ISIS takes control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Several nations agree to take in Southeast Asian migrants. And the U.S. and Cuba move closer to full restoration of diplomatic ties. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Nearly nine years after America attacked Iraq, the Pentagon declares an official end to its mission there. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta marked the occasion at a ceremony in Baghdad. The euro inches up against the dollar, but its outlook is clouded by a Standard and Poors ratings threat. Russian President Putin’s approval ratings tank as he faces the largest protests in Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iran rejects a U.S. request to return a drone that Tehran says it brought down earlier this month. And the U.N. reports 5,000 civilians have died in Syrian government crackdowns. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- David Ignatius columnist, The Washington Post; contributor to “Post Partisan” blog on washingtonpost.com. His latest book is titled "Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage."
- Nadia Bilbassy senior U.S. correspondent, MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Centre.
- Robin Harding U.S. economics editor, The Financial Times.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Merely nine years ago, President G.W. Bush led the U.S. into war against Iraq. This week with the war officially over, troops are coming home. In Syria, defecting soldiers now siding with protestors, allegedly killed two dozen government forces. In Europe, banks are under pressure to alleviate the region's financial crisis. And tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV and Robin Harding of Financial Times. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSGood morning.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Diane.
MR. ROBIN HARDINGGood morning.
REHMDavid Ignatius, the war in Iraq is finally over. In your view, what has been accomplished?
IGNATIUSWell, that's really the hardest question to answer for Americans and Iraqis with this week's visit to Washington by Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, you had to say in terms of specific commitments going forward, very little. We have an Iraqi democracy but it's headed by someone who's widely regarded as no paragon of democracy. He hasn't succeeded really in reaching out to other Iraqis.
IGNATIUSI'm struck Diane, this week, a war that began famously with shock and awe as we turned our spectacular bombardment of Iraq ended with the muted, somber sense of how difficult this proved to be, how many mistakes the United States. In the terms of measurable outcomes, how little the U.S. got out of it, at the loss of nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers, 100,000 at least Iraqis killed. So it's a painful story but we would have to say most of all for Iraqis.
REHM32,000 U.S. troops wounded, more than $800 billion spent. While you say we're getting out of this rather quietly, the president didn't make a huge thing of it, the president's campaign is making a bigger thing of it, Nadia. They've got a website with a very glossy film posted.
BILBASSYOf course, because from the beginning, Diane, President Obama described this war as a war of choice, it wasn't out of necessity. He called it a stupid war and he promised during his last election campaign that the first thing he's going to do, he's going to withdraw American troops. So he wanted to appease the liberal wing in his party, the Democratic Party. He's also going along with the trend of Americans, 55 percent thinks that the he handles the war in Iraq is the correct way to do it. But meanwhile, this is going to be seen as a foreign success story for him in the campaign.
BILBASSYSo on one hand, the president wants to keep a low profile, meanwhile he wants to praise the American sacrifice as the numbers we have seen is striking of the dead and the wounded. But at the same time, he doesn't want to show that this war was fought in vain. But saying, looking at the bigger picture I just wanted to add some other statistics that put the war in perspective in addition to what David just said. In this research I've been doing for the last week about the war I came across something really striking. I mean, looking at -- just to give you an example. I found that, for example, 2 million people are internally displaced inside Iraq. 2.5 million refugees are outside the country in neighboring countries like Syria and like Jordan.
BILBASSY23 percent of Iraq is under -- living under poverty line, that's $2.00 a day. This is a rich country that's sitting on the second largest oil resource in the world. They have -- 34,000 doctors left the country and 40 percent could be unemployment level. So in a way, yes, they got a democracy in terms of the process of voting but this government, as David said, where the strong man like Prime Minister Maliki still holds the ministry of national security and defense, you know, unable to bring somebody into the country.
REHMAnd, Robin Harding, what is left behind? One thing, is the largest U.S. embassy in the whole wide world.
HARDINGYes, and I think this is going to be interesting as regards the campaign and how President Obama's campaign portrays this next year. Because I think one thing they're going to have be concerned about is if violence continues in Iraq and American troops withdrawing, we don't know whether stability will be maintained or violence will increase. And one fear for the campaign should surely be that there will be attacks against U.S. personnel, the U.S. diplomatic personnel, in Iraq next year. And that may be a difficult thing for the president to handle, because of course there are still particularly Republican critics of the withdraw from Iraq, who says it's leaving too soon. It runs the risk of allowing the gains in terms of stability to be sacrificed by leaving the field free for insurgents.
REHMAnd, David, how many people are we leaving there in Iraq? We're not moving out every soldier?
IGNATIUSWe'll have a very large embassy presence and the embassy compound, which I've seen is as fortified as you can imagine, a place being it was built very carefully to withstand a lot of violence. And there will be some thousands based in the embassy. The numbers that I see vary. In addition, there are likely to be U.S. contractors working as part of the embassy with some kind of protection, training Iraq police, doing other training functions. In addition, it's said that Iraqi Special Forces will be trained but outside the country, they'll probably be trained in Kuwait.
IGNATIUSThe Obama Administration had hoped to have a larger presence than it's going to have and down to the wire had been bargaining to leave some troops behind in a more explicit training mission to continue the ties between the U.S. and Iraqi militaries, which our officials would argue is one of the benefits that come out of this, is that we trained an Iraqi military, we know them, they work cooperatively with us. But in the end there couldn't be agreement on that because the Maliki government simply wouldn't, nobody in the Iraqi government would agree to give immunity to those U.S. military personnel from Iraqi law while they were deployed in Iraq. So in the end it wasn't approved.
REHMIt was very important, obviously to the Maliki government but explain why, David?
IGNATIUSWell, why the Maliki government was interested in having these trainers or why in the end they couldn't approve it?
REHMWhy in the end they wouldn't approve it?
IGNATIUSWell, the Maliki government, and I must say, there was unanimity among all the Iraqi factions in the parliament, wouldn't approve something that seemed to them to comprise Iraqi sovereignty. Iraqis feel they're getting their country back. I mean, this is, for us, a somber, painful moment but for Iraqis there's a lot of satisfaction. The Americans, who they always regarded as occupiers, even when they were grateful that Saddam Hussein was gone, we should note that.
IGNATIUSI don't hear anybody regretting the departure of Saddam Hussein. But they felt that they were being occupied and they just didn't want to see comprises, special deals made to protect Americans. You know, black water has become a dirty word in Iraq. It symbolizes a kind of an arrogant, to what was seen as arrogant American power, disregard for Iraqi law. They want that to end.
REHMAnd the question of exactly how these black water, though the name has changed, how they will operate? I mean, everything seems rather confused, Nadia.
BILBASSYIt is and I would just, even looking at the number of the amount of money that's been allocated to this embassy, for example, $3.2 billion, authorized by the Congress for this fiscal coming year of 2012. so the mission, the president said, is going to be a robust diplomatic mission that's going to be security agreement between the two countries and co-operations are going to be training, sharing intelligence, etc. but also the role of the small army has been described, which is the contractors. You know, how they operate. Obviously they're going to be out of the embassy, the green zone.
BILBASSYSome saying that actually they're going to be a target and we have already heard from the fiery Shiite cleric, Mqutada al-Sadr, who said that he's going to attack the personnel there. And when they leave the embassy, and they leave in military vehicles, civilians won't be able to distinguish if they are military or not military, although they are in civilian clothes. So, I mean, the situation of leaving them behind, although there is maybe no uniform soldiers as such, but you're going to have a small army of others, the figures that I have seen could be 16,000, maybe approximately that number, that are going to be running the country. that's one of the most fortified embassies of the U.S. across the world.
REHMAnd the other great concern is, what about Iran, Robin, and the role it could play in perhaps what becomes a less stable Iraq?
HARDINGAnd that clearly is a concern and Iran has, I think, stated that it sees this as an opportunity to expand its influence, particularly in southern Iraq. And it's all linked into the other issues of dispute between Iran and the wider world, its nuclear program, we've seen this brawl over the last couple of weeks over the U.S. drone that went down in Iran. So it's another point of leverage, which will surely be used in these wider disputes. Iraq -- Iran will use its potential influence in Iraq to try and get what it wants in other matters.
REHMAnd, Nadia, what about that drone that Iran claims to have captured and U.S. requests to get it back? How has Iran responded?
BILBASSYWell, they're not going to give it back. In fact, they demanded an apology from the United States, saying it's bad enough that you violated our sovereignty and on top of that you want us to return this plane back. so they're not going to do it.
REHMNadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast Center. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with Robin Harding. He's U.S. economics editor for The Financial Times. Nadia Bilbassy, senior U.S. correspondent for Middle East Broadcast Centre. David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post, contributor to the "Post Partisan" blog on washingtonpost.com. His latest book is titled "Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage," which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed.
IGNATIUSThank you, Diane.
REHMI must say, let's talk further about this drone that Iran claims to have captured. Do we know for certain how Iran got the drone? Do we know for certain they have it?
IGNATIUSI have not heard anybody say that the drone that has been on display in Tehran showed off by the Iranians is not a U.S. stealth drone. I'm sure U.S. officials have some sense of how it came down over Iran, or I would assume so, but they are not -- they are really mum. This is a subject you cannot get American officials to say a word about.
IGNATIUSI think they're surely worried that some of the technology has been compromised (unintelligible) ...
REHMBy so-called reverse engineering.
IGNATIUSWell, it's -- people say that it's not simply the materials and the configuration, but the way you put this thing together that makes it stealthy. And that it would be hard for anybody even having the drone in front of them to figure out how to make their own. Officials also suggest that the very secret electronic collection systems in this drone -- and we don't know precisely what signals it was collecting in this mission -- were not compromised. The officials won't go into why that's true but one interesting thing was that the drone landed intact. It didn't crash and splinter into pieces. It seems to have landed itself.
IGNATIUSAgain, why its commander control was disrupted...
IGNATIUS...the Iranians claim that they did this through cyber warfare, but the officials say, bologna.
IGNATIUSBut for some reason, something turned it off and then it made it land.
REHMBut Secretary of Defense Panetta says that the U.S. is going to continue its stealth operations with drones over Iran, Nadia.
BILBASSYWell, I mean, this is a good method of collecting information. As we know, since the severing of the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Iran, they don't have human agents on the ground actually to find out what's going on. So the drones are a good effective way of trying to get probably radioactive emissions if they can detect it from the air.
BILBASSYAnd of course you don't have the danger of involving pilots that could be kidnapped or could be shut down or could be -- have to trade them off for something else. So these drones have been proven to be really good methods of collecting information. So I'm not surprised that the U.S. will continue that to the dismay of the Iranians...
BILBASSY...who are saying you are penetrating our air space and we are a sovereign country and we're going to report you probably sooner or later to the U.N.
HARDINGYes, I think that's exactly right. The U.S. is going to continue doing this.
REHMGoing to continue doing it, despite any and all protests from Iran. Let's talk about the troops who are now -- who have for the most part left Iraq. How many will be redeployed to Afghanistan, Nadia?
BILBASSYWell, I mean, this is also a controversial issue because there was a small briefing with Ambassador Crocker in Afghanistan recently with a small group of journalists. And he said that -- he indicated that basically the U.S. will stay beyond -- some kind of combat forces will stay beyond 2014 in Afghanistan. There was a conference in Bonn last week where President Karzai has asked the Europeans and the Americans, their allies, to basically support Afghanistan militarily and politically, to stay for a decade to come, which is -- I don't know if this is going to be feasible.
BILBASSYBut basically the president has said that he will withdraw the 10,000 troops by June. And by -- the next 23,000 will be withdrawn by 2012. So they are on track to reduce the number as we go closer to 2014 deadline. This has been the stated position of the White House.
REHMBut do you think they're going to try to speed that up, David?
IGNATIUSWell, Diane, Nadia's put her finger on what is a very interesting below-the-radar political battle that's broken out in the last two weeks. There was a story last week in the Wall Street Journal saying that our commander in Kabul, General John Allen had told visiting members of congress that he believed that when the surge forces in Afghanistan, the 30,000 that were sent, are withdrawn as of September, 2012 there should be a suspension of further withdrawals while we assess the situation in Afghanistan. How are things going, okay?
IGNATIUSIf you ask at the White House, what about General Allen's comments, the answer is General Allen has not told that to the president. And the president's policy remains exactly what it was, which is that withdrawals will continue on a steady slope downward after September, 2012. In other words the political side is saying we're on our way out and we don't -- even if our military commanders would like a pause, no, we're on our way out. And I...
REHMBut this is...
IGNATIUS...don't think this is the last that we've heard of this.
REHMYeah. And this is nothing new, is it? I mean, the differences between the political side and the military side.
IGNATIUSNo. Going -- I mean, this, in a sense, it's a replay of the debate that led to the original decision before the surge in December, 2009 when the military was really putting a lot of pressure that the White House people and the White House felt. Vice-President Biden was a strong critic of the policy that was adopted. But our commander Stan McChrystal in Kabul, Chairman of Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, all the military were united in saying, we need these extra troops. The strategy makes sense.
IGNATIUSI do think we're going to have another debate next year in the political year about what kind of additional withdrawals make sense. How are things going in Afghanistan? It's going to be especially interesting and tough because it will be a presidential campaign.
REHMAll right. And to the euro which apparently hit an eleven-month low this week. Robin, there are new concerns about whether the deal that the EU leaders reached at a summit last week is going to take care of the problems that Europe is facing.
HARDINGYes. The European leaders are doing a fantastic job at making sure the next crisis doesn't happen. What they're not doing such a good job of is actually fixing the current crisis. All these measures that they're talking about, which are basically designed to stop governments running up fiscal deficits in the future, it doesn't do anything about the huge fiscal deficits and debt stocks that they have now. And that's why the markets aren't really satisfied with this deal that the European leaders came to about a week ago.
HARDINGThe other problem with all these deals -- and we've seen this again and again for about a year-and-a-half now, is all the European leaders gathered together in Brussels. They have a summit, they come up with some kind of deal, declare victory but it isn't implemented. It takes time to actually do all of this, to come to agreements. And a treaty in some cases is going to have to pass national parliaments and potentially even referendums in some of these countries.
HARDINGMarkets don't wait for that. Markets move at absolute light speed. They respond in seconds. And this disconnect between the time it takes, you know, for European leaders to do something as opposed to the time in which markets can be selling things off is a huge part of the problem in resolving the euro zone debt crisis.
IGNATIUSWell, watching this European debt crisis, it really is like an old fashioned, I want to say, comedy movie, you know, in which there -- seem to be fixed and then all of a sudden, oh my gosh, they're...
IGNATIUS...you know, people jumping out of boxes and it's all falling down.
REHMSort of like our Congress.
IGNATIUSAnd, well, you know, we can't -- we should be careful about being critical, but -- so a week ago there was an agreement to amend the European Union treaty so that there will be greater fiscal control to make sure that European governments are following appropriate austerity measures. And, as Robin says, they don't get into another crisis. Well, you know, that was fine except Britain said it wasn't prepared to go along. And in the week since then there've been indications that other countries are similarly concerned about the language. So that begins to unravel.
IGNATIUSI hear many people argue that this whole question of greater fiscal austerity, you know, let's squeeze them, you know, the kind of German argument, we need more discipline. And this is the point that in this crisis Europe needs to grow. Greece needs to grow its way out of its problems somehow. And that the answer's going to have to be some kind of authority for the European Central Bank to be a lender of last resort for a European Central Bank that can act the way the fed did during our crisis in 2008 which, let's hope, to stabilize our markets.
REHMHere is a question from Colin in Florida. He says, "Please raise the issue of the euro zone members' insistence on a new finance tax whereby Britain would be liable for 75 percent of the total," Robin.
HARDINGWell, see this is the core of Britain's issue with this. Britain wants the euro zone to solve its problems, even as it's not passed with the euro zone itself. I mean, Europe is the main export destination for British exports. But what Britain doesn't want is for the euro zone to become a separate government within the EU, which basically sets rules to everybody which those who are not part of the euro zone then have to participate in.
HARDINGAnd the financial transactions tax is a classic example of this. I mean, it's an idea that has a lot of support in France and a number of European countries. Essentially you put a tax on every trade and foreign currencies or stocks or bonds. And the reason it's particularly attractive in countries like France is that most of Europe's financial transactions take place in London. So, I mean, you can see the merits of this if you're French.
HARDINGSo the UK's goal goes to try and keep control of these things so that it has influence over the imposition of policies like this while remaining outside the euro zone. And that's why there's such a tension.
REHMSo will we see the European Central Bank take a greater and tougher role here, David?
IGNATIUSWell, Diane, there are people who will tell you that although it is technically not part of the European Central Bank's authority, it is stealthily, quietly operating in a fed-like way behind the scenes to be a lender -- it's essentially said, I'm told, to European banks, whatever you need to borrow we are prepared to lend through this crisis. It's not doing that loudly and openly because that would make Germans nervous. But I think it's a wise policy and I think if the markets begin to sense that there is the ECB standing behind European banks, some of the anxiety that's there will begin to diminish.
HARDINGSo I think there's a difference between banks and countries. The ECBs acting to back up European banks. What it so far refused to do in a big way is act as lender of last resorts to European governments. And that's a crucial part of it.
REHMRobin Harding. He's U.S. economics editor for The Financial Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nadia, more government forces seem to be defecting in Syria. Do we really know how many and whether this could, in fact, constitute a turning point?
BILBASSYIt could. Now we're talking about a new army. It's called a Free Syria Army. And basically it's composed from the defectors that you mention, but so far we haven't seen any high-ranking officers. We have seen middle and lower kind of medium term. And within the number has -- they say -- and they have the reason to inflate the number -- they said up to 25,000 people. Some saying it's 15,000. Now, these are the defectors from the army. There are also Muslim Brotherhood -- Islamist activists mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood and some others.
BILBASSYIt seems the case now that they're actually operating on the border with Turkey. And NATO seems to have a plan of training them. There is some talks that the French are involved, the British MI-6 are involved trying to train them on the guerilla warfare, that they can come, go back, hit and run. The U.S. position that it's not being helpful to attack Ba'athist headquarters, it's not to attack even the army. That actually they wanted to not turn it into violence.
BILBASSYBut I cannot see any other scenarios considering everything else that's happening in the region within that oblique, within the Security Council despite the reverse of the Russian position this morning that actually they're going to condemn the violence. That this insurgency is not going to turn somehow into a violent movement. There is even talks that the TNC in Libya have sent rebels from the Islamist parties to help the Syrians to fight the government.
BILBASSYBut the army in Syria is half a million almost. They are very well trained. They hard battle. They have $3 point billion (sic) has been supplied by the Russians in the last year alone. So I cannot see them defeating the army.
IGNATIUSI think Nadia's right that the movement of Syrian defectors, the military side of the opposition is growing somewhat. But what I hear from U.S. officials, and also from some Arabs that I talk to, is a caution that they're nowhere near powerful enough to challenge the Syrian military. There are hopes that the Syrian military might split. But the substantial numbers of officers and soldiers joining the opposition are not happening.
IGNATIUSAnd I'm told that when our Ambassador Robert Ford, a real hero in this story 'cause he's bravely gone into the places where violence is happening to speak to the opposition, that when he was sent back last week to Syria, one of the messages that he is bringing to the opposition is, do not believe that there's a military solution to this. Don't play that game. That's a mistake.
REHMBut then you had a U.S. official telling congress that the Assad Regime is the equivalent of a dead man walking. He said the question is how many steps remain. Is it clear that Assad is on his way out, Nadia?
BILBASSYWell, he is -- there is no returning point to what happened before. We cannot resume that business as usual in Syria for sure. It's not just the U.S., but also the Israelis. The Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that actually it's weeks. He puts it in numbers of weeks. I don't know about weeks. It could be a month. But I cannot see apart from some kind of a military option that what we have seen now is going to continue. Yes, there is a complete change in the Arab League lid by the GCC countries. They're trying to talk -- the decision was taken a long time ago that Syria is better off without Assad. But everybody is worried what's going to happen.
REHMAnd now to have Russia get in on the question is really very interesting.
BILBASSYThat's very significant because 'til yesterday, basically (word?) was saying that we cannot have condemnation of the regime without condemning this army that attacked in the Syrian government.
REHMNadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast Centre. We'll open the phones when we come back.
REHMAnd before we open the phones, one listener tweets, "any chance that the drone that's in Iran is a Trojan horse?" And another listener, Michael emails us a similar question. "Is there a chance the drone was delivered rather than crashed and is planting a stuxsnet-like virus to the "wouldn't they have a self-destructive device in this drone to prevent it from being captured unless for some reason they wanted it to be?" David, you're my secret agent.
IGNATIUSWell, I should say that I think your listeners need to get into the spy novel writing business because these are really good ideas.
REHMAre you working on one?
IGNATIUSWell, sure ,but this tantalizing idea, what would be so attractive, so irresistible that the Iranians would pick it up, bring it into their secret spaces, take it apart, you know, it would be a stealth drone. And so there has been speculation that maybe this was an elaborate trick. The interesting thing is if you're the Iranians, you can't entirely rule that out so do they really trust what they've found in this drone? Why didn't it blow itself up is a good question and you hear lots of speculation that carrying explosives aboard a drone of this type just wouldn't be possible or wise.
IGNATIUSYou know, whether all the high-tech gear that was aboard that drone had any value for the Iranians once the thing went down, that's another question. I probably doubt that.
REHMAll right, let's go to Susie in St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, you're on the air.
SUSIEGood morning, Diane. I just read the Christian Science Monitor's top story this morning, which was by Scott Peterson, and it suggests he talked to an Iranian engineer and that he said that they carefully disabled something that the U.S. had known for a long time was a weakness of this drone, which was the GPS system. And they fooled it into coming down in Iran and that's why there was flight damage to the bottom because there was a slightly different elevation. And I'd like to know what the -- I mean, I believe a breaking story.
IGNATIUSI've asked that very question, how is it that this thing came down? How was that the signal between the drone and presumably the satellite that was the command and control was disrupted? Was the GPS interfered with? Was there some way the signal was blocked? And people tell me that that's not the case, but this is one of those situations where I have to be suspicious as a journalist that I'm really getting the whole story and so I'd say that to your listeners, too.
REHMOkay, to Dan who is in Birmingham, Ala., good morning to you.
DANAh, good morning, I enjoy your show. I was wondering on the Eurozone question, would it be possible for those countries to somehow devalue the euro so that they could attract foreign currency and decrease their exposure to foreign debt?
HARDINGIt's actually quite interesting that the euro, as Diane said earlier, has now hit an 11-month low. Its behavior has been quite strange. What we've actually seen is the euro has gone up during times of particular stress and the reason that appears to be happening is European banks are selling their assets in the U.S. or abroad and using them to buy euros and take it back to Europe to strengthen their capital base. Essentially, the euro is free-floating so the Eurozone doesn't really have the power to manipulate it. So I don't think that's really an effective answer for them.
REHMAll right, to Baltimore, Md., good morning Alan. Alan, are you there? Let's try...
ALANYes, Diane, thank you. Thank you very much for taking my call.
ALANHow long can I can speak? Can I talk to up to three minutes?
REHMNo, no, you can ask one short question, please.
ALANOh, can anybody tell me, what is the real reason behind the invasion to Iraq without bringing up the subject of the weapons of mass destruction?
REHMAll right, thanks for your call. Nadia?
BILBASSYWell, that was the stated reason by the Bush administration that the regime of Saddam Hussein was dangerous, in the process of acquiring weapons of mass destruction and they will threaten the world and the United States. But looking back again, I don't know if it's worth looking into the pretext of the reason why they went to war or the actual reasons of the conspiracy theory in the Arab world why the United States decided to invade Iraq or this whimsy link with al-Qaida.
BILBASSYThere's just so many ways to look at the -- but I think it is just useful to say that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein. If you ask an average Iraqi, they will say we lost a dictator, but also in the process, we might lose our country.
IGNATIUSThe riddle of why we invaded Iraq is one that historians and all of us will be thinking about, I'm sure, for decades. There's no question, I was there covering the story, but U.S. officials believed the Iraqis had chemical weapons at least. So that part of the argument about weapons of mass destruction didn't turn out to be true, but I can remember putting on the chem-bio suit every time an Iraqi missile was launched towards Kuwait where the forces were staging and the U.S. troops put on the same suits because they believed that those missiles might have chemical warheads.
IGNATIUSSo I think that the larger answer is that the Bush administration thought this would be a game-changer in the region. Put aside the question of weapons of mass destruction, which was kind of used as the excuse. I think they thought that if you knocked over this domino, the biggest, toughest dictator in the Arab world, a whole series of positive developments would happen. Syria maybe, Iran maybe, and that was the big bat and it was just the wrong bat. It was a big, dangerous bat with very bad consequences.
REHMDavid, I'm going to ask you an unpleasant question. Do you think that journalists were complicit in promoting the idea that war in Iraq was inevitable?
IGNATIUSLet me speak about my own work rather than talk about the profession as a whole. As I look back, there are no columns I've ever written that I'd more like to revise in light of what I know now than the ones I wrote then. I do think that our profession was so convinced that Bush was going to go to war that we spent a lot of time getting ready to cover it and relatively less time writing about whether it made sense, looking to see what the dissent there was in the military and the State Department.
IGNATIUSI think we just figured it was going to happen and so we were queuing up for the best embed assignments, the best opportunities to cover it. And I think everybody in our profession looks back and I hope learned lessons from that, to ask more questions, just to insist on getting the evidence for things that are so consequential for the country.
BILBASSYI was actually embedded as well with the Marines during the beginning of the war and I remember being in Kuwait and President Bush was giving this ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave the country within 24 hours, otherwise he cannot avoid the war. And I was sitting there and thinking how on earth can you avoid the war? You have almost 150,000 troops already deployed.
BILBASSYThe drums of war were already, you know, hitting everywhere so, to me, it was already the decision has been made, whether it was given a last minute choice for Saddam to leave...
REHMIsn't it the responsibility, and I think David put it well, to question those decisions rather than simply covering the operation itself and the decision to move forward? I, for one, feel very disappointed in our profession that we did not ask the questions that should have been asked. Robin Harding?
HARDINGSo I can speak a bit from my own paper in that I think we did, by and large at the time, question these things. Our editorial line was, by and large, certainly very questioning with the Iraq war and speaking also a little bit for the British media. I remember how much it was seen through a domestic, political lens. It was seen through the lens of, do you want to be seen opposing this or do you want to be seen as lining up behind the U.S.? So there was a sort of a confidence of interests which did come before the asking of questions and the responsibility of journalists is to do it the other way around.
REHMAll right, to Clearwater, Fla., good morning, Joanne.
JOANNEGood morning Diane, my comments are also regarding the weapons of mass destruction, which was George W. Bush's initial reason for going to war. I never believed it. In fact, there was a phone number to the White House that was being circulated way back then in 2003 before we invaded and I'm one of those folks who called the White House imploring our government not to invade. But then when the weapons of mass destruction weren't found, it was then to liberate the Iraqis. But my hunch of the matter is that we invaded Iraq because of the failed assassination attempt on Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush.
JOANNEToo many reasons, none of them the right one and my sincere hope is that there are no more casualties now that we've declared the war is officially over...
JOANNE...from now until the 31st.
IGNATIUSWell I think the caller put it well. I couldn't -- a whole lot that -- I don't know that -- I think the assassination attempt against George Bush's father was a factor, but I don't think it was the determining factor. I think it was more the others. After September 11th, immediately after that, there were members of his administration who were arguing, we need to go after the worst of the people in the Arab world.
IGNATIUSThey were proposing to invade Iraq way before...
REHMCertainly, Vice President Cheney.
IGNATIUS...in 2001. Yeah, Vice President Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in late 2001, you know, more than a year before the invasion, they were making this argument.
BILBASSYAnd I think it's even before because there were some reports indicating that during President Clinton himself, they were talking about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But I think the idea came after September 11th as you rightly said and they looked at al-Qaida and they thought, they don't belong to a country. They don't belong to a person and therefore it was almost immediately this meeting saying, it's going to be Iraq. It's not going to be Afghanistan. We have to hit. And they thought it was going to be a game-changer.
BILBASSYSo basically, they can topple this regime, then it would be a message to the dictatorships around him and they will create a new democracies in this way of how they looked at the world and that democracies won't go to war and they will change the Middle East forever and everything will be fine.
REHMAnd that takes me to the Arab Spring. Saturday marks the first anniversary of the start of the Arab protests. Remind us, David, of how it all started.
IGNATIUSWell, it started in Tunisia with a simple man, a young man who was a fruit seller. And the police, as was their habit, took away his best fruit for themselves. They just plundered them out of his basket and he got upset and he went and protested and he was dismissed by the authorities in his town.
IGNATIUSAnd he was so upset by this insult to his dignity, that rather than just take it the way people had done for decades and centuries, he decided to really protest and he ended up setting himself on fire. And in the aftermath of that, in Tunisia, there were protests that grew and grew and suddenly Facebook and Twitter were alive with people talking about this. And Al-Jazzera, the television network that's so powerful in the Arab world, NBC, Nadia's channel, were broadcasting reports of people in the streets in Tunisia defying the army.
IGNATIUSPeople were killed in the streets and suddenly you had a revolt by January that was toppling the well-entrenched government of President Ben Ali and then it spread to Egypt. And so we've seen this year, Time's Person of the Year this year was the protester, but we've...
REHMMaybe it should have been that single Tunisian man.
IGNATIUSYou know, I know people who suggested that. The only problem is that that poor man, his act of protest was in 2010. He didn't -- actually it was in December of 2010 so it would have been hard to make him Person of the Year this year.
REHMAnd then the question of what has actually been accomplished and where do we go from here, Nadia?
BILBASSYWe mentioned his name because I think it's worth mentioning.
BILBASSYHis name is Mohamed Wazizi and it should be a name engraved in the Arab psyche for -- to credit him for starting what we have seen now. Where are we going? Yes, there is a period of unpredictability, there is no doubt about it. But if we look back in one year, we no longer have the one-party state. We don't have the dictator on the top in most of Arab countries, in Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen, even despite what's happening now, and in Syria maybe.
BILBASSYAnd what we have is election. Election is not an end of the democratic process. It's not the beginning, but rather the end. Yes, we have to work harder in building the institution, the civil society, the watchdogs and what we have seen is the rise of the Islamist parties for the obvious reasons. They're the most organized. They had the mosques. They were the welfare state in the absence of a collapse of institutions of the state.
BILBASSYBut what we have seen despite the winning of every single Islamic party with a million of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and in Egypt and probably will be in Syria and in Libya, everywhere, with or without revolutions. Despite that they did not win a majority. They are learning how to form coalitions and this is a really, really important lesson in building democracy in Arab world of how you build consensus. And Tunisia is a good example, just let me say very briefly that we have seen the appointment of a new president that will lead the country into transition and Tunisia has left its name.
BILBASSYIt started the revolution and given the Arab countries a very good example of the (word?) revolution that now learning how to live within itself with different political parties.
HARDINGThe first thing to say is that it's been profoundly positive and 2011 has been a difficult year, a year of tsunami, of economic difficulties, but I thought the best thing that has happened is the Arab Spring and the developments in the Arab countries. When you look forward, I think I would have to say is that a lot of where it came from was economic anxiety, a large class of people who just felt -- young people who felt they were getting nothing from society and they have no prospects. That is very hard to actually change. It takes time. It takes institutions. It takes investment so the challenge now is to sustain this democratic momentum while making that transition.
REHMRobin Harding of The Financial Times, Nadia Bilbassy of the Middle East Broadcast Centre, David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Before we close, let's remember there were 4500 U.S. troops killed in the war in Iraq, 32,000 more U.S. troops wounded, more 100,000 Iraqi civilians died and more than $800 million spent. Thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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