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Amb. Pickering and former diplomats send strongly worded letter to Obama

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Ambassador Thomas Pickering joined the US Foreign Service in 1959. He served in many embassies around the world, including in Israel, the Russian Federation, and many others, including Jordan. And he now joins us for a broad discussion of US foreign policy. Thanks very much for joining us.


JAY: So Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote a book called The Grand Chessboard, where he in–perhaps in the most open language, talked about the objectives of US foreign policy. And he comes more from the kind of Democratic Party tradition than the Republican. But it’s (some people would describe) quite a hawkish vision of the world. But his main thesis is that in order to fend off the forces of anarchy, US must attain global dominance, and particularly of Eurasia. And that really does seem to be one of the fundamental underpinnings of US foreign policy, regardless of which party’s in power. Do you think that assumption, if it was ever right, makes any sense for today?

PICKERING: I think it’s a tough assumption, because it gets harder and harder to envisage how it works. You know, if you had to ask me what the objectives of US foreign policy were, I would say, in one sentence, to protect and to help prosper the United States. And to some extent, Zbig, I think, would agree with that, if his fundamental assumptions, as you’ve relayed them–related them, are essentially there. I think the dominance of Eurasia by somebody who’s an enemy of the United States would be a problem. And that gets you into protect. But I think the rest of the world is also very important these days. We’re in a global age, and many American interests are elsewhere around the world. And that’s where I get to the prosper.

JAY: But that’s pretty general. So when you get to how do you prosper–.

PICKERING: When you begin at 100,000 feet, of course it’s general, Paul.

JAY: Okay. Well, but you get into who prosper and prosper for who.


JAY: But, for example, there is a big constituency in the United States that makes weapons and is involved in the military sector, and others who, for ideological or other, commercial reasons, see that prosper means having a trillion-dollar military budget; it means having you know, over 700 US bases around the world; it means that the United States should have a military budget–what is it?–four or five times its nearest competitor and more than all the rest of the world combined. That–for some, that means prosper. What does it mean for you?

PICKERING: [crosstalk] your question is playing a little bit on my harp string here. I think that the military is not a substitute for diplomacy, and in many ways the military should be in the protected category. I do think that there’s probably a little bit of extension of the defense permission that we have in the United Nations Charter under Article 51. It means you don’t have to to sit back and wait to be attacked, which used to be the US view, interestingly enough, at least of the lawyers, until you view that.

JAY: It certainly is the view of international law, as far as I understand it.

PICKERING: Well, it’s–I think that’s a little extreme. I think that you can, if you see an attack coming and you have viable and hard information [incompr.] But I think wars of choice are becoming less and less possible. And, indeed, under the UN Charter we only have two options. One is defense. It may be slightly expanded beyond attack. And the other is to go to be Security Council, as we did in Libya and as we did in Afghanistan, and as we didn’t do in Iraq. But my sense here is that then, probably, we should size the military for a robust defense, which is, I think, something that we’re a little beyond at the present time. So I think some money can be saved there, and certainly money can be saved with respect to active operations. I think, for example, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq we have used too little diplomacy and too much muscle, and as a result we’ve missed some things. We haven’t gotten, essentially, the development part of either of these countries right, and we may be missing some of the internal strife that will hang around on the edges in Iraq, and maybe in Afghanistan, where diplomacy can perhaps provide you, if not a patented, ready-made millennial solution, an opportunity to get at those things. And so I’m on the diplomacy side. But that’s my prejudice. That’s how I grew up.

JAY: The US emerges from World War II, and, you know, it’s–I guess you can sort of start it with Roosevelt’s meeting with Ibn Saud in ’45, but there’s a definite view that–.

PICKERING: Oh, you have to start it with the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the late ’30s.

JAY: Sure, and Standard Oil. But the idea that you need not just access to oil but global–if your objective is global dominance, strategic control of oil goes to the core of US foreign policy in the Middle East. And thus, within that, there’s many moving pieces, and clearly Israel’s been one of the most important one for the last, what, 40 years or more, 50 years. What is your view towards US policy towards Israel and why this sort of strategic vision towards the Middle East seems to still so dominate what the policy is?

PICKERING: Well, it’s quite interesting, because if you look at it in the simplest possible terms, our policy in Israel is on its surface antithetical to our policy of finding ways to assure, permanently, oil supplies. You said “dominance”. I think “dominance” is a little broad.

JAY: I said “strategic control”.

PICKERING: You–but you said dominance. But, anyway, [crosstalk]

JAY: [crosstalk] in order to have your Brzezinskian dominance, you need the strategic control of oil.

PICKERING: Sure. But I would say that Israel is a strong interest of the United States for a combination of reasons. One of them obviously has to do with the Holocaust, and some of it is a guilt feeling about the Holocaust. Others have to do with admiration for what the Israelis have done. Other pieces have to do with the notion that Israel probably, of all of the countries in the Middle East, could be depended upon to help us in a crunch. Others used to be that the Israelis never asked of us active military involvement on their side with our people, but only asked for support with equipment. That’s slid a little bit since I was in Israel, but it nevertheless is a feeling. And others tend to believe the notion that Israel is the only democracy in the region, and therefore, ipso facto, is worthy of support. And then, of course, we must consider the influence of the Jewish community in the United States through their positions in authority in government and other places, and indeed for the money they have to give. My feeling is that it is a blend of these things, rather than predominantly one or the other. But, indeed, if you take the traditional Arab position as being more than irritated at the placement of Israel in the Middle East, and the Arabs tend to control the oil, why, that’s a difference. As Simon Peres used to say, God didn’t give us an oily country; he gave us a holy country.

JAY: Well, apparently, although recently there’s been a big natural gas find, so he may have to drop that line now.

PICKERING: It has. So, getting closer to the vapors, anyway.

JAY: Yeah. On your list of items, I think in one or two was they’re there to help us in a crunch. Some people see that as sort of one of the main pillars of US policy in the Middle East. Some people have called it a land-based aircraft carrier of sorts, that they’re such a powerful military that in a crunch could be an ally of US policy. Does that still control US thinking towards Israel?

PICKERING: No, it–none of these things control. They all contribute to US thinking. But in an interesting way, if you take the first Gulf War, Israel’s contribution was to stay the hell out. And it took a lot of work on the part of my old friend Larry Eagleburger and others to make sure, in fact, that the Israelis knew and understood that their greatest contribution [that] could be made to success in that fight is by not involving themselves.

JAY: ‘Cause you’d never build an Arab coalition of any kind if [crosstalk]

PICKERING: We had built a huge Arab coalition. And, unfortunately, Israel had to undergo bombardment by Scuds. Happily, that did not cause the kind of damage that people envisage. Nevertheless, it caused damage to Israel, and I think that ought to be appreciated.

JAY: If you look at Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress and a record number of standing ovations, how did you respond to them?

PICKERING: My own view is that the future of Israel is deeply tied to the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, not an occupation of Arabs, but prospering alongside and, hopefully, in communication with Arabs. That means that we need a negotiated solution, as we have for the last 30 years. Mr. Netanyahu seems to have different ideas about that, perhaps influenced by his coalition. But it is, in my view, more than high time that the US was prepared to begin to put down some of the basic principles on the table which would guide the formulation of that solution, even as Mr. Netanyahu has a serious problem with his coalition and our Palestinian friends have a serious problem with their coalition. But I think it is time to move on this particular issue. Time is not on our side. The Arab Spring has not helped by producing more people panting for a tough compromise settlement in the Middle East on the Arab side, either.

JAY: Well, he’s certainly not getting much pressure from the US Congress, and I don’t think he’s getting too much from the administration. You signed a letter, together with a bunch of experienced, I think mostly retired foreign service people (Brzezinski, in fact, was one of them), which was quite strong, asking–. Why don’t you explain what was in the letter and what you were asking the president.

PICKERING: Well, essentially, the letter said to the president, it’s time to negotiate, it’s time to put on the table our ideas. Our ideas come in six major pieces. They’re important to set the groundwork. They’re in a sense a supplement to Resolution 242 on return of territories, and they ought to be useful and helpful in the process of setting a negotiation ahead. And, indeed, I think our group believe they represented the kind of consensus that most people who had dealt with this problem for more than a day or two tended to relieve [sic] was at the center of a settlement. So they were not trivial, they tended to try to be balanced, but they tended also to represent what those of us who have considered this problem for a long time thought was just.

JAY: Well, your language was pretty strong. I mean, you called the occupation illegal. You said the ’67 borders need to be the borders.

PICKERING: [incompr.] with swaps, which is what the president has since said.

JAY: But the reception that Netanyahu got in Congress would lead him to think, we don’t really have to do anything here. This–in fact, if anything, he might have left thinking, I’ve got more support in Congress than the president does.

PICKERING: But I think he’s thought that for a long time, and I think erroneously. I think, in the end, if the president were prepared to take on this very difficult problem and to try to move it ahead, I think the ability, if you could call [it] that, to lift this weight in a fair way, and if he were prepared to talk about it the way he talks about other issues, it could make a difference.

JAY: In terms of what’s happening inside Israel, it actually–if anything, you see a shift in the other direction. The position seemed to be hardening. Negotiations are going nowhere. You have this new law against–they’re going to have this anti-boycott law that if you can speak out in support of the boycott, you could be sued in such a way that you could, you know, be financially ruined.


JAY: I mean, what’s going on in Israel is quickly going in the other direction. They have a foreign minister that openly supports ethnic cleansing.

PICKERING: Well, I think that all as that is discouraging, the foreign minister’s not new on the scene. The notion of passing laws which in a sense block free speech is, in my view, antithetical to both Israeli principles and American principles as I’ve come to understand them. It’s very surprising. I hope it doesn’t last if indeed it actually takes hold, but we’ll have to wait and see. Countries have made mistakes like that in the past. We had something called the Alien and Sedition Acts right after our independence that, unfortunately, tripped into the same pitfall. But I hope that people will see things differently. I also sense that more people than are prepared now to speak out in Israel would be deeply grateful, and indeed would be supportive of a Prime Minister Netanyahu who saw the vision of the future of his country, and, indeed, the inescapably important place that he could play in ensuring it, and it is not through passing laws limiting free speech.

JAY: So in terms of putting US pressure on Israel, which seems to be the only external card that could change things in this scenario, do you see any sign of it? You know, President Obama seems to have more or less given up on this mission.

PICKERING: But I think pressure is different than pointing and showing the way. And to some extent, in my view, if the US were prepared to show the way by supporting critical principles that help to define and channel the negotiating process toward an endpoint that was widely acceptable, even if painful, this in itself would be much more important than cutting assistance or doing other things of that sort where there is no direction. There needs to be direction here, Paul.

JAY: But US policy has had that. I mean [crosstalk]

PICKERING: US policy has not. US policy–.

JAY: But what’s lacking in terms of what’s been articulated?

PICKERING: Well [crosstalk] look at US policy on settlements. Not that I thought the settlements were the wisest choice of an issue to push Israel on, but US policy on settlements has waffled and vacillated. At one point they were declared illegal. That’s still on record as the US legal policy on settlements. But we don’t pay any attention to it. The more important question is: why not have the process begin to define the borders? The president’s put something on the table. Why not begin to work that? Why not put American ideas on the table?

JAY: Do you see any sign that Israel’s–the current leadership, at least, of Israel is actually interested in any of this?

PICKERING: No, I see no sign that they’re interested in it. And I think that that means, in fact, that the policy will be heavy-going. But to some extent the president has the Teddy Roosevelt bully pulpit before him. He does very well with it. It might require, in fact, that he begin to speak out on these issues and try to define for the parties where we stand and how we can move. We can’t dictate it, but we can certainly make the choice a very clear one, and in my view I think we can make it attractive enough for both sides that we can, I think, push the process ahead.

JAY: And at some point, if it’s clear there will be no movement from the leadership of Israel, would you then support some kind of repercussions–in other words, less aid, some kind of financial repercussions?

PICKERING: I think, in the end, when the Israeli public has found that their prime minister is no longer capable of addressing the critical issues before them, they too have changed prime ministers. And that’s in a democracy where the change ought to come. It means, in fact, as Prime Minister Netanyahu wished to appeal to the American public around President Obama, President Obama has an equal, I think, and positive right on his part to lay out what he thinks, and where he thinks this should move, and how and in what way he will take into account Israel’s concerns, but also those of the Palestinians.

JAY: Have you seen sign of that?


JAY: Thanks for joining us.


JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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