US Ambassador Nicholas Burns, the former under secretary of state for political affairs, talks with The World’s Marco Werman about the daunting foreign policy dilemma Egypt’s elections pose for President Obama.
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Marco Werman: Egyptians aren’t the only ones wondering what a new Islamist government will mean for their future. The United States also has a lot at stake in Egypt. Nicholas Burns served as U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. He says Egypt’s election results pose a daunting dilemma for President Obama.
Nicholas Burns: We have real interest at stake in Egypt. Obviously Egypt is the keystone country of the middle east. It’s the largest country, it’s the most important one. It’s the political and cultural trendsetter. For the U.S., as you know, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that Jimmy Carter negotiated in March 1979, that’s the fundamental bedrock of American’s policy in the middle east. Egypt’s been an important [inaudible] as a supporter in blocking the Iranian government and Egypt’s been a supporter in countering terrorism, so what the Administration has to calculate is whether or not it believes that this new government, led by Mohamed Morsi, will in effect, continue those policies on Iran and terrorism, and especially on Israel, that have been so important to the United States. If it believes, if Washington believes that this new government will not do so, then of course, you might see Washington tack back towards implicit support for the military government. These are very important, concrete interests. The risk, however, is that if we are seen to be not fully supporting democracy, that’s going to have a major and negative impact on the United States throughout the Arab world, and I think among many of the developing worlds who question whether the United States will, in fact, support democracy in a place where we’ve traditionally had a relationship with authoritarian rulers.
Werman: How much leverage does the U.S. have with the Egyptian military? I mean is the Pentagon on the phone with the supreme command of the armed forces in Egypt every day?
Burns: The U.S. has quite a lot of influence. You know, there’s a 30 year relationship here. What that means is, the United States has been by far the major supporter in budgetary terms, of the Egyptian military over the last three decades. We have sold Egypt and the military advanced military technology, which is very important to them, and I think even more importantly, we now have a generation or two of Egyptian military leaders who have attended American staffed colleges, who have done military training in the United States, who have close personal relations with senior American military officers, so the influence is not universal, but there is a great deal of American influence from the Pentagon.
Werman: In terms of democracy though, Nick Burns, it doesn’t seem like the military relationship with the U.S., this deep relationship as you have described it, has really paid off. I mean what has the U.S. gotten from it?
Burns: Well, you’re right, Marco. Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen American non-governmental organizations who were there doing the Lord’s work, doing work on democratization and doctoral freedoms. They were repressed, some of them arrested, some of them now tried by the Egyptian military government. You’ve seen quite a lot of anti-Americans from that military government, so it’s not at all been an easy road.
Werman: Do you think Washington is acting differently now, behaving differently now, diplomatically, having learned the lessons from the Algerian elections, from Hamas election victory some years ago?
Burns: Well, I think so. I think when we, and I served in the Bush Administration, when the Bush administration effectively repudiated the election of Hamas to power, it caused a major problem for us because Arabs throughout the Arab world said, well, you say one thing, but you do another, and so the United States has stood up very plainly, led by President Obama over the last year and a half, to say that we believe in democracy in the Arab world and we wish to support it. Well, now here is the time when we’re going to be tested. Will we support it or not, and I think an early indication was the phone call that President Obama made to Mohamed Morsi. That’s an indication that the President has decided for the time being he will support this democratic result.
Werman: Nicholas Burns was the Under Secretary of State for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. Thank you very much.
Burns: Thank you so much, Marco.
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