President Barack Obama makes a historic visit to Hiroshima. The Taliban choose a new leader after a U.S. drone strike kills Mullah Mansour. And a far right candidate in Austria narrowly loses the presidential election. A panel of journalists joins guest host Sabri Ben-Achour for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Defense Secretary Gates meets with East Asian leaders. The collapse of Lebanon’s government plunges the country into political uncertainty. And Southern Sudan’s referendum on independence. 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."
- Martin Walker foreign affairs writer, United Press International.
- Courtney Kube national security producer for NBC News.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates made overseas trips this week in Lebanon. Hezbollah pulled out of the coalition government causing its collapse. In Sudan, a weeklong vote on a referendum appears likely to result in independence for the south. Riots continued in Tunisia, even after the President said he would dismiss his government and the worst flooding in decades in both Australia and Brazil leave hundreds dead.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the week's top international news on the Friday news roundup, Mark Walker, of UPI and Courtney Kube of NBC. Our colleague, Tom Gjelten, is joining by phone because he is stuck in a massive traffic jam. Tom Gjelten, good morning to you.
MR. TOM GJELTENGood morning, Diane. I'm here.
REHMHow far away are you?
GJELTENI'm probably about five minutes away, Diane.
REHMOkay. Well, we'll look forward to seeing you. Courtney, it's good to have you here.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEThank you.
REHMAnd Martin Walker.
MR. MARTIN WALKERGood morning.
REHMMartin Walker, talk about what's happening in Tunisia and what took these thousands of people into this streets?
WALKERWell, the troubles really began back in December when late last year there was an event when an unemployed young student, a graduate, bought a kind of a local (word?) kiosk and tried to make a living doing that. And he was roughed up by the police and he -- his kiosk was demolished. So he set fire to himself and killed himself. And this be...
REHMOut of shame. Out of some kind of shame.
WALKER...out of -- no, out of -- whether it shame or was it horror or was it an attempt to protest, it's not terribly clear. But this clearly became the catalyst for a rising number of demonstrations. And last night, the President Ben Ali, whose been in power for a very long time, went on television, announced that he was sacking the Interior Minister and said that he understood the problem and that he would try and get some more jobs, particularly for young people.
WALKERBut even though the regime, then organized a series of demonstrations in favor of the President, that doesn't seem to have worked. The riots are continuing today. We now have the Tredunians (sp?) calling a general strike in the second city of Kasserine that's been echoed again across the country. And it's beginning to look as though this could be the end of the regime. Now, the President has said he's going to dismiss the entire government, which would imply new elections.
WALKERHe said he won't stand again. He's 74. He's meant to step down in 2014. There is no alternative government. The real wildcard here is that, although the European Union, the Americans and other countries have condemned the excessive violence by the police -- because something like 50 or 60 people look as though they've been shot in the course of these demonstrations. The French Interior Minister, Michele Marie Alliot, was saying in the national assembly yesterday the possibility of sending French riot police to support the government.
WALKERBut she's now been sort of disavowed. But the point is that Tunisia has been a very, very pro-Western, anti-terrorist, anti-Al-Qaeda organization. It has, until this recession, been one of the more efficient economies in North Africa. But the unemployment has combined with a sense of mass corruption on the part of the President and his family to provoke this, what looks like, a nationwide insurgency against him.
REHMMartin Walker, foreign affairs writer for United Press International. Courtney Kube, Tunisia is a place people have gone to for wonderful vacations. They've enjoyed themselves. But this downturn in the economy has truly affected everyone.
KUBEAbsolutely. You know, it's a place for tourism, for gorgeous landscapes and then -- and tragically, just this week, the U.S. State Department is now warning Americans against travel there and to be alert. There are some European countries that are doing that as well. The other tragic part about this is, you know, these protests began not quite as violently about a month ago and they've really grown and they've moved. Just this week, they moved into the capital, into Tunis. And they've grown increasingly violent every single day.
KUBEAnd these are people who are protesting. It started as sort of a smaller reason and now it's a combination of rising food prices, massive corruption, as Martin was talking about, in the government, police crackdown, unemployment. So it's moved into this larger social change than it was when it first started.
REHMAnd a protest against this 74-year-old President, who is apparently been in office since 1987.
KUBEHe's been in -- for about 23 years now. And the constitution there says that no one can run for President after the age of 75. He's now 74 and he had been talking -- there've been some rumors that he was going to change the constitution, amend it so that he could run and, in essence, be in power for the foreseeable future. He's now vowed that he will not make that constitutional reform.
REHMSo Tom Gjelten, what could a weakened Tunisia mean for the U.S. government?
GJELTENWell, Diane, just to underscore two points that both Courtney and Martin have made. One is corruption, the other is autocratic government. Those are features of governments, Arab governments, across the region. And, I think, one of the effects that these protests will have is to call attention to those much wider -- those problems in a much wider context. And I'm sure we're going to be talking about this. But these come just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was making this very point in a speech to Arab leaders.
GJELTENAnd so these protests could reverberate across the Arab world and actually that may even be something that the U.S. government would welcome, precisely because they call attention to these issues that have really been lingering for such a long time, festering and not getting the kind of attention that the United States and other governments feel they need to get.
REHMTom, picking up on what you've just said, apparently Secretary of State Clinton gave, what the New York Times called, a scalding critique of Arab leaders, saying that their countries risked sinking into the sand of unrest and extremism. Who is she talking to? What does she hope to accomplish with that kind of language?
GJELTENShe's talking to the Arab government and, you know, one of the things, it's -- one of the things that I thought was most impressive about what she said, a secretary, a good diplomat has to think on his or her feet. She was challenged by some of these Arab leaders on U.S. support for Israel and also the failure of the United States to get Israel to discontinue settlements. And she turned to those Arab leaders and said, well, you know, the United States can't always get governments to do what it wants.
GJELTENAnd she looked around the room in a very telling way as if to suggest, we've been telling you to modernize, we've been telling you to become more democratic and you're not paying attention to us. How can you expect other governments to pay attention to our demands, to our requests? I thought it was a very telling moment and a very effective moment from the standpoint of diplomacy.
KUBEShe also mentioned in her defense, when the -- when she was challenged, was that the Americans, United States, is one of the biggest funders of the Palestinians. And the Arab countries are not. So she was saying, you know, we put our money where our mouth is. We are supporting. She was speaking to a group of Arab leaders and diplomats at a development conference in Doha when she made these comments, which makes it all the more remarkable, frankly.
KUBEShe was speaking to Arab men and she was a woman there reprimanding them essentially for their stalled political regimes, for their massive corruption, their repression of women and religious minorities. And she did, as you said, she warned them that they were going to sink into the sand and that there was going to be vacuum created if they continue these stalled policies. And young men, which is a growing -- a hugely growing population in the Middle East, young men would fall victim to extremism.
WALKERExactly. I mean, the whole point, I think, she was making was that the -- if these regimes do sink into the sand, if they do fall, then that vacuum's going to be filled by the people that the United States is really worried about, which are terrorists, Al-Qaeda and so on. And that's a question that's going to be asked about Tunisia. In my view, it's unlikely to be the case in Tunisia. It's a country where there has been enough economic activity to generate its own middle class.
WALKERThe real issue there is the nature of the autocratic rule of President Ben Ali, which has benefited hugely, his own clan, the Trabelsi clan. And the politics of Tunisia are likely to do (unintelligible) more in the future by clan rivalries than, I think, by Muslim brotherhood or extremists.
REHMLet me give you the latest report from the AP. President Ben Ali has said that elections will take place within six months, but he made no reference to any resignation of his own. Tunisian state news agency says the President has now declared a state of emergency amid the riots. So it is a very serious situation.
WALKERWell, it is. And it's really striking, as Tom said, that it comes just as Hillary Clinton is making this dramatic speech, really very powerful speech in Qatar. And what I was struck by was that the instant response in the Arab media was that she was, in effect, putting on a performance of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. How could any American President talk about relations with the Middle East and not talk about Israel?
WALKERThe route to me -- the real underlying drama of all of this is it reflects the growing perception, international perception, of American weakness. That America cannot get its own way, cannot be influential with an ally like Israel, far less with some of this Arab -- with some of these other Arab governments. If you look at where they're signing contracts, now increasingly with countries like China, the U.S. is no longer even the dominant economic force, let alone political in the region.
REHMMark Walker of UPI, Courtney Kube for NBC news, Tom Gjelten is on his way here. Stay with us.
REHMAnd continuing our discussion on Tunisia in our international hour of the Friday News Roundup, here's an e-mail from Siedu (sp?) in Cincinnati, Ohio. He says, "U.S. policy in Tunisia has been to support and use the authoritarian government of Bin Ali as a firewall against Islamism in the Maghreb region. The U.S. also promotes democracy around the world. How is the Obama Administration going to reconcile these two positions?" And I must now tell our audience that Tom Gjelten is here in the studio with us.
REHMFinally. It is good to see you, Tom.
REHMHow do you respond to that e-mail?
GJELTENThat the United States is going to have to make a decision about whether to support democracies everywhere or only where it serves U.S. interests. This is one of the oldest issues in U.S. foreign policy. And, you know, I think that it came out a lot, of course, under the last Bush Administration, where the promotion of democracy, the promotion of freedom was such a prominently mentioned goal. And yet over and over, we saw examples of places where the United States did not push that.
GJELTENAnd the Arab world is one place, one region where this choice has been stark precisely because if you look at those countries on whom the United States depends most for strategic interests, Saudi Arabia for example, The United States, for all of the big talk, has been very silent about the situation in Saudi Arabia. Egypt is now, I think, the place where we are going to have make -- the United States is going to have to make some very big decisions. The democracy movement in Egypt is really developing. On the other hand, the repression of that movement is very pronounced. Egypt is one of the longest standing U.S. allies in the world so some really tough choices are coming up.
REHMSo Secretary of State Clinton's comments, do you see that as an opening salvo in communicating to these Arab countries things must change?
GJELTENWell, it certainly sounds like that, but, you know, words are cheap.
REHMWords are cheap, Martin?
WALKERWell, the fact is that things do change, but very, very slowly. And I think on the Saudi and other Arab leaders' own timetable. I mean, we are now seeing ministers in some of the Gulf States who are women. We now are seeing a widening of elections, initially with advisory councils and with municipal councils and so on. But it's not going nearly fast enough, not just for the U.S.A. It's not going nearly fast enough for this vast new generation of young people, many of them graduates, mostly unemployed, desperate for some kind of purpose in life. And frankly, wide open to the kind of simplistic appeal that they will be getting from fundamentalists and extremists and so on. And that is the problem.
WALKERThe difficulty of the U.S. is do they deal with the world as they would like it to be, which is full of Jeffersonian democracies, or do they deal with the world as it is?
REHMAnd let's talk about Defense Secretary Gates' trip to Asia this week. How did the meetings in China go, Martin?
WALKERWell, as well as could be expected. Secretary Gates kept his cool. He wasn't provoked. He maintained his purpose, which was to reinstate the military conversations and dialogue between the U.S. and China. The Chinese gave him a couple of pokes before he arrived with testing a very efficient new anti-ship missile that could threaten U.S. aircraft carriers and by displaying a new Chinese-built stealth fighter, which shows that they're technologically advancing very, very fast indeed.
WALKERBut Gates was not provoked by that. He stuck to his mandate, which was partly to prepare for the upcoming visit of the Chinese president here, but also to maintain that inter-military dialogue and also to try and remind China that it's in their interest as much as anybody else's to settle the outstanding issues with China's neighbors. Not just North Korea, but in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
GJELTENYou know, during his conversations in China, Diane, he was lectured by China's defense minister about U.S. support for arm sales to Taiwan and a number of other topics. And he just basically took it. He was very patient and he did something clever when he was confronted with these developments that Martin referred to. For example, the display of the stealth fighter, he suggested that the issue was a disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership in China. And he actually used that word in a speech today in Japan. He is suggesting that the military may have established a kind of a more independent position in China and may even have been embarrassing the civilian leadership. So in a sense he's saying...
REHMBy firing that stealth missile.
GJELTENAnd by displaying that stealth type aircraft on the runway. So he's suggesting maybe the Chinese need to get their own act together. And I thought that was actually quite a clever way of sort of diffusing that issue.
KUBEYeah, absolutely. The Chinese, they tested the J20 stealth fighter, which is equivalent to the U.S. F22 Raptor. It's on the same level so it's an advanced fighter. And they tested it on the second day of Secretary Gates' visit to Beijing right before he was to meet with President Hu Jintao. So he went into the meeting and Gates came out afterwards and spoke to reporters and said that President Hu was surprised.
KUBEHe didn't know what had happened.
KUBEThe question is, what were the motivations behind the Chinese military? It's obviously a very secretive military regime. Was it to undermine Secretary Gates' trip, to embarrass him as a show of force? Was it to stop any kind of ties that were going to be made as far as military-to-military communication? Or was it, in fact, to embarrass President Hu in front of Secretary Gates?
WALKEROr was it to be a factor in the current succession process that's now going on in China? Because when President Hu Jintao steps down next year -- and there is now -- we expect that Lee will (unintelligible) but it's not at all certain.
REHMWhat about his visit to South Korea, Tom? What are the expectations?
GJELTENThe agenda as it were, Diane, I think, at this point, the United States is very gently pushing the South Koreans back towards engagement and negotiation with the North Koreans. The South Korean government, which is a very conservative government, has been embarrassed, I think it's fair to say, by these aggressive provocative actions by the North and the inability of the South really to respond in kind. And I think this has put sort of pressure on the South Korean government to take a much tougher stand.
GJELTENRight now, officially their conditions for returning to negotiations with the North are that the North apologize -- accept responsibility for sinking this South Korean warship and apologizing for it. And, you know, we know right now that is not going to happen. The United States is basically now saying to the South Koreans, look, this is a moment where we really have to kind of get past this and go back to negotiations.
REHMAnd that will be a big if. I think it would be difficult at this point, Martin.
WALKERI think it would be very difficult indeed, particularly if China is going to be continuing with this rather recalcitrant posture. But what was striking to me was that Secretary Gates also made it clear that the U.S. military would certainly be staying there in South Korea, that they were the force of stabilization. I was also struck by what he said when he went on to Japan when he said that we need a capable and committed partner in Japan.
WALKERAnd so if I'm sitting in Beijing and hearing this, I'm thinking, it looks to me as though the U.S. is shoring up its alliances around China and perhaps encircling China, South Korea, Japan, the new relationship with Vietnam and so on. And so there is a sense of, I don't want to say Greek tragedy about this, but there is a rather unpleasant momentum building towards a real sense of Cold War style confrontation between rising China and the United States.
GJELTENYou know, Henry Kissinger had a really interesting column in the Washington Post this morning where he made exactly this point that Martin just made, that it seems that the United States is now looking at its relationship with China almost in a Cold War context. And Henry Kissinger, who is a veteran of Cold War, thinking, for sure, right...
GJELTEN...warns against this. He says the United States really needs to understand that China and the United States are going to be equals on the world stage. And you cannot look at that relationship with the...
GJELTEN...with the attitude...
GJELTEN...of confrontation. You're going to have to find a way to live together, and the United States needs to think a little more creatively about this. Interesting, coming from Henry Kissinger.
REHMLet's turn to Sudan. People in Southern Sudan have been voting all week on a referendum. Explain what that's all about, Tom.
GJELTENWell, the background of this is, of course, that there are deep ethnic and religious divisions in Sudan that have been lingering for a long time. It's one of those countries whose borders were defined by external colonial powers, didn't necessarily make sense. Southern Sudan is largely black African, Christian traditional in their religious orientation. Northern Sudan is more Arab and Muslim. And these are very deep divisions.
GJELTENThere is now a referendum under which the people of Southern Sudan will have the opportunity to secede from Sudan as a whole. Very strong support, very high turnout. They need to have 60 percent vote in order for this to be valid, and it looks like they're going to get it. Very high turnout. The issue is Darfur, which is not going to be solved by this referendum. In fact, in some ways, you could argue that it's going to be even made more difficult 'cause the same divisions between Northern and Southern Sudan are there in Darfur. And Darfur, as I understand it, is going to be sort of part of Northern Sudan and therefore this is not going to solve the issue of genocide and tension in Darfur. That's going to stay with us.
REHMHere is a comment on the drshow website which says, "Most media coverage of the impending secession of Southern Sudan has focused on the south, IE, will the southern government be able to provide essential services, like roads, education, et cetera? My question," the writer says, "focuses on the future of Northern Sudan. Will the secession be a stabilizing force for the Northern Sudanese government? Could that stabilization propel Northern Sudan to become a regional model for a successful democratic Arab and Muslim state?" You're shaking your head no, Martin.
WALKERI am indeed. President al Bashir, who is the leader of Sudan at the moment, has been, in public, quite correct in his statements about this referendum. But the real alternative politically to Bashir appears to be the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Muslim Brotherhood websites, not just out of Sudan, but elsewhere (unintelligible) ones in Egypt and so on, have been extraordinary this week in the way that they have been talking about this Sudanese referendum as a Christian plot to erect a Christian bulwark against the expansion of Islam into the rest of Africa. And that this has to be defeated by all means.
WALKERWhat the Brotherhood websites have also been saying is that there is no question of the vote reaching the required 60 percent in the referendum for secession because of the failure of people to vote in Northern Sudan where many of the southerners actually live and are meant to vote. There has been some violence. There's been a lot of reports of intimidation. And it would seem to me that it's entirely likely that the stage is being set for people to say, well, they may have voted 100 percent in this way in the south, but the total didn't add up to the 60 percent required. In other words, there's no guarantee we're out of this.
WALKERThe second point, which is really important, which relates directly to the question on the website, is the economic issue. An awful lot of the oil of Sudan, most of which is mortgaged to China, is in the South.
REHMMortgaged to China. Interesting. Courtney.
KUBEAnd 80 percent of the total output from the country of oil is going to go to the south in this referendum if it passes. And there's one other big issue that's still completely unresolved that was also supposed to be a referendum this week, and that's the status of Abyei, which is the disputed border region. And the problem there is there's a semi-nomadic population there and the question is, who can vote -- who's allowed to vote for the -- in the -- for the secession in the South. And that was never resolved. So that entire border region, which is also, of course, very oil rich, is still going to be up in the air, who it belongs to, the North or the South.
REHMSo given all these complications, how likely -- how soon might we know about the outcome here, Tom?
GJELTENThe South Sudan, in particular, is one of the most undeveloped areas in the world. Roads disappear for weeks at a time. People are having to make their way to voting stations. This is going to be a -- just for the vote itself is going to take several days. And before there are results known and before the negotiations that must go along with those are known, it's going to be a while.
REHMTom Gjelten of NPR, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk for a moment about Lebanon and why Hezbollah pulled out of the coalition government, Martin.
WALKERWell, they pulled out because of the widespread expectation and the number of leaks, which are saying that the international U.N. investigation into the assassination of Hariri, the father of the current prime minister back in 2005, was not, as initially suspected, going to blame Syria. It was going to blame some Hezbollah operatives. And because of this, Hezbollah has pulled out. It looks as though we're heading into a new round of chaos in poor old Lebanon, even though it had tried to sort of restore its economy in recent years.
WALKERAnd the real problem here is that, what will Israel do about this. What we're seeing in all of these issues we've been talking about in the Middle East, whether Hillary Clinton's speech in Cutter, whether Sudan, whether Tunisia, now here in Lebanon is this threat that is always waiting in the wings behind every Arab regime, that the replacement is going to be fundamentalists, anti-Western, perhaps pro-terrorist and certainly very, very disruptive. And for the Israelis, the idea that just as they're trying to find some way of dealing with any threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, there are 50,000 missiles under Hezbollah command inside Lebanon. Many of them long range enough to reach Tel Aviv. This could -- there's an awful lot in the Israel media right now that suggests that we could be facing another kind of (unintelligible) ...
GJELTENBut the challenge, the difficulty here, the political challenge for Hezbollah is that it is so closely associated with the Shiite population, and with Iran and with Syria that that really constrains the influence it can have in the larger world. And it really faces this decision. Does it want to be seen as a sectarian movement? It clearly has the potential, as we saw this week, to bring down the government in Lebanon. It clearly has the most -- it dwarfs the Lebanese army in terms of its military power. But does it want to be seen purely as a sectarian Shia force in the Middle East?
GJELTENWhat it has wanted until now is basically to have a Sunni prime minister in Lebanon who does not challenge its power. That allows it to sort of present the façade of a multiethnic government. That's going to be more difficult for it to achieve now.
REHMTom Gjelten of NPR. When we come back, we'll open the phones. I look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. We're going to open the phones. Let's go first to San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Nadine, you're on the air.
REHMGo right ahead, please.
NADINEYes. I want to comment on Secretary Clinton's speech in part and also on the way the panelists reflected on that speech. I want to say that basically you have this imperialist Secretary of State reprimanding and lecturing her minions in the Arab world. And honestly I was shocked at the way the -- your panelists fawned on her speech and the way they thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I mean, if anybody in the Arab world listens to this, they will burst out in laughter, because this regime, this indeed autocratic and corrupt regimes are client states of the United States. I don't think anybody believes that that United States really is interested through democratic change. Because any democratic change, any representative government in the Arab world and any of the Arab states will not adopt policies that would be to the liking of the U.S. empire and its project in the Middle East.
KUBEWell, I thank you, Nadine, for your perspective. I think Secretary Clinton, she made a larger point too that was -- she wasn't trying to impose western views on the Arab leaders and the diplomats that were present at the conference. She was talking about jumpstarting economies and stopping any kind of a stagnant situation in their countries that was only gonna lead to further problems and instability within their own nations. Many of these nations, as we've said before, they have a growing youth population. They have rising unemployment. They have economic problems. They have a rich class, a elite class that's getting richer, and it's only gonna lead to further instability.
KUBEAnd as Secretary Clinton said, there is the potential for a vacuum that will be filled by an extremist population as we've seen in other countries. I mean, you could tick down the other countries where we've seen these exact things that Secretary Clinton's warning about have happened.
WALKERWell, I mean, I think Secretary Clinton might always be tempted to wish that she could be an imperial potentate giving orders to her minions. But the problem about these Arab states is that you can call them puppets. You can call them client states. But they are not disciplined. They are not going to obey U.S. orders. They realize that their own survival is probably at stake here and that they will insure their own survival by their own methods and by their own lights. They're not going to -- and this has been the problem for the U.S. They're not going to listen to whether President Bush, Secretary Clinton saying, oh, please, move towards democracy and stop embarrassing us.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Nabeel who's in Orlando, Fla. Good morning.
NABEELGood morning. Thanks for taking my call. My point is directed to your guest who made the point that also Hillary Clinton might've perhaps scolded some of the Arab leaders and that Palestinians are the largest recipients of donations from the United States more than the Arab Countries. First of all, that is an absolute falsehood. Arab states donate more to the Palestinians than the $300 million of the Americans do. That's my first point.
NABEELSecond point is Israel on the other hand gets $6 billion in aid of our tax money. Money that we could be using in this country at this time. And by the way, Israel's economy is doing far better than our economy is and we're giving the Palestinians $300 million. And if the Arab countries were to democratize, the first country that would reap the -- not the benefits actually, but such a move would be America in the west because the people at that point of the Arab countries would vote to gather together and the policies of the Middle East at that time would become less pro-America and perhaps more anti-Israel.
REHMAll right. And let's see if we can get to that question of how much the United States gives to Palestinians, how much the Arab states give to Palestinians. Courtney, I think that came from you.
KUBEWell, Secretary Clinton was -- she was challenged on -- at the conference and asked a question. What she was saying was, you know, the United States supports countries all over the world with all kinds of different views. And she was making the point that the United States does provide support, financial aid to Palestinians. And many other nations that were present at that conference in Doha do not provide the same -- at the same level that the U.S. does.
WALKERI think it's a problem of apples and oranges. The point that the secretary made was that the U.S. is one of the major donors towards the Palestinian authority, which is not receiving a lot of money from Arab states who do tend to put money into various other kinds of funds, particularly welfare funds and charities and so on. So we're talking about different things here.
REHMAll right. To Natalie here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Natalie, are you there?
NATALIEHello. Yes, I am.
REHMGo right ahead.
NATALIEI'd like to make a comment about how people are referring to the issue in Lebanon. It seems as though whenever we talk about it, they say Hezbollah toppled the government or Hezbollah brought down the government. Of the 38 ministers, the 11 that resigned and brought down the government, only two of them were from Hezbollah. And granted that, you know, they do have a major say in the opposition, the opposition constitutes other Sunni politicians. They constitute a large swath of the Christian population. And this is really a political issue as much as it is an issue about hiding the tribunal. And I think that just gets -- that just gets lost in people's oversimplification of the issue.
GJELTENWell, that may -- you know, I'm not such an expert on Lebanese politics that I can address those issues, but I think the timing of this collapse of government is indisputable. It came, as Martin said earlier, just as indictments of Hezbollah figures were expected to come down. So I think the -- I think the fact that -- I think it is indisputable that the removal of support for this government from the Hezbollah lead factions was clearly linked to the tribunal and that would suggest that these even non- Hezbollah members of that coalition are still following Hezbollah 's instructions or lead.
REHMWe have an e-mail from Yohan in Dundas, Ontario. He says, "I'd like the panel to discuss the violence that's still happening on a daily basis in Iraq, a story that seems to have disappeared from the media and a war we'd like to forget. But Vice President Biden made unannounced visits to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq this week. What did he tell President Karzai in Kabul?" Martin.
WALKERWell, he told President Karzai that the U.S. would be prepared to stay on after 2014 if the Afghans wanted that to take place, which is interesting because there's been a bit of a hard cop, soft cop approach by the U.S. towards Afghanistan. And we know that Vice President Biden was against the surge, for example, was thinking that it couldn't work and the U.S. should try to disengage. So for him to say we're prepared to stay on longer carries perhaps a rather more potent message than it otherwise would.
WALKERThe real background to this, though, is that it looks as though the U.S. is preparing to go along with a Pakistani inspired initiative at the moment, which is being led by Gen. Kayani, the head of the Pakistani (word?), which is to try and bring in the Haqqani and some of the other -- of the old clients of Pakistani intelligence into a new national coalition force with Karzai in Afghanistan. And that's a very, very dubious proposition because of the instability in Pakistan itself and because of the deeper popularity of many of these clients of the Pakistani intelligence, like the Haqqanis themselves, like some of the (sounds like) tragic elements. So it just seems to me that the poor old Biden was getting into a much, much sticker briar patch here than his briefing papers had perhaps prepared him for.
KUBEYeah, on Vice President Biden's remarks in Afghanistan, I had to laugh when I read that the other day, because he's made so many comments about the withdrawal, the deadline in Afghanistan in the past few months. Just three weeks ago he told "Meet the Press" -- NBC's "Meet the Press" that the U.S. was gonna be out of Afghanistan in 2014 come hell or high water. So three weeks later he's standing with President Karzai and says they're gonna stay there. If you read through his remarks, it's plausible that he was specifically referring to supporting an Afghan nation building plan and that it's possible he was talking more about the U.S. would be there in a support role for nation building. That's sort of how his aides were spinning it afterwards. Whether that's what he meant or not, you gotta ask Vice President Biden though.
GJELTENYou have to wonder, Diane, whether President Obama sent Vice President Biden on this trip to Afghanistan precisely to force him into that situation to clarify his remarks. I think it was -- you know, we were -- everyone was looking for the magic words from him about the withdrawal. And he did say them. He said that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be conditions based. And that is not his position before. Clearly he had gotten the message from President Obama that he needed to get on the same page as the rest of the administration in supporting the policy. That's one point.
GJELTENThe second point is, as Martin eluded to, no one could better project the credibility of this message than the very figure of the administration who had been most skeptical of it. So if you have Vice President Biden saying the United States is ready to stay after 2014, you can assume there are no more dissenting voices that are gonna detract from that message.
REHMBut what about what the American people had been told, namely that we are gonna get out in 2014? Does that matter at all?
WALKERIt depends what you mean by out, yeah. And I think this is Courtney's point, but as we're seeing in Iraq, it's one thing to withdraw combat troops...
REHMIt sounds like the definition of the word, if.
WALKERExactly. That's the echo I was seeking. But there is a difference between having combat troops engaged in combat, aggressive operations, and having a number of support troops, training troops and so on. And I think we're gonna see that distinction blurred as creatively as possible by the administration over the next couple of years.
GJELTENYou know, Diane, I'll go out on a limb here. I think what really concerns American people more than anything else is casualties. And if you can...
GJELTEN...if you can come up with a presence that does not produce a lot of casualties, there's gonna be a lot more tolerance for it. The United States still has a lot of combat troops in Iraq and will continue to have for a long time. But casualties there have gone way, way down and I think that probably means the United States would be inclined to accept it. The people of the United States would be inclined to accept it.
REHMBut what about Muqtada al-Sadr and his comments that he wants the U.S. out of Iraq right now?
WALKERWell, he's back and he seems almost as feisty as the past. What he was not saying was that he would perhaps lead to any kind of military action to drive the Americans out. What is really striking is that his joining the government means that the deal that was reached with Allawi to bring the Sunnis on board by making him chairman of this new national strategy council, that deal now looks hollow. In other words, the stability of Iraq in the future, which will depend upon Sunni support, now looks a great deal less certain than it was looking just two weeks ago.
REHMMartin Walker of UPI and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We must look at Haiti one year after the earthquake. I read this week that only five percent of the rubble has been cleared from Porter Prince. Tom.
GJELTENAnd, you know, one of the reasons for that, according to Haitian officials, is that the foreign aid donors and governments that are paying for this don't wanna pay for rubble clearing. They'd rather pay for sexier, more high profile projects like building a new hospital, building a new school where you can put a plaque.
REHMBut you can't do any of that until you get rid of the rubble.
GJELTENThat is precisely the problem, but getting rid of the rubble is not a project that brings a lot of attention to the people that are paying for it.
KUBEThere was also terrible and tragic...
REHMYou know, I'm dumbfounded to hear that, that we cannot move to B because we can't do A.
WALKERWell, there's an awful lot of unemployed people in Haiti who could be employed very easily...
WALKER...clearing this rubble. And, I mean, the other point behind this, another reason why foreign donors are not all that ready to give carte blanche money to the Haitian government, is because of reports that we heard in this march in Brooklyn this week by American Haitians, that something like 1 billion of the 1.6 billion raised by donors in the U.S. is still unaccounted for.
REHMWell, and in the meantime in both Australia and Brazil, you have these horrendous floods and people are now looking very seriously at the issue of global warming and what is happening.
GJELTEN2010, Diane, was the wettest year on record. And people -- I think you're right. People particularly in other countries other than the United States are beginning to draw some conclusions about this wave of floods. I mean, not just Brazil and Australia. We had...
GJELTEN...in Pakistan in August. I was in Columbia a few months ago and they're reporting on floods in Columbia that were unprecedented. In country after country you're seeing floods that have no prior pattern in their history. And people are saying this has got -- there's got to be some worldwide phenomenon here that explains this.
REHMCould it simply be the cycle of climate that, you know, the earth goes through from time to time? Courtney.
KUBEI mean, that's possible. One of the big problems in Brazil is the unending rain has caused massive landslides. And that's what's led to -- there's estimates of almost 500 people have been killed now and swept away, children, you know. And this also presents a bigger problem. Brazil has a brand-new government there, their first female president. She was just inaugurated two weeks ago. Secretary Clinton went down there for her inauguration. And one of the problems that they face right there is that in the area -- the region where this flooding is taking place in Brazil is mountainous, it's hilly and there's not a lot of infrastructure. And what does exist just they weren't prepared for any kind of massive flooding and certainly not the landslides they faced.
WALKERIt's slums. That's why I found the people that died -- we've had 300 dead in Columbia in flooding as well. And in Australia it's, what, I think it's about 20 is the current death toll. But it's clear, we've going through a phase of extraordinary extreme weather events around the world, including the depth of winters as well as the wettest year on record. This is also timed with 2005 as the hottest year on record. I mean, at some point this is becoming so dramatic even the U.S. Congress might notice.
REHMWell, and two feet of snow we had here last year. Now the rest of the east coast is getting it.
GJELTENAnd, you know, just to keep on this broader theme, one of the consequences of this kinda flooding is the devastation of crops. And what we are seeing right now is we are seeing the effects of this on commodity prices, on food prices. And that could lead to a food supply crisis in the third world.
REHMTom Gjelten, correspondent for NPR, Courtney Kube, national security producer for NBC News, and Martin Walker, foreign affairs writer for United Press International. We'll have a holiday on Monday and bring you two rebroadcasts. Have a great weekend, everybody. Enjoy it and stay safe. I'm Diane Rehm.
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