An Interview with Antony Blinken – Part 1

Antony Blinken

9th February 2017

Antony Blinken was Deputy Secretary of State between 2015 and 2017, second in the State Department only to John Kerry. Before this he was Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama, having previously been National Security Advisor for Vice President Joe Biden. He was part of Biden’s presidential campaign in 2008, and served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition team after Obama’s first victory.

This is the first of a two part series. You can find the second part, about the recovery of the Democratic Party and Mr Blinken’s life lessons here.

Q: Do you think that Trump’s current policy on Iran is a good one?
A: Firstly, I think that the administration is right to be concerned about some of Iran’s behaviour. The ballistic missile test, their support for terrorism, and their destabilising activities in general are very much worthy of concern. The question is what to do about them, and what concerns me is that the response to date seems to be this open-ended threat of ‘putting Iran on notice’, without in any way backing it up.
I think this creates difficulties, because it creates pressure on the administration to match its deeds to its words, and it’s not clear what those deeds would actually be. And then you sometimes create a crisis where one did not need to exist. Also, it ignores the fact that for years, including with the last administration, we’ve put a significant amount of pressure on Iran for these malicious activities, including sanctions related to terrorism, related to human rights, and related to ballistic missiles. We have tens of thousands of military personnel in the region, but mostly what I’m worried about is that in order to really counter Iran, it’s not enough for the United States to do it alone; it has to be with international support. That takes diplomacy and hard work. For example, sanctions are only effective if they’re deployed by many countries, not just the United States, otherwise Iran will carry on doing business around us, even if we are not doing business with them.
I would say that when you think about how best to counter your concerns about Iran’s actions, you also have to think through what they might do in response. Right now, we have about 5,500 troops in Iraq going after ISIL. There are Iranian-backed militia in Iraq which could be turned on our troops, and that would be dangerous, so we have to think that through as well.
So, in a nutshell, it’s right to be concerned, but maybe it’s wrong to take a blustery public approach, as opposed to giving the Iranians very clear and strong private warnings if they’re doing something that we object to; building our cooperation with countries in the Gulf; getting others on board with diplomacy; and then looking at what we can do in terms of effective financial and diplomatic sanctions. Those are the best ways to counter them.
Finally, I would say this: I am pleased that the administration seems to be moving away from undoing the nuclear deal with Iran. That agreement has made us safer, it’s made countries in the region safer, and it has put far into the future the possibility of Iran getting materials for a nuclear weapon. Whatever else Iran is doing, at least if we don’t have to worry about them getting a nuclear weapon, that puts us one step ahead.

Q: How do you think the US should defeat ISIL? How do you think Trump’s plan will differ?
A: Well we are defeating ISIL, and it’s quite striking. President Obama implemented a comprehensive campaign to do that, and it’s succeeding.
Right now in Iraq, the Iraqi forces supported by the international coalition have taken back about 65% of the territory that ISIL controlled at its height. Even in Syria, we’ve taken back about 30% with our partners on the ground. As we speak, the key strongholds for ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria, are under siege. Half of Mosul, the biggest city in Iraq that it controls, has been liberated, and the rest will follow soon. Raqqa in Syria is also now surrounded, and its liberation could take place over the next several months. That’s going to be decisive, because Raqqa and Mosul together are the heart of ISIL’s so-called caliphate, the state that it claimed it was trying to build. If you take that away from it, it’s going to have devastating practical effects, because it’s no longer controlled territory, it isn’t going to have places for foreign fighters to come to, it won’t have resources to exploit, and it will totally undermine the narrative that ISIL has put out there that has attracted so many people: namely, that it is actually building a state. So physically, in Iraq and Syria, ISIL is on its heels, and it can and will be defeated.
You still have to deal with its affiliates in other countries, groups that sometimes pre-existed ISIL, but started waving the flag when ISIL was successful. You also have to deal with individuals, and networks of individuals, in Europe, in the United States, and in other places, who may be susceptible to ISIL. What is critical here is getting countries to work together, to share information, to share intelligence, and to have police cooperation. There’s been remarkable progress on that front over the last two years, again as a result of a lot of leadership from President Obama. We have information sharing agreements among fifty countries, and countries are now feeding intelligence immediately to Interpol, so that that information can be used, and people can be found and arrested.
The last piece is dealing with ISIL’s propaganda and its narrative, particularly online, which it uses to recruit. Finding credible local voices, not governments, is the best way to combat this. So we have a good strategy, and I think the best thing that President Trump can do is to continue with what we’ve been doing. And if he does, we will succeed.

Q: What’s your opinion of Trump’s immigration ban? How do you think this will impact the fight against ISIL?
A: I think the immigration ban is totally counterproductive to the fight against ISIL, and it is also counter to what this country stands for. Trump is basically taking a sledgehammer to the wrong problem. The notion that refugees pose a threat in the United States is simply wrong, and the immigration program as a whole does not threaten national security either. It takes, on average, about two years for refugees to come to the United States, because of all the security checks in the system. The last way a terrorist would try to infiltrate the United States is through the refugee program. Moreover, not a single American has been killed by someone from one of the seven countries that were targeted by this ban, going back to the 1970s. So, it’s the wrong solution.
Unfortunately, the problem that does exist is lone wolves. That problem is likely to be exacerbated, not made better, by the ban, because the ban is sending a message that we’re somehow opposed to Muslims writ large. People will feel more isolated and discriminated against, and they will become more susceptible to violent extremism.
At the same time, at the very moment that ISIL is on its heels in Iraq and in Syria, this ban has handed them a propaganda bonanza, a tool with which to recruit people by making it seem that the United States is at war with Islam, which of course it’s not. So I think this is the wrong approach, and it’s also against our values: it’s not what this country stands for.
Finally, it risks killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If you look at Silicon Valley, one quarter of start-ups in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants. Half of the start-ups valued at a billion dollars or more were founded by immigrants. Almost half of the Fortune 400 companies in the United States were founded by immigrants, or the children of immigrants. So the last thing we want to do, in terms of our economic vitality, is to curb immigration.

Q: The right wing media response to the criticism of this ban has been to point out that Obama also banned Iraqi refugees a few years ago. What’s your rebuttal to this?
A: The media outlets point to two things that the Obama administration did, and it’s misleading because it was very different to what is being done now.
First, they point to 2011, when two Iraqis who came to the United States as refugees were arrested, because we developed information that they might be connected to terrorists in Iraq. This was in Bowling Green, Kentucky. And at that point, we reviewed the refugee program from Iraq, but we never stopped it: Iraqis continued to come into this country as refugees throughout a six month review. We made some adjustments to the resettlement program to make sure it was as secure as possible, but there was never any ban, and the flow of refugees from Iraq never stopped. Keep in mind, these are mostly people who are fleeing violence and fleeing terrorism. And also, by the way, when it comes to refugees, the vast bulk that we take into this country are women, children, people who are ill, and people fleeing violence and persecution. A very small percentage, less than 2%, are unattached men; that is, people over the age of 18 without their families.
The second thing is that in 2015, there was another terrorist incident in the United States, in San Bernardino, that had nothing to do with refugees or immigrants. But Congress in the United States decided that it should crack down on refugees, and on the immigration program. The Obama administration had to negotiate with Congress, and in order to prevent them from doing anything more extreme, one of the things we agreed was as follows: if a dual passport holder, with one passport from one of the four countries (now seven) that were of concern, and one passport from a country that was part of the visa waiver program (which is where you don’t need a visa to enter the US), we removed the visa waiver portion of the program. In other words, you would still need a visa to enter the country. That’s what we did, but again there was no ban, we didn’t stop people from coming, which is what’s happening now.

Q: Do you think that Donald Trump will be impeached before 2020, and how do you think this could happen?
A: President Trump is President Trump, and we need to look at the policies that he is pursuing and the decisions that he is making, and try our best to move things in a smart direction. I think that speculating about things like impeachment is not very practical and not very productive. Events and decisions will dictate the future. I think it’s very difficult to speculate on that now.

A Second Interview with Mmusi Maimane MP

Mmusi Maimane

28th January 2017

Mmusi Maimane has been the Leader of the Democratic Alliance, the Opposition Party in South Africa, since May 2015. Before this, he was the leader of his party in the Johannesburg City Council, and in 2014, he ran for Premier in the province of Gauteng. I first interviewed Mr Maimane in 2015, shortly after he became leader. In the interview, which you can find here, I asked him about his vision for South Africa, racial politics, and the ANC’s abuse of office.

Q: Last year, you had a very successful regional election and you won several cities. You also entered into several coalitions with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). How are the coalitions going so far?
A: I think that they’re going well. I’ll start with all the respective cities. Nelson Mandela, that coalition is working fairly well. We’ve started to deliver more effective governance. Johannesburg is doing better than I thought it would, because there, we’re not the largest party, we’re the second largest. But our coalition partners now realise how serious the project of governance is, so I think that’s a unifying factor.
They are also uncovering more ANC corruption, so the fact that we oppose the ANC kind of keeps the glue together. Tshwane (Pretoria) is doing brilliantly. They have had a brilliant start to the year. Now, we get into budget season, where we will try to pass some budgets, but overall , the coalitions are working well.

Q: Looking towards the 2019 General Election, if there was a hung parliament, would you consider forming a government by entering a coalition, either with the EFF, or with a faction of the ANC if it splits?
A: National government, in contrast to local government, is where policy matters a lot less. Local government is really about delivery and execution. I’m not suggesting that national government is not about that, but ideology in that space is a huge variable. So I think that in national government, we would be more open to saying ‘Let’s agree on some key program of delivery’, and I think we’re much closer to that because we and the ANC agree on the National Development Plan.
Also, we agree on a market based economy, we agree that people need to start microenterprise, and my program would always be ‘how do we ensure that these things happen?’ It would be a bit trickier to try and deal with the EFF within that space, but we can’t ignore the conversation around corruption. I would never compromise by going into government, even with the ANC, if there was clear evidence that that particular faction of the ANC was corrupt. We can’t do that, it undermines government. I think 2019 has one or two options: a grand coalition of opposition parties, or a coalition between a faction of the ANC with the DA, around values that we will deliver.

Q: How do you think another leader of the ANC in 2019 will change your election strategy?
A: What’s become clear is that the ANC has suffered from the cancer of corruption, so it becomes immaterial who the leader is. The only two leading candidates as of today are Mrs Zuma, who is the former chair of the African Union, and Cyril Ramaphosa. Neither of those candidates is dissociable from the ANC; they are all one. Voters in the 2019 election need to make a fundamental choice about who is going to make a better South Africa. The ANC and its leader will campaign on its historical achievements and race mobilisation. The focus of my campaign – and this is the focus of work even now – will be the future of South Africa: what we envisage for our young people, for the development of Africa, for a prosperous economy for all, and for a non-racial tomorrow. So I think that’s going to be the distinguisher going into 2019.

Q: Do you think that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan should lose his position, and do you think that he actually will?
A: I don’t think Zuma will do it in the first six months of the year, mainly because I think Zuma is working back at the branches of the party and getting support from there. Heading toward the ANC’s conference, it might be a credible opportunity for Zuma to say ‘Our policy pronouncements look like this. The Finance Minister is practicing a different policy outlook’. And then, he will make that a reason to legitimise his decision.
I think that the second half of the year is going to become rough and there may be many more casualties along the way. The Finance Minister has now got to table the budget, and then will move on from there. But the battle really, broadly speaking, has got little to do with the economy of South Africa, and everything to do with a corrupt President whose agenda has always been about himself; a President who is trying to gain access to the Treasury; and an organisation that has no credibility on the issue of the economy, and no interest in the economic outcome for South Africa.
What we’ve got to do as a party is to say ‘How do we set up a macroeconomic policy that not only creates stability, but can direct economic activity in certain areas that would benefit South Africans?’

Q: There’s a focus on corruption at the 2019 election, but you also have to talk about your policies, so how are you going to balance the two? How are you going to make your policies understandable even for the undereducated?
A: I think that broadly speaking, for the first time, the DA is thinking hard about how we transition from just being a party in opposition to being a party of government, and therefore, putting forward policies that are going to address the needs of the people.
The first key anchor point is how we govern our metros. We now have access to 16 million people, and we control the majority of the local government budget, which has a material effect on people’s livelihoods. If we govern well in those places, then in some ways, the conversation about policy becomes secondary, because when people can taste good governance they are inclined to give credence to that national government.
Secondly, we’ve got to be less about the nuances of policy; we’ve got to be a lot more specific about what we offer South Africans. So there will be a lot of quantifiable, measurable, policy stances that we’re going to articulate for 2019.
The last component is about how we demonstrate that we’re not corrupt. We need to put up leaders across all provinces, and show that they have no track record of corruption. These are the people who can take South Africa forwards. So it’s a bit like modelling non-racialism, you can talk about it all you like, but it comes down to whether you can demonstrate it and whether people can see it.
My project between now and 2019 is to establish that vision, and I’ve already got a draft document called My Vision for South Africa. It focuses on two main issues: jobs and justice, but it’s also about recruiting the best talent in South Africa to be serve in the government.

Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: There is a book written by a minister who does leadership work in the US called Courageous Leadership, which I read as a teenager. It poses the question: ‘Are you willing to confront injustice in society, without position?’ It’s about understanding your own locus of control; whether you fundamentally believe you can make a contribution to society. If I speak to my own kids, who are still little, I try to say to them ‘Your fundamental existence has everything to do with whether you can impact another individual’s life in society’. So that was a really great book to read, and certainly made me question my role in the world, and how I could contribute to it.

Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?
A: Sometimes, your gut matters more, because all you have to defend in life are your convictions. The best way I can describe it, is that there are some decisions that aren’t about right or wrong, that aren’t about policy choices, but are about a deep gut reaction. Even as a young leader, there were times when my gut was telling me one thing, but the politics was telling me something different. You have a natural inclination to say ‘Let’s take the political decision’, and being politically correct in the moment can sometimes undermine you being historically correct. You’ve got to decide whether or not to go with your gut. This is something I would like to practice more.
Also, someone once said to me ‘You’re going to have a choice in life between whether you want to make a difference or a noise’. Sometimes, you have to make a noise to make a difference, but you should always choose to make a difference.

Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: As a teenager, I grew up in a fairly poor community, and my exposure to a different world gave me a vision that things didn’t have to stay that way. And even as a teenager, I learnt that however impossible it seemed, I shouldn’t accept the conditions as they are, but should keep hoping and working for something different.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: I did woodwork at school. Today, I’m not the handyman type of guy. The girls did typing, and the boys did woodwork. If I wish I’d done anything, it would be typing, because I certainly do more typing today than I do woodwork, and the only woodwork I do is building a braai (barbecue), which isn’t even great.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met since I last interviewed you, and why?
A: The US ambassador to South Africa, a man called Patrick Gaspard, I thought was a fascinating individual because he has worked in the Obama campaign, and then in South Africa, so he understands the complexities from a different point of view. Another person I found interesting was Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President of Nigeria, because as a former President, he has a different stance and different views about the region. That’s knowledge that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and I found him and Thabo Mbeki interesting to listen to. I don’t always agree with what they have to say, but they lived through very fascinating periods.