Secretary Antony J. Blinken On CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS with Fareed Zakaria

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington D.C.

QUESTION:  Joining me now is the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.  Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Fareed.  It’s great to be with you.

QUESTION:  President Biden says that he thinks now that there is a ceasefire in – between the Israelis and Palestinians – there is a significant opportunity for even more positive developments, or a “genuine opportunity,” I think, if I’m quoting him correctly.  And I’m wondering:  Is there really?  I mean, you have an Israeli Government that seems pretty unyielding.  You have a Palestinian Authority led by an 85-year-old man who doesn’t – is too scared to hold elections for fear of what will happen.  Hamas controls Gaza.  Is there really a prospect of some kind of movement towards a genuine political solution?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Fareed, I think there has to be.  I think both sides are reminded that we have to find a way to break the cycle, because if we don’t, it will repeat itself at great cost and at great human suffering on all sides.  Look, we worked very hard with this intense but behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get to the ceasefire, and I think President Biden leading this effort made the judgment that we could be most effective in doing that.  And ultimately, after this intensive effort across the government, we got to where everyone wanted to be, which was to end the violence. 

But now, as the President said, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to make the turn to start to build something more positive.  And what that means at heart is that Palestinians and Israelis alike have to know in their day-in and day-out lives equal measures of opportunity, of security, of dignity, something that you touched on in your piece in The Washington Post this week. 

QUESTION:  Will you use, as a template, the last peace plan put forward by the United States Government that is the peace plan shepherded by Jared Kushner?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I don’t think we’re at the – in a place where the – getting to some kind of a negotiation for what ultimately, I think, has to be the result, which is a two-state solution, is the first order of business.  We have to start building back in concrete ways and offering some genuine hope, prospects, opportunity in the lives of people. 

And of course, in the first instance, we’ve got to deal with the humanitarian situation, which is grave in Gaza.  We’ve got to start to bring countries together to support reconstruction and development.  And as we’re doing that, we’ll be re-engaging with the Palestinians, of course, continuing our deep engagement with the Israelis, and trying to put in place conditions that allow us over time hopefully to advance a genuine peace process.  But that is not the immediate order of business.  We have a lot of work to do to get to that point.

QUESTION:  But does the United States Government still endorse the outlines of that plan?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’re going to look at everything that’s been done before, learn from that just as we have in other areas, and see what makes sense and what doesn’t.  But our focus right now relentlessly is on dealing with the humanitarian situation, starting to be – to do reconstruction and rebuild, and engage intensely with everyone, with Palestinians, with Israelis, with partners in the region. 

QUESTION:  Prime Minister Netanyahu says that he will form a national unity government, but not with any Israeli Arabs in it.  Israeli Arabs, as you know, make up 20 percent of the population of Israel.  Is that a positive step?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I don’t do politics, whether it’s our politics or Israeli politics.  They have to make their own judgments, and the government will be formed eventually, one way or another.  We leave that to the Israelis.  But we will work with, obviously, the current Israeli Government, whatever government emerges from the current process, and it’s really a decision for Israelis to make, not us.

QUESTION:  But you have been very clear in being in favor of democracy and worrying about the decay of democracy in countries.  Is it a step forward for democracy for a national government explicitly, on racial lines, to rule out 20 percent of its population?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, one thing that’s been, I think, deeply disturbing about recent events has been the inter-communal violence.  And that’s something that we have not seen, at least in recent years.  And I believe and I hope that Israelis of all persuasions will find ways to come together to try to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.  And hopefully that finds expression as well in their politics and in their governments.  But again, these are decisions for Israelis to make, not for us.

QUESTION:  Let me ask you while we’re on the Middle East, Mr. Secretary:  The Biden administration, President Biden when he was campaigning said as soon as I become president, we will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.  The Iranians said the same thing.  We’re now four months into the administration.  Nothing has happened.  Both sides said there seems to be a – something of a stand-off.  And Iran is meanwhile visibly enriching, the very thing people like you warned about when – again, when Joe Biden was campaigning.  Isn’t this a failure of diplomacy?  Shouldn’t you guys have been able to get back into the deal within a week or two?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Two things, Fareed.  First, I think the steps that Iran is taking underscore the urgency of trying to get Iran back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, the deal that stopped their – the dangerous aspects of their nuclear program, the prospect that they could have fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order.  We’ve had, I think, five rounds of conversations now, of talks now, indirect in Vienna.  And in fact, our team’s going back to Vienna in the coming days to pursue that.  I think we’ve actually made progress in clarifying what each side needs to do to get back into full compliance.  

The outstanding question, the question that we don’t have an answer to yet, is whether Iran, at the end of the day, is willing to do what is necessary to come back into compliance with the agreement.  That’s the proposition that we’re testing.  But it’s getting, I think, through these rounds of discussions and talks, clearer and clearer what needs to happen.  The question is:  Is Iran prepared to do it?

QUESTION:  Well, the Iranians say that that’s actually not what’s happening, what – the United States – the Biden administration has moved the goalposts, that rather than talking about simply both sides getting back to the original deal, doing what was required to comply, the Biden administration is now saying they want to talk about ballistic missiles, they want to talk about regional issues, they want to talk about extending the timeline.  Are you willing to go back to the original deal as it was?  Because the Iranians say they are willing to get back to that tomorrow. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Fareed, we’ve been very clear.  We are fully prepared to go back to the original deal as it was.  That’s our initial objective.  And we – again, we don’t know if the Iranians are.  If we do, if we succeed in that, then we can use that as a foundation both to look at how we can make the deal itself potentially longer and stronger, and also engage on these other issues, whether it’s Iran’s support for terrorism, its proliferation, its destabilizing support for different proxies throughout the Middle East. 

All of that does need to be engaged and something we need to deal with, but we’ve been very clear that from our perspective, the first step needs to be a return to mutual compliance.  That’s what we’re working on and that’s where we still don’t know if Iran is willing to say yes.

QUESTION:  Saudi Arabia says that it now is willing to contemplate better relations with Iran.  Is this a recognition by Saudi Arabia that its strategy so far has not really worked?  Is it a sign that we could see a peace deal in Yemen and we could see an easing of tensions over places like Qatar and Lebanon?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, there needs to be a peace deal in Yemen.  We’re working very hard on that.  We’ve been doing that from day one.  And I think Saudi Arabia has clearly indicated by some of the things that it’s done that it now wants to move in that direction, so that’s very positive.  We need to get the Houthis to come along.  And that, in turn, I think depends significantly on whether Iran is ready to make clear to the Houthis that they need to engage positively and need to resolve this war. 

So to the extent that there is a better relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that can produce or help produce at least more positive results in ending some of these other conflicts, ending some of these proxy battles, which are incredibly dangerous, incredibly potentially destabilizing, and have a real human toll.

QUESTION:  And do you see a shift in Saudi foreign policy?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, my sense is that, again, on Yemen in particular, where we’ve engaged intensely – we have a senior envoy who is doing this every single day – the Saudis have been engaged productively in trying to bring this war to an end.  We need to see the same kind of response from the Houthis who continue to hold out, and Iran should use the influence it has to move them in that direction.

QUESTION:  You just met with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I was wondering:  I mean, this is a country that has, by the acknowledgement of U.S. intelligence, engaged in what is possibly the largest cyber hack of America ever, massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, and still continues to, in various ways, oppose U.S. interests and – essentially to kind of act as a spoiler on the world stage. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, we had, I think, a constructive, very businesslike conversation over the course of nearly two hours, but President Biden has been very clear with President Putin, and I repeated what President Biden has said to President Putin, to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and that’s this:  We would prefer to have a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia.  We’ve all got lots of things going on around the world and lots of work that we’re trying to do to make the lives of our citizens a little bit better.  A more stable, predictable relationship with them, I think, would be good for us, good for them, and I’d even argue good for the world.  And there are clearly areas where it’s in our mutual interest to find ways to cooperate, whether it’s on Afghanistan, whether it’s on so-called strategic stability, arms control agreements, whether it’s on dealing with climate change. 

But equally clear – and the President has been very resolute on this – if Russia continues to take reckless and aggressive actions aimed at us or aimed at our allies and partners, we will respond, not for purposes of escalating, not to seek conflict, but to defend our interests.  And that was the nature of the conversation that I had with Foreign Minister Lavrov.  It’s really important to be very clear about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it.  And ultimately, it is up to Russia to decide whether it wants to have that more predictable, stable relationship.  We need to test the proposition.

QUESTION:  Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thank you for coming on the show.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks for having me, Fareed.  It’s great to be with you.

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    According to estimates from Department of Defense (DOD) survey data, roughly one-quarter of military spouses who were in the workforce and in career fields that required credentials (state licenses or certifications) were unemployed in 2017. In that same year, about one-quarter of spouses who were employed in credentialed career fields were working outside their area of expertise, and about one in seven were working part-time due to a lack of full-time opportunities—two potential indicators of underemployment. Employment outcomes for military spouses may also vary due to other factors, including their partner's rank and frequent moves, according to DOD survey data and GAO's literature review. In February 2020, the Defense State Liaison Office, which works on key issues affecting military families, assessed states' use of best practices that help military spouses transfer occupational licenses. For example, the Liaison Office found that 34 states could increase their use of interstate compacts, which allow spouses in certain career fields, such as nursing, to work in multiple states without relicensing (see figure). However, the Liaison Office does not plan to continue these assessments, or assess whether states' efforts are improving spouses' experiences with transferring licenses. As a result, DOD may not have up-to-date information on states' actions that help spouses transfer their licenses and maintain employment. Assessment by the Defense State Liaison Office of Number of States Using Interstate Compacts to Improve Military Spouse Employment DOD and the military services use a range of virtual and in-person outreach to promote awareness of employment resources among military spouses. For example, officials GAO interviewed at installations said they promoted resources through social media and at orientation briefings. Nonetheless, GAO found that inconsistent information sharing across DOD and with external stakeholders who help spouses with employment hindered the effectiveness of outreach. For instance, officials from two services said they do not have methods to regularly exchange outreach best practices or challenges, while officials from another service said they have quarterly staff calls to share lessons learned. Without strategies for sharing information among internal and external stakeholders, DOD may miss opportunities to increase spouses' awareness of available resources, and improve their employment opportunities. There were over 605,000 spouses of active duty servicemembers in the U.S. military as of 2018. These spouses may face conditions associated with the military lifestyle that make it challenging to start or maintain a career, including frequent moves and difficulties transferring occupational licenses. House Armed Services Committee Report 116-120 accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review several matters related to military spouse employment. This report examines (1) selected employment outcomes for military spouses, (2) DOD's efforts to evaluate states' licensing policies for spouses, and (3) DOD's outreach efforts to promote awareness of employment resources. GAO reviewed DOD documentation and 2017 survey data (most recent available), relevant literature, and federal laws; interviewed DOD and military services officials and relevant stakeholders; and spoke with staff at six military installations selected based on the numbers of servicemembers, among other factors. GAO is making two recommendations to DOD to continue assessing and reporting on states' efforts to help military spouses transfer occupational licenses, and to establish information sharing strategies on outreach to military spouses about employment resources. DOD concurred with both recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Curda at (202) 512-7215 or curdae@gao.gov.
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    The procedures that GAO agreed to perform on fiscal year 2020 net excise tax distributions to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) and the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and the results of those procedures are described in the enclosures to this report. The sufficiency of these procedures is solely the responsibility of the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is responsible for certifying quarterly net excise tax collections to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF. The Department of the Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis (OTA) is responsible for developing reasonable estimates of net excise tax collections to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF. These IRS certifications and OTA estimates are the basis of the net excise tax distributions to the AATF and the HTF. GAO was not engaged to perform, and did not perform, an examination or review. Accordingly, GAO does not express such an opinion or conclusion. The purpose of this report is solely to describe agreed-upon procedures related to information representing the basis of amounts distributed from the general fund to the AATF and the HTF during fiscal year 2020, and the report is not suitable for any other purpose. IRS agreed with the findings related to the procedures performed concerning excise tax distributions to the AATF and the HTF during the fiscal year 2020. OTA stated that it had no comments on the report. GAO performed agreed-upon procedures solely to assist the DOT OIG in ascertaining whether the net excise tax revenue distributed to the AATF and the HTF for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2020, is supported by information from the Department of the Treasury, including IRS's excise tax receipt certifications and OTA's estimates. DOT OIG is responsible for the sufficiency of these agreed-upon procedures to meet its objectives, and GAO makes no representation in that respect. The procedures that GAO agreed to perform were related to information representing the basis of amounts distributed from the General Fund to the AATF and the HTF during fiscal year 2020, including (1) IRS's quarterly AATF and HTF excise tax certifications prepared during fiscal year 2020 and (2) OTA's estimates of excise tax amounts to be distributed to the AATF and the HTF for the third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2020. For more information, contact Cheryl E. Clark at (202) 512-3406 or clarkce@gao.gov.
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    The Navy's schedule for constructing the first submarine of the new Columbia class is threatened by continuing challenges with the computer-aided software tool that Electric Boat, the lead shipbuilder, is using to design the submarine. These challenges will likely impede construction because the shipbuilder is late in completing design products used for building the submarine. To ensure construction begins on schedule, the Navy modified its design contract with Electric Boat to include an option for constructing the first two submarines and requested sufficient authority from Congress for fiscal year 2021 to exercise it. Navy officials stated, however, that the Navy's budget request is lower than its current cost estimate, and it is not informed by an independent cost assessment. As a result, the program will likely need more funding to reflect the increased estimate. Quality problems with supplier materials caused delays during early construction. These quality problems included missile tubes (depicted below) with defective welds. As the shipbuilders expand outsourcing to suppliers, quality assurance oversight at supplier facilities will be critical for avoiding further delays. Quad Pack of Four Submarine Missile Tubes However, the Navy has not comprehensively reassessed when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities that could better position it to identify quality problems early enough to limit delays. The Navy plans to invest about $128 billion in 12 Columbia class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The shipbuilders will construct the Columbia class at the same time as the Virginia class attack submarines. They plan to rely on materials produced by a supplier base that is roughly 70 percent smaller than in previous shipbuilding booms. Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to examine the program's status. This report assesses the Navy's efforts to complete the design for the lead Columbia class submarine and actions the shipbuilders and the Navy have taken to prepare for construction and ensure the lead submarine is delivered according to schedule and quality expectations. GAO assessed Navy and shipbuilder design progress against cost and schedule estimates, reviewed documents, and interviewed officials about supplier readiness and quality assurance. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in November 2020. Information that the Department of Defense (DOD) deemed sensitive has been omitted. GAO recommends that the Navy (1) provide Congress with updated cost information, (2) include information on supplier readiness in its annual report to Congress, and (3) reassess when to seek additional inspections at supplier facilities. DOD concurred with the recommendations but disagreed with some of the report's details. GAO incorporated DOD's comments as appropriate and maintains the validity of the findings, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-4841 or oakleys@gao.gov.
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