REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: John, thank you. First, you all know Ross Wilson, the former ambassador who's now the new ambassador temporaire. I acknowledge him because I've known Ross Wilson many, many years in many capacities, and we're lucky to get him off that -- (off-mic) -- so he'll be a big addition and a big help here, as we all go forward over the next couple of months -- or maybe it won't be that long when the Senate acts hopefully on your replacement.
First, let me just make a very general comment about today, and then we'll spend the time on your questions. You all know who I met with. You know the schedule. So a couple of things that came out of the meetings today. The consistency of commitment of the Turkish government to their role, not only as a critically important NATO partner, but as a leader in this part of the world, they are a democratic Muslim country that has really done an exceptional job over many, many years of building an economy and opportunity for their people.
And I say that because when we -- when we look around the world for models, Turkey, I think in many ways, can be seen as a model for engaging and practicing a vibrant democracy. They -- just as they said at the NATO meeting -- will be involved in our -- all of our efforts, as was articulated by the president in Wales, to build a coalition to deal with ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. ISIL is a threat, as President Obama has said, as other leaders have said, to this region of the world first. It's a threat to every country. It's a threat to every society.
And Turkey lives right here. Turkey, as you know, as a result of what's been happening in Syria, is now housing well over 800,000 refugees. So this is a country that knows the reality and the threat of what -- of what faces this region in the world, but also faces all of us in the world.
The conversations I had today were very productive. I didn't come here -- I think as you all know -- to ask for specific missions that they would take on or specific roles that they would perform. That's up to every country to decide what's in their interests, as well as the collective interests of the region and, in Turkey's case, NATO.
Main reason I'm here today -- was here today is to start coordinating with the leaders of Turkey on working through some of these -- these challenges, as we go forward and think through how we are going to deal with -- with ISIL. As you know, President Obama is going to lay that out from the United States' perspective in a speech that he's going to give to the American people on Wednesday.
So I thought today's meetings were a reaffirmation clearly of Turkey's commitment to be part of this effort to destroy ISIL and everything that ISIL represents and the threats that it presents to this region of the world, as well as all countries.
Foreign fighters came up in the discussion that I had with all of the leaders, as did every dimension of what we're dealing with here. Foreign fighters is an issue that has been brought up in every conversation I've had in the last month, whether it was in Australia or India, quite frankly. Certainly, it was a big part of the conversation we had in Wales, that all nations are looking at the threat of citizens of their countries participating with ISIL and other very dangerous terrorist groups here in the Middle East, and how we work together to address this foreign fighters threat, that's not a military responsibility only. It's law enforcement. It's all of our departments of each of our governments.
And I would add one last thing. It was very clear today in my conversations that the president of Turkey, the prime minister of Turkey, the defense minister of Turkey all understand that the resolution that needs to be found and the real objective in the overall threat of -- that ISIL presents, the immediate threat, is governance, is good, responsible governance.
And that's what President Obama has talked about in Iraq. And I'm looking forward to hearing here fairly soon that that new government under -- under Mr. Abadi in Iraq has been formed. It is -- it is the basis -- it's the anchor in which these countries will have opportunities to go forward.
And I say that because the military part of all of this is a part -- it's an important part, but it's not the only part. It's economics. And it's diplomacy. But it is good governance. And it is the ability for countries to govern themselves and find opportunities for all their people. And it was very clear to me in my conversations today with the Turkish leaders that they clearly saw that as the overall objective here, when we start thinking through what we're dealing with, both short term and long term.
So with that, I'll go to questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you have a sense -- did they give you a sense of what's on and off the table for them? Because, as you know, Turkey refused to allow the rescue mission to be launched from the U.S. base here. Erdogan has been critical of airstrikes. The foreign minister today said that Turkey is in the alliance in principle, but criticized the arming of the ISF [Iraqi Security Force] and the Kurds. And then in general, they've been critical of -- they've got the hostage issue, as well.
So how far realistically do you think they're willing to go? And did they give you a sense of things they aren't going to do?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I said in my opening comments, we explored with -- I explored today with the Turkish leaders, as Secretary Kerry will be exploring with other allies in the Middle East, as we have been and are exploring with the core coalition group, specific roles for each country to play.
Each country is a sovereign nation. We respect that. Each country has its own specific issues, political issues. Turkey has its specific concerns and issues. They want to play roles and specific roles. They will play those. They need to determine those. That's what we're assessing now, where each of those countries can fit in, in their roles. All the roles that each will play are important. But that's partly what I was talking to the leaders about today.
Q: Did they give you a sense of what roles they are willing to play?
SEC. HAGEL: We did talk about a number of different roles, yes.
Q: And what were those?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, those will be articulated by the Turkish government, not by me, when that decision is made.
Q: Mr. Secretary, did you get the sense that the Turks are more worried about us arming the Kurds and the Peshmerga than they are about ISIS?
SEC. HAGEL: No, I didn't get that sense at all. The foreign minister's comments, which I have not seen yet, but you mentioned them -- I did get some general sense of what he said -- is, I think, reflective of concerns that -- that they have, that Turkish government leaders have, as do we, by the way, about overall arming of -- of any group, whether they're opposition Syrian or opposition to Assad or any group. That's why we are so careful in arming any group the vetting process that goes into that for the very reason that the Turks are concerned.
They did bring that up, but it wasn't in any way comparable to the Peshmerga or the Iraqi security forces represented a bigger threat to them than ISIL.
Q: But what about the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]?
SEC. HAGEL: They brought --
Q: Which they see as the natural extension of --
SEC. HAGEL: Yes, and they brought that up. But they didn't indicate to me in any way that they saw the PKK as a -- as a more significant threat to them than ISIL. But the concerns they have, as I said, not unlike many of our concerns about arming any group of individuals, are always legitimate. And that's why we are so careful in who we provide armaments to.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned the president going out on Wednesday, and he's talked about laying out an expanded plan for dealing with ISIL. And he also in Wales had talked about, you know, some things similar to what the U.S. has done in places like the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what you think some of the parameters would be of that type of an operation? Is it something -- sort of a larger counterterrorism operation? And what are the concerns, as you build out, trying to figure out what those parameters would be?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I'm not going to get ahead of the president's speech or preview the president's speech. But I'll answer your question this way, Lita. We have been exploring all of the different variables. And it cuts to your point about parameters.
As I said -- and the president has said -- any of us with responsibility here for our government -- this includes every government -- legal authorities, both domestic and international, resources, capabilities, and I think to -- certainly speaking only for myself, which I can only do, and not for any other government official, certainly not for the president, but for me, as secretary of defense, the advice I give the president, I have to think through not only what military advice I give him for the moment for the president, but also I've got to think through what my last piece of advice is going to look like at the end, not just at the beginning.
Once you start -- you talk about parameters -- once you start something, there will be consequences to that. And you have to think through this as much as you can as to, where do you want it to go? Where could it go? And you have to think through all the things that can go wrong. That's not an excuse for inaction, because it was -- we know there are consequences to inaction, as well.
But that's a general answer to your question, but we're exploring every piece of this. And I mentioned here also in my opening comments about governance. In the end, the people of each of these nations are going to ultimately be responsible for their country and for what happens. We can help. We are going to help. We're going to lead in this coalition. We're doing that now, to, again, do what America has done in the past with allies, help people, give people an opportunity to govern themselves, defend themselves, support themselves, giving themselves and their children a future.
So I have to -- and I know the president factors all of those -- those considerations into anything before we -- to everything, before we make a decision on policy.
Q: (off-mic) -- how far it's going to go? You have been talking to members of Congress sort of over the last several days. What kind of feedback are you getting about how far it should go and --
SEC. HAGEL: Well, one thing that's very clear to me -- and I think the president has said it quite clearly -- I've said it clearly -- is how far they should go with ISIL is to defeat ISIL, is to absolutely destroy the capability of ISIL to do any more harm to people.
Now, we've all said that this is not going to be a short-term endeavor most likely. I don't know how long. But I think we need to be prepared that this isn't going to be a quickly accomplished objective. I got that very same and very clear feeling and response from every member of Congress I spoke to, Republican, Democrat, House, Senate -- destroy the capability of ISIL.
Q: Mr. Secretary, relations with Turkey haven't been very good for the last year or two. You talked about them being a vibrant, democratic Muslim country, but at the same time, the Obama administration has been pretty unhappy with the way Erdogan cracked down on protestors at Taksim. The relationship between President Obama and now-President Erdogan used to be very close. They've been kind of frozen out over the past year-and-a-half. Now, all of a sudden, there have been a number of high-level meetings at the NATO summit. You've come here to meet, more officials coming. How difficult is it -- has it been or will it be, do you think, to overcome, you know, this period –of bad relations over the last few years in forging this coalition?
SEC. HAGEL: Craig, your assessment is correct. But, you know, nations have ups and downs in the relationships, but what -- one of the fundamentals of national relationships between nations -- and you heard me say this before -- is, what are their common interests? Where can they center on where they -- both in bilateral and multilateral relationships, where do they have vital common interests?
That, by the way, includes what are common threats. What are the common challenges? This is an interconnected world, economically and in every way. And so we start with the relationship that we had since World War II with Turkey. They were one of the first nations in NATO. They have been an incredibly important NATO ally. When you think of -- there had been one nation in NATO that lived on the border of the Soviet Union, and that was Turkey.
So, yes, we've had our ups and downs in that relationship. But what's interesting, it has never broken. They have never, ever asked the NATO base to leave their country. We have been able to work through differences.
Now we have a situation in the world today that presents a clear and new set of very real threats to Turkey, to this region, to NATO partners, to the United States. That certainly is forging, I think, a renewed sense of a relationship. But we have more in common with Turkey, and we have more than just that one common NATO relationship with Turkey.
So this is one of those moments when there is a convergence of challenges and threats that are very clear to not only Turkey and the United States, but what we saw come out of NATO, all 28 members of NATO and other countries.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that there has been a consistent message from those on the Hill in support of destroying ISIL -- (off-mic) –Do you think it would be helpful to have some kind of vote by Congress, either whether it's authorization -- (off-mic) -- strengthen your hand? Or would you be concerned that if somehow that vote failed that would -- (off-mic)?
SEC. HAGEL: Joe, the president has been very clear on this, and Secretary Kerry has, Vice President Biden, I have. The president would want the Congress as a partner, would want the Congress' support. One of the things that I know the president intends to do in his speech on Wednesday, when he speaks to the American people, is clearly define the challenge, the threat, what he intends to do about this.
I'm sure he will mention the Congress in that speech, because he -- as I said -- wants the Congress as a partner. He's been consulting with the Congress. I've been talking with members, Secretary Kerry has, Ambassador Rice, other members of the administration, to get their input, to get their ideas, how far should we go?
And I think then, that said, what action Congress would take, want to take in the sense of a resolution on authorities, that question is still open, which our lawyers are looking at. I've asked members of Congress about that. Some have told me that they think the president has the authority currently. Others are not so sure, but I'm not surprised by that. There are 535 members of Congress with different philosophies about all of this.
But surely the bottom line is, the Congress is a vital part of all this. And the president would want the Congress to be a partner with him. That's why he's been consulting with the leaders and why, as you know, he's going to meet with congressional leadership on Tuesday.
Q: (off-mic) --an authorization, would it be helpful to have that show of support on the record?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think any manifestation of support for the president's policies by the Congress would be helpful. But that's a decision the Congress would have to make.
Q: Sir, you sounded a lot of the same notes that you talked with us about earlier to Congress last year, you and General Dempsey –were two of the biggest voices urging caution as Washington contemplated attacking Syria last year. The situation is clearly different, but you also a moment ago said, if you start this thing, it's going to play out no matter what, and you have to be sure what is going to happen once you cross the line. Can you talk about your evolution of your position on that from where you were last year to where you are now as we think about going to Syria?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I think the world is a lot different today than where we were last summer. And I think that's quite obvious. But I said before -- and I said it since I've been secretary of defense, but I also -- with the attitude I took when I was a senator -- but in particular, a secretary of defense, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs have unique responsibilities.
And because of those unique responsibilities for the national security of our country, you are constantly re-evaluating, you are constantly re-assessing, you're constantly questioning, you're constantly asking, are we -- are we prepared not just for a short term, but for a longer term? Are we doing the right thing? Let's take another look at this.
This is why the military is better than anyone at the world at contingency planning. The military has contingency plans for everything. And they practice it. They carry it out. They war-game it. Every possible contingency you can think of, the military has a plan for it.
And that's partly my role, my responsibility. So, yes, you're constantly evolving based on the current threats, projected threats, partners, coalitions, politics, the dynamics of world affairs and -- but, again, another part of my responsibility is to advise the president as clearly as I can, we need to think this thing through. Whatever decision we want to make or whatever recommendation I make or the chairman makes, once you start an airstrike, or once you start any military action, it doesn't end there. It ends up somewhere down the road. And you need to think about your last piece of advice as much as you think about your first piece of advice in this business. And that's, I think, the way I would answer your question.
Q: One thing that –is the same is Assad in Syria, and if we get to a point where we have a high operational tempo with destroying ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where does he fit into the equation? Is he still going to be in charge when we're done? Or are you building that into your planning with the president and other leaders to deal with the Syria problem comprehensively, not just ISIS, but also his government and the civil war?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, the president has made clearly that his focus is on the degrading and the destruction of ISIS and destroying its capabilities. The future of Mr. Assad will take care of itself. And there aren't many allies in this region of the world that Mr. Assad has today, but the president's focus has been very clear and that focus is on ISIL. The president has also said that -- and he hasn't changed his position on this -- that Assad has lost the legitimacy for governing his own people. And he is not capable, nor worthy to govern his own people.
Q: So regime change is off the table? That’s a fairstatement?
SEC. HAGEL: That's not the objective of what the president is going to talk about on Wednesday.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We got time for just one more.
SEC. HAGEL: I want to make sure everybody gets a question, so you get -- and then -- (off-mic).
Q: –Okay. On Turkey, you know, is there a sense that there's only so much they can do, that their hands are somewhat tied by thehostage situation --
SEC. HAGEL: You mean the Turks?
Q: Yeah, by the refugee crisis,is there a sense that, you know, maybe they could do more, but given the situation, you're not expecting a whole lot?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, obviously, when ISIL is holding 49 Turkish citizens, that has got to be a high priority for the leaders of Turkey. That said, Turkey, again, I'd remind you, is still participating with the United States, with NATO countries in many exercises. It's also had to deal with the refugee flow.
So this is what I was referring to earlier when I said each country has its own separate limitations, its own separate political dimensions. We have to respect those. We do respect those. And we honor those. But as has been noted, Turkey wants to play a role in this coalition and said it will, and we're assessing what that role now can be.
Q: Sir, I wanted to ask you, how –do you see all these high-profile issues, ISIS, Russia and Ukraine, Afghanistan, others -- how do you see them impacting reform efforts you have set forth? And do you think that these other issues, important issues are going to distract folks back at the Pentagon from achieving the objectives?
SEC. HAGEL: First, as many of these more immediate threats that face our country and the world are a priority, must be a priority, but that said, we also have other responsibilities. Governing is part of many responsibilities. Part of my job as secretary of defense is -- is assuring the capability that we have at the Pentagon and all of our men and women to do all the things that are required for the defense of our country.
That includes a continued focus on the reform measures that we have undertaken, whether it's in the nuclear enterprise area, we will continue to focus on those and do the things that we need to do to reform that area, whether it's on acquisition reform, which I talked about in Rhode Island, hugely important, whether it's in health care reform, which – we’re getting reviews back on the hospital now, and I'm looking at all the reviews as those have now come back in. We'll continue to do that.
There are probably another half-dozen reforms that we'll continue to put high priorities on. Bob Work, the new deputy secretary of defense, is going to be a tremendously important asset to the Pentagon on this, to really spearhead most of those reforms, but I will personally be involved in each one of them as we start to work through some of the responsibilities that we're giving our own senior members of our leadership.
I think we can do more with the kind of talent we have in our management at the Pentagon. And I believe that no one -- no one wants these reforms and an enterprise that is -- that's efficient and effective more than the men and women who are part of that enterprise. And so all the men and women of our military, civilian and uniformed, have been very involved and will continue to be involved in these efforts.
Q: Final question on Ukraine. There's yet another report that the Ukrainian government's claiming there was some sort of agreement reached in Wales to directly supply arms to the Ukrainian government. Is that true? And, secondly, with the cease-fire now a few days old, are you growing more confident that it might hold? Or are you still as skeptical as you were from the beginning and many world leaders were about this cease-fire?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, we hope it holds. If it can hold, then we are hopeful that that is the baseline, the beginning of an effort to move forward and -- and resolve these -- these issues that cannot be resolved militarily. President Obama said it. Our European allies have said it. The resolution of this problem has to be resolved politically. And you can't start that process until a cease-fire takes place. But that isn't the end. That is only the beginning, a cease-fire.
As to your first question, I'm not aware of any kind of a secret deal that was made in Wales about supplying lethal weapons to the Ukrainians.
Q: Were you given any indications that the Russians are changing positions or anything different along the border with Ukraine?
SEC. HAGEL: We keep a very close eye on all of that. And we have said many times part of what the next step is, that the Russians have got to get out of Ukraine. We've got to pull their troops back from the border.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, guys.
SEC. HAGEL: They have not done that.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, guys. Thanks, guys.
Q: (off-mic) -- position on Assad and ISIL -- (off-mic) --
SEC. HAGEL: Okay.
Q: -- (off-mic) –Are you saying that toppling ISIL is more important than toppling Assad?
SEC. HAGEL: I didn't say that.
Q: Okay -- (off-mic).
SEC. HAGEL: What I said was the president's focus and what he will talk about on Wednesday is going to be about the ISIL threat, the ISIL threat to our country, to our allies, to this region. The president has been -- and continues to be very clear, as I said, that Assad must go. He has lost the legitimacy of his own people, the right to govern. So there's no change in the president's policy.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, thanks, guys.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.