An Interview with Fran Townsend

Frances Townsend  is the former Homeland Security Advisor to United States President George W. Bush. She chaired the Homeland Security Council and reported to the President on homeland security policy and counterterrorism policy. She previously served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism. Subsequently, in her life as a private citizen, she has become a trusted analyst on security and foreign affairs on American TV news networks, such as CNN. She also serves as President of the “Counter Extremism Project” — a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideology. In this interview, Ms. Townsend reflects on her experiences representing the President in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, her views on the Obama Administration and the next American president in terms of foreign policy, and her own perspective on Iran and the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere.

Q: What is your overall view of the state of White House policies toward Washington’s traditional allies in the Arab world?

A: I’m quite sympathetic to the sense you get in the region that Obama policies are something of a betrayal of these historic relationships. In many regards, our security and the security of our allies in the region have been closely linked. The Imaratis fought beside us in Afghanistan, and the Saudis, in terms of countering terrorism — from 2003 forward — were among the staunchest and most capable allies in the region against Al-Qaeda. Now, at a time when they’re feelIng quite surrounded by Iranian aggression, they feel like their historic ally, the United States, has now sided with the enemy. And it’s a question they have in the region — and I think justifiably so — of loyalty. Every senior Gulf official has said to me, “Look at what happened to Mubarak, who had been your ally, and you abandoned him.” Compare this with what Russia has been doing for Assad in Ayria. This is a difficult time for Assad, and Russia has stood by its ally. We don’t want to trade a Russian partnership for the US. But you could understand how people in the region say, at least they are loyal.

Q: During your time as Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush, you were entrusted to relay confidential messages between the President and the late Saudi King, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Would you care to share a personal recollection about your dealings with the monarch?

A: My favorite story about King Abdullah was from my first trip to Saudi Arabia. I’d never been to the Kingdom, and had spent weeks reading about it and preparing to go. I arrived on a government plane, and I had a lot of security, and there was a man in the security detail in a thawb and headdress, and I heard him jiggling something in his pocket and asked what it was. They were his prayer beads. I asked him to explain, and he said that the beads represent the ninety-nine names of Allah. I was very struck — I am Catholic — because I carry with me every day a rosary. And in Catholocism, when you pray on the rosary, you meditate on the life of jesus and go around three times. Now flash forward, after I went through all of my meetings, to my last meeting in the Kingdom, with his majesty. It was a tense meeting, because there had been a contentious meeting in the Oval Office between President Bush and Saud al-Faysal over the classified thirty-three pages in the 9-11 report. I was going to try to repair the relationship. I was meeting with the King and we were discussing how to try to resolve the path forward, and I could hear him jiggling something in his pocket. I stopped and asked, are those prayer beards? He brought them out and showed them to me. They were quite beautiful. He said, “Yes, I always carry them. So I reached out and pulled out my own rosary beads. Of course, the American Ambassador was worried that I shouldn’t have done that because they are not Islamic, and the action might have been construed as a violation of Saudi law. But I explained to the King how I pray, and said to him, we have to focus on what we have in common. We have to move forward It was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship, and when I was leaving government, King Abdullah gave me his own prayer beads and said, “This is a symbol of trust. I’m giving them to you to take to President Bush, as a gift, because I want him to know that you have been an honest go-between, and we were blessed to have you.” I took them and brought them back, and when I presented them to President Bush, we took a picture and sent it back to the King. But that notion of the importance of finding things we share in common always stuck with me.

Q: In public events in which you have participated since you left government, you have called on the United States to work with Iranian parties opposed to the government of clerics in Tehran, including Maryam Rajavi’s Mojahedin-e Khalq. What do you see as the tradeoffs as picking a side in the conflict between the regime and its opponents?

A: I think history shows that as Americans, while we are well intentioned, we’re not very good at picking sides in other countries. I’ve been very impressed with Maryam Rajavi’s democratic principles — but they represent just one group of the Iranian opposition. I have been an advocate of the idea that we need to encourage the Iranian opposition across the spectrum. I think President Obama lost an opportunity during the Green Revolution in Iran. And we need to do more than voice our support. There is the United States Agency for International Development. There are both covert and overt ways that we can support opposition groups, and we should have done that. The one side we know that doesn’t represent our values and principles is the regime itself. They are a destabilizing force throughout the region.

Q: But in the past the Mojahedin-e Khalq was designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.

A: That is correct. And we told them we would not deal with them unless they renounce terrorism and give up their weapons. They did that, and so many years later they were removed from the terror list. Certainly, Americans must be careful in picking sides. It is always a difficult test, and a challenge to get enough information to be comfortable. Having said that, many of these groups are well established, quite capable, and have stated goals that we know are the sort of things that we can support. It’s really a question of finding ways to help them build their own capabilities. Helping to provide them with a megaphone.

Q: If the United States were to adopt a policy of “picking sides,” what should guide those choices?

A: When the US supports opposition groups, it would be because we see it in our interest to support groups seeking to establish democratic principles. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. I do think you have to be careful in picking sides. I think the world expects the US to be forthright about who their friends and allies are and who their enemies are. There is virtue in that clarity. And so some of the understandable frustration in the region comes from our lack of clarity. The President can say he’s supportive of the Green Revolution. But you can’t simply say, for example, that the Assad regime should go, and lament the genocide of Syrian civilians, and not do anything about it. I do advocate that you have got stand up, ion a manner consistent with our principles, and take sides. You could also be wrong, and you have to admit having made an unwise change. I do think that that’s not how President Obama chosen to run his foreign policy.

Q: You referred to the importance of making choices guided by democratic principles. But what about situations in which a democratic process may lead to the election of a dictator, worse than what came before him?

A: It’s a three-dimensional chess game. You have to have safety and stability before people care about their right to vote. I have to know that I’m safe in my home, that my children are safe. There has to be a basic safe environment on which to build. In a conflict zone, the first question is always, how are we going to provide that safe environment, either alone or with our allies? In many respect, our greatest strength is when we act in a coalition. But you must plan, while working on providing a safe environment, you must already have planned what’s required to build a civil society behind it.

Q: In this context, we would ask about the situation in Libya, the role the United States and NATO played in bringing it about, and what lessons you think could be drawn from the experience.

A: The current situation in Libya was not inevitable and could have been avoided. It was always — in fairness — going to be difficult because it was a society that had lived under a dictatorship for decades and didn’t have a current memory of a democratic society. You didn’t have a lot to work with and it was always going to be hard. But we pulled back, and there was a vaccuum. And what we know absolutely around the world is that terrorist groups thrive in a petri dish of ungoverned and poorly governed spaces. So the outcome in Libya should not have been a surprise. An aerial campaign alone was not going to spell success. There needed to be a longer term on-the-ground presence, while Libyans built their security services. We had to invest time, people, and money along with the coalition. Now Syria has dissolved into civil war, and Libya got lost in the shuffle. I was in Libya , and had met Qadhafi, and traveled to Sabratha and Misrata, and it’s a spectacularly beautiful coastline with incredible historic sites along the seaside of the Mediterraenan. It has natural resources and oil. While it would always have been a challenging environment in which to grow a civil society, they had so much to draw on.

Q: Turning to the two frontrunners in the Presidential elections, what could we expect, for example, from a President Hillary Clinton in terms of foreign policy?

A: From her time as Secretary of State, like every Secretary of State before her and after her, she had some successes and some failures. From what we know of her time in the Obama administration, by and large she was more hawkish than the President. If she is true to her inclinations, and what we understand her foreign policy positions to have been historically, I think we would expect a tougher foreign policy line. More clarity and more a willingness to make decisions and pick sides. We can’t know that for sure, but I think that’s what her national security speech to the Council on Foreign Relations has suggested.

Q: And what about a President Donald Trump?

A: I find much of what he has been saying to be quite damaging to our ability to operate in the world with our allies. If you make these strident statements and you are elected, you’ve set yourself up for a difficult road to convince your allies to work with you.

Q: He has pledged to eliminate financial waste and substantially change the workings of government. How far can he realistically go in pursuit of those goals?

A: First, two thirds of the federal budget that he wants to upend it is devoted to entitlements. What he would have left is a small sliver — an increasingly small sliver — of money on which he can effect any change at all. Second, he can’t effect that change without congress because they control the purse strings. He alone can’t upend it, because he can’t spend money alone. Practically, I’ll tell you having been a career public servant, I spent three years in a local prosecutor’s office and then another 24 years in federal government. And I will tell you — at a working level, in terms of who the President is, I think Trump is going to discover how difficult it is to upend the whole system. Presidents have to pick a handful of priories. President Obama chose health care. President Bush changed the tide of fighting AIDS in Africa and left an extraordinary legacy there. He restored our military capability. We reorganized the entire intelligence community. Mrs. Bush picked Malaria and really changed the world there. You pick a handful of issues, and you really can make enormous change on those issues. We don’t know what that handful will be if Mr. Trump became president. But he’s going to have to pick a handful.

Q: What do you see as the steps the next President would have to take in order to restore America’s traditional Arab alliances?

A: From my personal perspective, restoring alliances requires restoring trust before you can even build a relationship. While President Obama has achieved much on domestic policy side, the damage to many of our traditional allies in the region is generational, and it’s not isolated. It’s not just our relationship with our Saudi partners. It’s our Imarati partners. It’s Bahrain. There are a number of relationships that have been damaged. If I wanted to say I want to restore their confidence, one of the things you have to go back and look at is their ability to protect themselves. That’s all about military hardware, defense exercises in the region, our presence in the region. We are going to have to make an investment in the Mid-East. Or if we continue on our current path, and we lose our traditional allies to Russian influence, I think that is very dangerous. And I think that’s entirely the product of our foreign policy. It’s our absence that provided an opportunity that Russia took advantage of.

Q: What are your primary concerns about how the region has evolved during this period of reduced American involvement?

A: I’m very concerned about nuclear proliferation in the region. I think given the agreement With Iran, I don’t think there should be any doubt that our gulf arab allies are looking at whether or not they want nuclear capability in the Gulf. Certainly the Emirates was approved for civilian nuclear power. They won’t be alone.

Q: How do you think the United States should respond if some of its traditional Arab allies pursue nuclear weapons programs of their own?

A: In fairness to those in the Gulf, you cannot have their Persian neighbors with nuclear capability while leaving them alone with no nuclear actability and no ally. If you’re going to, then it requires some thoughtful analysis about how you can do that in a way that you can feel secure. I would prefer a situation where there is no recycling of fuel inside the Gulf region; have it done outside, whether in Russia or the United States. Have a security package around these [nuclear] facilities that gave us confidence that materials could not be stolen or vanish; that the perimeters would not be breached.

Q: With respect to Syria, what do you see as an alternative policy approach that should be pursued by the next US President?

A: I do think you’ve got to block Assad’s supply lines. You do need a safe zone on Syrian territory. Meanwhile, I think we have to be serious about the recent reports about the use of chemical weapons by ISIS. We know there have been historic and continuing allegations about that. We really do have to have a red line. And before you draw it, you have to have a coalition that understands and agrees in advance, what is the evidence of a crossing of that red line, and what are your prepared to do, and then you’ve got to do it. I think that requires coordination with Congress. The President has to have authority to act, and needs to do that. But that’s what restoring american credibility in the region is about. And it has the added advantage of sending a message to the Iranian regime. I will tell you also after seeing what’s happened in Iraq, I worry about Afghanistan — with a resurgent Taleban and a drawdown of american troops, we stand to lose all the gains o the bush administration and partly obama Administration achieved if we do a wholesale withdrawal of troops from afghanistan. We have to make up our minds. There are near term and longterm goals. We often become distracted because we have a short-term outlook. Removing a dictator, alleviating human suffering are all short-term goals. That cannot be the end of the story. If it is, again you wind up creating this vaccuum. If good people, forces of goodwill don’t fill the vaccuum, then the evil will fill it. This is not any one administration. We have seen this over two administrations. And we have to understand that we shouldn’t go in, unless we are willing to work through short-term and longterm goals.

Q: What is your view of the prospect of Saudi and Turkish troops entering the ground war in Syria?

I think in that environment, the introduction of troops is not a solution in and of itself. That’s a single component of an overall strategy. We’ve got to ground Assad. You take out air defense systems and crater airfields so he can’t barrel bomb his own people before you create a safe zone for refugees. There are a number of steps you want to take as part of a military strategy before introducing ground forces. But there’s an important role to play for ground forces. You’re going to need them to protect a safe zone for refugees.

Q: Can you give us your broader impressions of the position of Saudi Arabia in the region at this time, with specific reference to its security challenges?

A:Saudi Arabia has two competing threats at opposite ends of the spectrum. Iran is most certainly a threat, because of their own aggression in the region, with Saudi Arabia basically surrounded by its proxies. But the other growing threats inside the kingdom is ISIS. But when challenged from the right, the Al Saud have successfully beaten back any challenges. Only recently they put out arrest warrant notices for a number of ISIS members who had killed a member of their police force. I have tremendous respect for them. They’re fighting both an external battle with the Iranians and something of an internal battle for what would have been the old remnants of al-qaeda. They have a very capable Mabahith. I’ve had a long experience with them and have tremendous respect for the capability.

Q: There is controversy in the United States over the war in Yemen. What is your perspective?

A: Having spent a lot of time in Yemen, it breaks my heart. It’s never been a rich country, but again, such a beautiful coastline along the Red Sea, and then their southern coast, and so it’s sad to me, because it’s a country that always in my mind was rich in potential. We have to bring stability to Yemen, and I think that what the Saudis want for Yemen is stability. They’re there solely because of the threat of Iranian aggression, both in Yemen and along their own southern border. Given the current Iranian agreement, perhaps we in the United States may be in a position to help broker a political settlement, and that we can play a pivotal role in those negotiations. I would add that another bright spot we’ve seen in terms of military capability in the war is the deployment from the United Arab Emirates. They’d never before on their own deployed troops overseas and performed military operations on the ground. They’ve performed magnificently. But returning to our own role as Americans with respect to Yemen, I do think it is important for us to be involved, because as this conflict has continued in Yemen, the only people who benefit from it are terrorists. It’s our enemies, and again, they’re in an ungoverned space. And in addition to the Iranian role, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has posed a threat to the American homeland, so I think we have a national security interest in seeing stability there and getting a centrally installed government there so terrorists don’t have a free hand.

Q: Among the Arab states upon which the Obama Administration has applied particular pressure are the government of Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Kingdom of Bahrain. What are your views about the approach the White House has taken?

A: With Egypt, I think we must be principled but pragmatic — true to our values, but honest about what is achievable. The current administration has been vacillating. So, they condemn Sisi and the military takeover because it’s undemocratic, then cut off military aid because that’s consistent with their displeasure, but when it looks like the situation is dissolving, they reinstate it — but that doesn’t work. They’ve done a similar thing in Bahrain, limiting what military equipment the Bahrainis can buy and purchase from US. But Bahrainis then just buy from other people. It’s not an effective way to go about it. So I don’t think we have over the last 8 years effectively used american power and leverage. And I think it will be very important to figure out how to do that credibly in the future.

Q: What has been your experience as a woman, serving a high-ranking position in the Bush Administration in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries?

A: I think there is a misunderstanding about the role of women in the Mideast. I’ve found that the women I’ve spoken with are incredibly influential, only influential in a different way. In Saudi Arabia, a senior member of the royal family said, you have the best of both worlds — because I was treated in terms of policy and seriousness as powerfully as any man in the room — but at the same time, with all the special courtesy that they would treat a woman. They put flowers and chocolates in my room. They were very kind to me, very protective — but that in no way diminished my ability to do very serious work and talk about very serious topics. So it was not at all a hindrance to me, and I felt quite blessed that unlike male diplomats, military folks, intelligence officials — my male colleagues — I actually had a much wider perspective on saudi society, because I could go to the women’s Majlis as well — and sit with them with dinner and have them speak in way that men couldn’t — but also sit with the men and ask questions. I wish for the region peace. In traveling in so many Arab countries as woman, I would always ask women, wherever I traveled in the region, what’s most important to you, what do you care about most? The answer was, the safety and security of my husband and children, that my children be educated … and that they be healthy and well.

This interview first appeared in Asharq Alawsat on March 18, 2016. To read it in Arabic, click here.

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