Question: Mr. Simes, what could you say about the American presidential race? Hasn't John McCain been neglected as the Republican nominee while Americans were watching the duel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Answer: Quite the contrary, McCain was very lucky that the Democrats were engaged in self-destruction. Travelling across the country, he was making speeches as if he were the official presidential nominee. But McCain has much less money than his rivals because this year Americans, including potential donors, are not too pro-Republican. He would have had a very hard time if he had to compete against another Republican candidate in the same way as his Democratic rivals. But in the event he managed to outline his positions on major economic and national security issues, while the two Democrats were shooting poison-tipped arrows at each other. So he was not in a bad position at all.
Q: They say that ordinary Americans do not care much about foreign policy and are a lot more interested in domestic problems. Is this right?
A: To a certain extent, yes. At any rate, Iraq is the only international issue on the agenda of this election campaign. This is only natural, because it has a direct bearing on the domestic situation. The war has cost at least $500 billion. Some authorities, for instance Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, maintain that the real spending is up to $3 trillion. About 4,000 Americans have been killed in the war. That is a very high price for the nation.
Free trade is another headache. American customers are ostensibly supplied with cheap Chinese goods and bad Chinese food. This is a major domestic issue. Problems unrelated to everyday life are given minimal attention in the election campaign.
Q: It is said that you are well aware which American politicians influence and advise the nominees.
A: McCain's group of advisors includes realists who are advocate a pragmatic foreign policy, for instance, Henry Kissinger and Robert McFarlane. They support McCain but their influence on him is limited. Neoconservatives have a much stronger impact on him, and he has unequivocally veered in their direction. He has adopted their approach not only to Russia but also to China. He believes that the United States has the right to use force to spread democracy. He also thinks that Iran should be threatened. This is a typically neoconservative approach to foreign policy.
Obama is more pragmatic than McCain and is more open to international dialogue. He wants to talk to all countries. His opponents criticize him for this on the grounds that he may betray U.S. interests by making unnecessary concessions. But Obama is not afraid of such accusations. He believes that in international relations it is not appropriate to tell the other side: "We are good and you are bad," or that "we love your people and will outline your national interests." Most of his advisors support this line.
Michael McFall, an expert on Russia, strongly criticized Moscow for its domestic policy and enthusiastically supported the idea of advancing democracy as the main direction of U.S. foreign policy. But even he has toned down his language since he joined Obama's team. McFall, for instance, objected to McCain's proposal to oust Russia from the G8.
Q: Speaking recently in Washington, McCain's close associate Robert McFarlane reassured his audience that if McCain brings hawks into his administration and they quarrel with Russia, he will dismiss all of them in a year. Do you think this is possible?
A: If McCain becomes president, collides with the real world and America gets a rap on the knuckles as a result, he will not persist with it. He will bring other, more pragmatic people into the cabinet instead. McFarlane was not the only one to make this forecast. But the fact remains that for the time being, McCain sounds more like a neoconservative.
Q: Some analysts in Russia as well as Europe believe that if Obama is elected, it will be easier for him and his Russian counterpart to come to terms because the two young presidents are not burdened with stereotypes. What could you say on this score?
A: For starters, I think that Dmitry Medvedev is constrained by commitments and circumstances. I don't expect him to make major concessions in the next few years. There is an idea in America and Europe at the moment that Medvedev should prove his worth, and not in Russia but in the West.
As for Obama, we should bear in mind that an American president is a powerful man. There is no division of power between the president and prime minister in America. Both positions are held by one and the same person, which would give Obama a lot of room for maneuver. Moreover, if he is elected he will be trusted by the Democratic-dominated Congress.
But not everything will be so easy for Obama. Many Congressmen favor the expansion of NATO, in particular Georgia's entry. I don't think that he would choose to start with this. It seems easier to win the elections than to get out of this predicament.
Not everything is simple in Europe, either. The new Europe does not speak with a single voice. I primarily mean new EU members. They are louder than the others, and they want NATO and the EU to be more anti-Russian.
Georgia was not admitted to NATO, but it was promised membership, so it has to be backed no matter what difficulties it has in relations with Russia. There is big bad Russia (this is not my position but the view of many in NATO) and small democratic Georgia. NATO's duty is to support Georgia without going into the details of the squabble.
This is why I don't expect rapid changes. Nobody in Washington is going to fight Russia over Tskhinvali or Sukhumi. I told President Mikheil Saakashvili this to his face at a Nixon Center event, and he got a bit offended. But I told him the truth. There are forces in America which are ready not only to support but even to encourage him. But those same forces are not ready to use America's military might to resolve Georgia's problems with the breakaway republics.
Q: But, as we all understand, Russia will not hold itself aloof, and Georgia's smoldering conflict with South Ossetia or Abkhazia may develop into serious confrontation between the big powers. Couldn't this be a dangerous turn of event?
A: I do not expect a third world war, or a new war in Europe, or a war in the Caucasus with serious international repercussions. But I'm concerned that even minor hostilities in this region are bound to trigger off political confrontation between Russia and the United States and between Russia and NATO. This brinkmanship would destroy all that they have achieved in the last few years. If this happens, they are not likely to cooperate even on such crucial security issues as the fight against terrorism or nuclear proliferation. Who would help his potential enemy? If this happens, allies will be chosen not according to where they are wanted but where they are available, be it in Tehran or Caracas. I see this situation as dangerous not because it may lead to a total war between Russia and the West but because a local armed conflict may block Russia's cooperation with the West.
Q: Why is the West supporting Ukraine's NATO bid, whereas it is clear that at a referendum the majority of Ukrainians would vote against NATO entry?
A: Ukraine's Constitution does not provide for a referendum on its membership of international organizations. We can argue whether this is right or wrong, and discuss the advisability of this step and its aftermath. This is what Ukrainian society is doing, but the Constitution does not commit the government to a referendum. They have a legitimate parliament, which is authorized to make decisions by majority vote and procedures for endorsing any international treaty.
I recall that at one time Bulgaria wanted to join the Soviet Union. But if someone wants to become part of your union, you don't have to accept this. NATO was not established to defend its members against Russia. Its mission is to promote peace, stability and political predictability. I'm not quite sure how new invisible lines of conflicts in Europe will enhance NATO's security. It's obvious that Russia poses no military threat to NATO. Threats are emanating from quite different directions, such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda. It is not in the interests of NATO to turn Russia from a partner into an opponent.
Ukraine has its own motives, and NATO has the right to say: guys, you'll have to wait. In theory, any country can join NATO. This is what Ukraine and Georgia heard at the summit in Bucharest. But this does not at all mean that they will be part of NATO any time soon. As for Georgia, its entry is not worth a serious discussion. It does not control its own territory, or, to be more precise, the territories which it claims. NATO's Charter does not allow the admission of countries with territorial conflicts. I believe that Georgia should make up its mind - if it wants to join NATO it should give up on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or it should delay its application for NATO membership until the problems with these breakaway republics are resolved.
Q: There are many other formations with unresolved status on post-Soviet territory, and they all want to be recognized both by Russia and the world community...
A: Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin gave Vladimir Putin a different answer on NATO's membership. Unlike Saakashvili, he said that Moldova is not going to apply for it at this point, and Russia has become more flexible in its approach to the republic's territorial integrity. I believe that in general Russia supports Chisinau's efforts to resolve the crisis by granting greater autonomy to Transdnestr within Moldova.
As for Nagorny Karabakh, it is not simply unrecognized territory. Today, it is part and parcel of Armenia; and if Azerbaijan does not regain it, I don't see how it may be returned to Baku.
Saakashvili had a chance to launch a process of peaceful incorporation for Abkhazia and South Ossetia when he regained Adzharia without any objections from Russia. He had talks with Putin and promised him not to rush with shutting down Russian military bases. But he did everything he could to have them closed earlier than was envisaged by contractual commitments, although they did not threaten Georgia militarily in any way. Later on he started posing as the leading champion of "velvet" revolutions and the expansion of NATO's influence in a region which Russia traditionally considered its sphere of influence. Finally, he did not make any social or economic promises to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He went in the opposite direction, and eventually confronted Russia.
Q: Do you think the point of no return has been passed?
A: I think it has been passed for Saakashvili.
Q: What do U.S. politicians think about Russian-European relations?
A: They are not viewed as in crisis. But there are many things on which American politicians are not fully clear. Thus, they don't understand too well how the Medvedev-Putin political tandem will work. But America will be ready for dialogue with either or both of them. And any statements either of them makes will be perceived as articulating Moscow's position.
Q: Will the war in Iraq ever end?
A: All wars come to an end eventually. But nobody knows when. McCain rightly said that the scale of war is a major issue. If the war costs $10 billion rather than $100 billion per year, and if the losses are brought down to less than 20 soldiers per month, there will be no rush to stop it. But it cannot continue indefinitely. The war will adversely affect the Muslim world and divert America from other priorities. The U.S. administration will look for ways of quitting Iraq, but it wants to make sure that Iraq does not fall to pieces, descend into a civil war, or host al-Qaeda bases.
But in America, the president proposes but Congress disposes. It controls the funds; and no matter what McCain decides to do about Iraq, he will have to expect resistance from the overwhelming majority of Democratic Congressmen, who will remember that they were elected with a clear-cut mandate to end the war. McCain will have to confront Congress and risk a defeat in Iraq, like in Vietnam, all the more so because he will have to continue the war without aircraft, helicopters and ammunition. But this is not even an option. So, he will have to find some formula under Congressional pressure which would allow him to do what Obama suggests, that is, start a gradual troop pullout from Iraq. I'm sure that any president will have to do this.
Q: Does the United States still believe that democracy can be spread by force of arms?
A: Personally, I have never favored imposition of any values by force of arms. But the United States came to Afghanistan because of 9/11. By the way, in Afghanistan, America and Russia were partners, and Russia cooperated with the Northern Alliance, which played a key role in the Taliban's downfall.
As for Iraq, it is very difficult to understand why the United States intervened there. Apparently, some people had some motives beyond U.S. security. George W. Bush had always wanted to take revenge for the Hussein regime's attempt to assassinate his father in Beirut. Some neoconservatives believed that the war would help Israel. There were many reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Although Russia, France and Germany were not as convinced of this as the United States, nobody denied that Iraq might have had them. The dictator was playing highly suspicious games with inspectors. Sanctions were not working and could not be prolonged indefinitely.
There were fears that this situation, which could be hardly described as deterrence, a situation of neither peace nor war, could provoke him into some desperate escapade with weapons of mass destruction. This is why the majority of Congressmen and the U.S. foreign policy establishment supported the idea of war. But it transpired later that the United States was poorly prepared for the war. To be more precise, Washington was not ready to deal with the aftermath. It had no idea about the alignment of political forces in Iraq and had no plan for post-war arrangements in the country. But for all this, bringing democracy to Iraq was not America's main goal. This is why today neoconservatives say that events in Iraq do not discredit the idea of spreading democracy.
But I believe that the very concept of installing democracy by force is intrinsically flawed. Also, if we are convinced that by definition democracy implies the electorate's right to make mistakes, elect some people today and kick them out of office tomorrow, we should respect the right of other nations to make decisions, whether right or wrong.
I think that except in genocide or other extreme cases, armed force should not be used for changing the domestic situation in any country. Force should not be an instrument of world politics. Otherwise, we won't even know where we will land. The United States is not likely to be the only country that would want the right to intervene militarily. Most likely, many other countries would like to press on with their own ideas, including those which the United States finds objectionable.
Q: Will President Bush be rated as the worst U.S. president when he retires?
A: History has it that contemporaries can never predict how history will judge their rulers. Harry Truman was once rated as the worst U.S. president, but now he is quite popular. I would be stunned if Bush is called an outstanding president. But people will remember that except for 9/11, there were no acts of terror against the nation and that he did not draw America into any other war but in Iraq, although some of his associates are tempted to do something about Iran before they go.
Much depends on the economic situation which his successor inherits. If the current recession is merely a stage of economic growth, Bush's image will be quite positive. After all, presidents are rated not only for what they have done but also for what they leave behind.