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An Interview With

Ambassador Andrew Natsios
March 17, 2009

From 2001 to 2005, Andrew Natsios was the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 2006, he served as the President’s envoy to Sudan. Now a Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Studies, he is recognized as a leading authority on global issues such as terrorism, diplomacy, and humanitarian emergencies.

“We have a choice to make between justice and peace. I think we should choose peace first.” - Ambassador Natsios


From 2001 to 2005, you were the administrator for the USAID, and following 911, this agency was charged with new responsibilities to reduce global terrorism. Can you explain and have they been successful?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well AID’s role was not to reduce global terrorism. That is the Defense Department, the CIA, Homeland Security, FBI. AID has a role to play in that effort in that, if you have a functional state in a poor country that can provide assistance, healthcare or education or jobs through economic growth or roads or food security to its citizens, it’s less likely to become a failed state. And failed states tend to be a magnet for terrorist organizations as well as other groups like human trafficking groups, narcotics groups, organized criminal syndicates.




So in that sense we have a role to play strategically in the larger international effort, but specifically, in terms of counterterrorism, that’s other agencies’ responsibility.




Would you describe some of the conditions that promote the growth of terrorism?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, they are complex and they are tied to the culture and the history and the social structure of the specific country. So you have to look at the local context whenever you’re looking at this, but it is the case that, for example, the people that attacked us on 9/11 were not from poor families. People associate poverty with terrorism. That is really not fair. Most of the people who are the leaders of this, the recruiters, even the midlevel managers have college degrees and they’re professional people.




Some of them simply have a revulsion against modern secular western values and world views, and so there is a religious element of this that has not come to terms with the 20 th century and 21 st century. Secondly, countries that have extremely repressive governments and that deal with dissent by executing people or putting them in jail or torturing them have more problems with educated people becoming terrorists than in countries that have a more progressive approach to governance. And so I think the governance system in the country makes a difference.




Third, we did some studies using field assessments with people from the U.S. military, American diplomats and AID officers in North Africa. And in that project we looked at what motivated younger men, in particular, to join terrorist organizations, and it was very similar to the motivation of, in sociological studies, of young men joining gangs here. It’s a sense of belongingness, of being part of something greater than themselves. It’s really not about poverty per se.




It’s about belongingness and about of a cause. And those in and of themselves are not bad things and wanting to belong to a group that has some loyalty to each other is a good thing. I mean, that’s what sports teams are based on and fraternal organizations. There are good uses for that human motivation and human desire. But it can be manipulated, and that’s what’s in fact happened.




I think also there is evidence not so much in terrorism but it is related to it; that if you have very high unemployment rates among young men between the ages of about 15 and 30, the risk of civil conflict dramatically increases because young men have higher levels of energy, and if they don’t have a constructive way to use that energy, they can get into a lot of trouble in any society.




If you’re in a poor area with a weak or failed governance system, the state can’t provide anything. They don’t even provide schools, and if you have no economic growth, then you have the seeds that can be used by terrorist networks to recruit people. So the lack of institutional capacity in the society to deal with social issues dealing with younger people is another factor.




Anyway, those are some of the reasons and some of those can be dealt with through aid programs. There is talk in the development community maybe about some kind of organized effort in these societies to organize sports teams because sports teams can be a way of channeling energy in a constructive way.




When you were with the USAID, you often met with religious leaders of different faiths at the same time in the same room. Why was this so important to you?



Ambassador Natsios:

Most of the countries that we work in in AID or the NGO community, are deeply religious societies. There are very few if any poor countries that are completely secularized. And so the people who have the most influence over the social order are the religious leaders, and we would argue that you cannot do good development work to reduce poverty and improve social services and protect human rights unless you have a dialog with the religious leaders.




When I went to Macedonia as the country was on the edge of war between the ethnic groups, I met with the Archbishop of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the leader of the Albanian Muslims, the leader of the Jewish community and a Methodist pastor who was the leader of the Protestant community. They had actually never met together and they live in the same society. They were on the edge of war, which literally could have been a bloodbath. Getting them together to talk doesn’t cost anything. And in fact it was a constructive process, and even after I left, they continued to meet for months, and that, I think, helped reduce the tensions and release a little pressure, and that stabilized the society.




When I was in Bangladesh, which is heavily Muslim, I went to a school that taught Muslims to become clerics, mullahs. AID was asked by the school to set up a development curriculum, and we did that on fish farming, healthcare, maternal health, child health, microfinance, human rights, agriculture, and to train the mullahs ‘cause they’re community leaders, too, and trying to facilitate community development through the mosque. It was very successful, and it’s the most popular course in the institute now.




So it can facilitate the development process. We’ve used religious leaders to deal with issues like human trafficking, where they buy and sell children, to stop it. Buddhist monks in Cambodia were a part of our network of people to stop human trafficking.




Has your broad exposure to a variety of different religious view points helped you answer any basic questions about humanity?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, my own religious faith as an Eastern Orthodox Christian has done that already before. I have had friends in different religious communities for over 20, 30 years now. I wrote a book ten years ago about the North Korean famine, and my chief collaborator was a Buddhist monk from South Korea. And I have many friends in the Church in Africa, for example. So I certainly think the theological discussions I’ve had with other religious traditions are intriguing.




There is a tradition in Islam called “Sufism,” which is very ancient, goes back a thousand years or more. And the Sufists are the most tolerant of these different religious traditions in Islam, the most pacific. Many of them are mediators in conflicts, and they have the easiest time dealing with other religious traditions. I had some contact with some Sufists in Morocco, and I found that some of their mystical practices, in terms of their singing and their prayer life is very similar to the ancient mystical practices and meditation practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church.




And in fact, there’s a book out now where the eastern saints of the Orthodox Church and the saints of the Sufist orders in the ninth and tenth century actually met and there was a transfer of tradition with them, which is very interesting for they’re very different orders, different world views. And so you do see that there are connections between religious traditions, and those religious connections are very powerful.




In the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine tradition, we have a cycle in the Orthodox liturgy which goes back to the third century, of chanting that’s done in the liturgy, and it’s a nine-week cycle. Seven of the chants are from first century Judaism, so if Christ walked into an Orthodox Church now, he would hear the hymns sung with these chants are the ones sung in his synagogue in Galilee in the first century. And they have not changed. The Orthodox Church doesn’t change much. They still leave everything the same.




And so there is a connection in a very profound way with 2,000-year-old singing tradition that I didn’t even know about. And they were composed in Judaism not in Christianity, and simply we transferred the melodies and the music into our own liturgical practice. So those are all very useful. The more we understand our connections to other people and other religious traditions, even if we may not share their theology, the easier it is to talk to them.




Some might say we are similar in more ways than we are different.



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, in some ways, that’s true.




Former Secretary of State Rice has spoken about the need for transformational diplomacy. How is this different from the diplomacy of the last century?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, it’s a radical change. There isn’t a question as to whether or not the career diplomatic service has made this transition or whether it will ever make it. Diplomacy for the last several thousand years, not just the last century, has been between empires or between states. And diplomacy is about maintaining relationships between states. Transformational diplomacy implies that the purpose of our diplomatic presence abroad is to transform the societies into more democratic, more private, market-oriented political and economic orders that protect human rights, that respect human rights.




And that our diplomacy should in fact try to in some ways present to the world through our embassies and our aid programs the American model of development. And if you go back and read Thomas Jefferson’s statements when he was Secretary of State, he said that we should try to take the American Revolution and generalize it around the whole world. So there is an old tradition of this, but it’s very intrusive on other societies, it’s not clear how to do it successfully, and if we do do it, it takes a very long time and it will have mixed results. That’s my view.




Can we do it? Yes. I don’t think we should associate with our diplomacy though. I think we should associate with our aid program because I think then we make it difficult for us to have diplomatic relations with another country if people in the other country think that our purpose in there is to transform their society and they may not want transformation.




You were the president’s personal envoy to Sudan in 2006. Two weeks ago, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President al-Bashir. As feared, his government has retaliated by expelling eight organizations from Sudan and Darfur. Many believe there will be an increase in violent attacks. Do you think the court did the right thing?



Ambassador Natsios:

I think the court did the wrong thing. I think Sudan is at risk of becoming a failed state and of much larger massacres than we had in 2003 and ’04 in Darfur. Ten times more people died in the North/South war than died in Darfur. Two and a half million people died during the North/South war which ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was signed in 2005.




The only way Sudan will be put back together again is with a political agreement between the Nile River Arabs and the population in the periphery of the country. While the Nile River Arabs believe that the international community is trying to do what we did in Iraq, which was regime change which is what they’re convinced of. In fact, the ICC is only strengthening their paranoia that the purpose of all this is to remove them from power, put them on trial.




And many of the Nile River Arabs and the government believe they won’t even get to a trial; they’d be massacred by their own people. And their tribes would be massacred because the Nile River Arabs who have run the country for the last century, even during the colonial period under the British, come from four relatively small tribes that make up 1 million maybe 2 million people out of 38 million people in the country, so it’s a small number. But it’s not a small number. I mean, a million, two million people is a significant number.




The ICC has made it harder for diplomats They can’t meet with President Bashir in Europe because once a person’s indicted, you can’t meet with them anymore. How do you conduct diplomacy with a head of state who’s under indictment?




Secondly, we knew that this might happen. In every attempt we’ve made to put pressure on the regime, there’s been a blowback by the regime, in other words a counterattack by the regime. This is not the first time this has happened. When President Bush put the new sanctions, which I helped design, on the regime in place, there were a whole series of reactions by the government that were quite brutal, very destabilizing and very dangerous. I didn’t understand at the time what was going on, and then we did the divestiture bill; the same thing happened, and so it’s a pattern that they believe when they’re attacked they need to attack ten times more brutally and with more ferocity.




And so I think we now can see, the ICC indictment of President Bashir, that putting pressure on the regime is counterproductive. It is not bringing us closer to a peace agreement. It’s endangering the humanitarian mission. There are 2.7 million people in those camps. We need a peace agreement to get them out of the camps, back to their homes. We need a peace agreement to be enforced between the north and the south that pulls the country back together again.




So I think we should be looking at a political solution not at regime change or justice. We have a choice between justice or peace. We can’t have both. If you have justice, you may have hundreds of thousands of more people killed. I’m not prepared to do that. I think we should choose peace first.




What do you think the effect on the world will be with involvement of western governments?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, it depends on what that involvement is. When we negotiated the North/South agreement, which again 2.5 million people died in that war, almost all of them were southerners, and some of the atrocities that were committed were horrific. It seems to me that our role and the role of the British, Norwegian governments and the neighboring African countries in the North/South Peace Agreement was constructive. It put the Sudanese in the front line of getting the country’s political system fixed, not us.




We were facilitators. When they reached a logjam, they couldn’t fix, we came in with compromises. We helped finance the peace talks. We brought people there, but we didn’t conduct the negotiations. We put subtle pressure but not confrontational pressure on them. I think that’s what we should do in the current situation. I think the regime change, confrontation, military intervention is going to result in more deaths, and we’re already seeing the consequences of it now.




I’ve told the ICC leadership this is a mistake, and they said, “Peace is not our problem. Our problem is justice, and we’re not interested in the political or the diplomatic consequences.” And I think you have to consider in circumstances where a war is going on what the political and diplomatic consequences are of indicting a head of state who’s got an army, a vast secret police network, and weapons systems and oil revenues to defend himself. And I don’t think the ICC did that.




What are your thoughts on a U.S. military presence in Darfur?



Ambassador Natsios:

I see nothing that would be solved by that. In fact, I think it would be worse than Iraq in terms of the consequence. One, there’s a sizeable portion of the population, maybe half of it, Arabs, that do not want us there. They are allies of the government and they will attack us. Secondly, Darfur is the size of France. We would have to put a vast force there. What would their mission be when they went, to protect the 2.7 million people in the camps? They may not be in the camps very long.




We cannot bring a political solution to Sudan if the Sudanese government believes they’re being invaded. The problem with Sudan right now is a political problem, and it needs to be resolved through political means not through military means unless they start massacring. If they start massacring people on a large scale like they did in 2003 and ’04, that’s a different matter.




Then we may need some sort of military response that does not involve putting troops on the ground. American troops should not be on the ground, period. There are other means of projecting military force than infantry troops on the ground. I won’t go into them because I don’t want to compromise potential discussions in Washington.




The death rates in Darfur prior to the arrest warrant for Bashir, was about 150 people a month getting killed. A third of those were Arabs killing other Arabs. They’re not Africans who were the subject of the atrocities earlier. So we’re not seeing the kinds of things in the last three years that we saw the first two years, 2003 and ’04, which were massive ethnic cleansing campaigns in which 2,700 villages were burned down.




Tens of thousands of people were massacred, 200,000 people died of exposure, dehydration, and starvation when their villages were burned down, and there were no NGOs around to support them in the camps. And there were young men just shot, and women were raped. They are not doing that on a large scale right now, haven’t been for several years now. And I think part of the problem with the advocacy campaign in the United States is they’re fixed on what happened the first two years instead of realizing that the civil war has mutated into a different phase or a different form.




We still need to do something about it, but what we need now is a political settlement. If there was gonna be a military intervention, it should’ve been the first two years.




How do you have a peaceful political discussion when the President denies his involvement or his regime’s involvement in the situation?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, the political settlement would have to be not on who accepts responsibility for what. The North/South Peace Agreement has no war crimes trials in it. It’s 125-page document; the word justice is never mentioned. Okay. It’s a political settlement in which the southerners participate in the national government. The south has a semiautonomous government. They get 50 percent of the oil revenues; they were getting nothing before because most of the oil is in the south, but they weren’t getting the benefit of that.




There’s a set of arrangements, political arrangements, around elections, a new constitution, representation for the southerners in the national assembly and in the national executive branch, issues around representation. These are political and constitutional and representational issues. They’re not issues about prosecuting people for having committed war crimes, which they clearly committed. There’s no doubt the Sudanese government was behind this, but my point is if we had demanded the Sudanese government put in provisions in the North/South Peace Agreement on justice, we would never have a peace agreement, and the war would be continuing.




After 20 years of civil war between the north and south, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was enacted in 2005. What effect has this had on the current situation?



Ambassador Natsios:

There’s no war. I’ve been going to southern Sudan for 20 years. I’ve seen the aftermath of massacres. I saw mass displacement of populations. There’s no displacement of population now. There’s no war; no one’s getting killed. People are returning to their homes. Health clinics are being built. Roads are being built. Schools are being built. A university’s being built in Juba now in the southern capital, so the society is healing from the war.




Have all the provisions of the CPA, the comprehensive, been implemented by the North? No, they have not been. But is the society at peace? Yes. They’ve gotten $4 billion in oil revenues. They were getting nothing before. If you send $4 billion into a poor, underdeveloped area, and the money is spent well – not all of it is being spent well – you can do some really important things to save people’s lives, to improve the health and raise literacy. In many of the provinces in the south, illiteracy rate is 97 percent. There are no schools at all.




How do you modernize a society and develop a society with a 97 percent illiteracy rate? You have to build schools. You can see the growth of the economy and jobs being created and businesses starting and all that. So I think peace is a reward in and of itself.




A few years ago, Congress passed legislation that would allow states and private investors in the U.S. to cut their investment ties with Sudan. Has this made a difference?



Ambassador Natsios:

It is one of the pieces of evidence that we had that our means of pressure against the Sudanese is not working. And I was an advocate of divestiture, which is what you’re talking about, at one point. And I realized it’s been a mistake, and the sanctions I put together were a mistake because of what happened afterwards.




After the divestiture bill was signed by President Bush in mid-December 2007, the Sudanese government launched an attack to overthrow the government in Chad. The Sudanese military went in and massacred 20 African Union peacekeepers. They did the worst bombing campaign against villages since the war started in 2003 and the immediate aftermath.




If the effect of the divestiture bill was supposed to be to restrain them, it had the opposite effect. The violence increased just as it’s increasing now. That’s not what people want to hear who worked on the divestiture legislation, but I assembled the data. I didn’t make it up. I’ve changed my own position and it’s based on the empirical evidence which is what we have to do. We have to stop thinking like Americans because we’re not dealing with Americans. We’re dealing with Sudan, and in Sudan the way the regime reacts to pressure is to punch you back ten times harder than you punched them. That’s their reaction.




In 2007 you met with government officials in Beijing. Do you believe the Chinese will ever do anything to convince the Sudanese government to end the conflict in Darfur?



Ambassador Natsios:

Two diplomatic moves I made that were that put pressure on the Sudanese government without being confrontational, one of them was a trip to China. Why is that? All we can do is tell by their reaction. The most angry reaction to anything I did as envoy was my trip to Beijing where I announced the Chinese and the United States were going to cooperate.




By constantly bashing the Chinese for not doing enough, we’re making the Sudanese government feel good. It means the Chinese aren’t cooperating with the Americans. The fear is and this is all psycho’, diplomacy is psychology. It’s not a matter of what the reality is. All that counts is the psychological effect. The psychological effect of my trip to Beijing was to psych-out the Sudanese government.




They were alarmed that some kind of deal was being made with their top ally, China, and the United States, which they see as their principal adversary. I think by constantly hitting the Chinese for not doing enough, we are making the Sudanese government feel better, and we’re reducing the pressure on them and showing the world and the Sudanese that there’s a gulf between the Chinese and us. In fact, the Chinese have huge investments in Sudan. They want peace. They don’t want any of this stuff going on. It’s not good for business.




Are the Chinese into human rights the way we are? Probably not. Does that mean we can’t cooperate with them? No, we can cooperate with them, but they’re not going to do the same things we do. They’ll never do the same things the way we do in the United States. Even other democracies don’t care as much as we do abut this stuff. So I think we should rethink how we’re dealing with the Chinese on this.




I have been complimentary to the Chinese ‘cause in fact they have been helpful. They convinced Bashir to back down on one of the U.N. resolutions in July of ’07 that allows the U.N. and A.U. troops to come in. He was gonna stonewall it. President Hu basically said “Stop, you need to allow these troops in,” and Bashir backed down. So they have played a role, but they’re never going do it in public. They will not broadcast it because the Chinese diplomacy is always done quietly, behind the scenes, with subtlety.




We need to accept the Chinese for what they are. They’re not the United States. They are not going to become the United States and use that relationship in the most helpful way to bring a political settlement to Sudan.




What is the current status of the U.N./A.U. hybrid peacekeeping force?



Ambassador Natsios:

More troops have come in. I think there are Egyptian troops, Ethiopian, Rwandan and Nigerian, more troops. I don’t know what the actual number is; I haven’t looked at them recently, but they gradually have been coming in. However, after the arrest warrants were announced by the ICC, I don’t think we’ll see any more U.N. troops going into Darfur.




You have said that to end the crisis in Sudan what are needed are resources, accessibility and security. Has there been any progress?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, in terms of resources there’s been a substantial increase. I started a program at the request of President Bush, to begin a military assistance program to southern Sudan so they can create a deterrent to a potential northern attack when the south votes on whether to secede from Sudan and become an independent country in 2011. Under the CPA, the north has agreed to this, but because all the oil’s in the south, the north thinks they’re at risk if the south secedes.




And so the north may try to militarily block it by attacking the south. We need to strengthen the south militarily. We now have an $80 million program to reorganize them, train them, to show them tactics and strategies, and to take a guerrilla force and make it into a conventional force.




We have an aid program that used to be under $60 million, and I think it’s around $300 million now. So there are clearly more resources going in. There’s a much larger AID and U.S. State Department presence in Juba, the southern capital, and a much larger presence of the U.S. government officials in Darfur monitoring what’s going on. So is there better security? No, there won’t be better security until there’s a political settlement.




Like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s and the genocide in Darfur in the 21 st century will long be remembered as examples of enormous human tragedy. What advice do you have for the civilized world that might prevent similar events?



Ambassador Natsios:

Well, there is a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on the Prevention of Genocide. I sat on one of the committees. The Task Force issued a report and I would recommend the report to you. It goes into the tools available to American policymakers to prevent genocide. I think you need to look at the local context. In the case of Rwanda, the genocide was being organized through a radio station called Radio Mille Collines. It was giving the instructions on who would be massacred day by day.




I was in the NGO community at that point, and I talked to people at the Pentagon. This was in May of 1994, and I urged them to blow up the radio station. They said, “Oh, we can’t do that. It’s a violation of First Amendment.” The First Amendment does not apply to other countries, and it certainly doesn’t apply in the middle of a genocide. If we had blown up the radio station, it would’ve sent a message.




I think it would’ve slowed down the whole process of the massacres. But we didn’t have something like that in Darfur that we could’ve taken action or that would’ve been relatively simple. Each circumstance is different, and therefore, your tactics have to be different. But if you want to read a set of instruments available to policymakers, read the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on the Prevention of Genocide. I would urge you to do that.