Opening Remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (March 11)

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, Chairman Corker and Ranking Member Menendez, members of the committee, we’re pleased to be here.  I’m pleased to return here, and particularly so with – in the distinguished company of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marty Dempsey.

From my 29 years of service on this committee, I have nothing but respect for the committee’s prerogatives, and particularly the role that it can play on a critical issue like this.  We are very simply looking for – as I think both of you, Mr. Chairman and the Ranking Member have said – the appropriate present-day authorization – not, as you said, Senator Menendez, 2001, but 2015 statement by the United States Congress about the authority with which we should be able to go after, degrade, and destroy, as the President has said, a group known as ISIL or Daesh.

Now, Mr. Chairman, in our democracy, there are many views about the challenges and the opportunities that we face, and that’s appropriate.  That’s who we are.  But I hope we believe that there is an overwhelming consensus that Daesh has to be stopped.  Our nation is strongest, always has been, when we act together.  There’s a great tradition in this country of foreign policy having a special place, that politics ends at the water’s edge, and that we will act on behalf of our nation without regard to party and ideology.  We simply cannot allow this collection of murderers and thugs to achieve in their group their ambition, which includes, by the way, most likely the death or submission of all those who oppose it, the seizure of land, the theft of resources, the incitement of terrorism across the globe, the killing and attacking of people simply for what they believe or for who they are.

And the joint resolution that is proposed by the President provides the means for America and its representatives to speak with a single powerful voice at this pivotal hour.  When I came here last time, I mentioned that —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  The American people are speaking out, Secretary Kerry.  We’re tired of an endless war.  We don’t want to go in with – a war with no (inaudible).

CHAIRMAN CORKER:  The committee will be in order.  Look, we appreciate —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  (Inaudible) be another endless war and killing of innocent people.

CHAIRMAN CORKER:  Okay.  If this happens again, I would ask the police to escort immediately people out of the room.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  (Inaudible) dollars on the war, creating more terrorism, killing more innocent people.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Killing more innocent people.  I wonder how our journalists who were beheaded and a pilot who was fighting for freedom who is burned alive, what they would have to say to their efforts to protect innocent people.

ISIL’s momentum has been diminished, Mr. Chairman.  It’s still picking up supporters in places.  Obviously, we’ve all observed that.  But in the places where we have focused and where we are asking you to focus at this moment in time, it is clear that even while savage attacks continue, there is the beginning of a process to cut off their supply lines, to take out their leaders, to cut off their finances, to reduce the foreign fighters, to counter the messaging that has brought some of those fighters to this effort.  But to ensure its defeat, we have to persist until we prevail in the broad-based campaign along multiple lines of effort that have been laid out over the course of the last months.

The President already has statutory authority to act against ISIL, but a clear and formal expression of this Congress’s backing at this moment in time would dispel doubt that might exist anywhere that Americans are united in this effort.  Approval of this resolution would encourage our friends and our partners in the Middle East, it would further energize the members and prospective members of the global coalition that we have assembled to oppose Daesh, and it would constitute a richly deserved vote of confidence in the men and women of our armed forces who are on the front lines prosecuting this effort on our behalf.

Your unity would also send an unmistakable message to the leaders of Daesh.  They have to understand they can’t divide us.  Don’t let them.  They cannot intimidate us.  And they have no hope of defeating us.  The resolution that we have proposed would give the President a clear mandate to prosecute the armed component of this conflict against Daesh and associated persons or forces, which we believe is carefully delineated and defined.  And while the proposal contains certain limitations that are appropriate in light of the nature of this mission, it provides the flexibility that the President needs to direct a successful military campaign.  And that’s why the Administration did propose a limitation on the use of “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”  I might add that was after the committee – then-committee chair Senator Menendez and the committee moved forward with its language and we came up here and testified and responded, basically, to the dynamics that were presented to us within the committee and the Congress itself.

So the proposal also includes no geographic limitation, not because there are plans to take it anywhere, but because –

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  (Inaudible) we want permission —

SECRETARY KERRY:  — it would be a mistake to communicate to ISIL —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  — (inaudible) the United States and then all of the world, not to kill – the United States is killing innocent civilians with drones.

CHAIRMAN CORKER:  I would just ask those in the audience – we live in a country where —

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  (Inaudible) are killing innocent people (inaudible) killing innocent people (inaudible).

CHAIRMAN CORKER:  — people have the opportunity to express themselves in democratic ways.  We would hope that you would allow this hearing to proceed in an orderly way and respect other citizens’ rights to be here and to observe what is happening in a civil manner.  I would say that I don’t think you’re helping your cause at all.  I would say you’re hurting your cause.  And hopefully, you will remain in an appropriate manner.  Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Mr. Chairman, thank you.  The point of the no geographic limitation is not that there are any plans or any contemplation.  I think the President has been so clear on this.  But what a mistake it would be to send a message to Daesh that there are safe havens, that there is somehow just a two-country limitation, so they go off and put their base, and then we go through months and months of deliberation again.  We can’t afford that.  So that’s why there’s no limitation.

And Mr. Chairman, we know that there are groups in the world, affiliated terrorist groups, who aspire to harm the United States, our allies, our partners.  Daesh is, however, very distinctive in that, because it holds territory and it will continue – if not stopped – to seize more, because it has financial resources, because of the debilitating impact of its activities in the broader Middle East, because of its pretentions to worldwide leadership, and because it has already been culpable in the violent deaths of Americans and others.

And I don’t need to preview for this committee the full litany of the outrages that are committed by Daesh, but let me just say that just among them – scratching the surface – are atrocities against Assyrian Christian and Yezidi religious communities; the crucifixion of children; the sale and enslavement of women and girls; the hideous murder of captives from as near as Jordan and as distant as Japan; and the destruction of irreplaceable cultural and historical sites; the plunder and destruction of cities and towns in which followers of Islam worship and raise their families.

Now I testified before this committee just a couple of weeks ago regarding our strategy for disrupting and defeating ISIL.  That strategy continues to move forward on all fronts.  Secretary Carter and General Dempsey will touch on the military elements, but I can say – from a diplomatic perspective – that the world is strongly united in seeking Daesh’s defeat.

Our coalition is receiving help from governments throughout and beyond the Middle East – governments that may disagree on other issues but not about the need to take decisive action against Daesh.  And to date, we have a coalition of some 62 members, including 14 nations that are contributing directly to the operations against Daesh in Iraq or in Syria, 16 of which have committed to help train or otherwise assist Iraqi Security Forces.  Since the coalition came together less than half a year ago, we have stopped ISIL’s surge, we have degraded its leadership, we have forced it to change its communications and its movement and its tactics, and heavily damaged its revenue-generating oil facilities.  And if you have a classified briefing, I think you’ll get a very good grounding in the progress that is being made to date.

We continue to see progress in governance in Iraq, where new leaders are working to strengthen and reform the country’s security forces through the purging of incompetent or corrupt officers and the more extensive inclusion of Sunni fighters.  In Tikrit right now, there are nearly 1,000 Sunni taking part.  There’s a cross-section of engagement.

So Mr. Chairman, just to respond and move rapidly here –

CHAIRMAN CORKER:  We’re not moving that rapidly, actually.

SECRETARY KERRY:  That’s why I’m cutting and – I’m going to cut to the chase.


SECRETARY KERRY:  Responding to the threat posed by ISIL is just not a partisan issue, at least it shouldn’t be.  It’s not even a bipartisan issue.  It’s really a test that transcends political affiliations, and it’s a tremendous challenge to the security of our nation and to the values of our citizens.  And so it’s really the kind of challenge that this committee is here to deal with.  And my hope is that we will live up to the tradition that we have never failed to meet in the past that when we had this kind of challenge, the Congress came together; the Senate particularly, I think, in this format.  And I’m confident that we can do so here again today and in the next few days.

So I’m happy to respond to your questions, but first I’ll turn to Secretary Carter.