For four years, Gary Samore served as President Obama’s White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction. Samore, now Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, will be the guest lecturer at USF’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies Thursday.
The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Patel Center for Global Solution on USF’s Tampa campus. It is free and open to the public. The conversation will be moderated by USF Professor Mohsen Milani, executive director of USF World’s Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies.
Before his visit, Samore talked to The Tribune about a wide range of issues relating to weapons of mass destruction, including the hunt for Syrian chemical weapons, preventing Iran from getting the bomb and the things that keep him up at night.
QUESTION: What was the situation with Syrian chemical weapons when you left the White House in February?
ANSWER: By the time I left, there had been some reporting, not confirmed, that the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons in very small batches against rebels. We had seen evidence that preparations were being made for larger scale use and we went to the Syrian government, both directly and through the Russian government, to warn (Bashar al-) Assad not to use them. And to the best of our knowledge those private warnings were effective in terms of preventing at least large-scale use. It was clear after I left that Assad’s forces continued to use the chemical weapons in small batches and large-scale use that resulted in significant mass casualties.
Q: President Obama said Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. What effect did that statement have?
A: I think it reflected his genuine conviction that the use of chemical weapons against unprotected civilians is unacceptable behavior. As he has made clear subsequently, he believes the U.S. has an obligation to enforce the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. It is not a position the American public supports, according to polling. The public and Congress are not prepared to directly engage the military for the sake of enforcing that.
Q: Was the threat of military force to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria effective?
A: I think Obama’s threat to use force was credible enough to motivate the Russians to step in with their proposal...If Assad fails to comply, the President is prepared to use military force.
Q: Do you trust the Russians to ensure that the chemical weapons are destroyed?
A: I think the Russians have motivation to remove the chemical weapons. A) they are worried that the use of chemical weapons will lead directly to military intervention and B) they share the American concern that, in the course of a civil war, they could fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups pose a direct threat to Russia.
Q: Destroying chemical weapons, especially in the midst of a horrific civil war that has seen more than 100,000 civilian casualties, is a complex undertaking. What is the next point where this could go off the rails?
A: I think that is coming very soon. By mid-November, according to agreement, the Syrians have to begin destruction of production equipment. That could be done very easily. It is not high tech. If that takes place, it will take away their ability to produce more chemical weapons. We will find out pretty soon if they cooperate in that step.
Q: What about Iranian nuclear ambitions? Could a U.S. military attack stop it and would you support that?
A: If we decided to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, we could substantially destroy or significantly set back their program. We have the military capacity to set them back years. The big question is what would the consequences of such an attack be? One of the main reasons why Obama, and President Bush before him, did not see a military strike as the most attractive option is why use a military strike when we have seen some positive signs from economic sanctions. (Iranian President Hassan) Rouhani’s election is a good indication that the pressure is having some impact. Whether Rouhani can produce a diplomatic deal, the jury is still out.
Q: Is it wise to negotiate with Rouhani when so much of the real power in Iran is behind the scenes, in the forms of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ayatolla?
A: We have to be careful not to allow negotiations to proceed endlessly and the way to do that is to make it clear to the Iranians that if we do not see progress we will proceed with additional sanctions.
Q: What’s one of the things that keeps you up at night?
A: Biological weapons. They are much more difficult to control than chemical or nuclear weapons. So far, we have been successful at preventing a biological attack, but it is one of those threats out there that we have to remain vigilant about.