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.
Guest Host: Susan Page
The world’s central banks take coordinated action to help relieve the euro zone crisis, at least in the short term. France and Germany work on a more far-reaching solution. In England, hundreds of thousands of public employees walk off the job to protest government austerity measures. Iran faces new sanctions from the European Union after an attack on the British embassy in Tehran. In Egypt, Islamists are poised to win in the early round of the first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak was ousted. And Hillary Clinton visits Myanmar, the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in a half century. She offers closer ties if it boosts democratic reforms. A panel of journalists join guest host Susan Page for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief, Al-Arabiya News Channel
- Mary Beth Sheridan night editor for foreign and national news, The Washington Post.
- Yochi Dreazen senior national security correspondent, National Journal magazine.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls for closer ties with Myanmar. German chancellor, Angela Merkel, pushes for fiscal union to resolve the European debt crisis. And Iran's diplomats are forced to leave Great Britain. In the studio to talk about the week's top international stories, Yochi Dreazen of National Journal, Mary Beth Sheridan of the Washington Post and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. HISHAM MELHEMThank you.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThank you.
MS. MARY BETH SHERIDANThanks.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to also join us in our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com or you can always find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, big news this morning, Hisham, from Europe with bigger, bolder proposals to try to deal with this terrible euro zone debt crisis. What's being talked about?
MELHEMWell, fiscal responsibility, tightening the belt. The French and the Germans, who are the leaders of the euro zone and who are likely to lose the most because they invested a lot in this project years ago, are trying to save the euro zone. Everywhere, when you look at -- when you read the latest economic news from the euro zone, from eastern Europe that depends on euro zone, all the way back east to China, the word that hits you in the face is contraction.
MELHEMAnd after the Greek crisis, there is very re-concern, as Sarkozy said in his famous speech, I think, yesterday, that Greece is only the exception. We're not going to allow another country in the euro zone to go through this mess because it threatens the whole -- the viability and the future of the euro zone. So you see now, the Germans and the French are being forced to take some radical measures to save the euro zone.
PAGESo Yochi, tell us more about the radical measures that they're talking about doing?
DREAZENSo the fundamental question right now is, are they going to be short-term measures or long-term measures? And the long-term question is, and the most important question in some ways, what happens to the EU? Does the European Union survive given the frankly open contempt that Germany and France are expressing towards the countries that are humorously known as the PIGS, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, all of which are tottering to varying degrees.
DREAZENSecondary question is, what happens to the euro? Which is another huge question? Those are kind of the long-term ones. But the short-term question is, what do you do now, I mean, the containment issue, how do you contain it? The idea that is beloved by Wall Street, beloved by London traders, by traders around the world, is euro bonds, similar to U.S. Treasury bonds that could be issued collectively by the EU.
DREAZENThe idea is investors would buy them because Germany and France are solid. Germany and France want nothing to do with it. The other issue, will the EU finally gain control over fiscal policy? Can the EU itself set tax policy for other countries? That was never resolved when the EU was created. It has to be resolved now and the question is, when will it be resolved and how?
PAGESo Mary Beth, this idea of a tighter union, enforceable fiscal rules, alignment of economic policies, how -- what's been the reaction from the other nations of the euro zone?
SHERIDANYou know, I think that at this point there's such desperation in countries like Italy that they are willing to play ball. The problem hasn't been sort of the recipients of this, it's been actually the countries that would be more seen as kind of the donors. In other words, Germany, for example, has been very cool about the idea of, you know, in exchange for this tighter control over these other countries, you know, finances the European Central Bank would step in. There'd be a lot more money made available, guarantees to these countries and Germany's very worried about inflation and it's worried about that those countries would not, in fact, get their act together because they have the money flowing in.
PAGEYou know, it's interesting, Hisham, the reaction -- often the negative reaction that Germany is getting it's criticize for not doing a better job of leading the continent through this crisis. Fear -- concern that they're not willing to put their own money on the line, their own economy on the line to help the others. What's behind that?
MELHEMWell, I mean, why should the Germans and the French pay for the profligate and irresponsible fiscal behavior of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy? You know that in Italy and Spain and Portugal, 20 percent almost, 20 percent of the economic outcome is not taxed. In Greece, a country of 12 million people, only 5,000 Greek claimed income over 93,000 Euros a year, which is a big lie. And when you go to Italy it's even worse than Greece when it comes to not paying taxes and how many millionaires are on the books officially in Italy, which has a tiny percentage of the real number of millionaires in those places.
MELHEMThere's no fiscal responsibility. Everybody wants to retire early. Today in Germany they are discussing whether to increase the age of retirement from 65 to 67. In certain jobs in Greece you can retire at the age of 52, other jobs at the age of 55 or 60. People are not working. You compare Greece to Turkey. These are neighboring countries, east Mediterranean countries. I call them Middle Eastern countries. They don't like that but they are Middle Eastern countries and you look at Turkey, growing at an incredible rate of 8, 9, 10 percent.
MELHEMManufacturing is booming, there's a lot of hope in the future. People are working and you go to Greece and you don't see that. You don't see that vitality, you don't see that energy, you don't see that spirit and there are cultural problems, there are societal problems. There are economic practices, age-old economic and fiscal practices that are not easy to change. Discipline is lacking in those societies. You have discipline in Germany, you have discipline, I mean, I was in the summer in Sweden and, I mean, if you think, I mean, those Swedes would say, "If you think the Germans are disciplined, we are the original Germans." And they look down at these practices and they don't want to finance profligate way of doing business. Why should they?
PAGESo hard to change, make big cultural changes in some of these nations. Yochi, do you think that in fact the continuation of the unified Europe, the use of the euro currency, could that be threatened by this crisis that's being faced?
DREAZENI think it's already threatened, frankly. I mean, you're already hearing ideas that were unthinkable six months ago, let alone a year ago, that you might have the richer countries break away, France, Germany. You might have the poorer countries be kind of shunted to some lower level or pushed out entirely. There is open speculation in the bond markets where you're seeing the bond yields and the value of these currencies plummet, that the euro will break apart, the EU will break apart. Just go back for a question, for a moment, to Hisham's answer, which I thought was spot-on. At my Thanksgiving dinner, which was admittedly nerdier than most should be, we were actually talking about this very issue.
PAGEAnd of course, what Thanksgiving table didn't feature a conversation of what's happening in the Euro zone.
DREAZENExactly. Who wants to talk about Euro bond yields? And one of my relatives made a point that was spot-on, which was that this is the Tea Party in some ways the reverse. So the Tea Party here was a ground swell from below. It was a fury, an absolute fury, towards the notion that responsible people should bail out irresponsible people. And that fury is, as you know, Susan, from your coverage, like that is animating the election here, this kind of unresolved anger and fury and contempt.
DREAZENIn Europe, it's topped out. If the German government, the German banks, the leadership of Germany, the French government, the French banks, leadership of France, it's the top-down fury saying, why on earth when we've saved and we've taxed and we've done, as Hisham said, all the appropriate things, why on earth should we bail out the irresponsible. So I think for listeners here, for listeners around the country, it's a useful frame. I mean, the tea party anger that we see here, that's what we're seeing in Europe.
PAGEMary Beth, we saw coordinated action by many of the world's most powerful central banks this week to try to address this and that included action by China. Now, was it a surprise that China was willing to join in this effort?
SHERIDANYou know, in some ways, China hadn't done something like this in years and had to ease some of its regulations to do that. But of course, China has so much at stake here because it exports to Europe are really significant and if Europe goes and, of course, if the crisis in Europe escalates this could affect the whole world economy. So China saw its own self-interest here I think.
PAGEHisham, we had the storming of the British embassy in Tehran this week. It raised some terrible memories for Americans from the storming of the U.S. embassy so many years ago when hostages were taken and held for more than a year. What happened this week?
MELHEMI think this is in part, I think, in part a function of inter -- a conflict within the ruling elite in Tehran between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, who finds himself under increasing pressure from Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and Ali Larijani, who is the speaker of the parliament. It is believed by some Iran watchers that Ali Larijani is the one who unleashed the 300 besiege.
PAGENow, the besiege, who are they?
MELHEMThe besiege are a unit composed of young men who are the enforcers of the regime. These are the besiege who terrorize the Iranian people in 2009, following the rigged elections if you remember two years ago. And the rumors or indications in Iran that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would like to deal with the P5 plus one on the nuclear issue and Ali Larijani doesn't want that. Also there is a mood in Iran that following the assassination of some nuclear scientists the computer viruses, the unexplained explosions that Iran is under siege and this is one way of lashing out.
MELHEMBut I think why the British embassy, is that the British ambassador there has not been allowed to present his papers to the president, to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of Larijani's opposition. And I think one way of alienating the British, one way of alienating the P5 plus one is to do something as radical as storming the British embassy and that's what happened. I think the radicals have succeeded so far.
PAGEAnd of course, there is no U.S. embassy or no Israeli embassy to be stormed instead. So in that way, the British can stand...
MELHEMWell, Michele Bachmann this week said that the American embassy in Tehran should be closed. I mean, somebody should have told us that happened more than 30 years ago. Yes, of course, they are not lashing out at the -- they keep lashing out at the United States and the Israelis and they keep burning American flags and Israelis flags. This is part of a ritual.
PAGESo Yochi, how did the world respond in Great Britain and elsewhere just briefly?
DREAZENGreat Britain expelled every Iranian diplomat. They cut pretty much entirely diplomatic ties with Iran. The really interesting point, very briefly, is that right now in the U.S. we're trying to figure out how far should we go? The Hill wants to sanction the Iranian Central Bank, never before done at that step. The Obama Administration doesn't so you have this very interesting dynamic of how hard should the U.S. hit Iran.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll go to the phones. We have some phone lines that are open, 1-800-433-8850 or you can always send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio for the second hour of our Friday News Roundup, Hisham Melhem. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel. And Mary Beth Sheridan, the night editor for foreign and national news with the Washington Post. And Yochi Dreazen, he's senior national security correspondent for National Journal.
PAGEWell, since we came on the air, the Associated Press has moved a story out of Cairo that reports Egypt's ultraconservative Islamists Party plans to push for a stricter religious code in Egypt after claiming surprisingly strong gains in the first round of parliamentary elections there. Hisham, not really a surprise.
MELHEMEverybody expected the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the oldest Islamist movement in Egypt that was established in 1928, to win plurality votes and they did that. The surprise was the relatively high percentage of votes that Nour, which is the new political party established by the so-called Salafis who are the ultraconservative Islamists in Egypt, gained around 20 percent of the votes in the first round. And they are likely to gain the same percentage probably in the next two rounds.
MELHEMThese people believe that the Islamic – the Muslim Brotherhood is too moderate for them. And they're going to shake the political dynamics in Egypt. Their victory was – as I said, the percentage was not expected and that's why there's a surprise. And I think the Muslim Brotherhood now is scrambling to tell the Egyptians and the International Community, we are not going to get into an alliance with this new ultraconservative party. But in the end both of them will be competing for the Islamists votes in the next two rounds.
PAGEAnd they clearly feel empowered at this point by their election returns.
SHERIDANYeah, I think the most interesting thing here -- I mean, I think there are so many question marks about why the Salafists have done well. And one of them is will it continue to do well in the other rounds in other regions. My own impression, having been in Egypt this summer, is that the Salafists have -- are more sort of regionally, you know, dominant in certain areas as opposed to the Brotherhood which is a more nationwide, you know, a strong support really pretty much around the country.
SHERIDANBut I also think what's really significant is that the Brotherhood has taken great pains to distance themselves from the Salafists to the point of talking about how they are willing to form -- eager to form coalitions with more liberal, more secular parties. You know, so my own sense is while this is interesting and potentially they will continue to do well in other parts of the country, I think the Brotherhood are the name of the game and these much more quite conservative groups, I don't think they're going to be central actors.
PAGEYou know, it's interesting, these are the -- this is just the beginning, as you said, Mary Beth, of a round of elections. These are the first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak was ousted. What a changed political scene there for the United States and strategists for the United States, Yochi.
DREAZENI mean, it is and it isn't. We shouldn't overstate what these elections are meant to do. I mean, this is a parliament that will be, at least in the short term, effectively powerless because the military high council can veto anything it does and sort of ignore it if it chooses to. What I've been struck by watching some of the images, many of them on Al Jazeera and many on Al Hurra since they've got the best coverage, the most cameras, the most camera crews, the Arab Spring obviously began with such tremendous hope. And in this country we saw it again on these same stations civil society activists in the streets, this real feeling of hope and optimism. Libya happened. Syria happened. Those seem to be the things that knocked the Arab Spring optimism kind of off its rails.
DREAZENSo it amazes me that here at the end of the year back in Egypt, same crowd, same square but totally different feeling. Not a feeling of hope, but a feeling of fear, feeling of unease among the civil society activists, complete disappointment either because of the rise of the Islamists or because the military has kept a much tighter grip, put back in the emergency laws, arrested thousands of people, put them on trial that were basically shams.
DREAZENSo I find it ironic in a very depressing the way that the Arab Spring, which began -- I mean, it began in Tunisian officially but really took weight in Egypt, may now end in Egypt in a lot of ways with tremendous disappointment.
SHERIDANYeah, I would say that one should be careful not to over generalize. I was just in Libya for several weeks and, you know, the feeling of trying to create a democracy, there's tremendous optimism there, tremendous challenges too. You know, the elections in Tunisia have gone fairly well I think. And admittedly Tunisia's a quite small country but I think there's a lot still to be determined.
SHERIDANEgypt, of course, is extremely important because of its leadership role in the Arab World. Obviously the U.S. relationship there a very, very important role in terms of maintaining stability in the Middle East. But I think it's too early to call that.
PAGEAnd of course we're talking about these election returns from Egypt, which have not in fact been released, delayed. We're talking about sources saying how they're going to go. Why the delay?
MELHEMI think there were some challenges in some districts and I think they wanted to sort that out. And I think also -- I think the SCAF, the supreme military council is trying to announce something official without really creating a great deal of stir. But let me go back to the previous point. I'm very disappointed obviously and despondent because the combination of the activities and practices of SCAF, which is a military council.
MELHEMAnd the fact that they're still using the emergency law to put bloggers and activists -- try them in military courts, harassing the reformers. The fact they did not accept any attempts to change the electoral system by the liberals and the progressives who led the uprising against the Mubarak regime. The fact also that the liberals and the progressives wasted nine months demonstrating sometimes in the streets while allowing the Islamists, including the ultraconservative and Nour Party to do retail politics and to organize and to mobilize their own people.
MELHEMIn the end, those people are disciplined. They know what they want. The people that we supported in this country are good at demonstrating, at articulating what they don't like. But they do not engage in politics -- in real politics forming coalitions, forming political parties, knocking on doors, distributing leaflets, introducing their own candidates. They did not do any of this retail politics that the Muslim Brotherhood, because of its discipline and its experience and its patience, were very good at.
MELHEMAnd so there's a lot of blame to be able to put on those activists who are good at organizing demonstrations, but not necessarily good at practicing politics.
PAGEIs there anything that the United States could've done to help shape events, or are we just really observers when it comes to Egypt now, Yochi?
DREAZENI mean, as I think we all sort of realize the U.S. influence there is lower than in the past. But also the U.S. -- the way the U.S. is seen and how it intervenes is very different. I mean, I think the Obama Administration, more than its predecessors, knows that if the U.S. gives its imprint in a direct explicit way, arguably it retards the progress.
DREAZENWhat's interesting, though, is that the White House has kinda been saying two things simultaneously. It's often been saying the military needs to transition as soon as possible, but also saying they don't want to see an indefinite delay to the elections. Both of which make logical sense but the two are hard to square.
DREAZENOne kind of interesting repercussion of the domino falling, a great article in Mary Beth's paper this morning, was that Israel is now building a fence along its border with Egypt, not to keep out as it was in the past African migrants, but because of fears of terrorism emanating from Egypt into Israel. So you have this tremendous uncertainty not just for the U.S. relationship with Egypt but also for the Israeli relationship with Egypt, which has been sort of a cornerstone there for decades.
MELHEMI think the Obama Administration for a while did not really put serious pressures on SCAF, on the military council. Only recently the President of the United States, Obama, called Field Marshal Tantway, the head of the council, who is 75 years old. He was appointed like most of the members of the council by Mubarak himself. These are men of the past. Obama called them to cancel -- to do away with the emergency law. I mean, the United States should have said, you cannot have elections with an emergency law. You cannot have elections where you are putting civilians in military courts. You will not have elections when you have arbitrary detention.
MELHEMAnd the military which gets part of its budget from us as taxpayers should listen to the American administration. There are ways of doing this -- not publicly -- there are ways of doing this without humiliating them publicly but sending a strong message that we also have interest in Egypt. Not only in the peace process with the -- between the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, but also we -- because of the American investment in Egypt and Egypt's reliance on the United States, America's reliance on Egypt for a variety of things.
MELHEMAnd I think the American administration did not play its influences -- did not play its cards very well in the last few months before the elections.
PAGEThere's a picture on the front page of USA Today, my paper, an historic picture. It shows the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having a meal in Burma with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Mary Beth, it's been a half century since a U.S. Secretary of State has gone to Myanmar. Why did Hillary Clinton feel free to go at this point?
SHERIDANYou know, the administration has been trying quietly for a while to seize what it hopes could be an opportunity in Burma to really help reduce the level of repression in that country. So what they've seen lately they see as very encouraging as Burma is releasing political prisoners. It's granting somewhat more press freedom. It's changing some of the regulations so the opposition can run more easily in elections. It's actually -- the government told China to actually abandon a huge hydro electric dam project.
SHERIDANAnyway, the U.S. wants to -- sees this as a real opening. They've been working to try to get in there and try to see what they can do to really crack that tremendously repressive structure -- or convince them really to kind of move in the direction of democracy. The visit was part of that.
PAGEYochi, to what degree does U.S. desire for more engagement -- to what degree is it a response to China having more influence?
DREAZENI think what you've seen in the region, which has been from the U.S. perspective kind of a good thing, is that the fear we have about China, the uncertainty about what it's trying to become is magnified there exponentially. So you've seen Japan redo its entire military strategy buying attack submarines, Australia buying attack submarines. And I think that what the White House is trying to do is to help, as much as possible, build up a counterweight to China, that if it could ally even loosely Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Japan, Australia, you might have the beginnings of a counterweight to China.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'd like to talk to Daniel. He's calling us from South Bend, Ind. Hi, Daniel. You're on the air.
DANIELHello. Thank you for taking my call and good morning. I have a question and a comment -- a comment and a question with regard to the Iranian Embassy -- or the British Embassy in Tehran. It's sort of a personal thing for me because I was actually born in Tehran to diplomatic parents -- American diplomatic parents during the embassy takeover. And I remember even hearing about this that people didn't seem to understand -- a lot of people didn't seem to understand that agree to which embassies are really supposed to be seen as sacrosanct and protected. And ambassadors and diplomatic personnel are supposed to be protected.
DANIELI remember there was a case in D.C. when a Pakistani diplomat caused a horrible road accident and there was outrage that, you know, he couldn't be sued for what he had done and so on. But what I wonder is to what extent your panel thinks that the Iranians have really overstepped here. I mean, in the case of the United States of course we have not had wonderful relations with Iran. But there's a lot of countries that we have trouble with. But we have had -- we have not had official diplomatic relations with Iran for 30 years now as a result in part of the embassy takeover.
DANIELAnd I wonder to what extent your panel thinks that the Iranians have really or some faction within Iran has really overstepped as far as Britain is concerned particularly because of sort of EU solidarity. I mean, I remember reading that there was a sort of conference of all the European Union ambassadors in Tehran talking about what sort of coordinated response they should take. I know that there are some people in Iran who have sort of boasted that the EU needs Iran more than Iran needs EU. But, I mean, in actual fact, Iran is really rather afraid of being isolated.
PAGEAnd Daniel, let me just -- I just want to make sure I understand. You were born in Tehran to U.S. diplomats. And were your parents working there at the time of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy?
DANIELMy mother and I were evacuated right before the embassy takeover. My father was actually hiding in his house listening over -- listening to the radio and hearing the embassy takeover. He even remembers the marines saying something along the lines of, how do you say we surrender in Farsi.
PAGEAnd how -- what happened -- did your -- was your father one of the hostages or did he manage to escape?
DANIELNo. He did manage to get out. He got out on the very last -- one of the very last planes. It was sort of a mercy flight flown by I think American Airlines. They had to fly without radar guidance because at that point the air control traffic towers weren't working. When they crossed the border into Turkey the pilots made an announcement to everyone on the plane and they all cheered.
PAGEYes, I'm sure they did. And I remember also from that era the U.S. diplomats who managed to hide in the Canadian Embassy for just a very extended period of time, maybe the entire 444 days that the U.S. hostages were being held in the embassy. It's amazing what wounds that leaves in the attitudes that Americans have toward Iran. But, Hisham, what do you think about the point that Daniel was making about Iran really overstepping in a serious way here?
MELHEMI think the takeover of the British Embassy is another sign of the deteriorating nature of politics in Iran. And the fact that you have open conflicts and competition and backstabbing back and forth, you know, among various groups and factions within the Iranian ruling elite. And these politicians are willing to play outside the national norms. There are countries in the region, like Syria for instance, where they allowed their goons and thugs to attack the American Embassy, the Saudi Embassy, the (word?) Embassy, Arab embassies because the government is not happy with the positions of those governments concerning the bloody crackdown against the peaceful demonstrators in Syria.
MELHEMSo there are states who are likely to act outside the international norms. And in Iran unfortunately you have a legacy of that.
SHERIDANYeah, I think Daniel's right. This scene is very shocking both because Iran, like almost every country in the world, supported international agreements that say they will protect foreign embassies. And so it's shocking because it's so rarely done and it's against international agreements. I think that the U.S. government certainly sees this as an overstep, a huge over -- misstep by the Iranian regime.
SHERIDANAnd they point to the fact that whereas in the past the U.S. may have struggled to get support for some -- more sanctions and pressure and so on against Iran, you now see the Europeans coming together. And you see Russia and China crucially condemning this. And they, in the past, have been more reluctant in the Security Council to go along with measures against Iran.
PAGEYou know, of course we're all very concerned about the Iranian nuclear program and I wonder, what's the impact like do you think, Yochi, of this latest (word?) on whether Iran chooses to aggressively go forward?
DREAZENWell, I mean, one, I think Daniel's call was -- in terms of personal back history, the most interesting I've ever heard on this show. I mean, just a fascinating kind of way of someone calling and interacting with history that to all of us is just this world-shaking event. I do find it interesting and not disturbing but sort of odd that Iran is doing so much that appears to be outside the norms of international law, ignoring the IE, ignoring international treaties about nuclear power.
DREAZENIf you believe most of the world pushing towards a nuclear weapon and supporting militants in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, this is outside the norm of international law. In the scheme of things seizing an embassy compared to a nuclear program, they don't really compare.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll talk about America's wars, what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll take more of your calls. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today and for our Friday News Roundup we're joined by Mary Beth Sheridan of The Washington Post, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel and Yochi Dreazen from National Journal. Yochi you've spent much of the fall in Iraq. We saw Vice President Biden make an unannounced trip there this week. Why did he go?
DREAZENI think, in large part, it was to put one of the final nails in the coffin and just to, sort of show that really for the U.S. this is the end. I mean, not for the diplomats, not for some of the 16,000 people who work for the embassy, but as far as Iraq being a major, major, major issue, the dominant issue for the military for many years that this is one of the final trips. I'm sure you'll see Defense Secretary Panetta, others in the Pentagon, make similar trips.
DREAZENWhat's interesting, though, is that it's again an attempt by the White House to try to put the best positive spin on something that was very different. This was not an American decision. This was an Iraqi decision. When I was there in the fall every politician I spoke to, from the Kurds to Allawi, the most pro-American politician in the years I lived there that I'd ever met, without exception wanted the U.S. gone.
DREAZENSo this wasn't something where the White House sort of can say that this is the U.S. kind of proudly leaving with its head held high, this is the U.S. leaving because the Iraqis wanted us out.
PAGEBut if all the officials that you talked to wanted the U.S. to stay, why did the government proceed in a way that guaranteed that the U.S. would leave?
DREAZENNo. I'm sorry, the politicians didn't want the U.S. to stay and if I said that, I misspoke. They want the U.S. out. Malaki was in, most of these people privately will tell you that they wanted some number of U.S. troops to stay but they felt that there were, the Kurds in particular, but even some of the Sunnis who obviously have a lot to fear from Shia government. But it's a sign of how toxic we became that none of them could say publicly, with the exception of the Kurds, and even there, only some of the Kurds.
DREAZENNo one could publicly say that they wanted us to stay because we are so hated. Our presence is so toxic. For us, eight years into the war we're just hated in much of the country.
PAGEAnd what situation do we leave there, Mary Beth? Do we leave a stable situation that we can feel like, well, after this long war maybe it was worth it? What's the situation there now?
SHERIDANNo, we don't leave a stable situation. A lot of the really basic agreements are still not worked out. So what exactly the borderline say will be that will determine the Kurdish area, how oil income is going to be distributed, there's a lot of tensions in Iraq and I think they face a very uncertain future.
MELHEMWe are leaving behind a very brittle, political system, not only the area, what to do with Kirkuk which is a tinderbox, which is a bomb waiting to explode between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq. We are leaving an Iraq that is exposed to Iranian machinations. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that when we leave at the end of this month Iran and Turkey will be the two neighboring countries with the most influence in Iraq trying to shape the future of Iraq and Iraqi politics.
MELHEMAnd this is when you think about the American sacrifices there, how many Americans died, how many Iraqis died, we spent almost a trillion dollars. We lost almost 5,000 people, 33,000 wounded two-thirds of them serious wounds. We're going to spend billions of dollars taking care of them as we should because most of them are 20-something and nobody talks about that hidden cost of the war. So when you look back this is, may not be the longest war in American history, Afghanistan is, but this is the longest unnecessary war in history and we're not leaving, as Yochi said, with our heads high.
MELHEMAnd Prime Minister Malaki who owes his job because of the American invasion wouldn't even deign publicly thanking the United States as the President of Iraq Jalal Talabani occurred who says privately and publicly that he owes his job for the United States, who said thank the Americans publicly. So you're leaving an Iraq behind that is led by a man who is influenced by Iran. His government of coalition depends on Muqtada Al- Sadr who is in the pocket of the Iranians and that's one reason today we cannot even tell the Iraqi government not to help the Syrian government in crushing its own people.
MELHEMOne of the biggest ironies in Iraq today is Malaki is recruiting the Baath Party in Iraq, what's left of it, and it's helping the Baath Party in Syria cracking down violently on the Syrian people.
SHERIDANYou know, I think there's an interesting, really central question here and this is something that you see Vice President Biden talking about. Iran is a huge question and, but the sort of counter narrative by some, certainly the U.S. government puts out this line and so do Malaki actually is that with the U.S. kind of out of the way as a distraction if you will, as a focus of anger, will the Iraqis tolerate a strong Iranian presence or will they push back?
SHERIDANI mean, there's obviously been long, historical tensions, they've fought a war et cetera so if the Americans are removed as the object on which people will focus their anger will this lead to an increase or a decrease in Iranian influence and many people have argued the latter, but I think it's yet to be seen.
DREAZENWhen I was there for this last trip, the whole point of it for the four or five weeks I was there was to answer to my mind the biggest question which is, what do we leave behind? Who is Nouri Al-Malaki? And that was the point of my trip. What he isn't, is a democrat. I mean this is a person who has had journalists arrested, beaten and killed, who has had opposition politicians arrested, in some cases on trumped up charges where they haven't been seen or heard of in years.
DREAZENThis is a person who perfectly willing to sidestep the constitution. In Baghdad today the city is quieter than I've seen it since I arrived there for the first time in '03. One reason is you have police checkpoints every half block. All of those checkpoints, all of the troops who are now in Baghdad answer directly to Malaki There is no interior minister, there is no defense minister, there is no national security advisor, he's the commander-in-chief in what is meant to be a kind of ceremonial way but he has every soldier and there are hundreds of thousands of them in Baghdad, they answer to him.
DREAZENSo in the Sunni neighborhoods, there is abject fear. Among journalists, there is abject fear. There is a friend of mine who was murdered there right before I arrived. So you cannot say what Iraq is going to become. You can say with utter certainty that this is not a democracy.
PAGEYou know, Hisham, you mentioned the delicate situation with the Kurds. Vice President Biden actually went to Kurdistan. Was that a difficult decision? Why do you think he made that part of the trip?
MELHEMLook, I mean, we've always had a good relationship with the Kurds in Iraq and they've been our allies. They were the main group that fought Saddam Hussein before the American invasion. People like Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq and Massoud Barzani the leader of the strongest Kurdish party know the United States, they know politicians. They know Joe Biden. They know Hillary Clinton. They used to come here and I used to see them and meet them when nobody would meet them, very few people would meet them during Saddam's day.
MELHEMSo the United States invested a lot in the Kurds and I think the Kurds have done an excellent job in building Kurdistan in the last 20 years since 1991 in fact when Iraq was defeated in the war over Kuwait. So we have a long term investment and I think the Kurds are, as Yochi said, I mean only Kurdish leaders would thank the United States and would talk openly about their alliance and cooperation with the United States.
PAGEWill there be Yochi, some sort of formal ceremony for the very end of the U.S. presence here?
DREAZENThere will be some sort of ceremony for the U.S. It's far from clear what the Iraqi participation will be. When I was there I was at a base in Basra that was in the process, it had once been a huge American base being turned over to the Iraqi government, to the Iraqi military. The last American officer said to the Iraqi general who was going to take the base that they should do a ceremony, lower the American flag, raise the Iraqi flag, pay tribute to the American and Iraqi soldiers who had died.
DREAZENThis Iraqi general who, the whole time up to that point, was listening to a translator for the first and only time spoke English and what he said was, no ceremony, get out. And this is the kind of reaction that you're hearing even from the military of Iraq, which if any organization there has a good relationship with us, it is the military.
PAGEVery distressing for Americans who feel we have done so much, invested so much at such great human and financial cost.
SHERIDANYou know, what I've been impressed by is how often we seem to, the U.S. government seems to misunderstand or underestimate Malaki. I was in Iraq in 2008 and covered a lot of the negotiations on the status of forces agreement which is the agreement under which the U.S. troops will leave at the end of the year and you know, U.S., that was under the Bush administration of course and initially they really thought there would be an agreement for tens of thousands of troops and significant U.S. presence.
SHERIDANMalaki drove a very hard bargain and even at that when the agreement was reached for the pullout at the end of this year U.S. diplomats were still kind of winking and saying well, this is the end of the agreement but we'll have another agreement and so on. And I think they were very, they kind of underestimated how much, I do think Malaki would kind of like the U.S. out as any sort of check on his power.
PAGEI know a lot of Americans will feel very grateful when the final U.S. combat troops come home at the end of this month. Let's talk to Robert he's calling us from Johnson City, Tenn. Robert, hi thanks for holding on.
ROBERTThank you so much, good afternoon and good day to the panel. I was calling to talk about another Muslim state to the east which borders both on Iran and China and that's Pakistan. It's been back in the news as you know this week after the yet-to-be-determined intentional or unintentional attack by NATO on a Pakistani military base across the Afghanistan border. And I've been struck both in Thanksgiving conversations as well as on the opinion pages of the harsh tone taken toward Pakistan that essentially they need to come to the table and come clean about any support through the military or secret service to Taliban and other militant groups in that border region.
ROBERTBut yet there's been very little attention paid to the real dynamic within Pakistan coming from outrage from citizens for murders by drones and also this new attack and how that plays upon the domestic, political environment where you have mass protests of 200, 300, 400,000 Pakistanis in cities across the country essentially in outrage about this relationship with the United States with a civilian government albeit lacking in authority vis-a-vis the military but civilian government that is also seen as too friendly to the United States and I wondered if the panel could speak to that domestic dynamic as well as the U.S. reaction both official and among the population about the sensitivity for civilian casualties in this conflict.
PAGERobert, thanks so much for your call. Hisham I'm sure that Al-Arabiya has done more to cover these protests against the drone attacks than we've seen on U.S. TV networks?
MELHEMAbsolutely, we cover Pakistan extensively as much as we can. Look I mean one could recognize the legitimate outrage on the part of the Pakistani population over the civilian losses that are incurred sometimes in the attacks by the drones and in the recent loss of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an attack that I think was a mistake, not intentional.
MELHEMAt the same time we can say that the Pakistani government is one of the most corrupt governments in the world, that the Pakistani military is corrupt, that the Pakistani military is in bed with the worst elements of the Taliban and the Haqqani network that is fighting and killing Americans including an attack on the American embassy in the heart of Kabul recently.
MELHEMThis is a government that has been taking a good deal of support from the United States and yet they are not leveling with the United States. You cannot rely on them as a serious ally in Afghanistan. Pakistan's only obsession is named India and their biggest nightmare is for India to manage the emergence of a friendly government in Kabul where Pakistan will be squeezed between those two countries.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Yochi?
DREAZENOne thing about Pakistan that's very dangerous that is not related solely to us is that when you visit Pakistan the two trends that I think are there more than any other country I've been to in the world, one is a collective sense of paranoia. They see India squeezing them. They use the phrase Hindo-Zionist conspiracy which always kind of internally makes me chuckle.
DREAZENYou know India and Israel sort of teaming up, and a sense of victimization. And you hear that everywhere you go from the leadership all the way down to people on the street. Pervez Musharraf was in D.C. not long ago at a lunch that I attended and he was saying with a straight face that the reason Pakistan's image in the U.S. was so poor was that the Indian-dominated American media, prompting the Jewish reporters in the room to say, not us, you know, we're off the hook finally.
DREAZENBut when you have a government and a military that have for decades kind of fostered the sense of paranoia, the sense that Hisham said that India is this huge threat, the sense of victimhood, it's a very dangerous line to draw because on the one hand that's an easy way to push tension on to the U.S., push tension on to India. At the same time that's internal so for them as a government, as a society to try to tread that narrow line now for decades you're going to fall off.
PAGEMary Beth, we saw Pakistan pull out of a conference on Afghanistan as a protest to this attack, that NATO attack that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers. What, the Bonn conference our hopes, what are expectations for how it might work and what kind of problem does it create that Pakistan won't be there?
SHERIDANWell, I think, you know, there's been this effort going on over the last year or so to really try to create a future stability, you know a structure in which you can have some sort of negotiations with some aspects of the Taliban et cetera. And the problem with Pakistan not being there is it's just such a crucial player and I think this is why for the U.S. in reference to your caller you know, when American politicians look at Pakistan they see Pakistan as such a huge, really piece of solving the Afghan problem and that's why they become so angry when Pakistan seems unable and unwilling, whatever to rein in or to end its alliance with some of these terror groups.
PAGEHisham, any hopes for this Bonn conference to show results?
MELHEMYou have a big problem when Pakistan is boycotting and then obviously some elements of the Taliban will not participate and they should participate although the American ambassador in Kabul said they shouldn't participate. We don't believe that Iran now will participate after the attack on the British embassy. Uzbekistan is a big question mark. Now if these neighboring countries are not going to participate how are you seriously going to discuss the future of Afghanistan?
PAGEWe had an al-Qaida leader reappear yesterday claiming responsibility for the kidnapping in August of a 70-year-old U.S. citizen in Pakistan. Yochi is this significant?
DREAZENI think it is for a couple of reasons, one it's a reminder that when possible al-Qaida does like to kidnap Westerners especially unfortunately if they're Jewish. A good friend of mine, a personal friend of mine from when I was at The Wall Street Journal, Danny Pearl, was kidnapped. They made a point not only of killing him but of videotaping it and in the videotape making a point of highlighting his Jewish-ness more than the fact that he was an American.
DREAZENThe other part of this is the re-emergence of al-Zawahiri. After Bin Laden was killed, you heard U.S. officials say sort of dismissively that he didn't have Bin Laden's charisma. He wasn't as well liked within al-Qaida as Bin Laden had been but when you have the re-emergence potentially of him as a public figure from the remnants of al-Qaida that is a big deal.
PAGESo Mary Beth, tell us about the man who was kidnapped.
SHERIDANHe's a man from the D.C. area, Warren Weinstein. He's the Pakistan director for a development contractor based in Arlington right outside D.C., done a lot of development work, 70 years old and was you know, kidnapped hasn't been heard from for a while. I was going to add he was abducted in August I should say in Lahore, in Pakistan.
SHERIDANOne point I was going to add to what my colleague Yochi said, I was talking to my, one of my colleagues at The Post yesterday, Greg Miller who covers intelligence and he was saying one of the things that interesting here is that the CIA found a lot of references in the documents that were in the Bin Laden house about al-Qaida looking at getting more into kidnapping both to inflict pain but also to raise money. And he said boy this is really a shrinking of ambitions for a group that really prided itself on spectacular acts.
PAGEThat's Mary Beth Sheridan, she's night editor for foreign and national news with The Washington Post. We've also been joined this hour by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel and Yochi Dreazen, senior national security correspondent for National Journal, thank you all for being with us this hour.
MELHEMThank you, have a good weekend.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm, thanks for listening.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn and the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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