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Sandy Berger interview - full transcript

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Sandy Berger interview - full transcript


The NATO summit in Wales has been dubbed one of the most important meetings since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It comes with issues around Ukraine, Afghanistan, and the future of the Nato alliance at the top of the agenda for politicians and diplomats.

To find out what the US view of the summit was, euronews spoke to Sandy Berger, a former US National Security Advisor under President Bill Clinton.

euronews: Mr Berger, this NATO summit is perhaps one of the most important meetings since the creation of the alliance. So, what are your major takeaways?

Berger: I think it was a very important summit. There were two substantial crises going on in the world which were discussed at the summit.

One is the Russian activity in Ukraine, the incursion, I would call it invasion, by Russia and how NATO is going to respond to Russia and to Putin who has disregarded, thrown out of the window, the rules and post-Cold War East-West relations. I think the summit has done a good job at reaffirming its commitment to defending the NATO countries and in particular the Baltics who are feeling very vulnerable as a result of Russia’s new activism. So, in that sense, I think, it was extremely important.

And there also was a strong commitment to act together with respect to the new threat of Sunni extremism in the Middle East, ISIL, which is not a new threat but has coalesced in recent months in a way that becomes a threat both in the Middle East and to the West. I think we saw the foreign ministers come together and the President and others to say this will be defeated. It will take a while, but we will do it with an international effort.

euronews: At the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that NATO members must “reinvigorate and refocus” the alliances to tackle new threats and to foster security. Now, what are the right buttons that need to be hit, in your opinion?

Berger: Well, there are two.

Number one, in many ways the original purpose of the NATO alliance was to defend its members against then a Soviet threat which diminished after the end of the Cold War. And NATO then went to Bosnia, went to Afghanistan and dealt with out-of-area common problems. Suddenly, Putin has asserted a new view of Russia’s intentions, a rather dangerous view, I think, and so NATO has come back to its original Article 5, original purpose, and been very clear that we are not going to succumb to a new Russian aggressiveness. So, that’s certainly one very important piece of this.

The second is to come together around a new threat, which is the threat of Sunni extremism, the threat of ISIL and to form a broad international coalition which will not only be NATO, but which will also presumably include countries in the region, the Gulf countries and others who are also threatened by this extraordinary fanatic extremism that threatens to destabilise the region and poses a direct threat to us, as we have seen in the United States in recent days with the grotesque beheading of some of our citizens.

euronews: On Ukraine. The cease-fire that has been officially announced is certainly not the end of the conflict. But can it be a meaningful step towards a peaceful solution of the crisis or are you expecting some sort of Gaza-type of ceasefire that will be broken over and over again?

Berger: Well, it’s a tenuous ceasefire, I think, at this stage I think hopefully will hold as a ceasefire. But that doesn’t represent a resolution of the problem in Ukraine. To step back for a moment: Ukrainian military was on the verge of defeating the Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine as recently as two or three weeks ago, at which point Putin and the Russians moved thousands of Russian troops, tanks, artillery into Ukraine – I would call that an invasion – and reversed the momentum, pushed the Ukrainians back and at high costs. So, the Ukrainians at this point want a ceasefire, but the status quo, I think, should not be acceptable to the West and to the Ukrainians, because it would leave this whole part of Ukraine in the hands, essentially, of Russian surrogates. And we have another frozen conflict like we had in Abkhazia or Southern Ossetia with a Russian-dominated region in Ukraine which will make it very difficult for Ukrainians to have a united nation. Certainly there has to be a solution here which would give a great deal of autonomy to the eastern Ukraine, recognizes that Ukraine has an economic relationship with Russia, recognizes that many people in Ukraine have family and historic linkages to Russia, but certainly cannot reward Putin’s aggression by leaving this as it now stands.

euronews: Well, the point is that Russia is still denying having soldiers in Ukraine, supporting the rebels and still saying that it doesn’t have anything to do with the fighting at all. So, isn’t Putin winning this thing, as one of the rebel leaders has said that despite the ceasefire the conquered territories would not be returned?

Berger: Well, I think if things were frozen, as they are now, it would be a victory for Putin.

Let’s go back: He first denied he had anybody in the Crimea, as his little green men crept into Crimea, then he sent troops into Crimea and has now annexed the Crimea. Then in eastern Ukraine, he sent supplies and arms, ground-air missiles that shot down the Malaysian plane, and when that didn’t work he actually sent troops into Ukraine in the last three weeks. So he has escalated. We have had sanctions. And I think the sanctions have hurt Russia and I think over the long term, they will hurt Russia very badly, but in the short term they have not reversed Putin’s course. So I believe that we need now to – unless there is a political settlement that restores this area to Ukrainian control – I think we need to increase the sanctions, we need to help Ukraine defend itself, and we ought not to let this situation stand as a victory for Putin’s aggression.

euronews: Let’s move on to ISIL. The summit has agreed on building a broad coalition of the committed to degrade and ultimately destroy the jihadists and measure should include military support to Iraq, stopping the flow of foreign fighters and countering ISIL’s financing. What I want to know is, is this manageable? And how confident are you that the big Arab powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates can be brought on board?

Berger: I think it’s a long-term enterprise, I think it is achievable over a period of time. I think there are several elements to it. Clearly, there is a military dimension. We can do some damage with air power, but there has to be forces on the ground ultimately to push ISIS back. That means we need a strong Iraqi army which has been very much eroded in recent years, we need to help rebuild that. We need the Sunni population in Iraq that has been alienated by Maliki to come back into alignment and puck ISIL back.

And as you said, we need to engage the Arab countries in the region. ISIL is not just a threat to us. It’s a threat to them, as well. It’s a threat to Saudi Arabia, to the Emiratis and all the nations in that region. And I think they see it that way. I think they have been reluctant to come forward because they were unwilling to support a government led by Maliki who for the last several years has governed in a very sectarian way, very hostile to the Sunni Iraqis, and the Saudis and others were unwilling to come to his aid. He is now gone, and we have a new government in formation. Hopefully it will form an inclusive government and will be able to bring those Gulf Arabs and the Egyptians and others into a grand coalition. I think the only way this is going to succeed over a significant period of time.

euronews: So, you are optimistic that this can be done?

Berger: Ah, well, optimistic… I think realistic. I think if the international community really is serious about this and if our publics stay supportive, this is not going to be cost-free, I think over time we can degrade, as the president said, and ultimately destroy this group.

euronews: I want to conclude with a personal question. On the domestic front, President Obama has come under very heavy fire from the Republican opposition for not being sufficiently tough on ISIL. I wonder what your take is on the president’s approach here, and if you were National Security Advisor today, what would be your advice to the president?

Berger: I think the president has been putting together the pieces here. I think he hasn’t put the whole picture in front of the American people, and so it’s hard for them to see how the pieces fit together. But he has been very effective in getting Maliki out. It’s a huge step, he has already done more than 120 military strikes, he is now putting together this grand coalition. So, one by one, the pieces are falling into place. There are some other big pieces. We have to deal with ISIS in Syria, much harder, but we can’t deal with them in Iraq and let them float across the border and have safe haven in Syria. That’s a harder problem. So, I think the president has been putting the pieces together, I think he has be reluctant, maybe too reluctant, to talk about what the ultimate goals are, what his vision is as to how he sees this coming together. And so he has left himself open to criticism. But I think that he is headed in the right direction.

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