Q&A: JOHN NEGROPONTE|
No Hand-Wringing, Please
© National Journal Group Inc.
Friday, Jan. 25, 2008
“My view [on Iraq and Afghanistan] is that we underestimated the security challenges. We moved into a reconstruction phase while we were still in a conflict situation.”
Ambassador John Negroponte has been a firsthand witness to events that shook the world and transformed the U.S. government. Just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where he helped manage the international response. Negroponte was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq in June 2004, and beginning in April 2005 he was the first person to serve in the new position of director of national intelligence after reforms of the spy community. Negroponte currently serves as the deputy secretary of State, the department's second-ranking official. He spoke recently with National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: When foreign-affairs experts look at the global landscape, they see an unusual amount of chaos and instability -- nation building and counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, confrontation with Iran, assassination and political paralysis in Pakistan and Lebanon, violence and genocide in Africa, populist upheaval in Latin America, a rapidly rising China and increasingly belligerent Russia, and new sanctuaries for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. Do you agree that these are particularly challenging times?
Negroponte: Well, first of all I would say that we live in an era when a rapid and intense news cycle has the effect of magnifying events so that they seem to come at us with a vengeance, intensifying the feelings you describe. Also I would ask, an unusual period compared to what? When I was a freshman in college in the fall of 1956, for instance, we witnessed the invasion of the Suez and the Hungarian revolution at the same time. Talk about troubled times. So sometimes the world does look like a very troubled place.
On the positive side of the ledger, however, I would note that our democracy agenda is doing quite well in many places, such as Africa and Latin America. When you look around the world, economies are generally growing, and there is real prosperity out there. So by and large we are working off pretty solid fundamentals.
Q: Yet when you look at the difficulty of establishing functioning democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, haven't we seen major challenges and setbacks precisely where the U.S. military is most heavily engaged?
Negroponte: There's no question that the major challenge is the Middle East. But even there, if you look at Iraq, you'll see a more promising perspective. Iraq is getting better. We have indications that the situation between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds is calming somewhat. Lebanon is still stalemated, and that is a problem. On the other hand, for the first time in years the Lebanese army is acting like a national force and has even established a presence in the south, where Hezbollah traditionally dominated. And, of course, there is the administration's full-court press to try and promote the Middle East peace process. So I see some hopeful signs and am pretty upbeat generally. There are certainly issues that need our attention, but I don't see any cause for hand-wringing at this point.
Q: What do you say to experts who look at our missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq and conclude that the Bush administration vastly underestimated the challenges of establishing democracy and civil-society institutions in those countries?
Negroponte: I have some personal experience in that regard. I don't know whether or not it conforms to conventional wisdom, but my view is that we underestimated the security challenges. We moved into a reconstruction phase while we were still in a conflict situation. So it was not a question of underestimating the difficulty of establishing democracy, as much as we underestimated the extent of the insurgency. As a result, we put a lot of resources into reconstruction projects when we should have been in more of a counterinsurgency mode. I think we've corrected that mistake.
Q: Do you think the administration erred in stressing the "global war on terror" as the central focus of U.S. foreign policy for so long, making us seem too militaristic to much of the world?
Negroponte: Well, I've got to stress that terrorism is still a serious threat. There are still people plotting against us and planning to do harm to the United States and our interests around the world. Some of them reside in the tribal areas of Pakistan and along the Pakistan-Afghan border. We have to curtail that activity. But if you're suggesting that we have to deal with the threat of terrorism in a multifaceted way and that military means alone are not sufficient, then I agree. The solution requires the military but also good intelligence. We also have to address the root causes that serve as the breeding ground for terrorism.
Q: When we as a nation are still debating the morality and efficacy of "harsh" interrogation techniques that much of the world consider torture, and indefinite detainment that lies outside the rule of international law, can the United States really win the "war of ideas" that President Bush insists is crucial to this conflict?
Negroponte: I get concerned that we're too retrospective and tend to look in the rearview mirror too often at things that happened four or even six years ago. We've taken steps to address the issue of interrogations, for instance, and waterboarding has not been used in years. It wasn't used when I was director of national intelligence, nor even for a few years before that. We've also taken significant steps to improve Guantanamo. People will tell you now that it is a world-class detention facility. But if you want to highlight and accent the negative, you can resurface these issues constantly to keep them alive. I would rather focus on what we need to do going forward.
Q: Is closing Guantanamo Bay an important part of that future agenda, as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have suggested?
Negroponte: I think closing Guantanamo is a long-term goal, though I don't know when it will be possible. In the meantime, we as a nation have to address the issue of what we do with people who pose a terrorist threat and cannot just be let loose on our society. There is a very high rate of recidivism with some of these people. If we let them go and they carry out similar terrorist actions in the future, we will have only ourselves to blame.
Q: One of the signature and most controversial aspects of the Bush foreign policy has been your great reluctance to engage in negotiations with adversaries, most notably Iran. Given that we talked constantly with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, why refuse to engage Iran?
Negroponte: Well, there is perhaps a little more contact with some of these societies than we are given credit for. In the case of Iran, we've certainly engaged indirectly in an intense way through the E.U.-3 [the European Union's Britain, France, and Germany], the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It's true we haven't had direct talks, except in Iraq on issues specific to that situation. That's probably the best approach, because we have to focus on where we can best advance our interests. Our nuclear interests are best covered in the E.U.-3 dialogue. Iraq issues we have with Iran are dealt with by ambassadorial engagement in Baghdad.
Q: But given that the United States reached a deal on North Korea's nuclear weapons program only after the administration relaxed its refusal to talk on a bilateral basis, why not just sit down with Iranian leaders and negotiate directly?
Negroponte: The flip side of that approach is that unless you have an indication that Iran is really prepared to talk about its destabilizing activities in the region -- whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, or in terms of the Middle East peace process -- direct, high-level talks might simply encourage them. They may feel that talks give them a free pass to continue behaving badly. If they are serious about improving the atmosphere between our countries, I would hope that Iran would address some of the security issues we have raised during our ambassadorial-level talks in Baghdad. As far as Iran's nuclear program, Secretary Rice has made it very clear that if Iran suspends its uranium enrichment, that would open the way for direct, high-level contacts between us.
Q: Given polls that show a significant increase in isolationist sentiment among Americans as a result of the Iraq war, how worried are you that the public will not support global U.S. leadership in the future?
Negroponte: I do worry about that attitude among the public. We need to remind ourselves constantly that Americans make up only around 4 percent of the world's population. We have to engage with the other 96 percent of people who live outside our borders, and work with them constructively toward peace and stability. Because even though we make up only 4 percent of the world's population, we account for 25 percent of the world's economy, and we are by far the world's largest military power. Practically every country I've ever dealt with sees its relationship with the United States as its most important bilateral relationship. Whether they are friends or adversaries, every country has to take the U.S. point of view into account. So we have to try and make the case continually to the American people that our society and economy benefit from engagement with other countries, and what we stand for and advocate really counts around the world.
Q: If you had one piece of advice for the next president, what would it be?
Negroponte: I would certainly counsel whoever the next president is to have patience with respect to Iraq. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater in that regard.
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