U.S. Department of State
Remarks by William J. Burns
September 26, 2012
Interview With Al Jazeera
QUESTION: Mr. Burns, welcome to the program. It has been a particularly tough couple of weeks for you as an American, as an American official. Is that a fair characterization?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: First, thank you so much for the opportunity to appear on Al Jazeera.
It has been a very difficult period. I just returned a couple of days ago from Libya, where I traveled after the tragic murder of four of my colleagues. And the truth is that this is a difficult moment for all of us. The United States lost an extraordinary ambassador and three very fine colleagues, and Libya lost an extraordinary friend. And I think that shared loss is what was driven home to me most clearly during my most recent visit to Libya.
I saw that sense of loss in the outpouring of sympathy from many, many Libyans from all walks of life, in what Libyan leaders, Libya’s new elected leaders, had to say at a very moving memorial event in Tripoli last Thursday night. I saw it in the grief-stricken faces of doctors and nurses who tried to save Chris Stevens’s life on that terrible night two weeks ago. You could see it in the ordinary Libyan citizens holding up hand-printed signs urging the world to understand that the extremists who committed these murders don’t speak for them and don’t speak for Libya. And you could also see it in the thousands of people who came out on the streets of Benghazi last Friday to make clear that they’re not going to allow extremists to hijack the promise of their revolution.
So out of this shared loss, I think, also comes a shared sense of hope and shared responsibility. I think people not only in Libya but across the region know better than any American can ever know what’s at stake, that if the Arab Awakening, the revolutions that have already taken place in Libya and Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen are about anything, they’re about the pursuit of dignity. But now comes the very hard task of protecting that dignity through the building of institutions – democratic institutions to protect rights; security institutions to ensure the safety of citizens; reviving economies so that everyone, not just a privileged few, can enjoy real economic opportunities and a better future for themselves and for their children.
One of the central messages of President Obama’s speech this week at the UN General Assembly is that the United States is not going to retreat from its responsibilities. We have a profound stake in the success of transitions across the Arab world right now, and there are things that we can do to contribute to that, especially in terms of helping to revive economies.
So this is a difficult moment, just as you said, a moment of shared loss, but also, I think, a time to remind ourselves – all of us – of what’s at stake and what’s possible with that kind of concerted effort.
QUESTION: Let’s stay in Libya for a little while longer. The Libyan President has been saying that the attack on the consulate in – the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi had been preplanned and that it had nothing to do with the protests that took place at the consulate. Is that your shared assessment with him, or do you take a different perspective on what happened?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The truth is there is an investigation underway by the Libyan authorities, with the support of the United States and United States specialists. And we are deeply interested in getting to the bottom of this and seeing who was responsible, and working with Libya to ensure that they’re brought to justice.
So I don’t want to speculate at this point about what the results of that investigation will be, except to say that we’re going to work very hard to support Libya’s efforts, the efforts of Libyan authorities to get to the bottom of this, which is, after all, deeply in the interests of the United States to ensure that justice is done, but also deeply in the interests of Libyans, who, as I said before, don’t want to see extremists steal the promise of their revolution.
QUESTION: But if you consider the new Libya a partner, and the President of Libya is now saying that the two events – the killing of Ambassador Stevens and the protests outside the Embassy – had nothing to do with each other, and – that doesn’t bode well for the partnership, it could be argued.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: No, I think what it suggests is that we need a thorough investigation in which we work as partners to get to the bottom of this, and then we’ll see who’s responsible and exactly what the chain of events was.
It’s clear that the attack which took the lives of Chris Stevens and three other colleagues was clearly choreographed and directed and involved a fair amount of firepower, but exactly what kind of planning went into that and how it emerged on that awful night, we just don’t know right now. But I’m confident we’ll get to the bottom of it.
QUESTION: Now, I’m sure you’re aware of the information originally published by The New York Times saying that there was a CIA operation going on in Benghazi, and that the consulate came under attack in connection to that presence. Does that change anything for you, the fact that the consulate came under attack because whoever had carried out the attack knew that they were attacking the CIA?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I just can’t speculate, and no American diplomat speculates on intelligence activities or presence overseas. This was a terrible tragedy. It reflected the fragility of the processes of change that are already underway, and it underscored the importance of – now with successful elections behind them, of the Libyan authorities organizing professional security institutions to ensure not only that their own citizens are protected, but also to ensure the safety of the diplomats who serve there.
QUESTION: Perhaps one more point on Libya?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: To what extent do you feel that you are in a difficult position, you as the Obama Administration? Because domestically, you have to show the American public, especially at a – during an election time – that you are handling these events with a tough hand. But at the same time, deploying drones in Libya, moving warships towards Libya, could send the wrong signal that you are basically playing around with the sovereignty of Libya.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We’re firmly committed to Libya’s sovereignty, to its independence. That’s what the revolution was all about. And we did a great deal-- Chris Stevens in particular did a great deal during moments in Benghazi early in the revolution when there were a lot of people who were skeptical, a lot of people who doubted. Chris believed in what Libyans were capable of, and he was certainly deeply committed to a sovereign Libya.
We want to build a partnership on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect, and that’s exactly how we’ll conduct our relationship, and exactly how we’ll conduct our support for Libya’s investigation into this terrible tragedy.
QUESTION: And to what extent, given the criticism that we are hearing from the Romney camp, that basically the Obama Administration had known that there was al-Qaida in Libya, and yet it had turned a blind eye to that – to what extent would that make military intervention in Syria difficult or even impossible for you down the road?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We’re obviously deeply concerned about the safety and security of all of our diplomatic missions around the world, and that certainly includes Libya as well. And as I said, we’re conducting an investigation. We’ll get to the bottom of this, of what happened in this instance. But I’m confident that we’ll be able to build the kind of partnership that the Libyans deserve and Americans deserve, and the Libyans ultimately will be able to overcome the challenges posed by extremist militias and be able to restore a sense of order and realize the promise of the revolution.
QUESTION: Syrians who oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad, whether they are civilians or whether they are armed groups, they’ll hear this, what you’re saying about Libyans and what they deserve, and they’ll say, “What about us? Don’t we deserve the same support from the United States?” They’re saying they’re not getting it.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made very clear their determination to do everything that we can, working with our partners in the region as well as the international community, to accelerate the moment of a transition to a new and legitimate leadership in Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad long ago forfeited its legitimacy in the process of killing 20,000 of their own citizens. The longer this goes on, as you well know, the greater the danger is for Syrians, and the greater the danger is for the region, the greater the dangers of spillover in a region which already has more than its shares of difficulties and troubles.
And so what the United States is doing, working with others, is to do everything we can to build pressure against the regime in Damascus – economic pressure, political isolation. Second, to do everything we can to support the opposition politically so that the opposition is inclusive, it represents all Syrians – Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Christians – that it conveys a compelling vision of what’s possible for Syria after Bashar al-Assad.
And at the same time, we’re providing nonlethal equipment and we’re working with others to try to enhance the ability of the opposition to achieve that kind of a transition. And finally, we’re also contributing to the very immediate humanitarian needs of both refugees who have come outside Syria’s borders and displaced persons in Syria. The United States alone has contributed over a hundred million dollars. We’re particularly concerned about the impact on some of our closest partners like Jordan and Turkey as they deal with the refugee outflow.
So there’s a great deal that we’re doing, and we’re continuing to look for further ways in which we can bring about that transition that’s so deeply in the interests of Syrians, but also everyone in the region.
QUESTION: As I’m sure you’re well aware, there are many Syrians who will be listening to this and they’ll say yes, the humanitarian assistance – there is humanitarian assistance from the United States. But the rest in terms of backing up the call for Bashar al-Assad to step down, anything else they are saying that we’re hearing from the Obama Administration is just rhetoric. They also say we know that before the election, the Obama Administration would not do anything. How do you respond to that?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I can only imagine – I won’t say I understand – I can only imagine what people are going through in Syria right now. And I have nothing but enormous admiration for the bravery of Syrians who are defending their rights. The United States is doing a lot more than offering words. As I described before, we’re trying in very tangible ways to provide support for the opposition, to build pressure against the regime. I wish we could have done more through the UN Security Council, and I think it’s profoundly disappointing that the Security Council has not been able to act on Syria in the way that it was able to act on Libya.
And I think the inaction of the Council is only prolonging the agony of the Syrian people and postponing the inevitable, because I really do believe that transition to a new legitimate leadership is inevitable. It is going to happen, and that’s why we’re going to do everything we can to accelerate it, and also prepare to be supportive of that new leadership once that transition is accomplished.
QUESTION: Mr. Burns, just allow me to take a very short break and then we’ll continue.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Of course. Thank you.
QUESTION: (Speaking in Arabic.) Mr. Burns, welcome back --
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you.
QUESTION: -- to (inaudible). Now we ended up talking on Syria in the first half. Address to us the issue that many Syrians are talking about, which is that they feel that until the election is over in the United States, they’re not expecting anything substantial from the U.S. Administration.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: As I said before, the United States has already provided substantial support, both in terms of the pressure we’ve brought to bear on the regime in Damascus and the ways in which we’ve mobilized pressure from others. We will continue to do everything we can to support the opposition, which I think is becoming much more effective than it was in recent months, and is acquiring greater political strength as well as a greater ability to defend itself against the atrocities committed by the regime.
I think it’s also true that we’re able to contribute in tangible ways to the needs of Syrian refugees and displaced persons. I do believe that the trend line is clearly moving against the regime. You see this in terms of high-level defections, most recently and most prominently the former prime minister, and senior military officers; the ways in which the regime is unable to control large parts of Syrian territory right now; and the economic pressure that the regime is under.
So I think the outcome, as I said before, is inevitable, and it’s clear. And the sooner that happens, the better it is – obviously, for Syrians, but also for the region.
QUESTION: I don’t want to obsess too much over the issue of the election here in the United States and its possible implications for action in Syria, but we have heard from the Amir of Qatar, for example, in his speech before the General Assembly, a call to an Arab force, deploying an Arab force in Syria. We heard from the French President that his country is ready to recognize a provisional Syrian government.
We haven’t heard any concrete steps from – or we didn’t hear any concrete steps in the speech delivered by President Obama in terms of how he plans to deal with those two steps. What is the position on those two steps?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: On the step that the French President, President Hollande just talked about, obviously, we share an interest ultimately in the emergence of a transitional government, a provisional government, whatever term that you want to use. The key, though, I think, as Syrians know better than anyone else, is to try to ensure that as the follow-up committee that’s been formed and has been meeting in Cairo to try to develop a plan for a new Syria after this regime is finished – that it’s able to connect to people inside Syria, build its legitimacy, so that when the day comes when ultimately there can be a transitional government, it’s seen to be legitimate, to have real connections to people inside Syria.
That takes time, that takes effort, but we are working with the Arab League – and when Secretary Clinton met with Nabil Elaraby, the Secretary General of the Arab League earlier this week in New York, we signed a framework understanding to strengthen cooperation between us. So we certainly want to work with our Arab partners to try to hasten the day when the political opposition becomes a more and more formidable force. And we’re certainly continuing to consider very carefully any workable, effective ways in which we can further support the opposition. These are complicated issues, but we’ll consider them very carefully and see what more we might be able to do.
QUESTION: I understand that position as you’ve outlined it, but what sort of bearing does it have with the French position that they are ready to recognize a provisional government? And are you ready, as the United States Government, to support that French (inaudible)?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Well, what we support ultimately is the possibility of that kind of a provisional government being formed, but what’s essential is to build step-by-step so that the follow-on committee that’s been formed, the political opposition representing the Syrian people, are able to connect to people inside Syria, to deepen those connections, so they’re seen as legitimate – even more clearly as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. That takes time. It takes effort. And we are certainly going to continue to be very supportive of that, along with our Arab partners, along with the European supporters of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: What about the step, as I mentioned, that the Amir of Qatar talked about in terms of deploying an Arab force? Have there been any discussion of that with you, as the Obama Administration, before he announced it? What is your position on it?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Well, there’s some important meetings – both bilateral meetings and a meeting of core foreign ministers – Friends of Syria, Friends of the Syrian People – this week in New York. And I think they provide very good opportunities to discuss the full range of ways in which we can be supportive and step up our support.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s a good idea to deploy an Arab force?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: We want to take very seriously ideas and initiatives that are raised, but it’s going to require very careful consideration, and that’s what we’re committed to doing.
QUESTION: Now the other thing that a lot of people are saying that President Obama did not deal with in any concrete way is what to do about the Iran nuclear issue. What specifically – where does the situation stand specifically now with regard to Iran given all these differences that we’re hearing about in terms of the clocks – the clock in Israel and the clock in the United States?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I don’t think President Obama could have been clearer than he was yesterday in saying that it’s the policy of the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That’s a very clear statement of our approach. We’ve made clear for years now the depth of our concern about Iran’s failure to meet its international obligations. Because after all this is not about the United States and Iran, it’s about Iran’s defiance of the international community.
We recognize, as the President underscored yesterday, the dangers that are posed by an Iran which doesn’t meet those obligations. The acquisition of a nuclear weapon would threaten a nuclear arms race in the region, it would threaten regional security, and it would undermine the nonproliferation regime, which all of us have worked so hard to build up.
So there’s a great deal that’s at stake here. The President has also made clear that we believe there’s time and space for diplomacy, but that time is not unlimited. It is not impossible to make progress diplomatically if Iran is serious. Iran asserts that it doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon, the international community has made clear that there ought to be access to peaceful nuclear energy, but what this all hinges on is Iran’s willingness or its unwillingness to address the questions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has posed for years and to meet the very specific obligations contained in UN Security Council resolutions. So we remain committed to diplomacy, but we have a greater and greater sense of urgency.
And in the meantime, we’ll continue to build, working with our international partners, economic pressure on Iran, which has already resulted in a 40 percent decrease in Iranian oil production over the course of the last year, a 50 percent decrease in the value of Iran’s currency, a rate of inflation that’s more than 25 percent. And our hope is that over time, Iran will make a different kind of calculation. But so far its unwillingness to meet those obligations I think has been profoundly disappointing to the international community and has only deepened out resolve to deal with this issue.
QUESTION: Now you’re saying that you’re looking at the issue of Iran with great urgency, what everybody knows is that the Prime Minister of Israel is saying as great as that urgency we’re hearing from you is, it’s not good enough for him as Prime Minister because he needs even greater urgency in terms of dealing militarily with the issue of Iran.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I can only speak for the United States – not for anyone else. And I think President Obama has been crystal clear about what our position is and about the depth of our concern and about what’s at stake not just for the United States but for an entire region and for the international community.
QUESTION: There’s no disagreement therefore, or you’re not concerned that there is disagreement with the Prime Minister of Israel over this issue?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I think our cooperation with Israel, our commitment to Israel’s security, is stronger than it’s ever been before, and the Prime Minister of Israel has acknowledged that when he talked about our unprecedented cooperation. So we’ll continue to stay in the closest possible touch.
QUESTION: Now – whatever time I’ve got left for this interview – when Benjamin Netanyahu came to the United States soon after President Barack Obama took office, the president at that time said Israel-Palestine should be the top of the agenda. Benjamin Netanyahu said no, Iran should be the top of the agenda. But as far as at least from the way the press has been talking about it, seems that Benjamin Netanyahu has won the day.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Here’s what I think, and that is that while it’s true that in some respects the Palestinian issue has receded in the headlines, at least in the Western press in recent months, I truly do not believe it has receded in importance. If the Arab Awakening, in large part, is about the pursuit of dignity for Arab citizens, then nothing cuts closer to the core of people’s sense of indignity throughout much of the region than the absence of progress toward the two-state solution, which is so deeply in the interest of both Palestinians and Israelis. And nothing cuts closer to the core of Israel’s long-term security interest, to which the United States will remain firmly committed, than the absence of progress toward a two-state solution.
It is not an easy process; but you’ve heard from the President, from Secretary Clinton, our determination to do everything that we can to revive the prospect of negotiations – because it’s only through negotiations that that two-state solution is – can be produced. But I absolutely do believe that it’s central to the future of the region and it needs to remain central in American policy toward the region.
QUESTION: Just a very quick follow-up. If the Palestinians come to the UN and ask for observer status for a state of Palestine, would the Obama Administration veto it if it went to the Security Council?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The Obama Administration has made clear for some months our concern about unilateral steps by anyone – whether it’s the pursuit of statehood through the UN, the General Assembly, or the Security Council – or unilateral steps that the Israelis continue to take – for example, settlement activity. And there the United States position remains that we don’t accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, because we do believe that it prejudges the outcome of negotiations. And so our view has been a consistent one with regard to unilateral steps.
We believe the focus needs to be on negotiations. We recognize our responsibility, the American responsibility to try to help bring that about. We recognize the centrality of progress on this issue to everything else that we want to achieve in the Middle East and everything else that people throughout the region want to achieve.
QUESTION: I would love to live up to my promise not go beyond the time allocated for this interview. I’m happy to end it here. If you would be kind enough to give me one more minute about Egypt, it would be great. But if you cannot do it, I understand.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: That’s all right. I’m glad to.
QUESTION: Now President Obama recently when he was talking about the government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, he said that that government is neither our ally nor our enemy. That’s a pretty fundamental statement to make at this time in the relationship between Egypt and the United States, isn’t it?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: The truth is that Egypt has been a very strong strategic partner of the United States, and it remains a very important strategic partner of the United States.
President Morsi himself has talked about the deep Egyptian interest after the revolution in a real friendship with the United States. And I think that is a very good definition of what we seek. A partnership, by definition, is a two-way street. We need to listen to one another; it doesn’t mean that we’re always going to agree on every issue. But I think there exists very important common ground between the United States and Egypt – common ground in terms of our interest in the revival of the Egyptian economy, the things that we can do in terms of debt relief as we’re negotiating right now, the things that we can do to encourage trade and investment, which ultimately I think will be engines which will drive the Egyptian economy forward, create jobs, create opportunities – especially for the younger generation of Egyptians.
And I think also in the region there’s common ground. President Morsi has been quite clear and quite outspoken with regard to Syria and the need for a transition to a new leadership there. And the United States wants to work with Egypt on that issue as well as on a range of other issues. President Morsi has also been clear about Egypt’s continuing commitment to its international obligations, including the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – that obviously is also in both of our interests at a moment when the region already has more than its share of instability.
QUESTION: Now finally, you’re a diplomat so you know this much, much better than I could ever do --
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: I’m learning something new every day so --
QUESTION: -- but in the diplomatic jargon, “friend” and “ally” are two different things, especially when it comes to a country like Egypt. Is Egypt just a friend now? Or is Egypt still an ally?
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Well, Egypt is still a major non-NATO ally. That is the precise terminology of the United States. That’s still the case. But Egypt, whatever terminology you use – strategic partner, real friend – the reality is that there’s a great deal that we have to gain, Americans and Egyptians, by working together. And I think the revolution in Egypt has only underscored what we have to gain. It is in our interest for Egypt’s transition to succeed. It’s in our interest for Egypt’s economy to revive, because an Egypt in which its citizens can participate fully in political life, in which the rights of every Egyptian whether they’re minorities, whether they’re men or women are protected, an Egypt that creates economic opportunities is going to be an Egypt that’s going to be a stronger partner in the pursuit of common interests throughout the region.
As I said before, that does not mean that we’re going to agree on everything; I’m not naïve about that. But I think when you take a step back, Egyptians and Americans recognize that there’s a great deal we can gain by working together.
QUESTION: Mr. Burns, appreciate it. Thank you very much.
DEPUTY SECRETARY BURNS: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you.