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.