ORONO, Maine — President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, said Thursday that the security of the United States could soften or strengthen based on the outcome of Arab Spring — the string of revolts and uprisings by the people of the Middle East against their longstanding leaders.
Jones, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general, delivered this year’s William S. Cohen Lecture at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts and participated in a forum alongside Cohen, a 24-year congressman and senator from Maine and secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton.
“The epicenter of most of the world’s major difficulties, whether you’re talking about Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan, all the way to west Africa … is still in the Middle East,” Jones said.
Jones started his role in the Obama administration in the midst of two wars in the Middle East. Since his departure in 2009, countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya have seen upheavals by their people in a push for more freedom and transparency in government, Jones said.
These shifts are “the most important events that have happened on the planet since the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” he said.
Some of these changes may need to be helped along by the United States in an effort to guide evolving countries toward secure, strong democracies, he said.
The United States should not act alone, he said, but rather serve as support for NATO or other international coalitions.
“I think that the outcome in Libya, in terms of our participation, was exactly right,” Jones said.
He commended NATO for its actions in Libya, adding that the coalition will need to continue to act as more of a “proactive engagement” force than a static, defensive organization.
After the lecture, Cohen and Jones participated in a forum moderated by former Bangor Daily News executive editor Mark Woodward.
During the forum, Woodward asked Cohen and Jones for their opinions on a suggestion by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, that the U.S. pull troops from countries such as Japan, Germany and Korea as a way of cutting down the nation’s expenses.
Both men balked at the idea. Such an action would mean “forfeiting the future of the country,” according to Cohen, who said the size and influence of forces in those regions could be adjusted to save money without removing them from play.
“We have a phenomenal advantage by being able to be forward-deployed in these countries,” Jones said, arguing that the US shouldn’t give that up.
At a press conference after the lecture, Cohen and Jones reacted to the ongoing withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The president plans to pull more than 33,000 troops from the country by year’s end.
“Iraq is now a sovereign nation with which we have normal bilateral relationships,” Jones said, adding that he hopes democracy and cooperation will continue to grow between the country’s three sects.
“Only time will tell,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Cohen is more concerned with the state of Iraq’s government.
“I don’t think the seeds of democracy have been deeply planted or really taken root yet,” Cohen said. Intelligence reports indicate that subsets of a weakened al-Qaida have entered the country and could test the fledgling government if the U.S. presence disappears, Cohen said.
“Wherever our forces are, they’re there at the consent of the government,” Cohen said, adding that the U.S. would keep troops in the country if Iraqi leaders asked. “If the government decides they don’t want us there, we’re out. We don’t impose our presence on any country.”