US Congressman: Many American politicians enjoy the state of Cold War
The world as we know is in trouble. The crisis in the Middle East has led to crisis in the Western world, and the threat of emerging radical Islamist groups - such as Islamic State - is now a problem that threatens the entire globe. Russia is offering help, but Washington prefers to play deaf. However, with the planet rapidly changing, maybe it’s time for the West, and especially the United States, to sit at the table with others and seek solutions. Will Washington ever agree to that? Can Russia and the West put their differences aside in the face of imminent danger? We talk to Dana Rohrabacher - US Congressman, member of the Republican party, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats.
Sophie Shevardnadze: U.S. Congressman, member of the Republican party, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, DanaRohrabacher is my guest today. Congressman, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford has called Russia “the biggest threat to the American security” - but it’s not Russia that’s building up defenses on U.S. borders. Is this rhetoric an attempt to justify American defence and strategies in Eastern Europe?
DR: I’ll just have to say, that was an unfortunate utterance on his part. It does indicate to me how out of touch that he is with what’s going on, and certainly alerted me that there’s a huge problem with perception about Russia in the U.S. even among our military personnel.
SS: Now, you’ve said that U.S. goal is to defeat and humiliate Russia - but why does Washington believe that weak and humiliated Russia is in their best interest?
DR: I think there's been a lot of people who grew up during the Cold War, who still have some of the same stereotypes of Russia, and do not understand how much progress has been made towards a more open society as compared to when the Communist Party dominated Russia and suppressed every other group in the society. So, I think that that misinterpretation of where Russia is at, not to say that Russia doesn’t need to make… there’s a lot of things that it needs to do and a lot of progress that needs to be made, but there’s been a lot of progress that has been made in Russia towards more open society as compared to when the Communists were in.
SS: But, is it in the U.S. interests? I mean, the weak Russia?
DR: It’s in interest of my country, the U.S., and in the interest of Russia that we eliminated the stereotypes and some of the, not stereotypes, but some of the false information that has been brought out by people who want us to be enemies again. They felt comfortable in the Cold War and I think that we need to overcome that. Both of us, it’s not just for Russia’s benefit, but it’s for our benefit as well that we don't look at each other as enemies, but as people who can work together to build a better world.
SS: Congressman, do you feel your voice is actually heard in Congress? I mean, do many others share your view on Russia relations?
DR: I don’t think there’s many members of Congress that share all of my commitment when it comes to try and build better relations with Russia, I think there’s a few of us. But, by and large, they don't’ reflect, I think, the attitude of the American people, and the American people, I believe, understand full well that it is important for us to be friends with Russia and work in coordination with Russia to meet some of the challenges we face, like radical Islam, it murders Russian people as well as Americans, and so I think that there’s a better understanding or commitment to try and to work out our differences among American people than there are in some of the seasoned diplomat and seasoned politicos who grew up during the Cold War, and frankly, many of them haven’t ever gotten over that.
SS: But do you feel like your opinion is being heard?
DR: I think that I’m arguing my case and I think that, frankly, I would like to see my opinion on this get a much further, how do you say, publication in the U.S., than it is getting; however, I will have to say, in the last 6 months to a year, I think there’s been a lot more discussion on this than there was in the past.
SS: Now, in an interview to Foreign Affairs the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that President Putin wants Russia to be respect, to have a voice and to create a non-threatening neighborhood. Now that sounds very reasonable to me. Why is this then seen as something unacceptable by the U.S.?
DR: I can’t speak for those people who are so anti-Russian that they don’t see some of the positive overtures that have been made. There are a lot of positive overtures made by your government, by the Russian government, and a lot of them have just been ignored and, in fact, a lot of members of Congress don’t know about some of these overtures, about working with us on various challenges, especially in the Middle East. So, there’s a communications gap here that needs to be dealt with in a way so that we can actually have some demonstrable progress. Instead, our relationship seems to have been degenerating in the last five years and I would hope that can be reversed. I think it’s important for both of our countries to try to make steps to reassure the people of each of our countries that we don’t consider each other the enemy, and that statement by one of our top military officials claiming, making that claim that we see Russia as the “primary enemy” in the world is ridiculous and didn't’ help further this debate at all, further the cause of world peace and better relations.
SS: But tell me more about how the American public views Russia at the moment
DR: Well, I think the American people don’t know, for example, and by the way, many of my own colleagues don’t know that there’s freedom of religion, for example, in Russia today. They don’t know that. And, I will have to say that some of the failures… you know, there needs to be further reforms in certain areas in Russia, you know, Russia is not a perfect country - no one is claiming that, especially me - but the fact is that there’s a lot of things that Russia has done and Americans have no idea about. Russia reached out to us after 9\11, the cooperation that Russia has had in helping us in Afghanistan, for example - these things are not known by the American people; they don’t even know the Russian people build a wonderful memorial to 9\11, to the people that we lost, 3000 Americans slaughtered - they made an incredible memorial there, it’s a beautiful piece of art right across the channel from where the towers used to be. I don’t… probably 1 out of 10 members of Congress have any idea that it exists, much less the American people.
SS: Russia right now is being excluded from the G8, you know that. Russia-NATO cooperation has been suspended, and there also have been calls to strip Russia of its UNSC veto power. How will this affect the global security? Will that make world a safer place?
DR: I think all of those things are examples of how we’re going in exactly wrong direction. The reason why you wanna have a gathering of G8 or whatever number it is, why you want to have these gatherings of the leaders of more influential and powerful countries, is so that when there’s a problem, they can talk it through, they can negotiate and they can start talking things behind closed doors and see if they can come to a conclusion. I think that the supposed “retaliation” against Russia for decisions that it’s made in terms of Ukraine and others has been exactly in the wrong direction in terms of cutting off Russia from a dialogue - when we have differences, that’s when we should dialogue. So, I don’t think that those moves on our part have furthered the cause of peace, or led to a better understanding that could overcome some of these challenges that we face.
SS: Going back to common interests: the Iran nuclear deal was a proof that U.S. and Russia working together can in fact deliver result on international issues. Why then is it the current confrontation proving more important than mutual interests, like Afghanistan or Syria or even the fight against IS?
DR: Well, I have been disappointed at my government’s inability to take advantage of the progress that we could make or the successes that we could have, have we had more cooperation with Russia. Nowhere is that more demonstrable than in the Middle East, where Russia, for example, has been very responsible in dealing with Egypt, realizing if the radicals take over Egypt, there’ll be a total instability, we’ll have chaos in that whole region of the world, and Russia’s been very supportive of el-Sisi and his Administration, they’ve given them aid, and I know Putin went down there to open up the new Suez Canal, to show that solidarity...
[EDITOR: Vladimir Putin did not attend the opening of the New Suez Canal]
In that case, Russia is doing more for creating stability in the Middle East than is the U.S., and we should be partners with Russia in that area, it would be a great benefit to the cause of peace and to both of our countries.
SS: Now, Russia’s Foreign MInister Sergey Lavrov recently emphasized the need to recognize Assad as a partner in fighting terrorism. Combating IS would be easier if the Pentagon worked with Syrian government and that’s, like, pretty obvious, and with Iran as well. Will Washington be forced to make this move at some point?
DR: There’s been a lot oftalk about that specific issue with Assad and with the Iranian challenge. I am afraid that powers that be here in Washington are still rejecting that, although a common sense would tell you that we need to have some very serious and detailed discussions with the leadership in Russia about what can be done and come to an understanding that would permit us… for example, I think that all along the idea of working with Assad to defeat the radicals that are committing such atrocious crimes against humanity in that part of the world… we should’ve been able to work that out with Russia and we didn’t. I think that’s a good example of where because we cut off the communications instead of emphasizing: “Hey, we’ve got a problem, let’s focus on this problem and get it over with, so that we can benefit from cooperation with both of our countries” - we didn’t do that and things are a lot worse off because of it, and Assad is, perhaps, and our relationship and what we could do with the Assad regime, what type of compromises could have been made - that’s a good example where a lack of dialogue has made things less stable in the Middle East and actually has prevented us from taking some really forceful stands that could have calmed things down and made things better.
SS: So the State Department, right - it’s very reluctant to work with Assad, yet has little qualms helping, for instance, regimes in South Arabia or Bahrain. How can the White House’s moral stance be taken seriously when there are, you know, apparently, good dictators and then there are bad dictators?
DR: I think that’s a contradiction in American policy and I certainly wouldn’t defend that. I think America has… let me say, there’s a lot of contradictions in Russia foreign policy, if you get down to specifics like that as well. Let’s try to work out these contradictions and let’s try to admit that we’ve made certain decisions based on power and where now, if we look at each other as friends instead of adversaries, or at least, potential friends, where there would be a new formula that may be a little more consistent and I think that argument holds - America has had a double standard and we shouldn’t have a double standard.
SS: Now, U.S. intervened in Iraq - as you said, that was a mistake - armed the opposition in Syria - that was a mistake - took part in the bombing campaign in Libya - and today all these states are in chaos. Why do American interventions end badly, and most importantly, why hasn’t someone highlighted the potential consequences?
DR: I think that those were major mistakes on the part of the U.S., I think going into Iraq was obviously one of the greatest foreign policy errors that we made since it was decided that we’d go into Vietnam, back in the 1960s, American combat troops. So, yeah, there’s been some major decisions that have been mistaken and I think that we should’ve been more in consultation - I really believe - with Russia, and this, and perhaps we wouldn’t have made those mistakes. However, not everywhere does American and Russian policies… not everywhere do they run consistently to the benefit of both of our countries. Yes, we should strive to find those areas where there is mutual benefit. I think, Middle East is a good example of where all along had we had more of a partnership with Russia, then it would’ve been better for both of our countries today. Instead, we did not have that, Americans did go out on our own, and made decisions like the one of sending our troops into Iraq - and it was a wrong decision, and perhaps, it would’ve been a better world had we had some more caution which could have come from consultation with Russia and other countries.
SS: Now, when Barack Obama became President, everyone thought foreign invasions were a thing of a past, and evidently the Nobel Prize committee thought that too. Eight years on, we see little change in that department, actually - and did Obama know at the time these were false words, or is there a Hawk lobby in Washington that is stronger than anyone person’s will?
DR: No, you know, we have democratic system here in the U.S., which doesn’t mean that everything is done and everybody is involved in every decision, but… no, we have an open system here, but we also have a system where President Obama has been elected President of the United States and he has certain authority and the system means that the President of the U.S. can actually make mistakes and I’m sure that’s true in your country as well - I think, there’s been some serious mistakes that Russia’s made that actually wouldn’t been made had we been, again, more in consultation rather than in confrontation…
SS: So do you feel like promising “no foreign involvement” was a mistake on President Obama’s behalf?
DR: I don’t think that… Number one, I don’t think that there was a commitment that there would be no foreign involvement by the U.S. I do think that a lot of the problems we have now can be traced back to his Presidency - he is the President of the U.S., I am a Republican, I disagree with his approach - but in terms of Russia, I think that whether it’s Republican on Democrat, we need to re-examine our fundamental concepts of how we’re going to approach foreign policy with Russia and we need further cooperation.
SS: Now, this idea of… You know, American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power has said that just because nation-building hasn’t been successful recently, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, despite its failure suggesting it really doesn't work. So, should we be bracing ourselves for more “nation-building” despite the recent debacles?
DR: I would hope that we learn from our mistakes and I would hope every country does. I think the U.S. should be playing a forceful and an aggressive role, but we should be doing so in cooperation with other countries that are powerful and we can go and try to achieve some understandings that will give us the ability with these other powerful and influential countries, including Russia, to build a better world.
SS: Now, I want to talk about Ukraine a bit. despite calls for lethal aid to Kiev, such actions haven’t been taken yet. And, as you’ve pointed out on several occasions, the U.S. goal in Ukraine should be stopping violence. So, why are some politicians pushing for military aid? I mean, surely, it will escalate the situation…
DR: I believe that if we just decide to pump more weapons into Ukraine, that will not lead to an end of that conflict. Our goal should be to try and to find a compromise that will be acceptable there to all the people who live there in Ukraine, including the people that are Russian-speakers, who feel like they are under attack in the eastern part Ukraine, and including the other part of the Ukraine that we feels like it wants to make sure that their sovereignty is recognized and respected by Russia and other countries. There are compromises that can be made and understandings, but putting more weapons into that arena - I don’t think it will make those compromises and those understandings any more likely.
SS: Dr. Stephen Cohen, a leading expert on Russia and a guest of the show, he described how the American mainstream media stigmatized him over his views on Russia. Now, the New York Times has called you a “Putin apologist” and a “Kremlin defender” - does it bother you?
DR: Yeah, it does, because, obviously, I am not a apologist or a defender - I am just trying to say the truth as I see it, and I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life, I worked in Reagan’s White House for seven years, I was a “Cold Warrior”, I was one of the more active Cold Warriors during the Cold War, and I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve seen the changes and recognized these, the changes that have gone on in Russia over these years - and respect that. I think, there’s more change that’s needed there, but especially we need not to cut off communications now that there are problems emerging. Now is the time we should be talking with each other, rather than trying to vilify each other, and certainly… but I will say that Russia has to accept, its leadership has to accept some of the responsibility here, that American people have not gotten the word… as I say, most Americans still believe, even the leaders still believe that there’s no freedom of religion in your country. Every time I go to Russia, and I’ve been there several times in the last few years, I asked to meet with religious leaders from all faiths and never once I’ve had any of them say to me: “Oh, they are repressing us, this is like it back during the Communist days” - if that word hasn’t gotten out on something as fundamental as that... There’s all kinds of areas cooperation that we could have had, or that we have had, that have not gotten, the word hasn’t got out to the American people, and you can’t blame that on the American side. I think, the Russian government hasn’t got its point of view, or at least its side of this debate to the American people themselves.
SS: Right. Thank you very much for this interview, Congressman. We were talking to U.S. Congressman, and chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, Dana Rohrabacher, discussing the tense relationship between Russia and the U.S., and if we can see the two sides restarting a healthy dialogue anytime soon. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.