Donilon on U.S.-Egyptian relations: "It is a challenge"

During an interview with FP CEO David Rothkopf today, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reflected on America's relationship with post-revolutionary Egypt, which, in recent weeks, has earned U.S. approval for its role in resolving the Israel-Hamas conflict and provoked U.S. concern over President Mohamed Morsy's controversial expansion of his powers. Donilon said he thought bilateral relations have "gone pretty well" so far but admitted that managing the partnership has been "a challenge" for both countries:

You couldn't have contemplated two-and-a-half years ago that the United States would [have] as its principal interlocutor in Egypt, running the government, a Muslim Brotherhood president. It's a fundamental change. And it is a challenge to our diplomacy to broaden out our relationship in the society and to forge a relationship with this new government. And it's a challenge for them too. New to government. How do they keep their economy together? Keep their polity together? And to date I think it's gone pretty well. President Obama and President Morsy have a pretty good relationship.

Donilon noted that the United States expects Egypt to uphold its peace treaty with Israel and cooperate on counterterrorism, adding that the biggest obstacle facing Egypt is economics, not politics:

The big challenge for them ... is really economics. Egypt in the Arab world right now is really the main game. There are substantial economic challenges coming out of the revolution. They are working through their work with the IMF, which is going to be very important. And that's going to require Egypt though to have a face to the world, if you will, that is welcoming to outside investors and economic relationships. 

"It's an entirely different way of diplomacy when it comes to Egypt right now than we had for three decades," he observed.

On America's fraught relations with Pakistan, Donilon argued that, at the moment, "we don't have a crisis between the United States and Pakistan - some individual crisis that we're having to deal with." That means there can be a "broader, more strategic discussion" about the partnership, he maintained:

At the end of the day is there really a strategic divergence between the interests of Pakistan and the United States? What [are] the points of friction? How can Pakistan support, for example, reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan and do so in a sincere way? How can Pakistan do more to deal with the safe haven issue which we have across the border? And these discussions are ongoing now, and I think we're at a period here where we don't have a front-and-center crisis, if you will, that's taking all the political oxygen."

Back in October, during the third presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer asked whether it was "time for us to divorce Pakistan." It seems the Obama administration's answer is no.

David Y. Lee for FP

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Longterm optimism on Russia from Berger and Khalilzad

One of the themes of today's event is looking beyond the day's headlines to focus on longer-term trends. Along those lines, it was interesting to hear former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and former Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad give surprisingly optimistic takes on the future of U.S.-Russia relations. Here's Berger:

I think you have to separate Putin's posture from his interests. Clearly his posture after the election, and also before the election, was to stick his finger in our eye. That was a way to project strength.

But now he desperately wants the president to come to Moscow. He invited him and was very happy when the president said yes. Putting away the word reset, I don't think the U.S.-Russian relationship is moribund. I think it is in Putin's interest to maintain the relationship.

There are going to be sore spots. He doesn't want NGOs in the Russian political system. He doesn't want us mucking around in democracy and human rights. But I think we'll do business going down the road.

Khalilzad, who also served as ambassador to Afghanistan during the Bush administration, concurred:

The illustration has been the northern corridor into Afghanistan which has been very helpful in resupplying our troops. It's also not out of the question that we will be able to do business with Putin on Syria.