QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for this honor. It’s always an honor to travel with you and have a chance to sit down with you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Delighted to do so. I’m happy to do so.
QUESTION: The latest New York Times/CBS news poll finds nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapproving of President Obama’s handling of foreign policy, including nearly a third of Democrats. This is not just one snapshot poll. If you look at the realclearpolitics.com average of major reliable polls on this subject, the handling of foreign policy, NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Fox News poll, all of them produce the identical result. So clearly, right now it is a fact that Americans are expressing disapproval of the President’s and your performance.
Are you humbled by that?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, it’s a good thing that we don’t do foreign policy by polls. That would be a tragedy and a huge mistake.
QUESTION: So are you doubting the verdict?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, no, no. Let me just finish. It is inevitable that with a certain amount of upheaval all around the world that people are going to stand back and they’re going to question it. A huge amount of what is happening is not happening because the United States is there or because the United States isn’t there; it’s happening because people in these places want something different. That’s what the Arab Spring was all about. Tahrir Square didn’t happen because of or the lack of the United States; it happened because young people wanted a new future and wanted to throw off the yoke of a dictator. Same thing in Tunisia, same thing in Syria. And the fact is that people in these regions have to make choices too.
QUESTION: The American people are expressing disapproval. Are you doubting their judgment?
SECRETARY KERRY: I understand that. I understand that.
QUESTION: Are you doubting their judgment?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I’d never doubt the judgment of the American people. But I think it’s inevitable that people will have a sense of dissatisfaction when things are in upheaval. And what I am trying to convey is that we are as involved as we ever have been at any time, in the crises of North Korea working to denuclearize, Iran to prevent them from having a nuclear weapon, Syria to help the moderate opposition to deal with a dictator who is killing his own people. These are complicated things.
QUESTION: Involved, yes. Efficacious?
SECRETARY KERRY: The American people --
QUESTION: Are you effective?
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just finish. American people also don’t want American troops going into these places to fight the wars for these people. So there are very limited tools, very limited tools. And I believe we’ve just had a huge success in being able to get chemical weapons out of Syria. I think that right now we’re working hard here in Iraq to be able to pull together a unifying government, a competent government that’s prepared to be able to try to deal with some of the issues here.
So my real test will not be what the American people make a judgment about today. It will be what they make a judgment about when we finish, and then we’ll see what the legacy is.
QUESTION: It sounds like you like the polls you like and you don’t like the polls you don’t like.
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I just don’t pay attention to polls. If I paid attention to polls, I would have quit in Iowa a long time ago. I don’t pay attention to polls.
QUESTION: We seldom hear mention of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. This may be the most successful terrorist of modern times, if measured by the acquisition of territory or cash reserves. And yet I think there are only two known authenticated photos of the guy. You’ve said recently that President Obama is benefitting from improved intelligence product from this region. Is that helping you to draw a better bead on where Mr. al-Baghdadi is and how to neutralize him? Should he be fearful?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the last thing I’m going to do is discuss intelligence in any form whatsoever.
QUESTION: Do you know where he is?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to discuss intelligence in any form whatsoever. But I would say to you that we have proven our ability to be pretty effective in the recent capture of Khatallah and we will continue to keep a thoughtful, careful approach that protects our interests and continues to make it difficult for terrorists in any part of the world to focus on the United States or on our allies and friends.
QUESTION: Should he be fearful?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to get into any of the details. I’m not – I need to – I wouldn’t even – I’m just not going to go into any details.
QUESTION: You and President Obama have both suggested that the only real surprise in ISIS’s capture of Mosul was how swiftly the Iraqi armed forces melted away. But given all that America has done and sacrificed to stand up the Iraqi armed forces over the years, given too that ISIS captured Fallujah and Ramadi in January, shouldn’t the fighting capability of the Iraqi armed forces have been precisely the kind of thing that our intelligence services and the Obama White House National Security Council should have had a much better grasp on?
SECRETARY KERRY: Until the fight is engaged, no, you don’t know the answer to that. I think in this case --
QUESTION: This was not an intelligence failure?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Jim, if somebody could have found out that leaders were going to literally betray and cave in and desert, that would have been terrific. But we don’t have people embedded in those units, and so obviously nobody knew that. I think everybody in Iraq was surprised. People were surprised everywhere.
QUESTION: But look, you said repeatedly that President Obama began, as you put it, way back in the last year adding material and support, trying to build up Iraq as the crisis has been looming.
SECRETARY KERRY: Correct.
QUESTION: Obviously, whatever steps he took, which you’ve only described vaguely, proved inadequate to prevent this current crisis from developing and now occupying so much of your and his time. So this, to a reasonable observer, will appear as either an intelligence or a policy failure, or both.
SECRETARY KERRY: I really think that having done what we have done – the United States of America – to build up a several hundred thousand person armed force in Iraq, and having created the structure that was created, but not being permitted by the Iraqi Government to keep personnel here, as you know, as a result we don’t have eyes on, we didn’t have eyes in there. That’s absolutely correct. We just didn’t. But the Iraqis didn’t even have a sense of what was happening. And they did – these are their people. They have the command structure. They were there.
QUESTION: So when we left, we left --
SECRETARY KERRY: In fact – let me just finish. When we – no, we had embassy personnel and we have military attaches and we have personnel in Iraq. But we don’t have personnel in every unit in every part of Iraq, and nor should we, as a matter of fact. I don’t think the American people want that. They don’t want Americans to --
QUESTION: But you saw Fallujah fall and you saw Ramadi fall, and what did you do about it to prevent Mosul from falling? It doesn’t seem like very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: I can give you a detailed accounting of the additional personnel and the additional effort and supplies and warnings and meetings and all those things that took place. In the end, the Iraqis are responsible for their defense, and nobody expected wholesale desertion and wholesale betrayal, in a sense, by some leaders who literally either signed up with the guys who came in or walked away from their posts and put on their civilian clothes. No, nobody expected that. That’s absolutely correct.
QUESTION: Your aides are wrapping the interview. I’d like to close on a somewhat lighter note. You once told me that you introduced John Lennon at an antiwar rally in the early 1970s. Does anything he said to you on that occasion, backstage or anything at all about that encounter with John Lennon, stay with you today? Anything you can relate?
SECRETARY KERRY: Nothing I would relate. But the whole visit stays with me, sure.
QUESTION: Are you withholding things that you could relate, or that’s --
SECRETARY KERRY: Strictly personal. Strictly personal. That’s all.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it.