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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Foreign Policy Outlook

James Rubin, advisor to Hillary for America
Philadelphia, PA
July 27, 2016

Date: 07/27/2016 Location: Philadelphia, PA Description: James Rubin, an advisor to Hillary for America, provides a foreign policy outlook for journalists who missed yesterday's briefing at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. - State Dept Image

2:30 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Afternoon again, and welcome to those who are watching online and overseas. Welcome back to the Foreign Press Center briefing and Philadelphia and at the Democratic National Convention. Very pleased to introduce James Rubin, who is an advisor to Hillary for America. He recently completed a study, Extending American Power, for the Center for New American Security, and we can get you information about that online. Many of you also know that Mr. Rubin served under President Bill Clinton as assistant secretary of state for public affairs and a spokesperson for the State Department between 1997 and 2000.

As with all of our briefings at the conventions, Mr. Rubin is speaking for himself and for Hillary for America, not for the U.S. Government. Without further ado, thank you very much, Mr. Rubin.

MR RUBIN: Well, thank you very much. It’s been a while since I’ve been at one of these podiums with international journalists ready to ask the hard questions. In the old days, I would put my hands here and take your questions and my job would be not to answer them, but this time I think I probably can be a little more responsive.

Let me just start with what is not funny, and that is what has happened today, and it’s not funny at all. In fact, I’ve been discussing with some of my colleagues in the national security community, and we can’t really think of a precedent for what’s happened today, where a prominent American from one – the nominee from one party has invited a foreign government’s intelligence service to spy on the United States and offered a new target for that intelligence service – not the DNC emails that were previously hacked and released, but now a different target, Hillary Clinton’s server. So the idea that a candidate for president is aiding and abetting a foreign power in its intelligence operations is, as I said, unprecedented. We really don’t know how to describe it, except I think it’s the clearest possible evidence of being – of the fact that the nominee for the other party is unfit to be commander-in-chief.

I will stick with that for the moment. I think, broadly speaking, you’re going to hear more from the likes of Leon Panetta and several former military officers to talk about American national security. I know that Leon Panetta, who was the director of the CIA and the secretary of defense, has said that this sort of an act is disloyal to one of the networks. He said it’s beyond the pale. And I think all of us are struggling for language that will communicate the seriousness of this action and the extent to which it is an action that is fundamentally disloyal to the United States of America.

With that, I’d be happy to take your questions, and I gather our fearless leader here will direct the people to the microphones.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Rubin. It’s great to see you again. I’ll take where you left off, now as we seemingly having a situation of a Manchurian candidate evolving. What is the legal ramifications under U.S. legal code to pursue it as an open invitation for a foreign government to conduct espionage on the U.S. Government and U.S. political figures?

MR RUBIN: Well, I’m sorry to say that I did a lot of things at school, but I didn’t go to law school. I did often as the spokesman of the State Department spend a lot of time with the Legal Adviser’s Office and played lawyer on TV by answering questions with a perspective of international law and the U.S. domestic code. I haven’t been able to do that in the last hour and a half with anybody who I regard as knowledgeable enough to make the judgment that would be required to charge somebody in this area. I think it – in terms of what people need to know around the world and in the United States, I think it’s enough to say that this is an action that is disloyal to our country, and for the former secretary of defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta to make a point to that effect, for others to say words – I believe there was a senator who said it amounted to treason. I think we’re showing you the significance of it. I can’t give you what the legal steps would be, if any, because I’m not a lawyer and I haven’t had a chance to consult with lawyers.

QUESTION: Hi. David Smith of the Guardian from the UK. What do you think would be Vladimir Putin’s motives here? Do you think he’s in league with Donald Trump and Paul Manafort in some way, and does he do similar things in Europe, including the UK?

MR RUBIN: Right. As someone who follows international affairs fairly closely, I appreciate the point you made about Europe, and that is there is a pattern here. We do know that Russian intelligence services have used information warfare – used the new realm of cyberspace – as a realm for them to fight the wars of the future. They’ve done it in Georgia, they’ve done it in the Baltics, they’ve done it in several other countries. They’ve also funded extreme right-wing candidates in Europe. So this is not happening in a vacuum; it’s not a unique case. If it were, I think many of us wouldn’t feel so confident that this is a Russian activity.

When you see in the New York Times a story that says the U.S. Intelligence Community has high confidence that this is done by the Russian operation for the government, that only happens when you really, really know that something’s true, especially after the history of difficulties in intelligence. The intelligence community is very careful about something like high confidence. So the past – Russia has done this, so that gives you a lot of confidence that they were the hacker.

Now, why? That is more difficult, and I think you saw President Obama unwilling to speculate, and he’s the President of the United States and it’s probably appropriate for him not to speculate. But I am in a position where I’d like to offer some reasons and answer your question. If you are the president of Russia and you have stated over and over again that you are concerned that the United States through its enlargement of NATO; through its policies in Europe towards Ukraine, towards Georgia, towards other countries in Central Asia are putting pressure on Russia, and you are the president of a country that has been seeking to undermine that process and roll back the independent Europe that’s whole and free and push it back, that’s your foreign policy objective.

So then you look at the United States and you say, well, which party’s policies would be more likely to allow me to achieve my objectives? That’s the way that a Russian leader would think. So you look at the Trump policy on NATO, where he’s imparting to, almost like a bean counter, counting dollars and cents rather than national security – what is the – where he has openly suggested that he may not come to the defense of a NATO ally. And you got to remember that – and people forget this – it is the certainty that we will come to their defense that keeps the peace. That’s how you make peace in the world when your adversary, Russia or another adversary, is absolutely sure what will happen if they take a step. If there is doubt, if there is a question as to what might happen, you are more likely to see a war break out. So by casting doubt on the NATO treaty and its Article 5, the other party’s candidate has made war more likely by definition. This isn’t an elaborate – this is Foreign Policy 101. It may be too complex for Mr. Trump, but this is Foreign Policy 101.

So there’s those reasons, and then the simple fact that by all accounts the other party’s leader has expressed little concern about the invasion of Ukraine and the takeover of Crimea and the military action in eastern Ukraine. So if you’re trying to get out from under sanctions and you have one leader who – one party that is saying it doesn’t matter so much, maybe I won’t come to the aid of NATO countries, I want to have a really good relationship with you – and that’s about all they say; and you have another leader of another party who makes clear that, yes, of course, we would like a good relationship with Russia, that would be natural, but it will require that Russia live up to the standards of the international community. And one standard is that you don’t invade another country. That’s kind of, again, Foreign Policy 101, which Mr. Trump may not understand. So you don’t say you want to have a good relationship with somebody and forget that they just invaded another country.

Those are the reasons – I am sorry I went on for long, but that’s what should be guiding people in thinking about this subject today when they think about why this all matters. That’s why this all matters, and there are really good international reasons why this is not just a little fun issue at the Democratic convention. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness.

Sorry, we have – yeah, there, please.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Elliot Waldman with Tokyo Broadcasting System. I was curious. There was a question about TPP in the earlier briefing with Brian Fallon, and he said quite strongly that Secretary Clinton currently remains opposed to it and will be opposed to it when – if and when she becomes president. And it seems though that the view of yourself and many of her foreign policy advisors is that TPP is important to remain engaged in the world, which has been a significant tenet of her campaign. I was wondering how you really reconcile those two things – the need to be engaged with the East Asia Pacific and other important regions in the world, and Secretary Clinton’s own desire to be mindful of the sort of concerns of her domestic constituency with regard to trade agreements.

MR RUBIN: Look, I don’t have anything to add to what was said about her position on TPP of being opposed to it now and if she were president being opposed to it. And I think campaign spokesmen have been very clear on what the objectives of any trade agreement in Asia ought to be. But as far as your broader question is concerned, look, there are many different ways in which the United States needs to be more engaged in the world. I am one of those who believe that there was a sort of a swing during the Bush two terms of perhaps over-involvement, perhaps even over-stretching, over-grasping America’s capability by reaching 10,000 miles away and trying to overthrow a government and all the consequences thereto and all that happened to it. And the pendulum in my mind – not anyone but me now, I’m just talking for myself – the pendulum swung too far the other way and we began to worry too much about being over-involved and I would say we were a bit under-involved. And so I’d like to get us – if it’s over-reach, under-reach, I want to just reach, okay, and there’s a lot of ways to do that.

One of them is to be involved in Syria in the ways that Secretary Clinton has talked about. Another is to work with our European allies on a number of different subjects now. We have – unlike ever before, Europe is not the stable base that it was at the start of the Obama Administration. Let’s face it, Europe itself – with the NATO issue that I’ve just been discussing, with the refugees, with the British leaving the European Union, Europe itself is now a subject that will require a reach of the United States to be a leader in that part of the world. In Asia, I would say to you that as important as some have argued TPP is, what’s probably more important is how the United States works with our allies in that part of the world to deal with the Chinese and the decision that has been reached at the world court.

So I take your point about many in the foreign policy community. But remember, we only do one slice of the pie. We do international affairs. Presidents are elected to do more than just international affairs, and that’s why they make the big decisions.

Yes. Two more, yes. Let’s go over there, yes. You’ll go next.

QUESTION: Hey, Bryant Harris at the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japanese newspaper. Sorry to (inaudible), but I’m going to follow up on the TPP more. So as secretary of state, she – Clinton was involved in forming the TPP, and presumably, when she came out against it, she said she was against it for these specific reasons. But Brian Fallon was just out here, like, very unequivocally saying no matter what adjustments are made, she won’t support it. So does that send maybe a credibility message to East Asia, and why is she now unequivocally opposed to it?

MR RUBIN: I understand your question. I understand your motivation. I’m sorry to report that you’re going to see me punt on this. I have not been heavily involved in the trade arena. That’s not my area of expertise, so I really can’t help you discuss the details of it, except to say that everything will be a lot easier for countries around the world when figuring out what to think about this election.

And it’s a lot easier now for them to know who they want to win, because there’s only candidate who has experience and will keep the basic tenets of Western civilization moving forward and the basic tenets of America’s outreach to Europe and Asia and Africa moving forward, and one candidate who’s taken positions that are genuinely frightening to the rest of the world. And so that’s the position they’re going to take. And if, as I hope, Secretary Clinton becomes President Clinton, then the issue you raise of whether this has harmed her credibility in some way with Asia countries will be addressed directly by the president with these other countries.

Yes, over here.

QUESTION: Yes, this is Thomas Gorguissian with Al Tahrir, Egypt. It’s good to see you after all these years.

MR RUBIN: Thank you.

QUESTION: The question is regarding you mentioned over-reaching and then under-reaching and you are talking about reaching, just reaching. I am familiar to this language, anyway. Now I am trying to figure out what’s your response or your campaign response regarding the gloomy picture that Donald Trump painted last week how Hillary Clinton as a secretary of
state handled or mishandled, as a matter of fact, Middle East, according to his description and that chaos is there. So as an advisor or foreseeing what’s coming up, how you are going to handle this chaos whether it’s in Egypt or whether it’s in the surrounding areas and Iraq and Iran and Syria and Baghdad?

MR RUBIN: Thank you. It’s a very good question. I’m glad we can get to that part of the world. Look, only someone as simpleminded as Donald Trump would assign to Hillary Clinton responsibility for the Arab Spring and all that goes with it. If you were listening to him, he was saying essentially that because of the Arab Spring, which is Hillary Clinton’s fault, all these problems happened.

Well, obviously, Hillary Clinton isn’t responsible for the Arab Spring, and only someone as simpleminded as Donald Trump would imagine the American president gets to decide whether millions of people seek to change their government or greater freedom and democratic values or not. That’s not up to the American president. Those decisions were made by people on the ground, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt and Libya and Syria. And in each case there was a different result. Some of them were tragic, as in Syria where for five years it’s been a civil war and it just gets worse and worse and worse.

But Mr. Trump doesn’t care about that. All he cares about is whether the leader is good at fighting terrorists, he says. Again, simpleminded. Where do the terrorists come from? Well, they come from a large influx of Sunni Muslims arriving in Syria to do battle with Assad. The pool of potential terrorists would never be in the hundreds of thousands if the Assad leadership hadn’t started a civil war. And that’s why the United States has been opposed. But if you’re simpleminded you don’t get that.

Similarly in Egypt, it wasn’t up to the United States to decide who the president of Egypt was. People on the ground made that decision. Now, did we perhaps speak certain words at certain times? Did they have a certain effect? Well, to the extent that you believe that, Mrs. Clinton – it’s very clear from the memoirs of Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton – was reluctant to be as forward-leaning in urging Mubarak to step down. So again, even under Donald Trump’s perverted, simpleminded formula, I think Mrs. Clinton did what you could reasonably do in a situation where there was a revolution in Tahrir Square. Everyone seems to think the United States caused that if you’re Trump. No, the people did that on their – of their own accord.

And Libya is the final example, and I know it’s very easy and casual for everybody to write about Libya as if it’s an obvious downside for Mrs. Clinton. I don’t see it that way, and I don’t see it that way because I understand the real world. It’s not a choice between supporting Qadhafi or supporting the opposition. The people of Libya made a decision to fight for their freedom. We didn’t make that decision for them. They saw what was happening in Egypt, they saw what was happening in Tunisia, and then a civil war began. We only had one choice: Were we going to help those people or not help them? That’s it. Those were our choices, unless you think helping Qadhafi was a choice, and I don’t think that was a choice.

So the choice that we made, I believe, limited the chaos and limited the mass murder, and the evidence I’d offer for that proposition is that we did that in Syria. We did nothing. We allowed the civil war to go on, where the people were fighting a brutal dictator. He cracked down and the war went on for five years. In Libya, I believe we prevented mass murder on a large scale. And to the extent mistakes were made – and I think they were in the aftermath of Qadhafi’s fall – they were mostly Libyan mistakes and our refusal to do more. But the people of Libya are not blaming us for not giving them a ground force or not forcing the rebel forces to disarm. They’re blaming themselves. And so when you think about Libya, I would argue that it is terrible but it would have been much worse had Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama not made a decision to intervene. And I wish that the next time someone wrote about Benghazi and Libya they made that point.

So those are the backgrounds. And I know you want to go, okay, where do we go from here? I’ve offered you some guidelines for what Mrs. Clinton has cared about, where she’s emphasized in the case of Libya the use of force, in the case of Syria it’s pretty well-known she advocated arming the Syrian rebels. Now she’s stated publicly that we probably ought to have some safe area so that there is a political-military operation.

I don’t believe we’re going to get a peace agreement in Syria. We’re going to keep having these talks in Geneva. They’re going to go on forever until we have in balance politics and military. The Russians have leverage because they have a military role to play. John Kerry is running around having a tough time getting his objectives filled because he has no leverage. We don’t have the ability to shape events there because we’ve played such a modest role. Mrs. Clinton would like to see us play a broader role. So that’s an example.

We could go country by country. I think Syria is probably the most important one right now. But I think I’ve tried to give you a flavor of where she has been slightly different than the President and where I think Mr. Trump’s critiques have been simpleminded.

MODERATOR: Well, I’d like to thank you very much. I think that is all the time that we have today because I know you have a busy schedule, sir.


MODERATOR: But I’d like to thank very much James Rubin for joining us this afternoon.

MR RUBIN: Thank you.

MODERATOR: And I hope that everyone can stay on for the rest of our schedule at the FPC.

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