‘US will always support universal principles’

Jeffrey D Feltman, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, was in Muscat last week. A career foreign service officer who speaks French, Arabic and Hungarian, Feltman oversees the delicate US relationship with such conflict-ridden countries as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

In his diplomatic career spanning over two decades, Feltman has helped develop the United States’ post-Cold War international strategy, participated in part of the Israel-Palestinian peace negotiation and headed the Coalition Provisional Authority office in Iraq. Speaking to Muscat Daily, he sheds light on developments in the region. 

The Arab Spring has been compared with the anti-Communism movement in eastern Europe. Do you see a parallel?

Of course, I see some parallels. For example, there was a secret police presence in central and eastern Europe that basically kept people away from demonstrations. At some point, people transcended that fear and went on into the streets regardless of the secret police.

I see things like that happening in some parts of Middle East as well. But what I see more than anything else, whether it’s from my experience in central and eastern Europe or from working now in this region, is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Every country has a unique history, unique circumstances. What is universal though is the aspiration of people having some influence over how they are governed, having some control over their political and economic future.

The US has been criticised for supporting dictators and autocratic regimes as long as it suits the US interests. Has the Arab Spring, in a way, exposed the US double standards?

Let me just repeat some of the principles of our policy throughout this region. One, we do not support violence - whether it’s violence by the government against citizens or violence on the part of protesters. Two, we support universal principles of human rights and freedoms for all people across the world. So when you see people in this region or elsewhere demanding freedom for peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of information and so on, we are going to look for ways in trying to support those universal values.

But is it not a Catch-22 for the US? You had been supporting ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak till the other day.

It’s worth keeping in mind that what’s happening in this region isn’t about the United States. When people gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo, it wasn’t because we told them to. They may be angry about the US foreign policy but that’s not why they went to Tahrir Square. They went there because of the questions of how they were governed. It was about people wanting to feel that they have some influence and a role to play in decisions about their economic and political future.

After four months of armed conflict in Libya, there’s virtually a stalemate between the regime and the rebels. Is there an endgame in sight?

I don’t think the word ‘stalemate’ is an accurate description of the situation in Libya when you look at the prompt international response. Thanks to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was able to empower the NATO-led mission to begin operations quite early. Just to give you a perspective, while it took two-and-a-half years before an international coalition tried to enforce a no-fly zone in Bosnia, the NATO-led force went active within 23 days after the conflict broke out in Libya.

With every passing day, the opposition forces in Libya are getting stronger whereas [Moammar] Gadhafi’s forces are getting weaker. The [rebel] transitional government in Benghazi is getting more international support and establishing diplomatic relations while Gadhafi’s resources are being crippled.

I was in Tripoli in December and in Benghazi last month. The contrast between the atmospheres in those two cities is remarkable. In Tripoli, there’s a sense of fear and worry whereas in Benghazi, you see a burst of activity as people, after 42 years, regain control over their daily lives.

Having attended all the Libya Contact Group meetings, I feel that it really is time for Gadhafi to step down and for true transition process to begin in Libya towards a more inclusive government.

But isn’t the NATO-led coalition losing steam as well with every passing day? Why has US been so non-committal about sending more forces in Libya operation? President Barack Obama has come under fire from within his own camp for his lack of commitment.

I think there’s still rock solidarity among the NATO member nations. There’s a commitment to burden sharing. There’s talk of rotation - [forces from] some countries replacing counterparts from other countries for limited periods of time. They are looking at how to make sure that the munitions requirements are met by different NATO partners.

There is a healthy debate going on in the US. Some argue that we should be exercising more firepower in NATO-led operations in Libya, while others, equally strongly, argue that the US shouldn’t be there at all. This is just typical of the US where there’s always a debate about an important policy issue.

The President has made it clear that we will continue to provide our unique assets to the NATO-led efforts to protect civilians in Libya, which is the mandate of the operation according to the UNSC resolution.

I’m glad the US and other countries were able to participate in preventing what would have been a horrific massacre in Benghazi. I’m glad that we’ve been able to help put in place a mechanisms to protect civilians across Libya.

Many analysts argue that the military support to rebels in Libya to change the regime is a dangerous precedent being set. Is it not akin to interference in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs? Will Syria face the same fate?

Please remember how NATO involvement began in Libya. The GCC and the Arab League called on the international community to protect the Libyan people, which eventually provided the basis for the UN Security Council resolution against Libya. So, there was a regional push for international engagement to protect the citizens of Libya. I haven’t seen that same regional push on [the conflict in] Syria. On the contrary, I’ve seen divided views in the region on what to do about Syria.

How do you see the situation in Syria unfold?

We have talked a lot with international and regional partners about increasing the pressure on Syrian government to stop the violence against its own people. The US has passed a couple of executive orders including sanctions against President [Bashar] Assad. We’ve shown leadership in getting the international community to pass two resolutions from Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Syria has been thrown off the UNHRC which is the first time that has ever happened. This shows that the same international revulsion that was demonstrated towards Gadhafi... is also being directed against the Syrian [government’s] attack on its own people.

President Assad has just announced a general amnesty [last week]. It seems to us from what we’ve seen on the ground is that the Syrians are expecting actions and not simply words. It remains to be seen whether or not the [regime’s] actions will match the words this time. But the first step should be to stop the killings.

Having eliminated Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, how is the US strategy against the terrorist group evolving?

We have established partnerships across the world, because of the conviction of governments and peoples around the world that Al Qaeda is not simply a threat to the United States, but a threat to the entire civilised world. Our partner governments recognise the threat that Al Qaeda poses to their citizens and to their prosperity.

So even though Osama bin Laden is no longer at the helm of the Al Qaeda network, the challenge remains to continue our partnerships and cooperations to make sure that we are building a positive prosperous future for all of our people. We strive to fight terrorism wherever it breaks out.

Considering the polarised stands that Israel and Palestinians have taken, do you see the Palestinian statehood plan getting ahead in the UN?

Fundamentally, it’s in everyone’s interest to have a two-state solution. It means that you are going to end up with two states living side by side with peaceful relations. That needs to come about through negotiations where each side recognises the needs of the other.

In the case of Israelis, they need to recognise the fact that the Palestinians want assurances on territory. The Palestinians should recognise that Israelis need to have assurances on long-term security to make peace.

President Obama is hoping that by addressing the fundamental worries of the two parties he can help find ways to overcome the challenges. It’s going to take a lot of work. We have to overcome a lot of mistrust.

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