Print This Post
26 March 2011, Gateway House

“No political connectivity between BRICS”

Frank Wisner, the legendary US diplomat who was not only President Barack Obama's special envoy to Egypt but also a former ambassador to India, discusses the outlook for Egypt, resolving the mayhem in the Middle East and India-Pakistan relations in a Gateway House exclusive.

post image

Frank G. Wisner, a veteran U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt, the Philippines, Zambia and India, remains one of the best-known diplomats in India.  Most recently, Ambassador Wisner visited Egypt for President Barack Obama to argue for a peaceful, orderly transition amid protests against Mubarak’s thirty-year rule. He met there with Mubarak.  The constitutional referendum in Egypt, Ambassador Wisner believes, is a step towards a democratic system.

Q: How do you see the transition in Egypt from dictatorship to democracy?  The Muslim Brotherhood will certainly play a role, but will it play a constitutional role?

We are obviously in early days, I can’t be entirely sure how the Egyptian political system will evolve, but I believe that in their holding a constitutional referendum on March 19, the Egyptians have taken a first step. Dates for parliamentary elections and then a presidential poll have also been set. Between now and September, you will see political parties take new life; candidates for the presidency will emerge. The press will be vigorous and free.

Egypt’s instincts are to achieve stability — to sort herself out. I am hopeful that Egypt will come through this with a democratic system, but there are lots of unanswered questions: What will the role of the Muslim Brotherhood be? How will the army see its role going forward? Will the economy be disrupted? Basically, I am an optimist about Egypt, and I believe that Egypt’s instincts will take her towards stability and a higher level of democratic participation.

Q: Monarchies in the Arab world and most of the Gulf seem immune to dismissal, unlike the Hosni Mubaraks [of Egypt], the Ben Alis [of Tunisia] and the Ali Abdullah Salehs [of Yemen]. How stable is the Saudi monarchy? What do you think will happen in Saudi Arabia?

I believe that the Saudi monarchy is well organized, coherent, has a set of forward looking policies, and enjoys legitimacy with its population. It is taking rather energetic measures to address popular needs and it is spending a great deal of money. Of course, like all Arab societies, Saudi Arabia too will change over time. But I tend to think it will be a slower, more orderly change—it will be more evolutionary than revolutionary;  because of the success of the Saudi monarchical system. In short, I would bet on Saudi stability in the years ahead and a vigorous Saudi role in stabilizing the region.

Q: How has the situation in Libya affected the U.S.’s withdrawal plans from Afghanistan and Libya?  U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates  said it was dangerous for the U.S. to get involved in another ground war. After the intervention in Libya, why is force such an integral part of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Islamic world? How does the U.S. resolve problems in the Islamic world?

I have a lot of trouble with that question. I think the American intervention in Libya is a part of the international mandate called for by the Arab League and provided for by the United Nations Security Council. It is not a unilateral American initiative; it is now  under NATO leadership. It is an allied, European effort that has Arab participation and could not be more different from the American intervention in Iraq.

The U.S. is trying to improve its image. We have a reputational deficit, not to put too fine a point on it. We can only improve our standing in the eyes of Muslims by being clear that we are open to and respectful of Islamic values, traditions. Inside the United States, Americans need to be proud, as I am, that we are a multicultural and multi-religious society. Internationally, we have no quarrel with Islam. We have a quarrel with those who practice violence.

I think repairing America’s image will take a long time.  There will be a reduction in the use of force . The President has announced plans to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya, I am absolutely certain, is a short-term intervention to protect human life, not to begin an occupation. We need to make that clear if we want to sustain Arab and Muslim support for the campaign in Libya.

Q: Were you surprised by India’s refusal to vote for the UN action against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime?

No, I wasn’t surprised that India had reservations about voting for a resolution over the use of force, even for the protection of human life. To many Indians, it meant the intervention of one nation in another nation’s affairs. India has long been hostile to such undertakings.

Q: Do you see a BRIC coalition emerging against the U.S. and its allies on issues like military intervention and regime change?

No, I see common interests between India, Brazil, China and Russia but I don’t see a political coherence in thee line up. I doubt one is going to emerge. I think India’s ties with Washington are important. She will want to preserve her ties with Europe, and it doesn’t mean that she won’t have good ties with the Brazilians. The same is true of Brazil, China and Russia. There is no political connectivity between BRIC powers.

Q: Indians think the U.S. is pushing Prime Minister Singh, regarded as one of the most pro-U.S. leaders in many years, to engage with Pakistan.  But some observers see it  as a failing state and perhaps, not worth effort. Do you share that pessimism?

You know that the U.S. is going to argue for peace and understanding in the subcontinent. I was very pleased to pick up my newspapers and see that Dr. Singh has invited the Pakistani Prime Minister to come to this country and observe the cricket match. Like Indians, Americans hope you can find common ground with Pakistan.

Q: When you were ambassador to India, you met with Kashmiri separatist leaders like Shabbir Shah and engaged with them. The current U.S. ambassador visited Kashmir last week, but refused to meet any separatist leader. Does this indicate an altered American policy on Kashmir in which the U.S. is inclined to go with the Indian government rather than encourage any notion of American support, tacit or otherwise, for the separatist agenda?

I have not talked to [U.S. Ambassador] Roemer about his visit to Kashmir. The U.S. regards the Kashmir issue as we traditionally describe it. It has not changed and I am certain Ambassador Roemer broke no new ground.

Frank G. Wisner, a veteran U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt, the Philippines, Zambia and India, remains one of the best-known diplomats in India

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2011 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,