased support should go hand in hand with increased support from our Arab and European partners, including special forces who can contribute to the fight on the ground.
We should also work with the coalition and the neighbors to impose no-fly zones that will stop Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air. Opposition forces on the ground with materiel support from the coalition could then help create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country rather than fleeing toward Europe.
This combined approach would help enable the opposition to retake the remaining stretch of the Turkish border from ISIS, choking off its supply lines. It would also give us new leverage in the diplomatic process that Secretary Kerry is pursuing.
Of course, we’ve been down plenty of diplomatic dead ends before in this conflict, but we have models for how seemingly intractable multi-sectarian civil wars do eventually end. We can learn lessons from Lebanon and Bosnia about what it will take. And Russia and Iran have to face the fact that continuing to prop up a vicious dictator will not bring stability.
Right now I’m afraid President Putin is actually making things somewhat worse. Now, to be clear, though, there is an important role for Russian to help in resolving the conflict in Syria, and we have indicated a willingness to work with them toward an outcome that preserves Syria as a unitary nonsectarian state with protections for the rights of all Syrians, and to keep key state institutions intact. There is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad’s rule.
Now, much of this strategy on both sides of the border hinges on the roles of our Arab and Turkish partners, and we must get them to carry their share of the burden with military intelligence and financial contributions, as well as using their influence with fighters and tribes in Iraq and Syria. Countries like Jordan have offered more, and we should take them up on it, because ultimately our efforts will only succeed if the Arabs and Turks step up in a much bigger way. This is their fight and they need to act like it.
So far, however, Turkey has been more focused on the Kurds than on countering ISIS. And to be fair, Turkey has a long and painful history with Kurdish terrorist groups, but the threat from ISIS cannot wait. As difficult as it may be, we need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS.
The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS. At the moment they’re focused in other areas because of their concerns in the region, especially the threat from Iran. That’s why the Saudis, for example, shifted attention from Syria to Yemen. So we have to work out a common approach.
In September I laid out a comprehensive plan to counter Iranian influence across the region and its support for terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges. Regional politics are too interwoven. Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.
And as we work out a broader regional approach, we should of course be closely consulting with Israel, our strongest ally in the Middle East. Israel increasingly shares with our Arab partners and has the opportunity to do more in intelligence and joint efforts as well.
Now, we should have no illusions about how difficult the mission before us really is. We have to fit a lot of pieces together, bring along a lot of partners, move on multiple fronts at once. But if we press forward on both sides of the border, in the air and on the ground, as well as diplomatically, I do believe we can crush ISIS’s enclave of terror.
And to support this campaign, Congress should swiftly pass an updated authorization to use military force. That will send a message to friend and foe alike that the United States is committed to this fight. The time for delay is over. We should get this done.
Now, the second element of our strategy looks beyond the immediate battlefield of Iraq and Syria to disrupt and dismantle global terrorist infrastructure on the ground and online. A terror pipeline that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing, arms, and propaganda around the world has allowed ISIS to strike at the heart of Paris last week, and an al-Qaida affiliate to do the same at Charlie Hebdo earlier this year.
ISIS is working hard to extend its reach, establish affiliates and cells far from its home base. And despite the significant setbacks it has encountered, not just with ISIS and its ambitious plans, but even al-Qaida, including the death of Osama bin Laden, they are still posing great threats to so many.
Let’s take one example. We’ve had a lot of conversation about ISIS in the last week. Let’s not forget al-Qaida. They still have the most sophisticated bomb makers, ambitious plotters, and active affiliates in places like Yemen and North Africa. So we can’t just focus on Iraq and Syria. We need to intensify our counterterrorism efforts on a wider scope.
Most urgent is stopping the flow of foreign fighters to and from the war zones of the Middle East. Thousands, thousands, of young recruits have flocked to Syria from France, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and, yes, even the United States. Their western passports make it easier for them to cross borders and eventually return home, radicalized and battle-hardened.
Stemming this tide will require much better coordination and information-sharing among countries every step of the way. We should not stop pressing until Turkey, where most foreign fighters cross into Syria, finally locks down its border.
The United States and our allies need to know and share the identities of every fighter who has traveled to Syria. We also have to be smart and target interventions that will have the greatest impact. For example, we need a greater focus on shutting down key enablers who arrange transportation, documents, and more.
When it comes to terrorist financing, we have to go after the nodes that facilitate illicit trade and transactions. The U.N. Security Council should update its terrorism sanctions. They have a resolution that does try to block terrorist financing and other enabling activities. But we have to place more obligations on countries to police their own banks. And the United States, which has quite a record of success in this area, can share more intelligence to help other countries.
And, once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris, and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations, as well as the schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path to radicalization.
When it comes to blocking terrorist recruitment, we have to identify the hot spots, the specific neighborhoods and villages, the prisons and schools, where recruitment happens in clusters, like the neighborhood in Brussels where the Paris attacks were planned. Through partnerships with local law enforcement and civil society, especially with Muslim community leaders, we have to work to tip the balance away from extremism in these hot spots.
Radicalization and recruitment also is happening online. There’s no doubt we have to do a better job contesting online space, including websites and chat rooms, where jihadists communicate with followers. We must deny them virtual territory just as we deny them actual territory.
At the State Department, I built up a unit of communications specialists fluent in Urdu, Arabic, Somali, and other languages to battle with extremists online. We need more of that, including from the private sector. Social media companies can also do their part by swiftly shutting down terrorist accounts so they’re not used to plan, provoke, or celebrate violence.
Online or offline, the bottom line is that we are in a contest of ideas against an ideology of hate, and we have to win. Let’s be clear, though. Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. The obsession in some quarters with a clash of civilization or repeating the specific words radical Islamic terrorism isn’t just a distraction. It gives these criminals, these murderers, more standing than they deserve. It actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side.
Our priority should be how to fight the enemy. In the end, it didn’t matter what kind of terrorist we called bin Laden. It mattered that we killed bin Laden. But we still can’t close our eyes to the fact that there is a distorted and dangerous stream of extremism within the Muslim world that continues to spread. Its adherents are relatively few in number but capable of causing profound damage, most especially to their own communities, throughout an arc of instability that stretches from North and West Africa to Asia.
Overlapping conflicts, collapsing state structures, widespread corruption, poverty, and repression have created openings for extremists to exploit. Before the Arab spring, I warned that the region’s foundations would sink into the sand without immediate reforms. Well, the need has only grown more urgent.
We have to join with our partners to do the patient, steady work of empowering moderates and marginalizing extremists, supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law, creating economic growth that supports stability, working to curb corruption, helping train effective and accountable law enforcement, intelligence, and counterterrorism services.
As we do this, we must be building up a global counterterrorism infrastructure that is more effective and adaptable than the terror networks we’re trying to defeat. When I became secretary of state, I was surprised to find that nearly a decade after 9/11 there was still no dedicated international vehicle to regularly convene key countries to deal with terrorist threats. So we created the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which now brings together nearly 30 countries, many from the Muslim world.
It should be a clearinghouse for directing assistance to countries that need it or mobilizing common action against threats. And let’s not lose sight of the global cooperation needed to lock down loose nuclear material and chemical and biological weapons and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
At the end of the day, we still must be prepared to go after terrorists wherever they plot, using all the tools at our disposal. That includes targeted strikes by U.S. military aircraft and drones, with proper safeguards, when there aren’t any other viable options to deal with continuing imminent threats. All of this, stopping foreign fighters, blocking terrorist financing, doing battle in cyberspace, is vital to the war against ISIS, but it also lays the foundation for defusing and defeating the next threat and the one after that.
Now, the third element of our strategy has to be hardening our defenses at home and helping our partners do the same against both external and homegrown threats. After 9/11, the United States made a lot of progress breaking down bureaucratic barriers to allow for more and better information sharing among agencies responsible for keeping us safe. We still have work to do on this front, but by comparison Europe is way behind. Today, European nations don’t even always alert each other when they turn away a suspected jihadist at the border, or when a passport is stolen. It seems like after most terrorist attacks we find out that the perpetrators were known to some security service or another, but too often the dots never get connected.
I appreciate how hard this is, especially given the sheer number of suspects and threats, but this has to change. The United States must work with Europe to dramatically and immediately improve intelligence sharing and counterterrorism coordination. European countries also should have the flexibility to enhance their border controls when circumstances warrant. And here at home, we face a number of our own challenges. The threat to airline security is evolving as terrorists develop new devices, like nonmetallic bombs. So our defenses have to stay at least one step ahead.
We know that intelligence gathered and shared by local law enforcement officers is absolutely critical to breaking up plots and preventing attacks. So they need all the resources and support we can give them. Law enforcement also needs the trust of residents and communities including, in our own country, Muslim Americans. Now, this should go without saying, but in the current climate it bears repeating. Muslim Americans are working every day on the front lines of the fight against radicalization.
Another challenge is how to strike the right balance of protecting privacy and security. Encryption of mobile communications presents a particularly tough problem. We should take the concerns of law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals seriously. They have warned that impenetrable encryption may prevent them from accessing terrorist communications and preventing a future attack. On the other hand, we know there are legitimate concerns about government intrusion, network security, and creating new vulnerabilities that bad actors can and would exploit. So we need Silicon Valley not to view government as its adversary. We need to challenge our best minds in the private sector to work with our best minds in the public sector to develop solutions that will both keep us safe and protect our privacy. Now is the time to solve this problem, not after the next attack.
Since Paris, no homeland security challenge is being more hotly debated than how to handle Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States. Our highest priority, of course, must always be protecting the American people. So, yes, we do need to be vigilant in screening and vetting any refugees from Syria, guided by the best judgment of our security professionals in close coordination with our allies and partners. And Congress needs to make sure the necessary resources are provided for comprehensive background checks, drawing on the best intelligence we can get. And we should be taking a close look at the safeguards and the visa programs as well.
But we cannot allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and our humanitarian obligations. Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee—that is just not who we are. We are better than that. And remember, many of these refugees are fleeing the same terrorists who threaten us. It would be a cruel irony indeed if ISIS can force families from their homes, and then also prevent them from ever finding new ones. We should be doing more to ease this humanitarian crisis, not less. We should lead the international community in organizing a donor conference and supporting countries like Jordan, who are sheltering the majority of refugees fleeing Syria.
And we can get this right. America’s open, free, tolerant society is described by some as a vulnerability in the struggle against terrorism, but I actually believe it’s one of our strengths. It reduces the appeal of radicalism and enhances the richness and resilience of our communities. This is not a time for scoring political points. When New York was attacked on 9/11 we had a Republican president, a Republican governor, and a Republican mayor. And I worked with all of them. We pulled together and put partisanship aside to rebuild our city and protect our country.
This is a time for American leadership. No other country can rally the world to defeat ISIS and win the generational struggle against radical jihadism. Only the United States can mobilize common action on a global scale. And that’s exactly what we need. The entire world must be part of this fight, but we must lead it. There’s been a lot of talk lately about coalitions. Everyone seems to want one. But there’s not nearly as much talk about what it actually takes to make a coalition work in the heat and pressure of an international crisis. I know how hard this is because we’ve done it before.
To impose the toughest sanctions in history on Iran, to stop a dictator from slaughtering his people in Libya, to support a fledgling democracy in Afghanistan, we have to use every pillar of American power—military, and diplomacy; development, and economic, and cultural influence; technology, and, maybe most importantly, our values. That is smart power. We have to work with institutions and partners like NATO, the EU, the Arab League, and the U.N., strengthen our alliances and never get tired of old-fashioned, shoe-leather diplomacy. And if necessary, be prepared to act decisively on our own, just as we did to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. The United States and our allies must demonstrate that free people and free markets are still the hope of humanity.
This past week, as I watched the tragic scenes from France, I kept thinking back to a young man the world met in January, after the last attack in Paris. His name was Lassana, a Muslim immigrant from Mali, who worked at a kosher market. He said the market had become a new home and his colleagues and customers a second family. When the terrorists arrived and the gunfire began, Lassana risked his life to protect his Jewish customers. He moved quickly, hiding as many people as he could in the cold storage room, and then slipping out to help the police. I didn’t know or care, he said, if they were Jews, or Christians, or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat. What a rebuke to the extremists’ hatred.
The French government announced it would grant Lassana full citizenship. But when it mattered most, he proved he was a citizen already. That’s the power of free people. That’s what the jihadis will never understand and never defeat. And as we leave here today, let us resolved that we will go forward together. And we will do all we can to lead the world against this threat that threatens people everywhere. Thank you all. (Applause.)
ZAKARIA: Thank you so much, Madam Secretary. And thanks to Richard Haass, again, for organizing this extraordinary opportunity.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, President Obama said that he thought what was needed now was an intensification of his existing strategy against ISIS. Is what you are proposing an intensification of the existing strategy, or a change to it?
CLINTON: Well, as I said in the speech, it is in many ways an intensification and acceleration of the strategy, but it has to also intensify and accelerate our efforts in the other arenas. What we have done with airstrikes has made a difference, but now it needs to make a greater difference, and we need more of a coalition, you know, flying those missions with us.
What we have done with the president saying there would be special forces sent is right in line with what I think, but they need to get there and we need to take stock of whether we need more. And we need to also empower our trainers in Iraq to have more support to do what they’re trying to accomplish by getting the Iraqi army once again to be a fighting force.
And we need—one thing that I believe we haven’t done yet is make it clear to Baghdad that we are going to be arming Sunni tribes and Kurds if they don’t, because at some point they have to be in the fight. The Kurds, as you know, are fighting bravely on both sides of the border, and they need the support that we’ve given them in some of the special ops work and the assault and taking back of Sinjar, and then these other two elements that I mentioned. We have pieces in place but I think we have to deepen and better coordinate not only within our own country and Europe but more broadly.
ZAKARIA: Do you believe that President Obama underestimated ISIS when he called it the JV team?
CLINTON: Look, I don’t think it’s useful to go back and re-plow old ground. I think that from the perspective of what they had accomplished at that time, even though they had seized and held territory, the major focus of our government was on trying to remove Assad from power so that there could be a resolution, a political resolution.
And there were so many groups fighting. There were so many other factors at work. Now that ISIS has made clear that—I think in part because they have been pushed hard by the airstrikes, by the Kurds, they’re now expanding their reach so that they can keep their propaganda going. So I think there’s been, you know, an evolution in their threat and we have to meet it.
ZAKARIA: A couple of days ago the New York Times had a headline that said, “Paris Attacks Complicate Hillary Clinton’s Alignment with Obama.” Has it?
CLINTON: Well, it’s not the first headline I’ve disagreed with. (Laughter.) Look, I have made clear that I have differences, as I think any two people do. I was very proud to serve as President Obama’s secretary of state. I think we made a good team. We largely agreed on what needed to be done to repair our alliances to get our country in a position to deal with the wars that had been inherited and to take on some of the new challenges we faced.
But even when I was still there, which is publicly known, I thought we needed to do more earlier to try to identify indigenous Syrian fighters, so-called moderates, and I do think there were some early on, that we could have done more to help them in their fight against Assad. But, you know, this is an evolving and fast-moving situation. I think we’re all, you know, working to, you know, make sure that what we do actually will produce the results we seek.
ZAKARIA: When you were secretary of state, you tended to agree a great deal with the then-secretary of defense, Bob Gates. Gates was opposed to a no-fly zone in Syria, thought it was an act of war that was risky and dangerous. This seems to me the major difference right now between what Obama’s administration is doing and what you are proposing. Do you not—why do you disagree with Bob Gates on this?
CLINTON: Well, I believe that the no-fly zone is merited and can be implemented, again, in a coalition, not an American-only no-fly zone.
I fully respect Bob and his knowledge about the difficulties of implementing a no-fly zone, but if you look at where we are right now we have to try to clear the air of the bombing attacks that are still being carried out to a limited extent by the Syrian military, now supplemented by the Russian air force. And I think we have a chance to do that now. We had a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq for years to protect the Kurds, and it proved to be successful—not easy. It never is, but I think now is the time for us to revisit those plans.
I also believe, as I said in the speech, that if we begin the conversation about a no-fly zone, something that, you know, Turkey discussed with me back when I was secretary of state in 2012, it will confront a lot of our partners in the region and beyond about what they’re going to do. And it can give us leverage in the discussions that Secretary Kerry is carrying on right now. So I see it as both a strategic opportunity on the ground and an opportunity for leverage in the peace negotiations.
ZAKARIA: You talked about Arab partners, but it’s worth noting that after having announced with great fanfare that they would join us in the strikes, Saudi Arabia has essentially dropped out, the UAE has essentially dropped out. What would you—what could—can you do particularly to make these key Sunni states that seem more interested in fighting in Yemen, where they are battling a Shiite force, as they see it—what can you do to make them actually take this on as their struggle?
CLINTON: Well, we did build that coalition with respect to Libya. We had the UAE, Qatar, Jordan involved in what we were doing on the ground. And it takes constant outreach, and obviously you have to define the problem in a way that they see it as affecting their national interests. And you’re right; the Saudis were actually involved in Syria and now have put all of their resources against the Houthis and the Iranian backers of the Houthis in Yemen.
Now, what does that mean? Well, it means that they see the battle that they want to fight as one against Iran and its proxies. My argument to them would be, left untended you could have Iranian reach from Tehran to Baghdad if you allow Syria to fall into as terrible a distress as it currently is, and basically Assad being a proxy for, a front man for, the Iranians. The Russians are interested in their naval base, and so you will find a consolidation of authority with the Iranians and, moving into Baghdad, even more so.
So what you’re facing in Yemen could be a limited preview of what you could face going forward unless we get some concerted effort to stop the fighting and to seek a political solution that does give some room to all the different groups within Syria to have a say in the future.
ZAKARIA: Donald Trump says that if you look back you see that every time—I get a laugh just saying it—(laughter). Donald Trump says that every time we have deposed or encouraged the removal of a dictator in the Middle East, what has followed has been political chaos and a worse humanitarian situation than existed before. And if you look at Iraq, if you look at Libya, if you look at Yemen, if you look at the fragility of the Assad regime and what it has produced, isn’t he right?
CLINTON: Well, he has a very short-term view of history, because it is not at all clear what the final outcome will be in the places that you named. As I mentioned in the speech, I spoke about the foundations of the region sinking into the sand just as the Arab Spring was breaking. And I did so not knowing about the Arab Spring coming to full bloom, but because it was so clear that what was being done by dictatorships, by the denial of opportunity, by the repression, by the sectarian divide just could not stand. It was going to explode at some point or another.
And with the developments in Libya, for example, the Libyan people have voted twice in free and fair elections for the kind of leadership they want. They have not been able to figure out how to prevent the disruptions that they are confronted with because of internal divides and because of some of the external pressures that are coming from terrorist groups and others.
So I think it’s too soon to tell. And I think it’s something that we have to be, you know, looking at very closely. Now, deposing Milosevic left problems, but problems that we came at by having a deal—in fact, my husband’s in Dayton today speaking about the Dayton Accord, where people who had been slaughtering each other had to come together and resolve to exist within a government together.
Is it perfect? No. But has it, you know, kind of kept going and do we have some work to do there? Absolutely. So we have to look at all these different situations, I think, on their own, as well as part of bigger trends.
ZAKARIA: Several of the people running against—against whoever the Democrat is argue that—argue that we should not be taking in Syrian refugees, but if we do we should prioritize Christian refugees. Jeb Bush has said this. Ted Cruz has said this. And the argument is that they are being persecuted particularly harshly by ISIS. Why isn’t that right?
CLINTON: Well, I just don’t think we should have religious tests about who we bring as refugees into our country. We’ve had, last I looked, more than 2 million refugees since 1990. So far, we know that trying to vet and understand he connections that a person or a family might have with somebody in the United States, you know, looking to see what organization—often a faith-based organization—will sponsor them, and what they’ll do to help them get education or a job, is by far the best way to sort out and to determine who should be included.
Now, this is going to take a long time. I mean, really, doing this is hard under any circumstances. Doing it when people are essentially stateless, they don’t necessarily have documents, it’s hard to do the vetting. It’s going to be challenging, which is again why I said in the speech that Congress should be providing resources for us to do it right, you know, not trying to stop it. I just don’t believe that’s in keeping with our values or our history. And frankly, it doesn’t send the kind of message that we want to send to the rest of the world.
So, yeah, we have to be careful. We have to be vigilant. And we have to have a system that does all of that.
ZAKARIA: Let’s open it up to members of the Council. Let me—if somebody wants to put up their hand, identify themselves, and please make sure it is a question with a question mark at the end, and be brief.
Q: Thank you very much for your comments. With respect to TPP, I would like to understand a little bit better why you oppose it and what changes would perhaps make it acceptable to you.
CLINTON: I think, you know, there are two problems that I see with it. One, the final language of the treaty itself, which I don’t think went far enough to meet the test that I’ve always applied to any trade agreement. I have voted for them and I have voted against them when I was a senator. Does it help to create more good-paying jobs in America? Does it raise incomes? Does it advance our national security? And I think there are enough unanswered questions—it was an—it was an extraordinary effort to try to bring these countries together to come up with an agreement. But I think that, at the end of the day, for a number of reasons—including that they couldn’t figure out how to get currency into the agreement and it’s only in a side agreement—I opposed it.
The other side of the coin, though, is we have been doing so little—because of Republican opposition, mostly—to better train and prepare people who have been really either sidelined or whacked up against their head by globalization. Globalization is real. It’s happening. It’s having an impact. We don’t have a good training program. We don’t have the kind of support that people need to be able to move into positions where they can acquire new skills. And I see those two things as going together, because we have to first and foremost focus on how we better prepare more Americans to be competitive in the global economy. And I don’t think we’ve done that. I want to see that done alongside any trade agreement to a greater extent than the Republicans have been willing to support it.
Q: Madam Secretary, Amy Bondurant. Hi.
So, importantly, you’ve recommended that the U.S. lead the air coalition. And I wondered what next steps might be taken to ensure that that would happen.
CLINTON: Well, Amy, there’s nothing magic or easy about putting together such a coalition. I know President Hollande will be coming to the United States to see President Obama this week, and I assume that there will be a group of French officials—defense officials, intelligence officials, homeland security officials—who will be meeting with their American counterparts. And on the defense side, I think that certainly the United States, working with France, and then from that, you know, sort of hub beginning to reach out to other countries to seek out support. And I would go back to Arab countries as well. So looking for a way to begin the discussions about the negotiations that lead to the coalition as quickly as possible.
You know, going back to Libya, you know, the Europeans were the ones who wanted American support, and we did not agree to do so until we had a very clear idea what they were willing to do. And then we reached out and worked with the Arab League so that there would be Arab partners as well. And that took weeks; it wasn’t something that just happened overnight. But it is definitely doable if we begin, I think, with the French-American position and move out from there.
Q: Terry Whitney Castle (sp).
My understanding was, with regard to U.S. support for Syrian rebels over the last year or two, one of the main restraints was that they could not fight Assad directly, and that this was a severe limitation and part of the reason the plan didn’t work. When you recommend supporting additional training for Syrian rebel groups, would you advise them to allow them to fight Assad? Or is that part of the conflict that we don’t want to get involved in?
CLINTON: Well, back in the first term, when Leon Panetta and Dave Petraeus and I made our recommendation about vetting and arming Syrian moderate rebels, the target was Assad. It was to defend themselves and be able to prevent the military taking over territory and creating the kind of humanitarian disaster that, obviously, we’ve all seen. So that was what we recommended back in the first term.
Since then, I know it’s been a very difficult task for the—our government to take on and pursue successfully. But one of the challenges has been trying to draw lines, and you draw lines because you want to be able to vet and follow what happens to the arms that you are equipping people with. But what happened to some of the few groups that have been trained is that they were quickly overrun by much more hardened fighters who were fighting Assad. So it was a—it was a very hard task to do two or three years later. I think it might have been—but again, I’ve said many times I can’t predict sitting here what would have happened if we had moved earlier. It might have worked. It might not have worked. But you can’t really take Syrians who are rebelling against Assad and tell them they can’t use their training and their weapons against the person who, as I said in my speech, has killed far more Syrians than ISIS has to date.
ZAKARIA: Let me ask a follow-up on that, Madam Secretary. If the only way you could put together a moderate Syrian force is by having the United States cajole, bribe, arm, and train it, we are then looking for this force to defeat ISIS, then defeat Assad, then defeat al-Nusra, then defeat other al-Qaida affiliates, keep at bay the Shiite militias and Hezbollah, take control of Damascus, and establish a pluralistic democracy in Syria. Isn’t that kind of a tall order?
CLINTON: Well, certainly, described like that. (Laughter.) And that’s why I focused on ISIS, I mean, because I think it’s—I think right now we have one overriding goal, as I outlined. We need to crush their territorial domain, and we need to try to secure the entire border between Syria and Turkey.
There is not going to be a successful military effort at this point to overturn Assad. That can only happen through the political process. So our effort should be focused on ISIS.
And, yes, there are other terrorist groups. Al-Nusra, whom you mention, is a particularly lethal fighter.
ZAKARIA: So no fight—no fight against Assad for now?
CLINTON: There—we have to prioritize. And we had an opportunity, perhaps—I won’t say that it would have worked. But right now, we’ve got the Russians in protecting Assad, the Iranians, and Hezbollah protecting Assad. We need to get people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS. And then we need to figure out how we put together a political outcome that provides enough autonomy so that the separate immunities within Syria will be able to recreate a Syrian state, even though it probably is unlikely it will be controlled by the Alawites from Damascus, the same way it was before the civil war started.
ZAKARIA: There’s policy here, but there’s also politics. There are inescapably people trying to appear tough and tougher. If there were, god forbid, another terrorist attack, god forbid, in the United States, do you think the pressure to send American troops into Syria would be unstoppable?
CLINTON: Well, it would certainly grow, but I think it would be a mistake. Look, as I said, we should be sending more special operators. We should be empowering our trainers in Iraq. We should be, you know, leading an air coalition using both fighter planes and drones. We have a lot of work to do to be able to, you know, really decimate ISIS in Iraq and in Syria. But we’ve got to work with the Kurds on both sides of the border. We’ve got to figure out how to, if possible, have a second Arab awakening in Anbar province, get the Sunni tribes to feel that it is their fight again, as they once did. And that requires a lot of political pressure being put on Baghdad. Injecting some large contingent of American forces complicates that, in my opinion. Right now, we need to keep the pressure on the people on the ground, and get them to change their priorities, and work together.
ZAKARIA: Final question.
Q: Jim Zirin. Madam Secretary, hi.
Back to the no-fly zone, are you advocating a no-fly zone over the entire country or a partial no-fly zone over an enclave where refugees might find a safe haven? And in the event of either, do you foresee you might be potentially provoking the Russians?
CLINTON: I am advocating the second, a no-fly zone principally over northern Syrian, close to the Turkish border, cutting off the supply lines, trying to provide some safe refuges for refugees, so they don’t have to leave Syria, creating a safe space away from the barrel bombs and the other bombardment by the Syrians. And I would certainly expect to and hope to work with the Russians to be able to do that.
You know, the Russians have, as you know, been primarily focused on Assad’s enemies and not on ISIS. I think that has changed. And there is an indication that has changed. After Hollande comes here, he’s going to go to Moscow to see Putin. And as I said earlier, I think getting Russia to play a role in that and getting Assad to understand that what happens to him will be a result of a political resolution, which Secretary Kerry is undertaking right now. But to have a swath of territory that could be a safe zone, both for Syrians so they wouldn’t have to leave but also for humanitarian relief. And I think that it would give us this extra leverage that I’m looking for in the diplomatic pursuits with Russia with respect to the political outcome in Syria.
ZAKARIA: We can take one last brief question. Ma’am.
Q: Thank you. I’m Sylvana Sinha.
My question relates to Saudi Arabia. Do you think that the goals that you outlined in the Middle East can be achieved without more cooperation from Saudi Arabia? And if not, how do you think Saudis can be convinced to changed course?
CLINTON: Well, I think that that the Saudis are critical to achieving the goals. And, you know, the Saudis are now engaged in the discussions that Secretary Kerry is leading. They’re in the same process as the Iranians, which is something that was hard to get to, but finally achieved. And I think that the Saudis have a multiple level of responsibilities. First and foremost, stopping their own citizens from continuing the financing for extremists. And you know, Saudi financing is still a major source of revenue for terrorist groups inside Syria, inside Iraq, elsewhere.
ZAKARIA: Including ISIS, you think?
CLINTON: I have no evidence of that. But they’re—ISIS has become quite a self-financing terrorist network, with their theft of oil, selling it on the black market; with their destruction and seizure of antiquities, selling that on the black market; with their taking over Mosul and raiding the banks. They’ve got a source of funding. So I don’t really know, but I know that Saudi individuals have certainly funded other related terrorist groups over time, and also exported a lot of Wahhabi radicalism by kicking out or sending out imams and teachers to set up schools and mosques to preach that particularly harsh brand of Islam.
So the Saudis have a lot that they can do to both stop and then to help. And that’s why I said, look, they are legitimately concerned about a takeover in Yemen that butts up against their border. And so that is why they are expending a lot of money and a lot of military resources trying to beat back the Houthis, trying to reestablish Hadi’s government. They’ve got a lot going on there. But I would hope to draw them into a broader reading of what’s going on in the region.
And, you know, for a lot of people, the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide is one of the major reasons for what’s happening there. It’s understandable, but the Saudis need to have a broader view. And looking at Iran’s influence inside Syria, their growing influence in Iraq, as well as in Yemen, they need to understand they have to help us stabilize at least northern Syria to start with, while trying to come up with some resolution of the civil war. And I hope they will be more willing to be involved.
ZAKARIA: Madam Secretary, thank you so much for giving us your time. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.
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