Interview with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon

Interview with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon

By Fareed Zakaria GPS - July 3, 2011

ZAKARIA: Thank you for doing this, Tom.

TOM DONILON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Well, thank you. Good to see you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Tom, when you look at administration strategy in Libya, there seems to be a hope that Gadhafi is planning an exit, but are there any actual indications that he is? In other words, we are planning for a post-Gadhafi Libya, but is he?

DONILON: Yes. I don't know the answer to that question. What I can tell you is this, is that we have done in Libya exactly what we said we were going to do. We had a humanitarian crisis, we put together an effort working with NATO and coalition partners to deal with that crisis through military force, and we were successful at doing that.

We have a longer-term policy goal of seeing Gadhafi go. The people of Libya wouldn't be safe and we wouldn't have a stable situation there by any means until he does go, and we have put together a -- a broad comprehensive set of pressure efforts to see him -- to pressure him to step down.

I think those efforts are succeeding, Fareed. You've seen increased success by the opposition leaders militarily as they move towards Tripoli. You've seen the standing up of the opposition group in the form of the TNC as an increasingly legitimate and critical and (INAUDIBLE) for the people of Libya. And there's almost an inevitability here, I think -- there is an inevitability here building as to what the -- as to what the ultimate result will be.

ZAKARIA: Why not recognize the opposition?

DONILON: Well, I think that's -- you know, that's a -- that's a complicated legal issue, frankly. We have said straight up that they are the -- the legitimate and credible representative of the Libyan people. We'll continue -- and we -- and they've, under that guise, have garnered a lot of support from around -- from around the world.

We have a -- have a representative in Benghazi who works with the -- with the opposition group, the TNC.

ZAKARIA: Would you be willing to arm them the way the French now publicly are announcing that they are?

DONILON: We have -- we have at this point provided a broad range of non-lethal supplies to the -- to the TNC, and we haven't made a decision with respect to -- with respect to lethal assistance.

ZAKARIA: You're not ruling it out?

DONILON: Well, we haven't made a decision on that at this point.

ZAKARIA: Syria. You have in Syria a situation where a very brutal dictator is engaging in a crackdown that in many ways seems very similar to Moammar Gadhafi's, and yet the administration will not publicly call for President Assad to resign. Why?

DONILON: Well, what we have called for is a -- is a stop to the violence. We have worked with the international community and unilaterally to put increased pressure on him through sanctions and -- and other means. We have indicated to the -- to the Syrians that it's important for him to either move to some sort of reform agenda or transition or get out of the -- or get out of the way.

That's essentially the strategy that we've undertaken at -- at this point.

ZAKARIA: But why are you stopping short of asking him to -- to resign when you did ask Mubarak to resign?

DONILON: Well -- well, with respect to -- with respect to -- well, there's different -- there are different circumstances, right? And they are -- they are different circumstances at this point.

We continue to press the -- the Syrian leader, Assad, who has made terrible mistakes and really has, I think, really misserved his people, and obviously abused his people through the violent -- violent actions against them as they were engaged in peaceful and peaceful protests.

You know, we'll continue to put pressure on him to have a -- to move towards a more represented and responsive government.

ZAKARIA: What kind of pressure?

DONILON: Well, as I said -- as I laid out, I think Syria is increasingly isolated in the world. We have been working with Syria's neighbors to continue to put pressure on him. The Turks have put public pressure on -- on President Assad and the person of -- of Prime Minister Erdogan who has -- said -- been very vocal about this. We have put the kind of pressure that I've talked about in terms of sanctions on the -- on the Syrians.

They are increasingly, increasingly isolated on this, and I think you see some results of the pressure and that President Assad has indicated that he wants to move towards a national political dialogue and some change. Now, we have, I think, good reason to be skeptical about that, given the choices he's made to date. But this is the -- this is the path that we're on at this point, continued pressure, continued isolation, to force him towards a set of decisions toward a more representative, responsive government.

ZAKARIA: The president said in his speech on the Arab spring that there were some points at which our interests and our values might collide or might be in tension. It seems to me nowhere is that more true than in Saudi Arabia. If there were significant street protests in Saudi Arabia, would the administration side with the Saudi government or the Saudi people?

DONILON: If it -- well, if there were significant protests, it would -- it would depend on the circumstances, right? You know, that's a hypothetical -- hypothetical. I wouldn't really want to address -- it wouldn't be responsible for me in my position to address that.

I can tell you this, though, is that the United States and Saudi Arabia have a set of very important shared interests. We have a shared interest in seeing that no country or force in the region seeks or try to achieve dominance. We have a very important shared interest in seeing restrictions on weapons of mass destruction proliferation in the region.

We have a shared interest in counterterrorism cooperation. We have a shared interest in the pursuit of peace. We have a shared interest in an -- a stable supply of energy, and in a healthy global economy. And that's the basis on which we work with the Saudis.

Now, we also have, as the president has laid out, a view, and a view that we press -- that we press repeatedly throughout the region, enforce throughout the region, on reform.

ZAKARIA: Is Saudi Arabia doing enough on political reform?

DONILON: Well, they have -- these nations have to move forward, you know, at their -- you know, in their -- in a way that's consistent with their circumstances. And we obviously have a view that in fact moving towards more representative and responsive government is a -- is the healthiest and most stable way to go over the long term.

ZAKARIA: You went to Saudi Arabia --


ZAKARIA: -- you spent two hours with the king. The reports are, he is very unhappy with the United States and with our policy toward the Arab spring.

DONILON: Yes. I think coming out of the beginnings of the Arab spring, so much uproar, so much turmoil, and, Fareed, so much change, that we did have some scratchy periods with -- with some partners in the region who were wrestling with this and trying to work through their own views on this. And I -- and I would be, again, less than candid with you if I didn't say that we didn't have some points of friction or disagreement with some of our partners in the region.

But I think this, and based on my direct conversations with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, about the kinds of common strategic interests we have that I laid out earlier in the conversation, I think that our relationship is -- is in pretty good shape.

Our conversations with our partners in the region, including the Saudis, I think, have become very constructive and productive. And I can tell you that from personal conversations with King Abdullah.

ZAKARIA: The president campaigned on the idea that he would try to negotiate with Iran.


ZAKARIA: And you came to office, I would argue, making overtures. Those overtures seemed to be rebuffed by the Iranian leadership, then you had the Green Movement, and now it seems to me a little unclear where we are.

So my question to you would be, does the administration still want to negotiate with the current Iranian leadership and get a deal on the nuclear issue?

DONILON: Fareed, we offered the Iranian government, quite directly, a bona fide offer of engagement. The Iranian government, the leaders of Iran, have chosen not to take that up. And I think that the -- their ability to engage that decision really deteriorated after the June 2009 elections, when it became clear that that government was having a very difficult time making that kind of fundamental decision.

That path remains open to the Iranians, to come to the table and deal with the nuclear issues, increasingly serious nuclear issues, but not just the United States but the entire world community -- world community sees.

There was always associated, though, with our openness to a -- in a bona fide offer of engagement, there was always an associated pressure track, and that pressure track is the track that we've been pursuing during the last period of time. And, indeed, we put additional sanctions on Iran just in the last week or so.

Iran is now subject, through their own behavior, to the most severe sanctions in the world. They can't do business with legitimate banks. They can't do business in euros or dollars. By our account, $60 billion of investment have -- has either gone away or not been pursued -- pursued in the energy and oil industry where they desperately need investment to kind of get their antiquate fields and refineries up to -- up to speed.

Essentially, the leaders in Iran are leading them down a path here where a great society is becoming an isolated state, becoming a state where -- that can't interact with the rest of the world in the most basic ways. And they're really not doing a very good service for their -- for their people.

So the pressure track, unfortunately, I think is where we are -- where we are today. Again, with the opportunity for the Iranians, if they're willing to take it, to have a conversation with us and the world community about their nuclear program.

I will say this about the Iranians, they were not the cause of the Arab spring, although some claimed that. But they've tried to take advantage of it. In Syria, right, in Bahrain and other places around the -- around the region.

I think that that's going to fail. I think that the -- one of the attributes of the Arab spring, I think, has been to draw a sharp contrast between what's happened and what really is kind of a desire for basic freedom and democracy, a sharp contrast between that narrative and the al Qaeda narrative of undifferentiated, violent opposition, right, with no affirmative plan and the Iranian narrative. And I think, over the long haul, this is a further isolating set of events for the Iranians and not something where they're going to have an advantage.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, I'll ask Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser, whether we're drawing down in Afghanistan too fast.



(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA: We are back with Tom Donilon, National Security Adviser to President Obama.

Apparently General Petraeus was urging a slower withdrawal to consolidate the gains of the surge. Isn't there a risk that in drawing down too fast you allow the violence to return to Afghanistan? And it -- there are some indications it's already happening.

DONILON: Yes. Well, the decision in Afghanistan was made against a -- a real record of achievement here and from a position of strength. And the drawdown, as you know, is not at all precipitous. The drawdown is a -- is a sound, paced withdrawal between now and the end of next summer.

When I say that the decision was made against -- from a position of strength, I mean it's against the goals that we laid out, which was done very precisely by President Obama, and those goals essentially were two. One is to dismantle, disrupt and ultimately defeat al Qaeda, and we are on the way to doing that through the work that we've done the last two and a half years. And the second was to prevent the Afghan government, the Kabul government, from falling so that it would become a safe haven for al Qaeda or an associated group again, and we're on the way to giving the Afghans the capability to do that.

Remember, our time horizon here is between now and 2014. Ten thousand troops this year, after the end of this fighting season; another 23,000 troops by the end of next summer. At that point we'll still have 68,000 troops focused on the mission. It's against the backdrop, as I said, of some -- of some success, of progress. It's a responsible, steady way to -- to go about this and end our work on the schedule that we've laid -- that we've laid out.

Now, from General Petraeus' perspective, commanders are -- and he has said this publicly -- are always going to want more troops for longer. But we really do believe here from the perspective of our national priorities, our global resource allocations, that this is a very sound way to approach this, again, from a position of strength.

ZAKARIA: So a crucial part to allowing Afghanistan to end up more stable even if there are fewer troops is some kind of deal that involves some elements of the Taliban coming back into the political system. Ahmed Rashid in "The Financial Times" details the -- the negotiations that have been taking place between the United States and the Taliban, and there seem to have been several for hours and hours, the Germans as intermediaries.

Nothing seems to have come of it. Why is it proving so difficult to, in some way, bring the Taliban into the tent?

DONILON: Well, for a couple -- a couple of things I'd say about that, without commenting on the specifics of -- of the piece in "The Financial Times" that you referenced.

At the end of the day, this will not -- this will have to be settled in a -- in a political settlement. I think that's -- I think that's clear. Why is it hard? There's been a conflict there for a number of years. The Taliban is not an entity where it's at a -- works at a specific address. You have to get these things to a point where you can have a set -- a set of reasonable conversations.

What we've said, though, quite clearly, and the Secretary of State said this in her Asian Society speech earlier this year, is that the United States is prepared to work with the Afghans, with the Afghans in the lead, to work towards a political settlement here and to bring the parties to the table without precondition.

Now, ultimately, as the president said in his speech the other day, reconciliation will require the Taliban or anybody else who comes to the table to agree to renounce violence, renounce al Qaeda and agree to the constitution. But we're -- it's an interactive process, if you will, Fareed, and I think we've got all the elements of that process underway here.

ZAKARIA: Are you hopeful that you will see some results in the next few months?

DONILON: I can't predict that at this point. What I can tell you is this, is that we've put in place the lines of work, the pieces of strategy that we think can bring this war in Afghanistan to a -- to a close and bring it to the point where the United States and its coalition partners can turn security over to the Afghans, where we would remain in a smaller, enduring presence with the partnership with the Afghans, and provide the opportunity, if you will, for a political settlement. Those pieces are in place.

We've indicated support, straight up support, for a political process with the Afghans, Afghans in the lead, and we're pushing the transition process forward. So I think we've put in place the pieces of a strategy towards a political settlement, but I can't sit here and tell you today as to what timescale which that could work.

ZAKARIA: One of the reasons al Qaeda is under so much pressure is that the United States has used unique assets, as John Brennan recently said, by which everyone generally accepts, this means drone attacks. The Pakistani military has just announced, the defense minister said, they will not allow the United States to use the Shamsi Base anymore. They seem to be indicating they do not want the United States to be conducting drone attacks.

Have you been told by the Pakistanis that the United States has to curtail or limit its military operations in Pakistan?

DONILON: Let me tell you -- say a couple of things about that.

Number one, from the outset of the administration, we determined that we would launch an aggressive, focused, relentless effort on al Qaeda and associated groups to dismantle, disrupt and ultimately defeat them, and we've been doing that successfully. With respect to the al Qaeda's leadership ranks, they've been decimated, as John Brennan said yesterday in his (INAUDIBLE) in his -- in his speech in Afghanistan. And we're going to continue these efforts, and these efforts are focused on al Qaeda Central and South Asia, but also focused on affiliates around the world, number one.

Number two, we have the capability to continue this, and without commenting on the story that you have outlined here, I have every confidence that we can continue this, that we will continue this effort at a pace, in an intensity that will allow to us put al Qaeda -- continue to put al Qaeda on the road to -- to defeat with respect to the Pakistanis.

The Pakistanis, Fareed, and the United States have a complicated relationship, as you know, and there are going to be frustrations, and there are going to be disagreements. We remained engaged with the Pakistanis for a number, I think, of very important reasons related to our national security and I think ultimately their security. They are very important counterterrorism partners for the United States.

The Pakistanis have lost thousands of military and civilians to the -- to the hands of extremists. More extremist groups and individuals have been attacked and taken down in -- in Pakistan than any place else in the world. They are very important partners of ours and, again, we -- we will have frustrations and indeed we've obviously had, you know, an important set of conversations, difficult conversations with the Pakistanis since the raid on the Osama Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But we're committed to working through these issues because we believe it's in our national interest to do so.

ZAKARIA: You saw "The New York Times" article that detailed using cell phone conversations, what seemed pretty clear evidence that the Pakistani military, some elements of the Pakistani military, must have known that Osama Bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad. Do you -- does your intelligence confirm that?

DONILON: I've not seen any evidence that the Pakistani leadership elements, neither in the -- the army, military, the intelligence or the -- or the political leadership, had foreknowledge of Osama Bin Laden's operating in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

ZAKARIA: As you're saying, leadership.

DONILON: But I can't speak -- I don't -- I don't -- I can't confirm or deny what you -- what you laid out here, but I haven't seen any evidence that the leadership knew.

But I can state the fact, right? The fact is that Osama Bin Laden operated out of Abbottabad, Pakistan for six years or so, in an operational role, leading al Qaeda, in a town 35 miles from Islamabad.

It is clear that he had some sort of support mechanism there. I don't think at this point we know all the elements of that support mechanism, and we're still obviously working through that.

We have a tremendous amount of information that we recovered from the -- from the Abbottabad compound where Osama Bin Laden operated. We continue to work through that. But, at this point, I don't -- I don't have any evidence that's been shown to me which would indicate that the Pakistani leadership and the political, the military and the intelligence services had foreknowledge here.

But, the fact is that he did operate there for an extended period of time, and that raises a lot of questions, and those questions are being asked in Pakistan.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, I'm going to ask Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser, if there is an Obama doctrine, and does it involve leading from behind?




ZAKARIA: And we are back with Tom Donilon, National Security Adviser to President Obama.

Tom, is there an Obama doctrine?

DONILON: Well, I think -- well, here's how I would answer that question. What we have been about since the outset of the administration is to restore United States influence, prestige and power in the world.

It went through a period of diminution. Now, this is not a partisan comment. I think it's a statement of fact, and there were a lot of reasons for it -- tremendous investment in Iraq, the financial crisis, and some classical international dynamics as other countries rose in the world. For this reason, the United States went through a pretty serious period of diminution of its authority, prestige and power in the world. And we've kind -- we can go off this determined to pursue a restoration attempt (ph) so that we can pursue our interest in the world.

And we have done this along three or four lines of work -- renewing alliances both in Asia and in Europe; engaging in positive, constructive relationships through purposeful work with great powers as a platform from which we can operate; engaging and developing deeper relationships with emerging powers like India, Brazil and others; and rebalancing our efforts in the world, which is an absolutely critical thing for us to pursue.

ZAKARIA: Explain what rebalancing means.

DONILON: It means that essentially that we looked at where the United States footprint was, where the United States face to the world was when we came into office in January of 2009 and we asked ourselves where are we underweighted, where are we overweighted, where are we not taking advantage of in putting real work into the challenges of the future. And we came to a set of conclusion and we've been acting on those conclusions.

We needed to finish our work in Iraq, our military work, right? And we're on track to do that by the end of this year 2011 to have what is almost 150,000 troops fully out of Iraq by the end. We saw ourselves as having -- needing more strategic direction intent and being focused on the counterterrorism area. And we did that in terms of the intensification against al Qaeda and associated -- associated groups.

We really considered ourselves, Fareed, underweighted in Asia. As we looked at the world, we looked at our interests. We looked at the future. We concluded that, in fact, we did not have the mind share, the diplomatic effort, the resources and presence in Asia, given what we had at stake in Asia. It wasn't a mistake by the way or an accident -- it wasn't an accident that Secretary Clinton took her first trip to Asia, the first Secretary of State to do that since Dean Rusk in 1961.

And most importantly -- or very importantly working with China as part of our -- as part of our Asia strategy and through a very intensive engagement, which includes engaging directly with them intensively, integrating them into international institutions and norms of dispute resolution and solving problems. And very importantly, setting the regional context through our work to do what we can to ensure a peaceful rise of China in an economically and secure Asia.

ZAKARIA: Finally, let me ask you, the "New Yorker" had a long article about the Obama administration's foreign policy, has a quote from an administration official saying we're leading from behind and this has become something of a controversial quote.

Do you think it accurately characterizes Obama's foreign policy? Do you wish that senior administration official had not said that to the "New Yorker"?

DONILON: I don't think it has anything to do with the Obama administration foreign policy or the way in which President Obama has approached his job as president of the United States.

I have -- well, it's president's way (ph), part of my job is to brief the president every morning. And I think I've -- I think I'm now up to 450 of these briefings. That doesn't reflect anything that I've ever heard from President Obama. And I don't know how that person, whoever he or she was, could call themselves a, yes, an adviser to the president. It's clearly an adviser who has never been in a serious conversation with him.

ZAKARIA: David Brooks says that Obama has a leadership style that is about convening and delegating and says that sometimes he seems -- he seems passive. Does that strike you as correct?

DONILON: It doesn't strike me as correct. I read -- I read Brooks' column and had a -- and had following reaction to it. It doesn't strike me as correct at all with respect to foreign policy.

We have from the outset, as I described earlier, undertaken a very serious effort to rebalance America's look and activities in the world. It's a president who made decisions at the outset in Iraq. It's a president who made a decision with respect to Afghanistan that in fact we were under resourced and didn't have strategy and direction and tripled the number of troops there through a surge we're now seeing, again, from a position of success being able to take down the numbers of.

It's a president who has had the United States in the lead in terms of counterterrorism. It's a president who in Europe, for example, we had a summit last November where the president led the effort on missile defense, on getting a common way forward in Afghanistan, on a new concept for Europe and NATO's work there. It's a president who took the lead on taking the G-20 and making it the premiere and principle financial management, global financial management organization in the world.

Time after time I've seen the president come into the Situation Room and I've been there hundreds of times and sit down and make -- and make these kinds of decisions where America is -- is leading and, again, the entire effort here is to have America restore its influence, power and authority in the world.

And, of course, I also had the privilege of working very closely with this president as he made exceedingly difficult decisions leading up to the final decision. To go after Osama Bin Laden, and what was a quintessential presidential moment.

So my experience with President Obama -- and I'm not, you know, Fareed, you know me well enough, I'm not prone to hyperbole and I -- I work, you know, on complicated problems every day and I don't see a lot of upsides most of the days. But with respect to President Obama's leadership, that -- that quote in the "New Yorker" piece couldn't be more inaccurate.

ZAKARIA: On that note, Tom Donilon, thank you very much.

DONILON: Thank you for having me. Great to see you.


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