Former US Director of National Intelligence: ‘Russia is a nuclear state; we better treat them accordingly’

In August, 50 top national security officials from Republican administrations published a withering statement rejecting Donald Trump’s ability to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

“Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which US foreign policy must be based,” the statement reads.

“We are convinced that in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history.”

Now, with two months before President-elect Trump’s inauguration, Syria Direct asks one of those 50 signatories whether he stands by that assessment. Ambassador John Negroponte was the first Director of National Intelligence appointed by then-President George W. Bush in 2005, where he served as the principal advisor to the president on intelligence. Negroponte also served as a Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to Iraq under the same administration.

This conversation is the second in a series of interviews with analysts, academics and diplomats examining the implications of a Trump presidency for US policy in the Middle East. [The first, Syria Direct’s conversation with Dr. Joshua Landis, is here.]

Will Donald Trump in fact “weaken U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world,” as the August letter posited? Are we in a new Cold War? Is Russia an enemy? Why is the United States so heavily involved in the Middle East? Does a post-Soviet Moscow deserve the attention of being treated as an equal adversary for Washington?

Ambassador Negroponte, a Cold War veteran of the State Department, makes the case for finding points of common interest between the two global powers. 

“Always leave yourself the room for pursuing some kind of a positive-sum game even with countries that are competitors or adversaries,” Ambassador Negroponte tells Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster. “There are areas where we can actually cooperate with each other.”

Russia is “a nuclear weapons state. I think we better treat them accordingly.”

Q: The United States has invested trillions of dollars over the past decade and a half in the Middle East. Why is it in our nation’s best interests to have such a heavy footprint in this part of the world?

I don’t think it’s necessary to have the size of footprint that was developed by George W. Bush in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. I do think there are interests that compel us to be involved in the Middle East. We have an interest in stability. Even though we’ve become more independent in energy, we have an interest in oil. And, of course, we are a close friend of Israel. Let’s not forget that our Middle East policy for many years—decades even—has been shaped by our support for and our friendship with the country of Israel.

There are reasons for a robust American presence in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have 150,000 or 200,000 troops on the ground. If we’re going to have any military presence, it probably ought to be fairly modest.

Q: This past August, you were a signatory to a letter along with 50 national security officials from Republican administrations asserting that Donald Trump “would put at risk our country’s national security” and “would be the most reckless president in American history.” Do you still stand just as strongly by that statement today?

I would stand by that letter in the context of what was going on at that time. For example, what he said about cutting countries like Japan and Korea loose from our nuclear umbrella, I think that would be very destabilizing and dangerous. Likewise, I had serious problems with his policies towards Mexico, NAFTA and our trading partners in North America where we have this very important three-way trading relationship that generates hundreds of billions of dollars worth of trade. He seemed prepared to put that at risk.

Finally, and on a personal note, I have five adopted Central American children who are from Honduras, and I had great difficulty with what he was saying about the Latino community. I found that most objectionable.

But I think we are now in the phase where Mr. Trump has been elected. He presumably said some of these things to enhance his chances of getting elected, but now it remains to be seen to what extent he goes forward with some of these campaign statements. It’s not unheard of for candidates to say one thing before an election and modify their positions subsequently. We have to see what shape his policies take now that he actually won the election and has to be president of all Americans.

Q: Do you believe that there is hope for more maturity in his foreign policy? As an American citizen, do you feel comfortable with Mr. Trump in control of our national security?

I’m not sure that’s the right question. He’s won the election, and the American people have spoken. Somebody asked me the other day if he should have security clearance, access to the nuclear codes. My opinion on that subject is no longer relevant. The American people have decided.

The issue we now confront—an issue before all Americans—is what can we do to ensure that he has the best possible support to carry forward the national security policy of the United States and the best possible advice and advisors.

Q: In recent years, many analysts have posited that the United States is engaged in a new Cold War with Russia. As a former Cold War diplomat and national security official, do you believe this is a fair characterization of current US-Russian relations?

There are elements that are reminiscent of that. Whereas Russia was quite weak in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it has now reasserted itself and has developed its military in a pretty robust way. They’re flying their bombers again and are flexing their muscles. They certainly want to be a player on the global scene. This includes dealing with us as a peer rather than as a defeated power, which is what they felt the relationship became in the 1990’s.

Is it really a Cold War? Is Russia an enemy? We need to use these words carefully, especially now that there seems to be a president who may have some ideas on how to improve the relationship with Russia. I think the Europeans are probably concerned that whatever we do to improve our relations with Russia is not at the expense of their security.

Q: Is Russia an enemy?

Always leave yourself the room for pursuing some kind of a positive-sum game even with countries that are competitors or adversaries. I think enemy is too strong a word because there are areas where we can actually cooperate with each other: counterterrorism, arms control and various other transnational issues.

Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. They’re a nuclear weapons state. I think we better treat them accordingly.

Q: Moving to Syria, plenty of observers fault the Obama administration for failing to put forth a coherent American strategy. What do you see as America’s top interests pertaining to Syria?

One might equally importantly ask what I think the new administration’s Syria policy is going to be because it will be dispositive. Mr. Trump seemed to be saying that he felt the priority in Syria ought to be defeating the Islamic State as distinct from both fighting it and supporting the opposition to Bashar al-Assad.

I think that what to do about Syria is going to end up being one of the important internal guides for the new administration.

Q: On the campaign trail, the topic of the Islamic State took center stage. Mr. Trump repeatedly praised President Putin for his effectiveness in fighting the Islamic State. He has said “Russia wants to get rid of ISIS…let em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” Do you think it is prudent to hand the fight against the Islamic State over to Russia as Mr. Trump seemed to suggest?

I cannot visualize the United States abandoning its global role in fighting international terrorism. Mr. Trump said we would deal with them fast, but he certainly didn’t say that we would stop dealing with the problem.

Q: I want to go back to one more question about your tenure when you were US Ambassador to Iraq from 2004–2005, particularly as it relates to the Kurds. The Kurds have historically been one of our strongest partners in the region and yet Washington has demonstrated at the same time a reluctance to show strong diplomatic support for Kurdish sovereignty. Could you talk about that and the difficulties in balancing our cooperation and relationship with our Kurdish partners in the region?

Well, they’ve been good friends. There’s no doubt about it, particularly the Kurdish elements in northern Iraq. Certainly, when I was there, our approach was to deal with them as a part of Iraq, not as a separate nation, even though we understood that they had considerable autonomy and largely owed it to the fact that we established a no-fly zone after the first Gulf War. We played a significant role in that.

There are some issues as to how viable a Kurdistan would be as an independent state if that were to come to pass because they do have some arrangements with the government of Iraq in Baghdad that actually provide significant resources. They get the 17 percent share of the overall national revenues, so I think one has to always think very carefully about redrawing the map.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.