An update on the plane crash in the French Alps. Saudi Arabia launches air strikes against Yemen rebel bases. And President Barack Obama slows U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Britain announces its largest public spending cuts since World War Two. The Pentagon seeks approval for a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia. And nearly a quarter of the ballots cast in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election are expected to be thrown out because of fraud. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Tom Gjelten correspondent, NPR, and author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause."
- James Kitfield senior correspondent, National Journal magazine.
- Elise Labott senior State Department producer for CNN.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. French protesters clashed with police at an oil refinery as the showdown over retirement reform intensifies. The Pentagon is seeking approval for a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia and Britain announced its largest public spending cut since World War II.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio for the international hour of the Friday news roundup, Tom Gjelten of NPR, Elise Labott of CNN and James Kitfield of National Journal. As always, we invite you to join us, pardon me, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
MS. DIANE REHMElise, I know you just returned from Afghanistan. Talk about what's actually happening with these talks with the Taliban. Or is it too fuzzy to really understand?
MS. ELISE LABOTTWell, right now, they are face-to-face negotiations with Taliban's -- very senior Taliban commanders and from the leadership of the (word?), so to speak and the inner circle of President Hamid Karzai. In fact, NATO is even helping some of these leaders get safe haven from their homes in Pakistan into Afghanistan to meet with them. I think what we're hearing is, it's really early days right now, that there is interest in having some kind of negotiations and some kind of talks. But when you see the cast of characters that's there, it's very interesting.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThey're holding discussions with also leaders of the Haqqani network, considered to be one of the most hard lined groups operating out of Pakistan, operating in Afghanistan. Also, this group run by Gubdan Haitmaydiar (sounds like) who's considered a more moderate faction and also considered -- he wants -- U.S. officials say he might even want to be part of a future Afghan government.
MS. ELISE LABOTTSo there's this whole cast of characters that Hamid Karzai wants to bring into the fold. He's appointed the peace council to start facilitating these talks in addition to the re-integration efforts as of this lower level. But right now, we think that everybody's kind of assessing each other out. They don’t really know who represents who and how far this is gonna go.
MR. TOM GJELTENDiane, I think there are a couple of quick points to be made here. One is just to underscore what you and Elise have already said. There's no question the United States has given the green light to these talks. So that is really important because there's been a lot of reluctance in the past on the part of this administration and other sectors of the U.S. government to bless this endeavor. And it has clearly gotten the blessing of the United States government.
REHMAnd the question is why?
GJELTENWell, we know from, for example, Bob Woodward's book that President Obama has been looking for a way out of Afghanistan for a long time. So this might be a route. Now, the second point, which is interesting, is that there seems to be a strategy here to divide the Taliban insurgency. It's only certain people who have been taking part in these negotiations -- or not negotiations, in these talks.
GJELTENOther sectors of the insurgency are not been. And notably, those that are most closely associated with Pakistan have not been included in this process. So there seems to be a kind of an effort here to divide the insurgent leadership, you know, in the hopes of maybe breaking down its cohesiveness.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDWhat I find interesting -- I mean, you can say one of the reasons is we want to get out so we're talking to the Taliban. I think that's true. But we said that all along. Another reason is they're really starting to -- they've tripled the number of special forces strikes on the Taliban. They've killed or captured 300 of their mid-level commanders just in the last 90 days. Petraeus has his forces now, the full surge forces in place. They're hammering the Taliban. They've restarted this offensive for Kandahar. Looks like that's gonna succeed, at least if you listen to their optimistic projections.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDSo I think that maybe the Taliban is feeling the pressure. Remember the Taliban redline was, we won't talk until you promise to pull all your troops, all foreign troops out of Afghanistan. We haven't stepped back on our redlines. They've stepped back on theirs and entered talks. Seems to me, maybe it's a good sign.
LABOTTBut the whole thing is, Diane, even though, as James said, they're making gains in Kandahar and the Taliban feels that maybe this is the time to talk, it has to hold. These kinds of things that are going on in Kandahar and outside the country, if the U.S. doesn't hold the areas, if it doesn't build the areas and get the government to stand out -- we were in Kandahar meeting with the mayor of Kandahar.
LABOTTHe has about three people working for him. The government is so weak. It's so fragile. And this whole idea the strategy of the surge, you're supposed to clear the area. You're supposed to hold the area. The government is gonna stand up. All these projects are gonna help give the Afghans a better life. And the Taliban, right now at least, seem to be hedging their bets in the sense, okay, maybe it's worth pursuing our options right now. If the U.S. and NATO can't consolidate those gains, the Taliban might be just tactically retreating for awhile, for a chance to go in again later on.
GJELTENAnother point that's interesting here is that this has -- this process has been widened to include the Saudis. There is actually a delegation of the Taliban that went to Saudi Arabia to sort of get the Saudi input here. And the Saudis have been supportive of this process, but I think in a development that's very much welcomed by the United States, they've laid down some redlines to the Taliban leadership. Said, this is a good thing, but if you really want to achieve a negotiated settlement here, you're going to have break your ties with Al-Qaeda.
REHMWhy is U.S. envoy Richard Holbrook denying that any talks are taking place, Elise?
LABOTTWell, I think that since you've heard Petraeus come out and say that, yes, these talks are taking place and NATO is actually facilitating them, I think they want to give some breathing space for these talks to happen. Because if everybody knows that they're happening, all sides are gonna be able to put out their rhetoric and you're gonna have to kind of battle ideas out in the press. You know, the Taliban has a spokesman. And the Afghans certainly are not quiet about these types of things so they want to give some breathing room.
LABOTTBut just on Tom's point and James' point, Mullah Omar is not part of these talks. And that's a very interesting thing in terms of trying to split the -- Mullah Omar has ties to Pakistan, Mullah Omar has ties to Al-Qaeda. And so the whole effort is to split them and this is what the U.S. is trying to take advantage of now.
REHMAnd what about the role of Pakistan in these talks?
KITFIELDThat is probably the most opaque part of it. They captured some Taliban leaders earlier this year and it's unclear -- I think they've let some go and they've detained some. They're trying to keep their hand in these negotiations to influence them. They very much worry that whatever comes from these talks is a government is too closely aligned with its arch enemy, India. So they're trying to keep in the game.
KITFIELDIt's interesting because their foreign minister and the head of their security forces, General Kiyani, are in Washington this week talking to the president. So, you know, it's this same double game we've been playing with Pakistan all along. We know they're doing some nefarious things, but they're also being pretty helpful in other areas. And we're never gonna get black and white with Pakistan. It's always gonna be shades of gray, but their role in these talks is kind of interesting.
KITFIELDAgain, the fact, to me, that the Ketashure (sounds like) guys from the Taliban are going to Saudi Arabia again, tells me they're feeling some pressure. They want to open up other avenues and they feel pretty comfortable with the support of Saudi Arabia.
REHMAnd the other element regarding Saudi Arabia is this proposed lots of material going, if the Congress approves it, U.S. air fighters, all kinds of stuff going in there, Tom Gjelten.
GJELTENAnd you know, Diane, what we're talking about here is war fighting equipment.
GJELTENWe're not talking about cargo aircraft. We're not talking about tankers or something like that. We're talking about attack helicopters, fighter jets equipped with a thousand joint direct attack munitions, which are very smart bombs. I mean, these are -- this is weaponry that we're giving Saudi and what it….
GJELTENWell, what it does is it makes Saudi Arabia capable of fighting Iran. This is all about Iran. And interestingly, this is one of the reasons why this has been less controversial than an armed sale to Saudi would have been in the past. I mean, Israel's supporters have always been nervous about the United States arming Saudi Arabia, but this is so clearly an effort to build up defense, offensive capabilities against Iran, something that the Israeli's feel very strongly about, that this particular arms sale seems to be sailing through with a lot less opposition than you might expect.
LABOTTCertainly, this is part of a U.S. strategy in the region, not just to counter Iran's influence, but to show that this is, you know, our back yard, so to speak. There are still U.S. troops in Iraq. You have Afghanistan on the other side. The U.S. is putting this major squeeze on Iran right now. And in an effort to build up Saudi Arabia's capability, it's trying to have this alliance, obviously not on the peace process, but between Saudi Arabia and Israel to counter the influence of Iran. That's why you're not hearing a lot of -- Israel seems to be supporting a stronger Saudi Arabia armed by the United States that still protects its qualitative edge on the region.
REHMAnd why are we still having to talk about Afghanistan's parliamentary elections? Why is that not settled? James Kitfield?
KITFIELDWell, I mean, these elections were scheduled. Even when you had the presidential elections last year, you know, the parliamentary elections were scheduled for this year. You know, basically, the same amount of fraud is in both. About a quarter of the ballots have been ruled fraudulent by their own election commission and thrown out. It basically -- Afghanistan is not in shape now to hold free and fair elections. It's just not. The Taliban holds too big of a swat. The territory security is too bad. There's too much corruption. So these are not gonna be satisfying elections until Afghanistan's self government improves.
REHMThey're saying that it could mean that 800,000 to a million votes may have been nullified.
LABOTTThat's right. They already threw out about a quarter of all of the ballots. There were about 1.3 million votes thrown out. And so this means that, you know, Afghanistan has not grown since the parliamentary election. This election was tainted by fraud, intimidation and other types of ballot stuffing.
REHMElise Labott, she's a producer for CNN at the State Department. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup. Of course, the Obama Administration is now laying out a new multi-year $2 billion military aid package for Pakistan. Tom Gjelten, what do we make of that?
GJELTENWell, we -- you know, we were talking earlier about the very bizarre relationship that the United States and Pakistan have. And on the one hand, you -- the United States so needs Pakistan's help. On the other hand, there is this great dissatisfaction with Pakistan's performance in support of the Taliban insurgency. It's quite -- you know, the support of some sectors of the Intelligence Service for Taliban insurgency, the unwillingness of Pakistani security forces to take a tougher stand.
GJELTENBut the bottom line is that the United States needs Pakistan and whether you like it or not, you need to come up with this aid package to sort of keep them at least marginally onboard.
KITFIELDThat's exactly right. And, you know, when Obama announced Afghan's strategy, he made a point and some of it was behind the scenes and some of it he put in his West Point speech, that to push as much of the surge in Afghanistan was going to be -- and try to reshape the strategic partnership and relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan read into his speech that we're out in July, 2011, started hedging its bets.
KITFIELDAnd when it hedges its bets, it starts getting in bed with bad people like the Haqqani network. We were trying to send the signal, thus the strategic dialogue this week, which is the third such high-level talks that says, you know, we're not leaving. We want to have an ongoing strategic relationship with you.
KITFIELDIt includes military support, it includes $8 billion in economic aid over the next five years. You know, but you need to meet us halfway, meet us halfway. Admiral Mullen said, for the first time I've heard yet, that he has an agreement from General Kayani that they will have an offensive in the North Waziristan area. That's where Al-Qaeda is, that's where the Haqqani network is. They did that with South Waziristan earlier this year, but the floods kind of pulled the military away from that mission. Now, we're starting to hear that maybe they're willing to do that and that would be a very good thing from our point of view.
REHMBut what's the latest behind the violence in Karachi, Elise?
LABOTTWell, there's been violence -- we've talked on this show over the last few months about the violence in Karachi that's politically motivated. But there's also this whole mix of sectarian, ethnic, criminal violence that's been plaguing this city. It's the biggest city in Pakistan, about 18 million people. Over 100 people have been dead over the last week. And you have these two movements, the MQM and the ANP.
LABOTTThere was a leader of the MQM that was killed earlier this summer. And now, on the eve of the election of this spot for Parliament that will be taking place this Sunday, you've had a lot of violence. And there's a lot of worries that what happens in this election could affect the government of President Zardari. He's very fragile right now. There's a lot going on in terms of his Parliament and his fragility. And so this violence is connected to that.
GJELTENWell, Diane, we complain about how bitter the political disputes in the United States have become. At least we're not killing each other and that's what this is all about. This is not the Taliban or Al-Qaeda versus the government. These are disputes between political groupings inside Pakistan and there are so many weapons. There's such a legacy of violence and a tendency to resort to violence that these disputes become very bloody.
KITFIELDIt's been said many times, but you might as well reiterate it. Pakistan remains the most dangerous place in the world because the government is so weak, because it's so fragile, as Elise says, and because they have nuclear weapons. And they have extremist groups like Al-Qaeda on their soil. It is not a stable government and Zardari's really riding a tiger trying to keep that, you know, pot from boiling over.
LABOTTAnd now, they're thinking of -- there's talk about bringing the army in, which is a very politically sensitive thing to do considering the whole history in Pakistan of military rule.
REHMBrining the army in to control...
REHM...the population. All right. Let's talk about what's happening in Europe, where in France you've got, what was it, 3 million people in the street this week protesting this increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62. It's much broader than that, but nevertheless people are upset, Tom.
GJELTENYeah, it's actually not that huge a change. Like, you say, for partial benefits, it's from 60 to 62. For full benefits, it's from 65 to 67. Now, that's actually, more or less, what we have in this -- in the United States. You can get social security partially at 62, full social security at 67. So what President Sarkozy is talking about is basically the same kind of thing. But it's a change and...
REHMPeople don't like change.
GJELTENWell, you know what they say. I hate to be flip here, but the French seem to actually enjoy going on strikes. I mean, they go on -- unions in France seem to go on strike...
REHMIt's what they do.
GJELTENIt's what they do. And there's almost a kind of a -- you know, some of the reports I actually -- of course, I haven't been there, but there have been reports about kind of the festive sort of air in some of these demonstrations. I mean, it's almost like a national sport. There's such a tradition of strikes in France.
REHMBut let's talk about what's happening in the French Senate because they were supposed to vote on this earlier this week. The vote was postponed until last night, maybe even today, James.
KITFIELDWell, that’s really the purpose of the protest is to try to get the Parliament to say no to Sarkozy's reforms. To take a slightly more serious tone on this, though, I mean, France does have a history of protests toppling governments. And we can go back to '67, you know, the college group in the Merry Month of May basically brought the country to a halt and they toppled the government.
KITFIELDWhat's interesting to me is that, you know, the different reaction and culture to this austerity measure in Britain and France. France has taken nothing like the cuts that Britain has recently announced. But the British actually have the stiff upper lip for saying, you know, we need to have these cuts. The French, you know, have a very strong social safety network and they don't want to see it diminished.
REHMNow, somebody said to me yesterday that this kind of demonstration is not a virus yet. You saw an outbreak in Britain following what happened in France, Elise.
LABOTTThat's right. And in France, they're trying to paralyze the government. They're trying to paralyze the economy. Many gas stations are out of fuel. The refineries are shut down. They're trying to block gas stations from being refilled. And, you know, if it stays over the long term, if this is able to be sustained -- and they've already called for new strikes on October 28 and November 6, saying that the government hasn't listened to concerns of the people. This could really have an effect on the economy. Air France just lost 25 million euro in the last week. So right now, it's small. But if it spreads, as James said, this could have an effect on the economy and the government.
REHMSo is Sarkozy going to get what he wants or not?
GJELTENWell, he's got a majority in the Senate so he should be able to get what he wants. I think the larger question is -- in other words, it's not the immediate question of whether this vote -- whether the amendments are approved or not. It seems that they will be approved. The larger question is the one that James and Elise have been raising, which is whether the government can continue to function over an indefinite period of time.
REHMAll right. We've got lots of callers. We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Lowell, Mich. Good morning, Bonny, you're on the air.
BONNYI'm wondering if your panel thinks it's more than a coincidence that the Taliban is willing to talk now that the United States has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia massive arms?
REHMAny coincidence there, Elise?
LABOTTI think it's a coincidence. I don't really think they're related in any way. This Saudi package is really directed towards Iran and countering Iran's influence in the region and strengthening Saudi Arabia's position to counter that influence. This package has actually been in discussion for several months. And so they just announced it, but there's been a lot of reporting about it over the last several months. And these Taliban talks are just really in their very fragile stage right now. They're really just talks about talks. I don't really see a connection there right now.
KITFIELDI totally agree that there's -- I see no connection between those two things.
REHMAll right. To Highpoint, N. C. Good morning, Beverly.
BEVERLYGood morning. I'd like to ask your guests where the money comes from that we are giving to Pakistan and other countries. Is this part of the money that we are borrowing and owe China?
GJELTENThat's as reasonable a guess as any, I suppose you could say. I mean, you know, we're operating -- the federal government is operating at a huge deficit right now so this is additional money. You know, the United States has been supporting Pakistan with billions of dollars for many years. So this, in that sense, is not entirely new.
LABOTTI'd just like to make a point about this aid package to Pakistan. Obviously, the U.S. does see a problem, a political will in Pakistan going into North Waziristan. And a White House report recently criticized them for that. But U.S. officials say the Pakistanis claims that they don't have the capability to go into these areas is very real. That even if they wanted to, they would get their butts kicked in North Waziristan.
LABOTTAnd this addresses the issue of capacity. They don't have the equipment. They don't have the training because their army has been trained for one goal, fighting with India. And so this takes away any excuses from the Pakistanis to say, we can't do it. Now you have the capacity, there are no more excuses.
GJELTENI take the listener's point that this -- you know, we're in our own tough economic straits and we're...
GJELTEN...this is money that we're borrowing. However, you know, we are spending billions and billions and billions of dollars with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and this drone program that’s run out of Afghanistan into Pakistan to deal with this threat. And if we can get the Pakistanis to deal with it themselves and get the Afghans to deal with it themselves, it's a bargain.
REHMTo Charlotte, N. C. Good morning, Jessica.
JESSICAGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
JESSICAI have a quick comment about the French striking over the slight change in retirement age...
JESSICA...and how they're striking, even though the change is so slight for what we experience. I wish that Americans acted more on feelings of indignation based on what the government is doing and that we would actually get out in the streets en mass. Not just in Washington D.C. you know, but in towns all over the world to say, hey, we don't like this. You know, let's do things differently. So in that respect, I really think it's fantastic that they get out there.
REHMThanks for calling. Tom.
GJELTENWell, you know, there's some tough issues that have to be dealt with here. I mean, whether it's in Europe or the United States, we have looming budget deficits that really threaten to undermine the economy in the future. And, you know, one of the things about changing the retirement age -- there's a lot of debate right now in Europe about whether it makes sense right now to cut back on government spending because it runs the risk of derailing the recovery.
GJELTENBut the thing about changing the retirement age is it doesn't have any immediate effect. The only effect it has is in the future. So you don't have to worry about this being a recession-producing change in government spending, which is what a lot of the austerity measures in Britain could do, for example. So there's a strong policy argument for this.
REHMTom Gjelten of NPR and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And back to the phones to Vienna, Va. Good morning, Monica. Thanks for joining us.
MONICAGood morning. I would just like to make a statement on the general statement that was made by Mr. Tom about the French liking to strike or that's what they do. I would like to state that that is something we shouldn't be taking so lightly. I come from a country that's controlled by greed and corruption for so many years and we had dictatorships back where I'm from in South America. And here in the United States, I see Wall Street and the government doing as they please with the population.
MONICAWe lose our homes, we lose everything we have, our jobs, and I don't see anyone going to the streets. So I think that going to the streets, the power they have, the fact that it's a happy place for them is that they have the control of the people they pay and put in place to run their country.
REHMThat's very interesting, I must say. I think the last time we saw people in the streets was at Vietnam. And that's a long, long memory. And one wonders about whether there has developed a certain apathy in this country about active participation, whether it's at the voting booth or whether it's in the street.
GJELTENWell, that's the key idea, Diane. Going on strike and demonstrating in the street is just one form of activism. And I didn't mean to be jocular about it. But I think what I was saying is that in France that particular form of protest seems to be very popular. There are other ways to demonstrate, you know, activism and to demand a role and a voice in what happens.
LABOTTWell, one thing we've seen in France is that the youth movement in France has actually joined these protests. And, as Tom said, they've kind of made it like a social type of thing. But, you know, as we've seen in the globalization movement protesting these IMF and World Banks around the world, a lot of times when the students -- even in Iran, when the students get involved, it becomes a much larger movement and could have a greater affect.
REHMAll right. To Waterbury, Vermont. Good morning, Carol.
CAROLGood morning. I'm calling because I have a male friend that is an Afghan man who lived through the recent elections and saw people stuffing ballot boxes with -- you know, paying, bribing people to allow them to vote five times. And he really sees one of the biggest issues in Afghanistan is people's lack of literacy and understanding. But also that there's no way we can get rid of the Taliban. They're a part of life and that the only way we're really going to make progress is if we do negotiate with them and give them some power and control in the country in a way that's regulated.
KITFIELDWell, I mean, that basically is what we're trying to do right now. And the fact is we have supported President Karzai's outreach, not only to the midlevel in reintegration, but also in reconciliation at the senior levels. But we've laid down these red lines. One of which is you have to renounce Al-Qaeda and the second one is you have to basically accept the Afghan constitution, which basically gives a lot of rights to women and other human rights that were not traditional in that society. That's something that goes against the Taliban's ideology so it's going to be a tough negotiation.
REHMHere is an e-mail from Robert in Plano, Texas. He says, "How does Karzai have legitimacy to ask the Taliban to conform to the Afghan constitution when he has an illegitimate presidency and a reputation of supporting corrupt family members in his government?" Tom.
GJELTENBoy, that's a good question, isn't it?
REHMThat's a good question.
GJELTENYou know, I think you have to kind of take a step back just to underscore what James said. You know, it's not just the question of the legitimacy of this particular government. It's the whole idea of the constitution as a whole and the fundamental rights that are laid out in the constitution. I don't -- I think that you can separate the legitimacy of one particular president from the integrity of the constitution and the larger political system.
REHMTom Gjelten. He's correspondent for NPR and author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba." Elise Labott, she's with CNN. Jams Kitfield is with the National Journal. And we'll take just a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. And let's go right back to the phones to Ross who's in Grand Rapids, Mich. Good morning, you're on the air.
ROSSThank you, Diane. I'd like to ask your guests how they go about verifying the information they get from the government. One of the guests spoke earlier about the number of Taliban -- 300 Taliban, I think, captured or killed or something in the last 90 days. I wonder how they verify that information and that we're not just getting propaganda from the government.
REHMSure. Ross, thanks for your call.
KITFIELDI was in Brussels last week with Secretary of Defense Gates, got briefed by senior NATO officials who are familiar with the operation, who, from long experience, I trust -- that I trust, but verify. We have a reporter in Afghanistan right now and he's looking at the ground truth. So I get the briefing up here, but we also have people in theater, you know, we try to get ground truth.
REHMDoes that answer it, Ross? I guess he's gone.
REHMI just wondered whether that answered your question.
ROSSWell, you mentioned Vietnam earlier on, Diane, and we know the amount of disinformation that we received, you know, regarding the Vietnam War. I'm actually a New Zealander and living here in the States now. And, you know, the disinformation we got worldwide was immense, you know, about the successes and things like that. And a lot of the information sounds to be packaged like that again, you know, the neat 300 captured, I think it was, you know, it all sounds too pat to be true.
KITFIELDWell, he raises a good point and it's why we have the mantra of trust, but verify...
KITFIELD...because you can't take them at their word. Again, this was a fairly -- someone I have dealt with over many years so I have trust in them, but you always verify.
REHMLet's go to St. Louis. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELHi, good morning. I want to really mention to the people in the panel -- I'm sure that they're all very intelligent people. But I want to know, like, we don't have any more money to do any kind of (word?) outside the United States. We are broke and we are bankrupt. Most probably, Bernie Madoff, in the next 20 years, will look like a Pope, number one. Number two, Karzai and Mr. Zardari (unintelligible) 80 percent, mean for every dollar, they take 80 cents and they give 20 cents to the people.
REHMDo we know that, James Kitfield?
KITFIELDThat they give 80 cents of every dollar to -- we have an inspector general there who tries to keep the track of the money. It's very hard in that kind of situation...
KITFIELD...to keep every dollar and cent. I will say on this, I mean, I understand -- and President Obama has made this point. He made it in his national strategy that he -- it's one of the reasons why he set a deadline to start withdrawing next summer. You will never get our hands around our debt if we are involved in active wars around the world. That's just an impossibility. So he's right to the stint that we have to wind these up. President Obama has reiterated that point constantly.
REHMHere's an e-mail on French strikes from someone who says, "I am French. And it's true we go on strike for any reason. But it's also important that strikes are done by a minority of the French. Those who support the reforms are not in the streets blowing horns. And it's quite unfortunate Sarkozi has not backed down in front of strikes in the past. It's quite unlikely he will today. Thank you for the show," this e-mailer says. Elise?
LABOTTWell, it's only about 4 percent of the country that's unionized, but we've looked at polls that say that a majority of French support the strikes. And it's less about how many people are out in the street and what the effect is on the economy as we've talked about. The refineries are shut down. It's hard to get gas. They're trying to block the airports and access to the airports.
LABOTTWe've heard reports about people, you know, trying to walk to the airport with their baggage. I mean, over the long-term, it could have a very devastating effect. I mean, this is a very small, little thing, but Lady Gaga's supposed to appear this weekend and she had to cancel her shows. So I'm just saying that if you sustain it over the long-term, it could have an effect on the way people are operating every day in France.
REHMElise Labott on the international news hour. I never thought we'd have Lady Gaga brought in. That is really something. Let's go to Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Pete.
PETEGood morning. Diane, I was a little troubled by your response when the subject of the workers in France going out on strike --when you said that's what they do is -- yes, that's what people do in a democracy when they're being treated unfairly. I may remind you that organized labor offers a counter balance to corporate powers, something which we have not had much of over the last 30 years. When organized labor represented 35 percent of the work force, the economy grew and so did the middle class.
PETEOver the last 30 years, the opposite has happened. In corporations, the wealthy have sucked the wealth out of everything in this country, just about. They've sucked the wealth out of the corporations, out of the businesses. They've sucked the wealth out of the housing -- out of housing. They have sucked the wealth out of people's retirement plans and they're next attempting to suck the wealth out of Social Security.
REHMPete, I'm glad you called. I do agree that powerful people need to make their views known and those who feel less powerful need to make their views known as well. I'm glad we're seeing some demonstrations, but when it reaches a point where it hinders life going on and ultimately affects the economy, you got a real problem. James?
KITFIELDI agree with that. I mean, I think a certain amount of peaceful protest is great...
KITFIELD...and is fine. But if you call strikes that bring an economy or a government to its knees, I mean, we have things called elections. And after elections, people have to make the hard choices of government. And if every time they make a hard choice of government, you know, strike bring the country to its knees, as we saw with Britain in the early '80s, it can be debilitating.
GJELTENAnd the other thing, Diane, is that in France when we have seen these strikes, more often than not, they're actually against the government. They're not against private corporations. They're public workers who are much more likely to go on strike. And the strikes that we're seeing right now are not against corporations. They're against the announced government reforms -- the proposed government reforms. So it's not always a case of organized labor versus, you know, some big capitalist corporation.
REHMPete, I'm glad you called. Let's go to Clemens, N.C. Good morning, Harvey.
HARVEYGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
HARVEYDiane, there was a comment made earlier about -- and just recently about the street protests and the demonstrations in France. We've read about some of those that have taken place in Germany, as well as other countries. And my theory is one of the reasons we don't see more street demonstrations in the United States is because in the United States, people are actually afraid of the government. In France, in Germany and many of the other countries -- European countries, people are not afraid of the government. It's just the reverse. Government is afraid of what the people might do. In the United States, we hardly see any street demonstrations anymore since Vietnam.
REHMWell, that's what we said earlier. I have another sense that people after Vietnam really tired of street demonstrations. They didn't feel that they accomplished all that much.
KITFIELDWhat was interesting to me at the height of the unpopularity of the Iraq War, when there was just a huge amount of fervor about that war, you still didn't see protests. Now, part of that is we have -- we don't have a draft military anymore. We have a professional military so...
KITFIELD...very few people are bearing the burden of this war. But also I think that, you know, in societies that feel like their society works, I think you see less protest like this. In societies that feel like their society's not working, you're more likely to see these kinds of protest.
LABOTTAnd that doesn't mean that there isn't a robust opposition in this country and in other countries. I mean, there are other mechanisms nowadays that there weren't available during the Vietnam War, like the internet, like blogs, like social networking that a lot of people are using to voice their discontent with the government.
GJELTENDiane, I'm probably the only one on this side of the table that's old enough to remember those demonstrations and having been present at some of those anti-war demonstrations in the '70s. And I would have to say that I don't think that those demonstrations were repressed with anymore violence or force than the demonstrations in France are being repressed by today. I think the government suppression of those demonstrations in the '70s was not the factor that led to their disappearance, so to speak.
REHMOf course, we can never forget Kent State.
REHMTom Gjelten, Elise Labott, James Kitfield. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now to Miami, Fla. Felipe, you're on the air.
FELIPEHello, Diane. How are you?
REHMI'm fine, thank you, sir.
FELIPEGood. Well, I'm calling in to say, one, that I'm French. And one of your panelists commented on this, but it's absolutely true that when you do have elections and we do, you know, put our people in power in the Senate, in our French equivalent, and then they try to pass these reforms and everybody goes on strike, it's basically anarchy. You know, it's one thing to have a peaceful demonstration. It's another to bring, you know, a country to a halt. And the other thing is that France has a much higher unemployment rate than the U.S. does. So when many people are depending on welfare, which is much more generous than in the U.S., you know, these social advantages have a big meaning to them.
FELIPEAnd my final point is that the French retirement system is basically the current workers pay for their retirement of their elders. And there's a lot of political dishonesty from the left in France that are explaining that there's a way to salvage this. But anybody who looked at an age pyramid recently can clearly see that the system is broken. So that's about all. I'll take my comments off the air and I'll listen to you on the show. Thank you very much. Your show is great.
REHMThank you, Felipe. Elise?
LABOTTWell, I think what we're seeing in France, we're also seeing in Britain and other countries. These countries in Europe have rising debt levels that if they don't attack right now, there are gonna be many problems later on. And as we talked about earlier in the show, these countries are forced with making very tough decisions about either attacking the welfare system, attacking the social system or paying the debts down now and avoiding a recession. And I think what we're seeing in France is evident of that. It's not an attack on workers. It's not an attack on laborers. President Sarkozy sees it's an investment in France's future, just like the British are doing.
REHMThis has really sparked a lot of discussion I must say. Here's a message on Facebook from Sean, who says, "It's certainly painful for the Brits, but what's happening in England is necessary. Spoiled Americans should take a hard look at sacrifices that sometimes have to be made. It was the military spending necessary for England's participation in the Iraq War that put them in this predicament. The same is true here. The Bush administration could not deal with the simple fact that we could not afford to invade Iraq, either financially or morally."
KITFIELDI take the point that we -- and believe me, our government is watching very closely what happens in Britain 'cause, I mean, if -- one thing that's interesting is that they -- those cuts have majority support right now. We'll see if that holds. But there's a concern that if you cut that quickly, this very nascent economic recovery will be reversed. And that's exactly what we don't want. So there's a big, you know, Britain is taking a very bold step. I think it's commendable. I hope it works. But there is risk involved in it and I think we are watching very closely.
LABOTTBut there's also a huge concern by the United States that these defense cuts -- it's about a 7.5 percent defense cuts, is that gonna make Britain a less reliable partner? You have British troops in Iraq. You have British troops in Afghanistan. What about future conflicts, future areas that the U.S. relies on its very special ally, the Brits?
GJELTENYou know, Diane, I covered the Gulf War of 1991 and British forces played a really important...
GJELTEN...British ground forces...
GJELTEN...played a very important role in that operation. And I think that right now Britain would not be capable. Once these cuts are implemented, Britain would not be capable of playing that same role in another ground war that it played in 1991. These cuts will involve cutting, like, 40 percent of their armor with their tanks and artillery. You can't do a cut like that and not affect the fighting capability of your forces.
REHMSo a decision made by the U.S. in 1991 has affected, in a sense, the way the world economy is operating.
GJELTENWell, I'm not so sure that I would agree with the listener that Britain's defense spending is the main cause of its budgetary problems. I mean, Britain, like many...
GJELTEN...has high levels of social spending, certainly defense spending is one factor. It's not -- I don't think it's necessarily the, you know, the main driving factor.
KITFIELDDiane, can I just make a point?
KITFIELDI just came back from London working on the story. The fact is Britain no longer wants to be that ally to us. You know, the Iraq War has really soured them on the idea of being America's, you know, ally of first resort. It's an aftermath blowback from the Iraq War.
REHMWho did you talk to?
KITFIELDI talked to senior officials in the government. I talked to senior think tank people. All of them said the same thing. They have investigations now of the whole Iraq War where they're deposing Tony Blair and others. The Iraq War and how that went wrong and how Britain got brought up into it...
KITFIELD...is very real to them right now, even today. And they have no interest in being the kind of ally that we -- of first resort, as I say.
REHMBut again, is that because of financial problems or is that also the question of moral responsibility?
KITFIELDWell, I mean, it's partly the economic part plays into it, but it's primarily a feeling that they went into a war that their own people did not support, they thought it was on false pretenses with the weapons of mass destruction. You know, we got our election in 2008 and the Republicans lost and I think we went on -- moved on from Iraq. The British have not moved on from Iraq. Their populous does not buy this argument anymore that we should stand by America's side, you know, right or wrong.
LABOTTAnd European publics are saying the same thing about Afghanistan now. Supplying more troops to Afghanistan was not a very popular thing to do in Europe. And a lot of leaders recognize this. And that's why you're seeing a lot of hesitation on the part of European allies in NATO to contribute more to the war effort.
REHMAnd you're also seeing what we started with at the beginning, the talks going on. Thank you all so much for being here. Tom Gjelten, he's correspondent for NPR. Elise Labott, senior State Department producer for CNN. And James Kitfield, he's senior correspondent for National Journal magazine. Have a great weekend everybody. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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