Like a moth to a flame, this brave young officer of the United States Navy was drawn to the hotspots during the Vietnam War. Today after serving his country as Assistant Secretary of Defence during the Ronald Reagan administration and Deputy Secretary of State during George W Bush’s War-on-terror presidency, Richard Armitage runs Armitage International, [...]

Sunday Times 2

What Armitage is doing in Sri Lanka


Like a moth to a flame, this brave young officer of the United States Navy was drawn to the hotspots during the Vietnam War. Today after serving his country as Assistant Secretary of Defence during the Ronald Reagan administration and Deputy Secretary of State during George W Bush’s War-on-terror presidency, Richard Armitage runs Armitage International, a force multiplier firm which assists American and foreign companies to bolster their capabilities in international business development, strategic planning and problem solving.

Last week, he was in Sri Lanka. The visit, he says, was not connected to his business. But the man who wakes up at 4.30 a.m. for his daily exercise routine which involves running for one hour and lifting weights, was not here as a tourist. Neither did his mission have an altruistic objective. The 71-year-old Armitage, who still plays basketball, met Sri Lankan government and opposition leaders. He first visited Sri Lanka in 1983 with the then US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times, he answered questions ranging from US politics, the ISIS crisis to US policies on Sri Lanka, human rights and China. Excerpts:

It’s now confirmed that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party candidate. Do you still stand by your statement that you would choose the Democratic Party Candidate over Donald Trump?
Yes. I do, if Mr. Trump doesn’t change his views to more traditional Republican, be more welcome to immigrants and drop his anti-Muslim language. If he could be more correct and polite with women, there would be a different. But as of today, I stand by my statement.

How do you read his recent statements on foreign policy?
He only made what was said to be a foreign policy speech. It had not too much in it. He was using terms like America first. America first has a history in the United States. It was unpleasant; it was an isolationist history. The isolationists said we should keep America out of the Second World War and out of the European war. So the history of America first is bad in my view.
I believe the most important thing is my country. Not my party. Trump should articulate reasonable, coherent foreign and domestic policy.

Trump says ISIS would disappear “very, very quickly” under his presidency. But how would you, as a defence expert who had held the post of Assistant Defence Secretary, advise a president to deal with ISIS and other terrorist groups?
The primary responsibility of a US president is the protection of the United States. I would advise him that he make sure he doubles down on intelligence and police activities first. Second I would tell the President, ‘Mr. President you cannot bomb Daesh (ISIS) into non-existence. There is an element of military force. But we also have to be aware of the recruiting techniques. The ISIS uses the social media and we have to be alert to the many problems which gave rise to the ISIS phenomenon – like the invasion of Iraq by the United States. The rise of ISIS is not because of one issue.’

Do you think the US should intervene militarily in the Syrian crisis?
We already are. We are bombing quite often. There are forces on the ground. I think we made a mistake initially by saying Mr. Assad has to go. It was a bad policy in my view to put an adversary in a corner. Always we have to give someone a way out. We made a big mistake. It has led to a humanitarian disaster. And we are not the only one who made the mistake. Mr. Assad made huge mistakes. So I am not disposed to back more military intervention in Syria.

So talks are the best way to solve the Syrian crisis?
Most wars end in some kind of negotiations. Very few wars – like the Second World War – end in unconditional surrender. Even the Vietnam War where we had a bad experience ended in negotiations that started in 1973. Negotiations have been historically the way to end wars. This was how we ended the Gulf War. That was the way in Korea.

You are now talking peace. But you were a member of President George W. Bush’s war-on-terror team, which even dismissed civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq simply as ‘collateral damage’. You went all the way to twist the arm of Pakistan. Of course, you have denied that you warned Pakistan’s then intelligence chief that the US would bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if it did not join the war on terror. Weren’t you an advocate of the might-is-right policy?

Your question was not polite to Pakistan. It is difficult to force a country of more than 200 million people to do something they don’t feel was in their interest. As President Musharraf has now acknowledged, I did not say we would bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age. I tell you exactly what I did say. I wager all my career that I won’t to be able to say that to somebody. No president had ever authorised me to say it. But I had a discussion with the ISI chief who happened to be visiting Washington on the days of 9/11. I took him into my private office alone. I showed him a medal I received from Pakistan. I said, ‘Sir can you see this medal?’. He said, ‘yes’. It was a Sitari-i-Pakistan medal. I said if Pakistan is not willing to help us, no American would ever wear this medal. Please contact President Musharraf and here is a list of things. Please talk to President Musharraf about this and we would like your agreement on this. The next day he came back and said President Musharraf had agreed to all of them.

But in his biography, In the line of fire, Gen. Musharraf talks about your threat.
President Musharraf is my friend. He talks to me even now. Was he a perfect leader? No. But did he put Pakistan on the right side of the war on terror? I think so. But I am also equally convinced that some elements of the ISI are playing a bad game. And that’s why Osama bin Laden was found in Abottabad in 2011. Some of them are protecting the Haqqani network, which, from a Pakistani point of view, has been helpful to them because it actually arranged for the release of some Pakistani soldiers captured by the Islamists. So we do not see everything the same way.

In recent months and years, tension is escalating in the South China Sea region over disputed Islands. On the other hand, the United States apparently has apprehensions about the rise of China. Do you believe a new Cold War between the United States and China is brewing?

I believe that neither side wants to go to war. That’s for sure. So I wouldn’t want to go to the level of a Cold War. I believe that on both sides of the Pacific, diplomats are paid to keep the adversaries from becoming enemies. Everyone knows that the accommodation of a rising China, just like the accommodation of rising Germany or rising United States, is accompanied by some dislocation – and that may be what we are seeing. But that will not rule out some accidental clash. I just hope it does not happen.

Some say China could soon become superpower number one. Will the US allow China to take the number one position?

It’s not the matter of allowing another country to become economically, culturally, educationally and militarily superior to the United States. It so happens on its own, not a matter of allowing it. However, if we had this interview five years ago and if it had said China would overtake the United States in five years, then that has not happened. It is not going to happen. And if you put economic projections and everything else, it’s never going to happen. That is because we have a relatively young and growing population in the United States. China has a large population, 1.3 billion, relatively old, and is running into headwinds which are causing economic and some political difficulties. So China overtaking the United States is probably not on. But I think the relative superiority of the United States would change a bit.

You could not be unaware that the world’s top 12 universities are in the United States. We are still the strongest economy. And at least in theory we are a free society. That says a lot- multi-religious, multiethnic – something Sri Lanka is also hoping to achieve.

Do you think your country’s differences with Russia over issues such as Syria, Ukraine and Nato’s eastward expansion have led to a cold-war-like situation?

I acknowledge we have differences to some extent on each of these issues. But in Syria, the two countries have cooperated to keep a fragile ceasefire. They cooperated on the Iran nuclear deal. They cooperate on counter-terrorism measures. So this is a complex relationship. The fact of the matter is for the United States today, there is no existential threat. To have an existential threat, there should capability and intention. China has the capability but not the intention. Russia has the capability but not the intention. The ISIS has the intention but not the capability. Right now, the US does not face an existential threat.

Sri Lanka’s relations with the US have improved with the change of government in January 2015. The improvement in relations has still not been translated into economic gains. As a result, the new government sees China as a saviour, though it is careful not to get dragged into geopolitical games the big powers play in the Indian Ocean. As a veteran diplomat, how would you advise Sri Lanka to maintain its relations with the United States?

First of all, the history of US-Sri Lanka relations did not begin with the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. The modern history of our relations began with the George W. Bush presidency. From 2001 to 2005, the relations with Sri Lanka were fantastic. In fact, in 2002 we were very close. So it did not begin with the end of the Rajapaksa regime. Since 2005, for ten years, Sri Lanka self-isolated itself. I think most in Sri Lanka give credit to the United States for the Geneva resolutions, for working with Sri Lanka in the United Nations. Having said that, I cannot disagree with you that this relationship has not translated into a large aid programme like we had during the George W Bush period – when we had the Tokyo donor conference. But I don’t think this state of affairs would be so forever. I am hopeful the new administration in the US would coordinate with the international community more. It would be a big mistake for Sri Lanka and the United States if we really try to make you play the great game with China.

During the Rajapaksa regime many people in South Asia and the United States were very nervous. Less so now, because we think President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have a solid view about China – they know what is good for Sri Lanka and what is not. And I think China now understands that “this is a different Sri Lanka. We cannot behave like we did before.”

You mentioned about your country presenting resolutions at the UNHRC. But many in Sri Lanka believe that your country is simply using human rights as a political tool.

We often hear the charge that we use human rights and democracy to get political change. On the other hand, if we don’t do, then we are criticised. Even here in Sri Lanka, people ask, ‘why aren’t you speaking out about human rights abuses, disappearances of Tamils in the north and the east?’ So whether we do or don’t, we support human rights and human development — not because we are criticised by somebody. The most important thing for the United States, I think, is to be consistent in its application and not be heavy handed. I give you an example. I don’t use the term democracy and democratisation because there are many different ways of having a system where the people are able to express themselves. For instance, in the Middle East, there is Majlis; in Kabul you see a Loya Jirga. I prefer the term representational government, where the government represents the will of the people, where the people have the opportunity to represent their views to the government. And that can take many different guises. The most important thing is the United States to be consistent. I agree we are not always consistent.

Is that why there are allegations that the US has double standards in applying these rules – one for Sri Lanka and one for your allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

You are comparing Saudi Arabia with Sri Lanka during the war. It’s ridiculous. Here was the home of child soldiers, here was the home of women suicide bombers. Far different are the situations. I would only compare Sri Lanka with Sri Lanka and not with another country. I have already said, you are right, we are sometimes inconsistent.

President Bush’s war on terror has opened the gates of hell in the Middle East. His invasion of Iraq has led to sectarian wars in Iraq, the birth of Isis and many more problems.

You got to be very sorry you asked that question. The reason is as I said earlier the problems that gave rise to the ISIS are much greater than the invasion of Iraq. The ISIS itself says it wants to erase the Syce-Picot Agreement drawn over 100 years ago. That’s one. I agree with you the invasion of Iraq by George W Bush is a contributing factor. Also contributing is the Persian Arab rivalry. Another is the religious rivalry between the Shiites and the Sunnis. Also a contributory factor is that some of the states in the Middle East have autocratic governments which do not enjoy the support of the people. To stay in power, they became more repressive. Also there is a youth bulge in the Middle East – 20 million young relatively unemployed people, lacking in opportunity. That’s also contributing. How about the fact that women being not empowered in most of the countries, except for the UAE? These factors, the Syce-Picot Agreement and the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq, have given rise to the present crisis and the ISIS.

So the Iraq war was a mistake?
Yes I will call it a mistake. However, in retrospect, how many UN resolutions were there to authorise this war if Saddam Hussein did not give up his weapons of mass destruction? Some 17 or 18. So I did not oppose the invasion of Iraq. But Secretary Collin Powell and I tried to avoid the war by going for more resolutions in the United Nations. But clearly in retrospect, it was a mistake.

It is said the Iraq war was a cover for the capitalists to take control of Iraq’s oil in terms of a plan drawn up by the Neocons as part of their Project for New American Century. You are also being associated with the Neocon group.

I would say that is bullshit. What did the US do after the war? We started to work with the Iraqis to rebuild the country, to help them export their oil so they could pay their bills to Kuwait – not to the United States. At the same time, we were helping Iraq rebuild its own ability to extract its own petroleum. We were developing our shale oil sector in the US. Frankly, we didn’t need Iraq’s oil.

You mentioned your visit to Sri Lanka was not business, but aimed at peace and reconciliation.
I have been involved with Sri Lanka since 1983. I was very frustrated in 2002, because we had the opportunity to end this war peacefully. I was frustrated in 2000 when we had the constitutional framework put forward by Chandrika Kumaratunga. Then we had the ten years of Sri Lanka’s self-isolation. Now there is an opportunity for the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims to finally put this behind and take the country to its rightful place on the world stage.

We don’t think we make a big difference. But we think it’s important for the government and all minority parties to have Americans spend time here – Americans who would understand Sri Lanka and do not want to profit from Sri Lanka. That’s why we don’t want to do business here. I don’t want you, Ranil, President Sirisena, Sampanthan, Sumanthiran, Rauff Hakeem or anybody to have a suspicion of why we are involved, why we come here. It is nothing to do with business.

Does it mean your visit has an altruistic motive?
No. It is for me, I think, is a completion of a mission. I was so frustrated in 2002 when we had the opportunity to end the war peacefully, to end terrorism, child soldiers and women suicide bombers. It would have been a great example to the world but we failed and since then whenever we had the opportunity we come to Sri Lanka, not to profit, but to push the process forward. I have friendly feeling and long relationship with this country. It has such good people. They must have the opportunity to have a good life.

When you met Sri Lankan leaders, did you tell them what you think should be the way forward?
I am happy with President Sirisena, who has spoken to the Sinhala south and spoken to them about the fact that making arrangements for the Tamils and Muslims is not a matter of taking something away from the Sinhala people. Everyone should have more. It was a brilliant presentation by President Sirisena. We met Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and are pleased to see how confident and how moving-forward he is on everything from having an office of the missing persons to trying to give the land back to the people. I know the difficulties and I know there are voices in the government, in the military who want to hold to the old ways. But there are also people who want to move forward. And they deserve that opportunity. We love Sri Lanka and this country deserves better.

Would you give the same message to President Obama’s team?
Before we came here, we talked to the State Department to hear its views. Of course we would go back and tell them what our views are and frankly I am optimistic now than when I came in September last year. I find all the parties at least here in Colombo are speaking more closely together, consulting more closely together and this makes me happy. I realise that in the North and the East, there is still a lot of scepticism. I understand this. But I thank all Sri Lanka’s people who have an appreciation for the paradigm shift that this new coalition government has brought in. For it gives us, for the first time in a long time, the possibility of a solution.

Will you be asking the US administration to be kind to Sri Lanka vis-a-vis the Geneva process?
In all processes, not just the Geneva process: We heard good words about the assistance of the US on reconciliation and the domestic mechanism process. I think the US should be involved in up to the extent it feels comfortable to the citizens of Sri Lanka in all aspects of Sri Lanka. Be it cultural, economic educational exchanges and strategic, but not just strategic, all of it. But only to the extent of it is comfortable to the people of Sri Lanka. Some may say that the Obama administration can’t actually change much. But I think that either Ms. Clinton or Mr. Trump can. So our efforts will be primarily to keep educating Americans but in the foreign policy sphere, we will definitely urge the new administration to move out in a better way.

Do you see Sri Lanka as a strategic location?
No. I think it is a wrong way to look at it. If the United States looks at Sri Lanka only as a strategic asset we would only fail in developing the type of relationship that is necessary. Sri Lankans themselves will not want to be seen as a pawn. Sri Lankans want to be knights. So if there is a strategic aspect, and if that is the game we play, the US and Sri Lanka will fail.

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