Secretary Pompeo says Trump is ‘fully prepared’ for military action upon question on Turkey

The United States prefers peace, but is prepared to take military action if needed to defend fundamental norms, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC in an interview that was broadcast on Monday.

The secretary said President Donald Trump had previously taken strikes into Syria to uphold the ban against chemical weapons, but did not specify what current actions would necessitate “kinetic action or military action."

Turkey has been accused of using white phosphorus against combatants and civilians in its Operation Peace Spring into the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria with the aim to establish a safe zone along its border, and remove the formerly U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the area as the country considers it a threat to its national security.

Secretary Pompeo told CNBC that he did not want to “get out in front of the president’s decision about whether to take the awesome undertaking of using America’s military might," and the United States prefers to use its economic and diplomatic powers, but it will continue to enforce fundamental norms around the world that need to be enforced.

There have been strikes into Syria in the past upon the country's use of chemical weapons, he said. "The previous administration refused to enforce this basic, decent human rights norm, but we did it."

The 120-hour pause to Turkey’s incursion into Syria has saved lives of ethnic minorities in northeast Syria, as well as fighters from the formerly U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the secretary added.Pompeo called Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring against Kurdish-held northeast Syrian territory an “invasion."

Pompeo said,

"Where we see American interests at stake or fundamental norms around the world that need to be enforced, we’ll use all the powers that we have.  You suggested the economic powers that we’ve used – we’ll certainly use them.  We’ll use our diplomatic powers as well.  Those are our preference.  We prefer peace to war.  But in the event that kinetic action or military action is needed, you should know that President Trump is fully prepared to undertake that action."

The U.S.-brokered pause in Turkey's operation is set to conclude on Tuesday, as a UN investigation into the allegations of Turkey using white phosphorus continues.

The U.S. State Department distributed the full transcript of Pompeo's interview with Wilfred Frost of CNBC, below:


QUESTION:  Thanks so much for joining us.  We appreciate you coming back on the Closing Bell.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  It’s great to be with you again.  Thanks for having me on.

QUESTION:  We wanted to start on China and to ask to what extent their actions – whether that is limiting democracy in Hong Kong or other actions altogether – to what extent that’s been bad enough that U.S. companies should be criticized for making profit in China.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Look, every company’s got to make its own set of decisions, but what we’ve seen over the last few weeks publicly – but we’ve known now for an awfully long time – is that the long arm of Beijing is reaching out into these companies, stealing their intellectual property, forcing technology transfer, making it very difficult to in fact make a profit in China for many, many companies.  From a foreign policy perspective, we think it’s completely inappropriate for China to attack U.S. businesses whose employees or customers exercise their fundamental freedoms here in the United States.  We just think that makes no sense, and we’d encourage every company to make a – take a good, close look, ensuring that the kinds of things – the reciprocity that President Trump has been demanding from China – actually takes place.

QUESTION:  Is Hong Kong linked to the trade discussions?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  No, not directly.  Hong Kong is an issue where China needs to fundamentally live up to its obligation.  It made a commitment to one country, two systems.  President Trump has said that they need to continue to honor that commitment that they made not only to Britain, but to the United Nations and the world, and they need to live up to that there in Hong Kong.

QUESTION:  On to the Middle East generally, Mr. Secretary.  The U.S. is becoming increasingly energy independent, and the majority of Middle Eastern barrels now go east to Asia rather than to the west.  Does that alter the long-term commitment that the U.S. administration has to the Carter Doctrine that the U.S. would use military force when necessary to defend its interests in the region?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  No, it doesn’t change that doctrine at all.  But our interests are different today.  There’s no doubt about the fact that the United States dependence on crude oil products and other petroleum products transiting the Strait of Hormuz is different than it was back in the 1980s.  That’s a fact.  In fact, it’s also the case that as you – as you laid out, Asia is much more dependent on this region than the United States is for its primary energy consumption needs.  But America’s interests in the Middle East remain.  Our mission still remains there.  We just got an alteration in the nature of American interests in the region.

QUESTION:  You were very critical of President Obama’s drawing of a redline in Syria and failing to then enforce it.  In Cairo in January you were setting out your Middle East agenda in a speech, and you proudly contrasted that by saying, quote, “The Trump administration did not stand idly by when Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his people.”  You went on to say, quote, “Our words mean something again, as they should.  West Point taught me a basic code of integrity.  If we commit American prestige to an action, our allies depend on us to follow through.” 

How, Mr. Secretary, is letting Turkey seize the land of an ally not a major contradiction of all the promises you made personally in that speech in January this year in front of your Middle Eastern allies in Cairo?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Oh, yeah, no, it’s fundamentally different.  Turkey – the country that Turkey invaded, they conducted an incursion into, is Syria, a sovereign nation.  We worked with Kurdish friends, the SDF, up and down the Euphrates River.  We jointly took down the threat from the caliphate of ISIS.  It was to the benefit of the SDF, it was to the benefit of the United States of America, and indeed, to the benefit of the world.  The commitment that we made to work alongside them, we completely fulfilled, we continue to fulfill, even as we sit here today, to fulfill our commitment to counter ISIS not only there in northeast Syria, but in western Iraq, in the Philippines, in Western Africa, all around the world.  This nation has fully lived up to the commitments that President Trump and I have made to challenge radical Islamic extremism wherever we find it, and we entered into the discussions with Turkey after they decided to make this incursion, against President Trump’s wishes, and in clear aim to reduce the risk to the very people that you suggested that we somehow abandoned.

QUESTION:  So the fact that the Kurds, who unquestionably have been an ally, but the fact that they are not a sovereign nation, means that they can be sacrificed essentially in this way, or at least their land certainly has been sacrificed and certainly tens of their lives – probably hundreds of their lives – have been sacrificed?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, the work that we did was very clearly aimed at exactly the opposite of that.  Indeed, I am highly confident that we saved lives.  The work that Vice President Pence and the State Department team did to convince the Turkish Government to stop their movement, to cease this incursion – I’m fully convinced that that work saved lives, not only the lives of the SDF fighters, but the ethnic minorities in the region.  If you look at the statement that was agreed to, our allies see it the same way.  We have got real commitments to protect ethnic minorities throughout the regions from the Turks in the course of negotiating that statement.  I think the work that we did saved lives.

QUESTION:  So the ceasefire may well do that, and we all pray and hope that it does, but nonetheless, as you just said – as you said clearly as well last week in an interview – but President Trump explicitly told President Erdogan not to do this in that phone call.  Nonetheless, he went ahead and did it, and lives have been lost as a result.  The punishment of this – economic sanctions that have last, what, five, ten days – what would warrant now a military response from the U.S., bearing in mind, of course, we’ve seen a state-on-state – your words – attack by Iran on Saudi Arabia as well?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I’m sorry, a military response to what action?

QUESTION:  What would warrant a military response in the region from the U.S. today if it’s not seizing of an ally’s land and killing of allies’ lives, albeit not one with a sovereign state?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, look, I never get out in front of the President’s decision about whether to take the awesome undertaking of using America’s military might to protect American interests.  But the world should know:  We’ve done it before.  We took strikes into Syria when chemical weapons were used.  We did it to uphold the fundamental norm that chemical weapons can’t be used.  The previous administration refused to enforce this basic decent human rights norm.  We did it, and the world should know that we will continue to do that.  Where we see American interests at stake or fundamental norms around the world that need to be enforced, we’ll use all the powers that we have.  You suggested the economic powers that we’ve used – we’ll certainly use them.  We’ll use our diplomatic powers as well.  Those are our preference.  We prefer peace to war.  But in the event that kinetic action or military action is needed, you should know that President Trump is fully prepared to undertake that action.

QUESTION:  Turkey is, of course, a NATO member.  They get lots of extra shares intelligence because of that.  There is also around 40 or 50 NATO-U.S. nuclear weapons housed in Turkey.  How much do you trust President Erdogan personally?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I never talk about trust.  I always talk about making sure that we work closely, that we use our diplomatic skills, that we verify everything.  You should know:  We have a number of NATO partners that do things that aren’t consistent with what America wishes we would do.  We’re partners in a NATO alliance.  It doesn’t mean that we always agree.  Look, you’ve seen NATO partners take a very different approach on the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.  We think it’s terrible.  Three of our closest friends chose a different path.  It doesn’t mean that you break off a relationship or tear everything up.  You work, you use diplomacy, you use the skills that you have, you use American power to try and get the outcomes that are in America’s best interest while working with these important allies in all the other spheres where you have real, true, important overlapping interests.