SENATOR MCCONNELL: Well, good morning. I’m glad you’re here. Thank you, Neeli. And by the way, don’t you think she’s just been a shot of adrenaline to the university and to the whole community? Thank you for the wonderful job you’re doing. (Applause.)
And of course, I don’t quite know where to start with Gary Gregg. Gary will be 20 years in January. I’m not sure how long he thought he’d be here when he came, but he has grown this program beyond anything I had ever envisioned back in 1991 when we got started. And Gary, thank you for the wonderful job you’re doing, wherever you are.
MR GREGG: Over here.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: Gary. (Applause.)
Of course, the evidence of all of what Gary and the university have accomplished is on full display with our students. I understand you’re such good students you can even skip the last day of classes – (laughter) – to attend this morning’s lecture. How about that? You got them out of class.
We have graduated now over 250 young men and women. They are now taking what they learned here and making a positive impact throughout the commonwealth and around the globe.
Last month, as I think Gary has already mentioned, two of our alumni were elected to statewide office here in Kentucky. I don’t know whether you called them out or not, but Daniel Cameron, where are you? The new attorney general, stand up. (Applause.) And Mike Adams, the new secretary of state. (Applause.) We do have Democrats in this program, too. (Laughter.) They just haven’t run yet, or at least haven’t won yet, so – (laughter).
My honor this morning to present to you our Secretary of State. This is a job, as you know, that is as old as America. Thomas Jefferson was our first top diplomat. His successes include some of America’s most respected statesmen. Names you recognize like John Marshall, James Madison, and a fellow named Henry Clay all had this job – great men of enduring legacies such as George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger.
Here at the McConnell Center we already had the privilege – as I think Gary may have mentioned – to host six previous secretaries of state: George Shultz was here for the opening of the program in 1991, Madeleine Albright, Jim Baker, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton.
This morning, it’s our great honor to make it lucky number seven with the 70th United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Mike graduated at the top of his class from West Point. That’s certainly an accomplishment in any year, but wait until you hear about just a few of Mike’s classmates. One is an elected member of Congress, two serve as high-ranking members of the State Department, and one we had here at the McConnell Center a couple of months ago, the Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, all in the class of 1986 at West Point.
So this is not exactly a group of slackers. (Laughter.) But Mike rose to the very top. As a young cavalry officer, Mike was stationed in the divided German capital in the tenuous months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He stood at the edge of the Iron Curtain as a representative of our country and the forces of freedom.
Following his military service, Mike went on to Harvard Law School and an impressive career in the private sector. Answering a call to public service, he was elected in 2010 to represent Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives. There he became a well-respected member of the Intelligence Committee. So when President-elect Donald Trump announced Mike’s nomination to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, he was confirmed with bipartisan support, which these days is a little unusual. (Laughter.)
Now, leaving the bright lights of the House for the shadows of the clandestine services must have been quite a culture shock. Mike was forced to take the cloak room – trade the cloak room for the cloak and dagger. (Laughter.) But he succeeded there too and quickly won the confidence of our nation’s intelligence professionals and our Commander-in-Chief. Mike regularly delivered the President’s Daily Briefing and became a brilliant and trusted counsel on some of America’s most sensitive matters. We later would learn that that included conversations with North Korea on denuclearization, a bold effort to advance the cause of peace in the world.
With this record, it’s no wonder President Trump turned to Mike when he needed a new secretary of state. Mike moved to Foggy Bottom and left the CIA in the hands of a very capable Kentuckian, and a fellow U of L graduate, Director Gina Haspel, who has also been here at the McConnell Center.
As Secretary of State, Mike is the leading voice for American foreign policy. He oversees more than 76,000 personnel working at embassies and diplomatic missions around the globe, and like his 69 predecessors, he is tasked with promoting our nation’s values and ideals abroad. Whether that’s supporting human rights and democracy in Hong Kong, countering Putin’s aggression by strengthening NATO, promoting our enduring relationship with Israel, or standing strong against Iranian bad behavior – whatever the situation, we can all rest assured that Secretary Mike Pompeo is on the job.
Just last month, Mike went back to Berlin, this time not as a soldier but as our number one diplomat. He joined the celebration of 30 years since the fall of the Wall, and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe. Once again, he represented the indispensable role of America’s leadership in the world, one that speaks for free people and a shared global prosperity.
I am glad to have him as a partner. I am so pleased he’s here today. Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary of State. (Applause.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you all very much. Good morning. It’s great to be here. You have beautiful weather down here in Kentucky. (Laughter.)
Senator McConnell, thank you so much for that gracious introduction. It is – Senator McConnell has truly been a great partner of mine, of the State Department, of the Central Intelligence Agency, in his role as the leader in the United States Senate.
It’s great to be back in Kentucky. You know politicians always talk about being back, but this is true. I was stationed down at Fort Knox not once, but twice. I know every bar in Elizabethtown. (Laughter.) It’s been a couple decades, but I’ll bet I could still find them. (Laughter.)
I do want to thank, too, the McConnell Center and the University of Louisville for having me here. It’s difficult to come on campus. The last time I interacted with the University of Louisville, you were beating my Wichita State Shockers in the Final Four in Atlanta. (Laughter.) I am not emotionally over it. (Laughter.) And so if I struggle today, you now know why.
It’s great to be here. As a former soldier too, I want to thank you for your Army Leadership Development Program here, and I especially commend your emphasis on civic education. I see all these great leaders in uniform. It reminds me of the first campaign commercial. The person putting it together said, “Hey Mike, why don’t you get in your uniform?” And my wife said, “He might be able to fit in his boots.” (Laughter.) So go look it up. Boots. It’s a great campaign commercial.
And to those of you who are here as students, great. I understand Senator McConnell said you’re missing class today. Is that right? You’re welcome. (Laughter.) But I’m glad you’re part of this program. It represents the finest of the American tradition, and it’s part of the reason that I am here today as well.
It’s part of my duty as America’s top diplomat to explain to Americans how the State Department and the work that we do benefits each and every one of you every day. And it’s important, too, that I get a chance to hear from Americans outside of Washington, and I’ll do that when I get a chance to meet with some of you just after that. I also come out here to recruit. State.gov – go check it out. It’s a great place to work and serve America. So I’m on a recruiting mission here in Kentucky as well.
Back in May, I spoke at a place called the Claremont Institute out in California. I used those remarks to talk about President Trump’s vision for American foreign policy, and I told that group that President Trump is within the American tradition, but is staring at this from the perspective of how the Founders thought about American foreign policy. There were three central ideas if you go back and read.
First was this idea of realism. You have to stare at the problem set as it is, not as you wish it were to be.
The second idea is restraint: understanding that we live in this unbelievably exceptional nation. We have an enormous privilege as American citizens, and we have a special role to play in that world; but our power is not limitless, and sometimes we must make difficult choices. And I’ll talk about that a little bit more this morning.
And the third idea is respect: respect for our American principles and how other nations choose to run their affairs inside of their own countries.
And I want to talk about that today in the context of a place that gets too little attention from us here in the United States, and it’s the work that we do here in the Western Hemisphere, the place that we all live. I looked at the list of where my previous – where the previous secretaries of state has traveled, and too often there was neglect to the places most close to us.
I want to start with the big picture in Latin America.
In just the last few years, we’ve seen some truly remarkable things. Many nations have made a sharp turn towards democracy and capitalism, good government, away from dictatorship and socialism and the corruption that has been endemic in some of those countries.
You see this just in the past few weeks. The Bolivians are rebuilding their democracy even as we sit here today. No one in the region any longer believes that authoritarianism is the way forward, that it’s the right path, whether you stare at the people in Cuba or in Nicaragua or in Venezuela. They all can see the path forward is different from what they have been living.
When I was in Chile back in April, we saw how people there used their new democratic power for good causes. In July, nations of the region got together and began their first concerted effort to combat terrorism. Argentina designated Hizballah as a terrorist organization – first time ever that they had contemplated something like that.
Regional multilateral organizations too, like the Organization of American States and the Lima Group are members of a treaty called the Rio Treaty. They have taken the lead. They have allowed America to be the supporting effort in helping the Venezuelan people move towards achieving their desire for freedom, liberty, and to simply take care of their own families.
It was the summer, just a few months ago, when the Organization of American States put out its first ever statement affirming the right to religious freedom, something this administration has taken to heart and worked on tirelessly.
And Bolivia, as I said before, appointed its first ambassador to the United States in over a decade.
There is more democratic cooperation in our hemisphere today than at any point in history, and we’re proud of the fact that we have been a part of helping them get to that place.
We do this for a couple of reasons. This gets to how President Trump thinks about the world.
We support it because people should be free to exercise their unalienable right to self-government.
We support it because political freedom goes hand in hand with economic freedom, and economic flourishing, and trade with these nations benefits the people here in Kentucky and all across America.
And we support it, too, because it’s simply the right thing to do.
Authoritarian regimes don’t go easily, however. Take a look at Maduro; he’s hanging on today. He rules Venezuela, but will never again govern it. But make no mistake, he and other dictators like him will work to continue to suppress their people.
Cuba, too, has tried to hijack legitimate democratic protests in its country and in the region to drive them towards their ideologic ends. Colombia has closed its border to Venezuela out of concern that protesters from – terrorists from Venezuela might enter.
And the Maduro regime continues not to place any value on human life and human suffering, and their current lawful president, Juan Guaido, is working diligently to achieve that freedom for their people.
You see, too, malign interference in the region. We’ve worked tirelessly to push back against it. Today, in Venezuela, Rosneft, which is Russia’s state-backed oil company, continues to prop up the corrupt and illegitimate Maduro leadership. They take billions of dollars out of the Venezuelan economy each and every year.
We’ve tried to drive with moral and strategic clarity the recognition that authoritarianism in our hemisphere is a threat – it’s a threat to us here in the United States. We cannot tolerate these regimes inviting bad actors in, and trying to turn allied democracies into dictatorships. Indeed, the Maduro regime has permitted Iranians to come into their country, posing an even greater threat here to the United States. And we’ve done so in a way that’s been realistic, within the capacity of the American power to achieve the ends that we’re seeking to achieve.
So what did we do? We rolled back the Obama administration’s cuddling up to Cuba by applying heavy new sanctions. We’ve recognized that engagement has not improved Cuba’s regime, it hasn’t made it better; the human rights record was worse, the risk to the Cuban people was worse, and the risk to the United States was worse, and their capacity to influence Venezuela even greater. So we’ve changed that.
We’ve allowed Americans to seek justice by suing the regime in Havana to recover property that it stole a long time ago. It only makes sense when Americans had their stuff stolen to give them a chance to get it back.
And we’ve applauded countries that have expelled Cubans who have come to live as doctors inside of their borders, who were really working on behalf of the government. These doctors – this was a program that’s hard to fathom sometimes. They sent doctors to countries all around the world. They traffic to generate income for the Cuban leadership. So the doctors receive 10 or 20 percent of the revenue that they generate, and the rest goes to fund the Cuban regime.
We see these tyrants in the region for what they are, and we craft policies to confront them, not to appease them.
And this really gets to the second point. Our policy on Venezuela is mixed with restraint.
We’ve seen folks calling for regime change through violent means, and we’ve said since January that all options are on the table to help the Venezuelan people recover their democracy and prosperity. That is certainly still true.
But we’ve learned from history that the risks from using military force are significant, so we’ve instead worked to deprive Maduro and his cronies of oil revenue that goes to the – that should go to the Venezuelan people in the regime’s pockets.
We’ve been ruthless in attacking the drug cartels that traffic drugs into the United States out of Venezuela.
And we built a coalition. This administration has often talked about going it alone. We built a coalition of 57 other allies and partners to maximize both the economic and political pressure that we’ve put on the regime.
And I was talking with Secretary Baker in celebration of 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He reminded me that there are critiques that say, well, Maduro is still there. You’ve been working on this for months and months and he’s still there. And he reminded me that Eric Honecker was still in East Germany until the day that he was not. And there were articles in the months leading up to that glorious event for freedom across the world that, too, if we do it right and do it well and represent American values, that Maduro, too, will fall.
In July of 1989, Nicolae Ceaucescu said capitalism would come to Romania “when apples grew on poplar trees.”
And by December he was hanging from a rope. The end will come for Maduro as well. We just don’t know what day.
Our patience, too, can be seen in Nicaragua, where President Trump is working on economic sanctions to restore democracy there. And this demands some level of consistency and relentlessness, and the American people should know that the Trump administration will continue to be relentless.
Secretary Baker reminded me too that in 1950, people were questioning why America hadn’t yet succeeded in bringing down the Soviet Union. Then, one day in 1991, it was also gone. The end came slowly, and then it came really fast. Unending pressure and sensible restraint was the right combination then, and I’m confident that it is now as well.
Lastly, our foreign policy is built on respect. It’s respect for our principles as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and respect for how our neighbors and allies run their affairs.
President Trump knows too that a poorly secured border violates Americans’ enjoyment of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It undermines the rule of law, compromises security, it enables human trafficking, and the President’s taken on these problems. That’s a basic respect for American ideals.
One of the diplomatic successes that I’m most proud of is delivering on that obligation in partnership with Mexico and countries throughout South America. It is diplomacy undergirded by frank talk, by respect between neighbors and friends.
We simply ask Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to do more inside of their own country to stop the flow of illegal immigration coming towards Mexico and to the United States. We had to cut off some foreign assistance to show that we were serious.
But we didn’t tell them how to run their country to address it. We just insisted that they be good neighbors, and look at the results.
I’m pleased to say we’ve taken in each of those countries important steps.
For example, thanks to an amazing new leader in Ecuador¹ – President Bukele – detentions of Salvadorans illegally trying to enter the United States are down 80 percent. That’s really good work on his part. And our relationship with El Salvador is stronger for it. We’ve returned foreign assistance; we will help the El Salvadorians be successful and build out their own great country.
In that same vein of respect, we’ve told our friends that predatory Chinese activities can lead them to deals that seem attractive, but in the end are bad for their people, bad for their own nation.
But we don’t try to stop them from doing business with the Chinese Communist Party. We work with them to strengthen their systems, to strengthen transparency, to help them understand the threats that face their country from doing deals where the Chinese loan them money and then foreclose on important assets inside of their country. That’s respect. We let each leader make its own decisions, but we do our work to help support them.
In Haiti, as it’s tried to form a government and overcome instability, we have offered a helping hand. Here in our hemisphere, the United States has not rushed in with solutions forced in Washington; we have provided assistance.
We’ve told the new Argentine Government that we’re ready to work with them despite not seeing eye-to-eye on significant foreign policy issues. That’s respect.
And finally, it means respecting people’s yearning to be free – we know this here in the United States – ensuring that religious freedom can be had all across the world, that economic rights are protected, helping them seize honest opportunities for prosperity in their own countries.
We have seen protests in a number of nations – in Bolivia, in Chile, in Colombia, and in Ecuador. Those protests reflect the character of legitimate democratic governments and democratic expression inside of their countries. Governments should respect that, the way democracies do.
We are so blessed here. America remains the greatest example in democracy in the history of the world.
And so we in the Trump administration will continue to support countries trying to prevent Cuba and Venezuela from hijacking those protests.
And we’ll work with legitimate governments to prevent protests from morphing into riots and violence that don’t reflect the democratic will of the people.
And we’ll be vigilant too. Vigilant that new democratic leaders don’t exploit people’s frustrations to take power, to hijack the very democracy that got them there. That’s the kind of respect that we owe to other governments, for people, so that they can have democracy in their own nations.
I’ll end here. So I want to spend – leave plenty of time for questions.
I’m proud of what we’ve done in the region. There remains an awful lot of work to do in our own backyard, in our own hemisphere. The good news is that the sun of democracy is dawning in many places close to us.
Whatever its day brings, we’ll approach it with our friends in a spirit of realism and restraint and support for the peoples of our region.
Thank you, and God bless you. God bless Kentucky. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you for having me. (Applause.)
SENATOR MCCONNELL: Well, we thought we’d have a little discussion here, and I think a good place to start is Hong Kong. Back in 1992, I introduced a little bill called the Hong Kong Policy Act. This was five years before the handover back to the Chinese from the British. Not a very important bill certainly in this country, but it was noticed out there because it required the State Department to make an annual report about whether the Chinese after the handover were sticking to the deal they made with the British, which is supposed to hold up for 50 years. Well, we’ve certainly witnessed a lot of unrest in Hong Kong here, and just the other day we did an update of the Hong Kong Policy Act. It passed overwhelming in the House and Senate, and President Trump signed it.
It strikes me, Mr. Secretary, that this could be President Xi’s worst nightmare, that this view that being able to express yourself and maybe being able to elect your own leaders would metastasize into the mainland. What is your take on what’s going on in Hong Kong and the Chinese Government’s reaction to it?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Leader McConnell, you’ve been at this issue in Hong Kong for an awfully long time, and thanks for handing me the requirement to certify. Now that’s great, put it in my lap. (Laughter.) Deeply appreciative.
Look, the issue in Hong Kong is pretty straightforward. I think you articulated it pretty well. You have a people that is desirous of having the Chinese Communist Party live up to the promise that it made back in 1997. It’s a ratified treaty that sits at the United Nations. They talked about having one country, but two systems and their obligation to honor that. And our efforts are to make sure that those weren’t empty promises that were made to the people of Hong Kong.
The Chinese Communist Party owes it to those people to live up to those commitments that they made, and you see the people of Hong Kong demanding that. You see American flags flying at these protests. They want what you all want, what our next generation of Americans want: They want freedom, the chance to raise their families, to practice their faith in the way that they want. Those are – the commitment to permitting that was made by the Chinese Communist Party. It was to go for 50 years. We still have decades left in that, and the United States stands firmly in support of asking the Chinese leadership to honor that commitment, asking everyone involved in the political process there to do so without violence, and to find a resolution to this that honors the one country, two system policy that the Chinese leadership signed up for.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: You mentioned in your remarks protests around the world. You have mentioned, and on other occasions and others of us have, protests going on in places like Iran and Lebanon. What’s behind all of this? What’s your take on the level of unrest, particularly in an adversary like Iran?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I’m not sure you can draw a line between all the protests in all of the different places that is direct other than each place that you find these protests, you see people who are living under authoritarian regimes and demanding a fundamental change.
In the Middle East, what you see taking place is the Iraqi prime minister resigned within the last 48 hours. He did so because the people were demanding freedom and the security forces had killed dozens and dozens of people. That’s due in large part to Iranian influence there.
The same is true in Lebanon. The protests in Beirut are a desire for the people of Lebanon. It’s people of all religions. You have Christians, Sunni Muslims, you have people from all across Lebanon just demanding basic autonomy for the nation. They want Hizballah and Iran out of their country, out of their – out of their system as a violent and repressive force inside of their country. The same thing is happening in Baghdad.
And the protests in Iran itself in 90-plus cities are taking place because the Iranian people are fed up. They see a theocracy that is stealing money. The ayatollah is stealing tens and tens of millions of dollars, putting it in his own pocket, money that should go to provide resources for the Iranian people. And they just – it’s – they say enough and they’re demanding these basic rights.
Our role in all of this is to support freedom wherever we are able to do so, to create transparency so that the world can see. In Iran, the reporting indicates that there are several hundred people who have been killed by the security forces, thousands detained inside of Iran, and to stand up and say that’s not right, these people are simply asking for a basic set of freedoms, and the Iranian leadership – that regime should change in a way that reflects the desires of their own people.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: The administration made an important decision, in my view that I supported, to withdraw from the previous administration’s Iran nuclear deal. To what extent are the Europeans resisting following our lead on that – in that decision? And the sanctions that the administration has levied against Iran, how effective have they been so far?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So the previous administration chose Iran to be its primary security partner in the Middle East. We thought that was a fundamentally flawed proposition. The Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, was a central part of that. Its stated goal was to deter Iran from being able to have a nuclear weapon system, when, in fact, it was a guarantee that there was a glide path for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.
And so President Trump made the decision to withdraw from it. That had a number of salutatory effects. The first is it stopped funding the regime in Iran. We all saw the $150 billion that was transferred there, but they permitted European countries to trade in Iran, creating wealth, creating money that underwrote Hizballah in Lebanon, underwrote Shia militias in Iraq, that underwrote assassination campaigns in Europe. And now the Iranian regime has fewer resources to conduct that terror campaign and to build out their nuclear systems, to do R&D on weapons or whatever it is they might be desirous of achieving.
The Europeans chose a different approach, a fundamentally different approach. They have stayed inside of the nuclear deal. We have encouraged them to move away from that. We don’t think it’s productive. The United States has reimposed sanctions. The Europeans have chosen not to do that. The good news is, in spite of what the world told President Trump, that American sanctions would not work, the world was wrong. These sanctions have been incredibly effective. Iran’s wealth will decrease materially in 2019 from 2018, and again in 2020 from 2019. And their ability to trade with the rest of the world is also greatly diminished.
This is not to impact the Iranian people. There is plenty of money for the Iranian people. If the ayatollah can underwrite a missile program, centrifuges spinning to create nuclear systems, to underwrite Hizballah in Lebanon, to underwrite fighters that are traveling to Latin America – if the Iranian regime has that much money and wealth, it has plenty of money to take care of its own people. And we’re simply – we’re simply doing this to keep America safe, to keep the Middle East more stable, and to enable the Iranian people to convince the regime that it needs to change its ways in the most fundamental and basic way, to just ask Iran to behave like a normal country.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: The President called me this morning about matters unrelated to foreign policy but mentioned he was headed to England, and I assume you are as well. What do you anticipate will come out of this upcoming NATO meeting?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, I’ll leave here in Louisville to London direct.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: Yeah.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes. So it’s an important set of meetings. We’re actually celebrating 70 years of NATO. It’s the 70th anniversary. That’s a pretty – a pretty cool deal. This has been an important force for good and freedom all throughout the world for all the post-war period now, 70 years.
President Trump came in saying we wanted to make sure that NATO was fit for purpose, that it still worked after 70 years, that its focus was right, and my team and the Department of Defense have worked with our NATO partners to ensure that.
So what have we done? First, we’ve made sure that we were addressing the proper challenges. So it was created to fight the Soviet Union and to be a security alliance to oppose the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is no more; Russia remains. But the nature of the threat from Russia has changed too. There is now an enormous cyber component to the threat from Russia. We need to make sure that NATO is prepared to confront that challenge.
It’s also the case that China – we no longer have geographic boundaries on our threats. China poses an enormous risk to NATO too, trying to infiltrate NATO systems, NATO communications and technology, all of the things that China would want to do to empower itself at the expense of our transatlantic partners. And so NATO needs to be prepared to do that as well.
NATO has also taken on an increased role in fighting terrorism. There are NATO forces in Afghanistan today and around the world working to counter terrorism. So the threat has changed, and it’s important that NATO reflect that and be fit for purpose for 2020.
The second thing the President was intensely focused on was making sure that it wasn’t American bearing too great a burden connected to that. And so President Trump asked these countries to do the simple thing of honoring a promise that they’d made. Every one of the NATO countries made a promise that they would percent – spend 2 percent of their own country’s GDP on defense. That wasn’t an American promise. This was a promise that each of those 28 nations made.
Some of them have lived up to that; some of them are struggling to find a way to do so. And we’re going to go encourage them to do that and do it more quickly. The good news is since President Trump took office about $130 billion more has been spent by those countries in support of their own security and the collective security of the transatlantic alliance, another $350 or $450 billion will be spent in the upcoming years, all due to President Trump’s focus on wanting every country to be a full and fair participant, to share the burden of our collective defense.
Those will be the topics we talk about, and then we’re going to spend a fair amount of time talking about the great history and tradition and the successes that NATO and the NATO countries have had over these past seven decades.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: The one country in the world that Americans tend to follow and pay the most attention to is our friend Israel, and we’ve observed as they’ve gone through two elections and been unable so far to form a government.
I know we don’t dabble in these kind of internal decisions in another country, so that’s not my question.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: But do —
SECRETARY POMPEO: I appreciate that. (Laughter.)
SENATOR MCCONNELL: Do Israel’s adversaries in a period of uncertainty like this conclude that it’s a time for mischief or do they think the government, in spite of all the sort of Western-leaning democratic chaos, is prepared to respond no matter what’s happening politically internally in Israel?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, that’s a good question. My observation is that those who might seize upon this opportunity know that Prime Minister Netanyahu is still the prime minister, and that any threat to Israel would be met in the way that Prime Minister Netanyahu has consistently made defense of Israel a real priority. You saw this, frankly, a few weeks back when there were attacks into Israel out of Syria. It was still during a time when there was a political challenge inside of the Israeli Government, and Prime Minister Netanyahu took serious action to respond to that. So I don’t think anybody sees this moment of political transition in Israel and them working through their democratic processes as an opportunity to create risk for Israel. I know the United States stands prepared to do everything we need to do to support Israel as it works its way through this government-formation process.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: I’m told we have one more question, and I’m going to go around to a totally different place in the world that’s of special interest to me, and that’s —
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s a Louisville question. Here it comes. (Laughter.)
SENATOR MCCONNELL: It’s Burma.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: Yeah, I had a longstanding note-passing relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi for two decades while she was under house arrest, and have watched with great interest the attempt to evolve from a military dictatorship into something more Western-leaning, open to commerce, elections, all the rest. But there seems to be some backsliding, and she’s been under a lot of criticism for not basically standing up to the military and reacting more aggressively to the Rohingya atrocities that occurred, and people have been taking away honorary degrees that they gave her. She came here, by the way, to the McConnell Center in 2012 on her first trip to the U.S. What’s your take on Aung San Suu Kyi? Is she making a – sort of a practical decision that she can’t take on the military successfully? And she’s enduring a total loss of status around the world because she hasn’t done something that she may conclude would only lead her to lose power.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So she is in a very difficult position. It is a very complex situation. I think you characterized it precisely right. Those are the two polar ends of the choices that she faces there. From the United States perspective, we don’t choose leaders, we choose good outcomes. And so our efforts there have been to put pressure on the Burmese military. You’ve seen us sanction Burmese military leaders. The previous administration refused to do that. We’ve said these are the really bad actors. These are the – in this case, men – who are engaged in activities that would frighten us all and we all know are deeply abhorrent to our way of life here. So we’ve sanctioned them to put pressure on the military to change its ways, to try and protect the innocent there that have suffered so much. And then we’ve tried to provide – I’ve met with my counterparts there, tried to provide them assistance to try and help them through, but the military has got an awful lot of power and she is facing a true conundrum.
Our hope, our expectation is that she will engage in every activity that she can to try and drive the right outcomes, outcomes that I believe in her heart she wants for her country and for her people to drive them in the right direction.
It’s not unusual. We’ve seen this in transitional governments where you have a set of armed military forces under the control or quasi under the control of those outside of government, and a government apparatus trying to get to the right place for their own people, and leaders that are trying to bridge that gap, to get in the right direction to push back against the military. Iraq is a good example of that, right, the Iraqi leaders trying to push back against these Iranian militias who are denying sovereignty for the Iraqi people. All they really want is to have a free, independent, sovereign Iraq, and yet you’ve got Iranian arms and Iranian military driving inside of that country.
And so we watch the leaders. We are continually disappointed in them that they have not done more. But we also recognize they’re in a difficult place, trying to maintain enough influence and capacity to begin to push in the right direction. I think Aung San Suu Kyi is very much in that same place.
SENATOR MCCONNELL: Join me in thanking the Secretary of State.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you all. (Applause.)
¹ El Salvador