PRAGUE -- Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives spoke with RFE/RL about how they view Russia, the struggle for democracy in the former Soviet space, and the challenges in Afghanistan and Iran.
In Prague to take part in the Trans-Atlantic Legislators' Dialogue with lawmakers from EU member states, Representatives Shelley Berkley (Democrat-Nevada) and Phil Gingrey (Republican-Georgia) sat down with RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Jeremy Bransten.
RFE/RL: There is some concern in the region that we broadcast to that after a strong emphasis on democracy promotion in Washington during the last administration there could be a shift now toward a greater pragmatism in relations with partners such as China and Russia -- particularly in this time of economic crisis. Do you see any evidence of such a development and, if so, how do you assess it?
Representative Shelley Berkley: There is no doubt that the former administration under George [W.] Bush was very supportive of the concept of spreading democracy throughout the world. It was very much a part of who he was and what he represented and what he believed the United States represented. I believe those things as well and I share those values.
I do believe that the Obama administration -- although, of course, the administration is very young and very new -- but reaching out and speaking to other countries although you don't necessarily agree with them does not necessarily mean a change of course and a change of focus for the United States of America and as a member of Congress it would be my hope that we continue our efforts to promote democracy throughout the world.
Representative Phil Gingrey: We are all familiar with the trite expression "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." And certainly we would like to create everybody in the image of our democracy because we love our country so much and it has been rather successful over 232 years of this experiment.
But, again, these other countries, Iraq in particular, we feel that is a success story, certainly I feel that way, but it may not be a democracy exactly like the United States and maybe it is almost like a sports team where the coach has to let the players use their talent and all teams don't look exactly alike but they can be very successful in what they do.
So, I think that the differences between the past administration -- and naturally as a Republican I am very supportive of the previous administration -- and this new administration, I think they are subtle rather than any real crevasse.
RFE/RL: How should the United States deal with Russia today, particularly when some of Russia's neighbors -- notably Georgia -- are keen to move closer to the West by joining NATO?
Berkley: We are obviously very supportive of the movement toward the West and joining NATO. We are part of a trans-Atlantic legislators' dialogue and we are having our meetings with our European Union counterparts here in Prague.
But prior to coming to Prague, we went to Estonia and Lithuania. That was not an accident. We were very concerned, obviously, when Russia invaded Georgia and we wanted to demonstrate as representatives of the United States Congress that we stand in solidarity with the Baltic nations.
And, consequently, we chose to show that in a very obvious way, so the delegation chose to go to Estonia and to Lithuania and we had meetings with dissidents from Belarus as a demonstration of our support for these democracies and those countries yearning, as in the case of Belarus, to get out of the yoke of repression as the last country in Europe that is a dictatorship.
Gingrey: I think that it is more important that they -- Russia in particular -- that they respect us rather than they like us. I wish we could have both and maybe some day we could have both and that is a great goal, but I would say the same thing for China, I would say the same thing for Iran and any of these other countries that maybe don't see eye-to-eye with us.
And so I think that is important that we show strength in what we do. I think that is why it is so important that we have a strong military and that it is the appropriate and right-size military for the world we live in today.
But just being with you, this great opportunity to be here and speak on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, this is the kind of thing that is just as important as having military strength and being respected. So we are speaking to your listeners softy but I think [former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt] was right when he said we need to carry a big stick.
Berkley: We are very concerned about Russia's reassertion of strength in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. It is very disturbing to us. We do not believe in spheres of influence, you know, we give to Russia this country and they give to us that country, those days should be gone forever and we believe they are gone forever.
We also have a fundamental problem with the fact that Russia is using energy as a weapon. That is incompatible with democracies and free people. If you have countries that are solely dependent on Russia for their oil supplies, their energy supplies, their gas supplies, that can create a very serious problem, especially during an economic downturn.
Challenge In Afghanistan
RFE/RL: Afghanistan is increasingly the focus now of U.S. security concerns. The United States is going to boost the number of its troops there and is pressing its allies to strengthen their commitments to helping secure or stabilize the country against the Taliban threat. What do you see as the stakes -- both for Washington and the world -- in Afghanistan?
Gingrey: I think that the stakes are very high, there is no question about it. I don't think that Russia -- at the time the USSR -- expended 25,000 lives over a seven-year period of time, if the stakes were not awfully high. And of course they ended the experiment in a dismal failure. So, we shouldn't be naive about the difficulty of the challenge.
I know we have been criticized -- we have this debate politically within our country -- that we took our eye off the ball and did not finish the job in Afghanistan and moved to Iraq. That's another debate for another time, maybe. But clearly, the stakes are high and this is a very strategic part of the world. It is difficult but we need to show them a better way and I hope we can succeed in doing that.
Berkley: I think the Obama administration understands the significance of Afghanistan, but rather than just focusing on just a single country in that part of the world there is an understanding in the United States and the members of the European Union that you need to take a regional approach to that area.
You can't bring stability, you can't bring any modicum of peace or quality of life to the Afghan people until you figure out what we are going to do in Pakistan, because Pakistan -- on the lawless border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- you have a porous border where Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are being trained in Pakistan and they are coming across the border and helping to destabilize Afghanistan.
So, this is more than getting control of Afghanistan, and I don't mean control as "the United States controls it," but control of the situation. Unless you can figure out a regional approach that is going to work throughout that region, you are never going to be able to have any sort of peace, any quality of life. And I think [the regional approach] is a good movement by the Obama administration.
And you also have to look at this more than militarily. And I am hopeful, as is my colleague Mr. Gingrey, that this going to work, but you can't have a military solution. You are going to have to reach out and have a more holistic approach and I believe that is the direction the Obama administration is going in.
Enforcing Iran Sanctions
RFE/RL: Turning to Iran, Washington is now exploring a new strategy that includes a readiness to negotiate directly with Iran as well as use sanctions to stop Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Why is the United States so determined to keep Iran from having a nuclear arsenal when several of its regional neighbors -- Russia, Pakistan, and India -- already are nuclear powers?
Berkley: I don't think any of the countries that you just mentioned has a president that stated at the United Nations that he wants to wipe Israel off the map. Now, if you have a radical, fundamentalist Islamic nation with a president and a group of ruling mullahs that believe that Israel should be wiped off the map and are working overtime in order to acquire nuclear weapons, one must draw the conclusion that they would like to use that nuclear power, not for peaceful means as they say they want to, but for very dangerous means.
And part of our discussion with our EU allies is how to enforce the sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain have stated that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. There's a way to avoid that and that is to impose these economic sanctions, not unilaterally as the United States has, but actually enforcing the United Nations sanctions. And that's going to require all of the member states of the United Nations to stop trading with Iran and to stop helping -- inadvertently -- to fund their nuclear program. So I have very serious concerns about this and think that we ought to do everything that we can to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
It would also have a terribly destabilizing effect in the Middle East region because I can't imagine that Saudi Arabia and Egypt will stand by when a nation that they consider a threat -- Iran -- acquires nuclear weapons and they won't have any. This is going to trigger an arms race that could end up with very serious consequences, not only for Israel, not only for the Middle East, but for the world.
Gingrey: Iran is a signatory to the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty. We certainly don't need any more countries in the world to have a nuclear weapon. We definitely have too many already that have that capability, as Representative Berkley said. These other countries in the Middle East with the capability, with the wherewithal, with the intelligence, with the money, are not going to sit back and let Iran go ahead -- after the threats that their current President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad has made toward Israel and what he said in front of the United States about our country a year or so ago -- this is a dangerous regime.
And again, they're in a very critical part of the world and these sanctions -- they're not really sanctions unless they're significant. And this business of talks: whether they're direct or indirect, they're not going to do any good unless you mean what you say.
A Wary Eye On China
RFE/RL: Finally, looking at China, how do you feel about the rapid rise of China as an economic power in recent decades? China is now a major U.S. trading partner but it is also spending more money on its military. Is there reason for concern?
Gingrey: There's always a reason for concern when a communist regime is spending more money [on defense] as a percentage of their GDP. Now they'll say that as a percentage of the population of 1.5 billion, they are spending far less than the United States. But the point is that they have increased their spending on defense. It may be far more than they admit and I think we should continue to have some concern and to be very wary of the government in China.
Their people are industrious, they're hard-working. I think they're a good trading partner. It's important for people in our country to understand that they don't own all our debt. We're not totally dependent on China to buy our bonds. They may own 15 percent of our total debt.
But the military capability of China has to be a continuing concern of ours. And quite honestly, that's why I'm one of many members of our Congress that feels we should continue to maintain air superiority and not sit back and let Russia and China develop fifth-generation fighters. I'm very concerned about our administration, our secretary of defense and his recent announcement about curtailing any more production of the F-22 Raptor. That's a parochial concern of mine but it's really a concern about our national defense.
Berkley: The United States of America stands for something: a moral authority that matters to the world. We believe in the rule of law, we believe in basic human freedom, in liberty and free and fair elections where you have a free press and you have a well-educated populace making informed decisions. We as a nation wish to show to the rest of the world an example, a shining light for the rest of the world.
I do not believe that China shares all of our values and I think that's very obvious when it comes to human rights violations. There's no surprise that as their economy continues to be robust that they're going to take a percentage of that and invest in their military. I think that does pose a threat.
It certainly poses a threat to Taiwan. I chair the Taiwan caucus. There is a democracy that has free and fair elections and a robust economy. And yet it leaves in constant fear of the 800 missiles of mainland China that are aimed at Taiwan.
So I think we keep a wary eye. It doesn't mean you don't negotiate, it doesn't mean you don't exchange, it doesn't mean that you don't work together on certain issues. But on the other hand, you don't turn your back and you continue to apply as much pressure on the Chinese to loosen up the controls over their own population and ensure that human rights violations are corrected. You speak out against the continued occupation of Tibet, the continued threat against Taiwan. A free country does that. And I think the United States does that well and should continue to.