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Transcript: Ret. Gen. Frank McKenzie on

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Transcript: Ret. Gen. Frank McKenzie on

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The following is a transcript of an interview with retired Marine General Frank McKenzie, who was commander of U.S. Central Command from 2019-2022, that aired on “Face the Nation” on Oct. 15, 2023.


MARGARET BRENNAN: Retired General Frank McKenzie last served as the commander of US Central Command and oversaw military operations in the Middle East, Central Asia, parts of South Asia. And he joins us now from Tampa, Florida. Good morning to you, General.

GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE: Good morning, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to get your perspective as to the very dynamic situation on the ground. Earlier today, when I spoke with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, he said there was no specific change in intelligence that led the US to send that second aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean. But he said there is a real risk of the State of Iran getting involved. How do you see that threat right now?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So, I think that the second carrier is designed to send a strong message to Iran that we have the- that- that they’re not going to be able to act with malice to get into this conflict. We would like to keep them out of it. What the second carrier does, along with the ships that are associated with both of those big debt carriers, is it gives a ballistic missile defense capability to Israel, should Iran elect to fire their large stable of ballistic missiles toward Israel. We’d be able to assist Israel in intercepting them, which would then allow Israel to conduct other tasks. Largely, though, it increases flexibility and options for our president, should he need to do something in the region.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, a US official told our David Martin this morning that a Marine Expeditionary Unit, which had been conducting an exercise in Kuwait is back on board a ship in the Red Sea waiting to hear about movement into the eastern Mediterranean. Does that signify anything more to you?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I think it’s all part of the same thing. What we want to do is send a strong signal, I think, to Iran, and to Lebanese Hezbollah, particularly up in Lebanon, that now is not the time to enter this conflict. I think the Israelis have the capabilities they need to conduct their Gaza operation. But I think what we’re really trying to do is prevent the conflict from widening at this time. And I think all these actions are designed to establish that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, give us a sense here. You know, Israel is a very advanced military. They have a lot of technology, they have a lot of surveillance power, but then they just have this massive intelligence failure. So, as they are about to launch this ground invasion, what are the things that are of concern to you about how this is going to play out?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, first, Margaret, I think when we go back and look at what happened in the run up to the attacks last weekend, we’re gonna find that there were indicators there. You always look back in hindsight, you can find things that were evident, things that you should have seen. So, I think that that will probably humble the intel guys a little bit as we look at going into Gaza. The Gaza problem is a extremely difficult urban environment. Urban fighting is fighting where technology is- the ability of a technology- technologically advanced force is- begins to be limited, because you’re in very close quarters with a potential enemy. You’re fighting on the ground, you’re fighting below the ground in sewers and in the elaborate tunnel system that Hamas has erected, and you’re fighting low level altitude. It- now Israel has clear air supremacy over Gaza, but we should expect Hamas to try to fly drones, even as the Israelis will fly their large inventory of highly capable drones. So, it’s going to be a very bloody, tough, ugly fight. And it’s going to come down to an infantry fight, young men and women at very close quarters.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And Israel doesn’t have a lot of recent experience in that kind of fighting. The US does in Iraq, certainly in Fallujah, the Marines did. Is that the kind of advice that you think the US military is providing to the Israeli military right now, how to do that kind of urban warfare?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I’m sure it is. Although, the Israelis, I know, have done a great deal of thinking about it. Their- their main battle tank, the Merkava, is a tank that is optimized for urban warfare, has the engine in front, which- which not a lot of tanks in the world do, has a true compartment for carrying troops in back. The Israelis have given us a lot of thought and I have high regard for the IDF and their ability to prosecute this fight. We just need to realize it’s going to be a- it’s going to be an ugly- an ugly affair. It’s going to drag on probably longer than people want. Israel is going to go to great lengths to avoid- avoid collateral civilian casualties. Hamas is going to go to great lengths to kill more civilians, to place them directly in harm’s way, so that they can profit in the information sphere.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Israel’s defense minister said Israel won’t shoot civilians on purpose. But the camouflage of the terrorists is the civilian population. How- how difficult is it going to be to avoid large scale civilian casualties? That is going to put a lot of pressure on the world to get Israel to be very cautious in the coming weeks.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Margaret, you’re right and I believe that Israel will go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. The fact of the matter is, though, there are going to be civilian casualties, principally because Hamas is going to create circumstances, for example, by basing their rockets in schools and mosques and hospitals, and other locations where civilians are gathered. They’re going to- they’re going to create every opportunity for civilian casualties to occur. So, Israel is going to have to work very hard at this, and they’re not going to be perfect. There- mistakes are certainly going to be made. And it’s tragic to predict it now, but civilians are going to die. But I think there’s a clear philosophical distinction between the two actors here. Israel is going to seek to minimize those casualties. Hamas is not going to seek to minimize those casualties. So, there’s no sense of equivalence in this fight.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The US has troops in Syria and Iraq, a small number. What would draw the United States into it?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I think we would seek to stay out of it as best we could. I think we have undoubtedly sent messages at the diplomatic level, about the forced protection and the security of our forces in Iraq and Syria. And I believe that the- moving the two carriers into the region sends a very strong signal. There is ample historical evidence that Iran respects the flow of combat forces into the theater. It does affect their decision calculus. And as Iran’s decision calculus is affected, so is Lebanese Hezbollah’s calculus affected.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about something that former President Trump said on Wednesday. He said, in regard to the drone strike that took out Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in January 2020. He said Israel pulled out of the operation and quote, “Bibi Netanyahu let us down, that was a very terrible thing.” Did Israel pull out and let America down?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Margaret, I- unable to know of any communication, of course, between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu. But I can tell you that this was a US operation.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, that would mean that’s not accurate.

GEN. MCKENZIE: That would mean that this was a US operation. It involved only US forces in the operational design and the execution of the mission.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. You- when you were with us recently said that “Iran is the most significant threat to peace in the region.” Iran’s supreme leader says his country did not play a role in the Hamas attack on Israel. Do you buy that?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I- I believe it’s likely they did not know the date or time of this particular attack. But Iran, by supporting Hamas with hundreds of millions of dollars down through the years, by providing them with equipment, by providing them with training, and- and by supporting their ideology, is certainly the moral author of this attack, even if they didn’t know the exact time- the exact timing of this particular attack.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think this will engage the State of Iran in this fight eventually?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I think we’re going to try very hard to keep Iran out of it. And I think the actions the administration have taken are all good to that end. I think again, Iran respects power. We’re flowing power back into the region, and I think it will have an effect on them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: General McKenzie, thank you for your insights.

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