IA Forum: Writing in the New Republic last week, Michael Levi said he didn't think the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program would change the Bush administration's policy toward it. Do you think it will? And should it?
Stephen Yates: I think the latter is the important question - should it? And I think anyone who is providing commentary on this, if they believe it should make a change, then they should explain why and how. I've not given it a thorough reading, and I'm somewhat unaccustomed to highly classified materials ending up in the press very quickly after publication. But given the Iraq experience with an intelligence assessment, I guess we're going to have more of this.
Unfortunately, I think it gives a partial impression to readers who necessarily don't have the full picture because it's a classified document - they don't get to see all the supporting details to see how strong or weak the conclusions are. All they get is a confidence level on something, but the average reader probably can't tell what to make of that. So at least as far as I can tell, based on what people who have read this released judgement have said, is that there are very conflicting judgements that people have made, which tells me it's not a very decisive document.
In other words, the evidence must not be overwhelming one way or the other. What does this mean for 'Is Iran an emerging threat?' and 'Is Iran's nuclear program progressing or not'? The estimate said there was only one covert program that had allegedly been stopped in 2003. Well if that's true, it's not going too far to parse the statement and say well, we're only talking about one. Were there others? Do we know? And was that program judged to be the sole or primary means to achieving a nuclear weapon? There are important gaps, which left me asking whether it was wise to have it published to begin with, because it seemed to undercut diplomatic efforts to pressure Tehran, and it seemed to leave wide open the possibility that Iran, through other means, is pursuing nuclear weapons.
IA Forum: On the nuclear issue, a lot of progress appears to have been made this year over North Korea's nuclear program. How optimistic are you that this will continue?
Yates: I think it's very hard to be optimistic on North Korea, just because many governments of different political persuasions have had mostly an unhappy experience in trying to make agreements and keep agreements with North Korea. So I think it's important to be realistic about what expectations to have of this progress. No one wants to have to continue to deal with this very contentious, dangerous issue and I'd like to believe that under good management we've entered a process for its eventual elimination.
But I think it's also important to note that progress to date has been of the easiest variety. It's important, it's good that there is progress, but disablement - a new term in the counter proliferation lexicon - was created because real progress was not achievable, so they had to come up with a smaller step to move in that direction. Shutting down Yongbyon was notable and good, but was far from eliminating North Korea's capabilities. And actually what they are doing now, getting a complete and correct declaration I believe is the jargon, is more important than disabling Yongbyon. So it was great that [chief U.S. negotiator] Chris [Hill] was able to make progress on disabling the Yongbyon facility. But that is far from the mark of identifying all of their nuclear weapons and having a full accounting of their proliferating activities that might have aided and abetted other nuclear programs in other parts of the world. We don't even really have full disclosure on what exactly was their role on the facility in Syria. And that, I think, is quite troubling.
If we cannot get a handle on some of these big questions, I think we're left with the big question about whether sufficient progress has been made. None of us want this process to fail. None of us want to end up with an even harder task of coming up with a new model for dealing with this - the options for dealing with North Korea are usually risky and unsatisfactory. But really the burden is on them to live up to the commitment they have made. I think Chris has done his best to get them to make the right kinds of commitments, but a complete and verified declaration, and then a serious verification regime being put in place leading to the eventual dismantlement, is the key. And that's hard. Even Chris has been somewhat cautious about creating time lines on that. And it sounds like that this year end deadline that was self-imposed for a complete declaration might not be met, which I think has to raise the worrying question about this whole situation being dragged on.
So, on the one hand it is a much better situation we see than with Iran, in that we seem to be in a process in which people have some degree of confidence and support and people are anxious to be working toward an end that North Korea has, on paper at least, agreed to. Whereas Tehran seems to openly defy the international community's efforts to even verify what they have and what they're doing. So modest progress, yes, but of the easiest variety and the hard part is before us.
IA Forum: Robert Gates was in Asia recently, talking about how Asian nations need to take greater responsibility for their own security. This brings to mind the idea that comes up periodically of an Asian NATO. How realistic do you think this is, and would it be desirable for the United States?
Yates: I think it's good for the United States for Asian nations, and especially our allies, to have better capabilities, greater interoperability and a sense of common mission on what our defense commitments are in this region. And even beyond this region. But it is always problematic trying to imagine what has been a good structure in other parts of the world, to seeing something akin to it in Asia. NATO is something we had a lot of discussion about in the administration. NATO was established with a common strategic perception of a common power it was meant to deter. Who would that power be in Asia? Once you answer that obvious question, that is the obstacle that blocks progress toward forming a similar institution in Asia, because China, as opposed to the Soviet Union, is a power that almost every nation has chosen to engage with. So we have this open engagement plus hedging of different kinds in interaction with China. And China has ways of complaining and putting pressure on various leaderships in the region so they would be disinclined to do things that could be perceived as containment, or a deterrent, or otherwise a threat.
So I think there are difficult obstacles to having a formalized institution in Asia that would be akin to what NATO does. But I think there will remain efforts over the next many years, of sort of common values coalitions. It would be something like what Rumsfeld called coalitions of the willing, and we'll see how it goes. Former Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso elevated this talk of an arc of freedom and prosperity. I'm not too concerned about labels, but I think the concept is pretty sound and interesting. So we're at the opening stages of developing this kind of idea, and would like to understand what countries in Asia think about that kind of objective and see what kind of capabilities they bring to the table and how they would like to shape it. So not something we impose, but something we'd be interested in participating in developing.
IA Forum: Taiwan is often seen as a potential flash point in Asia. Would the U.S. be ready to defend Taiwan if it came down to it?
Yates: I think America would be ready, but doesn't want to have to do that. Taiwan is fascinating in that it is more developed on direct democracy than any other place in Asia - it's almost like an experimental lab for different forms of democratic expression, and yet it is stymied by an ancient and really rather awkward Constitution which they are not allowed to change because of other sensitivities. I think it is one of the most exciting political science experiments in the world, and it is a potential flash point if Beijing chooses to overreact.
I can't say that I am a fan of the approach that the U.S. government has led in trying to deal with this situation because I think they have misdiagnosed the problem, and because I think the way they have been trying to deal with Taiwan's President Chen, and Taiwan generally, is unlikely to produce the outcome they say they seek. They say they seek stability, but this approach is not cultivating stability. It is antagonizing a strong political base in Taiwan, which has been motivated to keep pushing, so I think just in terms of basic psychology and strategy this approach has been weak and counterproductive.
But how to deal with democracy in Taiwan, and deal with nondemocracy in China, is really the core of the problem. But I don't think we have in place a sophisticated strategy to keep peace. I think we have to have pretty strong messages toward China that we will not turn the other way if they seek to impose tougher, coercive measures. I don't think China is looking to invade or blowup the island with all those missiles. I think they're trying to have a pressure campaign, trying to co opt one portion of the Taiwan polity to get them to submit to some sort of integration without having to fight. And it is their right to try and do that. But it is also the right of Taiwanese to try to preserve their democratic way of life.
We have to find a way to keep the balance , to make sure the people of Taiwan are able to keep their democratic way of life and that Beijing understands that we're not going to overreact when free speech produces extreme statements. We're looking at what gets done in government. And as long as the democratic process moderates outcomes, we should have confidence in that process. We should be pushing Beijing to better understand and respect the democratic procress, and so when Beijing says 'my god, my god, the president of Taiwan has said something thoroughly provocative' we should not then leap like their lapdogs to pounce on Taiwan. We should say 'Look, we understand this is a provocative statement, but let me talk to you about the democratic system - leaders can say things, but then what they can do is sometimes different. Don't worry, we will try and engage their leadership and try to figure out for ourselves how likely that is to happen.'
But I think what the U.S. government has ended up doing is that when Beijing says boo, the U.S. government jumps, and this is a function of a perception in Washington that we need China on so many other issues - that we can't afford to have China distracted away from North Korea, Iran, currency issues etc. But the short side of it is that Beijing chooses to be distracted by Taiwan. There is nothing in China's national interests that commands their leaders' attention, to be so focused on Taiwan, other than their own psychosis. It is not a serious security problem for them. It is not a nationalism problem for them, except in that they make it so. My own belief is that Beijing does not want to highlight tension with Taiwan going into the Olympics. They want the Olympics to be about one China, modern China, progressive China. Not scary, militant, oppressive China, which military action against Taiwan would create.
Stephen Yates is a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council. Prior to this, he served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs, from April 2001 to September 2005.
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