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Interview: Tom Kelly

Acting US Assistant Secretary of State, Political-Military Affairs

Jul. 29, 2013 - 07:25PM   |  
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Tom Kelly, acting US assistant secretary of state, political-military affairs
Tom Kelly, acting US assistant secretary of state, political-military affairs (Alan Lessig / Staff)
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Taking over in the middle of a complicated export control reform process, Tom Kelly is responsible for not only bridging the gap between the US State Department and Defense Department, but also a blossoming exchange program between the two agencies, counterpiracy initiatives and military aid provided to overseas allies.

Kelly, acting US assistant secretary of state, political-military affairs, was tapped this year after more than 20 years as a Foreign Service officer mostly stationed overseas. One of the challenges of his new job, Kelly said, is trying to make the careful calculation as to when and where the US should provide military equipment and aid, a process that has gained greater attention following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt as the US continues to provide military support.

Q. Thinking about foreign military sales (FMS) and foreign military financing (FMF), theyíre supposed to be about building relationships, but by law it has to be in the interest of US national security. In the Middle East where thereís so much turmoil and itís difficult to figure out which party is going to be in place for how long, and how military equipment might be used, how do you view trying to figure out the value of these tools?

A. I think youíre right that international relations are always characterized by flux, and in the Middle East right now thereís a huge amount of flux and transition with the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the aftermath of mass technology so that word of mouth spreads at the click of a mouse. So weíre dealing with new realities.

But thereís still a lot in geopolitics that doesnít change. Egypt, for example, is always going to be the most populous Arab country in the region. Saudi Arabia is always going to be the largest oil producer. And countries like the [United Arab Emirates] obviously have a strategic value to the United States, theyíre driven by the resources that they have, by the geography, as well as the long tradition of our diplomatic relationship.

Those are things that we think should help to drive our decisions on where weíre pursuing military partnerships. These kinds of programs, FMF and FMS, are really critical instruments for our entire foreign policy as we try to support transitions to more representative democratic government, and as we also encourage like-minded governments around the world to work with us, to share security obligations all over the world.

Q. You described that there is always flux, itís just a fact of life. You donít see the current environment as changing the way that we approach or think about FMF and FMS? You donít see this as anything different than the conditions we were already dealing with?

A. Thereís clearly a lot of change, especially in the Middle East. When weíre trying to consider whether to sell a certain arms system to a certain country, we always have to look at these questions. We donít have a crystal ball; we donít know exactly whatís going to happen. We have to look at how this is going to affect our security interests in the region. How will this affect human rights in the region and democracy? How will it provide our soldiers and sailors greater access to do what they need to do to keep the world safe?

Q. One of the areas where you were focused before being selected as the new acting assistant secretary was anti-piracy. Itís an area that received great attention a couple of years ago, but with the number of attacks plummeting, are you concerned that thereís a loss of focus on piracy and that it could become a problem again?

A. Itís incredible that there hasnít been a successful pirate attack for more than a year now. There has not been one. The number of hostages held by pirates has gone down by a factor of five. Pirates only have one ship right now. The progress that weíve achieved is incredible.

We have 21 different navies working in the Indian Ocean together. These are nations that donít often work together.

It could come back. The ultimate solution to this is that Somalia develops and thereís an effective government in place with a coast guard that ensures its coasts arenít used by pirates. Iím an economist by training so I know itís going to take a long time to get there.

One of the things that weíve been doing recently is to find new prosecutorial venues where if the US Navy or someone else comes up with pirates we have more places to send them. The Seychelles and other countries like Kenya can only take so many pirates.

Q. The first tranche of new categories for the US Munitions List was adopted without a hitch, a move thatís part of the administrationís broader effort to simplify the list. You recently announced the next four categories that are being made over: ground vehicles, naval equipment, submersibles and materials. Are you expecting any trouble with these new categories?

A. No weíre not; we expect itís going to go through fine. This will make eight out of 21 categories. One of the first things that I did when I became acting [assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs] was I went up on the Hill and testified on this issue before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And one of the things thatís striking when you go up there is that you just really see that thereís a lot of bipartisan [support] for this initiative. It is clearly the right thing to do from a national security perspective.

Q. Export control reform was a major focus for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, something that she emphasized, according to your predecessor. Is Secretary of State John Kerry pushing as hard as Clinton was? Is it the same kind of priority?

A. Absolutely. From the secretary and from the White House thereís an understanding that this is a very important both national security and foreign policy initiative. Itís one where the administration can be in charge of this from the beginning to the end. We can get it over the goal line because of the extent of bipartisan support. And so I think there is a lot of very high-level interest in the administration.

Q. These changes are being made because they would help industry by increasing the flow of sales of nonsensitive products. How much of that potential increase do you believe will be tempered by the impacts of sequestration, which will reduce the availability of experts at DoD to review requests, among other impacts?

A. The first thing that I would point out is that our defense industry is already booming, despite the sequester.

Strategically from a business standpoint, they realized that growth is going to be in overseas markets. Thatís why you saw, last year, an incredible record in foreign military sales. We had $69 billion. Thatís bigger than the average rate only a few years back by a factor of five. So clearly the growth has been very significant.

In the short term, I think people understand that the growth in the industry is going to be overseas. Weíre helping that in a number of ways; export control reform is one.

Another is that we try to have hands-on business facilitation, supporting US industry. At every significant arms show around the world, there will be a member of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairsí front office participating.

Q. There are those in the bureau who believe thereís something of a disconnect between administration officials and industry, as some officials donít realize that theyíre allowed to advocate for US products in some situations. What are you doing to help fix that disconnect?

A. Weíre trying to get word out as much as we can about our willingness to help industry out. The first thing that we can do is make sure that weíre always present, that people always see us at these shows.

Where we need to raise consciousness is in the small- and medium-sized companies that make up so much of the defense industrial base. And these companies donít always have offices in the DC area, so we want to make sure that they understand whatís going on as well.

Q. Part of the State Departmentís responsibility is to say no to potential sales when the agency determines that it isnít a good idea. Culturally, given several of the initiatives underway, do you think thereís been a shift to focus on providing opportunity for US industry as opposed to a focus on preventing some deals?

A. I canít speak to what State Department leadership was doing on arms sales a couple of years ago because I was working on other things, but what I can say is that we try to help industry get sales done as often as we can. Our arms transfer policy is a policy that looks at a lot of different factors, and we want to continue building partnerships for the US military, we want to build our bilateral relations, but we also want to support human rights and democratic principles because thatís who we are as a nation. Thatís always going to be a factor that we consider.

Itís true not just in the State Department, but in our society over the past 10 to 15 years, that US interest is served by having our diplomats and soldiers working as closely as possible; that is what we come to work to do everyday.

Q. Having been elevated to your position only a couple of months ago, are you bringing in any new priorities to the bureau?

A. Job one really is making sure that State and DoD work together as effectively as possible. We really owe that to the American people. Theyíre the two most important national security organizations in our government, and historically they havenít always worked well together.

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