Fareed speaks with CNN about President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a meeting next month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S.-Russia ties, and the biggest threats to U.S. national security.
Do you think listening to members of his own party, concerned about weakness abroad, is what fueled President Obama’s decision not to meet Vladimir Putin?
No, I think what fueled this fundamentally is a genuine frustration with the Russians, because it isn’t just Snowden. Let’s be honest, if a Russian spy fell into our hands I’m not so sure that we would very quickly extradite this guy back to Moscow. So there’s a little bit of tit-for-tat that goes on in this spy versus spy game.
The big disappointment has been on Syria, where the Russians have been very difficult to deal with and in some ways not even acting in their own interests. They’ve got an Islamic radicalism problem that is going to get worse if Syria spins out of control. And on arms control, where they have not come forward with a big proposal. So the Snowden thing was the kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
So it really comes down to how we’re dealing with this, because the reasons have existed for some time. But the perceived weakness, loss of mojo, do you believe these are fair criticisms of the president?
I don’t think it’s a fair criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that it is acting as a kind of background condition in explaining the decision to cancel the summit. Look, part of the problem is that we’re looking forward and trying to find constructive relations with the Russians. But they sometimes slip into a Cold War mentality.
Remember, Putin joined the KGB, Russia’s spy service, in 1975 at the height of the Cold War, and he stayed in it until 1991. Literally when the Soviet Union collapsed is when he resigned from the KGB. Obama in 1975 was playing basketball in Hawaii. These are very different people with a very different outlook on the world.
But right now it does seem as though Russia has the upper hand, is dictating the action, doesn’t care about the United States’ intentions. Doesn’t that have to change and quickly?
We’re in a new world. We don’t have the ability with Russia, with China, even with as we’ve seen with Turkey, with Egypt to issue the kind of commands we were once able to do. With Russia there’s only a brief period where they were collapsing we could issue those demands. We’re in a new world, these guys are powerful.
The underlying condition of Putin’s strength is high oil prices. When oil prices were $15 a barrel the Soviet Union collapsed and Boris Yeltsin came begging to the United States for help and did whatever we said. Today, oil prices are closer to $100 a barrel. Russia is a kind of Siberian Saudi Arabia. It is a huge oil power, and as long as oil prices stay high Putin has the cash to be a spoiler. I wouldn’t say he is setting the agenda, but he is the spoiler, and he has the money and power to do that. If you want to really break Russia’s power, let’s get off our addiction to oil, and that will do more to free us than anything else.
What do you think of his decision to snub the bilateral meeting in Moscow, but to still go ahead to St. Petersburg for the G-20 meeting?
I think it’s very important to go to the G20. It’s the crucial decision-making forum now. And we’ve got a lot of issues that have to be dealt with, from trade to the issues of cyber security and things like that. The United States needs to be at the table.
But any kind of special recognition for Putin under these circumstances strikes me as the wrong message to send. So I think the president did the right thing.
Was Mitt Romney right last year when he called Russia America’s number one geopolitical foe?
I don’t so, because I think it misconstrues the kind of world we’re in. We’re not in a binary world where we have one big enemy. That was the Cold War. That was World War II, if you will. It’s a world in which we have many challenges. We’ve got challenges coming from Iran, from the collapse of Syria, from terrorist networks.
Yes, Russia is not one of our most trusted allies. It never has been. And I think that the mistake sometimes we make is to imagine that there was some imaginary moment where Russia was a great ally or cooperated with us. For a brief period, when it was on its knees after the Cold War, when Yeltsin was president, Russia was quite cooperative with us. Otherwise, for the last 75 years, we’ve been always been dealing with a difficult Russia that has fundamental interests that are different from ours.
The outgoing deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morrell, just gave an exit interview in The Wall Street Journal in which he says, as far as he’s concerned, “Syria is probably the most important issue in the world today because of where it is currently heading.” He is deeply concerned about the chemical weapons, other weapons in Syria. If the regime loses control, al Qaeda will have access to all those weapons. He says that’s the major national security threat to the United States right now. What do you think?
Well, I think it’s certainly one of the biggest problems we face. If you look at where al Qaeda is cropping up, it’s not in the places that are the most radical. They’re not the greatest hotbeds of Islamic radicalism or militancy. It’s in places where the government has no control. So it’s Somalia, it’s Yemen, it’s Mali, it’s Chad. The danger here is that Syria becomes one of those failed states, and then al Qaeda is able to establish a foothold. As you say, the chemical weapons add to the complexity.
But the problem is there isn’t an easy answer to it. I mean, unless the answer is that we send hundreds of thousands of troops, or even tens of thousands of troops in, it’s not clear to me what the answer is, because remember, aiding the rebels, in many ways, would be aiding al Qaeda, because al Qaeda is sort of allied with the rebels in Syria.
So he’s absolutely right, this is a very complicated problem that the United States has to navigate. But I’m not sure that there’s an easy answer, such as we should support the Syrian rebels or should we support al-Assad to make sure that these al Qaeda groups never get control of these chemical weapons.