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Interview With Robert McMahon

Interview With Robert McMahon of Council on Foreign Relations

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
December 18, 2008

QUESTION: Okay. So, Secretary Rice, the town is pretty much abuzz over inauguration planning, and I’d like to go back to the last inauguration, where the President issued a pretty bold statement and a bold program about democracy promotion, especially in the Middle East. And you were very much involved in that early on.

Nowadays, we hear less of it, although I know you’ve written about it, and – but you’ve also made some statements like, you know, the U.S. is not an NGO --

SECRETARY RICE: Right, right.

QUESTION: -- and we have to balance our relations with authoritarian countries. Is that a – sort of a concession to perhaps that there’s a realpolitik side of this that we should consider as well to the democracy promotion agenda?

SECRETARY RICE: No. The promotion of democracy is something that the United States has to stay true of, because ultimate – true to, because ultimately, our values and our interests are inextricably linked. And we’ve learned that whether in fact – the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was good for our values and it was terrific for our interests. And so I’m a firm believer that those are linked.

On any given day, on any day in policy, one has to balance the fact that, yes, sometimes you have to deal with authoritarian regimes. Sometimes you have to deal with friendly regimes that have not made as much progress as you want them to. But unless the United States keeps the lodestar out there of the end of tyranny and that every man, woman, and child deserves to live in a democratic society, it will fall off the international agenda. And that’s what the President’s speech did. And the conversation in the Middle East is fundamentally different today than it was a few years ago as a result, I believe, of American promotion of democratic values.

QUESTION: There – just to take one example, say Egypt, which was a very prominent one – there’s concern, though, that were maybe mixed signals that the U.S. was going to be maybe more supportive of really pressuring Egypt on democratic reforms. But when it came down to it, Egypt was more important on the sort of security front and being useful on the Hamas situation and so forth. How do you respond to those concerns that are out there?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, you have to be able to do both. On the one hand, the United States – I personally have advocated strongly for democratic reform in Egypt. Egypt is going to be better off and, in fact, more stable ultimately when Egypt trusts its people more. And I do believe that the presidential election was a different kind of election than Egypt had ever had. There was criticism of the president’s policies right on the front page of Egyptian newspapers. The café talk in Egypt was extraordinary. And then the parliamentary elections were, frankly, a step back.

But I don’t think you will ever have another presidential election in Egypt like the old-style presidential election. These things go in almost stepwise function. You make a lot of progress for a while and then it tends to level out and you make another jump. But what the United States has done is to support reformers, to support democracy building programs through the Middle East partnership program. I have had here reformers and women who are running for office and democratic forces. And that’s what we do. We both advocate with the governments for everything from individual people to changes in law. You support reformers. But change isn’t going to come all in one day.

QUESTION: What about seeing in the region a country like Iran where there’s not a relationship with the government, but there’s very much interest in sort of cultivating the grassroots democratic forces there. There was – seemed to be an unfortunate response that they had to U.S. democracy promotion funding, in particular, Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi and others were – who were saying – you know, was sort of tainted by the image of regime change. How do you reconcile that? How do you deal with that sort of troubling association of democracy promotion versus, you know, a threat of regime change in a country like Iran?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I am a firm believer that for the most part, regime change is going to come from within, ultimately. And helping to strengthen civil society, strengthen democracy forces, hold governments accountable publicly when they take harsh measures against those forces is what the United States can do. But the United States is not going to be able to change every regime in the world.

Now when there’s a circumstance like Iraq where Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a threat to the region and a threat to our interests where he dragged us into war twice and used weapons of mass destruction, and when you deal with the security threat there, I do think then you have an obligation, having engaged in regime change for security reasons, to insist that what follows is democratic.

And so the United States didn’t take the easy way out in Iraq, which was to remove Saddam Hussein and just install another – another strongman. We took the harder role – road of helping the Iraqis to develop democratic institutions and they’re now starting to take root.

QUESTION: Now when you mention Iraq and Iran, it’s an interesting parallel that seems to be developing, in that the latest round of sanctions is – covers dual use goods, there’s increasing move to isolate Iran. You know, are we looking at going down this road of maybe some UN-monitored sanctions regime that’s going to try to put Iran in a box like Iraq was?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think the sanctions with Iran are a bit different. Yes, there are UN Security Council sanctions, but they’re generally against Iranian entities that are practicing proliferation or are engaged with terrorism, like the Qods Force and the IRGC funding. They go after individual assets of people who are engaged in the policies. We’ve tried to tailor them not to have a general effect on the Iranian people.

But what they are is they’re having an effect on the Iranian economy, because Iran is not able to get the kind of investment and – investment or investment support, for instance, from countries in Europe. Western oil companies have all left. I think Total was the last one to leave. So, reputational risk and investment risk is what’s driving people out of Iran. It’s somewhat different than the comprehensive sanctions that were put on Iraq.

QUESTION: In terms of trying to engage Iran, you have been in favor of – there was a movement towards opening up an Iran – a U.S. interests section in Iran. That sort of got derailed by various events in the summer. What was the Iranian – what kind of feedback did you get from Iranian official points from that type of move?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we never proposed it officially. The President made an in-principle decision. We did the work. And then as you said, the Russian invasion of Georgia and then later, Iranian opposition to our SOFA sort of derailed it. But we never really asked the Iranians, so we don’t know what they would have said. Sometimes we heard even in public pronouncements that they would be prepared to look at it. But this was always aimed at the Iranian people. It was always aimed at our efforts to reach out to them, to make it easier for them to get visas to the United States, to have a point of contact with the United States of America, much as our Interests Section in Havana has done.

And in the context of a pretty firm policy against the regime, I think an interests section that can be a platform for contact with the Iranian people makes sense. Now whether the Iranians ultimately would have agreed, I don’t know, but I would have hoped that they would have. And had they not, it would have said something about their policy.

QUESTION: The – just keeping on the nonproliferation front and the North Korea file, you’ve been dealing with this most recently – can you state what has been the value of the U.S. engagement policy that’s been unfolding the last couple of years? How do you tell someone that despite this latest backsliding, this has been a worthwhile move? What are the tangible benefits?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, you start with the fact that they haven’t made plutonium since the Six-Party agreement of September 2005. And that’s an important point. They have shut down the reactor. They’ve disabled certain elements of it, blown up the cooling tower. It’s not the permanent disablement that we look for, but it’s a series of important steps. We have negotiated a verification protocol to which they’ve agreed. Unfortunately, some of the clarifications that they made to us privately that needed to be made so that there were no loopholes in that verification protocol, they refused to write down. And that’s where things broke down.

But it also has been a value because the North Koreans are in a situation in which they are confronting Russia, China, the United States, South Korea, and Japan so that they can’t just make this a bilateral problem with the United States. And the fuel oil shipments that they need, they need not just from the United States but also from South Korea, since South Korea has made clear that their relationship with North Korea depends in part on how denuclearization goes. The North can’t enjoy certain benefits while continuing to stall on the nuclear file.

But I think much has already been achieved here. I think that within the context of the Six-Party Talks, you ultimately will get a verification protocol that allows us to deal with a lot of very troubling activities, many of which we have learned more about as the process of diplomacy has gone on.

QUESTION: Let me jump to the issue of what you call transformational diplomacy, and one big aspect of that is foreign aid. There’s obviously been some innovations under the MCC and just the sheer numbers of relief that have gone to places like Africa, in particular. But there are a number of experts who also say to really do this right, you have to get rid of the overlapping mandates and maybe even make a cabinet level position that’s overseeing all development aid. Is that something feasible in the US.?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it’s not something that I favor because development assistance has to be a part of your broad foreign policy, which links development, democracy, and security for people. If you want to see the development of well-governed, democratic states, they have to have the kind of foreign assistance help from the United States that will allow them to deliver good help and good education for their people. And it has to be integrated with policies that give support to good governance. It also has to be in a secure environment.

So in a place like Colombia, you’re talking about trade policy, you’re talking about economic growth, you’re talking about governance, and you’re talking about foreign assistance and security assistance. That’s a package. And only the State Department and the Secretary of State can bring all of those together for the United States of America. And I really would not want to be the Secretary of State who does not have foreign assistance as a tool in helping to bring about the promotion of democracy or security or nation building after conflict. I think it would be very difficult without the tools of foreign policy – of foreign assistance.

QUESTION: So we’re on the subject of what’s being discussed quite a bit today, soft power, and that there’s going to be seemingly a new introduction of soft power in the next administration. One aspect of that that doesn't get mentioned that much is something that I know a little bit about, is U.S.-funded broadcasting, international broadcasting. But there’s a debate that’s looming, especially in Congress, over whether U.S.-funded broadcasting, TV and so forth, should be a -- something that evangelizes democracy or something that is purely journalism and then provides a forum with which these local – you know, with which countries can hear in their own language about things like democracy, but doesn't necessarily have the mission of democratization. How do you see that, the role of foreign broadcasting?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think that foreign broadcasting, by its very nature, it is telling the truth and it’s showing the examples of democracy and giving people access to information where they wouldn't otherwise get it, then you are, in fact, part of the democratization process in these countries. Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, which – Radio Liberty, which I know well as a former specialist on Soviet Union, were admired because they told the truth. They were admired because they were contrary to the propaganda that people had ceased to believe. And in places like the Middle East, where we’re fighting a massive propaganda machine about what America is, what American policies are, it’s extremely important to be able to have this broadcasting. And the President has increased the money for broadcasting dramatically in his Administration.

But I just want to say one word about soft power. I don’t like the term, frankly. I think what you’re talking about is helping people improve their lives, how much can be done to help people to have decent lives with decent governments. And this President, having tripled foreign assistance worldwide when it had been flat for decades, quadrupled it in Africa, doubled it in Latin America; this President, who launched the largest health program in all of history, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief; this President, who took on malaria and has made it a priority; this President, who has advocated for girls’ education and for a decent life for indigenous people; this President, who has advocated for trade, free trade so that Colombian paramilitaries can be demobilized and get a decent job, a decent-paying job, where Colombian products can get into the American market; or this President, who advocated for 1,100 new Foreign Service officers and 300 new USAID officers in his 2009 budget; that’s a policy that has used what some will call soft power. I’ll simply say that it is using America’s generosity and America’s understanding that it is more secure when people are free from poverty and free of tyranny. This President has done an awful lot in that regard.

QUESTION: Let me stay roughly on the subject, which is about systemic changes. There have been a lot of discussion in both parties, and experts in the military as well, about perhaps some sort of a Goldwater-Nichols approach to civilian military cooperation, in particular, nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan being the biggest, you know, case studies that we have right now. How do you see the working of those two? Is there a need for this really formal process in which you improve the coordination between the two?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think we’ve had very good coordination We’ve learned to do this the hard way, through experience. That’s why the Civilian Response Corps, the need for civilians who can be mobilized to help countries build their tax systems or their budget systems or to work with justice reform or police training, that’s why that institution that now resides within the State Department is going to be probably one of the most important innovations. Because, frankly, we tried it in the Balkans through UN processes; didn’t work that well. We tried it in Afghanistan through what I’ll call the adopt-a-ministry, country-by-country; we’re living with some of the incoherence of that now. Even though it’s wonderful to have all of these countries involved, it’s not really a coherent effort. And then in Iraq, the Defense Department had responsibility for it, and it really wasn’t right to the task.

But giving the State Department oversight of the U.S. Government effort in this regard, but also being able to really mobilize civilians who have the specialized expertise that is needed, I think that is going to work. We’ve also pioneered Provincial Reconstruction Teams, where military and civilian aid workers and governance experts are all together in an area like Anbar in Iraq or in parts of Afghanistan, Kandahar in Afghanistan. That’s really the way these institutions get built. You know, there’s a kind of false understanding, I think, of what happened in 1947 with the National Security Act which created all of the institutions that we know. They weren’t created out of somebody’s imagination. The CIA was the OSS, which had grown up during World War II. The National Security Council was Roosevelt’s war council, because he wanted to have better coordination. The Defense Department came out of the frustrations of the Navy and the War Department not operating very well together, and the creation of the Defense Department.

And so while I understand the desire to make all of this work better, I think that we have a lot of innovations now that need to be worked on and need to be furthered. We’re learning. We’ve learned the hard way that counterinsurgency, which is mostly what we’re doing around the world, is not war and then peace; it’s a continuum. And yes, civilians and military have to cooperate better together. But you do have two very distinct departments with two very distinct missions and two very distinct sets of authorities. And what we’ve been able to do is to blend those through various mechanisms without really eroding the State Department’s capabilities and the State Department’s mission, or eroding the mission of our military. I prefer the blended strategy that we have.

QUESTION: I had a question – I wanted to do a Russia question.

SECRETARY RICE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Which has been a bit of a puzzle, or people use the word “enigma” for Russia a lot. This particular year, there were cases that the U.S. had ongoing dialogues – Kosovo, Georgia, Abkhazia, the missile defense systems – and they all seemed to boil over this year. And some of the response has been that – you know, that the Russia file was neglected, that Russian interests were being – were not being truly taken into account, and this was allowed to get out of hand. What, in your view, is what happened and what led to these unfortunate developments?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, Kosovo came out just fine. The Russians didn’t agree, but the independent state of Kosovo was born.

QUESTION: It’s still a divided state, though, with sort of an unclear --

SECRETARY RICE: Well, but the fact is the international community as a whole, I think, knew that Kosovo wasn’t sustainable the way that it was. And perhaps you’re not going to always have agreement on something like that.

But let me go back to the Russia issue. You know, we’ve had very good cooperation with Russia on global issues, whether it’s terrorism or nuclear nonproliferation or, really, Iran or North Korea. We just sponsored with the Russians a Middle East resolution at the UN a couple of days ago on piracy. You name it; on the global front, we’ve had very good cooperation. Where we’ve had trouble is where it’s come to Russia’s periphery or the states of the former Soviet Union. Because Russia has a view that it ought to have a special role on its periphery and that that special role ought to dictate the policies of those states that are now independent. And our view is that those states have a right to an independent policy, both internally and in terms of their foreign policy. We’ve never believed that because the United States would have good relations with Georgia or Ukraine or Central Asia, that that somehow was a threat to Russian interests. And that’s where there’s been a problem.

And so when you look at Georgia, what Russia did with the Georgians was really uncalled for. But I have to tell you that the unity of the United States and Europe led to a circumstance in which Russia was denied its strategic objectives. It didn’t achieve a single one. Instead, the Georgian democracy survived. The Georgian Government survived. The Georgian economy didn’t collapse. Russia is stuck in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the resounding support of Nicaragua and Hamas. Their recognition policy was a failure. And all that this did was to cause people to question what kind of partner Russia could be.

And so sometimes it’s not neglect of the file; it’s that the Russians see things differently. And when they do things like Georgia, I think the fact that we’ve been able in a unified way to frustrate those strategic objectives speaks very well for the policy.

QUESTION: Final question?

SECRETARY RICE: I’ve got to go, yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay. Well, I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you. Thanks very much.

ENDS

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