Return to Transcripts main page


A Roundtable Discussion on Obama's Foreign Policy Objectives

Aired April 19, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the United States updates its options on Iran, including contingency plans to attack its nuclear sites. But it says it still prefers diplomacy.

And so, does the U.S. have a clear containment policy on this and other challenges?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

As the Obama administration announces that it's updating its options on Iran, America's top military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, says that force remains a last resort, a last option.

And at a military parade in Tehran yesterday, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, repeated his boast that his country is so powerful that no one would dare attack it.

The United States is also facing a major challenge to its Middle East peace efforts, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to insist that he won't stop building Jewish settlements is East Jerusalem.

The Obama administration also has tense relations with another key ally, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, over corruption and how best to fight the Taliban.

Joining me now to dissect all of this is foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan, who's also senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; the former U.N. peace envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, who's president of the International Peace Institute; and the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, who despite the fact that he is married to me remains nonetheless a sharp and keen observer of foreign policy.

So welcome, all of you, to this program.

Let me start, Jamie, because you are outside, but were inside an administration dealing with Iran and all these challenges. All of this that's in the newspapers about Robert Gates, what does it mean, these memos that are leaked, these contingency plans for Iran? Break it down.

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: I think what's going on here is that the administration is beginning to face the choice that's always been there, which is, how do you deal with a country that is probably not going to be affected by economic sanctions? Do you pursue a containment course, which means essentially improving your military relationship with Saudi Arabia, the gulf states, Egypt and Israel so that you can deal with a nuclear Iran without losing your security, or do you begin to develop military options for attacking Iran?

And what I think is happening now is they're -- they're realizing that they're going to have to send signals one way or the other through their military deployments of which direction they're going, and so Secretary Gates is indicating to the president that this is an important moment. We're going to have to lean one way or the other. Or can we mask it with some clever moves militarily that still shows we could go both ways?

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to put this question to our other two guests, but, first, I want to play a sound bite by Robert Gates on precisely this issue.


ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: At the end of the day, what has to happen is the Iranian government has to decide that its own security is better served by not having nuclear weapons than by having them, and it's a combination of economic pressures, it's a combination of more missile defense and cooperation in the gulf to show them that any attack would -- we can defend against and react against.


AMANPOUR: So, Robert Kagan, you heard what Secretary Gates said and you heard Jamie's analysis. Do you agree with that? Is the administration positioning itself in the right way?

ROBERT KAGAN, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: Well, I actually think that the administration is actually trying to help its own diplomatic efforts. I think there is an understanding which was lost at a certain point in this administration that in order to have a successful diplomatic strategy, you need to have the threat of military force. That's partly aimed at Iran, but I think it's partly aimed also at China.

What is the incentive for China to cooperate with the United States on sanctioning Iran? They have no economic incentive to do so. The one plausible incentive would be fear that China might have of a U.S. military strike and the disruptions that that might cause.

I think what the administration's trying to do here is put the military option back on the table so that it can help the diplomacy.

AMANPOUR: Well, to that end, I just want to read you what Admiral Mike Mullen said yesterday at a speech here at Columbia University. He said that, "Iran has been a great focus for years, not months. The military operation has been on the table and remains on the table, but the diplomatic, the engagement piece, the sanctions piece, all those things, from my perspective, need to be addressed."


So he's been saying that for a long time, trying to sort of push back the idea of military.

KAGAN: Well, but I think what happened was, Mullen and some other senior officials in previous months had basically said military option will be a disaster, it wouldn't work. They really downplayed it. I'm guessing that the administration felt that they may have downplayed it too much and that that wasn't helpful in the present circumstances.

I have a hard time thinking that they are planning way ahead right now. I think the leak of these -- of that memo and this discussion in public is designed to affect the near-term strategy of both Iran and, as I say, possibly China.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me turn to Terje Roed-Larsen, because this obviously all comes back to Israel, the country where you do a lot of your Middle East work out there, and everybody fears that Israel may be forced to take matters into its own hand.

How do you think this current debate over what Robert Gates says is playing in the Israeli government?

TERJE ROED-LARSEN, NORWEGIAN DIPLOMAT: I think not only in Israel, but in the Middle East, this is perceived on two levels. One is that this is part of psychological warfare against Iran, but it's also a part of psychological warfare in order to drum up support for sanctions driven by the U.S. and its allies in the Security Council.

But, secondly, there is the stark reality on the ground here, and I think there are four options. One is that the regime in Iran implodes because of the internal turmoil and opposition. The second one is that sanctions and diplomacy works and the Iranians step back from the brink.

But then we are left with the two hard options here, and one is, will the world allow Iran to get a nuclear capacity or will it, if necessary, use force to do it? And here I think we come down to hard choices, which is at the second layer.

There is realpolitik, as well, here. And at the end of the day, you have to choose, are you going to pursue a Chamberlainian policy or a Churchillian policy? And I think this precisely is also the dilemma which is discussed in Tel Aviv, but also in...


RUBIN: I see Bob nodding, because I think he's really hoping that it will be Churchillian, not Chamberlain. And I think that in this case I -- it's not a question of desire. I think -- and analytically, I find it extremely difficult to imagine that a president who has made a policy of ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- his policies about ending these wars is going to initiate another war. And I'd put the chances of that extremely low. Whether it's a good idea or a bad idea, I just don't think it's going to happen.

AMANPOUR: I want to discuss that a little bit more. But, first, Jamie, we always discuss, how do they know what Iran has, when every time we turn around somebody has a different assessment on what it's doing and when it's going to be a nuclear power or nuclear weapons capable?

Let me just said what Robert Gates has just said. If their goal is go to the threshold -- in other words, become capable -- and yet not to assemble, how do you tell that they have not assembled? What is the crux of the dilemma here?

RUBIN: Well, there's different thresholds. In the past, the Israeli threshold was, do they have enough material or are they able to make enough material to theoretically have a bomb? They've passed that threshold now. They can make enough material. When exactly they do it is what Secretary Gates is talking about.

Then he's talking about the even harder part, which is if they have this material, assembling it into a workable bomb is something that would go on inside a factory.

The crucial next step, which can be detected, is to test a weapon the way North Korea did. That we could definitely detect. But to -- to the difference between capability and assembly of a weapon is not really very much.

AMANPOUR: So, Robert Kagan, again, on this issue, President Obama was asked by the United States -- rather, by the New York Times whether he saw a difference between a nuclear-capable Iran and one with a fully developed nuclear weapon. He declined to go there, to answer that.

But, I mean, isn't the dilemma of trying to have a policy for something that you don't know whether it exists or not or when it will?

KAGAN: Well, it's a dilemma. And, unfortunately, it's a dilemma we faced in Iraq, as well, and we saw how that turned out. And I'm sure that that's on people's minds.

On the other hand, we do have the IAEA making pretty strong statements about Iran's intent. There is a fair degree of international agreement -- at least certainly in the West -- about what Iran is up to. So I think we have to, you know, plan accordingly, and I think the administration is. And I think the president is right not to try to parse those issues.

I think the capability to have a weapon is going to turn out to be the same as having a weapon. And I'm not sure we should count on Iran stopping short of getting a weapon. I think they want to create as much of a fait accompli as they can, and that's what we have to confront (inaudible)

RUBIN: I'm going to have to disagree with Bob on that. I think the difference between having enough material and having a test or a brandishing of a nuclear weapon, declaring yourself a nuclear weapons state, I don't think the Iranians get much more out of that, and they get a whole lot of pain as a result of it.

So my prediction would be that they're going to be capable, they're not going to test, they're not going to declare themselves a nuclear weapons state, because I think if they did, then a lot of people who have been reluctant to use military force might change their mind.

AMANPOUR: And as we go to a break, because we're going to -- so we'll continue this. But let me just read you what President Ahmadinejad has just said at his alternative nuclear summit in Tehran, that "the nuclear weapons states have equated nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. Who says nuclear energy means nuclear weapons? They themselves have defined it that way, just because they're going to monopolize it and prevent other nations from acquiring clean nuclear energy. And this is the greatest betrayal to humanity."

We will discuss that and other things when we come back after a break, including what President Obama's chief of staff recently said, that the U.S. president's worldview is in the same category as former President George H.W. Bush's. You can read experts' reactions to this assessment and tell us your opinion at

And next, more on the Obama administration's policies on the Middle East and on Afghanistan. We'll be right back.



BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: The first thing as I said -- and I think as a Likud leader it wasn't easy for me to do -- I said we're ready to have a solution of peace of two states for two people. Then I removed hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints, which makes the West Bank economy boom. I mean, they've got coffee shops. They've got shopping malls. They've got restaurants. They've got e-businesses, you name it. It's great. But it hasn't been done before. We helped make it happen because of the change of policy.


AMANPOUR: That was the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And joining me again is Robert Kagan, Terje Roed-Larsen, and Jamie Rubin.

Let me go straight to you, Terje. Coffee shops, restaurants, e- businesses. Is that enough for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

ROED-LARSEN: I think it is great that it is happening, but there is also political reality there, which I think most starkly is illustrated by the fact that now Fatah would most probably win an election in Gaza, but Hamas would most probably win an election in the West Bank. Why?

AMANPOUR: So turning the situation upside down.

ROED-LARSEN: Because, I mean, it's -- it's -- it's a fact of life, and the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, has done a great job, and all the figures are going upwards, living standards are being improved, but still there is no support -- there is not enough support for Fatah. Why? Because there is no peace.

Because, I mean, what the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government and the international community has to prove is that the negotiating table is a better tool than a barrel of a gun in order to achieve peace. If -- if this is done, then I believe that support for Fatah and the Palestinian Authority will skyrocket.


AMANPOUR: But in the meantime, a lot of people are losing help -- losing hope, rather, including many of the people who have put their whole careers towards the peace process. Aaron Miller -- used to be a colleague of yours and has served many, many presidents in the United States of all parties -- has got a new article called "The False Religion of Middle East Peace and Why I Am No Longer a Believer."

What does that say about the Obama administration or anybody's efforts and likelihood of making a change in that?

RUBIN: Well, Aaron is a very frustrated peacemaker. He worked at it for a long, long time. And when he left, things really did collapse. But I don't think that the United States or the international community is ready to give up on this, despite Aaron's frustration.

The problem, of course, is that right now what is happening is that everybody is worse off. The Americans are worse off because the current American president has less leverage with the Israelis, because he's not very popular there. The Israelis are worse off because their relationship with the United States has gotten to a new low. The Palestinians, as Terje was pointing out, are worse off because there's no prospect for peace. And Hamas is worse off because they've shown that, when they're in charge, the situation gets even worse.

So that's why Aaron is grim, but I don't think the answer is to give up.

AMANPOUR: Robert, what do you think about this? There's been a lot of talk about the U.S. administration putting a peace plan on the table. Where do you stand on what should be done right now and how much the U.S. should do?

KAGAN: Well, by the way, I also worked with Aaron Miller back in the 1980s, which shows you how far back Aaron goes and how bipartisan he is in his approach. But in terms of the United States now coming out with a plan, it's not as if administrations in the past haven't approached that idea and looked at it and ultimately had to balk, and the simple reason is, the administration would propose a plan, both Israel and the Palestinians would reject it, and we'd be right back to where we started.

I think whatever else is true, we -- you know, if we're going to go forward with a peace process, we have to go back to the idea of some incremental steps and confidence-building measures. I think that's one reason the administration was so frustrated, if not angered, by the Israeli action while Vice President Biden was visiting about settlements in East Jerusalem. We're going to have to get back to that stage.

Clearly, this moment is not ripe for a big peace plan breakthrough. That's not where we are. That's not where we are on the Palestinian side. It's not where we are on the Israeli side.

AMANPOUR: And, Terje, not only is it not ready and that's not where anybody is, but you have posited the fear that there could even be another outbreak of hostilities somewhere in the Middle East, between Israel and one of its neighbors.

ROED-LARSEN: Yes. And let me just say that, before I answer that question, that I do thoroughly agree with our apparently common good friend Aaron Miller, who writes what I think is a very pertinent and very timely analysis. It doesn't show any way out, but I think the analysis is correct.

And I think the dilemma which springs out of his views is, shall we do crisis maintenance or shall we do crisis resolution? And what he points out is that to do crisis resolution right now is very difficult, because all the conflicts of the Middle East are so intertwined now. It's very difficult to resolve one without resolving the other.

And also we're in agreement today (ph) is extremely difficult, maybe impossible, because all the conflicts are so intertwined, the Iranian issues, the Syrian issues, the Lebanese issues, et cetera.

So -- and this leaves us with an open. Either you're going to tread water and just say, OK, business as usual, suicide bombings here, killings there, assassinations, et cetera, or to work for a diplomatic breakthrough.

And then, two, define timelines and high ambitions in this situation is dangerous, because the chances of failure are enormous. And if you fail, it will lead to new violence, as the failed Camp David negotiations, as Jamie knows very well, led to several years of violence and thousands of dead, and add the collapse of the Annapolis process, in many ways, was a backdrop for the war in Gaza.

So, I mean, this is dangerous business, and you have to calibrate very, very carefully what you do and what you say. It's not only a question of what you want, but it's a question of how you do it.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask all of you now. President Obama came in talking about engagement. One of his first acts was to name a special envoy to put the Middle East peace process back on track, engagement with Iran, engagement with the Islamic world in his Cairo speech.

How would you assess engagement as having worked or not, Jamie, on Iran?

RUBIN: On Iran, obviously, engagement has not succeeded in making diplomacy more likely. Whether it's helped a little bit with sanctions, perhaps, but that's not going to solve the problem.

I think on the Middle East peace process, President Obama was right to give it priority.


The last administration made a mistake because the whole word, as frustrating as it is, as bad as things are, the whole world expects the United States to at least be trying and failing, rather than not trying at all, and that is important.

AMANPOUR: Engagement, Terje? Has that worked in your...


ROED-LARSEN: I'm not quite sure I disagree with the last, because engagement is dangerous, because if you engage the wrong way -- and let me use one example. When Ehud Barak was prime minister, he did a very heroic thing. He wanted to address all the conflicts, put an end to all of them in one go. It was heroic, and it was the right thing to do, in a way.

But when it failed, it led to violence. That's why how you do things are very dangerous. That's why those who are involved at the front lines now in negotiations, they had to study very carefully why -- how did the failures of the past come about and why? And they had to design what they're doing, taking those lessons into consideration.

I think this is very much also what is the main message in Aaron Miller's article, and he has been through all the failures and knows lots about it.

AMANPOUR: And, Robert Kagan, it's not just about engagement. It's about language, as well. There's an article today talking about how -- how language has been changed under this administration. For instance, rogue states are being pushed aside in favor of outliers. How do you -- how do you think that helps or doesn't?

KAGAN: Well, I don't think it makes that much difference. I mean, there's been so much emphasis in this administration on being not Bush, not using the language of Bush, trying to do whatever the opposite that Bush did, and that's not very unusual.

When Bush came in, he was going to be the opposite of Clinton, as Jamie recalls, but it's not a policy. And I think where we are right now finally on a lot of these issues is the beginning of an effort to actually have a policy. Not Bush was never a policy, just as mere engagement is not a policy.

Now the administration is having to face the hard questions. And not surprisingly, in some cases, is finding itself much closer to where Bush left off, in any case.

AMANPOUR: Very quickly -- we've got a minute-and-a-half left -- Robert Kagan, quickly on Afghanistan, is it going the right way or not?

KAGAN: It's going all ways. I still have relative confidence in our military effort. I think that the plan that McChrystal has put together and that the president approved will show some success over the next year or so. The Taliban will be beaten back.

The big question is governance, and there I would say there's not a lot of reason for optimism.

AMANPOUR: All right.

KAGAN: We had two chances to get rid of Karzai, and we passed them both up. Now we're stuck with him, but we're going to pay the price.

AMANPOUR: Sanctions on Iran, Jamie. Obviously, the permanent five seem to be sort of all over the place. Secretary Clinton is taking a lot of (inaudible) in China and Russia at least agreeing to talk about sanctions. Turkey doesn't want it. They're on the Security Council. What chance of real sanctions?

RUBIN: I think we'll get a resolution. I think it'll take two, three months, and it'll be very thin, but there will be some sanctions on Iran, and that will give the administration an opportunity maybe to get some bilateral things going hard, banking sanctions with European allies and perhaps with individual countries, but it's not going to be crippling.

AMANPOUR: And, lastly, Terje, what chances and when will the proximity talks start, the proximity talks, not even face-to-face talks, between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

ROED-LARSEN: If we want the straight, short answer, I believe they will never take place. But this may be too pessimistic.


ROED-LARSEN: Because I think the parties are stuck. I think it's very difficult to get out of the trenches. You heard what Prime Minister Netanyahu said earlier today. I think this is very ominous for those efforts.

AMANPOUR: Gentlemen, thank you all very, very much. We've done the World 101 or 201, and it's been very interesting.

And to read former diplomat Aaron David Miller's op-ed in Foreign Policy magazine called, as I said, "The False Religion of Middle East Peace," log on to and give us your take.

And next, we have our "Post-Script." How the Middle East conflict is destructing plans for one 13-year-old boy's bar mitzvah in South Africa. That is when we return.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script."

He is one of the world's preeminent jurists, a former chief prosecutor for the United Nations war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and also of a report that accused both Israel and the Palestinians of war crimes during the Gaza War.

He is Judge Richard Goldstone, who's been a guest on this program. But now his investigation into the Gaza War is having a profound impact on his family life. He says he will not attend his grandson's coming of age services in Johannesburg, South Africa, next month, his bar mitzvah, because some Jewish leaders there are threatening protests against the Gaza report on the day of that bar mitzvah.

Tonight, Judge Goldstone told us, and I quote, "Imagine the effect of such protests on my 13-year-old grandson and his family. I have also received reports that I will likely be physically prevented from entering the synagogue." He added, "It deeply saddens me that I will not in the circumstances be able to be in attendance."

That's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with an exclusive interview with the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on the many challenges facing the Berlusconi government. And you can watch our program whenever you like at

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.