Former US Assistant Secretary of State Gelbard: Obama's Support Is Growing

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | Author: Ivan Dikov |February 18, 2009, Wednesday // 00:00
Bulgaria Former Assistant Secretary of State Gelbard: Obama's Support Is Growing: Former US Assistant Secretary of State Gelbard: Obama's Support Is Growing The former top US diplomat, Robert Gelbard, shown here during a speech at Cornell University in 2007. Photo by

Interview by Ivan Dikov

Robert S. Gelbard is a former US Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, and a former US Ambassador to Bolivia and Indonesia. He has been actively involved with Barack Obama's Presidential campaign, and has served on Obama's Transitional Team.

More information about Robert S. Gelbard is available at HERE




Every single US administration in the past decades has been involved in military action abroad. Obama has inherited two wars. Who is the Obama Administration likely to wage a war against? Or is Obama a dove?

The world today is faced with many threats. Some of these threats are states. Sometimes they can be transnational threats. Some of us were warning about the problem of transnational threats a decade ago during the Clinton Administration.

President Clinton spoke about these during his speech to the UN in 1995 at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations. So in a situation where, for example, terrorism is a serious threat, a continuing threat, not just to the United States but to all states that espouse democracy, and states which are not radical in a certain form, we need to respond in certain ways.

Obviously, whether it's President Obama or any of his cabinet, or anybody else, they would prefer not to wage war. But the world is a dangerous place. President Obama has inherited two wars. He made it very clear during his campaign that he has a plan for the US to leave Iraq, and that plan is being implemented.

The Iraqis, to the surprise of the Republican Party, made it very clear during the campaign that they agreed with Obama.

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, has gotten increasingly dangerous. It was badly handled by both the Bush Administration and many NATO countries, I think, in terms of the strategy and the tactics, and the inadequacy of troop numbers, of reconstruction planning, reconstruction funding, counter-narcotics funding, and on, and on, and on, from the beginning.

And this has to be dealt with as a joint Afghanistan-Pakistan problem. This is what the United States under President Obama is now trying to do.

What do you think was the single most important factor that led to Obama's election? Was it the two wars, the financial crisis, or a fundamental change in American society?

None of the above. Barack Obama is a unique individual. He is a man with extraordinary charisma, extraordinary intelligence, extraordinary presence. I think, even if there weren't such a serious financial and economic crisis, he still would have been elected President.

He has been able to generate support across boundaries. He has generated massive support among white population, and if you look at states which are traditional very Republican, for example, some of the Southern states, he did much with the white populations, and the male white populations than his predecessors had done. If you look at the youth, the support he had among the youth, primarily Caucasian.

And by the way, the interesting thing is that what he did was run a campaign that was done in a completely new style using the Internet, using social networking. I get probably four or five different emails a week trying to build grassroots support even now, especially now, for the policies that his administration is trying to generate.

Now, no doubt the dismal nature of the Bush Administration helped Obama; no doubt Senator McCain whom I respect a great deal and know very well, did not run a very good campaign. Sarah Palin, as far as I am concerned, as we jokingly say, was the gift that kept on giving. She was a delight for us, for our side. But on the issues Obama had very refreshing new approaches that appealed across generations, ethnic groups, class. And I think that's what was really important.

What's interesting is that he was elected with 53% of the vote. If you look today, his support is in the 65%-70% range. So he has continued that outreach even when some of the cable television talking heads, as we call them, were saying his honeymoon was over, and the Republicans were saying his honeymoon was over, and they all voted against him, and the stimulus, and all that is nonsense.

I think the Republicans played right into the hands of the Obama Administration. If you look outside Washington, which is the only way to look, you will see that his support is really high, even specifically on the stimulus package. So the man has an extraordinary ability to touch people.

Does Obama's election mean that the neoconservatives have been permanently beaten, and that, respectively, the US will take a more benign approach to global affairs?

You never say never. I can remember back in 1994 when Gingrinch and the Republicans took control of Congress, everybody said that was the end of the Democrats. But it wasn't the end of the Democrats.

There are pendulum swings in politics. If politicians are smart, if the parties are smart, they would learn from their mistakes. So if you remember Carl Rove was saying the Republicans had built toward a permanent majority. Well, now people are saying, well, the Republicans are building toward a permanent minority. I am not saying that because these things change.

The neoconservatives, of course, or some of them, made horrifying mistakes particularly people like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, and some of those who led us all into Iraq. I have no idea what they were thinking. I was saying, I very consciously made the decision to leave the US government in 2002, even though Collin Powell wanted me to stay, because I didn't want to continue working with the Bush Administration.

But we can see even in late 2001 after the September 11, that their goal was to go into Iraq. I felt that was a mistake, and I said so publicly in a speech, and I felt that the right thing to do was to go after Al Qaeda, globally, and be serious about Afghanistan. They were not serious about Afghanistan in terms of troop levels, in terms of money, in terms of strategy. And they weren't even serious about Iraq. I have no idea what these geniuses where thinking. But they are all huddling together in think tanks in Washington, particularly in the American Enterprise Institute.

The War in South Ossetia, and the recent gas crisis seemed like a flexing of the muscles of a resurgent Russia. What is the Obama Administration policy towards a Putin-Medvedev Russia going to be - containment, detente, or peaceful coexistence?

The Cold War is over. I believe that the Bush Administration made some mistakes. But Russia has also made some serious mistakes. Its overly optimistic view of its own capabilities came at a time when its own distorted economy was beginning to go down, and it has extraordinarily serious demographic problems, health problems, particularly male health.

But the point here is that the USA and Russia can and need to work together to solve a broad range of problems in this world. We need to work together on threats such as Iran.

There are very few reasons why there should be hostility. Undersecretary of State William Burns was just in Moscow, he was previously Ambassador to Russia before John Beyrle, and he had some very clear messages from the Obama Administration, which is just beginning its outreach in terms of foreign policy.

Vice-President Biden's speech in Munich was another very clear beginning statement about US policy around the world, and about our interest in wanting to have a constructive relationship with Russia. We ought to be able to.

I was Presidential Representative for the Balkans. When we were in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement, the Russian troops there said they would only come in if they were under American command. That's true. There were three sectors - British, French, and American. They were in the American sector, under American command.

Competition on some issues does not mean necessarily hostility. And I think Russia needs to pull back in certain ways from some of its overly aggressive actions, and I think under the Obama Administration, we are going to see policies, which are more sensible, more serious. Russia's economy is going through a terrible situation right now. Very serious decline. And there is no sense in provocations.

How concerned should the US government be with the cordial relations of Bulgaria's government and President with Moscow? Do you think Bulgaria is Russia's Trojan Horse in NATO and EU?

I think that expression is nonsense. The US has an extraordinarily positive, warm relationship, very constructive relationship with Bulgaria. Whenever I am here, I talk to the senior members of the government - the President, the Prime Minister, the Vice-President, the Foreign Minister. The quality of the bilateral relationship between Bulgaria and the United States is extraordinary.

It's probably the best it's been in our history, ever. The idea of Bulgaria being a Trojan Horse is simply wrong. Bulgaria has every right to be friendly with Russia, and every right to be friendly with the USA. That's absolutely normal.

When there are meeting or visits involving Bulgaria and Russia, believe me, there aren't people in the United States government ringing their hands, and saying, "Oh, my God, what is going on here." No, we have a very comfortable relationship with Bulgaria. I am not in the government, of course, but I know this.

The newest state in the Balkans, Kosovo, is celebrating its first birthday. Independent Kosovo was primarily an American project. How does the future of Kosovo and the Balkans look in this context? If the largest employer in Kosovo is the US military base, Bondsteel, can Kosovo really become a viable, democratic state?

First of all, there's a great deal more work to be done throughout most of the Western Balkans. The Bush Administration made a conscious decision to walk away from the Western Balkans.

Largely because they saw this a Clinton Administration priority. After four or five years of consciously ignoring the entire region, it seems as if they woke up one more and discovered Kosovo, and everything they did revolved around Kosovo.

It became a completely Kosovo-centric policy. They ignored Bosnia, and Bosnia has been deteriorating seriously, they ignored Serbia, except where it dealt with Kosovo, they ignored Macedonia, and while it is essential for these countries to become deeply integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions including the EU, the USA has an important role to play working hand in hand with the EU. Serbia has made progress certainly with the last election.

I wish Serbia were not as aggressive in their rhetoric about Kosovo as they are. Their government has no real opposition, they don't have to be that aggressive because it is creating polarization with Kosovo.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, after what Milosevic did to Kosovo, there was really no way it could go back. I think Serbia needs to be concerned about its own Albanian population, for example, in the Presevo valley, where they should be reaching out, and embracing these people instead of just going after people they consider war criminals.

I am not saying they shouldn't do that but they should be making a major effort to embrace them both symbolically, through gestures, and through economic development, political work, and so on. So I think there needs to be a much broader and deeper set of policies throughout the Western Balkans, and I certainly would like to see Bulgaria play a bigger role.

In your view, how likely is it that Kosovo's and Bulgaria's neighbor, Macedonia, would face once again separatism and ethnic tensions, and even potential breakup?

I worry very much about Macedonia because I see there is at least the threat of fracture lines along several different directions. An extremely capable American, Matthew Nimitz, is trying as the UN envoy to negotiate a deal over the name question.

Both sides, I think, have behaved unfortunately. It's important for the security of this entire region for Macedonia to be much more stabilized, to have a stronger democratic government, a stronger economy, because instability there could create problems that nobody would ever want.

What sorts of problems?

All kinds of things. Well, as a I said, because of these fracture lines evolving, various national groups, language issues, territorial claims, but I think everybody's gotta calm down. This is an issue which ought to be settled within a very short period of time, and I think it's important for all of NATO to play a constructive role in getting this done fast.

How concerned should America be with issues like corruption and organized crime in its allies like Bulgaria, and the possibility of Bulgaria turning into a failed EU member state?

I don't see Bulgaria turning into any kind of failed state. However, if I were a Bulgarian, I would be deeply embarrassed and ashamed about what's been going on. I am not sure I can remember the EU taking such drastic actions with any member state.

The government, the opposition, political elites across the board have to take much, much stronger political decisions about these kinds of issues because the perception of Bulgarian is increasingly internationally an unfortunate one.

And I worry about young people leaving Bulgaria. I think there is a critical need for a dramatic kind of change, maybe even a kind of discontinuity to provide change which would produce policies, and implementation of those policies to really have a serious effect on corruption and the crime problem. This is going to have an effect on investment, which means an effect on jobs, which means it goes on and on.

I was Ambassador in Indonesia, which has some of the worst corruption in the world. What finally happened was companies began leaving.

Some of the biggest employers left. Sony, Nike. Nike was making 70% of its shoes there, and went down to maybe 10%. This means jobs. Secretary Clinton is going to be visiting Indonesia this week; one of the big issues she's going to talk about is rule of law and corruption.

What are the chances of Bulgaria's former Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi to become NATO Secretary-General? In your view, is he a worthy candidate?

Unfortunately, I've never met him. Would love to meet him some time. He has a very good reputation, and it's encouraging to see Bulgaria being so active in terms of NATO. I think that's the important thing.

This goes back to when you were talking about people calling Bulgaria a Trojan Horse for Russia - to the contrary. Bulgaria is a very active, and positive member of NATO, and it's welcome to, first, nominate somebody for this position, Secretary-General, second, nominate somebody of very high quality.

Now, I have no idea what his chances are but it is important in terms of Bulgaria asserting itself as an active member, and I for one think it's welcome.

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Tags: Robert Gelbard, Assisstant Secretary of State, USA, US, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, US President, kosovo, macedonia, Balkans, Western Balkans

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