NBC's Guthrie Grills John Kerry: Aren't 'Chickens Coming Home to Roost' in Iraq After Obama's Inaction?

In a remarkably tough interview with Secretary of State John Kerry aired on Thursday's NBC Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie interrogated the nation's top diplomat on the Obama administration's failure to prevent terrorists from invading Iraq: "It seems like the U.S. was totally caught off guard by this....did you act too slowly? I mean, [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki was asking for help with air strikes in the last few weeks as this was coming, as ISIS was coming toward this part of Iraq. Why didn't we act then?" [Listen to the audio]

Later in the exchange, Guthrie pressed: "What's happening now in Iraq is directly related to the situation in Syria. Did the U.S. – did the President miss the moment, make a huge mistake by not trying to turn the tide in Syria then and what's happening in Iraq now is just the chickens coming home to roost?"

Kerry tried to defend the inaction: "We are the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance. We are deeply engaged in working with our allies and friends in the region. We are assisting, training, doing work in terms of providing non-lethal aid and assistance." Guthrie pushed back: "But doesn't the evidence suggest it's not working? Because instead of things getting better because of our assistance, in fact, a group like ISIS is on the rise and now taking more territory."

Guthrie then used Kerry's past position on Syria against him: "Didn't you advocate for arming the moderate opposition when you were a senator?...didn't you think that was the right thing to do?" Kerry acknowledged: "I did." Guthrie wondered: "And doesn't it kill you now to see what's happened?"

Kerry deflected the hard questioning: "I know where you're trying to – look, let me just make it clear. We are augmenting our assistance in significant ways."

At one point in the contentious sit-down, Guthrie even quoted former Vice President Dick Cheney's condemnation of the President's foreign policy: "Dick Cheney wrote today, 'Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.'" Kerry tersely replied: "This is the man who took us into Iraq saying this. Please."

Here is a full transcript of the interview aired on June 19:

7:00 AM ET TEASE:

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Evacuating. Two of the world's largest oil companies begin pulling staff out of Iraq as the violence there rages on. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks exclusively to NBC News, saying U.S. air strikes are not off the table, teaming up with Iran is, and his message to Iraq war veterans who fought so hard.

JOHN KERRY: There's a disappointment, yes. There's a frustration, yes. But this is not finished.

GUTHRIE: Our one-on-one this morning.

7:05 AM ET SEGMENT:

GUTHRIE: Now to our exclusive interview with Secretary of State John Kerry. We were with him on Wednesday as he shuttled back and forth to the White House helping the President weigh U.S. options in Iraq. And I began by asking Secretary Kerry about those reports that the President has taken the option of air strikes in Iraq off the table.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: John Kerry One-On-One; Secretary of State On U.S. Options In Iraq]

JOHN KERRY: Nothing is off the table. All options are still available to the President.

GUTHRIE: It seems like the U.S. was totally caught off guard by this.

KERRY: Well, I don't think – look, our people on the ground in Iraq have seen the increased intensity. We've been watching this happening. We have been engaged in efforts over the months. We've been beefing up our assistance, our presence.

GUTHRIE: But did you act too slowly? I mean, Maliki was asking for help with air strikes in the last few weeks as this was coming, as ISIS was coming toward this part of Iraq. Why didn't we act then?

KERRY: For a lot of different reasons, not the least of which is we didn't have operational theater capacity at that point in time, partly because Prime Minister Maliki denied the kind of permissions necessary.

GUTHRIE: That raises the question, why to come to Maliki's rescue now? I mean, isn't he a big part of the problem?  

KERRY: This is not about Maliki. Let me stress, what the United States is doing is about Iraq. It is not about Maliki. And nothing that the President decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki. It is focused on the people of Iraq.

GUTHRIE: But it may benefit Maliki.

KERRY: Shia, Sunni, Kurd. Well, that's up to the people of Iraq to decide. But the United States is deeply concerned about the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, ISIL, as we know it, that has moved in. They represent a threat to every country in the region, they're more extreme even than Al Qaeda, and they are threatening the United States and western interests.

GUTHRIE: You've mentioned that the U.S. is open, at least, to possibly working with Iran as you deal with this situation with ISIS in northern Iraq.

KERRY: First of all, I don't know where this comes from that we have suggested working with Iran in that regard. We have heard-

GUTHRIE: I thought you said it in an interview the other day.

KERRY: What I said is we are interested in communicating with Iran to make clear that the Iranians know what we're thinking and we know what they're thinking and that there's a sharing of information so people aren't making mistakes.

GUTHRIE: So just to be clear, the U.S. isn't considering working hand in hand with Iran? Because I think for a lot of Americans that's a head-scratcher.

KERRY: Let me be absolutely clear – it would be a head-scratcher. And, no, we're not sitting around contemplating how we're going to do that or if we're going to do that. That's not on the table.

GUTHRIE: Dick Cheney wrote today, "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many."

KERRY: This is the man who took us into Iraq saying this. Please.

GUTHRIE: What's happening now in Iraq is directly related to the situation in Syria. Did the U.S. – did the President miss the moment, make a huge mistake by not trying to turn the tide in Syria then and what's happening in Iraq now is just the chickens coming home to roost?

KERRY: Well, Savannah, let me just say this. There's plenty of time going down the road here for people to have post mortems and to make decisions. We are the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance. We are deeply engaged in working with our allies and friends in the region. We are assisting, training, doing work in terms of providing non-lethal aid and assistance.

GUTHRIE: But doesn't the evidence suggest it's not working? Because instead of things getting better because of our assistance, in fact, a group like ISIS is on the rise and now taking more territory.

KERRY: ISIS is on the rise because Assad is a magnet for terrorists of all ilk and walks who have come there to try to unseat him.

GUTHRIE: Didn't you advocate for arming the moderate opposition when you were a senator?

KERRY: I did.

GUTHRIE: I mean, didn't you think that was the right thing to do?

KERRY: I did.

GUTHRIE: And doesn't it kill you now to see what's happened?

KERRY: I know where you're trying to – look, let me just make it clear. We are augmenting our assistance in significant ways.

GUTHRIE: What do you see to Iraq veterans, those who've lost so much, or families of those who lost everything in Iraq who are looking now and saying, "What was that for? No sooner have we left then everything goes back to just the way it was."

KERRY: That remains to be seen. And the test is in really these next few days and weeks. And we are going to do everything in our power to follow through and try to get the job done through diplomacy, if we can, in order to honor their sacrifice.

GUTHRIE: As the Secretary said, the verdict is still out on what ultimately happens in Iraq.

MATT LAUER: And you spent a lot of time with him yesterday and we're going to have more on that tomorrow.

GUTHRIE: Yeah, we are. We had a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of John Kerry. And it was a very busy day with everything going on in the world. So that'll be tomorrow on Today.

— Kyle Drennen is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.