John O. Brennan, distinguished fellow for global security at Fordham University School of Law’s Center on National Security and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, discusses U.S. national security under the Trump administration.
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FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at the Council. Thank you all for joining us. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, if you would like to share it with your classmates or colleagues.
We’re delighted to have John Brennan with us today to discuss national security issues facing the Trump administration. Mr. Brennan is a distinguished fellow for global security at Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. With 33 years of government service, he most recently served as the director of the Central Intelligence under President Obama from 2013 to 2017. Prior to this role, Mr. Brennan was assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. He began his service in government at the CIA, where he worked from 1980 to 2005. Mr. Brennan spent most of his early career specializing in Near East and South Asia analysis, before directing counterterrorism analysis. In 1994 and 1995, he was the agency’s intelligence briefer to President Clinton. And after an assignment as the chief of station in the Middle East, Mr. Brennan served as chief of staff to the central intelligence director before becoming the CIA’s deputy executive director until 2003, when he began leading a multiagency effort to establish a counterterrorism in 2004. He became the center’s interim director.
So, John, thank you very much for being with us today. Couldn’t have found somebody more perfect for this call to talk to us about—we are one-year mark of the Trump administration. And it would be great if you could talk about the U.S. national security interests that have been affected by the decisions this administration has made, and the issues that are of most concern to you or things that you think are trending in the right direction.
BRENNAN: OK, well thank you very much, Irina, for inviting me to participate in this conference call. And thanks everyone out there for joining. And I do hope that there are many aspiring national security professionals out there, because your country and your government needs you, needs the best talent to deal with the challenges we face ahead.
What I thought I’d do today is start off with a few comments about the national security and foreign policy fronts after one year of the Trump administration. And what I thought I would do is maybe identify some areas of continuity and discontinuity. And despite at least some within the administration who claim that there have been numerous failures and mistakes of previous administrations, I would point to a significant amount of continuity that we have seen over the last year. So let me hit upon a couple of those areas.
First, the Syria-Iraq theater and the fight against ISIS. As we all know, there have been significant and very important battlefield successes against ISIS over the last year or 14 months. And I see these successes being the continuation of the policies that were put in place, as well as the coalition that was formed, during the last two years of the Obama administration. And that strategy, to try to make sure we could work with the Iraqi forces as well as with some other local forces, such as the Kurds, certainly has been a hallmark of the Trump administration’s policy toward that arena. And I think when we were in the Obama administration we know it was going to take some time to reclaim a lot of the territory that ISIS had acquired. And so the successes against Mosel and Raqqa, the two areas of concentrated ISIS leadership activities, again, as a result of very determined and deliberate efforts on the part of the coalition.
The one difference that I would point out in this area is what I have the impression of is the relaxed rules of engagement that the military has used against some of these areas, particularly the urban centers where they’re—the ISIS fighters were nested within civilian populations. So if I would make one comment about this anti-ISIS campaign, I think it’s had an accelerated pace, but I think it’s been at the cost of higher civilian casualties in the region.
Now, I think, as we know, as difficult as it is to win a war, it’s even more difficult to win the peace, as our experience has been over the years—for example, in Iraq. So I think it’s really going to be up to the administration now to capitalize on these battlefield successes, and to see whether or not there’s a way to prepare, both physically and spiritually, the damage that has been done in this area, as a result of the fighting and the ISIS presence there. I think Russia has found it difficult to try to extricate itself from this fight. And their attempts to try to kickstart a negotiating process, I think, have been stillborn. So I think there’s a long road ahead in both Syria and Iraq to try to tamp down some of these sectarian tensions, as well as to reconstruct these countries that have just been decimated by the fighting.
Shifting then to Afghanistan, another area where the United States is heavily involved, I see also a lot of continuity there. We continue to have a presence in the country, providing support to the—not just the Afghan government, but to the Afghan military as well. There’s been a slight increase in the U.S. military presence. And I think this administration’s view is it really needs to be conditions-based policy and strategy that we have. And I think that’s where the Obama administration came out in the final year of its eight-year term, that it wasn’t going to be time-bound by some withdrawal objectives. It was going to maintain a presence there because we need to make sure that this area of the world is not going to be used as a launching pad once again for very catastrophic attacks against us.
Again, in Afghanistan, I think you see that there’s been relaxed rules of engagement as well for the U.S. military, to include offensive operations against the Taliban. Now, one could question whether or not that is helping or hurting. We see that there’s increased violence in Kabul as a result of the attacks that the Taliban has carried out in terms of some of these horrific bombings that have taken place. And I don’t see that there’s been much progress at all in terms of some of the incipient talks that have been taking place with the Taliban, as far as the peace process is concerned. So, again, I think overall the policy in Afghanistan is the same as what we’ve seen over the last even more than eight years, as far as U.S. presence there.
Similarly, counterterrorism efforts in Yemen as well as in Somalia I think continue apace, again, maybe with some relaxation of the rules of engagement. But there continues to be a—quite a strong effort to try to suppress and to eliminate these terrorist threats abroad, and not allow them to come to the states.
Shifting a bit, and talking about some of our allies, I think after a shaking start with some of our allies, especially our NATO allies, as a result of some of the early comments made by the Trump administration and by Mr. Trump about Article 5 commitments, I think things have settled down a bit. I think there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty in allied capitals about some U.S. policy aims and goals and even tactics, and also still a sense of unpredictability about what the Trump administration might do in certain instances, given the rhetoric that is coming out of Washington.
I must say that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford, two individuals who I know well and have tremendous respect and admiration for, I think they’ve had a very steadying influence on some of the national security discussions in Washington, as well as they are very effective in terms of reassuring our allies that the United States is still going to be reliable partner, irrespective of some of the political wrangling that may be taking place in Washington. So, you know, I do think on sort of the broader front, after a year or 13 months in, I think there has been now a little bit more confidence on the part of our allies that, you know, you do have people in Washington who have broad and deep experience, who are going to be the voices of reason and common sense when it comes to some of these international issues.
Now looking at some areas of discontinuity, and certainly in light of Mr. Trump’s reputation for risk taking and taking some bold actions, I think we have seen in a number of instances that there’s been a change in the U.S. position. Some notable examples are on Jerusalem, in terms of a decision by Washington to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a commitment that we’re going to move our embassy, currently in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. And it’s been said by, I think, senior administration officials that that’s going to take place this year.
That certainly is a sharp deviation from our policy ever since basically ’67—the ’67 war, and inconsistent with our votes in the United Nations that would leave Jerusalem’s status subject to ultimate negotiation among the parties. Although that might have received immediate accolades from some quarters, I do think it’s going to be a setback for prospects for a viable peace process and for serious engagement with—between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So I do think that is a setback in respects to the longer-term prospects for this Israeli-Palestinian ultimate two-state solution.
Similarly, on Pakistan, we see that the Trump administration has taken a strong stand there. And I think this is, you know, consistent in some respects with previous administrations who have been very frustrated by the Pakistanis. In some respects, the Pakistanis are a good counterterrorism partner, because more Pakistani military, security, and intelligence officials—fighters have been killed at the hands of terrorists. But at the same time, too often the Pakistanis at various levels turn a blind eye or even give sustenance and support to a variety of terrorist organizations, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Haqqani group, and others.
And so the Trump administration, I think, in some respects, has grown down the gantlet to the Pakistanis about there’s going to be a stoppage in terms of U.S. assistance until Pakistan mends its ways. I do hope that the Trump administration has given the Pakistanis some very specific objectives, things that they need to do, because I do think what we want to maintain is a relationship with Pakistan, because Pakistan is critical to bringing peace and stability to that South Asian arena.
Also, we know that soon after the inauguration last January that the Trump administration decided to discard the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is the TPP. And I think it reflects certainly a strong bias in the administration towards bilateral agreements as opposed to multilateral agreements. But this is something that I think was a setback to those in the Asia, East Asian, and Pacific theater, who were hoping that the United States was going to be able to provide a counterweight to Chinese influence and might in that region. So I think it was a disappointment to many. And unfortunately, I think it cedes some group, certainly on the economic front, to China in that area.
On North Korea and Iran, set aside the rhetorical broadsides and insults that are going across the Twittersphere. I think the U.S. position remains the same as far as North Korea’s concerned. We’re not going to countenance a nuclear North Korea. We’re not going to allow them to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities and threaten the United States. At the same time, there are not a lot of good options as far as trying to get that regime to stop, halt, reverse, and to denuclearize.
But I think that demonstrations of military resolve are important, without going to military provocations. I don’t think we want to do that because, again, there is no good military solution there. This administration has continued emphasizing the importance of economic and financial pressures on the Pyongyang regime. But I also believe very strongly that diplomacy is really going to have to be the lead mechanism for us to be able to make some progress here.
And I do hope that Rex Tillerson and some of the others senior within the administration are trying to engage in a productive dialogue with the countries in the region about how to resolve the situation. China obviously plays a very important role, but when, you know, Rex Tillerson’s attempts at negotiations are denigrated by Donald Trump, that doesn’t help. I do hope some things are going on back channels. This is not something that is going to be helped by a lot of public pronouncements and profile. So, again, I think that negotiations really need to be getting started there.
On Iran, although Donald Trump has said that he wants to tear up the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, it’s still in force. I know that the other signatories to that agreement are very interested in keeping it going. No agreement like this is perfect, but I do not believe it’s going to be viable to open up that agreement and to try to modify it to whatever extent the Trump administration wants to do.
A few quick words on Russia and China. I think, you know, there are some within Moscow who believe that dysfunction in Washington is always in Russia’s interest, because they look at things in a zero-sum fashion. Although I do think that there are individuals in Moscow who have maybe a more enlightened view, that believe that better relations between Moscow and Washington will allow Russia to play a more central role on the world stage. But unfortunately, with a lot of the focus on Russian interference on the 2016 election, I don’t think we’re going to make, you know, a lot of progress on that in the interim.
On China, developments on the North Korean front, as well as brewing bilateral trade wars, I think are going to shape U.S.-China relations in the year ahead. I think Xi Jinping of China wants to avoid confrontation, but will not shy away from responding forcefully if the U.S. decides to take, you know, punitive trade actions against China. So we’ll have to watch this area closely in the coming months.
When I look at the year ahead, what worries me? I have a constant worry on the cyber front, given our increasing dependence as a country, as a world, on the security, reliability, resilience of that digital domain. I do think that there is a great potential for mal actors to try to wreak havoc in that area. And I do think that our government and other governments need to take this as seriously as possible and work very closely with the private sector.
And then finally, obviously, political developments in Washington on the investigations that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is pursuing clearly are going to have an effect on the government’s ability to focus on some of these international issues. And I am hoping that those distractions and the concern about that investigation is not going to prompt some less than well thought through foreign policy decisions on the part of the administration.
So I’ll leave it at that, and I look forward to your questions.
FASKIANOS: John, thank you very much. That was a terrific tour of the world and assessment of where we are. Let’s open up to the students for questions, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question comes from University of Philadelphia.
Q: You mean University of Pennsylvania?
FASKIANOS: Go ahead. Yes, go ahead.
FASKIANOS: Go ahead.
Q: So I know it’s all sort of up in the air right now, but I’m curious in regards to sort of foreign policy with Russia and our relations with them, depending on the outcome of the Mueller probe, say worst case scenario there’s some solid, definitive link established, what does that mean? You know, if we can prove sort of known intentional collusion from the Russian government to interfere in our elections, what is the implications of that for our sort of foreign policy within—economically, militarily, et cetera?
BRENNAN: OK. Good question. First of all, congratulations, U Penn, on the Eagles Super Bowl victory.
Q: Hell yeah.
BRENNAN: (Laughs.) I think the evidence and intelligence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election is incontrovertible. And I don’t think we need to await the Mueller investigation, because it’s certainly something that we know and are confident amount. The Mueller investigation is to look at issues related to violations of law and collusion with individuals in the administration or affiliated with the campaign. But I think, you know, your question is a good one, because depending on what Mueller comes out with, I think it’s certainly going to have a lot of prominence and political reverberations. And so the question then is what is going to happen as a result of the report. If there’s going to be compelling evidence of violations of law, that certainly is going to roil the waters in Washington.
But what I think the committees of jurisdiction in the Congress, in terms of especially the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, they are looking at what we need to do as a country to better safeguard our electoral processes from that type of interference, whether it’s Russia again or others. And so I think they’re going to be coming forward with a series of recommendations as well as possible, you know, statutory proposals in terms of what needs to be done. Because the digital environment is one that there are just a lot of individuals, a lot of, you know, foreign entities are going to take advantage of the openness of our society and the ability to operate within that digital environment in a—in a manner that masks their involvement.
So I do think that the intervention in our election, whether—by the Russians, was very symptomatic and just underscored just how profound the challenges are, as well as the need for the governments to address this. So I am very much looking forward to the results of those congressional investigations.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Fordham University.
FASKIANOS: Fordham, are you there?
Q: Hello. Yes.
FASKIANOS: Great. Go ahead.
Q: Yes, hi. Yes. My question is that we’ve been fighting al-Qaida since the ’90s, through 9/11, and then they managed to have an attack in Paris to attack the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Then ISIS managed to get—to control one-third of Iraq, and huge swaths of land in Syria. Now they are moving to Libya and Nigeria and other areas. Mr. Brennan, do you think has the world really managed to defeat al-Qaida and ISIS or the problem of ideology? There are lone wolfs in the West who could attack anytime, anywhere where they live. They don’t need to travel to Syria or Iraq to be trained.
They don’t need to make bombs. All they need to is to have a truck, hire a truck, or steal a truck. And they kill people—as they did in Nice—they killed 90 people by a truck. So I talked with several—(inaudible). And I believe the world has failed to defeat ISIS and al-Qaida. I worked at the U.N. as an ambassador of Iraq for seven years. I was in Iraq working with American military commanders and U.S. officials. And I think that America needs to listen to Muslims in the West and in the world to see what is the best way to defeat al-Qaida and ISIS ideology, because they are brainwashing people, especially young people.
BRENNAN: Well, I certainly agree with you, Fordham. And unfortunately, over the years—especially over the last several decades—individuals who purport to be Muslims and who allege that their actions are done for religious purposes, are really distorting and perverting one of the great religions of the world, Islam, and are using that banner to gather support from many individuals who are disenfranchised and feel that they’re on the fringe of society, and who have, I think, some legitimate grievances against a lot of the governments in the region because of corruption, ineptness, also because of these sectarian animosities that continue to exist.
So when I look out over the Middle East and South Asia and Africa—and my first involvement was back in the mid-’70s when I was in school in Cairo—unfortunately a lot of the political movements, the sectarian—or, the secular movements in the past, whether they be the Ba’athists, or Nasserists, or socialists, or whatever else, they have all withered away. And now any type of political activism or extremism, which then leads to violence, has been hijacked by these individuals with this distorted view of Islam.
And whether or not we’re talking about al-Qaida, you know, 1.0, or al-Qaida 2.0, 3.0, or ISIS, these are individuals and people are led by individuals who are psychopathic. They are murders, thieves, rapists, and others. And unfortunately, they’ve been able to gather support based on their—you know, their rhetoric. And, again, false narrative about their religiosity. And I agree with you completely, the United States has worked very closely with the countries that are more affected, as well as with the communities—Muslim communities abroad as well as domestically here—to make sure that young individuals are not swayed by this rhetoric, and that they see opportunities to advance themselves without having to join these awful groups. There are similarities between what drives an individual to join a violent gang, similarly to individuals who join a terrorist organization.
So although we’ve made great strides against ISIS, as well as al-Qaida, they are not going away. What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we can destroy as much of these organizations as possible while, at the same time, offering alternatives to young individuals who are looking for a purpose in life and organizations and things to join. So this is going to continue to be a fight. But the United States has to work very, very closely with those around the globe.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question come from Berkeley City College.
Q: Yes. I have two questions I’m hoping I can ask. The first is regarding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Is that similar to NATO? And if it is, how does the U.S. government view their activities? My second question is regarding China’s activity or movement in the South China Sea with regards to Southeast Asian countries. And how does that—how does that affect how U.S. foreign policy is carried out there in that part of the world? Thank you.
BRENNAN: Well, thank you. And obviously those two questions are very much interrelated. And I don’t know enough in terms of the legal language underpinning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and, you know, compared to the NATO language. But I think what China has been trying to do over the last number of years is to assert itself much more, particularly in its near-abroad and in the South China Sea area, East China Sea, and to demonstrate its military capabilities and its role of being a guarantor of security in that region.
For many, many years, since World War II, the United States has been the dominant military and naval power in the Pacific, to include the western Pacific, close to China. And so I think what China’s trying to do now is to assert itself and say this is their sphere of influence. And so by building up these rocky outcroppings and atolls in the South China Sea, putting in military airfields and capabilities there, I think they’re trying to flex their military muscles.
And I remember being out at the Shangri-La conference, was it two years ago or so, with Ash Carter. And where Ash Carter was saying—the former secretary of defense here—that the security framework for the Pacific and that region of East Asia really needs to be one where all parties are participants, including China. And so the United States has welcomed engagement with China to make sure that there’s going to be freedom of navigation of the seas and making sure that international norms and standards and responsibilities are respected. I think China bridles a bit at the U.S. taking that lead role and are now trying to maybe displace the United States in that area.
I do believe that the ASEAN countries, the Southeast Asian countries, feel the weight of China’s influence and would very much like the United States to demonstrate its resolve to maintain its presence and influence and its traditional support to a lot of our partners in the region. And I do think that the ASEAN countries are concerned that the sheer weight of China is going to lead them to maybe do things or to accept things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. And that’s why they do see the United States as an effective counterweight, and why I believe that they were so disappointed when the Trans-Pacific Partnership was turned aside by this administration.
But this is one of the areas where I think the U.S. and China are going to continue to have to engage. And I’m hoping that there’s not going to be any type of either accidental or some type of intentional military clash, whether it be on the seas or in the air over the South China Sea. I do believe that the United States has a very, very important role that we need to continue to play there. And I would caution against anybody who is trying to pull back the U.S. role there. I think we can maintain that influence and presence without being confrontational, provocative to China.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Virginia Commonwealth University.
FASKIANOS: Go ahead.
Q: I have a question about Yemen. So in March it was announced that Yemen—or, that America signed one of the largest arms deals with Saudi Arabia. We talk about Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the relationship there, and how Saudis is a huge agitation to the war in Yemen. I’m curious to know what the U.S. expects—or, what ideally the U.S. would expect in the best-case scenario for the war in Yemen, if right now currently we’re providing most of the arms that are essentially agitating the war there. And what are—what is the worst-case scenario if the war in Yemen goes on?
BRENNAN: Well, this is a very important question, and a very complex and complicated one. There is a humanitarian disaster in Yemen that may be unprecedented in terms of scale and scope. And it’s a beautiful country. I’ve visited there many, many times. And unfortunately, the people of Yemen have been the victims of much violence, both by internal actors as well as by regional states. The Saudis, I think have some very legitimate concerns about Iranian adventurism and exploitation of the situation in Yemen. Iranians provided a fair amount of support and military assistance and the like to the Houthis, who had taken over the government in Sana’a a couple years ago. And the Saudis have always been concerned about the Iranians using Yemen as a staging ground for infiltration and for trying to undermine Saudi security.
That said, I think the Saudi military moves in Yemen over the past two years, in conjunction with the UAE, unfortunately have contributed to the death and destruction in that country. And as you point out, the Saudi military will frequently—uses U.S.-provided weapons, aircraft, as well as munitions. During the Obama administration there was very, very deep concern about some of the Saudi military actions. And there were steps taken to make sure the Saudis understood that U.S. military support was not going to be forthcoming if they were going to pursue certain military politics of the past. The situation in Yemen is really chaotic. Now even among some of those in the south that were fighting with—in support of the Saudi aims have split. So now you have separatist movements in the south that have made the situation even more complicated.
I don’t know what the Trump administration’s policy is on this front. I do hope that they are counseling restraint, from the standpoint of making sure the Saudis do not feel as though they have carte blanche as far as bombing in Yemen. I do think that there are some within the Saudi government who are very concerned about what’s going on there and would like to maybe scale it back a bit. It really is going to be up to the crown prince, who is the, you know, I guess, principal decisionmaker now, and who—also the secretary of defense—or, minister of defense in Saudi Arabia, and launched this war, to try to work with the players inside of Yemen, as well as in the region, to bring that conflict to an end, because it just continues to ravage the country. And, you know, cholera now is on the rise. Malnourishment, poverty, just so many Yemenis have been just killed as well as badly injured as a result of this conflict.
So I would—if I were in the government right now—in the U.S. government, I would be working diligently to try to get the Saudis to maybe scale back a little bit of the military strikes, opening up some humanitarian corridors so you can get some supplies and medical assistance in. But it cannot be done on just a unilateral basis. The Emiratis would have to agree to that. But also, Iranian troublemaking in that country needs to come to an end. And unfortunately, the head of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, is a very aggressive, diabolical individual who is spearheading a lot of these Iranian efforts. So, like many of these issues around the world, this does not have an easy solution. But I do think some calmer heads and cooler heads need to be thinking about ways to bring the level of violence down.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Columbia University.
FASKIANOS: Hello? Operator, do we need to move on?
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.
Q: Oh, great. So my name is Jen (sp).
And first, I want to thank you, Mr. Brennan, for your service to our nation. And my question is, although it seems like there is a lot of chaos and things that we do not know what this administration is doing or is going to do, I also believe there are some opportunities that’s under the radar. For example, President Trump did sign and pass the Women’s Peace and Security Act. I was wondering if you had any recommendation or strategy that you may, if you had the opportunity to recommend to the administration, you would give.
BRENNAN: Well, recommendations. As I mentioned at the outset, you know, I am concerned on the security front. I know that Tom Bossert, who is the current assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism has taken some steps in this regard in terms of working with Silicon Valley and some of the technologists. I do think this is critically important. I do believe that the administration needs to take a stronger stand on human rights issues around the world. Unfortunately, I think some of the engagements with authoritarian leaders in some countries have sent the wrong signals. President Duterte in the Philippines I think has a very well-deserved reputation for some ruthless actions that are inconsistent with democratic principles.
And I do think that the United States needs to maintain its decades-long role as being a defender of liberty and freedom, and making sure that we speak out loud and clearly when we see violations of human rights and human dignity. And I do think that there needs to be in some areas a more sophisticated understanding on the part of the administration about the complexities of some issues. And again, I would recommend that these insults and caustic remarks do not help these very difficult issues to come to—get to a better place. But also I think it’s—they’re inconsistent with how the world has traditionally come to look at the United States, as being a country that is not just interested in its own national security, but since World War II, and the Marshall Plan, and reconstruction of many countries, that we are seen as this beacon of hope and this beacon of support and development because I think our view in the country has been when all countries rise, it certainly is in U.S. national security interests.
So my recommendations, I could have, you know, a number of them on specific issues. But I think overall I think the tone and the sentiments that come out of Washington have tremendous resonance, reverberations, and impacts. And my recommendation to the administration would be, be thoughtful about not only what is said but how it is said, and the signal it is sending to the world.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Q: Oh, I apologize.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from University of Central Florida.
Q: Hello. My name is Alison Wolfarth. I’m with the University of Central Florida Global Perspectives Office.
My question is in reference to Russia. Given the mixed approaches towards U.S.-Russian relations, how would you advise the administration approach towards the recent accusations of Russian assistance with oil and fuel to North Korea, despite all the sanctions in place?
BRENNAN: Well, I think there have been a number of reports about countries that have circumvented the international sanctions on North Korea. It’s not just Russia. It’s also China. And I think whenever we see that, we need to confront the violators very honestly and directly. If we’re going to be able to make progress on a very, very vexing issue, such as North Korea, we need to make sure that those parties that purport to be interested in a peaceful resolution of this problem are going to adhere to their international responsibilities and the agreements that they have signed onto. And making sure that the sanctions are going to be as strong and as widely respected as possible is critical to their effectiveness.
So I am still rather puzzled by what I hear coming out of the White House in terms of comments about Russia. I think Mr. Putin is well-aware of what his government and his intelligence security services, you know, are doing. I think we need to make sure we speak forthrightly to the Russians. I am a believer in trying to improve relations with Russia, but it needs to be done with eyes wide open and with full appreciation for some of the things that Russia has done and continues to do. And we need to make sure we let Russia know we’re not going to ignore these transgressions.
And if Russia wants to reclaim what it believes is its rightful place on the world stage, and a prominent place, it needs to act responsibly. It needs to act like the superpower it aspires to be. It certainly has, you know, tremendous influence in many global issues. It certainly has military capability and might. But it needs to act in better accord with, again, what is expected of a country. So if it is helping North Korea in the shadows, that needs to be exposed and it needs to stop. And unless we speak honestly to the Russians about that and other issues, the Russians are not going to take us seriously.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Washington and Lee University. Go ahead.
Q: Mr. Brennan, thank you for speaking with us today.
You mentioned the goal of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. Is there a point at which implementing this concept becomes no longer viable? And if so, what is that point?
BRENNAN: Well, I think there are already challenges to it, obviously, as a result of some of the actions that have been taken over the past, you know, couple of decades. The settlement activity in many parts of the West Bank I think are an obstacle. If there’s going to be some type of two-state solution, we need to make sure that some of the concepts of such a settlement need to be practically implemented. And the more adjustments there are sort of on the ground make that—make that more difficult. I’m a strong believer that there needs to be a two-state solution. I was very, very pleased with my interactions with the Palestinian officials over the years in terms of their willingness and interest in trying to maintain calm, even in times of tension. I think the Palestinian Authority security intelligence officials have done a very good job over the years trying to tamp down some of these extremist sentiments that tried to make their way certainly into the West Bank
And the more actions that are seen as provocative, as well as inconsistent with at least the vision of a two-state solution, I think your point is a valid one that it’s going to make that type of settlement more and more, in the eyes of many, practical. I believe that there can be incremental progress made. It doesn’t need to be a full settlement right away. I think there are some steps that can be taken that’s going to increase mutual understanding and trust that will bring some of the more rational actors to the table and recognize that the continuation of this—of this problem and conflict is not in anybody’s interest. And I’m hoping that we haven’t lost that opportunity because of some of these recent developments. Again, I consider the U.S. decision—or, the Trump administration decision to recognize Jerusalem and move our capital there as being a setback. And it’s not going to be conductive to, as you point out, a viable, practical solution in the future.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from University of New Mexico. University of New Mexico, your line is live.
FASKIANOS: Maybe it’s on mute? Why don’t we go on? I know we have—
Q: Yes, please. This is Michael Baden (sp) from the University of New Mexico.
Q: You spoke to the continuity of previous policies, which for the last few decades has emphasized regional and non-state belligerence, and reacting to that. However, this year’s National Defense Strategy states emphatically that interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern to U.S. strategy. This is echoed in the Nuclear Posture Review that was released on Friday, and yesterday there was an announcement for a military parade. One of your questions you answered a few minutes ago spoke to the tone coming out of Washington. What do you think the impact of these words in our National Security Strategies, published, and, again, public displays like the parade will have going forward?
BRENNAN: Well, I don’t think it’s helpful at all. As you point out, some of the language in the National Security Strategy, you know, harkens back to the says of the Cold War and the superpower conflict and interstate conflict. And I think there’s probably a reason for that. As military budgets are being, you know, increased, and, you know, advocated for more of that. I do think it’s critically important, obviously, for the U.S. military to be the strongest, most capable on the face of the Earth, which it is. But some of these signals coming out in terms of U.S. flexing its military muscles—and this idea of a military parade in Washington, I just shake my head in disbelief.
I mean, these are the things that I have seen in third-world dictatorships and authoritarian regimes as they trot out the latest missile, you know, with troops, you know, marching along the main thoroughfares. I mean, that’s what Kim Jong-un loves to do. And if now the United States is going to resort to some of these, you know, tactics, what have we come to as a nation? So I feel pretty strongly that, you know, the United States really is strong and respected because of who we are and what we are and how we conduct our foreign policy on national security. But a lot of the beating of the chests and a lot of this very bombastic rhetoric I think is just very, very sort of antithetical to our values and to our history and to who we are.
So I’m hoping that, again, some calmer heads will prevail. And again, the idea of, you know, Abrams tanks and other types of things going down Pennsylvania Avenue, just to give Mr. Trump a sense that, you know, we can throw a military parade as good as any other country around the world—aside from the, you know, tremendous costs associated with that, I just think it sends a very bad signal. We are not militaristic by nature. We have great military might, and we’ll use it to keep this country strong and safe and to do what we can to use the world safe, but this type of attitude and rhetoric and actions I find very disappointing, disconcerting, and troubling.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question come for Syracuse University.
Q: Hi. Thank you for your time. Given Trump’s more hostile tone towards Iran, and some information out now out about Project Cassandra, what do you project the Trump administration’s actions or polices towards Hezbollah will be?
BRENNAN: Well, I think, you know, Hezbollah is a very dangerous organization in terms of its terrorist capabilities, its paramilitary capabilities that it’s built up in Lebanon over the years, but also in other countries. Hezbollah continues to work with a number of coreligionist groups and extremist groups in different parts of the region and the world. We know that they have an international infrastructure network that they can call upon. So I think we have to be very diligent in making sure that we uncover and neutralize any of these Hezbollah terrorist activities.
And Iran, and, again the Quds Force and Qasem Soleimani, are the supports and the instigators of Hezbollah. At the same time, Hezbollah is a member of the Lebanese government. I have been long criticized for advocating to try to get some of the members of Hezbollah who are not advocates of terrorist or the paramilitary adventurism, to see whether or not we can get them to isolate and then to destroy those terrorist dimensions. I think that, you know, there are some within the Trump administration that understand that these are—this is a complex issue. But unfortunately, I think there’s also a group of folks in the administration who believe that the only way you’re going to be able to address these issues is with either military force or might.
Not everything is a nail out there that you need to use a hammer with. I think there are more effective ways. And one of the great things about the United States over the years is that while we have great hard power, and we use it and we use it I think wisely and judiciously, we also have great soft power. And this is where we need to work with foreign counterparts to make sure we give them the capabilities—whether it be on the intelligence or security or defense front, as well as judicial and diplomatic fronts—that they can deal with some of these issues. We cannot be the world’s policemen and the world’s soldier. We have to make sure that there’s going to be partnerships that are going to assist in the efforts to stop terrorism and extremism and to try to bring more political pluralism and democratic institutions into the global arena.
So I don’t know what—how the Trump administration plans to pursue its Hezbollah policy. Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of misrepresentations and mischaracterizations out there about what some of the practices, policies, and approaches were of past administrations. But again, it seems to be a hallmark of this administration to point to mistakes and missteps or problems of previous administrations. That’s very unfortunate.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from University of Washington.
Q: Hey, Director, good morning. Am I muted? Yeah. Hey, Director, good morning. Thank you for your time. The back and forth over the last year, particularly with the House Intelligence Committee, has, I think, fairly been considered to strain the relationship between the intelligence community and that committee. But do you have any thoughts separate from all of that of ways in which the oversight relationship between intelligence agencies and the Congress needs to evolve, should evolve, lessons that ought to be applied to that relationship? Thank you.
BRENNAN: Boy, that’s another good question and issue. When I was in the CIA, and I was in the CIA from 1980 to 2005, and in the 1990s and early 2000s I had to go up in front of the committees—the committees of jurisdiction, committees of both the House and the Senate numerous times. And it was my clear impression that the members of both parties, when they entered those committee chambers, they would leave their party affiliation behind because they really saw that national security intelligence issues were too important to politicize. Quite unfortunately, it’s been my experience over the last several years that there’s more and more partisanship that is taking place. And I think it—in those committees. And I think it reflects overall the disintegration of the—of the interaction between the Democrats and Republicans, writ large.
And I’d never seen partisanship in Washington as bad as I’ve seen it today. And it affects so many things. Whether it’s, you know, making sure we have a budget and we don’t close down the government, or whether or not we are able to deal appropriately with the DREAMers and border security and other issues. Unfortunately, there are—it’s been very polarizing. And so I think we need to get in a better place as far as that interaction between the partisans. And it’s really up to the chairs and the ranking members, and the vice chairmen of the committees, to set the tone for those committees.
That’s why I’m very pleased that in the Senate—the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the chairmen, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia, I think have worked well together. And they have put national security interest above party interest and above personal interest. Unfortunately, within the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Devin Nunes I think has demonstrated his real strong partisanship and his interest in doing things that put self and party above those national security interests. So you need to have the right people in the right positions. That, I think, is going to be able to make some progress while we try to resolve some of these broader and deeper partisan issues.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Washington University in St. Louis.
Q: Hi. My name is Sam Cohen (sp).
My question is about a country that’s often not talked about, which is Venezuela. We know Venezuela to be an important country with regards to its oil reserves and its role in drug trafficking prevention. Also, due to the recent events, the humanitarian crisis there and the socialist dictatorship under Maduro, the country’s almost on the brink of collapse. So I’m curious if you think the U.S. should be interested in Venezuela, if this is in the U.S. interest to get involved, and if at your time at the CIA Venezuela or other countries that often don’t get media spotlight are talked about and considered.
BRENNAN: OK. Wow, these are all very good questions. And Venezuela is an important country. It’s in our hemisphere. And we would basically be remiss if we didn’t deal with it seriously and effectively. Unfortunately, that country and the Venezuelan citizens have been so ill-served by Maduro and Chavez before him. A country with great natural resource, oil wealth, which has squandered that wealth. And it’s a result of incompetent leadership and very corrupt leadership. As you say, the Venezuelan economy and security situation seem to be on the precipice of collapse. I am always surprised at the resilience and the tolerance of the Venezuelan people to put up with this pain and suffering.
Right now, it really—Venezuelan stability and security depend on continued Cuban and Chinese support. I think this is one of the things that we have to be mindful of. As the Chinese are becoming more involved and engaged in our hemisphere, if we are distracted by all these other things we’re not going to take the appropriate steps that we need to in order to fill our—what I believe are our hemispheric obligations and responsibilities.
So I think it also reflects right now the absence of leadership within the Department of State in terms of, you know, making sure that there’s going to be the experienced professionals, and diplomats, who are able to deal with these issues and engage not just with the Venezuelans, but the other Latin American and South American countries, so that there can be a more unified approach to this. But I am concerned that, you know, Venezuela is still descending into chaos. And more and more Venezuelans are going to be beset by government ineptitude, as well as criminality and violence that exists there. And while we’ve made some strides in places in Colombia, as a result of, you know, constant U.S. serious engagement in Colombia, we see Venezuela sliding into the abyss of chaos. And that’s not something that I think is acceptable or we should allow to happen.
FASKIANOS: John, thank you very much for your time today. We pride ourselves on ending at the appropriate hour, and we’ve reached that—the witching hour. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to everybody’s questions. But, you know, this has been a really rich hour. And as somebody said on the call, thank you, John Brennan, to your service to this country. And we hope, as he said at the beginning of the call, that you will all consider careers in government, because it is so important. So, thank you, John.
BRENNAN: Thank you, Irina. Thanks, everyone. Appreciate it.
FASKIANOS: Our next call will be on Wednesday, February 21 at 12:00 p.m. with Rachel Vogelstein, who will talk about women’s economic advancement and how it can promote sustainable growth. So I hope you will join us for that call. In the meantime, please visit CFRCampus.org, and follow us on Twitter at @CFR_Campus for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. So thank you all again, and I hope your semester is off to a terrific start.