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TRANSCRIPT | June 19, 2020

Gen. McKenzie Interview Transcript Aspen Security Forum June 18, 2020

David Ignatius: You're now ready and able to join us. Let's just pause for a minute and make sure the technology can work.

General McKenzie: David I both see and hear you. How about me?

David Ignatius: Yes, sir. You just came online. That's fabulous. I hope our audience can see you as well. And so, General McKenzie, let me ask you to take up the question I posed a minute ago after General Milley's comments last week. What would you say on behalf of CENTCOM about the importance of keeping the military out of politics?

General McKenzie: Sure. So, David, the tradition of an apolitical military is fundamental to our idea of what a republic should be. And I thought the chairman's comments of last week were both eloquent and very clear on what that means. And I think he was very courageous in making those comments. And I fully endorse them. And I think he was right on. You know at U.S. Central Command, it's very easy to be focused on the mission because the mission is large, complex, and it really does eat up almost all our time. But I think, but I have taken the trouble and we'll continue to push the chairman's remarks out to all the men and women in U.S. Central Command that I fully endorse and I think they were needed and spot on, David.

David Ignatius: And General McKenzie, have you set your own message to the forces under your command underlining the message that's come from the chairman?

General McKenzie: Sure. We do that primarily verbally. A lot of written messages out there. Sometimes it's easier for them just to see it. So I have the opportunity to talk to my headquarters staff here, which is several thousand people a couple of times a week. So I will typically take the opportunity on Monday mornings and Friday mornings to talk about events of the day. And this is certainly the type of thing we would talk about as well as to play a song. And it's hotly debated what that song is going to be. So a little bit of humor in that part of that process, but it gives me an opportunity to talk about things like this. So I do that. Additionally, I talk to my commanders several times a week and it gives me and through that forum, I have the opportunity to also pass on the wise counsel of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And again, I think he was spot on. I think it was good counsel. And I push it down to my subordinates.

David Ignatius: Right. Well, I appreciate your starting us off with that kind of baseline. General McKenzie, let me now turn to your area of operations, and I'd like to start with the country that's on the top of most people's list of concerns. Certainly the president's, and I suspect yours as well, and that's Iran. What are you seeing currently in terms of the Iranian threat? Iran is reported to be suffering in a significant way from COVID-19, also to have real economic problems. Do you see any sign that they're moderating their behavior, moderating their threats toward U.S. or Saudi Arabia? Any sign of them backing away from the kind of confrontation that was so obvious a year ago?

General McKenzie: Thanks, David. First, I just I do need to thank the Aspen Security Forum and Nicholas Burns for the invitation to speak here today. I very much think it's important that we have these kinds of discussions. The American people and the international community need to know that we are transparent and we want to share as much information as we can. So this forum is a great opportunity to do it so I'm delighted to have the opportunity to do that. I'm going to take a little bit of time with that question and unpack it a little bit, because, as usual, you've sort of seen to the heart of the matter and it really is a relationship with Iran. And what that means because it colors other relationships across the theater and what it means to our presence there. So I want to talk a little bit about tensions with Iran. And so first thing I'd begin by saying is I would like to dispel the myth that the U.S. military presence in the theater and actions that we've taken in our area of responsibility contribute to the building of tensions with Iran. I think it's a false narrative. We, the United States, don't seek conflict with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia, neither does the UAE, or any of our other partners and allies in the region. We never have. If you examine over a period of time Iranian actions in our U.S. and our international reactions from our partners, you'll come to the conclusion that the United States and our GCC partners in particular, or Gulf Cooperation Council partners, the nations in the region, have repeatedly responded to serious Iranian, irresponsible and outrageous provocations with a measured and defensive posture that has generally tried to lower tensions. And I'd like to just spend a minute and give you a couple of examples on that, because it may be instructive. So going back a year ago, in May of 2019, Iran loaded cruise missiles onto a dhow in what was almost certainly intended to be a covert platform to conduct a deniable attack. How we prevented that from happening was we simply did what we would call in our language an ISR soak. Platforms overhead that continually look at the ship until Iran abandoned their plans. Why? Because they don't like it when their plans are exposed to sunlight when they actually have to be responsible for what they contemplate doing. And this particular case, our measured actions, prevented an attack and certainly contributed to a reduction of tensions. Just a little bit later, in May and June of 2019, IRGC commandos attacked commercial tankers in the UAE, Port of Fujairah, and at sea in the Gulf of Oman. The United States assembled an eight nation international coalition to provide around the clock maritime and reconnaissance presence in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz. The mission of the International Maritime Security Construct, or IMSC as we sometimes call it, was to provide continuous presence and expose the source and nature of maritime attacks. Some international partners refused to join that effort and told U.S. that they thought a defensive construct designed to preserve and promote the freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce was escalatory. I think events since then have proven that assertion to be false. The IMSC is not part of our maximum pressure campaign against Iran. So was the IMSC escalatory? I think the emphatic answer is no. In fact, since the IMSC's founding, there have not been any Iranian attacks on maritime shipping in the area and there haven't even been any serious confrontations with Iranian maritime forces in the area of the Strait of Hormuz. We think this is because our presence makes deniable attacks less likely to succeed. So they've chosen not to try. Again, I come back to my point that the exposure of Iranian activities is a powerful tool and it's a non-kinetic and a de-escalatory tool that we routinely employ. A clear result of the IMSC has been a result of the drawdown in tensions. In June of 2019, when Iran shot down a U.S. drone in international airspace in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz, the United States again chose a measured defensive response. The president exhibited tremendous restraint and leadership towards what was clearly an international violation of airspace or an intentional violation of international airspace by Iran. We added additional defensive systems to the region and additional reconnaissance assets to closely watch Iran. Again, the United States avoided escalation and met provocation with firm but measured resolve. In September of 2019, Iran conducted a state on state attack on the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia, the Aramco refineries. Both the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, took a measured defensive approach. We called for an international response to protect the region from future ballistic missile and UAV attacks. We added additional defensive systems into the kingdom, radar and other platforms, as did our international partners. And we advised the Saudis on how to better place and link their own defensive systems to make this kind of attack harder in the future. We continue to work with them to improve their capabilities. You can never rule out a potential future Iranian attack. I will point out that there have been no additional attacks since the radar and defensive systems (were put in). Again, U.S. actions made it more difficult for Iran to conduct similar attacks in the future. And we also had the opportunity to advance regional security. And I would argue it also lowered tensions. So in December of 2019, Iranian backed militias at the direction of Iran conducted repeated dangerous and irresponsible rocket attacks on Iraqi bases that hosted U.S. service members. The U.S. urged the Iraqis to act. We enhanced our defensive posture and we explicitly warned the Iranians to cease the attacks. Only when a U.S. contractor was killed and we had evidence that Iran was orchestrating these attacks on Iraqi bases and plotting additional attacks, then we took action to strike both the Iranian backed militias and the mastermind of the Iranian backed attacks. It's also important to note that when Iran's, counterstrike killed no U.S. service members at al-Assad or Erbil, in January 2020, the United States took steps to break the cycle of escalation by not responding to Iran's ballistic missile attack. Ultimately, it was the United States again, who decided to de-escalate and maintain a strong defensive posture. In March of 2020, when Iranian-backed militias again attacked an Iraqi base, killing two American and one British service members. The United States responded with carefully scoped defensive strikes against those militias to degrade their ability to attack U.S. and coalition service members. Without a definite link to Iran, we refrained from striking Iran. Beyond the strike, we added Patriot missiles to Iraq and increased our defensive posture, making it harder to conduct similar attacks. In April of this year, IRGC boats again harassed U.S. ships in the Northern Arabian Gulf, which I would note is away from the IMSC location down the Strait of Hormuz. The United States responded to dangerous and provocative behavior with professionalism. We simply chose to expose Iranian behavior to an international audience. Look at the video, it's widely available. You can see the difference between the best navy in the world and a group of amateurs unsure of themselves. We believe that embarrassing exposure of activities like this for the Iranians is unwanted. It makes it more likely they'll try to avoid similar activities in the future. So let me sort of begin to wrap up your very good question. If you look at what we've done, I think it's clear that we've repeatedly sought to avoid conflict. We continue to take actions that reduce tensions. We've repeatedly taken a measured defensive approach. That's what the American people should expect of their professional military. At the same time, if you look at Iranian actions and provocations, you see that the regime in Iran has repeatedly sought escalation in the mistaken belief that such behavior will get the United States to leave the region or force U.S. to abandon the economic and diplomatic maximum pressure campaign that has damaged Iran's ability to fund their external hegemonic activities in the region. Iran has attempted to intimidate our regional partners by attacking them in hopes of dissuading them from cooperation with the United States. So in my opinion, the tension narrative, which gets a lot of play in some quarters, is simply a myth. The U.S. military presence in the CENTCOM region is a force promoting security and stability in the face of Iranian aggression. The truth is what is repeatedly reported is the tension is simply Iranian provocations and escalatory action that are designed to degrade security and stability in the region. The final point on this, Iran has profoundly misjudged American resolve. We're not going to quit the region in response to Iranian pressure. I've said this several times before, and I'll note it again here. While Iran may own the early steps of the escalatory ladder because the United States is attempting to avoid conflict, Iran needs to understand that the United States clearly owns the final steps in any escalatory ladder. And I think it's just an important a point to note. So if tensions decreased because Iran renounced the escalatory cycle, I think the jury's out on that. But I think the answer is largely no. First, as you see from the examples I provided there have been repeated stretches, which the Iranians have, for whatever reason, paused attacks and have gone quiet as they plan or contemplate their next provocation. So I don't think the respite that we've had recently is a clear signal that the regime in Iran has reduced or renounced the cycle of escalation. Second, I think the pause in attacks in Iraq, which may have been the result of a confluence of factors including leadership churn in the IRGC following the death of Soleimani, changes to U.S. force posture in Iraq, the impact of COVID-19 on Iran and an Iranian desire to lay low in the face of protests by the Iraqi people on Iranian influence during Iraq's search for a new prime minister. So there's a variety of things that may have affected that. Third, I think we're seeing a beginning of a spike in unprovoked rocket attacks on Iraqi bases that host U.S. forces in Iraq. It's my belief that Iran and its proxies are beginning to turn to that because they see they've been unable to prevail in the political realm in Iraq. The last point I'd like to hit on is we talked a little bit about COVID. And I would like to talk about that. So what is the effect of COVID on Iranian actions? It has had an effect, but it hasn't stopped their efforts. The triple challenges of sanctions, low oil prices and the COVID have made it difficult for Iran to raise hard currency and to fund their budget. We've deprived the regime of many billions of dollars, but the effect on external operations has been tempered by a couple of factors. First of all, prioritization. The regime in Iran has chosen to fund their own privileged elite and their external activities at a higher priority than the services they provide for the Iranian people. Second, the IRGC has developed a robust internal capability to produce a variety of weapons. While some funding for proxies has been curtailed. The weapons continue to flow because they're produced internally in Iran. So while the Iranian medical system was in many ways overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak and medical supplies have run short, the Houthis, for example, have continued to be supplied with the best weapons the Iranians can produce. I think it's also important to note the weapons and the training to use them are the full extent of Iranian exports to their proxies. The Houthis have a significant COVID problem of their own, the Iranians have not, to my knowledge, provided any medical assistance to their proxy for that fight with the virus. So I think ultimately the contrast between our action and their actions is compelling. And largely we're out there to advance security and stability. Iran, for their own reasons, intends to take actions to degrade it. David, I'll pause there. That's a long answer, but I thought it was important to sort of set certain established themes that we can come back to.

David Ignatius: Thank you. That sets the scene, those are fundamental issues and that's a good baseline for us. If I were just to note two points and ask you to underline them. If I hear you right, you're saying that deterrence has been established with Iran after the death of Qasem Soleimani and other U.S. actions, but I also hear you saying that the Iranians are stepping up rocket attacks in Iraq. So that leads me to ask you to focus next on Iraq as a theater of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran and specifically the negotiations that have just begun between us and the Iraqis about the future U.S. military presence in Iraq. What are you seeking in those negotiations and what are we going to do if there are more rocket strikes that put American soldiers and contractors in Iraq at risk?

General McKenzie: So I think we see, let me start with the Iran, and I'll come to Iraq, which, as you know and I agree, is the principal theater of confrontation. So within national leadership in Iran, as much as we can see, there are a couple of competing threads. First of all, I don't believe they want a war with the United States because they know how that war will end. So that's a theme that we see there. The second point is they do, as a policy objective, want to eject us from the theater. And they'd like to begin with Iraq going to that end. But those threads are further complicated by the impact of COVID, which has high penetration in the senior leadership of Iran and frankly, by the fact that the Qasem Soleimani is no longer there. The individual who pulled so many threads together for so long, typically the last person to speak, the one who summed up, and the one who had a direct relationship with the supreme leader. So we're seeing conflicting approaches from Iran as we go forward. I do believe that we are in what I would call a period of contested deterrence as a result of that. I believe that Iran is deterred from large scale conflict with us. And that is a thing. However, at the same time, they're still wedded to an ejection of us from the theater. Clearly, those are two divergent objectives. And I do not believe they have finally ultimately reconciled those in their own lines. Let me just turn to Iraq, which is what your question was about, and talk a little bit about that. So I think the strategic dialogue that we began last week at the ministerial level with the government of Iraq is a remarkably good news story. It's going to give us an opportunity to go far beyond the security pillar, which is my principal concern, but also to talk about the economic way forward and a variety of other things that are of mutual interest between our two governments. And that is made possible actually by the (inaudible) of Prime Minister Kadhimi and his government, which I think is going to be committed to undertake to fulfill their obligations under international law, to provide protection for U.S. forces that are there. So I would note in response to the attacks that have happened, we have seen the Iraqis be very aggressive in attempting to respond against those attacks. And ultimately, that's where we'd like to be. If someone wants to attack U.S. Coalition forces inside Iraq, we turn to Iraq first to provide that defense. And I think that this prime minister and his government are committed to doing that. And so I'm very positive about that. Now, we have also undertaken measures to help ourselves. We're in the process of right sizing our force structure there. You know, it's been large. We're probably going to get smaller. I don't know exactly where it's going to end. But I will tell you this, whatever force structure we're at is going to be a number that's arrived at in complete coordination and consultation with the government of Iraq. And I do not believe that number is going to be zero. I believe they're going to want us to stay because they see the utility of partnering with us and not only the United States, but also our coalition, NATO partners and other folks that are there to finish the fight against ISIS. Largely finished, still work to be done. And so that's why many Iraqi operations, main force operations are now undertaken independently. We provide some intelligence support to them, we may provide some fire support for them when necessary, but largely those are their own operations. We also work with them closely in the CT realm going forward. So that, you know, so clearly that's what you want. You don't want to maintain a large force presence there. You eventually want to get smaller because we do have other uses for those forces and there are other things we can do with them outside the CENTCOM AOR. So I think Iraq is beginning to take the right steps. I am, again, I'm very, very pleased with where we are in the strategic dialogue. It will pick up back up hopefully next month in the United States if medical conditions, you know, the coronavirus condition will allow them to travel. If not, we'll find another way to do it. But that is on track and moving out. And I think it's a very good story and that is profoundly frustrating to Iran as they look at it. They believe that they had an opportunity actually to, you know, to get what they wanted, which is ejection of the United States through the political process. So let me cite you just one bit of information that came to my attention yesterday. There's an independent public polling organization that we use IIACSS, the Independent Institute of Administration and Civil Studies, which is the Iraq equivalent really of the Gallup poll, just finished a polling data. So they found that Iraq's public opinion of Iran fell from 70 percent approval in 2017 to about 15 percent approval rating today. In fact, for the first time in a long time, the U.S. had a higher favor ability rating than Iran in Iraq. Now, I'm not going to I'm not going to tell you it's more than about a third because we're never going to poll very high in Iraq. But nonetheless, the fact that among people polled in a very good scientific survey, we actually polled higher than Iran, is something that should give us all pause that we're actually perhaps beginning to accomplish some of our objectives in Iraq that we've pursued for a long time. And we've spilled a lot of blood on that path. But we've never been in a better place than we are now. So, David, I'll pause there.

David Ignatius: So that's some fascinating poll numbers. And just to make sure that I and our viewers understand, it's your goal and expectation that as a result of the negotiations going on now, we will maintain some presence, I'm assuming, some few thousands less than we have now, of forces in Iraq that can do the job of training their CT forces, other missions, but that you expect that to go forward. Am I right?

General McKenzie: You know, so, our objective is we want a secure, stable, independent Iraq. And so that's the goal we share with our Iraqi partners. Yes, I think our numbers are going to get smaller and we would want them to get smaller. As the Iraqis become more comfortable executing operations. We can reduce our forces and we'll do that. I don't know what that number is going to be, but there is no appetite on the part of the Iraqis for a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces. They don't want it because they know that we still provide very, very good support for them as they continue operations against ISIS. And ISIS, while substantively defeated, certainly, is a ground holding organization, still has the capability to pose threats in Iraq and in Syria. And there's work that yet needs to be done there. And that's work that we can help them do, not only the United States, but also our NATO and our coalition partners as we go forward.

David Ignatius: So, let me ask you to turn to Syria and the larger question of ISIS. Give us a picture of the stability situation in Syria, in particular in the area northeast Syria, where U.S. Special Forces have been working now for years with the Syrian Democratic Forces, Kurdish led, which have faced a real onslaught from the north, from Turkey. What's the situation there? How much longer do you see U.S. forces remaining in northeast Syria and what the heck's going to happen if they pull out? There's continued fear that Iran might exploit that vacuum. What's the alternative? If we end up leaving and giving that area up to Iran?

General McKenzie: Here's the situation right now. As you know, we have a U.S. force presence in what we call the Eastern Syrian Security Area. It generally runs along the Euphrates River and up to the north. And as you noted, it's northeast Syria and eastern Syria. Additionally, we have forces at ATG, what we know is At Tanf Garrison, which is just north of Jordan, inside Syria, right up where the Iraqi border abuts the Jordanian border and joins with Syria. So right now, what we're committed to doing in Syria is working with our SDF partners to continue to pursue the remnants of ISIS that exist up and down the Euphrates River Valley, so at the same time, set the conditions for long term stability east of the Euphrates River. As the SDF prepares the local security forces that are ultimately what's going to be needed to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. Because here's the thing. It's easy to defeat. It's easy to go in there and clear a mountain. What is very hard is ensuring that there is no resurgence. In order to do that, you have to have local and locally accountable security mechanisms that can prevent the rise of cells and ground holding entities. So that's what we seek to do with our SDF partners. Now, how long that's going to go on, David? I don't know the answer to that question. That's ultimately a political issue, not a military issue. I've been given no direction to pull back right now, and I don't know when that would occur, under what conditions that would occur. I can tell you that as long as we stay we're going to continue to do the activities that I've just directed. And a key part of those activities, as in Iraq, is of course prevention of ISIS recurrence that would allow external attacks to be developed against the United States. By that, I mean attacks against our homeland. So there's a very compelling reason to be in there and continue to work with our SDF partners. David, I'll pause there.

David Ignatius: So just to be clear, General, the question I think people would want to know is whether the ISIS threat, the threat to the homeland, the threat to the region as well is adequately contained, now? What's your comfort level is about that?

General McKenzie: So, knock on wood, today. I think we have significant pressure on ISIS and it's very hard to plan attacks against the United States when you don't know where you're going to sleep that night. Are you worried that we're going to come get you through our through our SDF partners? So I think strong pressure, strong pressure against ISIS, continued strong pressure against ISIS is the best way to prevent that. And David, I'll just note that, look, the future is never going to be bloodless in this region, even under the most optimistic of conditions. It's going to be a bloody future. They're still going to be ISIS cells that emerge, actions that are going to need to be taken. Our bar of success, though, is that you want to get to a point where local forces can work these issues without significant assistance from us or other international forces. That's our aspirational goal. I never think we're going to get to a point where there's not going to be continued low level fighting, because that's just the nature of where we are right now. But we want to be able to have trained local forces that are going to be accountable to appropriate civilian leadership that can actually keep the pressure on ISIS.

David Ignatius: So, General, let me turn to the eastern edge of your area of operations, Afghanistan. Which, as you know better than anybody, is America's longest war at this point. President Trump has said that he would like to be out of Afghanistan and his emissary, Zalmay Khalilzad, has negotiated an agreement for peace in Afghanistan that calls for significant reductions of U.S. forces. My question is a simple one. Are you going to have enough time before that peace deal is implemented to protect U.S. forces there and have some good chance of maintaining stability in Afghanistan? And what's your current assessment of where the country is slipping backwards? Reading a lot of the news stories, you can't help but think that the Taliban are continuing to push, that the Afghanistan national army is on its back foot and that there's trouble ahead.

General McKenzie: Sure David. So there are actually sort of four elements to the agreement of February 2020. The first element is that the Taliban has to agree that they will not allow basing of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan operate against us. And by that, we mean principally al-Qaida and ISIS. The second thing is we've agreed that we would withdraw over stated period of time if those conditions are met. Third thing is inter-Afghan negotiations will begin between the government of Afghanistan and Taliban representatives. That would eventually lead to a fourth thing, which would be a cease fire. So those are sort of the four things that are out there. And what I would tell you now is we have met our part of the agreement. We agreed to go to mid 8000 range within one hundred thirty five days. We're at that number now. So we have done that. We have also, I would note that we've agreed by May of 2021 would eventually go to zero. We can do that. But we have noted all along that is a conditions based approach and conditions would have to be met that satisfy us, that attacks against our homeland are not going to be generated from Afghanistan. So that's not the Taliban. What that is, is actually, of course, al-Qaida and ISIS. The Taliban have no capability or actual aspiration to attack the United States. But by hosting those two other groups, they would allow those attacks to be generated. Right now, they said they're, you know, they said in varying degrees that they're going to prevent that. The jury is still very much out on that. And so I, we, will watch the Taliban. I've said before in a couple of a couple of sessions that, look, we don't need to listen to what they say. We need to listen to what they do. And so we're watching what they do right now. And they have not yet completely made that case. There remains an opportunity for them to do it. The time is now beginning to grow short. Now, the other part of the equation is the Taliban are maintaining a very high a high level of violence against Afghan military forces. They are scrupulously avoiding attacking coalition and U.S. forces. And they stayed out of the cities. But the level of violence is still too high. That level of violence needs to come down. They need to show that they're going to be willing partners to reduce it and enter into a negotiation with the government of Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan, as you know, has gone through a rocky election process. However, they now have a president and they have a negotiator to talk to the Taliban. So I think the government of Afghanistan is poised to begin those inter Afghan negotiations. That is going to be a key event that's, you know, days in the future. And that's going to be a hinge moment, I think, in the future of Afghanistan. If they can come to an agreement, if they can complete the prisoner swaps that are underway right now that are part of that, if they can come to a way forward, then we can look at what that future security environment is going to be. Look, clearly, if we have a government of Afghanistan that will complete it, that will carry out its obligations to prevent hosting entities that want to attack the west in the eastern part of Afghanistan, then we could go very small numbers in Afghanistan. I just don't know what those conditions are going to be right now. And so we're very focused on what the Taliban is doing, how they're participating in these negotiations as we go forward. The jury is still very much out. I'll pause there David.

David Ignatius: So just to make sure that we're understanding just where you are, because this is a crucial issue, America's longest war. I understood you to say that unless you see an additional reduction in violence from the Taliban. Consistent with what was envisioned in the peace agreement. And unless you see clearer evidence that they are actually prepared to do something about the continued presence of al-Qaida and ISIS, your military advice would be that that you're not confident about going forward because the conditions in this conditions based agreement have not been met. Am I reading that right?

General McKenzie: David that's correct. Of course, military input is only one of the inputs that it's going to be considered. And I'll have an opportunity to give that input. As we look, we look at the road ahead. Taliban still has time to do the things they need to do. They still have time to make it very clear what their position is going to be on al-Qaida. Look, we all we know already that there are no friends of ISIS and will actually work very hard against ISIS and have done so. So I believe they will certainly, for their own reasons, operate against ISIS. But we need to see is what they're going to do against al-Qaida. And we need to see that in deeds, and not words. Additionally, it's going to be hard actually, to see how are you going to have intra Afghan negotiations and reach some way of an agreement forward where attacks are still going at a very high level against the government of Afghanistan. And, of course, the sovereign government of Afghanistan is going to have a vote in that and a position on that as well.

David Ignatius: So I want to just remind our viewers that you're going to be able to ask your own questions of General McKenzie if you would use those with the chat and question functions. Those will be collated by folks at the Aspen Security Forum and then passed to me. And we'll do that in another few minutes. General McKenzie, I want to ask you to stand back a minute and think about your area of operations in the larger context. The United States has struggled with the Middle East now for decades, certainly since I began covering it in 1980. And it's been a series of what President Trump calls, but I think many Americans would agree, a series of endless wars producing often very little in the way of strategic gains for the United States. And I want to ask you, as the combatant commander in that region, whether you see going forward an alternative American posture, a way we can hold back somewhat from commitments, but still provide the security and support for our allies. How's that basic effort going?

General McKenzie: David, the National Defense Strategy posits a renewed sense of the threat that China and Russia pose. I was present at the creation of that document, I was the director of strategy plans and policy on the Joint Staff. I was the director of the Joint Staff when that concept came into being. I was there when it was first introduced and I fully endorse it. We need to be ready to compete against peer competitors on a global scale. And that is going to require that we look at other places where we have been focused for a long time and take steps to rebalance. And we've actually done a significant part of that already in U.S. Central Command going forward. So I fully, fully endorse that approach to the global nature of the struggle that we're in right now. We've got to be able to do that. So on the other hand, you know, we still pursue a maximum pressure campaign against Iran. And that is a significant U.S. political and economic campaign. And CENTCOM, our part in that is, as I would argue, would be to the deter Iran from acting either directly or indirectly, either in the theater against us or our allies and partners, in ways to try to throw that program off. And so there is a role for U.S. Central Command as we actually carry that out. And so we have to weigh all that. In every way we try to find ways to get smaller or we try to try to find ways to do it more efficiently. We try to use international coalitions when we can. We try to use our partners in the region, robust foreign military sales program in the region which have many of our partners with very good equipment where we can we try very hard to help them make that equipment be as effective as possible. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia and their air defense systems, their Patriot systems, is just one example of that, where they have a number of Patriot batteries over 20. And we've worked very hard with them to optimize those capabilities. Now we use, we use the Patriots in a variety of ways. We want the Saudis to be able to use them as effectively as us. And I know that the chief of defense in Saudi Arabia and his team would like to certainly like to pursue that as just one example. So we have to be smarter because we don't you're right, we don't actually have the luxury of being able to focus on the Middle East as we did in the past. But there are some things in the Middle East that are going to continue to be issues for us. One of them is freedom of navigation. Two of the three most significant choke points in the world are in the Middle East, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el Mandeb and of course, the Suez Canal. We have a vested interest in freedom of navigation, even though in the specific case of the Strait of Hormuz, we really don't need the oil as much as others do that come through the Strait of Hormuz. Because we're now largely energy producing rather than energy importing. Nonetheless, as a global principle, freedom of navigation remains very important to us. So those are things we've got to try to balance, you know, as usual. You know, I think Mencken said every complex problem has a very clear answer and it's usually wrong. In the case of CENTCOM, that's very much the case. It remains a very complex theater and there are no easy answers to it. But, look, we recognize we have to be aligned. We have to face the threat that is China. And I'm fully aligned with that.

David Ignatius: So one more quick question for me. General, I'm going to turn to our audience questions ahead. This question is really the flip side of what I was asking before. As America tries to step back a bit in the Middle East, the right size, its forces is a phrase that that you used. It's just, unfortunately, a lot of life that others step forward. And the most significant step forward that we've seen is by Russia, which now has a significant military presence in Syria and also is building a pretty significant military presence in Libya on the Mediterranean. I want to ask you, as you think ahead, whether Russia is going to pose a significant threat or, maybe putting it differently, play a significant role in the security of the Middle East in a way that might threaten American interests in the long run?

General McKenzie: So we talk about Russia and China. But I'll begin with Russia, because that's the actual core of your question, I think Russia is presence in the theater is actually fairly narrow. It's in Syria and, you know, they’re in Syria because it's an old client state of theirs. They held basing there throughout the entire period of the Cold War. They have very, very, very few public international client states. This is one. So it's very important to him. You know, I said earlier that I don't view the Russians as master chess players who have a plan for everything and see forward into deep time to know what to do. I think they opportunistically stumbled into this thing in Syria. It gives them an opportunity to try to support a client state, maintain warm water basing in the Mediterranean, which has been a long term goal of them militarily and diplomatically. It allows them to throw sand in our bureau box and try to assert themselves as a player in the Middle East. I'm not certain that's going to work out for them in the long term. Because I'm not certain that their economy, the base of their economy, which is not particularly large, and that it is declining in many ways, is going to support that. We don't see them a lot further East in the region. We don't see them up in the Gulf. We don't see them in other places. And they struggle to maintain deployments even into the Mediterranean. And even into Syria. Syria’s been a useful place for them on a very narrow scope and scale, to showcase systems and to pronounce their military effectiveness. But I don't think they've shown a larger capability to move beyond that. So I will leave Libya alone. It's one of the few places in the world actually where I am not directly involved. So I will leave others to discuss Libya. But I would like to talk about China for just a moment. And so the threat from China, the big issue with China right now, is more economic than military. China seeks to move into the theater, and is moving into the theater in a variety of ways, through some of the pernicious debt traps that they lay out for nations to gain basing access. We see it in Djibouti right now. We see other nations in the region that are talking to them. China wants to do export of military sales. The problem China has, though, is their equipment's just not very good. And while there are no end user agreements associated with their equipment, they could care less what you do with it. Still, at the end of the day is Chinese equipment and it's not as good as equipment that they could purchase from us or other people as well. China sees the mineral riches in the region. And China is interested in moving in, in the long term, to get after that in Afghanistan and other places. And they've made some attempts before in Afghanistan that were not wholly successful. But going forward. I think the larger, if we say great power competition in the theater, the great power competition in the theater and the long term is going to be with China more so than Russia. Although I would never completely discount Russia, but I think we look at that very hard. And as we as we redistribute our forces, you know, we want to assure our allies and partners that we're going to be with them, that we're going to continue to, that we're going to continue to support them even as we change the nature of the relationship in the theater.

David Ignatius: So, General, that answered the first question that was on my list from Tom Roder, who is a senior military editor of the Gazette. When asked about China, the Belt and Road initiative, and I think you've spoken to the growing Chinese interest and presence in the region. Let me turn to a question from John Negroponte, our former Ambassador to Iraq, a former Director of National Intelligence. And he asks a simple, direct question, how would you assess the current effectiveness of the Iraqi Army?

General McKenzie: So I think it is good enough to fight effectively against ISIS. It's about 250,000 strong and I think it is good enough to do that task. They may approach those tasks differently than what we do. But, you know, that's OK. It doesn't need to be good enough to fight us. It didn't need to be good enough to fight a major Western opponent. It needs to be good enough to fight and finish ISIS and it needs to be good enough to contribute to the stability and security of Iraq. So it needs to be able to do those things. In my judgment it is making huge strides toward that. That's why we've been able to reduce some of our partnering activities with them. And yet, at the same time, I also want to be very clear, there's a significant counterterrorism component. That's what I talk about the main force, Iraq forming. I'm holding the CT elements separately and we still work significantly with them as we go forward. But I think the Iraqi Army is making strides. It is much better. And, you know, not only us, NATO has also invested heavily in institution building with the Iraqi Army. The NATO Mission Iraq is an element that's going to come in and work principally at the ministerial level to try to continue to build partner capacity with our Iraqi partners.

David Ignatius: So let me turn to a final comment. There was a leader in America's efforts to message should communicate to combat Islamic extremism. She asked a good question. The follow up to our discussion about ISIS. She says you speak of making sure there's no threat against the West, meaning that they can attack us. What about the ideological attack? ISIS and al-Qaida continue to lure ideological recruits. What do we do to balance that dilemma?

General McKenzie: And so even as… I'll stay with ISIS, although I think really ISIS and al-Qaeda for the terms of this discussion are interchangeable in many ways. Even as the physical space they occupy has become very limited. They have very innovatively tried to reach out in cyber. They try to reach out across the globe. And so their ability you know, when we think of attacks in the United States as an example, we think of three kinds of attacks. Enabled, which is where you actually help, you direct it – enabled, directed and inspired. So an inspired attack is what worries me the most. That is where because of the venom spewed forth in the ink, through the cyber channels across the world, people self-radicalize and they are inclined to do lone wolf actions. Hardest of all, things to defend against in a democracy with the rule of law. So that does, in fact, worry me. Look, we tried very hard to try to find ways to minimize that. We operate in cyber domain against them, but we are not completely there. The other point I would note is, in addition to cyber, the other thing that worries me a lot about ISIS in the future is in eastern Syria. As you're aware, David, there are a number of displaced persons camp, the largest of which in the poster child is probably Al Hol Camp. About 60,000-70,000 people there, mainly women, mainly children, many under the age of 20. The quality of life there is at best, acceptable. It's not good, partners there actually, they are actually the SDF and other international agencies, try to make sure that everybody has got the water and the food that they need. The other hand, it is a large scale laboratory for radicalization and that should worry us all going forward because I have seen yet no real effective way to attempt de-radicalization at scale. There are a number of what I would call boutique solutions out there that can operate against very, very small numbers at great expense and over an extended period of time. What we need to do is we need to find a way, an alternative to what's happening in that camp. So when I think about ISIS and al-Qaida, I think about the very good question about the international effect, and we're working against that. I also think about what's happening with, you know, with the people that are there now. Obviously, repatriation is the best way to get after that. But you've got to get nations that are willing to take them. Additionally, additionally there are prisons in eastern Syria, where about 10,000 foreign fighters are held, including what I would call 2,000 hardcore foreign fighters. We need to get a way to get those people back to their home countries so they can be judicially processed as appropriate. And we have not yet completely solved that problem as well. That's just a very good question. You know, we look at the ability to degrade the, what we call the connective tissue between what was once the heartland that the caliphate and the callous overseas. And we're pretty certain that we operate effectively against the movement of human beings and even some degree against the movement of finance. Where we're still struggling to find our way in how to operate in the cyber domain against those entities. Great question. Really wish I had a better answer there. It's not from lack of examination of the problem.

David Ignatius: I have a question here from Doug Zakheim was a senior Pentagon official member of our Aspen Strategy Group, which is sponsoring this security forum. Doug asks, how do you see the impact of an Israeli move to annex parts of the West Bank on our relationships with our Arab allies in the Middle East? Good pointed clear question. What do you think?

General McKenzie: Sure. I think it's going to introduce friction into the equation, principally with Jordan. And I think yeah I think there's a very clear answer. I think it's going to make it harder for those nations to react effectly to or to constructively engage with Israel in the days ahead.

David Ignatius: So Kevin Baron is the editor of Defense One asks, there's increasing pressure for rebalance U.S. foreign policy. You've talked about it. That increases nonmilitary tools. What kind of nonmilitary tools would you like to see more of alongside U.S. forces in the CENTCOM AOR to secure your gains and deter others? Where would you invest in those in those nonmilitary tools and the places we've talked about Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in particular?

General McKenzie: Sure. Syria as an example, you know, to get to what actually caused ISIS to emerge you've got to get at the root causes of it. You're not going to get that to get to that through a military solution. Entities such as USAID, U.S. Agency for International Development and other organizations that can actually bring local stability, food assurance, water assurance, all of those things and actually the rights of women are very important as well, as we consider that all of those things are best delivered by nonmilitary entities of the U.S. government. The U.S. military can be a platform to assist those. But we've got to be able to get at the root causes. I'll tell you the second thing is we've got to be, we need to be increasingly active in the information sphere. You know, Iran is just one example, but there are others. When you have absolutely no regard for the truth at any point in your information operations campaign, then you have a huge advantage over, over we who are always trying to be very carefully linked to the truth. So as a result, they can turn and spin conspiracy theories. They can spin stories because there's no accountability and no relationship to the truth. As we work to tell a narrative. We're very careful to be linked to the truth. And so that puts U.S. at a disadvantage in time as we try to craft these narratives to make sure we're telling the right thing. Also simply a matter of scale. Iran invests a surprising amount of money and information operations in the theater. And so does China. And so does Russia. So we will continue to talk about that going forward. But I think it's clearly an area where we can improve and we can still improve and hold the moral high ground because we need to do that. I'm not talking about getting away from our relationship with the truth and the need to be centered on what's actually happening, but there are ways that we can be more effective at that.

David Ignatius: So we have less than five minutes left. I'm sorry to say we have two more questions left from some prominent people I want to make sure I get to. First, from Admiral Jonathan Greener, who was Chief of Naval Operations. I'm sure General McKenzie knows well and he asks a very specific, important question. Please provide your assessment of the stability of Bahrain and its ability to preclude insurgent and other operations that would undermine the government and advance the interests of Iran.

General McKenzie: Sure Bahrain is a very important partner for us in the region. The only, what we call the main, operating base of U.S. Central Command is in Manama in Bahrain, U.S. 5th Fleet is headquartered there. And it's really, in many ways, a center of gravity for our operations in the theater. As a result of that, we've got a long, going back many, many, many years, good relationship with the government of Bahrain. I believe that the government of Bahrain is actually well-positioned to operate against the Iranian sponsored and proxy attacks that occasionally occur there. And so I'm very comfortable with where they are on that going forward. We work with them on it. And I believe that they're in a pretty good place with that. It's a matter of significant concern to us. But I also note that, you know, Bahrain was one of the first nations to join the international maritime security construct. His Majesty made that decision. I think it was it was a good call for them. So we have it. We have an old and good relationship with them. And I am comfortable about the stability of Bahrain.

David Ignatius: So that, General McKenzie, we have a final question from Vali Nasr, a prominent professor in and the head of studies at Johns Hopkins SISE. And it's a question that allows you to stand back again. And maybe as a last comment, a look at the region as a whole. Vali asks, how do you assess the impact of the economic crisis across this region caused by COVID, the consequent economic shutdown, the lack of remittances on these regimes which have had problems of stability and governance? Lebanon is a perfect example of the kind of cauldron that this period is producing. What would be your thoughts as we leave this conversation about stability going forward in this part of the world? You see any reasons for confidence or are we just going to look at continued risk of instability?

General McKenzie: I think we still have some hard days ahead of us in the theater. I think the global economic crisis, driven in large measure by the coronavirus, has had a significant effect and varies from states to state, but has had a significant effect really on every entity here. And I am concerned about the way forward, but I believe that  I'm most concerned actually about how it affects the least transparent state of all, which is Iran. And how it will affect them and their activities, because we know a little bit about everybody else. And, you know, we have good partnerships. For example, we have a pretty good view of what's happening in Lebanon. We know and understand the nature of that crisis. There are things that we would recommend they do. And we are recommending those things. Maybe they'll take our advice. Maybe they won't. But there are levers that we can apply to most of the states in the region. We have difficulty applying an international lever in a nation like Iran, which has been profoundly hit by our sanctions, but also by the coronavirus. They have gone to great lengths to preserve, as I noted earlier, their core military capabilities, even at the cost of their own citizens. And I think that's a dangerous prescription for instability going forward and one that, you know, that one that may come back to haunt Iran in the days ahead. We'll see how that plays out. But look, I would not minimize the pernicious effects of the coronavirus and the economic stressors across the rest of the theater. I think it's a good observation. It varies widely from state to state. And people are having to retrench. People have had to take a look at their investment. They're looking at foreign military sales, which is of interest to us. But I think it will also give them a good opportunity to look at their relationship in the profoundly unfair economic relationship that China tries to impose on people. So it'll be good opportunity for many countries in the region to take a look at the one belt, one road and see exactly what the terms of that relationship with China is and maybe an opportunity to revisit that. I think that's actually something I'm hopeful about going forward David.

David Ignatius: So with that, I want to thank General Frank McKenzie, our CENTCOM commander, for doing just what we promise. Taking U.S. on a virtual tour of his area of operations, General McKenzie, as he is a crucial person in the broad defense strategy and planning of the U.S. military. General McKenzie, we thank you for being with the Aspen Security Forum, part of the Aspen Strategy Group. We hope you'll come join us again after you had a chance maybe to travel in the region and get some more information. So thanks to you and thanks to everybody who joined us today for this interesting conversation.