Straight Talk on the Arab Spring

John McCain's views on the revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East are more similar to the Obama administration's than either side might care to admit.

"First of all, let me say something that I shouldn't," Sen. John McCain began. "I'm not sure they should put Mubarak on trial."

In a wide ranging-interview with Foreign Policy today, McCain made the case that prosecuting the former Egyptian president for killing unarmed protesters, as the new Egyptian government has promised to do, would encourage the Arab world's other embattled dictators to cling to power rather than risk the consequences of stepping down. He also weighed in on how the United States should support democratic transitions throughout the Arab world, and blasted cuts to funding for Title VI and other international educational programs as a "short-sighted" move that could weaken American diplomatic capabilities and, over time, create a "hollow diplomatic corps." 

On Syria, McCain urged moral support for protesters, but offered a surprisingly strong warning against leading them to believe that any foreign military intervention might be forthcoming.  He called for the United States and Europe to work quickly in support of the democratic transition and economic rebuilding of Egypt -- but warned that we shouldn't call it a "Marshall Plan." And the former presidential candidate expressed cautious optimism on Libya, calling on the administration to recognize the National Transitional Council.

McCain criticized President Barack Obama for moving too slowly at key moments, saying that the administration has been "a step behind" events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. But quibbles over timing aside, his thoughts on the region were surprisingly close to those of the Obama administration -- a remarkable convergence given the toxic political arguments that usually characterize Washington these days, not to mention the heated rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign. Extending this bipartisan comity even further, McCain is co-sponsoring a bill with Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry in support of U.S. intervention in Libya.

McCain gave an impassioned defense of the importance of supporting democracy in the region --- even when anti-Israeli or anti-American voices appear as a result. "There's every likelihood that, in the open political campaigns that take place in Egypt and other countries, the anti-Israel issue will be raised by some candidates," he said. "I know these politicians, I know some of the people who are going to be running, and they hate Israel."

But that did not deter him.  Asked whether he still believed that Arab democracy was an American interest, he responded forcefully: "[I]f we don't believe that democracy is in our interest, we are somehow very badly skewed in our priorities and our inherent belief in the rights of everybody." Acknowledging that this could be a tough sell, especially when it came to finding funds to support these transitions, McCain said with emphasis that "we've got to convince people that it's in our interest to see [the Middle East] make this transition."

McCain sees job creation as key to a successful democratic transition (I didn't ask if he felt the same way about the Obama administration's efforts to do just that for the American economy). He's gravely concerned about the dismal economic situation in Egypt and Tunisia. "We were at the pyramids [in Cairo] three weeks ago, not a soul there," he said. "We stayed in a hotel in Tunis, Joe [Lieberman] and I were the only people in the whole hotel. I mean, they have really been decimated. [Tourism] is 10 percent of their GDP." 

He went on: "What we need to do to these young people is say: We're going to give you an opportunity to get a job. That's the key to this."  With a raised eyebrow, he also offered up a commentary on a country which did not appear in Obama's recent Middle East speech: Saudi Arabia. "Look at what the Saudis have done: They're just buying people off. They're distributing money."

Given his stance on human rights, McCain's argument against trying Mubarak may come as a surprise. He anticipated that it would be controversial with human rights groups. But McCain presented it as a pragmatic necessity, one which had proven vital to successful democratic transitions in other parts of the world.  The message sent by Mubarak's trial -- and possible execution -- would be that dictators have no incentive to step down from power peacefully, and should instead fight to the death.  

With NATO escalating its bombing campaign of Tripoli, McCain defended the intervention in Libya, of which he has been an outspoken advocate. He described the intervention, which he maintained should have come earlier and been more overtly American-led, as a humanitarian necessity and an integral part of the wider Arab story of change. Like many observers, he had been profoundly struck, while traveling in the Middle East, at how intensely Arabs were focused on Libya. 

He chuckled ruefully about his "interesting conversation with an interesting man" tweet following his encounter with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in August 2009.  Reflecting on that "bizarre" encounter -- during which, he said, Qaddafi told him that he would have won the election had he promised to withdraw from Iraq -- McCain claimed that he had emerged convinced that Qaddafi could not be a real partner for the United States. While he said he was extremely impressed with the Libyan opposition leadership, and dismissed concerns about the presence of Islamists or even al Qaeda in the ranks of the rebels, he warned that an extended stalemate could open the door to radicalization and deepening foreign involvement in the country. 

In one of the most intriguing parts of the conversation, McCain complained about the Obama administration's tentative message on Syria and demanded that the United States show "moral support" for Syria's protesters. But he acknowledged frankly that it would be "difficult" to actually do much to shape events there. Unlike Libya, the protestors control no territory and lack even a ragtag military force. When pressed on what the United States could do beyond rhetoric, McCain responded, "Let's tell them that we are with them -- but we're not going to tell them that we're going to intervene militarily, because we do not have a viable way of doing so." That is a welcome dose of reality in often overheated debate. 

Finally, I asked McCain about the recently announced massive cuts to Congressional funding of Title VI, Fulbright-Hays, and other international education programs that support language training and area studies.  He responded bluntly and powerfully that the cuts were "short-sighted" and that such programs "pay off enormously." Echoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates's warnings about a "hollow army," McCain warned that cutting language training and area studies budgets could create a "hollow diplomatic corps," depriving the United States of a generation of effective diplomats like Ryan Crocker and William Burns. McCain sees the national interests at stake in such programs more clearly than many in this Congress, I fear -- and I hope that on this, at least, they value his experience.

The convergence between McCain and the Obama administration on so many of these issues was quite remarkable. For all the quibbles about timing and execution, McCain and Obama both seem to see the Arab spring in much the same way. They see the opportunities for the United States in the empowerment of Arab publics and the spread of democracy, and the inevitability of change. They saw the importance of intervening in Libya at a time of potential disaster, and they both recognize that every country is different. And while McCain continues to bemoan the failure to back Iran's Green Movement in the summer of 2009 as "the greatest mistake of the 21st century" (I might have gone with the invasion of Iraq), McCain openly warns against a military intervention in Syria.   

I only wish that I had the gumption to have asked him whether that meant that he now stood with Obama against the hyper-interventionist, neo-isolationist, or Islam-bashing attacks by the current crop of GOP presidential contenders … including, perhaps, even a certain former vice presidential nominee.



Interview: Álvaro Uribe

Colombia's former president tells FP how his country came back from the brink, why he's staying in politics, and why it's dangerous (but worth it) to be on Twitter.

Everyone has an opinion about Colombia's former president, Álvaro Uribe. To his proponents at home -- the so-called uribistas -- he is the man who rescued his country from a decades-long leftist rebellion, resuscitated the economy, and brought back hope to a country that had almost forgotten the word. Meanwhile, his detractors point to the scandals that wracked the administration's final days, with the news that Colombian soldiers had sometimes killed young male civilians and counted them as guerrillas, and that the secret police (known by the Spanish acronym DAS) had wiretapped judges, journalists, and government officials -- including Uribe himself.

Now out of office, Uribe is still close to the spotlight. He has called a series of town-hall meetings across the country, so-called talleres democráticos, to promote his administration's policies. He has come to rhetorical blows with his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, on the Colombian airwaves. All this is to say that Uribe isn't going anywhere in Colombian politics; he's in it for the long haul. While in the United States to release a report on fragile states from the Bipartisan Policy Center, Uribe sat down with Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson and told her why he will remain in Colombian politics as long as he can, why he is on Twitter, and why Colombia is no longer a failing state.

Foreign Policy: Some countries would resist the label "failing" or "fragile" state, but you've just helped release a report that dubs Colombia a fragile state pulled back from the brink. Is that how you see it?

Álvaro Uribe: When I was president-elect, I never thought that my country was on the brink of becoming a failed state. It took me by surprise. In my first meetings, representatives of the financial and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, said to me, Mr. New President, this country is on the brink of becoming a failed state. I was surprised. I had always thought of the excellent macroeconomic management of my country. Colombia had never defaulted. Colombia had never suffered hyperinflation. However, Colombia was considered at this moment a failed state. I did not understand.

Now, I understand. Because of the level of poverty the country had reached, the low level of investment, the high level of unemployment, and ineffective presence of our democratic institutions in many areas of the country.

FP: Now when you look at the country, do you think it's a failed state?

AU: There are [the] facts and feelings. The feeling [has] changed completely. In the year 2000, the prevailing feeling was distrust, skepticism. When I left office [in 2010], the country was not in a paradise, but the feeling had changed. The majority of the people were optimistic. It was a change from the feeling that creates a sense of a failing state to a feeling that the country is moving forward in the right direction.

But there are also facts. We recovered a high degree of investment. We recovered two monopolies: The state should never have lost the monopoly [of control] of the armed forces to armed criminals, and our monopoly of justice and administration to exercise its power all over the country. [Today,] the state has become once again under the rule of law. As a fact, it is very important that the country is feasible again.

FP: Here in the United States, the American role in your country -- Plan Colombia -- receives mixed reviews as to its success, particularly in reducing coca crops. Now that you have the benefit of hindsight, what is your assessment of how this cooperation has worked?

AU: First, Plan Colombia was the right political decision in those moments. But it was badly received in neighboring countries. For example, I visited Ecuador at the end of the year 2000 and I found a lot of criticism because of Plan Colombia, and I defended Plan Colombia.

Second, Plan Colombia is the expression of international practical help. Many countries had come to express their regrets to Colombia, whenever Colombia had suffered any violent act, but Plan Colombia was the expression of practical -- of effective -- help from the international community, in this case from the United States.

International help is not effective without domestic determination, and with our government, Colombia got total domestic determination to fight terrorism.

At the beginning, Plan Colombia was very important in economic terms. Today, it is much more important in political terms. When you compare the current budget of Plan Colombia as a proportion of the total Colombian budget on security, you see that [between 2000 and now] the budget of Plan Colombia has declined as the Colombian domestic budget for security has risen. Therefore, today it is not as important in budgetary terms. But it is a clear signal that narcoterrorism should be approached with a sense of co-responsibility. Politically speaking, Plan Colombia is a great example that the world should integrate globally in the fight against terrorism.

FP: You have recently sparred with President Santos about the inclusion of the terminology "armed conflict" in the Victims Law currently under consideration in Congress. Why is this distinction important?

AU: I will speak to you in political terms. In Latin America in the past, we used to speak about insurgency and domestic conflict. These two concepts had a heavy burden of political meaning. In some degree, these two concepts gave legitimacy to the fight of guerrillas against dictators. This has not been the case of Colombia. In Colombia, these criminal groups have a vendetta against the rule of law, against the [oldest] democracy in the continent. This is one reason we call them terrorists, not to recognize them with any legitimacy as political players.

The other reason [is if you] compare the [Colombian] groups with other Latin American guerrillas, the others never financed themselves with narcotrafficking. Ours did. And of course, when we have certain neighboring governments [that give] speeches of acknowledgment -- complimentary speeches to our violent groups -- if we recognize these groups as political players, to some degree, we authorize implicitly the neighboring governments to ask for the recognition of that status as legitimacy for these groups.

[Finally,] there are countries -- the United States, Europe, or Canada -- that have signaled these groups as terrorists. If we give these groups any political meaning, these countries could be disconcerted. Other countries could become mute.

FP: In the United States, some would consider it a bit out of place for a former president to be actively commenting on the administration of his predecessor. What role do you see yourself playing now in Colombian politics?

AU: We were in government with three main policies: democratic security, investment promotion, and social cohesion. All my life, I have always heard politicians speaking about social investment [after leaving office]. But they seldom spoke about democratic security or investment promotion. Therefore, these are two ideas that have been recently included in the main priorities of the Colombian political agenda.

I am thankful because my fellow Colombians allowed me to be president twice. Therefore, while I am healthy, I have to work for these ideas because I consider that these ideas to be very positive for my country as a whole.

FP: Is this also the motivation behind the talleres democráticos, the consultative meetings you have been holding throughout the country?

AU: Yes, but not only, because in October we are going to hold regional elections for governors and mayors, and it is very important to work the agenda of public policies with those wanting to become candidates. The more we involve the people in the agenda, the more people will go with much more consciousness to the ballots. And the more the consciousness at the ballots, the better the people [will be able] to follow up [on the performance of] the elected incumbent.

FP: By some measures, there has recently been an uptick in violence in urban parts of Colombia, associated with the emergence of the so-called Bacrim (bandas criminales emergentes). Do you believe this is the case? What's going on?

AU: This is one of the reasons for my permanent involvement in politics. I said to my fellow citizens that Colombia was going to take much longer time [than my presidency] to restore security. We have lived [through] many, many years of criminality. "Bacrims" are criminal gangs dedicated to narcotrafficking, blackmailing, extortion, killings, and kidnapping. What is their difference from the paramilitary groups? They have no political motivation. The paramilitary groups were established to fight guerrillas. In this case, we have seen that in many regions of the country, there is a coalition between Bacrim and guerrillas.

The Colombian police have said that 50 percent of Bacrim kingpins are people who were demobilized in the past. And 11 percent of the total organization is composed of those who were demobilized. During our administration, we had demobilization of 23,000 members of the terrorist groups, with between a 7 and 10 percent relapse. As a percentage, it is low. But as an absolute number, it is very high. I am concerned because we always said, we need to generously receive people wanting to desert criminal groups and reinsert into constitutional life. We have to be generous to them as [we are] strong to fight those who are reoccurring in crimes. For I have said that our armed forces, the police and the military forces, have to fight Bacrims with all the initiative, with all the strength.

FP: Do you believe that it is possible for Colombia to have a productive relationship with this administration in Venezuela?

AU: To get along with any communist government with peripheral relationships is not a difficult task. But to have an enduring understanding is quite difficult. Why? Because at times they cannot break their ties with guerrilla kingpins and they won't renounce their ideas.

FP: One of the recommendations of the report you just helped release is to strengthen judicial systems, which I know was also a priority of your own administration. Are you concerned about the allegations that have been made against former members of your own administration?

AU: There are cases in which we have given all the explanations, and now we have to wait for [what] the justice administration says. Our proposal was always to act with all the transparency.

For instance, the wiretap controversy [in which the secret police, the DAS, were caught recording conversations of certain high-profile figures] -- many members of my government were victims, beginning with me. I cannot understand why some people want to assign blame my government for that, when my government was a clear victim.

FP: Do you have regrets about your administration? What would you do differently if you could do it all again?

AU: I am working now for candidates for mayorships and governorships, and we are proposing some elements that we didn't include in our administration. Every day brings its priorities, but what is important is to have a clear goal, have a clear vision, to define the path.

We made mistakes, and it is quite difficult when you are committing to work the hardest you can, and you have all the vigor -- all the force and strength to move with your agenda -- it's quite difficult to stop to think [about] the mistakes. Maybe in one book I will publish, I would write a list of mistakes. And of course, there were many things that we were conscious [would be good] for the country, but we couldn't introduce them because of the [political] constraints or other reasons.

FP: You're on Twitter. Tell me about that and why you decided to start tweeting.

AU: My goal of being on Twitter? As a young politician, a city councilor, as mayor, as governor, and national senator, and as president during eight years, I have been in close contact with citizens. Twitter is way to be in virtual contact. This is one positive aspect. What is the negative aspect? It is very risky because Twitter fuels the possibility to react with hot blood.

FP: Do you write your own tweets?

AU: Many.