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.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this February 2010 file photo, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the annual threats assessment of the US intelligence community.

Over the last year, the US intelligence bureaucracy has scrambled to keep up with the fast-changing events of the Arab Spring, from the crowded rows of protestors in Tahrir Square to the chaotic battlefields of Libya. Twelve months before the revolutions began, Admiral Dennis C. Blair was the man responsible for managing those often disparate agencies. As Director of National Intelligence, his job was to direct American eyes and ears on the ground.

Now retired, Admiral Blair sat down with Elizabeth Dickinson at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to discuss how events are evolving. He argues that the moderate Islam of Southeast Asia merits American support, past efforts at democracy prevention have been poorly conceived, and it's time for Israel to think twice about its foreign policy in the context of the changing Middle East.

Elizabeth Dickinson: What are the security priorities for the United States right now in Malaysia, and the region of Southeast Asia more broadly?

Dennis Blair: Southeast Asia is an area in which there is a form of Islam which is both devout and progressive, and therefore to be supported. It's an area in which I see a congruence of American interests and local interests: to have tolerant societies and become more prosperous. You can go into the Strait of Malacca and the umpteen tankers going through [it every day] and all that stuff, and that's all true, but I think [our interests are] really more fundamental than that. I think American interests are served when there are sections of the world that have representative governments, politically open economic systems, and are willing to take a stand against some of the more extreme ideologies that there are around the world. I've always found that the countries that I've worked with around here, be it Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, or Indonesia have had their values and their objectives in the right place and we've got to work with them. It's not too much more complicated than that.

ED: How do you see that relationship shifting, if at all, under the Obama administration – particularly with the renewed focus militarily on the Pacific?

DB: I think it's probably a little less there than meets the eye. I don't think the so-called neglect of Southeast Asia was ever as bad as some said, and consequently, the reawakening is probably not as dramatic.

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.

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?

DB : Yeah, I think there is. Certainly if some moderate leader can be accused of accepting American money or worse that can undercut that person's effectiveness. We [should] stick to the things that we can do – economic development is clearly something that we can help with.

The leaders who we admire who have been able to bring great change in the past – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – they're all inspirational religious leaders and smart tacticians. It would be nice to find the Muslim Gandhi, wouldn’t it? The really charismatic leader who believes that non-violent change, lots of toleration, is the way to make the lives of Muslims better. I'm sure he's around somewhere; he was probably in Tahrir Square. Maybe he's in Syria. He's probably still a 'he' right now, not a 'she.' To me, the ideas of moderation and non-violent conflict, the Arab Spring, come together as a way forward. The appeal of the extremists is the attraction of action – I'm doing something, I'm off fighting for the cause. Non-violent conflict, the sorts of things that have been perfected by so many movements over the years, from the Russians in 1905 through Gandhi to the US civil rights movement through all the color revolutions in Europe through South Africa – they offer a way to give the repressed and the angry and the poor an action agenda but it's something that is founded on good principles, not on violence, not on killing innocent people.

ED: How has the intelligence system been shifted or reorganized to deal with the events of the Arab Spring? Does the US have the capacity it needs to monitor events on the ground?

DB: We are not as well positioned as we should be. In the cases of both Tunisia and Egypt, it was pretty well known what kind of regimes we were dealing with – and that came out in WikiLeaks, as you saw. In neither case, Egypt or Tunisia, was there a decent succession process so those regimes were very vulnerable. That was known, but as far as having really good contacts with opposition leaders and really understanding the dynamics that were so close to the surface and then exploded so quickly – like many of the people in the region themselves, Western and American intelligence services were playing catch up for a while.

ED: And now that events are unfolding, do we have a good sense of what's happening on the ground, for example in Syria or Libya ?

DB : I'm not on the inside anymore, but my general experience is that once something happens and you turn all of the collection means that you have, signals intelligence, human intelligence, geo-spatial intelligence, you usually can get a pretty good, fine-grained idea of what's going on. 

ED: It feels like things in the region are a bit up in the air in the Arab World now – who do you see as the emerging power brokers ?

DB:  Conventional wisdom would tell you that the armed forces, the police, the intelligence services would be able to hold onto power because they have the wherewithal, but the power of the mass movements that sprung up in Tunisia and Egypt, and we're seeing in Egypt, and the persistence of them, is pretty encouraging. I don't want to confuse my hopes and my realistic expectations, but I would think that anybody who comes into power in those countries would realize that he has to satisfy some pretty basic aspirations in order to stay in power.

The hard parts are when tribal things come into play. Somehow tribalism seems to trump a lot, and the idea that another tribe has to be given some sort of privileges and has to share in the power seems to be a concept that is hard to grasp in many of these regions.

On Israel and Iran

ED: Does the changing dynamic call for any re-evaluation of American foreign policy toward Israel, or Israel's own foreign policy ?

DB: It should. I think that Israelis recognize that their security ultimately lies in having decent relationships with representative governments around them, not just deals cut with dictators which is what they’ve relied on [until now], plus their own military strength. Sort of like solving the Palestinian question, it's relatively easy to get the end state, but relatively hard to figure out how do you get from here to there in a way that provides assurance along the way. Based on their history, the Israelis are so wary of taking any kind of a chance to achieve something.

ED: Tensions between the United States and Iran have heightened in recent weeks. Where do you see that heading?

DB: I think the Iranians are feeling the squeeze, which is a good thing. There's no way that they can close the Strait of Hormuz or dictate what goes on the Persian Gulf. That's just way beyond their power. Militarily so, the more they push that, the more they are ultimately going to lose. There's a long series of provocations that they could use in addition to the verbal and oral ones that they could use. They could have speedboats to run out to the tankers, they could even board one and tell it to board back, all of which will keep the oil market jittery which they think is to their advantage. The price is higher, so what they do sell brings in more. We know they're hurting economically. They've reduced the amount of cash that an Iranian can leave the country with from $5,000 to $1,000 equivalent because their banks are in trouble because they are sanctioned by the international community.

Everyone I know who has studied Iran closely says that the open reaction will be the defiant, angry, some aggression. But meanwhile, behind the scenes, they’re having serious discussions of what's the right thing for them to do. And if you look at the history of decisions they take, they're usually pretty rational. They could easily cut some new nuclear deal in which they let some nuclear inspectors in. Right now, they almost have the worst of both worlds: they have economic penalties and yet they don't have the full nuclear capability. As you flip it, you have an IAEA inspected program like any country with power plants – same stuff, same uranium – and they could escape the sanctions and have a much more prosperous country. It would be a brave man to predict which way it would go, but I think the rest of the world has played it pretty well. I don't know whether there can be a negotiated end to this, I think it has to be an Iranian decision. 

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