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Transcript: Ret. Gen. Frank McKenzie on "Face the Nation," April 14, 2024

McKenzie: Israel's response to Iran needs "definable" beginning and end
Israel's response to Iran should have "definable" beginning and end, Gen. Frank McKenzie says 06:36

The following is a transcript of an interview with retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, former commander for U.S. Central Command, that aired on April 14, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we're going to go now to the former commander for U.S. Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, who is also the author of a new book, "The Melting Point", available in June. General, welcome back to "Face The Nation". Given what you just saw play out in the last 24 hours, I wonder if you think that deterrence has been reestablished? And on the spectrum of options that Iran had before it, how big did it go last night?

GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE: Well, first of all, good to see you, Margaret. I think this was a big attack by Iran. I think this was as close to a maximum effort as they could generate. And- and I'll illustrate it in this way. Iran has over 3000 missiles of various types scattered around- around the country. They have about 100—probably a little more than that—missiles, largely in western Iran, that can target Israel. Based on what the Israelis are saying, I believe they fired most of those weapons at Israel. The Israelis, obviously, were able to intercept most of them. Iran could not replicate last night's attack tonight, if they had to. Now they also use cruise missiles, and they use drones to try to present a multi-dimensional problem to the Israelis. It was a maximum effort. Now the Iranians are going to backtrack and talk about moderation. There was nothing moderate about this attack, and I think John Kirby nailed it precisely when he was talking to you earlier about the nature and scope of the Iranian attack. It was indiscriminate. And it was designed to cause casualties. So we should just consider that, as we take a look at it. Now, has the terrace been reset? I think the Israelis performed magnificently, with our assistance and the assistance of other nations in the region, and including the United Kingdom. And so I think that now the Iranians have to sit back and consider: what they considered their most important capability, their ballistic missiles, their drones, and their- and their cruise missiles, have now been employed in a major combat test. And frankly, that test has failed. So I think Israel this morning is now much stronger than they were yesterday. And Iran is relatively weaker than it was yesterday. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But now it comes down to political decisions that Israel's leadership will be making. And as you heard John Kirby say, those decisions haven't been made yet on what a reprisal will look like by Israel. Would you advise, if you were in your former role, Israeli leaders to- to pull back here? How concerned are you about a regional escalation?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So I think one of the opportunities for the victor in a major- in a major battle that was just fought, that Israel won, is the opportunity to use restraint. And I would counsel restraint. There will be voices that will urge the Israelis to take out the Iranian nuclear program, which I think is a- is a false chimera anyway. But I would argue that if you're going to do something, and they may have to do something, I would be precise, I would be short. The fact of the matter is, Israel can name the price they want to exact. The wide gap between Iranian zealotry and enthusiasm and Israeli competence has now been laid bare for all to see. So the Israelis will be able to do what they want. But sometimes when you're in that position, showing some restraint is the best strategic option that you can take. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Chairman McCaul was here. And he said, we see now Iran is not 10 feet tall. It sounds like you're saying Israel can shrug this off.

GEN. MCKENZIE: I don't think Israel can shrug it off, because I think Israel still needs to be concerned about Lebanese Hezbollah up north in Lebanon. They do have the ability to hurt Israel if they come into the fight. Interesting last night, there were some tactical back and forth in the northern border. But nothing like the volume of fires that LH, Lebanese Hezbollah, could have generated had they want to come into the fight. The fact that they did not choose to do so is, I think, very, very important. It's a very important thing to note, because they know and understand what Israel can do to them. I've never viewed the Iranians as being 10 foot tall. I don't think the Israelis have either. I have a healthy respect for, at least their enthusiasm, and their- and their willingness to undertake things that we saw last night. But now the Iranians have got to sit back and eat, although they'll never say it publicly. They're going to have to examine, re-examine, some of the very basic concepts of the way they've constructed their military.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And Lebanese Hezbollah has been- has not entered this conflict to date in a substantial way. I know you've- you've been warning for a while, that's the- that's the player to watch. You were directly involved in the taking out of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani during the Trump administration, and then Iran's retaliation at that time was also viewed as- as fairly restrained. How concerned should the United States be, though, now, in this moment, about U.S. personnel and U.S. troop presence in places like Iraq and Syria? As you know, this is a live issue at the White House this week as the Iraqi prime minister visits. 

GEN. MCKENZIE: Our forces distributed across Iraq and Syria, supporting the Armed Forces of Iraq and anti-ISIS operations and supporting our SDF partners in eastern Syria, those forces are vulnerable to an Iranian or an Iranian proxy attack, we recognize that. I think that's why the President's been very forceful in warning them. Now, it's also very instructive that the Iranians did not choose to attack us, as they- as they conducted a major strategic attack on Israel. So they've listened to that. The Iranians know that we have the capability, if they choose to fight us, to hurt them very badly. And I think that the Iranians will think long and hard before undertaking attacks against us in- in the future.

MARGARET BRENNAN: If Israel were to respond, would you have suggested targets? What- what would you expect?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, the Israelis have a lot to choose from, both inside Iran and outside Iran. My- my only strategic advice would be, you want to be narrow, you want to make sure that it's a- it has a definable beginning and a definable end, and the Iranians know when it's over. But the fact of the matter is, Israel can name its price right now. And that's a very heady position to be in. But it's also a- a position that calls for exercise of strategic restraint, and a view to the long term. And Israel has an opportunity here, I think, to demonstrate that, and to seize the- to seize the diplomatic initiative, really, in an arena where they struggled to do it over the past few- few months. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: We will see if they make that political decision. General, thank you very much for your analysis. We'll be right back.

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