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Interview: Former US spy chief sees shift toward Asia

In an interview, Admiral Dennis C. Blair - the former director of national intelligence - says the US needs to back moderate Islamic societies, and urges Israel to keep pace with a changing Middle East.

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There is an intellectual understanding through the American government and the foreign policy community that East Asia is the future economic powerhouse. It's where most of the wealth is coming from. But then we always have our attention pulled away by the immediate events that always seen to go on in the [Arabian] Gulf, whether it was Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iran, or the Palestine issue or something else. That was at its height when we had two wars going, so it was simply a case of management attention. The bandwidth was not there. Some of the incidents that were pointed to – Condi Rice missed a conference of ASEAN foreign ministers and this was seen as a major event – I think she was just probably wrung out with her schedule and said, I'm going to skip that one.

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The honest Southeast Asians who you talk to [will admit that] this is their favorite position,  when there is – I think the nice word is “creative tension” between the United States and China and India for the attentions of Southeast Asia. That way they have plenty of suitors. When one axis or pull of that tension seems to ease a bit, they worry that they will be more dominated by one of their neighbors or their big faraway neighbor.

The reality of it is that the Chinese military build-up concentrated in their South Sea fleet has put an element in this part of the world that is different and is unhealthy. Back in 2002, when the Chinese and the other countries here signed a code of conduct, most of us thought that there was a clear path to negotiating all of these territorial disputes. But then, Chinese actions seemed to go back to their old way of operating. They like to operate bilaterally with the individual countries, be it Vietnam, Malaysia, or the Philippines, because of course they have a lot more weight in a bilateral relationship. When it's a multilateral negotiation, then concepts like common standards – what are the principles by which we are going to adjudicate these – these all come into play and China frankly thinks it does better off operating in a bilateral sense by trying to put individual pressure on each government as it goes along. I think that the outbreak in 2010 of the Chinese foreign minister at the ASEAN conference when he said, "you have to understand, we are big countries, you are a little countries," was probably a true reflection of the way China thinks about it: We're becoming a bigger force here so you should bow a little lower. 

On the Muslim world

ED : When you look at US engagement with the Muslim world, what's working and what isn't ? 

DB : To me, the best things that we've done are working together with the Malaysias, Moroccos, Indonesias, Turkeys – the countries that are moderate, more secular, and Muslim. They have so much more credibility for these Muslim issues than do we white Anglo-Saxon Christian or Christian-background leaders. President Obama is somewhat different and that's certainly a good thing. I found that some of the attempts that the United States has made to support moderates within Islam and discredit the radicals have been pretty ham-handed and not very well thought out.

ED : But is there a risk that, if the US is behind these moderates, that could actually discredit them in their local context?


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