A Conversation with Senator Jack Reed

Friday, September 29, 2017
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Jack Reed

U.S. Senator from Rhode Island (D); Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Armed Services

Jonathan Karl

Chief Washington Correspondent and Chief White House Correspondent, ABC News

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) discusses the president's approach to dealing with North Korea and Russia; Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); and the U.S. military's state of preparedness.

KARL: Hey, how’s it going? All right. I think it’s—we’re ready to start. Thank you all for being here. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. A warm welcome to our guest, Senator Jack Reed, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

REED: Thanks, Jonathan.

KARL: Senator from the great state of Rhode Island. I’m Jonathan Karl, chief White House correspondent for ABC News. I will be presiding and asking questions for the first half-hour, and then take some questions from all of you for the second half-an-hour. This is an on-the-record meeting. In fact, I also want to welcome all of those CFR members around the nation, maybe around the world, who are participating in this meeting through the livestream. Thank you all for being here.

Senator Reed, so much to talk about with you. But I want to start right with the—perhaps the most pressing national security issue, North Korea. And just a—just a bottom-line question, as we hear the words we’ve heard from the president and his team about a military option, is there realistically a military solution to the North Korean crisis short of, you know, an unthinkable war?

REED: Well, I mean, if you talk to our military leaders, both to Secretary Mattis and General Dunford, they have to plan and have the capacity to do that. But they make it very clear that this is a diplomatic effort at this point. And that is the best approach at this point. Unfortunately, the diplomatic effort, I think, is being hobbled because of a lack of capacity. We don’t have an ambassador in South Korea. We don’t have a confirmed assistant secretary for the region. We have other stories about State Department lack of personnel and focus. And then the other issue in terms of the diplomatic approach is a lack of coherent message. We’ve seen that from the beginning, when the president tweeted about South Koreans paying for the THAAD system, when in fact they had done a lot of political effort to get into the country. We’ve seen it in terms of the free trade agreement. All of that is presented just incoherent messages, in many respects.

And then in terms of coordination and cooperation, we’ve got to develop several tracks—of informal tracks, back channels—which I hope are there, because in these types of crises that they come in handy many times. In fact, that might be the way to really sort of get sort of a dialogue going. And then we have to think also in terms of some of the formal mechanisms we used before. We would have a group of five, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the United States formally sitting down and dealing with the issue of North Korea. That might be helpful. I think it would be. So I think this diplomatic effort is absolutely vitally important because even though the military—as they must—as they always must—is preparing for some type of kinetic operation, this would be a much preferable way to proceed. And also, if it doesn’t succeed, there is much more legitimacy for the use of force.

KARL: Well, you say that this is a diplomatic effort. That’s not what it sounded like when the president was before the U.N.

REED: No. That goes, again, to this—the issue of coherency of message. You know, the North Korean regime since its inception has been talking about they have to be essentially a militarized society because the United States is determined to destroy them. Now, ironically, all they have to do is translate that message at the U.N. and put it on their screens and on the loudspeakers and, you know, the president is making the point for them. I think that was not—I don’t think that was the best approach. You can say things that do signal very clearly that military options are not only on the table but, you know—

KARL: Are being developed. And we’ve heard this from Mattis. We’ve heard this not just from the president.


REED: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

KARL: But what I—and I want to get more into that question of the diplomatic route—but first just trying to understand the first question: Is there really a military option? I mean, we hear that phrase. We heard it from—we heard from Barack Obama. I mean, we heard it from George W. Bush. But what?

REED: There is a military option. But the first thing that our—

KARL: But what does that look like?

REED: Well, but I think it’s clear from everyone, particularly the military leaders, that option would be extraordinarily costly—something that we haven’t witnessed perhaps since World War II.

KARL: And you don’t mean dollars. You mean costly—

REED: I mean costly in terms of lives. I mean costly in terms of economic activity. Costly in terms of environmental degradation. If—you know, this a crisis. And why—one of the reasons it’s so existential is because it involves a country that already has weapons of mass destruction and a country that the question is we’ve been able to deter their use now for many years—particularly the chemical and biological weapons. But, you know, is—are they deterrable? And I think also, too, is among those military options is not necessarily offensive operations, et cetera, but it’s a deterrence that would be put in effect by—

KARL: Missile defense, shooting down one of their tests?

REED: Missile defense. You know, significant improvements in overhead coverage so that we would not only have a warning but we would have the ability to respond. It would require cooperation, collaboration with many countries in terms of proliferation, because one of the dangers with the North Koreans is not only that they have these weapons but they will sell anything that they can get out of the country, literally. So we have to be very effective in terms of proliferation, even now with their chemical, their biological, and we know they have nuclear weapons and medium-ranges missiles that can likely carry them.

KARL: But a former national security official in the previous administration, who I know you know and respect well, made the point to me recently that one of the challenges here is that North Korea, really for three—at least three successive administrations—could take as a given that there really isn’t a viable military solution, so they don’t fear that. And this official, no friend of Donald Trump, something needs to be done to erase their confidence that the United States really does not have a military—a military option here.

REED: Well, I think, again, this goes to the issue of the diplomacy we’re doing right now. I mean, one of the factors that mitigates against military operations is the question, what would China do? If we could make progress to determine and collaborate, cooperate more, so that we would at least understand, and they would understand, that would send a signal hopefully that North Koreans that our use of force would not be abandoned because we’re afraid, not of the North Koreans, but of the reaction of China, the reaction of Russian, et cetera. That’s why this—a more cohesive, coherent, focused foreign policy—maybe formally using the group of five or informally using backchannels, et cetera—is necessary. Because, again, I think part of the president’s motivation to making some of these statements is to try to inject that sense of, you know, I’ll do this. You know, there’s been many comparisons to Richard Nixon—

KARL: Yeah, the madman theory, right?

REED: Exactly. Exactly, that he was going to—

KARL: They don’t like that term at the White House, by the way. (Laughter.)

REED: No, and I don’t—I think—I think sticking to diplomatic language is helpful in these situations, most times. So again, I think we’re in a situation where, you know, we just can’t say it too. And it goes to our credibility. If we’re saying, listen, we’re on a diplomatic offensive. And the North Koreans and the Chinese are looking around and they’re seeing feeble attempts at diplomacy, well, that’s two things. One, they don’t really care and they are going to do this. And what does that do in terms of the North Korean reaction? Do they preemptively do something. Or do they just discount everything we say. They say, they’re not doing diplomacy and they won’t do military action?

KARL: Well, what are we seeing in terms of China? Because part of that diplomatic effort is getting China to put more pressure on North Korea. The president has said that it’s working, that they’ve taken this—you know, steps on banking, particularly and most recently. Is China doing more?

REED: I think they’re doing more, but the question can they ever do enough? I think the presumption which many people had is as soon as the Chinese decided to step in they could tell them, you know, knock it off, Kim Jong-un. But my sense is that they have the same difficulty communicating with Kim Jong-un that the rest of the world does, that their influence is much less than it was several years ago, that they can in fact—and they have taken steps, but they’re not quite willing to cripple the economy because they’re afraid of a collapse and a huge flow of refugees into the country. And then the other factor, too, is in the internal politics of China, they have a big congress coming up, which they do every several years. And I think President Xi wants to get through that before he does anything else, so that’s tempering some of the response.

But they’ve made some improvements. They’ve supported us at the U.N. on some of these sanctions measures, but they haven’t gone as far as we’d like to go. And I think we might see something more productive in the future after the congress. And the other sense I have is that Xi himself personally has no—very low regard for Kim Jong-un, and so there’s no personal relationship.

And I—so, again, I think China’s going to be key. Russia, because they have certain influence there, not as dramatic of China. And this diplomatic effort has to be enhanced dramatically.

KARL: But does the president deserve some credit for the fact that China is doing more now? Because, again, a variation on the madman theory, China’s worried about what Trump will do, so wants to short-circuit that by, you know, taking some steps on their own that may have an—

REED: No, I think his first conversation with President Xi, they, you know, established a conversational relationship, and that’s good. I think, two, that, you know, China is reacting to pressure, not just from the United States but from the world. And they’re also reacting to the reality of, as this regime gets closer to intercontinental nuclear weapons, then they—the consequences could be dire to China too. So there’s a whole new set of calculations, given the progress that the North Koreans have made on their missiles and their warheads.

KARL: Now, if the North Koreans do what they have threatened to do, which is to do a nuclear test this time over the Pacific Ocean, what—is that a red line? Is that—what are the implications of that?

REED: I think that would be extraordinarily disruptive. And I think, again, this is where conversations, not just in the United States and the administration, but with China/Russia/et cetera, to get a sense of how they would react to it, because that would be extraordinary. It would have atmospheric—climatic consequences. It would be just—I don’t think—

KARL: Do you think they’re serious about that threat? Or do you just take that as, I mean, they say a lot of things?

REED: It’s hard to judge. I mean, honestly, every intelligence officer you speak to says this is the hardest target they have. Kim Jong-un has a very compartmentalized—you know, we’re not quite sure even when we talk to people who we think are insiders know, you know, what he’s thinking. And it’s very much, as I said, compartmentalized, so there could be somebody who, you know, has some insights on the missile program but has no insight on their anything else.

So it’s—I don’t think we can dismiss it as just idle talk. I think we have to, again, have contingency plans, talk to our allies about what their reaction would be. In fact, again, this might be something in the context of a group of five where they could sort of collectively lay down not a red line, perhaps, but a sort of a sense that this would be impermissible. I mean, that’s a nuanced argument. But I think one of the problems we’ve discovered with red lines is once you—

KARL: Yeah, right.

REED: —once you do it, you’ve already sort of locked yourself into it.

KARL: Well, I want to move off North Korea, but one more. We could—we could talk about it all day. One question I have as somebody who has tracked this problem so closely for so long: What do you see as driving the recent success that they have had, both in terms of their ballistic program and their nuclear program? Are they getting outside help? How is this most closed nation, backward nation on the Earth, how is it that they have made the incredible strides they seem to have made over the last couple years on both those programs?

REED: I think, one, is they have been getting outside help. I think the efforts recently at the U.N. and elsewhere, and the efforts of the administration to squeeze that, has produced some diminution of the help.

KARL: From whom? Help from whom?

REED: Well, my sense is they have a network of companies, many of them located in China, that provide parts for them. They have a whole series of front companies that do raise money for them, so they have hard currencies to use to buy things. They smuggle things in and out. It’s a very elaborate and sophisticated network. There’s been some studies suggesting there are about 5,000 business entities in China, and just recently one of them in Dandong was shut down, but there are others who have been moving this material through for decades.

I think the other interesting thing about why they’ve been so successful is that Kim Jong-un has risked failure. I think the father was a little more risk-averse in terms of he was waiting till they got a 99.9 percent, you know, that it was going to work for propaganda purposes. They’ve fired missiles that have failed. They have tried different things. And he has made it central to his regime, his personality, his survival, et cetera. So, with all of that.

And again, you know, back in the 1960s, the Chinese were able—and it was a very rudimentary economy, et cetera—to put together, you know, intercontinental ballistic missiles with some help, of course, from overseas, but with a lot of indigenous effort.

KARL: So you’re a West Point grad. This is a president that likes to surround himself with generals, many of whom you know quite well and have known for a long time—General Mattis, General McMaster, General Kelly.

REED: Yes.

KARL: So I’d like a little sense of your interactions with those generals. I mean, for instance, just to pivot from North Korea, when the president makes comments like “fire and fury” or talks about wiping North Korea off the map, do you—do you pick up the phone and say, what did—what did he mean? Do you—who do you call?

REED: Well—(laughs)—no, it’s interesting, because—(laughter)—I have a great deal of confidence in the gentlemen you mentioned. My presumption is, and I think it’s valid, is that they have already weighed in, and sometimes decisively, to, you know—to do things, you know, to prevent things that could have been very consequential. So I think they’re—

KARL: Things like what?

REED: I’m—(laughter)—you know, I—stuff.

KARL: Stuff. (Laughter.) All right.

REED: But it’s—you know, they’re—and again, if you listen to their statements, they are very strong but, you know, controlled. And they send, I think, the right signal, which is, you know, don’t presume that we’re not ready to do what we have to do; we are ready. And, you know, there may be—again, I don’t—and I don’t have the same kind of sort of vantage point that others might have on the White House and the interactions, but there might be—I hope there’s a very healthy dialogue before the president says. One of the concerns I have is that General Mattis, General Kelly are all reacting to tweets, not talking about what’s the best way to frame this message. And that’s something, this more disciplined approach so they can weigh in, I think that would be helpful to the administration and to the president.

KARL: Have you seen a change in the National Security Council? You’ve had—a while back we had the departure of Flynn, obviously, the effort to replace him finally landing on McMaster; Bannon exiled from the—from the Council, now from the White House. Have you noticed a change?

REED: Yeah. There is much more, I think, of subject matter experts who not as politically engaged, et cetera. And they’re providing, I think, much more substantive advice to the president. But ultimately, it’s the president’s decision. You know, that’s the system. I mean, we have—I like Secretary Mattis, who is one of the most thoughtful and experienced gentlemen you could ever have in the secretary of defense’s office. John Kelly is someone I admire immensely, et cetera. But ultimately, it’s the president’s decision, and they have to understand that. They can weigh in occasionally but, you know, it’s going to be the president’s—

KARL: They have to give the president options. They have to know that he understands the consequences of the—

REED: Exactly. And that requires—that requires, you know, two people. You also have to listen. You have to study. You have to focus. And, I think, the question’s not—by many people—not whether there is the listening, focus and constant attention to details.

KARL: Because Bannon used to talk about de-operationalizing the National Security Council.

REED: Yeah.

KARL: Do you understand what that was—

REED: My sense was—is, like, I think also de-operationalizing the State Department, which is—

KARL: Certainly, yes. Yeah. That was probably first.

REED: Yes, which if you don’t really—

KARL: Maybe they’ve succeeded there.

REED: I don’t know. But if you don’t fill up, with credible and competent individuals, positions, you’ve just got a capacity gap, as I mentioned. Same way at the National Security Council. If the National Security Council is more ideological than, you know, technically proficient and professional, then you get a—it’s no longer giving you that kind of options and advice. It’s giving you kind of, you know, polling numbers disguised as advice. So I think the—I think that’s a change, hopefully, over the last few weeks—months, I should say now—with General McMaster and General Kelly that it’s much more, you know, it’s your decision, Mr. President, but we’re going to give you, you know, the options that are all available, our preference, our advice, and then you decide. And that’s the way it should work, so.

KARL: How long have you known Kelly—General Kelly?

REED: I’ve known General Kelly about 20 years.

KARL: Twenty years.

REED: He was in ’06 in the Marine Corps—I think he was in the OCLL, the Congressional liaison. And then I’ve met him when he was a commanding—the MEU, I think, in Anbar province. We were out there visiting. He’s a very admirable person, a great Marine.

KARL: What do you make of his challenge now?

REED: I think his challenge is basically—you know, one of the things that, having served with about four presidents, is temperament and personal style are critical to how any president operates. And he has to understand that. And he has to ensure that he gets the best information and he gets the bad news as well as the good news. One of the failures, I think, when you come to, you know, like chief of staff job or the national security advisor, if you’re not giving the president the flipside and the bad news, you’re not doing your job. And I think, you know, General Kelly’s challenge is every day, without—in the context of the president’s personality, because that’s the beginning of it all—he has to give that information.

KARL: Have you spoken to him since he’s become chief of staff?

REED: No, I haven’t. I have no not. You know, I spoke with him when he was head of Homeland Security on several occasions. And, you know, again, I have great admiration for him personally.

KARL: So let’s go to the other—another hot spot, Iran. The president strongly hinted, it seemed—well, let’s see what you think—at the U.N. that he was going to get out of the Iran nuclear agreement, although he didn’t say that. I have doubts he’ll actually do it. But what do you think he meant? He was strongly critical, like, the worst deal in the history of mankind.

REED: Yeah, that it’s an embarrassment. And I think he’s been, you know, said he’s already made up his decision. But from what we’ve heard—we just had General Dunford up this week before the committee. You know, General Dunford’s opinion, based upon intelligence reports, is they’re still in compliance with the nuclear deal. And he also indicated that, you know, our unilateral walking away from it would not be received very well by the world community, including our partners in the deal, and that it could lead to counterreaction by the Iranians. And they have forces in Iran. They have forces in Syria. They have forces throughout the Gulf.

And also, it sends a signal to the North Koreans that if we make a deal with these folks they might not keep it. I mean, I think they’re suspicious to begin with, but this adds to the suspicion. And then, if there is further complications in the Middle East, just the ability to pull forces away from there to respond. You talked about a military option. If we’re, you know, undertake a military option in Korea that becomes the primary objective. And the way we usually do things is everything else is an economy of force. Well, if you have an economy of force in an active area like the Middle East, with the Iranians getting more and more belligerent, then you’re in for some difficult situations.

KARL: You were an advocate of this deal very early on. What is your sense when you look at it now, and look at the behavior of the Iranian regime now beyond the terms of that nuclear agreement? Has it all worked out the way you had hoped? Or has it fallen short?

REED: I had very limited expectations. The critical one is that would freeze their nuclear program. And that appears to have happened. And I think you just have to ask yourself, given their attitudes, their belligerency, given their attempts at regional hegemony, and given the fact that they’d be rushing towards a nuclear weapon, are we better off with the agreement or without? I think we’re better off with the agreement, because I sense—you know, they have missile technology. If there were within months, by some reports, of being able to, you know, at least have a nuclear test. If that happened, that would trigger, I think, a reaction in the region which would be very, very difficult.

Again, if you want to apply it to North Korea, this would be a different situation in North Korea if, like 25 years ago when we were talking about significant conventional forces, a tremendous number of artillery pieces and rockets along the DMZ, you know, that’s a problem. It’s real problem when they have nuclear, biological, missiles, and some that can land in the United States. In Iran at this point, at least for the next decade, they won’t have that, if they stay to the agreement.

KARL: Well, one of the problems with this deal is it does expire.

REED: It does expire. And I think—

KARL: Then there are no limits on what they can do.

REED: No, there’s not. And again, I think the expectation—that’s why it’s a limited expectation—is within this integral of 10—or 15 years to begin but we’ve spun through a few years—that two things, in my view. One, is that there may be, not guaranteed, changes within the regime that would be more accommodating to continue the agreement. There’d be the option, particularly since it was an international agreement with China, Russia, and the major powers, to try to extend it. And then also if, after 15 years, the agreement, they suddenly broke out, I think we’d be in a much stronger position with our allies to counteract that breakout.

KARL: And if the—if the administration, despite Dunford’s comments—does what they could do next, which is on October 15th decline to certify that they have complied with the agreement, that doesn’t mean we’re out though, right? So what happens? The ball gets tossed to you.

REED: Yes. And what happens is there is an expedited procedure. The majority/minority leader of either house can call up the vote. It would be done in a, you know, timeframe—a very relatively short timeframe. And it would be a majority vote to reimpose the sanctions. And I think that would be a difficult vote, frankly. Not for me.

KARL: Not for you, yeah.

REED: I would—I would think the agreement should stand. But I think for a lot of my colleagues—

KARL: Because if we reimpose the sanctions they take the limits off their nuclear.

REED: Well, yeah, and it goes back to something—

KARL: And our sanctions don’t matter much. The European sanctions—

REED: Exactly, yeah, the Europeans will come in and, you know, we’ll be on the outside. They’ll be not just on the inside in terms of Iran, that’s not as important, but they’ll be perceived, I think, throughout the world as, you know, they’re sticking with the deal, which is denuclearizing, at least for a period of 15 years, Iran. We’re the outliers. I think also, too, it’s the message that General Mattis gave when he was before us for his confirmation. You know, he didn’t like the deal. He thought it had shortcomings. It does have shortcomings. Didn’t cover their missiles. Didn’t cover their support of surrogates, et cetera. But he said, you know, a great nation doesn’t break their word. And this would appear as if we’re breaking our word.

KARL: So, before we get to questions, one other topic. I know of great concern to you is the question of readiness. We’ve had a situation where we’ve lost more personnel in combat—in accidents—training accidents than we have in combat. How concerned are you about the readiness of our forces?

REED: I’m very concerned. And I must commend Chairman McCain, because no one has been more forceful and eloquent and relentless on the readiness issue than the chairman, who has done a remarkable job, in my view. We’ve seen the manifestations. You’ve said it, Jonathan. We’ve had the accidents with our ships at sea. We’ve had aviation accidents. We’ve had demolitions accidents at Fort Bragg and other places. What has happened is the tempo has been so great of operations, the deploy to dwell tempo is basically in some cases one to two. So they need—the Air Force, I’m told, needs one deployment and four periods of training and redeployment to home base, to be accurate—or active and effective. So we need to fix that. And that’s going to require resources. It’s going to require increase in our end strength in some respects. We’re going to have to do a lot. And it’s necessary.

Again, we’re watching these young men and women go out and do a superb job. They need the kind of support, the training that is so necessary. The other issue here too is—and, again, it sort of reminds me of my—when I was a lieutenant captain in the Army—and General Dunford still alluded to this because he’s a little younger but not that much—is in the ’70s we were transitioning from counterinsurgency warfare, as we are now, into full spectrum battle. And we’re discovering that this full spectrum includes cyber and other things that, you know, our adversaries have been able to do quite well at. And so we’re caught up not only in just the rest and recuperation from deployment into the Afghanistan and Iraq. But we’re also trying to change our warfare activities in terms of getting back to the classic air/land battle. So you’ve got all these pressures. And it does just a great blow to readiness.

KARL: All right, at this time I want to invite our members to join the conversation with questions. A reminder, this is and has been on the record. And if you could please wait for the microphone before asking the questions, and limit yourself to one question. Let’s—you’re right by the microphone—start right here.

Q: Thank you.

REED: Hey.

Q: Jim Dobbins with RAND.

Senator, what role do you see for the U.S. military in Syria and Iraq once the Islamic State has been ejected?

REED: I think the role is very limited. My sense—I was in Syria in June, and Iraq. In Iraq, it’s—we would like to—and I think Prime Minister Abadi—would like to have an American military presence. I think it would be very effective to continue the training operations and the professionalism of the Iraqi security forces. And I think also too, it—our military plays, in some respects, a role as a broker so that they can, you know, make sure that Sunni, Kurdish, Shia elements are—there’s if not equal treatment, at least fair treatment. So that, I think, is something that the prime minister wants, we want.

And the question, though, is, with the political turmoil, with the Kurdish referendum, with the popular mobilization forces, which are Iranian supported in many cases, Shia, you know, can he pull things together? There’ll be an election next year. My sense, coming back, is that this issue of U.S. presence will be part of the election campaign. It might not be the most critical issue, but it’ll be part of it. But I think that we should maintain a presence there. And I think if we do it’ll be beneficially not only to Iraq but to our regional interests.

In Syria it’s a bit more complicated. Our—we tailored a mission—an overt mission of defeating ISIS. And what’s happening is that we’ve been very successful with our forces in the north, originally predominantly Kurdish, now a rough balance between Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds. Raqqa is going to eventually, and fairly quickly, come under control. But now the battle is shifting down to the middle of Euphrates. And that’s where we’re really hitting a very difficult issue, because Russian, Iranian, and local forces are coming close to our forces and our troops. And we have to figure out what our policy is to, you know, resisting the Assad regime or not. You know, deconflicting.

We’re doing that on a case-by-case basis, but I don’t think, again, the administration has declared a policy. I think the existing policy was we want Assad to leave. I think what’s happened over the last few months, as a policy, is we recognize that this is going to be a fragmented country. We just want to make sure that it—the violence goes down, Assad will be there but we have an area that essentially the Kurds control. We’ve got an area that the Russians and the United States, a deconfliction area, around the Jordanian border. And then there’s also concerns—growing concerns in Israel of the intrusion of the Iranians and their influence on Hezbollah.

So I—the policy there has been sort of muted in terms of there’s no—you know, we’re going to—after with finish with ISIS we’re going to leave or we’re after we finish with ISIS we’re going to, you know, begin to put more pressure on the regime. I think one of the issues too that has to be adjudicated and decided by the White House is that, you know, the Syrians in the north, who the Turks are very concerned about, you know, do we support their efforts to maintain a not official but unofficial autonomous region. And that’s, I think, what they’d like. And how do we relate to them? How do we relate to Turkey? So, you know, there’s still a lot of questions. There’s no clear policy that I can see that the administration’s announced about what we’re going to do in Syria. As—there is one with respect to Iraq.

KARL: That’s the second administration in a row without a clear policy on what we’re going to—

REED: No, I—you know, if you want to define one of the more difficult problems, it’s Syria. It is a very, very difficult problem. And—but I think we do have to—you know, it would help us to have a clear policy, so we could put resource to it, we could—again, to tell our military leaders, you know, your efforts there are going to be extensive and expansive, or they’re going to be less extensive so you can begin to shift forces to other areas.

KARL: Yes, sir.

Q: So, Steve Charnovitz from George Washington University Law School.

You mentioned the question of legitimacy of the use of force. So I wanted to ask you about that. The easy case might be the term that you use, Korean missiles landing in the United States. That’s kind of the easy place. But how about the harder case? What if there are Korean missiles flown over Guam or flown over Hawaii or Korea—or North Korean missiles landing in Japan? Is it legitimate, for the United States president under domestic law in such a scenario, to use force? And would it be legitimate under international law in those nightmare scenarios for the United States to use force?

REED: Well, I will concede, I am not a legal scholar. I have a law degree, but that’s about it. (Laughter.) I think an attack against—and the question is, do you characterize a missile without a warhead going over Guam as an attack. That’s a legal question, but if that’s so then I think under international law the president would claim he has the right of self-defense, and that’s what he’s doing. One of the interesting things—and I don’t have an answer—but one of the interesting things about the Korean situation is we’re in a ceasefire. You know, we had—there was no act of Congress to authorize the operations in Korea, but the reality is we were fighting the Koreans until 1953 and this is a ceasefire. And—

KARL: We’re still at war.

REED: Well, in a technical sense, in a legal sense, I think you could find—I think what I think I discovered about lawyers, you could find an opinion about almost anything. (Laughter.) But, you know, that is a—that is a unique situation with respect to Korea. What are the legal consequences of the ceasefire? What is a violation of the ceasefire versus an act of war from another—offensive act from another country?

But my sense would be, you know, practically, is that the president would be confronted with something where there is hours or days—or a day to decide on action. That, in a practical sense, inhibits a debate. You know, to President Bush’s credit, there was a very thorough debate on Iraq. We were able to talk about it. You know, I voted against it, but it was—it was debated. And the authorization, there was no question about the legal authority. In a situation I see in Korea, it would be almost a reaction to something that happened immediately and he’s surrounded by his advisors saying: You’ve got to decide.

Then, of course, I think he could do, as most presidents do, rely upon the War Power Act, saying I am taking this action and I’m notifying Congress—even though I don’t have; they always say that—and you have six months to still tell me no. So, but I think you’ve raised a point about legal authorities and international law that is—that has not yet been fully vetted in terms of particularly this Korean situation and the peace—the ceasefire.

KARL: Yes, back here. Yeah.

Q: Hi, Senator. I’m Courtney Cooper, here with the Council.

So Afghanistan sits at the vortex of some very challenging U.S. foreign policy issues with Iran, an expansionist Russia, a muscle-flexing China. President Trump didn’t mention any of these countries in his announcement of the South Asia regional strategy in August. And I noticed that you had commented on the need to boost diplomatic engagement and regional engagement following that speech. Now that we’re coming up on 16 years of military engagement in Afghanistan next month, how do you think the administration should be thinking about engaging the region beyond just reinforcing Afghanistan, particularly when it relates to stabilizing Afghanistan, our mission, and rebuilding the regional consensus for peace there?

REED: Well, one of the key regional actors is Pakistan, I mean, obviously. And one of the president’s comments was a strong calling out of Pakistan. And again, I think, without their either active or implicit cooperation with the Haqqani Network and with others, and all of the Taliban elements within Pakistan, we, the government in Kabul, will be much more effective and able to control the country. So we have to do that. And I’ve been waiting for, as many people, some specific follow ups.

What does this mean? Does this mean—and some suggested in the past that sanctions be placed upon individuals who are cooperating—Pakistani individuals cooperating with Haqqani or with the Taliban. And, you know, we’re waiting for that. But he announced he was going to get tough with Pakistan. But that’s a very sensitive area, because their stability is not as robust as it might be. They have nuclear weapons. We don’t want those nuclear devices falling into the wrong hands, et cetera.

Then I think the other major regional actor is India. But one of the first things I discovered—I’ve been out to Afghanistan I think 16, 17 times. I went with Senator McCain January of 2002, the first CODEL to land in Afghanistan. And I was amazed because when you, you know, speak to the Afghanis, but particularly when you speak to the Pakistanis, it is India—there’s a paranoia there that, you know, is hard to understand. But it is there. And so any time that we invite the Indians into Afghanistan, that has a kind of almost a muscle memory reflex by the Pakistanis. So we’re trying to get the Indians to be more active not in terms of military but in terms of economic assistance, capacity building, et cetera. But that, again, pushes hard against the Pakistanis cooperating.

So I think what we’ve done with the increased forces, with—particularly with the air forces, is that we’ve given the opportunity for the Afghan government to reassert control over areas that the Taliban has taken. But we still haven’t got a very clear policy about what specific steps we’re going to take in Pakistan, carrots and sticks, to get them to disengage from Haqqani, to close down the safe havens. I think long term, you know, there are many more thoughtful students of counterinsurgency in the room than me, but long term it’s been very difficult to defeat a counterinsurgency when they have a safe haven. And Pakistan has been a safe haven for them for now 16 years. So it’s a partial response to a very good question. And we’re puzzling it through.

KARL: Yes, right here.

Q: Hey, Senator. Again, thanks for your service in Rhode Island, as you know, and being such a consistent voice of reason in the Senate for so many years. The question is—it hasn’t come up—is the question of the allegations concerning Russia’s interference in the elections, and a variety of their maneuvering in cyber. And I’m curious what you see your role in the Senate is to get to that issue, and what you think is appropriate responses to that problem.

REED: I think the evidence is overwhelming that they deliberately colluded with—well, that’s not the right term—

KARL: Colluded? Colluded, that’s a—

REED: They deliberately interfered in the election. I want to be very, very clear. They deliberately interfered with the election. That they went ahead and through elaborate systems of social media bots that were, you know, operating on Twitter, that was all made very clear by the intelligence community in January. In fact, Chairman McCain held the first hearing which they came forward. And that strategy’s not unique to the United States. They seem to have employed it in the French elections, interesting they didn’t seem to be as active in the German elections. Again, I don’t know why.

But we can’t accept that. That undermines basic democratic concepts. And we can’t accept that. in terms of what we’re doing on the Committee, the Intelligence Committee—and I sit there ex officio—which is a Latin term for the last person to be able to ask questions. (Laughter.) They are pursuing this, but it’s very difficult because, you know, we don’t have the same kind of access as a law enforcement official. And we’re looking at sort of policy perspectives as well as individual culpability. In fact, more policy than individual culpability.

So we’re making progress. And I must say, Chairman Brewer and Senator Warner—Vice Chairman Warner are doing a very, very good job. But it’s slow. It’s tedious. And I don’t think it’s going to reach a public conclusion for a while yet. And then, of course, we realize that Director Mueller is conducting a totally separate investigation. And that’s his province.

KARL: Do you think that Intelligence Committee investigation won’t be wrapped up by the end of the year? That this will go into next year?

REED: I think we’ll go into next year because it’s a—you know, there’s a huge amount of material to look at. And frankly, every day new aspects of the intrusions or interference become evident. Just yesterday Twitter officials were up and they were briefing staff. And Senator Warner publicly was disappointed in the kind of response and information they gave. That’s just one aspect to this. But, you know, we’ve seen the stories which—of, you know, RT, which is a Russian-funded entity where they were able to put together these documentaries that were not particularly accurate and not particularly flattering to Secretary Clinton. And they have a viewership in the United States of about 2 percent. But once you put it on the web and start hitting it with your bots, that suddenly starts trending and people start watching it. And that was done many, many times, again.

KARL: But you said two words: Culpability, and then you started collusion and you took that one back. (Laughter.) You’ve seen no evidence yet that there’s any collusion with anybody—

REED: I’ve seen—I have not seen any, no.

KARL: OK, Trump camp. OK.

REED: And that, frankly—that would be—well, from the perspective of the congressional committees, again, we’re looking at what the Russians did, how they did it, what steps will we have to take to prevent it from happening again. It is a legislative investigation. Those issues are all outside our—many times outside our purview.

KARL: In the back, Nick.

Q: Thanks, Jon. Nick Schifrin. I’m a term member and with PBS “NewsHour.”

Senator, I just wanted to go back to North Korea for a second here. Do we underestimate North Korea and the Kim regime? They’re isolated but they’re actually not backward. There’s a robust solar program there, for example. Kim is focused not only on military but the economy as well. The economy has actually increased. There are fewer defectors than there used to be. And does that lead us to miss, perhaps, that their nuclear program is more indigenous than based on external imports. And part of that, do we see—I mean, some intelligence officials seem to begin to be seeing North Koreans as slaves. They’re actually using that word. And it seems like people are setting themselves up for an argument for some kind of war of liberation. So have you heard that word being used, “slaves,” and do we underestimate what’s happening in North Korea and with the government? Thanks.

REED: Well, I think there was a presumption certainly in the ’90s, and with some reality, that this was a collapsing regime. Huge starvation, you know, not—they depended upon their sponsors, the Chinese, principally just to survive. And I think what we’ve seen over the last several years—and you’ve pointed out—is that their economy’s growing. That actually—and I was talking to somebody that was recently in Pyongyang—and, you know, there are cars. You know, it’s kind of like an artificial city. You know, they limit entry. You know, it’s not the reality of most of North Korea. But it’s much more prosperous-looking than it was even five or 10 years ago.

And I think the issue, indigenous productivity, yes. I think what’s happened was, you know, their program started years ago by literally getting things through illicit trade. Now they’ve developed expertise and it’s not surprising they’ve had scientists working on these problems. They put a high, high priority in terms of training people. And for two decades now, we’re beginning to see the results. They can do things that are indigenous. There’s one issue which we’re not aware of but it came—it’s come up about who’s manufacturing their sophisticated rocket fuel. Are they doing it, or is it being brought in? Again, that’s the example of a question we wouldn’t even be asking a few years ago. They can’t possibly do that.

So, yeah, they’re seeing that. And the question—again, all of these issues have these—they’re double bladed or double sided. Does that mean—and we’ve heard this from some—from the Chinese—that, you know, if Kim Jong-il asked his people to eat grass for his nuclear program, they would because grass was a normal substitute for their usual diet. If Kim Jong-un does it and people have been used to, you know, better, you know, hopeful and rising expectations, will they do it? That’s one of the issues that we don’t, you know, quite know. So, you know, some of the support for sanctions are that if you can target the sanctions—and it’s tricky—to start affecting the elites, people who have influence—because I don’t think he cares too much about the average North Korean who’s out farming that small piece of land someplace—but if you can start affecting the elite, that might have influence politically where he gets uncomfortable and has to make some concessions. But, you know, it’s a much more complicated country than it seems 10 years ago or so in the face of a devastating harvest and drought and everything else.

KARL: Rumsfeld used to like that satellite photo at night that showed South Korea all lit up and just a little tiny bit of light at Pyongyang. That looks different now. How different does it look?

REED: Not much different, but it’s not—I think there, back when Secretary Rumsfeld was in the department, it was much more indicative what was going on. It’s less so now. They might not have lots and lots of lights in the country, but they’ve started, you know, private farming. You know, if you—I’m told if you go into villages there will be farmers’ markets. There is—people are better fed. There’s a sense that this is a little bit better than it was. And back then not only were there no lights, there was no food, there was nothing. And so, again, it’s a more complicated target than we had 10 years ago or more.

KARL: Yes, back here. Right here. These one and two.

Q: Hi, Senator Reed.


Q: Louis Caldera. Good to see you here today.

REED: Hey, Louis. Good to see you, Mr. Secretary.

Q: Senator, I wanted to ask you about MANVI and the DREAM Act as it related to military accessions. As you know, at a time when a lot of people don’t want to serve and the services have trouble recruiting, a lot of immigrants, sons and daughters of immigrants do want to serve, and want to pay this country back through their service. The MANVI program committed to certain immigrants that they’d be able to become citizens if they served in the military. Now the Department of Defense seems to be reneging on that commitment in a number of cases. And the DREAM Act also has a component that allows young people to serve in the military, and that’s at risk. Could you please address those two issues, what you’re encouraging the Department of Defense to do, what you’d like to see?

REED: Well, we’re encouraging the Department of Defense to look or reevaluate their decision with respect to the MANVI program, because they had contracted with individuals and then they suddenly, you know, stopped the contracts. One of the issues they had was—if I recall, is just in order to fill their recruiting requirements, it was more expeditious to take American citizens because they didn’t have to go through many of the steps that these young people did.

But, you know, your point is well-taken. They want to serve. They have—and, in fact, they’d be delighted to serve. And I think we should try to encourage that, not discourage it.

With respect to the DREAMers Act, again, another example of something that you have a remarkable wealth of talent here in the country, which if we exclude we’re going to diminish our economy and we’re also going to diminish our military capabilities, because many of these people would love to serve and have already served with distinction. So we would like to move this legislative DREAMers Act. Senator Durbin has been very, very aggressive. I think Senator Graham is also involved. And, in fact, you know, the president’s position has been, you know, sort of in some respects not discouraging us from moving legislatively, which is, I think, a positive sign.

And I just—you see it everywhere. I was in a facility in Rhode Island and, you know, they were telling me, the owners, about how they’re willing to—just to give this young man, you know, a college education, pay for it, if he agrees to work with them. But they sort of said, well, he might be a DREAMer, so then they were upset. And those are, you know, businesspeople who, you know, that they want good workers. So I think we have to solve it.

And the encouraging thing is that, again, I think in the conversations with Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, the president seems to be saying, you know, if you can do that, I can support it. I hope that’s the case.

KARL: Yes?

REED: General.

Q: Sir. (Laughter.)

It’s rare to find foreign policy consensus overseas, but this administration, the last administration, Turkey, Baghdad, Iran all agreed that now was not the time for the Kurdish referendum. They thought it was something that should be delayed. Yet, the minority leader, presumably speaking for the caucus, came out two days ago and said not only was he in support of the referendum, but a full independence at this time. Can you explain that caucus position?

REED: It’s not a—well, it’s not my position—(laughter)—so I don’t think Senator Schumer presumed it would be a caucus position. It’s not.

Having been there, as I said, in June, and I came back, and we, you know, in our report alerted everyone to the fact that this referendum could have very destabilizing effects. And you know, as well as anyone because of your service that this is so complicated. One reason it’s complicated is because Kurdish forces repelled ISIS around Kirkuk. They’re holding that area, which was previously under the control of the government. There’s oil resources there. There are oil resources in the north. So what is the outline of this Kurdish independent country look like? That’s an issue. And it’s causing considerable difficulties for the prime minister, who has enough difficulties. And our State Department tried and our military leadership tried to defer this.

One sense I have is why they had the referendum, as you realized, is political turmoil in Kurdistan. The president is serving beyond his term. The parliament is not operating. I think, frankly—and I don’t say this easily—the only thing they could agree upon was they wanted to be independent. And so I think for the leadership there, this was a way to galvanize support and also give them some leverage in the negotiations.

I also—and I will double-check this—is that I believe within the Iraqi constitution regions have the right to apply for independence. And as a result, they’re saying, the political leadership, we’re just following the constitution. We’re not leaving, but we have now public approval to go to you and negotiate according to the constitution.

So I—again, I don’t think it’s the appropriate response in terms of a Kurdish referendum. It’s taken place. Now our military forces and our diplomatic forces have to work to ensure that the cooperation between peshmerga, the Iraqi security forces, and everything else continues because the fight’s not over, and that we are—we are assisting and aiding the government of Iraq, of Prime Minister Abadi, in terms of maintaining the unity of the country. So that’s my view.

KARL: All right. We have time for one more quick one. Almost out of time. Right here in the aisle.

Q: Hi, Senator. Margaux Hoar from CNA.

So the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act included some pretty significant changes to the way the Department of Defense operates. It’s been about a year now, not quite. Are you satisfied with the progress that’s been made on those changes so far? And what do you think still needs to be done?

REED: Well, I think—

KARL: One minute to answer. (Laughs.)

REED: Yeah, I have one minute, just like West Point. (Laughter.) No, sir. Yes, sir. No excuse. (Laughter.)

We are looking very closely particularly at acquisition reforms because we think that’s where some significant savings can be redeployed and—(inaudible)—can be made. We’re looking at a lot of other areas. I mean, some of the areas are moving health care, consolidating health care. So we’re looking. We expect that when we passed it it wasn’t going to be something done overnight. My sense is that they’re making progress.

And the other factor, though, too—and I’ll finalize with this—is that it’s been a slow rollout of civilian nominees. We’ve tried our best to get them confirmed and in place, but we’ve been waiting. You know, we’re still waiting formally for the secretary of the Army to come up before the committee, and that’s—so that has—that’s hampered some of the execution also.

KARL: All right. Well, thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations, fellow members, Senator Reed. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

REED: Thanks. Thanks, Jonathan.

KARL: Appreciate it.

REED: Thank you.

KARL: Thank you. (Applause.)


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