Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., returned this week from visits to Afghanistan and Egypt, among other countries. He discussed his trip with National Journal. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ You were in Afghanistan just before President Obama signed the strategic-partnership agreement outlining the relationship between the two countries once U.S. combat troops pull out in 2014. What was the mood there?
KERRY Very positive. There was a real sigh of relief; people felt a newfound confidence that the U.S. and others were going to be there to help them through the transition. It’s a necessary ingredient of trying to transfer responsibilities to the Afghans and reduce the American presence.
NJ It’s a pretty general document, with no specific commitments for U.S. aid dollars or troop levels.
KERRY Over the next year, they’re going to [work on the details]—which makes much more sense, frankly, than trying to pin that down today when you’re not confident about exactly what the numbers are going to be of ready-to-operate battalions; you’re not certain about what the competency is going to be; you don’t know what the Taliban’s reaction will be.
NJ What lessons can be learned from the sticking points during the final negotiations with Iraq?
KERRY The basic issue will be: Do our troops have the immunities they need to be able to operate? You don’t want them subject to Afghan law.
NJ Is there still a lot of concern about the security situation?
KERRY Members of Congress across the board are impatient with the amount of cost relative to the perceived progress. That’s completely understandable. The American people are clearly impatient with what is now termed America’s longest war, even though we’ve really only had a strategy in place since 2009. We were drifting around, with a whole bunch of resources diverted to Iraq. We were coasting for about four or five years. [Since President Obama arrived], we’ve made a lot of military progress. That doesn’t mean everywhere is safer, because the Taliban have resorted to more spectacular, violent events. But they’re not controlling massive amounts of territory. We’re on the right track to train up the Afghans, turn over responsibility, and create a very small counterterrorism platform which has the ability to protect America’s national-security interests in the region.
NJ Egypt’s criminal trials of American and other nongovernment workers strained ties with Washington this year. Did you sense a shift in the relationship?
KERRY I did. There’s a lot of tension. Egypt is really at risk, hanging in the balance of the outcome of the presidential election and the direction the Muslim Brotherhood decides to go. If the brotherhood doesn’t embrace basic laws of economics and attract capital back to the country, it’s very hard to see how you turn your economy around if everyone is scared of the instability.
NJ You supported Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s decision to allow military aid to go to Cairo, but you also warned Egypt not to take anything for granted.
KERRY I told the Egyptians very clearly, “We think this relationship is important.” We wanted to act in good faith so they recognize that we’re willing to honor our commitments, and we expect them to. If they don’t, then everything is up for grabs. No question about it. If they suddenly pull out the rug on the peace treaty with Israel, if they put in place very restrictive laws, if they’re not able to do the International Monetary Fund loan, then we’re going to have to question what we’re doing.
NJ What do you make of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, which now holds a majority in parliament?
KERRY We have to find a way to hopefully be able to work with them. If they make it impossible because they adopt policies that we find really unacceptable to our basic value system—that’s really a problem. We’re providing this assistance now because we need to make it clear we’re prepared to have a good relationship. If we suddenly cut it off, we’d be sending a horrendous message that basically says, “Screw you, we’re out of here.” And they’ll turn around and say, “There’s no reason to even think about the United States. Let’s go work with Iran or whoever it’s going to be.” So we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our face in that sort of self-righteous early approach.
NJ Are you hopeful about the prospects of working with them?
KERRY I am hopeful. Not because I believe I can take to the bank everything they say—but because everything they say is better than what they could be saying. They’re talking about pluralism, diversity, protecting minority rights, and understanding they can’t put an Islamic extreme regimen in place because it would be counter to a lot of Egypt’s culture. Not everything is going to be hunky-dory the day after the election. There has to be a lot of coalition building, work on the constitution—and they’re going to have to do it fast. They’re burning up reserves and the patience of the people. This revolution did not start as an Islamic revolution. It started as a generational revolution of young people who want jobs, who want a future, who want a different Egypt. Anyone who forgets that is begging for a redux of Tahrir Square and further confrontation.
This article appears in the May 12, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.