Roundtable With Traveling Press
Secretary of State
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, let me start. We’re now at the second – so look, we’re on the second stop in our swing through the Gulf states. Lots of good friends here are working with us on the campaign to defeat ISIS, our efforts to get Iran to behave like a normal nation. We also are working with our Gulf state partners on our efforts in Afghanistan on reconciliation, efforts in Afghanistan. So there are a broad range of issues that we’ll have a chance to discuss with the Emirati, Saudi leaders, the leaders in Qatar as well. Then our final two stops in Muscat and in Kuwait.
We have a message to them which is the – similar to the message that I delivered when I stopped in Cairo in my remarks, which is the United States is in fact a force for good. We want to be their partners, we want to work alongside them to achieve ends that in their countries’ best interests as well as the interests of the United States.
And then I thought I’d mention one other thing not related to the trip directly, but the world doesn’t stop when I head on the road. The activities that are ongoing in Venezuela are incredibly important. The Maduro regime is illegitimate, and the United States continues to do as we have for the now almost two years of this administration, work diligently to restore a real democracy to that country. We are very hopeful that we can be a force for good to allow the region to come together to deliver that. And the fact that Maduro decided to hold an inauguration after a sham election doesn’t change America’s direction and intent.
So with that, happy to talk about lots of things going on in lots of places. Yeah.
QUESTION: Yes. I wanted to follow up on one of the pieces of the fact sheet that went out, the goal of expelling every Iranian boot from Syria, as you all put it. Hoping to hear about how we can do this, like, kind of what the nature is there, particularly in light of the efforts to withdraw.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. So every Iranian boot on the ground is an ambitious objective.
QUESTION: Yes, it is.
SECRETARY POMPEO: But it’s ours. It is our mission. The tools we will use are broad. The fact that a couple thousand uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change. It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to continue to perform the military actions that we need to perform. But even more broadly than that, the campaign to create a better world, to allow the Iranian people to have opportunity and democracy, has lots of pieces to it – economic, financial, diplomatic for sure. We’re going to hold an important ministerial in Warsaw on February 13 and 14 where the – there’ll be dozens of countries from – I use “nearly every” because I don’t think there’s anybody from a couple of continents, but from nearly every continent. We’ll have countries from Asia, from Western Hemisphere, and certainly from the Middle East and from Africa and from Europe, all attending. And we’ll talk about lots of issues, including how it is we together can get Iran to behave like a normal nation. The same set of things I laid out in May of last year.
The coalition is big and growing, and the tools that we get from having that coalition all working together on that mission give us an opportunity to create that chance for the Iranian people.
QUESTION: It’s fair to say it’s more of a holistic effort to expel – I mean, the U.S. will not necessarily take the lead. This is kind of what you spoke about in taking a greater role.
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right. No, we – we’re happy to be an important part of it. It’s an important part of President Trump’s agenda. The nuclear proliferation risks from Iran are incredibly real. The previous arrangement that was struck was wholly inadequate to prevent those proliferation risks. And so our mission set is certainly to stop the terror regime, to stop the fighting of Hizballah and Shia militias and the Houthis, funding the Houthis in Yemen, but it has a nuclear component. And you will see in a handful of days the Iranians intend to launch a space launch vehicle, to put a space launch vehicle up. The claim is that it is to put some satellites in the air; the truth is this will be another step in their understanding of how it is you can launch an ICBM. And that’s in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and the whole world needs to come together to oppose that.
MR PALLADINO: Francesco.
QUESTION: Just in Syria, Erdogan has said that he’s willing to protect the Kurds in Syria, but not those of the YPG, who he considers as terrorists. Is that definition distinction between Kurds and YPG enough for you, or you ask them to make a more broader commitment for all the YPG, the Kurds, and people (inaudible)?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Ambassador Jeffrey is – was in Syria. He’ll travel back to Ankara, I imagine, before too long. We recognize the Turkish people’s right and President Erdogan’s right to defend their country from terrorists, and we also know that those who aren’t terrorists, those who were fighting alongside of us for all this time deserve to be protected as well. We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those – that protects the Turks from legitimate terror threats, and prevents any substantial risk to the folks who don’t present terror risks to Turkey.
I had this – I just spoke with the foreign minister of Turkey within – it’s probably been two hours now, two and a half hours ago. We had this conversation. Many details still to be worked out, but I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good outcome there.
QUESTION: You can do the distinction between terrorist and not terrorist?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I think we can. Yeah.
MR PALLADINO: Lesley, Reuters.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hi.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. Hello.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: Just back to the Kurds, what are you hearing about their discussions with Damascus? Is there any way that you – that the U.S. can somehow be involved in how those talks are negotiated, or would that – you can coordinate in any way with the Kurds? Or the other one was also: What do you think about the UAE opening an embassy, an office in Damascus? Reopening.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, reopening. Step back. Mission set: To create a political resolution in Syria that allows the millions of people – either the millions of internally displaced, or the 6 million of those who have fled the country – give the Syrian people an opportunity to create the political conditions on the ground they want. That requires taking down the violence, and it requires an enormous amount of diplomatic work led by Ambassador Jeffrey to get UN Security Council – not an American proposal, a – the world’s proposal – for what this political solution, this political process are to look like. That’s our mission set.
So every place we find countries who are working towards that end, we support them. And those who are working against that, those who are opposing the efforts to get the UN-led process to take down violence and get a political outcome in Syria, we’re working to convince them that they’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
And so you mentioned a couple things in particular. Those are tactical elements of this larger political process.
QUESTION: I mean, the Kurd – you obviously must be very worried about that kind of deal. And the question is – is kind of, what kind of deal are they trying to make?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Look, there’s a long history there, right?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
SECRETARY POMPEO: This long predates the civil war. So we need to be mindful of the histories of these peoples as well, and respectful of that. And so the political resolution that will be arrived at if this process is successful will do that. It will honor those things that the Syrian people demand be honored. There are lots of different stakeholders. There are Christians, there are Syriacs, there are Kurds, there are Arabs, there’s a complex mess and it is this political process to get all the stakeholders at the table to hash out a good solution is the American goal. And it’s been a long process, it’s been slower than we would have wished. We hope we can turn the corner here in the next couple months.
MR PALLADINO: Matt Schwartz.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, a question about your Cairo speech.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: During the campaign we heard President Trump say it was important to call radical Islamic terrorism by its name, something that President Obama never did. The Vice President has used the same terms at the 9/11 Memorial this year, September 2018. In Cairo you said “radical Islamist terrorism.” Why the difference?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Radical Islamic terror – it’s a problem. We need to stop it. I’ll say it. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Was that a conscious choice, though, “Islamic” and “Islamist?”
SECRETARY POMPEO: You are suggesting I have a better control of the English language than I actually do. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, there’s no difference there. Don’t – this is what – I just – I must tell you. When you try to create distinctions, when you try to call half a dozen “six” and say there are differences, that there’s variance in policy amongst senior --
QUESTION: There has been a lot of --
SECRETARY POMPEO: -- among senior --
QUESTION: Wait, no --
SECRETARY POMPEO: -- senior administration officials – this administration has been very clear --
QUESTION: There has been a lot of ink spilled about the difference between those two words.
SECRETARY POMPEO: This administration has been very clear we speak about radical Islamic terrorism. I’ll bet I can find a hundred times I’ve used it. If you’d like to test me on that, we can see.
QUESTION: No --
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll bet you can find it. We are very, very consistent about this. We have an understanding of what it is that has drived this threat to the United States and the world, and we are aiming to take it down, and we’ve made real progress. Rather than parsing a syllable at the end of the word, you ought to acknowledge the enormous progress we have made. Ninety-nine percent of the caliphate gone, effort underway as you sit here today to take down the remaining one percent. We’re going to do it.
QUESTION: So there was no significance to the term “Islamist” in the speech?
SECRETARY POMPEO: None.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s move on. Courtney.
SECRETARY POMPEO: None.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned the ministerial in Warsaw. We received a little bit of information about that yesterday. I’m just curious if you can tell us which countries have committed to attend, and if there are sort of deliverables that you have in mind on that.
SECRETARY POMPEO: No.
QUESTION: No? Okay.
QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.) Well, you’ll be there, right?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll be there. (Laughter.) I’ll be there. And the Poles will be there. The Poles will be there.
QUESTION: Yeah, no, thank you.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, exactly. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Will any Iranians --
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s a fine question, just – let me just answer this, I’ll come back. So it’s a fine question. As we begin to get the commitments and we get them in an early fashion, we’ll seek permission from those countries to make announcements about who’s coming. I hope in the next handful of days we can begin to share the exact number of countries. There’ll be dozens and dozens of countries that participate in this. And then the deliverables, too, we will lay out here are our objectives, here’s what we’re hoping to achieve. We’ll do that in a pretty clear way as well. You’ll see Brian Hook do that before too long.
QUESTION: Just --
MR PALLADINO: Follow up (inaudible).
QUESTION: I’m just curious, many of the countries you visited on this trip are cooperating with the U.S. on countering ISIS and also working to counter Iran through a variety of means. But there have been some issues in terms of their treatment of their own populations which may run counter to U.S. ideals. So I’m just curious about how you kind of balance those interests in your conversations, and perhaps try to urge them toward progress on human rights.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll give you an example. Maybe that’s the best way to approach the response to that question. Today we were in – I was in a complex set of conversations with my foreign minister counterpart in Turkey. We talked about lots of elements of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and part of that conversation was about the fact that we still have three locally employed Americans that are wrongfully detained. One of our NASA folks, Serkan Golge, is still detained there. And we had a conversation about this. We do each of those things in each conversation that we have, and we work towards resolving each of those issues. So it’s not an either-or proposition. We wish that every country had the commitment to human rights that the United States of America does, and we work diligently, and my entire team works diligently all across the world to drive countries in that direction.
MR PALLADINO: All right, John says “go Matt.” Matt, John. John, Matt. John, Matt. Go. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, you just – you mentioned the Maduro regime as illegitimate, and I’m wondering if you can talk us through a little bit about how you’re thinking on a response. There has – are you considering recognizing the Venezuelan opposition and their leadership as the legitimate government in Venezuela? How are you approaching that problem?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So it’s a continuation of the policy we’ve had now for coming on 18 months, I guess, since the strategy with respect to Venezuela was put into place. It’s a combination of diplomatic efforts, building out the Lima Group and likeminded nations in the region. We’ve been very successful at that. If you see the statements the countries in the region of Venezuela have made about the illegitimacy of the Maduro regime, these are historic statements, very much different than they did in previous times. We’ve used the economic tools that we have, the capacity that we have to place sanctions to prevent the Maduro regime from gaining wealth and having resources. Those are the kind of things that we have been working on and we will continue to work on, and as the situation develops we’ll make decisions about how America treats diplomatically these various entities and people down inside of the country of Venezuela.
QUESTION: But you’re not considering that right now?
SECRETARY POMPEO: We’re always looking at all of the options with respect to how we execute diplomacy and how we influence the outcome there to restore – I mean, we’ve now got – I think the number now is 3.6 million refugees out of Venezuela, another million-plus we anticipate in 2019 absent a significant change. This is a – this is going to be an enormous humanitarian crisis, an enormous burden on the region, and more than that, the suffering that will take place inside of Venezuela if we don’t restore democracy there will be enormous. And we’re aiming to do it.
QUESTION: Can I just go back to the Cairo speech for a second?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes.
QUESTION: Not surprisingly, the – many – numerous members of the former administration, which you took on, criticized in that speech, have been not – were not impressed with speech, to put it mildly. Do you – what do you make of that criticism, which was that no one really wants to hear this current administration criticize the previous one, they want to know what you are doing? Do you think that you effectively laid out the Trump administration’s strategy for the region? Do you get the sense from your interlocutors so far that they understand the coherence with which you have been saying the – particularly with the Syria withdrawal, that staying in the fight against ISIS has – do they get that? Is it your impression that they --
SECRETARY POMPEO: Let me take the last – I think there were four questions there. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: And I didn’t ask about Saudi either. I wanted to ask about Qatar in that, and if I could, then --
QUESTION: You should’ve asked about --
QUESTION: The split with Qatar, the – really, how much of a hindrance is that to the Iran campaign? (Inaudible) left --
SECRETARY POMPEO: All right, let me take – let me take a swing. We’re going to head out of here. It is the case they get it. They understand. We make decisions about for-strength troop posture. The nature, right – is it armored unit, is it infantry unit, are we going to have artillery, are we going to use air – we make decisions about our tactical operations all the time, all aimed at achieving the same mission, and yet you change, right, as you’re making determination about what’s most effective, what’s delivering, what’s not. We make those kinds of decisions all the time.
This is one of those. I think they get that. I want to go back to your second question, or maybe it was your first question, then I’ll come to your third one. Your first question was – what I tried to do in the speech, I wasn’t critical of any of those individuals. It was the ideas that underlaid the previous administration’s policies. It was their diagnosis of the problem that was all honked up. These misjudgments --
QUESTION: All what?
SECRETARY POMPEO: “Honked up.” That’s a word from Kansas. (Laughter.) It means just not quite right. I’m pretty sure it’s --
QUESTION: I’m from Buffalo, so I don’t --
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m pretty sure it’s in the diplomatic manual somewhere way back there. (Laughter.) It’s those judgments which underlaid their policies, right. If you diagnose the problem incorrectly, you get ISIS. If you diagnose the problem incorrectly, you get the Islamic Republic of Iran on the march in Damascus, in Baghdad, in Sana’a, in Beirut. This is what you get if you misdiagnose the problem. So the first part of my speech was aimed at explicating those fundamental misjudgments that were made and led to the dire situation which was – which we found when President Trump came into office. I then spent the vast majority of my set of remarks identifying how it is this administration approaches the Middle East, how important it is, how it is structurally we’re going to aim to achieve stability in the Middle East, Middle East peace – all of those things we laid out our vision for that, and importantly laid out our judgments in a different way, that said this is what we believe will lead to those right outcomes, and here’s the policies that we put in place which we hope will deliver on them.
QUESTION: Can I ask about the shutdown?
MR PALLADINO: We’re done. We’re done.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Go ahead, Nick, and then I’ll head out. I know. I’m going to get fired. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: You called for the Middle East Strategic Alliance. You mentioned that in your speech. In speaking with some officials in some of the Gulf states, particularly UAE, there’s skepticism about MESA, that it doesn’t go far enough, the defense agreement isn’t strong enough. They want a trade deal thrown in there. John Bolton tweeted about it, but from my reporting it seems like MESA in the form you intend it to be is looking less viable. What do you think? What’s your response to that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I don’t think that’s true.
QUESTION: So what would it look like? (Inaudible.)
SECRETARY POMPEO: I don’t think that’s true. We’re – there are lots of conversations. It is absolutely the case that every sovereign nation has its own views on exactly what language ought to be used, how it ought to be structured, the things we ought to do, commitments that they’re prepared to make, commitments they may well not be prepared to make. It is complicated to put together, make no mistake about it, because we’re talking about a complex agreement among a number of nations where we’re asking for significant commitments from them. But I believe that there is a path forward where there’s a set of common understandings. Now we’ve got to figure out how to deliver on the execution of the actual agreement, what that would look like and what --
QUESTION: Timeframe? I know you don’t like time --
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m not going to put timeframes on it. As quickly as we can execute it.
QUESTION: Has the shutdown hurt your diplomacy at all? Can you just give one word about what your wife is doing at the – on the trip? And on the State Department – at the State Department in general?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I – let me see, you asked a couple questions. So yes, we’re doing our best to make sure it doesn’t impact our diplomacy. We’re going to bring all the commanders in the field back to Washington next week, something we’ve had teed up for a long time. It is incredibly important that they hear directly from me about what it is my commander’s intent is, how I want them to go execute it. It’s an important opportunity for me to get in front of 180-plus of my commanders in the field and look them in the eye and describe to them what it is we’re doing and how it is I expect them to do it. So I’m very much looking forward to that.
But I’ve spoken to – I think I got to all but one of the embassies. I’ve been there not too terribly long ago, so we didn’t stop by that one again. I speak to families and the team members there. Morale is good. They understand that there are squabbles in Washington, but their mission remains, their duties continue. And they’re executing them.
And with respect to my wife’s travel, she is on an important mission as well. She is at each of those embassies. She spent this morning out at the embassy here with spouses, with family members. She met with a group of singles, I think, too. She has met with some of my counterparts’ spouses as well. So she is here on a working trip doing her best to do as you would see a military leader’s spouse do, executing – trying to help the State Department be better. So she meets with the medical officers. She’ll tour housing. She meets with the security officers. Frankly, working to say, are our officers living in the conditions that the Pompeo family would be willing to accept? What are their lives like? She will write up her thoughts and comments after that. And I wish I had time to do each of those things myself, but she is a force multiplier.
MR PALLADINO: Schools as well.
SECRETARY POMPEO: She’s gone to schools. A place she’s gone – previously in my role as CIA director, she took on a similar task. She went to places of worship. All the things that make up the lives of our families who are serving in sometimes very difficult places, she gets a chance to get out there and see how they’re living and help me understand what it is we can do to make sure that our team has everything that they need.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Really appreciate this. Thank you so much.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thanks. Thank you all very much.