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Hands-off policy for Saudi Arabia not 'hypocr -

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Former US political affairs official and NATO ambassador Nicholas Burns says it is not hypocritical
for the US to intervene in some Middle Eastern countries but not others.


ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Joining me to discuss events in the Middle East and the state of Al Qaeda
since the death of Osama bin Laden, is Nicholas Burns, former US under secretary of state for
political affairs and US ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush administration.

Nicholas Burns, many thanks for talking to Lateline.


ALI MOORE: Let's start with Yemen and the events in that country, particularly over the weekend.
The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is now in Saudi Arabia receiving medical treatment.
Protestors are flying flags with the words "New Yemen". Do you think it is?

NICHOLAS BURNS: It's hard to say. Because, you know, this is a country that's quite different than
Egypt or Tunisia. It's not homogeneous; it's separated by historical rivalries among tribes. It's
been highly unstable, really, for the last 20 or 30 years. And for president Ali Saleh to leave
now, the question is: is there going to be solid, central stability and authority? And it's a very
consequential country for the rest of the world because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is
a tributary, if you will, of Al Qaeda - Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda is a very powerful terrorist
group, responsible for some of the attempted attacks in the US - the ones that have failed, in the
US over the last several years, and for some that have succeeded in the Middle East. So, what
happens there is really important.

ALI MOORE: Indeed, the CIA actually says that Al Qaeda in Yemen is a more potent threat than Al
Qaeda in and about Pakistan.

NICHOLAS BURNS: The US Government has been of that view for several months right now. It's an
extraordinary statement to think about. I mean, striking at Osama bin Laden and killing him was a
very significant development. It was a huge blow to Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda has all these
franchises, if you will, these other operations that might be mildly, in a limited way, connected
to the main organisation and some are more powerful than the home base, and that's certainly true
of Yemen.

ALI MOORE: And is there already evidence that Al Qaeda in Yemen is capitalising on the unrest, on
the turmoil?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well we think it would. I don't think Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a
desire to run the Government, but they certainly want to have more influence and they want to have
an environment where the government is not launching counter-terrorism operations against it. The
government of president Saleh has been many things. It's been highly imperfect. You've seen the use
of force against demonstrators which is highly objectionable. But they have tried to strike out
against the terrorist groups over the last five or 10 years. They've been a very important partner
of the United States. And so in this particular case, a change of government in Yemen might not add
up to either stability for the Yemeni people and certainly might not be beneficial to countries
like my own that have an interest in seeing terrorist groups put down.

ALI MOORE: So what does America do in this instance? Because I suppose it's worth noting, as we
just heard in that report, that it wasn't in fact the protestors who managed to get the president
out of the country in the end, it was the very, very powerful tribes who managed to get him out.
What do you think, first of all, I guess, is the most likely outcome at this point, and secondly
what role will the US play?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think the most likely outcome is he's not going to come back. He's not going to
emerge from that hospital in Riyadh and suddenly appear in Sanaa and take over again. Despite the
fact his government's in power, he's been negotiating an exit agreement for himself for the last
three or four months.

ALI MOORE: But he's been refusing to sign constantly.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Exactly right. Well he agrees to it and then he backs off. The US Government
decided some time ago, about a month ago that it wouldn't support him any longer. It felt that he'd
lost credibility in the country and that we had to take our chances with a successor.

ALI MOORE: What about Saudi Arabia? Of course it's a very big security issue for Saudi Arabia. What
role will they play and what line do you think they will take?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well the Saudis are very nervous. The Saudis have intervened militarily in Yemen
just in the last year when some of this tribal in-fighting had broken out. And of course you saw
what happened when the Saudis became nervous about Bahrain a couple of months ago, the
demonstrations there. They sent Saudi troops. So I wouldn't think it's beyond the realm of the
possible that if Saudi Arabia saw the situation in Yemen heading in a direction that was
fundamentally against its own interests, it might inject its own military force. The Saudis are
very, very worried, not so much about instability within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but the
borders, in particular Yemen and Bahrain.

ALI MOORE: And how would the US respond to that?

NICHOLAS BURNS: The US would be - I don't think the US would want to see Saudi Arabia take on that
kind of regional security role. It has a lot of risks. But then again, you've seen president Obama
react quite differently to Saudi Arabia during the last six months of this Arab transformation than
he did say in Egypt or Tunisia. We were quite willing to cast aside our relationship with president
Ben Ali in Tunisia, president Mubarak in Egypt; not willing to do so in Saudi Arabia. Why? Because
we have really significant security interests tied up in Saudi Arabia. Think of it this way:
countering these terrorist groups - that's an occupation we have with the Saudis - containing Iran,
the long-range threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and also frankly the oil and gas that comes out of
Saudi Arabia - all of that amounts to in essence a hands-off policy where the US and other
countries are not going to push for the kind of reform in Saudi Arabia that you've seen us push for
in Levante and in North Africa.

ALI MOORE: It makes the US look incredibly hypocritical, doesn't it?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I don't think it is hypocritical. I think - you know, in essence, the United
States, like any other country, has to protect its own interests, and in some cases we certainly
want to see democracy develop if it can develop in the Arab world. We've made that bet in both
Egypt and Tunisia. We're trying to make that bet in Libya by the use of military force to drive
Gaddafi out. But on the other hand, we have real interests, concrete interests of an economic,
geopolitical, counter-terrorist nature. It's difficult just to cast those aside. I wouldn't say it
is hypocrisy. I think it's just recognising that the Arab world has 22 countries, that these crises
are going to play out in a very different way one to the other and that you have to protect your
own interests in the process.

ALI MOORE: It does amount to, though, doesn't it, in some cases that the deaths of some are OK, the
deaths of others are not?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I don't think the deaths of - I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't say that any
country's going to be comfortable with the deaths of - certainly not the deaths of protestors. I
mean, the US did object quite strenuously when the Bahraini government used physical force and
killed innocent people in Pearl Square. It's just to suggest that over country is going to look at
the Middle East not as a monolithic entity, but as a region that is very diverse, quite complex.
And if you look at Egypt, for instance, there's a reasonable expectation that with some luck and
with some hard work, we might see a democratic society develop slowly, gradually over time from the
ground up. There is very little reason to think that will happen overnight in Saudi Arabia. In
Egypt you had millions of people demonstrating in the streets for change; in Saudi Arabia you
don't. So I think governments like Australia or the United States are going to react really to what
the people are dictating on the ground in these countries.

ALI MOORE: In relation to Al Qaeda, you say that it was weakened by the killing of bin Laden, but
it has different chapters. How do you see, I suppose, Al Qaeda now as a global force? I mean,
substantially weakened with these chapters never being able to regain the strength that the
organisation once held, or not?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think Al Qaeda's been substantially weakened because it's - you know, the founder
of Al Qaeda, the person who was really the heart and soul of the operation, was killed in the US
commando raid.

ALI MOORE: He can't just be replaced?

NICHOLAS BURNS: He can be replaced; he undoubtedly will be replaced - I think with some difficulty,
however. I wouldn't say that this group is finished. That would be foolish and it would be naive to
think that it's finished, because these are hard-bitten people. They've proven that they're willing
to go to do extraordinary - to go to extraordinary ordinary lengths to kill innocent civilians.
They have a mission and ideology, and so this fight against terrorist groups goes on. It may be
never-ending. It may go on for years and years and therefore we've got to be attentive and we've
got to be smart in the way we confront them.

ALI MOORE: I want to have a look at what that means for Afghanistan in a moment. But just staying
on Yemen for a minute, because the Saudis have accused Iran of backing rebels in Yemen, where do
you see Iran fitting into this very changed landscape in the Middle East, because of course you
were the chief negotiator for America in the three years leading up to 2008?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think Iran is playing a very interesting game. On the one hand it's gone on the
offensive. Iran is funding and arming most of the Middle East terrorist groups that have been
inimical to the authoritarian regimes there, to the United States, to Israel and to others. Iran is
also a potential victim of the Arab transformation. So you see Iran on the one hand funding
Hezbollah, funding Palestinian Islamic jihad, trying to sow unrest in places like Yemen and
Bahrain. It's in its interests to do that.

On the other hand, the Iranians have to realise that if people power can succeed in the Middle
East, if millions of people taking to the streets can topple governments - and that's what happened
in Tunisia and Egypt - it could also happen in Iran. You remember what happened in June of 2009
when Ahmadinejad stole the election, if you will, from the Iranian people. Millions of people on
the streets there: they were put down by brutal force, but those people still have a grievance
against the Iranian Government. So I think the Iranians are trying to capitalise, they're acting
offensively, but they're also quite frightened, the Iranian regime.

ALI MOORE: You spent those three years trying to get Iran to the negotiating table. Do you see any
indication now that sanctions against Iran, US sanctions, European sanctions, are actually working,
that the Iranian regime has been weakened?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think they're working and I think they're necessary because the Iranians have
turned out to every invitation to negotiate from President Obama or President Bush, from the
Russians and the Chinese. They're working, but they need to be implemented in a much more serious
way. You've seen financial sanctions now by the US and the EU. I think if the sanctions go on long
enough and if the Iranians continue with their nuclear weapons development program, you'll probably
see a call for sanctions against companies that do business with Iran, particularly in the oil and
gas sphere.

ALI MOORE: What about the military option though? Because of course just two weeks ago, the
International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report that talked of, "possible military dimensions to
Iran's nuclear program". How close do you think they are to developing a nuclear weapon? What's the
timeline and how long can you be patient?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well it's clear that they're making progress, it's clear that they're working on
this, but it's also clear that we have some time available to the US and other countries to ...

ALI MOORE: How much time?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Hard to say. I mean, the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be the
expert on that question; but time enough to construct a policy that might push the Iranians perhaps
to the negotiating table. So I think the trick here is for the US and other countries to keep the
military option on the table, but I think it's very unlikely it'll be used in the short run. I
think the vast preference of president Obama is to see Iran at the negotiating table, try to work
out our differences through diplomacy. If that's not possible, then the option is not just for a
military strike or offensive military operations, it's a containment regime. It's a long-term
effort in essence to surround Iran, wait for the day when its government collapses, but not to take
offensive military action.

ALI MOORE: You're also the former US ambassador to NATO. If we can turn to Libya, we've now got
Britain and France deploying attack helicopters, and I note that the Russians say that's one step
away from a land operation. Can NATO succeed?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think it will. I had my doubts at the beginning. I didn't think a third land war
in the Middle East made sense for my own country, but when the Arab League came and said, "please
intervene in the internal affairs of an Arab country," which is essentially what they did. When the
Security Council blessed it, I think president Obama had no choice but to go in.

ALI MOORE: But of course the US has stepped back now.

NICHOLAS BURNS: It has. And the problem with the NATO operation is that NATO's had one arm tied
behind its back because it's not used ground troops, it's only used offensive air power. And so
there's been a stalemate over the last two months. But I think Gaddafi is beginning to weaken. You
see people leaving his government, people going into exile, the finance minister, his foreign
minister, the oil minister, have all left. He's increasingly isolated. The EU has given diplomatic
recognition and now some money to the rebel alliance in Benghazi, and I think it's only a matter of
time now before either Gaddafi's overthrown from within its own inner circle, because people will
be frightened to be associated with him, he's going to be indicted for war crimes, or else he flees
Libya and seeks refuge in some third country.

ALI MOORE: So you don't see the US wanting to take over the lead role again?

NICHOLAS BURNS: President Obama does not wish to take over the lead role, not with two major
engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants the European allies, specifically Britain and France,
to take the lead, but can those countries sustain the lead? Can they sustain major military
operations for three or four months? Probably not. Such is the state of the European militaries,
but I think Gaddafi might fall before then.

ALI MOORE: And if not?

NICHOLAS BURNS: If not, then I think you'll see NATO do what it has to do, perhaps with a
reinsertion of a lead American role to finish the effort. Because stalemate ends up in a Gaddafi
victory. The only outcome I think that works for the Arab world as well as for the US and NATO is
to see Gaddafi go from power.

ALI MOORE: Well as you say, there's no appetite in the US to get involved in yet another war. And
if we look at Afghanistan, just this weekend US defence secretary Robert Gates said, "persistence
would allow the US-led coalition to turn the corner in Afghanistan by the end of the year". It has
been 10 years. What does success mean and will the allied forces ever get there?

NICHOLAS BURNS: You know, I don't think a conventional military victory of the type that we won in
1945 is possible in Afghanistan - not in that particular country, not given the strength of the
Taliban. So, the strategy is to push the Taliban back and to have this military surge dent the
offensive potential of what the Taliban's trying to do.

ALI MOORE: It's been 10 long years though.

NICHOLAS BURNS: It's been a long time. And to quickly then go and turn towards a diplomatic
strategy, meaning negotiations. And you already see the United States and the Afghan Government
trying to talk to elements of the opposition, the Taliban, and trying to convince them to go to the
negotiating table. It really is probably the only way to achieve a ceasefire, achieve an end to
this war. A conventional military victory: not possible in Afghanistan.

ALI MOORE: What does that mean though for president Obama who just next month is due to start
announcing the plans for the withdrawal of the US troops. How does he make that balance between
keeping the line in Afghanistan, but also I guess satisfying the political imperative at home?

NICHOLAS BURNS: He had always foreseen that in July 2011 he would begin a drawdown, but he never
said it would be substantial. And I think given what Secretary Gates said over the weekend I
presume that the US will leave a very substantial ground force in Afghanistan because we need to
put continued military pressure on the Taliban to convince them go to the negotiating table. Here
is where diplomacy and force are really integrated. So I wouldn't see any dramatic drawdown in
numbers this summer or this autumn. I think it's too early for that.

ALI MOORE: And is that domestically political palatable going into a presidential election?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think so. I think because the president will be able to say in 2012 he brought us
out of Iraq. He campaigned in 2008 that Iraq was the wrong war, we should come out of it. All US
combat troops will have left by the end of this year. He said Afghanistan, however, required a
longer-term effort, and we've said we're not going to leave until 2014. I think the American people
will sustain that. I think frankly the economy will be a far larger and more prominent issue in the

ALI MOORE: Well we've ranged through the world. Thank you very much for being so generous with your
time, Nicholas Burns.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Thank you.