Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, oversees foreign military financing, arms sales, defense trade controls, weapons abatement and removal, and more. He told National Journal about some of the challenges and opportunities for the United States as it recasts its view of Egypt and Libya, where protest movements ousted long-standing rulers. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
NJ What were your first thoughts when the Arab Spring began?
SHAPIRO Egypt started when I was at a National Defense University retreat on the transition in Iraq. You had to leave your BlackBerry outside. On the van taking us back to the State Department, all of us were checking our Black-Berrys, seeing the reports coming out of Egypt—and realizing that something really huge was coming.
When the protests started in Tunisia, I don’t think any of us anticipated it would have this impact, spreading through the whole region the way it has. Over time, the reports started to flow in from embassy posts—country by country by country—of protests. I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was making all these speeches about how the Arab Spring could never come to Syria because the people were so happy. And then, sure enough, it happens to him.
NJ What’s the challenge for security assistance going forward?
SHAPIRO In Egypt, [it’s determining] how security assistance fits into our broader strategy toward the region. Here’s an opportunity for populations that for a long time have not had their views reflected by their governments to transition to governments that are more responsive to their people. We want to encourage the military to support those goals. The question is how best to use the tools that we have to support those transitions.
NJ Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Has your job become, in some ways, more difficult?
SHAPIRO Ultimately, we have to be vigilant. We have to continually evaluate the changes that come, to see how they impact our relationships more broadly—but also our political-military relations, both for security assistance and arms sales. We have a conventional arms-transfer policy, which requires considering foreign policy. For a lot of these countries that were relatively stable for long periods of time, we could do the analysis fairly quickly because our interests were clear. Now, that analysis requires taking into account the various changing factors.
NJ How have you seen U.S. security-assistance programs pay off?
SHAPIRO In Egypt, our 30-plus-year security-assistance relationship has meant that officers from the Egyptian military have been coming to U.S. military war colleges for 30 years. During that time, they’ve been inculcated in the type of American values that we think helped make it more difficult for those who are advocating violence against the protesters to make any headway. We had the ability to pick up the phone and speak to the military leadership because those relationships existed. They were very willing to return our calls. It’s a perfect example of how the investment in the relationship [influenced] events as they unfolded.
NJ In Libya, when did you first understand that the proliferation of weapons was a serious problem?
SHAPIRO As the crisis first emerged in Libya, we fully understood the threat and challenge posed by raided weapons stocks, particularly the proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles. We immediately devoted funding to nongovernmental organizations to assist in securing weapons, including missiles—and, where appropriate, disabling them. Now that the Transitional National Council has exercised its authority over most of Libya, they have come to us with a request to help them secure these sites. We have a political-military bureau officer on the ground in Libya and are funding contractors to assist the TNC in rounding up these weapons. It is one of my top priorities. I want to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can to reduce the risk of any of these weapons, especially shoulder-fired missiles, being used in any type of terrorist attack.
NJ Is there an opportunity to stem this threat now?
SHAPIRO It’s not in any Libyan government’s interest to have these weapons floating around loose. We look forward to a long-term partnership with Libya in addressing stockpile management and taking these weapons out of circulation.
NJ Are you optimistic about how the Arab Spring will turn out?
SHAPIRO I’m humble in my assumptions. Because none of us predicted that this was going to happen. What we’re trying to do, to the extent where we do have influence, is try and shape it in the right direction. Ultimately this is going to be up to the peoples in these particular countries to bring about the type of change that they want.
This article appears in the October 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.