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Europe and Eurasia: Interview With Liliana Faccioli Pintozzi of Sky TG-24

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Rome, Italy
March 30, 2012

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary, Mr. Gordon, this is not your first trip to Italy but what’s your view of Italy’s latest reform efforts?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Let me first say how delighted I am to be in Italy. I have long-standing relations with this country and Italy plays a major role in our partnership with Europe. And we are very impressed by the recent developments. President Monti, of course, was recently in Washington. He met in the Oval Office with President Obama and I can tell you that President Obama was enormously impressed with his commitment to reform, his knowledge of the economy, and the steps he has taken. One of the reasons I’m here is to form a personal sense of the significance of the reforms and my sense is that they are real, and are in the process of transforming Italy in a way that’s going to have a profound and positive effect.

QUESTION: What can be the US commitment in supporting Italy in this process?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, the United States does not have a direct role in the euro crisis. We don’t vote in the Central Bank, we don’t vote in the European Council. We have said that this is largely a European lead. We support the process in general through our contributions to the IMF, but otherwise it is something that we trust that the European leadership has the means and the will and the commitment to undertake. We have an enormous stake in the outcome, so we’re following it closely and the President and Secretary Geithner are very closely in touch with their counterparts and we have views on what needs to be done. We’re encouraged that President Monti, among others, has pushed the growth agenda alongside the austerity agenda because we believe - just as in the United States - you need to be creating growth and creating jobs even as you consolidate the fiscal position. So once again that’s why we’re so impressed with what President Monti is doing in Italy – yes getting a handle on the debt and deficits which is part of the problem, but also reforming and liberalizing in a way that will lead to future growth.

QUESTION: Any ideas that you can use in the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Any ideas that we can use in the United States? We welcome ideas from knowledgeable partners and yes, obviously the situations are different but a core similarity is that we also need to cut our deficits and debt while also seeking to create growth. And one of the things that I think we can both do is look for ways to be more efficient and to liberalize, including in trade and mutual investment and that’s part of the agenda as well.

QUESTION: Apart from the debt crisis, currently what is the most important issue in Europe for the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, we have so many because the world is so challenging right now given the challenges we face in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Libya. And the way we think about these issues is that we know we need strong partners to deal with them. The United States knows it can’t deal with all of these things alone. And when we think about where might those partners be, they are invariably our European partners and Italy is certainly one of the most important and that’s why we value the contributions Italy is making even at this time of difficult economic situation. What Italy is doing with its troops in Afghanistan, what Italy is doing to support the common approach on Iran, including sanctions, including in the energy sector which we know is very difficult for Italy. The role it played in Libya in getting rid of a dictator who was attacking his own people, the way Italy joins us on Syria. On this entire global agenda where we need strong partners Italy is among the best partners that we have and I can tell you that we very much appreciate that in Washington.

QUESTION: Regarding Afghanistan, what can we expect from the NATO summit in Chicago? Any news on the strategy for withdrawal from Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think so. And you’re right that Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda in Chicago. President Obama will be proud to host a NATO summit in his home town and I think Afghanistan will be at the core of the decisions taken there. We know what we want to do and I think we have a consensus to do it. We want to stick to the timetable on troops that was agreed in Lisbon, which is getting our combat troops out by the end of 2014 and transitioning to a full Afghan leadership for its own security. Now to do that we need to remain committed, we need to remain engaged, we need to agree on how we’re going to support the Afghan national security forces after 2014 because what we don’t want to do is squander an investment that we have made over ten difficult years. And we all know the sacrifices that countries like Italy have made and the troops they have lost there and the money that has been spent there. And we just want to make sure that after investing so much in our common challenge of trying to stabilize Afghanistan and frankly do something for the Afghan people. As Secretary Clinton often points out, the need to get the Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaeda, to renounce violence, to respect the constitution, including support for women. We owe it to the Afghan people, we owe it to our soldiers who have committed so much to not squander that investment and we think we are making real progress. And as long as we all stick together, and it’s not just the United States – I think there are some 47 countries involved in ISAF – we think we can get all of our combat troops out and leave Afghanistan in a much better place.

QUESTION: Do you think Kabul and Washington will be able to sign the agreement before the summit?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think so. We’re making progress. It’s difficult. Afghanistan obviously wants to underscore its own sovereignty and they have their own perspectives. We have issues that are important to us as well and have had difficult discussions but I think we’re making progress and I believe we will be in a position to sign the partnership agreement.

QUESTION: How did the Kandahar episode and the Koran episode change the mission?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Not fundamentally. If you heard what President Obama said when Prime Minister Cameron of Britain was visiting two weeks ago in the wake of these tragic and difficult incidents it doesn’t change the overall strategy. People have raised questions: “Should we get out sooner? Are we still committed?” The answer is yes we are committed. The Lisbon timetable is the right one. Allies have agreed to it even under difficult circumstances because we know that we want to leave Afghanistan in a place where Afghans can be responsible for their own security. If we let an incident like this, however tragic or unfortunate, divert us from that and we throw up our hands and we give up, then we would really risk squandering everything we’ve done and invested in that country. We know we’re not going to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland but we do think that we can leave it in a place where human rights would be more respected and individuals would be more secure and we wouldn’t be threatened from the terrorism that once emanated from Afghan soil.

QUESTION: Going back to Syria, Europe is with the U.S. on sanctions and huge pressure on Assad. Do you think that after the common declaration in the Security Council it will be possible to have a common resolution? Or will Beijing and Moscow will still be against it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: I think we’re making progress and you’re right to note that we were pretty close to an international consensus before. And the vote in the Security Council was 13 to 2. And the vote in the General Assembly not long after that was something like 137 to 13 and when you look at the countries in that smaller group, I think that’s not the group that Russia and China should want to be voting with. So there’s already close to an international consensus. We made progress in the presidential statement from the Security Council in the support for the Annan six-point plan and we continue our bilateral dialogue with Russia to convince them that we really need to send a message, that pressure needs to be applied to the Assad regime, that ultimately the future of that country can’t be in his hands, that people won’t stand for it after the wanton violence that he has used against his own people. And I think we’re unified as the international community. I think you’ll see that in Istanbul this weekend when the Friends of the Syrian People meet at a ministerial level to underscore the international community’s determination. It’s different from Libya. We’re not talking about using military force, we’re not planning a NATO operation. Every case is different. But what’s similar to Libya is that the people in the country decided that they could no longer support the violent autocrat dictator using violence on people. The international community came together and supported those people. We saw a transition in Libya and I’m confident we’re going to see a transition in Syria as well. We need to.

QUESTION: The last question is about Iran. We saw in the New York Times the report about the Pentagon simulation of a possible attack on the part of Israel against Iran and an Iranian attack against the United States. I don’t want to ask you if you are ready to attack Iran, but I want to ask you how do you see the next six months? What could be the developments in the situation between Israel, Tehran, Washington?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Here again I’m impressed with the degree of international consensus and growing international consensus on this issue and in particular trans-Atlantic consensus. President Obama is determined to continue to increase pressure on Iran, to persuade it that there are real costs to its refusal to abide by Security Council resolutions and to reject the international community’s view that it needs to come clean on its nuclear program and what we suspect is a nuclear weapons program. And we have succeeded in increasing that pressure very significantly and the European Union is shoulder to shoulder with us. The arms embargo, which we know is difficult, especially for countries like Italy that used to import oil from Iran are in a difficult situation. But the European Union has come together to do that, to impose financial sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank and the banking sector in general. And it’s having a real impact on Iran. I think the Iranians are now understanding that there is a real consequence to flouting the international community. It’s also a message, by the way, to other countries that might think about going in this direction that they can’t do so without paying a very significant price. So we’re pleased at the degree of international consensus and trans-Atlantic consensus but we’re also serious about the diplomatic track. And we’re telling Iran that if they come back to the table there is a way for them to reassure the international community and have a civil nuclear energy program which we would support. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re doing it together with the European Union and just like so many of the other international questions we have just discussed – Afghanistan, Libya and Syria – we have a real trans-Atlantic partnership here and we have a hugely important US-Italy partnership as well.

QUESTION: You don’t see any kind of deadline?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: Well, it can’t go on forever. We are concerned about several timetables. One is if the Iranians continue to enrich uranium at the current rate they will soon have enough highly enriched uranium to create a nuclear weapon, so that puts some deadline pressure on. And we all know that Israel would consider the use of force because they find this to be an existential threat and one of the things President Obama has made clear is that we want to increase the diplomatic and financial pressure before Israel might feel the need to act militarily. So I’m not saying that this can go on indefinitely but I am saying that given the progress we’re making we have reason to believe that’s the right approach and that’s why we’re so determined to carry on with it.

QUESTION: This is really the last question: This is an electoral year. Do you think that we will have just an economic election campaign or will foreign policy be part of the campaign?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY GORDON: In the US elections coming up? The economy is always the overwhelmingly important variable, especially in the wake of such a massive financial crisis and the difficult economic situation that this President inherited and the difficult economic situation we continue to face. So, no question, economy first and foremost. Fortunately or happily, things seem to be looking up on that score. We’ve seen a lot of job creation in the last couple of months. The stock market is up and business confidence is up – all of which leads us to believe and hope that things are really moving in the right direction and the President’s policies are paying off so I’m optimistic on that score. But of course foreign policy also plays a role in a US election. And there too I think we’ve seen significant support of the American people for this President’s foreign policies, for his actions in the area of counterterrorism, getting Bin Laden, succeeding in re-establishing some of our important global partnerships so I think we’re feeling good on both of those scores.

Question: Thank you.