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US will be hostage to partisan bickering for next two years – CIA veteran

As the rift between the US and the rest of the world grows wider, at home, Democrats are now in control of Congress. How big of a game changer is the result of the US midterms for the rest of the globe? We talked to two-decade CIA veteran Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. 

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Two-decade CIA veteran Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, welcome to the programme. It’s always great to have you with us. It’s been a year. Things have changed. Lots to discuss. World leaders recently gathered in Paris to mark the centenary anniversary of the end of World War One. In his speech at the ceremony, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered fierce criticism of Trump’s nationalism and the America First approach. Is this the beginning of a real rift between Europe and the US, this escalating rhetoric?   

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen: I don’t think, Sophie, that it’s the beginning of a rift, I think that would overstate the problem. I do think that our transatlantic relations have been damaged by President Trump’s criticism of NATO, demands that he’s making of NATO and, frankly, taking the alliance for granted. And so, to that extent, I think, President Macron, and, for that matter, Chancellor Merkel were making a statement that if the US decides to push this in this direction, they have options as well. 

SS: Well, it’s not just NATO. It’s the Iran deal, it’s the tariff wars.Trump pretends not to care about what the Europeans say, but nevertheless, he replied with a whole series of tweets in response to Macron, so does that mean that the Europeans got under his skin, that he actually cares more about the relationship with the EU than he wants people to believe? 

RM: I am not sure I can draw any conclusions from this, what I would call, divisive activity. I think the strategy, if you want to call it that, as you referred to it, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, about potentially pulling out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces agreement, and in terms of challenging NATO’s future, I think those are very divisive and destructive for the United States. And I hope the President sees the wisdom of pulling back and reinforcing our ties to our old allies. And the behaviour we’re seeing from the other side, whether it’s Europeans or other countries of the world, is the reflection of their determination not to give in to US pressure. 

SS: Right before Armistice Day celebrations, Macron cited both Russia, the traditional boogieman, and the United States as threats to Europe. How likely are we to see a Europe that is more active militarily and less willing to rely on Washington in terms of security? 

RM: I think we’re a long way from seeing NATO in any way being less relevant or the Europeans building a European army, or any of these other grand statements. But I do think it’s significant that the Europeans are taking this opportunity to re-examine their own security and their independence from the US and other parties. I don’t think that’s unhealthy, I think the reality is, the world is a very different world than the Cold War, Cold War that created NATO and created these security arrangements. And all the agreements, the arms control agreements, the nuclear agreements and other things, should be re-examined. I think we’re a long way from, though, from speeches turning into practical realities, but the discussion is healthy. Although, as I just said, Sophie, I disagree completely with President Trump’s strategy in this regard. 

SS: How could Trump’s rosy relations with some of the East European countries, such as Poland, play into this? 

RM: Well, clearly, every country is making new decisions as to where its interests lie, that includes Russia, of course, and other countries that are deciding for themselves what course they want to take. Again, I don’t think this is necessarily threatening, and I hesitate to overstate the danger called by this national populism. It’s a dangerous trend, I agree, but again, people need to be able to speak out other concerns. Part of what we’re seeing now is airing of citizens’ grievances with their own governments, and I think that has to play itself out, like it did with the UK with Brexit, as it’s doing with certain East European countries, and we need to be very respectful of the process. As we like to say in the US, because we have our own share of dysfunctionality right now, there is a sort of elegance to the checks and balances of people sparring with their leaders, the ruled and the rulers, and I think we need to respect the process. 

SS: Do you think the Europeans actually need to start building up their own security system, independent of NATO? 

RM: I think the idea is intriguing. Again, I’m a philosopher by nature, so when the Cold War ended, I thought there was a grand opportunity for the US, Russia and Europe to potentially craft a new security architecture that would serve everyone’s interests. I think if we’d done that at that time rather than enlarged NATO, rather than, of course, Russia invading Ukraine, or Georgia, or these other actions that have occurred over the last 20 years… I think we would all have had a greater security, and that would have included a way to take into account everyone’s security interests and devising, in a way, a new framework, for how we think of the world. So maybe that process is 20 years late, and it’s starting now. But I think that’s healthy. Again, we’re a long way from any fundamental changes, whether it’s in NATO or other security arrangements, but I do think the discussion is healthy. 

SS: If Europe does become more self-sufficient and start to pay more for its own defence, as per Trump’s wishes, will this be a boom to the US economy? You said it will be a disaster to the US economy. But maybe it will actually be able to cut some defence spending, put it somewhere more useful? And also, what happens to the defense contracts currently serving European security interests? 

RM: If I said that taking a greater role in their own defence would be a disaster to US economy, I certainly didn’t mean that. I think, and I didn’t use the word disaster, because I think, again, that’s an overstatement. I think we should base our thinking on existing frameworks which provide some stability and order to the world, so whether you’re looking at nuclear agreements, or NATO, or other security arrangements, I think the basis for thinking how we change things should be leaving the things we have intact. So if in the context of a strong NATO Europe feels it’s in its interest to become more independent, spend more money in defence, of course that’s a good idea. Where I completely disagree with President Trump’s approach is the thinking that we have to destroy the existing agreements, such as the ones we’ve discussed so far, the INF agreement, the… Yeah. 

SS: But what would it do to the American economy? Would it improve it? Would we see a boom in the economy? 

RM: I think our economy is changing, and I think what we used to… Yeah, well, I’m not sure. I’m not an economist, and I do know what President Eisenhower used to call the industrial-military complex is a very different thing today than it was when he discussed it, when we thought of it in the Cold War. And I’d like to think our economy is very resilient, and maybe it will create new opportunities as result of the shifting security landscape. But I don’t think fundamental relationships are going to change, for example, I don’t think that President Trump’s, frankly, divisive statements towards the Europeans is going to lead the Europeans in a different direction. I think, ultimately, they see the US as a strong ally, and it will outlast Donald Trump. 

SS: Will it? A Europe that is less reliant on Washington in terms of security is also, arguably, a Europe that is less willing to play down its wishes on policy. In your opinion, is this a concern for Washington? Could a more independent Europe be more independent on the Russia question, for instance? 

RM: Well, maybe Europe should be more independent on the Russian question. We’ve spent 20 years working on a model which has got us into a state where we’ve got a war in Europe right now, essentially, in Ukraine, and we’ve had other problems as a result of sticking too much to what I call the dogma of the Cold War. So I think we have to be careful how we talk about and plan changes. But I think having a Europe that’s more inclusive of Russia, and the United States, for that matter, that takes in account Russia’s security interests, is healthy for all parties, and I certainly wouldn’t be against that process. But let’s not start by breaking the order as it exists today, let’s use it a basis for changes. If I could, Sophie, use one example, the INF agreement, – the US announced it might be pulling out of the agreement on the intermediate-range nuclear forces, – why are we doing that? Why not stay in the treaty and make adjustments that take into account the reality of how the world changed in the 30 years since the agreement was reached in 1987. Today we have drones, today we have anti-ballistic missile defence, today we have new technologies that concern both the United States and Russia legitimacy. So let’s negotiate a new framework, let’s include China and internationalise the INF agreement, let’s not just cling to the past, let’s take the past as the basis for creating a better future. 

SS: We’re now in the wake of the US midterms, which saw Democrats take over the House of Representatives. To what degree can that affect US-European relations, especially on the issues of trade war, and now military financing? 

RM: Well, we now have a situation in the United States where the parties are split between, of course, the Democrats who took charge of the House of Representatives, and the Republicans who control the Senate. I think what that means in practical terms is that we’re going to be in a stalemate for 2 years. As a citizen, I am not a political pundit or expert, but I don’t think that the Democrats are in much mood to negotiate with the Republicans or President Trump, so I think people are gonna have to acknowledge that the United States over the next couple of years is gonna be consumed, even more so, by our internal bickering and affairs. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s what I see. So all parties should make their own plans in the sense of taking into account the issues that are critical for them over the next couple of years, but I think they should rest assured that our process will ultimately result in some sanity being restored to our system, at least that’s what I hope as a citizen.  

SS: Can Trump’s intentions to improve ties with Russia, which he was vocal about at the beginning of his presidency, be buried for good now, with Russia-hawkish Democrats running Congress? 

RM: I think it’s going to be very difficult for President Trump to make good on his interest or intentions to improve relations. I know that there are a number of Russian advisors and experts that the administration employs that are very good, very qualified, and they are pushing certain areas of co-operation. So I hope, and I am optimistic that on the crucial matters, nuclear-related issues, what we would call strategic stability, potentially cyber-related discussions will occur at a working level, and I am hoping also that the nuclear-related treaties, the INF and all others will be something that we can talk constructively about. And counter-terrorism, of course, between the Special Services and the Russian government. So I think it would be a mistake to think of the relationship as not going anywhere over the next two years, but it certainly will be difficult for the President to make a dramatic improvement in US-Russia relations. 

SS: The Democrats were hoping for a Blue Wave to come and crush the Republican control over Congress, and yet, despite all the rigorous Trump-bashing from mainstream outlets and celebrities, they did not get the desired outcome – they did get the House, but the GOP enhanced its control over the Senate and still leads the way in terms of the number of governor posts. So, in your view, was the Blue Wave more like a blue ripple? How were the Republicans able to get such results despite the perceived anti-Trump dominance in terms of outreach and mass media? 

RM: I don’t think there was a Blue Wave. I think Democrats are rightly pleased that they re-took the House, and did it fairly decisively. By the same token, I think Republicans and President Trump are happy that they added to their strength in the Senate, so I think what the election showed me as a citizen, not a particular expert, it’s that the country is polarised, and we’re polarised very clearly down, what I would call, the urban-rural lines. Urban America votes Democratic to an extreme, and rural America is solidly Republican country. So we’re a very divided country, and I think we’ll have to find a way to appeal for the messages, whether it’s a Republican or Democratic message, to appeal to citizens of all kinds in all parts of the country. And that’s going to be the challenge going forward. 

SS: There are calls among the Democrats to put more congressional control over the use of force in places like Iraq and Syria, to be able to limit or decide when to end deployment. With the House gone blue, how likely is that to be on the cards? Can Congress muster enough strength to influence this? 

RM: Potentially, the Congress can. I mean, certainly, the Democratic Congress is going to have to decide what its main priorities are, they’re not going to get everything they want, they’re not going to force the President to capitulate, or the Republicans to give up on their interests. So every President, every party has to have a Top 3 list, I call it, particularly with only 2 years till the 2020 election, and Democrats are going to have to choose their battles wisely, and I don’t know whether that’s gonna be at the top of their list, frankly. Now, the real wild card is, we have, in the last 2 years, been relatively… It’s been relatively quiet as far as terrorism and wars, the US has largely pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, so the issue of how we use force and where we use it hasn’t been as, say, intense, as it was in the previous years. But that could all change in a single day, in a single incident, if we wake up one morning, and something happened in the world that requires a strong US response. 

SS: The current authorisation of force that Washington is using dates back to 2001, post 9/11. What’s wrong with this one, anyway? It's been working fine for all these years… 

RM: I’m of the school of thought that we need to continually modify our rules, and how we engage, and why we engage, and I think that’s outdated. For one thing, the context for developing the rules for use of force was, of course, post-9/11, and the world is a very different place. I, for example, am not as enamoured… I’m not such a fan of drone strikes and what we would call covert action, use of intelligence and military to conduct kinetic actions. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, I’m just saying I think we’ve over-relied on those things as opposed to, say, classic policy, foreign policy,  international rule of law, and including… And it’s funny, as an intelligence officer, that I would emphasise that, but I would just stress that I did what I did in my career to enhance the power of what I call legitimate statecraft, which would be diplomacy, which would be negotiation, which would be peaceful resolution of conflict. I am not a fan of when it skews too heavy on the use of military force involving any country, would that be the US or Russia. 

SS: The Democrats are also widely expected to re-launch House investigations into Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia. Trump, in the meantime, recently swapped Jeff Sessions for Matt Whitaker, a man seen by the Democrats as a partisan Trump loyalist, as the acting Attorney General. Some are saying this is Trump bracing for a fight against the Russia investigation – can that be the case? And how much of a shield would Whitaker be when it comes to House investigations? 

RM: Well, my personal view is, there is no question that the President put someone in to replace Jeff Sessions who he feels will protect him. At least, that’s my interpretation as a citizen. I think that’s his living qualification, that he is kind of someone who came from nowhere, who now has this highest position in the land as far as ensuring our perpetuation of the rule of law. And so I’m very concerned about his motives or his previous statements regarding the Mueller investigation. But I am confident, in spite of that, that the Mueller investigation… I know Bob Mueller personally, I knew him as the FBI director, I believe he has the highest integrity of almost any official I know, I think he’s going to produce soon the final judgements of a very long investigation, and the country’s going to have to take a look at those. And every citizen will have to decide as to what he or she thinks of Mueller’s conclusions – that’s assuming, of course, that the Justice Department will release them to the public, and I am making that assumption when I say that.   

SS: Will the Democrats in the House now pursue this investigation a lot more aggressively, will it get back into the headlines again? And can they use it to seriously damage the President, maybe even start talk of impeachment again? 

RM: I personally believe that it would be a mistake to impeach the President based on what we know today as we’re sitting here doing this interview, Sophie, because I haven’t heard anything yet that puts the President in the middle of a conspiracy to work with the Russian government, or obstructs justice to the point where I would say the only solution is impeachment. And that’s understanding that if the Democrats will move to impeach the President, in all likelihood, the Senate, which is controlled by the Republicans, won’t convict him, so do we really wanna go down the same road we went with President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair? So that’s a big question. The second question, really, is, though, let’s wait and see what the investigation produces. We don’t know what the final indictments are gonna be, who will be indicted for what potential crimes, and I think that will give us a clearer idea of what we need to do as a country. I’m just hoping that the Democrats, and I say this not being certain, will do the right thing by the country, and not do the right thing by the party. I would say the same to the Republicans, this is a much too serious matter for them to allow partisan politics to drive a process of seeking justice. If we’re talking about justice, and I think that’s what we’re talking about, we need to hold it to the Richard Nixon standard of the Watergate hearings, which resulted in the resignation of the President in 1974. If it reaches that level, ok, then we need to take a look at what we need to do, but if it doesn’t, let’s try not to raise it artificially to a level that doesn’t exist. 

SS: I look at Trump, and he’s been running the country in campaign mode ever since he won the presidency. His rallies never stop, his language is very campaign - is he already aiming at the next presidential poll? Is the whole American electoral cycle more or less turning into this permanent campaign anyway, with major votes every 2 years? 

RM: I honestly don’t know what motivates the President, I don’t understand him, I don’t support… Certainly, on his foreign policies, where I am most expert, I have a hard time understanding what he’s trying to achieve, I think he has been destructive as far as the American interests… I may add, by the way, I don’t think he’s been helpful for the Russian interests, I believe… And I cannot speak, of course, for President Putin or the Russian people, but I like my US Presidents to be predictable. I like my US Presidents to stand on a basis of existing agreements and things like that. So I don’t, honestly, understand what motivates the action, whether it’s on trade or on foreign policy, national security policy… And if I did understand, I could give you a better answer, and I don’t know whether he’s motivated by the next election or is simply trying to do what he thinks he needs to do in his 4 years. So it’s a very difficult question for me to answer, since I don’t see a rationale to the pattern of his behaviour. 

SS: What are your expectations for the potential meeting between Trump and Putin later in November, at the G20 summit in Argentina? How much importance does the personal rapport between the two leaders play in the relations between the US and Russia? 

RM: Well, so far the so-called personal rapport has been a disaster, I think, for both sides. The Helsinki summit was horrible. I think President Trump’s reactions to President Putin’s statements were completely… I mean, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t respond more forcefully to the Russian President. I don’t understand what President Putin’s thinking was, that he thinks… Unless his intention was to reach out to American people with a very strong dark message, which is what he managed to do. I don’t see how the rapport or their personal relationship is doing anything to improve the relations between our two countries, and if anything, up to this point, it’s made things worse. 

SS: Is this Russia attitude purely partisan? If the Republican president was a real enemy of Russia, would the Democrats be hard on him for being confrontational, instead? 

RM: I think we have a long history of examining, you know, what drives effective US-Russia relations. I think it’s when both countries are feeling secure and confident, and we have leaders on both sides who are expressing the will, the general will of their people. And so, for example, on the US side, I think, even though, of course, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it was a controversial period of the Russian history, nonetheless, I think, most Russians I knew at that time and till this day respected President Reagan. And they didn’t, of course, think of him as a hardliner, and remember, he called Russia the Evil Empire until about half-way through his 8-year term, when he pivoted, and the realised that the opportunity to strike historic deals between US and Russia was too great to set aside because of our Cold War history. I think that’s what we need now, we need leaders who are strong. Meaning, if I were advising President Trump, I would advise: don’t fondle President Putin, don’t call him your great ally, don’t agree with him on things that are not in the US interest, fight back on the areas where US interests divert from Russian interests. There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing wrong with saying “We disagree strongly on certain issues, but we respect one another and we’re gonna work out our differences”.

SS: Alright, Rolf. Thank you very much for this interview. It’s been a pleasure talking to you as usual. We were talking to two-decade CIA veteran Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, discussing the growing rift between the US and the rest of the world. 

RM: Thank you, Sophie.

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