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#12 - JRL 7232
Changing Priorities in a Post-Saddam World
An Interview with Toby Gati

Washington Profile News Agency
June 18, 2003
Toby T. Gati is a senior international adviser at the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP in Washington DC. She is the former special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine and the Eurasian States at the National Security Council in the White House (1993), as well as former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research (1993-1997).

Q: What, in your view, were the Administration's reasons for invading Iraq?

The US viewed the Iraq war very differently from the rest of the world. For the US, the most important thing was the actual war - the fighting, getting rid of Saddam. Everything that was done before in diplomacy was aimed at keeping the option of regime change open. Everything since has been to consolidate the elimination of Saddam and the installation of a regime that will eventually be more pro-Western, and hopefully more democratic. The rest of the world saw the situation in Iraq as a political problem of managing the elimination of Saddam's nuclear weapons, and the war was not a central part of that strategy for other countries. And, after the war, the rest of the world still has a different perception. Their aim is to get Iraq back as a functioning part of the Middle East, not necessarily to re-make it in a democratic image, but just to have a country run by Iraqis, where the US and Britain have influence, but it's turned back into a Middle East country as soon as possible. So there are still very different objectives in the US and the rest of the world.

This is being papered over now. No one wants to be on the wrong side of the US, because it's clear that if you are, there is a cost, and there is no possibility of changing what the US is going to do. So you see countries lining up for the reconstruction, with some of them doing more to help with the occupation, like the Poles, and others who are willing to come in under UN auspices. But there is still a real sense in many countries that the war was not necessary to achieve the objectives that the US wanted. And the debates in the US reflect some of this: was the intelligence good? Did we have to fight the war? Where is Saddam? Where are the weapons of mass destruction? These are really surrogates for this larger debate about whether the US did the right thing. Although everyone agrees that it was better to have Saddam gone, there are still many Americans and foreign observers who feel that the war has unleashed tendencies that are going to be very destabilizing. Most of the world sees the US now as a country that is willing to tolerate big changes and gamble that the future will be better. This is a very different US than the one we remember during the Cold War when the US was basically a country defending itself, and very mindful that change can lead to instabilities which are not always in the US interest. So the US has changed internally because of 9/11; it's also changed externally and it's demanding that other countries change as well. And there is a great resistance to this.

Q: As a former member of the Clinton Administration, do you believe a Democrat in the White House would have proceeded along the same lines as George W. Bush has?

The wonderful thing about politics is that being in power changes you a lot, and being out of power changes you a lot. I think there would have been a lot of objections if Clinton had gone to war because, on a personal level, I think the Republicans never forgave him for being president and for being so popular, and never trusted him as commander-in-chief. Many of the arguments you're hearing now of why we should go to war are Democratic arguments. For example, the idea of remaking Middle Eastern states and making them more democratic, and having a strategy that provides support for a free press and encourages political participation - these are themes that would have been laughed at if a Democrat put them forward instead of a Republican. You may recall the Cox Report, which ripped apart the Clinton policy toward Russia as being nave in thinking that you could transform Russia in a few years. Now, I think transforming Russia - which was a giant task, and a task that could only be begun by Americans and finished only by Russians - is a much easier task than transforming the Muslim societies of the Middle East. Many of them have absolutely no experience with any kind of Western institutions and have less than a positive view of the US. In fact, they have a negative view, whereas in Russia, when Yeltsin came to power, there was a very positive view of the US, and a desire to adopt Western institutions. If you compare Russia after its revolution - which was, after all, a revolution from within, not one imposed by American or British troops - to the changes in Iraq which are imposed by foreigners, even if they are being welcomed by some Iraqis, you have a much more difficult situation.

The Republicans are lucky - all the critics of democracy building, of nation-building, of beginning an involvement in a country with no exit strategy, of not having any plans for police or internal security - all those people are in the Bush administration, so we don't even hear some of the criticisms which were directed at the Democrats Who are the Republicans now talking about an exit strategy? Do we have one? Some people would even argue that we didn't even have an entrance strategy, we just kind of went in with objectives that kept changing. So I think it would have been much more difficult for a Democrat to go to war than for a Republican.

Having said that, I think in future months, it is going to be more and more difficult for the Republicans to sustain the commitment, because they haven't been totally candid with the American people, either about the goals of the war or the costs or the duration. It's not just money - it's the fact that other countries are going to have to help us, and this administration doesn't like to rely on allies; it's also a question of American soldiers, who could be killed in increasing numbers if the Iraqis don't feel that we are turning the government over to them. There are a lot of questions that have to be answered. For example, one of the positive results of the war on Iraq is that we can withdraw US troops from Saudi Arabia, which will assuage those people who criticize the Saudis for allowing Americans near the land of the holy places of the Sunnis. You have to ask yourself why it will be less controversial to have Americans occupying the country where many of holy places of the Shiites are - Iraq. Certainly, the Saudi government has more control over any opposition to US forces in their country than the clerics in Iraq are likely to exercise over those Shiites who are upset about those Americans being near their holy places.

So there are a lot of questions that have really not been answered. The American people may also wonder why it's okay to provide healthcare for every Iraqi when over 40 million Americans don't have medical insurance. It's not that Americans are not generous - they are generous. It's just that they will wonder about a government that is so intent on nation-building in Iraq, but doesn't seem to care about nation-building in the US for those people who need it the most.

Q: The Russian media frequently asserts that the US could attack Russia for the same reason it attacked Iraq. Is there any validity to these theories?

No, no, no. First of all, the parallels between Russia and Iraq are phony. Saddam was a leader who made war on his own people to the extent of killing hundreds of thousands of them. A country where a deliberate effort was made to keep the money in his own circle, which led to the impoverishment of his own country. The parallels just aren't there. Many Americans would say that it was precisely Iraq's weakness that made it possible to go after Iraq instead of Iran, which supports terrorism to some degree and is also developing nuclear weapons, or North Korea, which says it already has nuclear weapons. If that reasoning is correct, certainly you would never go after a country that has at least as many nuclear weapons as the US. I don't think that's the real issue for Russia. The real issue that Russians should be debating is - what gives a country influence in the world, and how does Russia go about getting that? If countries get influence by being strong economically, then what Russia says it's going to do is the absolute correct policy, which is develop the economy, create links to the world economy and make sure that the talents of the Russian people and its huge resources are used to develop Russia's economic potential.

For this reason, many people have applauded what Putin has said his goals are: to bring Russia into the G-8, to double the standard of living, although even that won't bring Russia to the level of most advanced countries. So if that's the goal of Russia, then Russia's global influence will increase. If Russia's goal is to be America's military equal, it's going to fail, because no country in the world is America's equal on the military level. If Russia is realistic about its goals, this will serve the interests not only of the Russian people, but also of global stability. I think President Putin understands this.

In the 1990s, when I was in government, the question we always used to ask was: where does Russia want to be? What role does it want to play in the world? What are the goals of its foreign policy? And the change I see now is that for many in the West, there is a belief that Putin has made his choice, and that his orientation is toward the West. Now, the question increasingly being asked is not about Russia but about the US. What kind of country does the US want to be? What are its goals in foreign policy and how will it pursue them? The questions about Russia came out of Russia's weakness. The questions about the US come out because of America's strength. But the question of what we want to accomplish in the international system is really the main determinant of a country's foreign policy.

Q: Is a solution possible in the Middle East peace process?

I think that the goal of working actively for peace in the Middle East is an absolutely essential goal. The Middle East has been one of the most destabilizing parts of the world for decades, and we should use every opportunity to start thinking about if not peace, then at least getting out of the abyss. One of the revolutions that makes peace possible in the Middle East is something that has happened without much fanfare, and that is the evolution in Russia's position. You will recall when the Russian airliner was shot down by a Ukrainian missile, and people said that they were Israeli Jews going back to Russia to celebrate the Jewish holidays. I know there were many Americans who read that sentence and said, "No, no, that must have been wrong. They must have been leaving Russia to go to Israel." But the connections between Russia and Israel are much stronger now, and the policies of Russia toward Israel are much more positive and supportive then they have ever been. So you don't have what you always had in the 1980s, which was the US on Israel's side and Russians supporting the most extreme Arab groups. That's made a real difference, and made it possible to say that yes, both Russia and the US can be supporting a roadmap. That's one of the fundamental changes that has made a big difference. Russia is now more pro-Israel than the Europeans. So cooperation is possible on that issue, although on other issues there are differences, and the main one is Iran.

When I was in government, people asked what the successes of the Clinton administration were, and we would point to the de-nuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and also to the fact that Russia didn't break up into parts. And people would often dismiss that, saying "well, it was never that serious." Of course, when Yugoslavia broke up, we realized that the danger of break-up was serious. And when we look at the Middle East, we realize that the danger of war is always there, and that in other areas the danger of separatism is real. It is to Russia's credit that those scenarios never took place. I think your concern is a serious one, if nothing is done to develop these regions economically, to deal with the lack of participation.

I am always reminded of what one of my first friends in Russia told me when I went there in the 1970s. She said, "We're always talking about the worst-case scenario. But remember, the situation in Russia is always hopeless, but not serious." Looking at the ten most likely crises in the world, Russia is not on the list. I don't think you can compare the Muslim populations in Russia to those in the Middle East, there has never been an effort to support radicalism in the schools or to glorify suicide bombers, I don't see that as a problem inside Russia. The major problems are in the Caucasus is maintaining the line of succession - the people who are now leaders will eventually pass on, and if the successions are not handled well, you could have instability.

Q: How will the world look in 25 years?

For the next decade or so, the next question is - will we have to continue with the war on terrorism, or be able to bring it more or less under control? I think we're going to have a return of the nation-state as a very important part of the international system. Globalization will still be a trend, but I think we will also realize that people need to be part of something smaller than a global community. At the same time, of course, there will be an increase in the number of people who travel, who know a lot about the world. We have it in our power to deal with some of the threats that we used to not take very seriously, because they did not come with rockets and armies and wars. If somebody said to you five years ago, "global health threats," you would say "oh, that's for people who are interested in soft and not very important issues." Of course, now we see that global health issues are coming right to the top of the list, in some countries even more important than security issues. We are going to have to expand what we view as important - health and access to water are both going to become more important.

I really count on people's ingenuity to get out of some of the worst prognoses about where the human race is headed. I'm from New York City, and I remember that they asked someone in the year 1900, "What will New York look like in 50 years?" and the answer was, "At the present rate of growth, it will be impossible to cross the streets in New York because it will be covered in horse manure up to your knees." It's important to remember that we think of events going forward as straight lines, but that is not the way the world changes. The most important thing in making prognoses is to understand that a) we can influence that prognosis and b) we're sometimes wrong. And since we're wrong, we probably ought to plan for some alternatives, so that the outcome is a better world tomorrow.

Q: Is cooperation between Russia and the US possible on the issue of Iran?

Iran is a country that many in the US would like to see in black and white, but it's really not. It's a country of grays, of changes and revolutions and transformations. For Russia, Iran is a country of great economic interest, so in order to have a compromise, you would have to compromise between an absolute and a relative vision of Iran. At some point, it might be possible to have Iran's nuclear facilities under the tightest possible international safeguards, and cut off further nuclear cooperation with Iran, perhaps at the same time understanding that the reactor now being built could be completed, and guarded in a very substantial way. I'm afraid that this sensible compromise will be very difficult because of the US military victory in Iraq, because of Iran's support for terrorism, and because of the belief that a country like Iran really doesn't need a nuclear program, because it has so much oil, and therefore its intentions will always be under suspicion.

I think what the war in Iraq shows, as well as what events in Iran and North Korea show, is what we really have to fear is not weapons but the internal system of a country. The US has had a big fight with France, but no one has ever raised the question of French nuclear weapons and the dangers they might pose to America, and that's because our internal systems are compatible - we are democratic and we don't threaten each other. I think what this shows is that with countries like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the weapons are dangerous, but more than that, it's the internal system that's dangerous. Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to have one answer for how to deal with that, and that's regime change from outside. But there are other answers, and some of them include evolution from within. Looking back at my own experience in government, that was the Clinton approach toward Russia - the hope for evolution from within so that Russia's nuclear weapons would not be a threat to the US as they were during the Cold War, once the system was not a threat to the US. If we talk now about threats from Russia's nuclear weapons, it's about lack of control, not concerns about a hostile Russia. Looking ahead, we're going to find that it really matters what countries do inside, and that long-term alliances with countries that are despotic is not in the interests of the US or of world stability. We may have to do it for the short-term, but in the long term, what really matters is how a country treats its own citizens. That's why the democratic development of Russia is still so important.

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