U.S. President Joe Biden has an “extensive” agenda as he heads into a four-day trip to the Middle East, his National Security Council coordinator told VOA on Tuesday.
John Kirby, the NSC coordinator for strategic communications at The White House, discussed the upcoming trip with VOA’s White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara.
“There’s so much that needs to be discussed on this trip and the agenda is quite extensive, between going to Israel and furthering our defense partnership and reaffirming our ironclad commitment to Israel’s defense to meeting with (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas and to reaffirming our commitment to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine,” said Kirby, the former Pentagon spokesperson. “And then of course in Saudi Arabia, where we will have bilateral discussions with King Salman and his leadership team.”
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: John Kirby, thank you so much for joining VOA today. I’m going to start with the news of the day which is the killing of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) leader in Syria, Maher al-Agal. Can you explain or can you share any more of his identity beyond his nom de guerre. The Pentagon also said that he’s one of the top five leadership in ISIS. What are the statuses of the other four?
NSC COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS JOHN KIRBY: Well, I don’t get into intelligence issues. Obviously, we continue to be interested in degrading ISIS capabilities in Iraq and Syria, that remains a core function of U.S. military forces that are in those areas. This gentleman here was one of the top five. So he was right at the very senior echelons of the leadership and now that he’s been taken off the battlefield, we know, based on his leadership and what he was focused on, that this will degrade ISIS capabilities. This will affect their ability to resource themselves to plan to organize and to conduct attacks.
VOA: Now moving on to the Middle East trip, this is a complicated trip for President (Joe) Biden. In Israel, he will be meeting a caretaker government. In Saudi Arabia, he will be meeting the leadership of a kingdom he was characterized as having no redeeming values. Can you describe what would be the indicators of success for this trip, as well as the broader aim for the administration in the region?
KIRBY: There’s so much that needs to be discussed on this trip and the agenda is quite extensive, between going to Israel and furthering our defense partnership and reaffirming our ironclad commitment to Israel’s defense to meeting with (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas and to reaffirming our commitment to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. And then of course in Saudi Arabia, where we will have bilateral discussions with King Salman and his leadership team.
Again, this (has been) a strategic partner for 80 years. The Saudi pilots flew with American pilots as they went after ISIS targets in 2014. Saudi sailors still today are sailing with American sailors in the Persian Gulf, trying to minimize the Iranians’ destabilizing activities there, in their maritime environment. They are a strategic partner. And there’s a lot to talk about whether it’s counterterrorism, whether it’s certainly about the Iranian threat or the war in Yemen.
Now we’re on our second extension of a truce in Yemen. Thousands of Yemenis now, lives have been saved because that war has stopped for the longest period of time in seven years. So that’s significant. And of course, on his last day, he’ll be sitting down with nine other leaders in the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council and, my goodness, there’s a lot to talk about there. Again, counterterrorism and security but also economic security, energy security, food security and climate change. So, there’s an awful lot on the table for the president. He’s very much looking forward to this trip.
VOA: What are some of the signs of warming bilateral ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel that we can expect, whether it’s during the president’s trip or beyond, in terms of steps towards normalization. Something that the administration can point toward normalization.
KIRBY: Well look, normalization is going to take some time, and clearly these are sovereign decisions that nations have to make. We support the Abraham Accords. We want to see a normalization proceed. We think that a more integrated Israel in the region is better for the region. It’s certainly better for the Israeli people, certainly for their Arab neighbors, as well as our own national security interest. So that kind of process will take some time.
I think you’ll see when President Biden flies, you know, from Israel right to Jeddah directly, that is not a small thing. That is not something that we would have imagined could have happened not very long ago. So it’s another example of how there is a deeper integration between Israel and Israel’s Arab neighbors, which again, we think is better for the region.
VOA: I’m going to talk about that integration a little bit further, but right now, I really am curious, where does the president stand in terms of Saudi-Israeli normalization vis a vis Palestinian statehood? Does the president believe that the two go hand-in-hand or does he believe that normalization can proceed whether or not there’s progress in terms of the two-state solution?
KIRBY: I don’t think the president is putting it in terms of a building block approach like that. I mean, he continues to believe that a two-state solution is the best solution. And you will hear him talk about that on this trip, particularly when he goes and has a chance to meet with President Abbas. But he also believes that normalization is healthy, integration is healthy for the region. And I think in President Biden’s view, both of these things are equally important to a more stable, a more secure and more integrated Middle East and that’s what you’re gonna see him want to focus on.
VOA: OK, and on the integration of Israel, further integration into the region. One of the things that officials such as yourself have been talking about is this missile defense system integrating between Israel and Gulf Arab states. Can you explain what it is? Where is it heading to? Is it finally leading to what some are calling a Middle East NATO?
KIRBY: I don’t think we’re referring necessarily to it as a Middle Eastern NATO. What we’re talking about and we have been talking about this for quite some time, is a better, a more integrated air defense capability in the region. That is a networked opportunity, really, between nations that are living there and are dealing and sharing the increasing ballistic missile threat that Iran poses. Now, obviously, we have air defense capabilities there because we have troops, we have facilities that we’re using in the region, but so to our partners, and we believe that we’ve learned this over so many years of military experience, that integrated air defense is really the best kind of air defense.
So I think, with or without the trip, we’ve been wanting to pursue this idea of better integrated air defense in the region. And I think the president will have some things to say about that. Obviously, when we get on the ground, I don’t want to get ahead of him, but we continue to believe that better, more robust, more networked air defense is really to the betterment of everybody.
VOA: Does the president still believe or still have any faith in the JCPOA process? Does he believe it’s dead? And is there a Plan B?
KIRBY: The president continues to believe, stridently, that the best solution here to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear armed state is diplomacy. And there is a deal, it’s on the table. And the onus now is on Iran to take that deal. And they have not proven willing to do that; they have been adding a bunch of requirements outside the boundaries of the deal. There is a deal that we have agreed to and that our partners have agreed to, it’s up to Iran now to take that deal. But the president continues to believe that diplomacy, and a negotiated settlement here, that’s the best way forward, and that no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve, none, if Iran has a nuclear weapon.
VOA: Sixty days have passed since the president signed the Lend-Lease Act. When is the administration going to come out with a mechanism in terms of describing how that will work?
KIRBY: I think we’re looking at lend-lease authorities and what they provide, and most grateful (to) Congress for that piece of legislation. Clearly it was passed in a bipartisan way, clearly indicates the degree to which members on Capitol Hill value the kind of support that we’re giving to Ukraine and want to make sure that we can continue to do that. They also recently just passed a $20 billion supplemental piece of legislation, that not all but a lot of it goes to security assistance. What we’re focused on is in real time doing what we can to help Ukraine defend itself. …
VOA: Can we expect it in a matter of days or weeks?
KIRBY: Just on Friday, the president signed another $400 million in presidential drawdown authority. We have a lot of authorities already available to us, and we’re using them.
VOA: Congresswoman Victoria Spartz sent a letter to the president, saying or requesting due diligence and oversight to Andriy Yermak, one of (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy’s top aides. Does the administration believe that that’s the case? Does the president still have confidence in Andriy Yermak? Does he believe that oversight is needed or more oversight is needed?
KIRBY: Well, we’ll respond to the congresswoman appropriately. I won’t get ahead of correspondence in that regard. What we’re doing and what we’re focused on is talking to Ukrainians at all levels, at staff levels and all the way up to President Zelenskyy to make sure that we understand their needs and the capabilities that they require, as they continue to try to prosecute this war, which is now focused largely on the Donbas and making sure that we’re meeting them.
And it is not just about making sure the United States is meeting those demands, it’s about making sure so many other countries that are able and willing to contribute, are able and willing to meet those needs. And (U.S.) Secretary (of Defense Lloyd) Austin has now chaired the Ukraine Contact Group, I think he’s had four such meetings, where the last one there were 50 countries that signed up to provide security assistance to Ukraine. So there’s an awful lot of work being done at all levels between Ukraine and the United States.
VOA: Does the president have confidence in the way that President Zelenskyy is using the money?
KIRBY: The president is confident that we are doing everything we can to meet Ukraine’s needs. And I think it’s important for people to know we share the concerns expressed by members of Congress — that we want to make sure there’s proper accountability for the material that Ukraine is getting. But we need to remember that it is Ukrainian property once it is in their armed forces, and that we’re not dictating how they’re using every piece of equipment on the battlefield. But obviously, they have said, and they agree with us, they have said they also share concerns about accountability and oversight and they are willing to work with us on that.
VOA: Next month will be the one-year anniversary of the withdrawal (of U.S. troops from Afghanistan). What would be the president’s message at that time to the American people?
KIRBY: The president wants to make sure that as we get into the anniversary, that we are appropriately recognizing the lives that were lost in that evacuation, but also the lives that were saved. 124,000 people were brought out safely from Afghanistan in just the course of those two weeks. The president also wants to make sure that we’re focused on the future, that people understand we are on a stronger footing now for having ended this war after 20 years. That has actually benefited us in our national security, and that we are looking forward for how best to secure our interests around the world.
One of the reasons why he’s going on this trip is because we have so many national security interests in the Middle East, and the president wants to work on that. He wants to take serious his responsibility to protect and advance those interests.