"With the Russians, you can be tough, but you should listen"
Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for President in the 2008 election
Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. (ret) Colin Powell has made a lot of news this year. First, the longtime Republican Powell endorsed Illinois Democrat Senator Barack Obama for President of the United States. Second, on Sunday, December 14, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, Powell gave a candid account of his time as Secretary of State for President George W. Bush(2001-2004), in which he discussed the day-to-day "business" of U.S.-Russia relations. In his discussion with Newsweek and CNN correspondent Zakaria, Powell declared that while missile defense systems may eventually be deployed to protect the U.S. and its allies, they must be proven to be workable, and their deployment weighed against other diplomatic and military priorities in U.S. grand strategy.
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Fareed Zakaria host's the CNN program Fareed Zakaria GPS shown Sundays at 1 PM U.S. EST
Powell's view is essentially the same position Barack Obama outlined during his presidential campaign, basically keeping America (and by extension, U.S. allies like Israel)'s options open for pursuing missile defense systems while remaining skeptical about their true costs. It also represents a more realist position than the partisan, kneejerk hostility many Democrats have traditionally displayed towards "Ronnie Raygun's Star Wars boondoggle". In the past, many Democrats have argued in a somewhat contradictory fashion that missile defense systems will never work, while in the same argument, insisting that they will provoke a new arms race in outer space with Russia and China.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the costs and benefits of placing a system near Russia's border in Poland, 2,000 miles from the alleged source of the threat in Iran, this previously contradictory argument makes more sense. It also makes sense when there are alternatives like placing anti-ballistic missile interceptors on U.S. Navy AEGIS ships at sea or in U.S. and Russian allied nations closer to Iran (such as Iraqi Kurdistan or Azerbaijan) that the Bush Administration has chosen not to pursue, for whatever reasons, be they technical or political. At any rate, a ground based missile defense system in Poland could very well prove to be an expensive white elephant that defends very little European and U.S. territory while costing America and NATO quite a lot.
Powell implies that placing a limited missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic is simply not worth alienating Russia right now, when there are so many other issues on the agenda, from preventing a nuclear Iran to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan via Russia and the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. Powell instead wants the Obama Administration to emphasize reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as part of an ongoing process of confidence building and verifiable disarmament. Powell advocates postponing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia indefinitely. Powell also reminds Zakaria and his readers that Russia is still a great power smarting from losing its superpower status and has been struggling to define its economy, culture and civil society in the years following the Soviet collapse. Most interestingly of all, Powell hints at the wide gap between private discussions among world leaders and their heated public rhetoric, suggesting that behind the scenes, matters of state are handled far more coolly than either Washington or Moscow's press releases would suggest.
The text of an excerpt from the transcript is below:
ZAKARIA: When we look at our problems that we've been having with Russia in Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, in that whole region, there are some people who say, you know, we've blown our relationship with Russia, that there was an opportunity to have a very different kind of relationship with Russia.
You've been involved in this for a long time. How do you react?
POWELL: Well, the first thing I say to people when they ask me about this is, don't worry, the Soviet Union is not coming back. We're not quite sure where the Russian Federation may be going under Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin, but the Soviet Union is not coming back.
Russia is now part of the international economic and political community. And Russia has seen a degree of wealth creation that they could never have dreamed of in the days of the Soviet Union. But it rests on commodities and the sale of oil, and so, they have to have good relations with the rest of the world to do this.
At the same time they are a very proud people. And we sometimes forget that when the Cold War ended, the Russian people lost their ideology, they lost their economic system, they lost their military superiority, they lost their empire.
And Mr. Putin succeeded in restoring a level of pride to the Russian people through the Russian Federation, and they respect him for it. And he is at 85 percent popularity. And you have to take that into account when you start to deal with the Russians.
The problem is -- and I discussed this with Mr. Putin when I was in office -- he has not used his popularity or his position of influence and power in the country to put in place the institutions of a representative government.
Shutting down some channels of the media, sort of packing the Duma, the parliament -- he didn't have to do that. And so, I felt that it was unfortunate that he didn't take advantage of that, and he still hasn't.
At the same time, I think we have to be careful how we deal with this very proud nation. They don't like it when you say things like, you're acting delusionally -- which we have said to them -- or that, well, we don't care what you think, because you are becoming irrelevant.
Well, you don't say that to a country that has nuclear weapons, among other things, and that you're trying to create a better relationship with. I don't know that we approached them in the right way with respect to missile defense or the expansion of NATO. And the whole issue of ultimate admission into NATO of Ukraine and Georgia is extremely sensitive.
So I would...
ZAKARIA: You think that should be slowed down?
POWELL: I think it's been slowed down. I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon. And, you know, we're just now thinking about thinking about a Membership Action Plan at some point.
There is no reason to accelerate that at this point, in my judgment.
ZAKARIA: What about missile defenses in Poland?
POWELL: Missile defense...
ZAKARIA: You've always been skeptical about missile defenses anyway.
POWELL: I'm not -- well, to some extent, I'm saying to myself, of all the things we need to be doing now, and if we're trying to sort of quiet things down, is it really that essential to our national security right now to push this issue too fast too far?
I was there with Reagan at the very beginning on strategic defenses. But I have always said, you know, this is a hugely expensive program. Let's make sure the threat really justifies it. And if it does, then let's have it. But let's have it when we know it also is workable and it will actually perform the mission.
And so I think it's hard to step back from missile defense now just because the Russians object. But one thing we can't do is essentially say, oh, the Russians don't like this so let's not do it.
And so, I hope that under President Obama and Secretary Clinton, they'll reach out to the Russians and talk to them, and see how we can get this relationship back on track.
When we started in 2001, we faced some very tough issues with the Russians. My first challenge as secretary of state was to call on the Russian ambassador and tell him I was throwing out 52 Russian spies.
And he said, "You can't be serious."
"Yes, we're throwing them out. They're not supposed to be here."
And the next morning my Russian colleague, Igor Ivanov, called me and said, "You know what we're going to do?"
I said, "I'm sure you've identified 52 Americans that you're going to throw out of Moscow."
He said, "Exactly."
And I said, "We expected that."
And he said, "Are you going to do anything else?"
I said, "No."
He said, "Good. Let's get on with business."
So, you can be tough, but do business.
And then we had to get out of the ABM treaty, or study it, and we took nine months to discuss that with them. We didn't just do it peremptorily, as people suggest we always do.
And nine months later, both we and the Russians were convinced there was no way for us to do missile defense inside the ABM treaty. And President Bush sent me to speak to Putin -- President Putin.
And I sat in his office and I said, "We've tried. Igor and I have worked very hard, but we can't do it, therefore President Bush is going to abrogate our responsibilities under the ABM treaty."
And he looked at me, his steely blue eyes, and "You can't do that. It's wrong. You shouldn't do it. I think it's a mistake, and I'm really going to criticize you all for it."
I said, "I know, Mr. President."
And he said, "Good. Whew. Now, we won't have to talk about that anymore. Let's get on with it."
And six months later, we had a new treaty reducing nuclear weapons.
So with the Russians, you can be tough, but you should listen. And you should take into account their needs, their anxieties. They're a proud, strong, powerful nation that is now part of the international community.
And they wish to be listened to, and they wish to be listened to with respect. And I don't see anything wrong with listening to somebody from a position of respect.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back with Colin Powell.
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