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NBC's "Meet the Press" interview with Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
April 11, 2010
                Q    (David Gregory, NBC) Secretary Clinton, let's talk about the nuclear issue. So you've got critics on both sides of this decision -- those who think that it goes too far, weakens America -- those who think it doesn't go far enough. So if this nuclear disarmament decision represents middle ground? Is it enough to make the world safer?
               
                SEC. CLINTON: It certainly is and I know that this is a very important issue that I thank you for discussing with us because the president's position is very clear. We will always protect the United States, our partners and allies around the world. Our nuclear deterrent will remain secure, safe, and effective in doing so. But we also think we will ultimately be safer if we can introduce the idea that United States is willing to enter into arms treaties with Russia, to reduce our respective nuclear arsenals, and that we're going to stand against nonproliferation in a way that will perhaps deter others from acquiring nuclear weapons. And so we have to look at the entire package -- Nuclear Posture Review, the new START treaty, and the Nuclear Security Summit.
               
                Q     But Secretary Gates, this is not about the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. anymore. It's not about the U.S. and Russia anymore. And the critics, what they've seized on is this idea that American nuclear power -- muscle -- is ultimately what has deterred aggressors in the past. So as you look at this posture review -- disarmament decision -- how does this deter a country like Iran or North Korea from, you know, going away from their nuclear ambitions?
               
                SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we have still a very powerful nuclear arsenal. The Nuclear Posture Review sets forth a process by which we will be able to modernize our nuclear stockpile to make it more reliable, safer and more secure and effective. We have, in addition to the nuclear deterrent today, a couple of things we didn't have in the Soviet days. We have missile defense now and that's growing by leaps and bounds every year, significant budget increase for that this year, both regional and the ground-based interceptors, and we have prompt global strike, affording us some conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn't have before. So, believe me, the chiefs and I wouldn't -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I would not have wholeheartedly embraced not only the Nuclear Posture Review but also the START agreement if we didn't think at the end of the day it made the United States stronger, not weaker.
               
                Q     But it still doesn't answer the question of if you're an Iran or North Korea and you've been proliferating even after disarmament started between the U.S. and Russia, what's to stop them from continuing down that path just because of this posture?
               
                SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think it puts us in a much stronger position in terms of going to other countries and getting their support for putting pressure on the Iranians and the North Koreans. I think it also has potentially a deterrent effect on other countries who might be potential proliferators as they look at North Korea and Iran.
               
                Q     What is, Secretary Clinton, the bottom-line threat of all these missiles around the world getting into the hands of terrorists?
               
                SEC. CLINTON: It's a serious threat, David, and that's why the president has convened this Nuclear Security Summit starting Monday. We often say that the threat of nuclear war as we used to think about it during the Cold War has actually decreased, but the threat of nuclear terrorism has increased. And by that we mean that there's a lot of nuclear material that is not as secure. It hasn't been destroyed. 
               
                It isn't under lock and key in many places in the world, particularly in the former Soviet Union but not exclusively there. We know that terrorist groups, primarily al Qaeda, persist in their efforts to obtain enough nuclear material to try to do something that would cause just such mass havoc and terror and damage and destruction that it would be devastating.
 
                And we know that a lot of countries haven't until relatively recently seen the threat as we see it. You know, remember, we've been working for 18 plus years to diminish the threat in a partnership with Russia and we've worked -- when my husband was president we started working with some of the nations that were a part of Soviet Union to get their nuclear material out. But this hasn't been a high international priority and that's what we intend to make it starting this week.
    
                Q     Let me talk to a related topic and that is trying to deter Iran from building a nuclear weapons program. Secretary Gates, is the notion of Iran becoming a nuclear power inevitable at this point? Is the strategy of the U.S. government becoming more and more containment?
    
     SEC. GATES: No. We have not -- we have not made that -- drawn that conclusion at all and in fact we're doing everything we can to try and keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. We have -- we're probably going to get another U.N. Security Council resolution and that's really -- I mean, it's important but it's all -- in its own -- in its own right in terms of isolating Iran but it's also important in terms of a legal platform for organizations like the E.U. and individual countries to taking the more stringent actions against Iran. At the end of the day what has to happen is the Iranian government has to decide that its own security is better served by not having nuclear weapons than by having them and it's a combination of economic pressures, it's a combination of more missile defense and cooperation in the Gulf to show them that any attack would -- we can defend against and react against. So I think it's a combination of all of these different options in terms of trying to convince the Iranians that they're headed down the wrong path.
    
                Q     Secretary Clinton, it raises to me a larger question about the U.S. role in the world. This president tried engagement as he came into office -- engagement with the Iranians, engagements with the North Koreans. It hasn't worked. They don't want to talk. They don't want to dance with this president. So what is the next phase then? What is America's influence in the world?
    
     SEC. CLINTON: Well, David, I would argue because the president was willing to offer engagement, we actually have more support vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran than was certainly present when he became president. The fact that Iran and North Korea have not responded makes our case, in a way, and if you look at North Korea, for example, we now have a very clear understanding with the other members of the Six-Party Talks led by China that North Korea cannot be permitted to just go on its own course -- that it has to be pressured to come back into this framework to try to get to the denuclearization of the peninsula. 
               
                With Iran, a lot of countries were on the sidelines. Their attitude was well, the United States, you know, they're just hurling insults -- they're not really, you know, willing to have any diplomatic engagement. We said okay, fine -- we're willing. We stretched out our hand. The president made extraordinary efforts. It was the Iranians who refused. That has brought more people to the table. We have unity in what's called the P-5 Plus 1 -- the permanent members of the U.N. plus Germany. They are meeting in New York as we speak to begin the hard process of coming up with the language of the resolution.
               
                Q     So you don't think the U.S. would have to go -- go it alone on sanctions before bringing others?
               
                SEC. CLINTON: No, not at all.
               
                Q     Before going to the United Nations?
               
                SEC. CLINTON: No. I think --
               
                Q     Because you don't have results yet. You say there's been all this unity but there's been missed deadlines and you still don't have results.
               
                SEC. CLINTON: Well, but, you know, David, I have -- I'm a big believer in strategic patience. I mean, you know, if we -- if we could wave a magic wand and get everybody to move like we could -- but that's never been the case in the world. You work through persuasion. You present evidence. We have been consistently doing so. And as Secretary Gates just said, the Security Council resolution will not in any way forestall us or the E.U. or other concerned countries from taking additional steps but it will send a really powerful message. The Iranians have been beating down the doors of every country in the world to try to avoid a Security Council resolution. And what we have found over the last months, because of our strategic patience and our willingness to keep on this issue, is that countries are finally saying, you know, I kind of get it. I get that they didn't -- they didn't cooperate, they're the ones who shut the door, and now we have to do something.
 
                Q     Is a nuclear-capable Iran as dangerous as a nuclear state of Iran?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: Well, clearly, weapons are more dangerous than potential. Potential is troubling too. 
 
                Q     Are they capable now?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: They're -- you know, that's an issue upon which intelligence services still differ. But our goal is to prevent them from having nuclear weapons.
 
                Q     Secretary Gates, I want to ask you about --
 
                SEC. GATES: I'd say that it's our judgment here --
 
                Q     Yes.
 
                SEC. GATES: -- they are not nuclear-capable.
 
                Q     They are not nuclear-capable.
 
                SEC. GATES: Not yet.
 
                Q     And is that just as dangerous as being a nuclear state, to your mind?
 
                SEC. GATES: Only in this respect: How you differentiate, how far -- how far have they gone. If they -- if their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled? So it becomes a serious verification question. And I don't actually know how you would verify that. 
 
                So they are continuing to make progress on these programs. It's going slow -- slower than they anticipated, but they are moving in that direction. 
 
                Q     We've been talking about our foes, I want to talk about our friends because I think a lot of Americans are troubled by some of our relationships with our friends in the world right now. 
 
                Hamid Karzai, who is the leader of Afghanistan, has done some things recently. He's tried to establish control over what was supposed to be an independent election commission; he invited the Iranian leader to Afghanistan in a move that seemed to -- try to embarrass the U.S.; he talked about the U.S. trying to dominate Afghanistan; and now he made threats, apparently, to join the Taliban.
 
                I think a lot of people are fair in wondering why the American forces should fight and die for a people represented by a guy like this?
 
                SEC. GATES: Well -- oh, go ahead.
 
                SEC. CLINTON: No, go ahead, Bob.
 
                SEC. GATES: I -- first of all, I think you have to see this guy as, first of all, the president of Afghanistan and of a sovereign country. And when there are attacks on him, on his family and what he perceives to be on Afghanistan itself, or insults to the sovereignty of Afghanistan, he's going to react, and he's going to react strongly.
 
                The fact is, on a day-to-day basis, speaking from our perspective, he has a very effective working relationship with General McChrystal. He has cooperated with General McChrystal in going down to Kandahar, to begin to set the stage as the Kandahar campaign gets under way, in talking to the local tribal leaders and so on.
 
                So I think -- I think we have to understand the pressures he's under, but at the same time, understand their sensitivity. This is a country that has been at war for almost two generations. They have had armies come in and leave, and who have paid no attention to Afghan sovereignty. We are working very hard at that. We have to work as hard in our rhetoric as we are in our actions.
 
                Q     So do we -- is the message here: Don't overreact to some of this?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: Absolutely. You know --
 
                Q     Did you not overreact when you spoke to him on the phone?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: I certainly didn't overreact. You know, I think, David, some of what is said is not true, and a lot of others who make claims are, you know, short on evidence and very long on rhetoric.
 
                This is a -- a very difficult situation. And we are working very closely with not only the president, but there's a whole government that is there. And we work well with a lot of the ministers who are, you know, dealing on a day-to-day basis with our civilian and military leadership. We have an international presence that each of our allies are working in different parts of Afghanistan. And I personally, you know, have a lot of sympathy for President Karzai and the extraordinary stress he lives under every single minute of every day. 
 
                And, you know, I have a little experience in what it's like being, you know, in the political arena. And in our country you kind of know it goes with the territory. You put your toe out there. This is new. This is something that Afghans don't have any experience with, a lot of countries around the world. He's not alone in wondering that if he's attacked by some newspaper in the United States, is our government behind it? And that's not unusual for us to encounter. I see it all the time in leaders that I deal with.
 
                Q    So if there's -- people get worried about our allies, frankly, not listening to the United States. Take Israel, for example. Was the United States blindsided by the fact that the Israeli prime minister abruptly decided not to come to this nuclear conference?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: No. I mean, that's a decision for a head of government or head of state. You know, Gordon Brown is not coming from Great Britain. Kevin Rudd is not coming from Australia. King Abdullah is not coming from Saudi Arabia. There are many things. It's like when President Obama had to cancel his trip to Indonesia and Australia. There are all kinds of things.
 
                Q     This seems abrupt, though. It seems there were a couple of abrupt things. We’re at a low point in the relationship with Israel.
 
                SEC. CLINTON: Well, I'm -- well, the Indonesians and the Australians thought it was kind of abrupt when the president called up and said, oh, by the way, I'm not coming on this long-planned trip. But the Israeli government will be represented at a very high level. And, you know, they share our deep concern about nuclear terrorism, and they want to be at the table as we try to figure out how we're going to make the world safer.
 
                Q    This doesn’t make the relationship even more difficult at a difficult time?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: No, not at all. I mean, we have a deep and very close relationship between the United States and Israel that goes back many years. That doesn't mean we're going to agree on everything. We don't agree with any of our friends on everything. We have a special relationship with Great Britain. We have close relationships with France, our oldest ally. Doesn't mean we agree on everything. And I think that somehow since we're living in a 24/7 news cycle, with, you know, things popping every minute, a lot is made of a little, instead of trying to step back and see the forest instead of the trees.
 
                And that's what, you know, I try to do every day. What are the long-term consequences of what we're doing? And, you know, you just can't react to every little event that some, you know, media outlet wants to blow up. You can't do that.
 
                Q     Final point, a domestic matter. There is this image, which I'm sure you've seen, of you embracing President Obama when health care was accomplished. And as you might imagine, people in the media could read in a lot to that, given the history between you and the president and your history with the issue of health care.
 
                And I just wonder, at the end of that process of health-care reform being accomplished, whether you viewed that and said, this is what I -- this is what President Clinton ultimately hoped to accomplish, that health-care reform in this form. Is that how you feel?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: I was thrilled that we finally got health-care reform passed. I mean, it's been a high priority of mine for many years; I often say I have the scars to show for it. And it was a wonderful, historic accomplishment for the American people, and I was thrilled that --
 
                Q     It's what you would have wanted back in '93-'94?
 
                SEC. CLINTON: Well, you know, everything that was done up until this time added to it. You know, we -- a lot of people made contributions, going back to President Johnson and President Nixon and, you know, certainly my husband, and even, you know, President Bush. They were building blocks. But getting it across the finish line with the kind of comprehensive reform that our country deserved to have didn't happen until this year, and I'm thrilled by it.
 
                Q     We'll leave it there. Thank you both.
 
                SEC. GATES: Thank you.
 
                SEC. CLINTON: Thank you.
 
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