Special Israel’s Ehud Barak: West should give Russia chance to lead
Prague this week hosted the annual USA and European Union Days conference where several prominent international and Czech figures discussed transatlantic cooperation and the role of both the US and the EU in international affairs. Among the keynote speakers this year was the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak; I sat down with Mr Barak to discuss, among other issues, and the perils of the US approach to the Arab Spring, the recent deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, and why the West should not treat Russia as an enemy.
“The US finds itself in a contradiction. It carries a great moral message and vision it carries through the world which has a huge impact on freedom and its advancement. But at the same time, it gets constrained. They have allies of all sorts including certain autocrats in the Middle East, for example.
“But the moment when the only thing an autocrat is afraid of – namely that his own people stand up against him – the US leaves him there. Look at the way the Kremlin backs the Assad family, and you’ll see a difference which creates certain constraints.”
In your remarks, you suggested this might hurt the US interest in the Far East which has now become the focus of their foreign policy. But do you really think that they should have stuck behind Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, for instance?
“I think a different balance should have been reached that would bridge the gap between the idealistic world – which I repeat is extremely important for the advancement of humanity – and the way you translate it into the nuances of the situation.
“I think that for example, when you bear in mind the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, you cannot expect them to be more than one-off democracy. It’s deep in their ideology to do whatever it takes to come to power – they’d been waiting 80 years for this. And I think that there is need to understand that in reality you have to be very cautious about Realpolitik and where it takes you.”
The EU has become more involved in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Do you see the same mistakes on the side of individual EU nations that took the lead, or the bloc’s approach as a whole?
“Europe has a good impact on the Middle East. We don’t like each and every step they are taking but I think that overall, Europe has a positive impact. I think Europe should be more open-eyed about its neighbours to be able to deal with places like the former Soviet Union or Turkey with a more open mind.
“We would also love to see Europe invest more in defence because the collective role of the EU, NATO and the US creates a feeling of unfairness in the Americans. They take much heavier burden on themselves and the Europeans are behaving as if the US will solve everything.”
Many people in Central and Eastern Europe felt very unsure about the shift of the US foreign policy, the shift from the Bush administration’s focus on missile defence. But you suggest that Russia is unfairly treated as an enemy.
“I don’t think that Russian is an enemy any more. It think it’s a rival for political influence and other interests but I think the Russians have a point when they sometimes perceive certain arrogance. Mr Putin is extremely direct and effective, he does not suffer from those constraints I mentioned earlier; he plays Realpolitik, and that’s it, like the Chinese.
“But he has shown a lot of responsibility. The way Russia behaved regarding Syria and even Iran carries a certain thread of responsibility in the most sensitive aspects of it. And I think they expect more kind of eye-level approach from the US and the EU in regard to the way they deal with issues.
“Take Syria for example. They don’t see a symmetry between the way they assist the Syrian government – I don’t like Assad and I would like to see him in the Hague – but the Russians argue, with some truth in it, that they negotiate with the government which represents the country in the UN, while they say that the US, the EU, and some Arab countries provide weapons to the rebels which is different. I’m not saying we should not do it but it’s not the same.
“I’ve recommended the US many times to ask the Russians to lead, to just tell them, ‘we led in Iraq, the Europeans led in Libya, so go lead’. But you should expect the Russians will want a role in post-Assad Syria.”
“So I think you should not underestimate the intensity of the Russian sentiment to revive their past greatness. We sometimes patronize everyone else by making them adapt our way of looking at things.”
What do you think of the deal struck last week on curbing Iran’s nuclear programme? Has it increased a security risk for Israel?
“It’s not about Israel, it’s about the whole world. Israel is in the front line but the whole region and in a way the whole world is threatened by nuclear Iran.
“On one hand, the programme was temporarily blocked. If the agreement is followed, namely the pledge they will repossess the 20-percent enriched uranium back into some other materials irrelevant for military nuclear purposes, or into fuel for nuclear reactors, and if the heavy water reactor is stopped, that would mean they even reversed the programme a little.
“But there is still uncertainty. First of all, they got the deal at a very low price and achieved the loosening of the sanctions. That’s something that is not easy to resume. And we’ll have to wait for another six months to see if it succeeded.
“The real risk would be to have Iran with all the industrial capability to cross the gap towards nuclear weapons within six or twelve months, and they might be waiting, dragging the permanent agreement, taking advantage of elections and other things in the US which might prevent the US from being responsive to developments.
“They might do exactly what Pakistan and North Korea did – wait for the right moment to achieve a nuclear capability. In this regard, it is extremely important they are pushed back, that a way is found to dismantle their nuclear military programme in the next phase, and that’s what we should focus on.”
You have also suggested the US might only be willing to stop the Iranian nuclear programme for the duration of the current president¨s term…
“I cannot pass a judgement because we don’t have enough information. But I said that some observers argue that without admitting it, the US has transformed its position from ‘no to military nuclear Iran’ to ‘no to military nuclear Iran during this administration’ which is not the same.
“The suspicion comes from the fact – in the minds of observers – that it happened in the past. It happened to Reagan, and it happened to Clinton with North Korea. It’s not easy. It’s much more complicated to create a consensus about taking an action that to resume it after you appear to be swaying for a moment.”