Rice Defends Regime Change in Iraq, Stresses Diplomacy Elsewhere

Interviewee: Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State; Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor,
Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, December 19, 2008; 11:22 AM

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says international sanctions against Iran are succeeding in driving away investors from the country, harming the economy, and isolating its leadership. But she continued to express support for setting up a U.S. interests section for improving contacts with the Iranian people. In a wide-ranging interview with, Rice put an emphasis on diplomatic efforts to solve nuclear proliferation concerns with Iran and North Korea. Asked about charges that regime change in Iraq had tainted U.S. efforts to help pro-democracy forces in Iran, Rice said: "The United States is not going to be able to change every regime in the world." She said the best role for the U.S. government is to "strengthen civil society, strengthen democracy forces, hold governments accountable publicly when they take harsh measure against those forces." Rice also credited U.S. democracy promotion efforts with spurring fundamental changes in the discourse on democratic reform in the Middle East.

Secretary Rice, the town is abuzz over inauguration planning. At the last inauguration, the president announced a bold program about democracy promotion, especially in the Middle East, and you were very much involved in that. Nowadays, we hear less of it and you've also made some statements like, "The United States is not a NGO and we have to balance our relations with authoritarian countries." Is that a concession perhaps that there's a realpolitik side to the democracy promotion agenda?

The promotion of democracy is something that the United States has to stay true to, because ultimately our values and our interests are inextricably linked. We've learned that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was good for our values and terrific for our interests. So I'm a firm believer that those are linked. On any given day in policy, one has to balance the fact that, yes, sometimes you have to deal with authoritarian regimes. Sometimes you have to deal with friendly regimes that have not made as much progress as you want them to. But unless the United States keeps the lodestar out there of the end of tyranny and that every man, woman, and child deserves to live in a democratic society, it will fall off the international agenda. And that's what the president's speech did. The conversation in the Middle East is fundamentally different today than it was a few years ago as a result, I believe, of American promotion of democratic values.

Just to take for example, Egypt, there were mixed signals that the United States was going to be more supportive of really pressuring Egypt on democratic reforms, but when it came down to it, Egypt was more important on the security front, was useful on [engaging] Hamas and so forth. How do you respond to those concerns?

You have to be able to do both. I personally have advocated strongly for democratic reform in Egypt. Egypt is going to be better off, in fact, more stable ultimately, when Egypt trusts its people more. I do believe that the [September 2005] presidential election was a different kind of election than Egypt had ever had. There was criticism of the president's policies right on the front page of Egyptian newspapers. The café talk in Egypt was extraordinary. And then the [December 2005] parliamentary elections were, frankly, a step back. But I don't think you will ever have another presidential election in Egypt like the old-style presidential elections. These things go in almost stepwise function. You make a lot of progress for a while and then it tends to level out and you make another jump. But what the United States has done is to support reformers, to support democracy-building programs through the Middle East Partnership Program. We both advocate with the governments for everything from individual people to changes in law. You support reformers, but change isn't going to come all in one day.

What about a country like Iran where there is not a relationship with the government, but there is very much interest in cultivating the grassroots democratic forces there? There would seem to be an unfortunate response to U.S. democracy promotion funding, in particular. [Iranian activists] Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi and others were saying it was tainted by the image of regime change. How do you deal with that sort of troubling association of democracy promotion versus a threat of regime change in a country like Iran?

I am a firm believer that, for the most part, regime change is going to come from within, ultimately. And to help and to strengthen civil society, strengthen democracy forces, hold governments accountable publicly when they take harsh measures against those forces is what the United States can do. But the United States is not going to be able to change every regime in the world. Now when there's a circumstance like Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a threat to the region, a threat to our interests, where he dragged us into war twice, has used weapons of mass destruction. And when you deal with the security threat there, I do think then that you have an obligation, having engaged in regime change for security reasons, to insist that what follows is democratic. And so the United States didn't take the easy way out in Iraq, which was to remove Saddam Hussein and just install another strong man. We took the harder road of helping the Iraqis to develop democratic institutions. And they're now starting to take root.

When you mention Iraq and Iran, it's an interesting parallel that seems to be developing. The latest round of sanctions covers dual-use [nuclear] goods; there's this increasing move to isolate Iran. Are we looking at going down this road of some UN-monitored sanctions regime that's going to try to put Iran in a box like Iraq was?

The sanctions with Iran are a bit different. Yes, they're UN Security Council sanctions, but they're generally against Iranian entities that are practicing proliferation or are engaged with terrorism, like the Quds Force and the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force] funding. They go after individual assets of people who are engaged in the policies. We've tried to tailor them not to have a general effect on the Iranian people, but they are having an effect on the Iranian economy because Iran is not able to get the kind of investment or investment support, for instance, from countries in Europe. Western oil companies have all left. Total was the last one to leave. So reputational risk and investment risk is what's driving people out of Iran. It's somewhat different than the comprehensive sanctions that were put on Iraq.

In terms of trying to engage Iran, you've been in favor of opening a U.S. interests section in Iran. That got derailed by various events this summer. What kind of feedback did you get from Iranian officials?

We never proposed it officially. The president made an in-principle decision. We did the work, and then, as you said, the Russian occupation of Georgia, and later the Iranian opposition to our SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq], sort of derailed it, but we never really asked the Iranians, so we don't know what they would have said. Sometimes, we heard, even in public pronouncements, that they would be prepared to look at it. But this was always aimed at the Iranian people. It was always aimed at our efforts to reach out to them, to make it easier for them to get visas to the United States, to have a point of contact with the United States of America, much as our interests section in Havana [Cuba] has done. And in the context of a pretty firm policy against the regime, an interests section that can be a platform for contact with the Iranian people makes sense. Now, whether the Iranians ultimately would have agreed, I don't know, but I would have hoped that they would have. And had they not, it would have said something about their policies.

On the North Korea file you've been dealing with most recently, can you state what has been the value of the U.S. engagement policy that's been unfolding in the last couple years? How do you tell someone that despite this latest backsliding, this has been a worthwhile move?

You start with the fact that they haven't made plutonium since the Six-Party agreement of September 2005, and that's an important point. They've shut down the reactor [at Yongbyon]. They've disabled certain elements of it along with the cooling tower. It's not the permanent disablement that we looked for, but it's a series of important steps. We have negotiated a verification protocol, to which they've agreed. Unfortunately, some of the clarifications that they made to us privately that needed to be made so that there were no loopholes in the verification protocol, they refused to write down. And that's where things broke down. But it also has been of value because the North Koreans are in a situation in which they are confronting Russia, China, the United States, South Korea, and Japan, so that they can't just make this a bilateral problem with the United States. And the fuel oil shipments that they need, they need not just from the United States but also from South Korea. And since South Korea has made clear that their relationship with North Korea depends in part on how denuclearization goes, the North can't enjoy certain benefits while continuing to stall on the nuclear file. But much has already been achieved here. Within the context of the Six-Party Talks you ultimately will get a verification protocol that allows us to deal with a lot of very troubling activities, many of which we've learned more about as the process of diplomacy has gone on.

One big aspect of what has been called "transformational diplomacy" is foreign aid. But there are a number of experts who say to really do this right you have to get rid of the overlapping mandates and maybe even make a cabinet-level position that's overseeing all development aid. Is that feasible?

It's not something that I favor, because development assistance has to be a part of your broad foreign policy, which links development, democracy, and security for people. If you want to see the development of well-governed democratic states, they have to have the kind of foreign assistance help from the United States that will allow them to deliver good help and good education for their people, and it has to be integrated with the policies that give support to good governments. It also has to be in a secure environment. So in a place like Colombia, you're talking about trade policy, you're talking about economic growth, you're talking governance, and you're talking about foreign assistance and security assistance. That's a package. And only the State Department and the secretary of state can bring all of those together for the United States of America. And I really would not want to be the secretary of state who does not have foreign assistance as a tool in helping to bring about the promotion of democracy or security or nation-building after conflict. It would be very difficult without the tools of foreign assistance.

There have been a lot of discussions in both parties and experts in the military as well about a Goldwater-Nichols [1986 act that improved military coordination] approach to civilian-military cooperation. In particular, in nation-building, Iraq and Afghanistan being the biggest case studies that we have right now. Is there a need for this really formal process in which you improve the coordination between the two?

We've had very good coordination. We've learned to do this the hard way, through experience. That's why the civilian response corps, the need for civilians who can be mobilized to help countries build their tax systems or their budget systems, or to work with justice reform or police training, that's why that institution that now resides within the State Department is going to be probably one of the most important innovations. Because, frankly, we tried it in the Balkans through UN processes. It didn't work that well. We tried it in Afghanistan through what I'll call the adopt-a-ministry, country-by-country [approach]. We're living with some of the incoherence of that now, even though it's wonderful to have all of these countries involved, it's not really a coherent effort. And then in Iraq, the Defense Department had responsibility for it and it really wasn't right for the task. But giving the State Department oversight of the U.S. government effort in this regard but also being able to really mobilize civilians who have the specialized expertise that is needed, that is going to work. We've also pioneered provincial reconstruction teams, where military and civilian aid workers and governance experts are all together in an area like Anbar [Province] in Iraq or in parts of Afghanistan, [such as] Kandahar [Province]. That's really the way these institutions get built.

You know, there's a kind of false understanding of what happened in 1947 with the National Security Act, which created all of the institutions that we know. They weren't created out of somebody's imagination. The CIA was the OSS, which had grown up during World War II. The National Security Council was Roosevelt's War Council, because he wanted to have better coordination. The Defense Department came out of the frustrations of the Navy and the War Department not operating very well together. And so, while I understand the desire to make all of this work better, we have a lot of innovations now that need to be worked on and need to be furthered. We're learning. We've learned the hard way that counterinsurgency, which is mostly what we're doing around the world, is not war and then peace. It's a continuum. And yes, civilians and military have to cooperate better together, but you do have two very distinct departments with two very distinct missions and two very distinct sets of authorities. And what we've been able to do is to blend those through various mechanisms without really eroding the State Department's capabilities and the State Department's mission or eroding the mission of our military. I prefer the blended strategy that we've had.

There were cases in which the U.S. had ongoing dialogues with Russia--Kosovo, Georgia-Abkhazia, the missile defense system. They all seemed to boil over this year. And some of the response has been that the Russia file was neglected, that Russian interests were not being truly taken into account and this was allowed to get out of hand. What is your view on what happened?

First of all, Kosovo came out just fine. The Russians didn't agree, but the independent state of Kosovo was born.

But it's still a divided state.

But the fact is, the international community as a whole knew that Kosovo wasn't sustainable the way that it was. And perhaps you're not always going to have agreement on something like that.

But let me go back to the Russia issue. Now we've had very good cooperation with Russia on global issues, whether it's terrorism or nuclear nonproliferation or really Iran or North Korea. We just sponsored with the Russians a Middle East resolution at the UN a couple days ago, on piracy. You name it. On the global front, we've have very good cooperation. Where we've had trouble is where it's come to Russia's periphery, or the states of the former Soviet Union, because Russia has a view that it ought to have a special role on its periphery. And that special role ought to dictate the policies of those states that are now independent. And our view is that those states have a right to an independent policy, both internally and in terms of their foreign policy.

We've never believed that because the United States would have good relations with Georgia or Ukraine or Central Asia, that somehow was a threat to Russian interests. And that's where there's been a problem. And so when you look at Georgia, what Russia did to the Georgians was really uncalled for. But I have to tell you that the unity of the United States and Europe led to the circumstance in which Russia was denied its strategic objectives. It didn't achieve a single one. Instead, the Georgian democracy survived. The Georgian government survived. The Georgian economy didn't collapse. Russia is stuck in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the resounding support of Nicaragua and Hamas. Their recognition policy was a failure and all that this did was to cause people to question what kind of partner Russia could be. And so, sometimes, it's not neglect of the file, it's that the Russians see things differently. And when they do things like Georgia, the fact that we've been able, in a unified way, to frustrate those strategic objectives speaks very well for policy.

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