Afghanistan On Obama's Agenda At NATO Summit

President Obama has hard road ahead as he flies to a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Robert Siegel speaks with Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, about the summit scheduled to begin Friday. Conferees will discuss NATO participation in establishing a secure Afghanistan. They will also discuss a new security concept for the alliance in the 21st century. Burns talks about the difficulties confronting President Obama as he tries to coordinate U.S. policies with those of other NATO members.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now President Obama, newly constraint by Republican electoral successes, faces a summit with the NATO Allies. NATO ostensibly runs the show in Afghanistan, but impatience with the combat mission there runs deeper in many NATO member-countries than it does here.

Joining us to talk about the U.S., NATO, Afghanistan and other matters, is Nicholas Burns, who used to be undersecretary of State and the top career diplomat at State. He's now a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Welcome to the program, once again.

Professor NICHOLAS BURNS (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And we've just heard a democratic critic of the U.S. policy express skepticism about the aim to end the combat mission by 2014, but to be conditions based. Do you think NATO support of the U.S. and Afghanistan can be maintained for that long in a significant substantive way?

Prof. BURNS: I doubt it very much. Robert, I was the American ambassador to NATO in 2003, when we made the decision all of us Europeans, Canadians and Americans - to go in to Afghanistan. It's seven years later and what we found is vastly declining public support in the European countries for the Afghan mission. Most of the European political leaders don't even make the strategic argument to their own people about why we should be there, why we should be in the place from which we were attacked on 9/11.

And even more importantly, a lot of the promises that were made to the United States, that Europe would come to our support through that NATO mission have not materialize. Most of the Major continental European countries: Germany, Italy, Spain - two a lesser extent, France, are not in the combat areas in the east and south. They refuse to serve in those places. And I am afraid that President Obama, who I think has a very well-intentioned policy in Afghanistan, has not received the support from Europe that he truly deserves.

SIEGEL: Some Americans put a brave face on that and say if they're doing training, then they're contributing vitally to what the mission is turning into. You're saying the U.S. could really use with more assistance there.

Prof. BURNS: There's no question about it. You know, our troops and British and Canadian troops, Dutch troops, are in Kandahar and Orozgan and Helmand Provinces in the south. They're in the east along the border with Pakistan. They're bearing the brunt of this vicious war with the Taliban, where we've seen American and other casualties mount.

But these major European countries have not made that decision. It's a source of great bitterness at NATO. You can imagine on the part of countries like our own who have put our troops in peril, and to see some of the major European countries not make that decision is a source of huge dissatisfaction.

SIEGEL: Apart from Afghanistan, it now appears that Senate Republicans will block President Obama from getting quick ratification in this Congress of the new START Treaty with Russia. When you spoke here last, new START was just signed back in March. The U.S. and Russia were resetting relations. How will this new impasse with Moscow play in Europe?

Prof. BURNS: Well, I think this START Treaty is fundamentally important to the American position, not only with Russia but globally. Because we ought to want to reduce the level of nuclear arms between the two countries that possess 96 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world - the U.S. and Russia. This treaty, in my judgment, is in the best bipartisan tradition.

I was with President George H. W. Bush in January of 1993, just before he left office to sign the first treaty. And so, it seems to me that if the Senate can't materialize the 67 votes needed to ratify the agreement, it's going to be a big blow to U.S. relations with Russia, and I think to U.S. credibility in the nuclear issue.

And so, one would hope that President Obama would receive sufficient Republican support for what normally would be considered to be bipartisan in this country.

SIEGEL: Just one other issue. Briefly, is NATO likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with Washington on Iran, on dealing with Iran?

Prof. BURNS: I think there were going to see much more resolute European support. France under Nikola Sarkozy has been stalwart. And the British and German governments have all supported the U.S. sanctions and the U.S. negotiations. So we're trying to negotiate with Iran. But at the same time, we're sanctioning and trying to pressure Iran to encourage them to negotiate. And, of course, holding out the ultimate option of the use of military force. I think we'll see if the Europe and America see eye-to-eye on that issue.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. BURNS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Professor Nicholas Burns of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is the former U.S. undersecretary of State.

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