Interview With the Washington Diplomat

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
October 9, 2009

QUESTION: (In progress) to the middle of it.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We welcomed the end of the fighting that took place in May, but we now feel that it is incumbent on the government to win the peace.


We have focused our diplomacy on encouraging three different aspects of that. First, to encourage the government to resettle the internally displaced people, 250,000 of them, as quickly as possible back to their homes and also to allow them freedom of movement while they remain in the IDP camps; second, to pursue political reconciliation with the Tamils and Muslims so that they feel that they will be able to lead a life of respect and dignity and opportunity in a unified Sri Lanka; and third, that the government make a concerted effort to reduce human rights abuses and improve accountability since we believe those would be very key parts of the reconciliation process.


QUESTION: Does the United States still not have a ban on military assistance in the country?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Restrictions do remain on military assistance because of human rights problems and also because of some lingering problems regarding the recruitment of child soldiers by a paramilitary that is operating in the East.


QUESTION: Right. Are you concerned that the government is kind of in a way glorifying their victory and kind of lauding it over the Tamils now? Is there any concern that they’ve engaged in this excessive propaganda?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I wouldn’t want to use the term glorifying. I would just go back to what I said earlier, that it’s important for them to pursue political reconciliation so that the Tamils feel like they will have a place of respect and dignity and that they will have the same rights as all other Sri Lankans.


QUESTION: Right. What about restrictions on those organizations in this country that were said to be supporting the Tamil, the Tigers, are those kind of gone?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, those remain in effect. The LTTE has long been declared a foreign terrorist organization in the United States.




ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: And even though many of its leaders have been killed or captured, we have no indication that the LTTE has stopped its activities.


QUESTION: Oh really?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No. I mean there haven’t been new terrorist incidents, but there hasn’t been a formal announcement that the LTTE is, you know, no longer functioning. So I think we’re in a kind of a transition period now. And we think, again, the government has a unique opportunity to end terrorism by taking the steps that I outlined above.


QUESTION: How long were you in Sri Lanka total, three years?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: A little under three years, yes.


QUESTION: Have you gone back since your new posting?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I haven’t been back, no. I’ve been busy traveling around to all the other countries in my new areas of responsibility.


QUESTION: How many are there?




QUESTION: Which are? Maybe we can list them quickly. India, Sri Lanka --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s the five -- all the South Asian countries and then the five Central Asian countries.


QUESTION: Not Pakistan?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not Pakistan and not Afghanistan.


QUESTION: Okay. That’s probably a relief to you. Not Afghanistan and not Bangladesh either?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, no, Bangladesh is part of my portfolio.


QUESTION: Oh, Bangladesh, yes.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct. I can -- let’s see, it’s Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives -- am I missing one? Maldives is six and then the five Central Asian countries.


QUESTION: Okay. What’s your priority? Is there any way to prioritize this list?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We have several priorities. I would say the top most priority right now is to advance our strategic partnership with India which we see as one of our most important friends for the 21st Century.


We’ve always had a very strong bilateral relationship over the last several years. And increasingly we are focusing on multilateral cooperation to address such challenges as nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and global trade. But we are encouraged that India wants to be part of the solution to these challenges and is working constructively with us on them.


QUESTION: You spent three years in India, correct?




QUESTION: In New Delhi?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I did as a Deputy Chief of Mission there from 2003 to 2006. Do you want -- let me list the priorities, then we can go back.


QUESTION: Yeah. And then I’d like an updated C.V. if I can get it.




QUESTION: Oh okay.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The second priority is to support our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the countries in the South and Central Asian region have an important role to play in supporting stabilization efforts in both of those countries.


Third. We want to expand our relations with the states of Central Asia. We plan a series of annual bilateral consultation with each of those countries to address all of the issues on our bilateral agendas and try to advance those through expanded engagement with them.


QUESTION: Okay, can we start with the first one on the strategic partnership with India?




QUESTION: Since you obviously know India, you lived there, there’s been a lot of talk of the nuclear non-proliferation. And also some politicians in India are calling for a renewal of nuclear testing that would put that agreement in immediate danger. What’s the U.S. -- is there an official view on this? And what could be done to make sure that India doesn’t go back to testing?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think the government itself has made clear that they intend to keep their own self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing, and we certainly welcome that. And thus far we are cooperating on the civil nuclear cooperation agenda that was begun in the previous administration. The Obama Administration remains committed to fulfilling that effort as Secretary Clinton made clear during her recent visit to India earlier this summer. And we are looking forward to an announcement by India that it will designate two reactor park sites for American companies and pass liability legislation that will enable American companies to dramatically increase their presence in India to help that country to a cleaner energy future.


QUESTION: That’s interesting. I also read that the Indian Government is allowing up to 26 percent investment in its military, in its defense industry opening the door for all kinds of defense possibilities with U.S. companies.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. I would say, again, American companies are very interested at the possibilities of doing more business in India. One of the important outcomes of the Secretary’s visit was the agreement on end-use monitoring, and this is one of a series of steps that have been taken on both sides that will enable our two defense industries to work more closely together.


QUESTION: Would you consider this to be one of the most lucrative markets for defense contractors now?




QUESTION: A lot of their stuff is old, outdated, obsolete equipment, a lot of Soviet parts?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, increasingly they’re acquiring a lot of very modern equipment and there are some very important sales that are coming up such as the multi-role combat aircraft sale, but there are many others.


QUESTION: How big is that in dollars?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The 126 fighter aircraft is a multi-billion dollar sale. You know, it’s hard to put up an exact number on it because there different configurations that are being --


QUESTION: But this still -- I mean there has to be concern that a country that has not signed a non-proliferation agreement is allowed to develop its defense industry.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that India, again, has -- the underlying rationale for the civil nuclear agreement that we had and continue to have is that India has always been a very strong support of non-proliferation and itself has never sold any of its nuclear technology to any other countries. And India itself has said that they support the President’s ambitions to try to forge an agreement to create a nuclear weapons free world. So we consider them to be very important potential partners in this policy.


QUESTION: The other priority you mentioned about Afghanistan and Pakistan, can you maybe talk a little bit about that? You know, India suffered huge losses on its embassy that’s just been bombed.




QUESTION: They have taken -- when we interviewed the Ambassador, she was talking about the billions of dollars that India spent in trying to help Afghanistan.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. India has invested $1.2 billion in helping to provide reconstruction in Afghanistan. We welcomed the assistance they’ve provided.


India also has an important role to play in trying to forge peace with Pakistan that would enable that country to really focus its efforts on the real threat in Pakistan which is that posed by the militants who are in the FATAand the Northwest Frontier Provinces. But Pakistan must also pay an important role in bringing to justice the suspects that have been arrested for their involvement in the Mumbai bombings and also in curbing cross-border infiltration as Pakistan successfully did earlier in this decade.


QUESTION: You have a lot of territory to cover not just in terms of numbers of countries but huge populations.




QUESTION: Enormous populations. How are you spending your time? Are you literally traveling to every single country in the region?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes, very much so. But I have the benefit of a terrific staff and terrific Ambassadors out in the field, so they do a lot of the work.


QUESTION: How often are you actually on the road in this new post?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: One to two weeks a month I travel much to the chagrin sometimes of my baby daughters.


QUESTION: I can imagine. How old are the kids?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Three, six and eight.


QUESTION: They speak Tamil probably, (inaudible) a little bit?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, no, a little bit.


QUESTION: What about Central Asia, we almost never hear about the Stans. It’s so kind of forgotten, Kurdistan, Uzbekistan. We don’t --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, they’re certainly not forgotten for the United States. We have always supported the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states. American companies see very important opportunities in many of the Central Asian countries, particularly Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.




ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: And all of the Central Asian countries are playing helpful roles in helping to stabilize Afghanistan through efforts on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and supporting our efforts to deliver non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan through what’s called the Northern Distribution Network.


QUESTION: Since the change of administration, have you seen any change in attitude on the part of average everyday people living in these countries towards the United States?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I -- it’s hard to say if there’s a change. I’d say that they -- all of them have welcomed the new administration. I think there’s still very strong support for the people of the United States and for the values that we represent in all of these countries, in Central Asia, in India and in many of the other countries in my portfolio.


There’s sometimes a misunderstanding about the policies that we’re pursuing. So I think we need to sometimes do a better job of articulating what those policies are and what we’re doing to help support all of the people of these countries.


QUESTION: What about China? We haven’t talked anything about China yet. And I’m wondering -- there seems to be, you know, always been a rivalry between India and China in the region and both countries’ economies seem to be doing very well despite the state of the world economy.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: When you say “in the region,” you mean in South Asia or Central Asia or --


QUESTION: Well, in Asia in general vying for influence in the region. Can you just maybe address China’s role?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would say that China is an increasingly important player both in South Asia and in Central Asia. And China is a country that we want to work closely with and consult closely with just as we want to work closely and consult with Russia.


So one of my priorities will be to visit both Russia and China and to maintain active consultations with the embassies here because in many cases we have similar interests, and it’s important that we combine our efforts as much as possible particularly on these important challenges like the stabilization of Afghanistan and, you know, the very, very important efforts to remove the safe havens from Pakistan.


QUESTION: Right. I wanted to ask you also about the administration’s perceived switch in strategy to recognize that we’re not going to get rid of the Taliban any time soon, so focus efforts on al-Qaida and even allowing the Taliban to stay in power, you know, just don’t make trouble. It may not be exactly that but --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think you’re getting a little bit ahead of our own process here. As you know, the President has ordered a very extensive strategic review of our policy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that will encompass more than simply General McChrystal’s requests but take a hard look at the overall strategy, what we’re seeking to accomplish. And I don’t want to predict where that’s going to come out. The President is taking a very serious look at all of these things with Secretary Clinton and all the senior members of his cabinet, and he’s made clear that he’ll do this in a systematic way and that a decision will be forthcoming in several weeks time.


QUESTION: What about the threat of terrorism against U.S. interests? After the Mumbai attacks, you know, Pakistan said it had nothing to do with it. Of course, the evidence seems to point otherwise. And you said that you will be pushing for Pakistan to full accountability for what happened.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, that’s what India is pushing for, but we are as well. I think for the first time in a long time we and India and Pakistan have very similar interests in this regard. And Pakistan itself has said that it does not want to have its territory to be used as a platform for terrorism. We welcome the steps that Pakistan has taken already in the Swat Valley and some of the initial steps it has already taken in South Waziristan. And more importantly, we think that it’s important that the Pakistani people have expressed support for those steps that have been taken and have also made clear their revulsion for the tactics and the policies of the Taliban. So we think those will help provide the political support that is so crucial to any country to pursue counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism efforts.


QUESTION: Real quickly, what’s happening with Kashmir? Any progress on that front?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: This is something that the two countries will have to work out between themselves. I think both India and Pakistan are focused primarily now on the issues we talked about earlier, that is first to bring the Mumbai suspects to trial and then also to stop cross-border infiltration. Those could then provide the basis for renewed bilateral talks between the two governments on a wider range of issues.


QUESTION: But they still pursue each other’s --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, let me finish. Of course, it will be up to them to determine when they want to discuss Kashmir, if they want to discuss Kashmir. But I think that that’s among the more contentious issues on their agenda. So I imagine that will be rather late in the process.


QUESTION: In your opinion, do they still see -- do Indians and Pakistanis perceive each other as the enemy among the rich people?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s a difficult thing to say. I would say that while I was in India I was really struck by the warmth between the Pakistani people and the Indian people.




ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Remember they were all one country not so long ago. And in this period between 2004 and 2006, 2007, there were a lot of people-to-people initiatives that were undertaken. For example, the Indian cricket team went to Pakistan.


QUESTION: I remember, yeah.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: And they were received with great enthusiasm and great warmth by the Pakistani people. And I remember many Indian fans went with the cricket team, and they all came back recounting that Pakistanis that they’d never met before insisted on inviting them back to their homes and buying them meals. And they really understood how much they have in common and how much there is that unites these two countries.


QUESTION: Interesting.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So I think that’s a very important thing for everybody to remember. And I think that Prime Minister Sing and President Zardari both have that in their minds and are looking for opportunities to improve relations.


QUESTION: As a former Ambassador now and having lived in India, what qualities do you think you have that make you, you know, special for this job, this region?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m not very good about talking about myself.


QUESTION: Well, we have to. It’s a profile.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t like to talk about myself.




ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would just say, you know, of course I have some experience in the region and --


QUESTION: You were shot at, too.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m not sure that qualifies one to be a senior diplomat but --


QUESTION: But it was minor. Remember you told me it wasn’t a big deal.




QUESTION: It was minor. When you travel are you meeting with officials like counterparts or do you meet with average, regular people also?






ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I make it a point to not only meet with government leaders but also to try to always meet with civil society leaders and also to get out and travel around and visit our assistance projects that we’re doing in every country and then always try to meet with the press as well to hear their perspectives.


QUESTION: So far in your travels can you think of a couple of -- some -- anything that stands out in your mind as fascinating, colorful, interesting, memorable?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: One of my most interesting experiences was Tajikistan where I went out to visit a water users association that has been supported by USAID in Tajikistan and in fact in other countries.


Tajikistan is a country in which many of its men are now overseas working primarily in Russia. Up to a million men are now outside of the country.


QUESTION: Sending money home?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Remitting money. Remittances are a very important part of the Tajik economy. So women have a very important role to play in Tajikistan. And these water user associations benefit greatly from the leadership skills of women. And I think women have proven themselves to be very adroit leaders and managers, and I was very pleased to see that in Tajikistan. These are a way forward not only for enhancing the role of women but also for offering new models of local governance and new models for good cooperation between non-governmental organizations and associations and the government.


QUESTION: Interesting. Any other kinds of interesting projects you’ve visited in other countries that you could name?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I mean I haven’t had that much time really to travel around all these countries, so these are really just initial impressions. But another fascinating undertaking is what we’re doing in Bangladesh to help that country to reform the curricula of the Madrasas.


QUESTION: Oh okay, Islamic schools.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. In many Muslim countries, we’ve found that the Madrasas welcome our involvement. So we’ve become increasingly active in providing English language training programs which open up new opportunities for them to enhance their own education and their own future employment opportunities but also open a whole new world of knowledge outside the sometimes narrow curricula of the Madrasas.


QUESTION: So you visited some of these Madrasas?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. And then also in Bangladesh, it’s quite interesting that the government itself is working productively with the leaders of these Madrasas to try to reform the curricula, to make them more relevant to the needs of the students in these Madrasas so that when they graduate they’ll be able to compete in the increasingly globalized economy that Bangladesh now has. So I would say that those are two very good and very interesting examples of projects that I’ve been very impressed with.


QUESTION: I know we’re probably running out of time. Have you encountered any virulent anti-American feelings in your travels or in this job?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: In my recent job? I have seen it. For example, when I was in the DCM in India, I made it a point to go out and visit Madrasas a lot around the country precisely because they were known to be centers of anti-American thinking.




ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So I wanted to talk to them and engage them and find out why that was the case. For example, I once went out and spent five hours in Deoband, which is one of the most important schools and Madrasas in Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the largest states in India. They have a large Muslim population. And a lot of their dislike of the United States was based on misconceptions and based on bad information or outdated information. And the fact that a senior American diplomat was willing to go out and talk to them, listen to them and answer their concerns and respond to their concerns I think was impressive to them. I can’t say that I changed all of their attitudes overnight, but we began a conversation that we intend to continue. And I think that’s a very important thing for all of America’s diplomats to do and all of America’s citizens to do is to treat people who sometimes think poorly of us with respect and to try to answer their concerns as directly as we can. And that’s something that the President himself is known for.




ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: And that was really, I think, what underlay his speech that he gave in Cairo that had such resonance around the world.


QUESTION: This was when you were in India not in your current job?




QUESTION: How many countries have you served in now in the Foreign Service?


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You know, I haven’t counted them up. You can count them up on my --


QUESTION: I will. And how old are you?




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