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Wexler: 'American-Russian Relations Are Not A Zero-Sum Game'

"I believe that President Obama had just the right degree of soberness and critical analysis and restraint" regarding Iran, says Robert Wexler.
"I believe that President Obama had just the right degree of soberness and critical analysis and restraint" regarding Iran, says Robert Wexler.
U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler (Democrat, Florida) was in the Czech Republic this week to attend an international conference on the assets of Holocaust victims. During his time in the Czech capital, Prague, Wexler visited RFE/RL's headquarters, where he sat down for a broad-ranging interview with correspondent Gregory Feifer.

RFE/RL: U.S. President Barack Obama travels to Russia in about a week, and I wanted to ask you about an issue that many believe is at the center of Moscow's relationship with Washington, and that is Georgia. Washington and the rest of the world say they do not recognize spheres of influence, and yet Russia says there are new realities on the ground. As I'm sure you know, Russia has started major military exercises near Georgia's northern border. At the same time, Russia is barring international observers from the conflict area. And yet last Saturday, there was a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council to re-launch NATO's formal ties with Russia. Is NATO sacrificing its ideals on Georgia?

Robert Wexler:
I don't think it's a question of sacrificing ideals, and I would beg to differ a little bit with the predicate of the question. Georgia is an essentially important aspect of American-Georgian relations, and obviously it is important in the context of American-Russian relations, as well. But President Obama is traveling to Russia, I believe, for the purpose of improving the relations between the United States and Russia on a whole host of issues.

Yes, Georgia is essentially important, and we do want to make certain that Russia does not overstep the bounds in which Georgian sovereignty and the like are going to be further compromised. But American-Russian relations are complex on a whole host of fronts. Russia plays an incredibly important role with respect to the opportunity to engage with the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program. Russia announced that they hoped to host a Middle East conference. Russia's an important player -- possibly -- in Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab negotiations, should they happen. Energy issues -- American-Russian bilateral relations are very important in terms of energy security.

A whole host of issues that will be negotiated over the next several months regarding nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia, whether we will be able to control the numbers of nuclear weapons. In fact, there really isn't an issue that is important to the national security interests of the United States, as well as Russia, in which improved relations between the United States and Russia would not benefit both countries.

In terms of NATO, I think that NATO has an essential role to play in terms of helping to resolve the tension between Georgia and Russia. And I also think that there are positive signs in terms of the discussion that is beginning between the United States and Russia. For instance, not too long ago, the question of a missile-defense program in the Czech Republic and Poland was an issue of great divide between the United States and Russia. And it still may be an issue of divide, but now there are discussions, I think, in earnest on whether or not there is a role for Russia to participate in such an antimissile program.

So the discussion went from sporadic cooperation and, too often, confrontation between the United States and Russia, now to a discussion on how best can America and Russia cooperate together on a whole variety of issues -- one, of course, which is of urgent importance is the situation in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Another issue that's on the top of the agenda is nuclear arms reduction. This is an issue Washington has picked openly, stating that because Russia wants a deal, too, this is the best way to move forward in improving relations. And yet many believe that Russia's motive is to amplify its own role on the world stage, and that an agreement in any case may be very difficult. One of the main issues is that Russia is linking the U.S. missile-defense system to a nuclear arms deal. How optimistic are you that an arms deal is possible by the stated deadline of December? And is it the right strategy? Will going down this route make Washington able to increase its leverage over Russia?

I don't think it's a question necessarily of America increasing its leverage by virtue of using the nuclear talks in that regard. But what I think is at stake is a safer world in which, with the technology that has been advanced, can the United States and Russia provide the same nuclear umbrella with the same degree of national-security benefit with a smaller, more efficient nuclear force? And the answer is an unqualified yes.

So in that the national security experts in both countries believe it is in each individual country's best interest to negotiate a smaller, more efficient nuclear force, then I believe it is likely to occur. Whether it will happen on the precise time-frame of the end of the year, I don't know, but it is clearly something that both nations have identified as being important to the national security interest of each nation. And you know what? We've had several years of difficult, rocky, tumultuous relations between the United States and Russia. This is a very important issue.

If we can get off on a positive start on this issue, what I think it also suggests is that on other issues where there are differences of view, that if we can succeed with respect to nuclear disarmament talks, then that positive attitude can then present better opportunities on thornier issues, whether it be on the broader issue of antimissile defense, whether it be on stopping Iran's nuclear program, whether it be energy security, whether it be Georgia, whether it be in the future, NATO enlargement or NATO's role in certain areas -- all of these issues can hopefully be better addressed with a greater degree of trust than has been the case over the last several years.

RFE/RL: Now Iran. You were an adviser on the Middle East for the Obama pre-election presidential campaign. I wanted to ask you about the fact that President Obama has been criticized for initially not coming down hard enough on Iran's crackdown on the opposition since the June 12 elections in Iran. Do you think that Washington is aware that in places such as Russia, that was seen as a sign of weakness?

I believe that President Obama had just the right degree of soberness and critical analysis and restraint. I don't believe it would have been in the interest of those in Iran that are seeking change, that are seeking greater human rights, to allow the parties in Iran who have denied those rights over the years to provide an excuse -- being the overreaching of an American president.

President Obama spoke quite sternly over the last several days in terms of identifying the problems and the chaos as a result of what appears to be an election that is fraudulent in many respects. But this is an Iranian moment. It is not necessarily an American moment. It's an Iranian moment where the Iranian people have to determine their future, their fate. Do we, the United States, have an obligation to support those in Iran that seek greater freedoms, that seek greater human rights? Of course we do. And President Obama has done that in very direct and unequivocal terms.

But no one should be naive as to think if President Obama in some way stood and beat his hands on his chest more, that somehow there would be greater freedom in Iran, or that somehow the clerical forces in Iran would have reacted in a more responsible fashion. I don't think so. And I think we also need to maintain a broader sense of vision.

Yes, we have to speak to the human rights issues in Iran, but we also need to be clear-eyed as to what is the danger that is presented by the Iranian nuclear program, by Iran's financial support for terrorist organizations such as Hizballah and Hamas, and remember that at the end of this process, as it proceeds, that we are still going to be, in effect, faced with the same set of problems. That is whether Musavi won the election or Ahmadinejad won the election, and that is whether or not Musavi is actually placed in the presidency or, as it appears, Ahmadinejad will remain.

So the president of the United States has a multifaceted aspect of how to deal with Iran. His policy of engagement is really in its infancy stage, and I think the president has employed the proper balance of honesty, candidness, forthrightness, critical analysis, and restraint. I think he has. And I think if you look back at past experiences -- by no means apples to apples -- but when the first signs of the crumbling of the Soviet Union began to appear, the first President [George H.W.] Bush didn't go screaming and ranting like a lunatic. He was sober, he was restrained, and he talked about our fundamental American interest, as well as human rights and the like.

And I think history would judge that form of behavior as most responsible. And I think when we look back at these past couple of weeks, history will also judge President Obama's behavior as exactly correct.

RFE/RL: Regarding next week's summit, a lot of Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics are looking at the summit with a great deal of trepidation. They're worried that they might be sacrificed on the altar of the so-called "reset button." In the interest of improving relations with Russia, Washington will look the other way when it comes to Russia's actions in the region. What can and what should President Obama do and say to these countries that are parsing every word that comes out of Washington?

I understand the sensitivity that several of our allies have, as you've described, and that's to be respected. However, American-Russian relations are not a zero-sum game in terms of...If we are able to better cooperate with Russia on the critical security issues of the day, on the critical energy-security issues of the day, then it is logical to assume that our allies will be better off, rather than worse off.

When there's a cutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine because of a breakdown in Russian-Ukrainian relations, no one in Europe benefits; just the opposite. Most countries in Europe are harmed, either economically or by the mere fact that their gas supply has been compromised. That's just one example. Better relations with Russia, if they amount to greater cooperation for the purpose of thwarting Iran's nuclear program, will benefit all of our allies across the world. Better relations with Russia, if they were to occur, should help our allies in the Czech Republic and Poland because maybe at that point employing an antimissile defense program will be far more cooperative rather than confrontational.

And so a zero-sum analysis just does not apply. And, in part, that is one of President Obama's overall foreign policy messages: The analysis of the past doesn't necessarily have to always mean that the same analysis applies in the future. And the idea that talking with people, or the idea that discussing with people that may be your political opponents, or in fact your enemies, in any way indicates anything other than strength is what President Obama is talking about. It does not mean weakness. Refusing to talk to your opponents is not an indicator of strength. Just the opposite.

RFE/RL: You're here in Prague to take part in the conference on the assets of Holocaust victims. Are you satisfied with the proceedings?

I'm satisfied that the interests of Holocaust survivors are being better addressed in this conference than they would have, certainly, been without this conference. And there has been, I think, urgent discussions on the issues of importance, such as property restitution, the collection of Nazi-looted art, and there's a very limited window of opportunity to help Holocaust survivors in their waning years.

And this conference -- and I applaud the Czech Republic government for sponsoring it -- this conference represents the last best hope to address the needs of Holocaust survivors, particularly in the context of the number of Holocaust survivors in America, internationally, who are in a condition of poverty. And the ability to provide restitution -- the monies to be used for the needs of Holocaust survivors -- is a noble cause. And I think we will be much closer to achieving a measure of justice for these Holocaust survivors, which is what we need to do.

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