Syria accepted a U.N. peace plan but violence persisted in the country as President Assad visited Homs; the U.S. suspended food aid to North Korea over Pyongyang’s plan to launch a long-range missile; and the Pope ended his historic trip to Cuba with a call for greater freedom there. Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers, Mark Mardell of the BBC and Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News.

Guests

  • Indira Lakshmanan senior reporter, Bloomberg News.
  • Nancy Youssef Pentagon correspondent, McClatchy newspapers.
  • Mark Mardell BBC North America editor.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Arab leaders pushed Syria to act quickly on a UN Peace plan as the killings continued. U.S. military commanders increase security measures for troops in Afghanistan. And the Pope met with the Castro's in Cuba. Joining me for the International hour of the Friday News Roundup, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy newspapers, Mark Mardell of the BBC and Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News. I invite you to join us with questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.

  • 11:07:49

    MS. NANCY YOUSSEFGood morning.

  • 11:07:49

    MR. MARK MARDELLGood morning.

  • 11:07:50

    REHMNice to have you here. Nancy Youssef, Arab leaders met in Baghdad. What did they say? What did they accomplish regarding Syria?

  • 11:08:04

    YOUSSEFWell, frankly, not much. They came together. It was sort of more about Baghdad in a way because it was an opportunity for Baghdad to showcase that it could host a summit with relatively little violence. And they came together, only nine heads of state actually showed up, the other set representatives. And they called on Syria to endorse the six point plan introduced by Kofi Annan. What was significant in that is that, I think, one could take away from that meeting that, that there's no longer the call for Assad to sit down.

  • 11:08:39

    YOUSSEFAnd in a way, quite acknowledgement that he may survive this for weeks or months to come. Because before, when the Arab League would meet, they were much more aggressive toward Bashar al-Assad. But this time they really backed away from that and instead called him to back the UN plan, which conceivably would allow him to remain in power.

  • 11:08:58

    REHMMark.

  • 11:08:59

    MARDELLOne of Kofi Anan's spokespeople today has said, the deadline is now. That is when he has to stop the violence. Now, the problem with that is or else what? That there is no real sanction. It's not clear what will happen if he doesn't go along with the plan. And Hillary Clinton has said that he's -- or Assad has always over promising and under delivering. I think the importance of them going ahead with this plan is that the Western diplomats are -- I talked to believe that it is important to get the Russians and Chinese on board, something, even if it looks pathetically weak.

  • 11:09:37

    MARDELLIt, in some way, continues the pressure on Syria and says, the world must find an answer. Now, we've seen the Chinese today saying it's the rebels who must stop fighting. But, which, some people may look at as (word?) but I suppose it's not that unusual when you've got a conflict for one set of countries to back one side, the other to back the other. And both press for a cease fire.

  • 11:10:00

    REHMIndira?

  • 11:10:01

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANWell, I'd like to point out that I think what's happening on Sunday in Istanbul is a counter point to the Arab League leaders meeting that we talked about that had fewer than half of the Arab League leaders showing up. And that is a friends of Syria meeting that's going to happen in Istanbul with 71 countries participating. Hillary Clinton has gone to this meeting, it mirrors the meeting from a month ago in Tunis. Now, of course, it will have the notable non-participation at any high level of Russia or China.

  • 11:10:32

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANBut what Mark is saying is true. There's an effort by the International Community to still come together, to still continue to pressure Assad on this Arab League Peace plan. And I think, you know, the fact that the UN has accused Assad's forces of torturing children, I mean, the fact that the UK government is giving $800,000 to the Syrian opposition even though they say it's for non-lethal support. There are a lot of factors going on here that are also showing. I don't think the Arab League has completely given up on the whole getting Assad out.

  • 11:11:06

    REHMYou know, it was interesting, considering the cost of this meeting in Baghdad, half a billion dollars. Where did that money come from? Do we know?

  • 11:11:21

    YOUSSEFThe Iraqi's are asking the very same question. Because to them, it's astonishing that there's this money available when they still don't have basic infrastructure in their country.

  • 11:11:28

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:11:29

    YOUSSEFAnd so we never really got an answer this week from that. I mean, it was, frankly, money for Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, to use to showcase that he was a legitimate Arab leader and that he had control of his country. It's something that's really frustrated the Iraqi's and really tarnished the summit from their perspective.

  • 11:11:47

    REHMAnd going back to the President Al-Assad, he visited Homs on Tuesday. He comes through with his entourage, the guns stop. As soon as he leaves the gun fighting begins again.

  • 11:12:06

    LAKSHMANANYeah, it was a stunningly surreal scene. And the government did not even release the video of him in Homs until after he had left Homs. But the message he was trying to deliver was, look, it's safe here, it's so safe I can walk all around in my shirt sleeves and everything's fine. But on the same day that he was doing this, visiting Homs, his troops were raiding rebels who had taken refuge in Lebanon, on the other side of the border. So, you know, with one side of the mouth he's saying, everything is peaceful, but the fighting against the opposition continued before and after his visit. And, you know, at this point the UN is saying and activist groups are saying that as many as 10,000 people have been killed in this uprising.

  • 11:12:50

    YOUSSEFI think the other thing that he was trying to do was solidify this as a sectarian battle given the comments that he made while in Homs in which he talked about that he had given the opponents and the rebels every opportunity to end things and that he was essentially -- his hand was forced by their actions. I think he really tried to paint this a sectarian battle. And this message that the Syrian government has tried to present that they were there to protect the Alawites and the Christians and that it's the majority trouble making Sunni's. And I think he used that trip as an opportunity to try to codify that message, if you will.

  • 11:13:20

    REHMMark.

  • 11:13:20

    MARDELLI think, one of the broader things that's interesting about the way this is playing out, you can imagine a few years ago, you'd have America trying to organize allies and getting great meetings together where -- and other countries just standing on the sidelines. Here we've talked about the Turkey-Iran meeting. There was the bricks in India, the developing countries coming out with their own statement, not very helpful for those that want Assad to go. But nevertheless, they were taking a role -- there's the Arab League, there's also a Gulf Corporation council meeting this weekend. There's lots of -- it is a more multi polar world. And that inevitably means things move much more slowly.

  • 11:13:53

    REHMSlowly then we would like. And yet on Friday, U.S. drones fired two missiles. Is that suspected or is that the fact in Pakistan at a house in Northwest Pakistan killing four militants? And it comes as Pakistani officials have said they want these drone strikes to end, Indira.

  • 11:14:24

    LAKSHMANANThat's exactly right. That has been a major sticking point in this review by the Pakistani parliament of U.S. Pakistani relations. And it's interesting because the main point for Pakistan, for the government, is a sovereignty issue. They have said, all along, that if the United States is going to conduct drone strikes, it should do so in cooperation with Pakistan, either letting Pakistan run the drones, giving Pakistan veto power or at least sharing information and intelligence with Pakistan. The U.S., all along, has refused to do that.

  • 11:14:55

    LAKSHMANANAnd what's interesting about this is it underscores the real lack of trust between these two supposed allies, that the U.S. is unwilling to share its intelligence even though Pakistan is the source for a lot of the on the ground human intelligence that the CIA gets. That's Pakistan's perspective. What the U.S. says is, well, that may be so but we have our own separate information.

  • 11:15:16

    LAKSHMANANAnd we don't trust that there aren't moles within the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence who will feed that information real time back to our targets and prevent us from getting them. So this may end up being the real sticking point. Because if Pakistan puts its foot down a 100 percent, then I don't see how we go forward on things like opening border crossings to supply lines and other issues.

  • 11:15:38

    MARDELLThere's a real attempt at a higher level to patch things up. President Obama met the Prime Minister, the generals are meeting the generals. There's lots of contacts going on. But I don't see how it moves forward because there is real anger in Pakistan and you can argue that it's created by the military and the government. But I think it's real among the people. With America, there were demonstrations this week and what parliament is discussing is a report that suggests the series of measures and apology from America for killing troops accidentally on the border, taxes on NATO transits, no overt or covert operations.

  • 11:16:15

    MARDELLAnd as you've just been saying, stop to all the drone strikes. Well, as we know, that's the president's favorite method of dealing with terrorism so that you don't have to put boots on the ground. It's very hard -- and a sense of Pakistani anger about their sovereignty of pride, that America is really, sort of, over running them and telling them what to do. It's very difficult to see what the way forward is and obviously with the strike that happened, I think, only a few hours ago that killed these four militants. It doesn't look like the Americans are going to take very much notice.

  • 11:16:47

    LAKSHMANANVery simply, there's no domestic political interest in Pakistan for making amends with the United States. There's just simply no domestic political benefit. And so the push-pull becomes that frustration that Mark spelled out and the need for U.S. military and civilian aid. And so that's the juggling act that's going on right now. So these high level talks happened as Mark talked about. It yielded very little in terms of actual tangible results. The United States desperately needs something to be resolved because it's a very serious logistically problem to have that NATO supply line cut off now since November when those 24 troops were killed. And so we may be weeks away from actually seeing any tangible solution, given all those competing factors.

  • 11:17:32

    MARDELLSorry, I thought it was interesting, just as President Obama was making somewhat consolatory noises. That one of his officials was telling a senate arms committee -- services committee that the Pakistani's have an addiction to playing around with militia groups. That it was troubling and frustrating dealing with them. And this would -- what was going on in parliament would further complicate the relationship. So you don't have to dig very deep to know how angry the administration here is as well.

  • 11:17:57

    REHMAnd yet a spokesperson for the president said that they had made important progress.

  • 11:18:08

    LAKSHMANANLook, the United States needs Pakistan. Of course, they're going to make every effort they can to make progress. And part of this is all about the strategy going forward for the United States and Afghanistan. Let's not forget, the United States needs Pakistan's cooperation because the U.S. is pulling out its combat troops by the end of 2014.

  • 11:18:27

    REHMIndira Lakshmanan, senior reporter for Bloomberg News. Short break here. Your calls, your email, I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back to the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers, Mark Mardell of the BBC. He's North American editor and Indira Lakshmanan. She's senior reporter for Bloomberg News. Do join us, 800-433-8850. We have callers. We have postings on Facebook. We have Tweets. I'll get to them in just a few moments.

  • 11:20:47

    REHMI do want to ask you about the violence against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Mark Mardell.

  • 11:20:57

    MARDELLYes. This is what they call green on blue violence. Afghani's attacking -- soldiers attacking NATO and under alliance troops. On Monday, two British soldiers were killed and an American was killed as well. After the 44 fatalities in Afghanistan this year, 16 of them were this sort of violence. I think what worries me, interests me as well about this is what is behind it. General Allen says that under 50 percent by the Taliban. Now in a way he was sort of saying, well that's a good thing. It was what he called self radicalization.

  • 11:21:34

    MARDELLI would also say possibly it's losing your temper when you've got a gun in your hand. The British soldiers were killed by a man who was with a group of people saying, I want to go into this airbase to meet my friends who are landing. And they obviously thought the British soldiers were not just saying no, but were saying it in a way that they found completely unacceptable. In other words, there's such a breakdown of trust isn't really strong enough, a sense that I get from the Afghanis that they think that the alliance troops are being arrogant, bossing them around or behaving in an unacceptable way.

  • 11:22:05

    MARDELLAdd that to the Quran burnings and the massacre. And I think that in a sense that is more worrying than the Taliban putting on Afghan soldiers' uniforms and plotting something.

  • 11:22:16

    YOUSSEFSure, because it raises the question, is the U.S. and NATO presence there doing more harm than good over the long term? So I think those are great points. Remember half of these kinds of deaths have happened since 2009. That is once the United States and NATO started expanding its presence there we started finding ourselves being killed by our supposed allies. It may be as simple as that the Afghans don't like coalition troops and that they increasingly see this as an occupation rather than an effort to build up their country and build up their security forces.

  • 11:22:52

    YOUSSEFI think what's interesting is that these attacks are getting more brazen, they're getting more aggressive and they're happening with increased frequency. Some of it -- and there's no way to really know how much of it was tied to the Koran burning in which Afghans saw it as an attack on their faith and how much of it is a product of the sustained presence.

  • 11:23:09

    REHMSo you've got General Allen saying he's going to increase security. How much security can be provided?

  • 11:23:19

    LAKSHMANANYeah, this is a challenge because under the Lisbon Accord, NATO has made very specific decisions about pulling out NATO troops by the end of 2014. And so the idea is if you're pulling out combat troops you need to keep trainers and advisors in to help the Afghan security forces, who you're supposed to be training to take over your role. Now the problem is just last month in the Afghan interior ministry two American advisors were killed by Afghans.

  • 11:23:53

    LAKSHMANANJust today there's a plot that's being described of nearly a dozen suicide vests being found in or near the ministry of defense. And some members of the Afghan military have been implicated in this plot apparently. So I think what Nancy says is true. Ten years of having foreign forces in your country and people are getting tired of it. And as President Obama made the decision to surge troops and trying to do a counterinsurgency strategy, there was more presence of troops.

  • 11:24:22

    LAKSHMANANNow the question is, how do you draw that down in a safe way providing force protection for the remaining forces and providing training for the Afghan forces who are supposed to take over the role?

  • 11:24:34

    MARDELLI think it's worth making the point that overnight an Afghan policeman killed nine of his sleeping colleagues, got their guns, took them away in a truck. That was clearly seems to be a Taliban plot. So in a sense, it won't go away even when the Western -- the NATO troops do leave. But they're trying to take precautions. They say there's now an eight-step vetting procedure. They'll have soldiers guarding the Americans and the others while they sleep, what they're calling as guardian angels.

  • 11:25:02

    MARDELLAnd there will be separate sleeping arrangements from Afghans and alliance troops. Now, that in a sense -- so that separation doesn't bode well for the relationship between the two.

  • 11:25:14

    YOUSSEFI thought it was interesting on this plot with the -- in the defense ministry in which they discovered these ten suicide vests that for the first time in a long time, the Taliban didn't claim responsibility. They used to claim responsibility for things that they hadn't done. And this time they allowed it to be claimed by Afghan soldiers that the United States was allegedly working alongside of and training. So I think that tells you something about even how the Taliban sees the progression of these attacks.

  • 11:25:43

    REHMSo where do we go from here? Is all of this killing going to in any way have an impact on U.S. thinking about withdrawal of troops?

  • 11:25:57

    YOUSSEFWell, so far the United States has been rather obstinate about it, that they have said that this is not going to lead to a change of strategy. Leon Panetta the Defense Secretary was in Afghanistan just a few weeks ago reiterating that. But the reality is we expect to hear a denouncement of an accelerated withdrawal in May at the NATO Summit in Chicago. We've heard that we'll hear some change in that pace in an effort to not -- as a sign that things are going wrong, but they'll say that it's a sign that things are going well, that the training is going better.

  • 11:26:27

    REHMBut public opinion has clearly turned against this war.

  • 11:26:31

    LAKSHMANANAbsolutely. A large majority of Americans now say that they're against the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. They think it has to come to an end. And I think we can't ignore politics here. This is an election year. Obama also has to respond to the American people. And even though the White House has maintained the position that they're not going to accelerate the withdrawal based on factors such as the bails massacre or others, there's no doubt that people inside the National Security Council, the, you know, Pentagon and beyond are discussing this and wondering okay, you know, things are going south. What do we do about it now?

  • 11:27:09

    MARDELLThe British are pretty worried about this. They don't want any surprises. They don't want to suddenly find they're left holding the baby and the Americans are all clearing out on the next flight. And they say they've had assurances from the White House that there won't be any big announcements until what they rather macabre really, jokingly say until the fighting season is over, not talking this time about Afghanistan, but talking about the election cycle here.

  • 11:27:35

    MARDELLAnd they feel although NATO will be a milestone in terms of saying we're handing over to the Afghans this is what we can do there, that there won't be any big new troop announcements about withdrawal. And the White House at the moment is saying, no, they won't. But it does surprise me rather because it would clearly appeal to a lot of potential Obama voters.

  • 11:27:55

    REHMSo what you're saying is Nancy's statement surprises you.

  • 11:28:00

    MARDELLYeah, I think that any indication that there is going to be a faster withdrawal -- I mean, it doesn't surprise me in the sense that a few weeks ago, I was looking into this and thinking, well, it, you know, it seems obvious that he's got to do this. And the pushback that I was getting was that we can't do it because we don't want to surprise our allies. But I may well be wrong and, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if you turned out to be right.

  • 11:28:23

    YOUSSEFWell, I think there's a way to do this dance where you make it appear that you're answering to the American domestic call and at the same time not abandoning the mission or your NATO partners. So an accelerated withdrawal doesn't have to be half the troops or whatever. It could be a difference of a few months. It's the headline that say that you're responding to the poll numbers and the calls to withdraw without capitulating to the pressure that's happening within the country.

  • 11:28:46

    MARDELLI think there may be some room for maneuvering.

  • 11:28:47

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:28:48

    YOUSSEFSure.

  • 11:28:49

    MARDELLThe number of troops that have already been announced are coming out, but bring them out quicker rather than neutrally.

  • 11:28:53

    YOUSSEFThat's right. That's right. It's not a major change. It's the appearance of responding to those competing pressures.

  • 11:28:59

    LAKSHMANANWell, not to mention there's a way to package this politically that's a win-win situation for Obama because he can say that he is packaging the withdrawal. At the same time, he can present it as we're doing this withdrawal at an accelerated pace because the handover to Afghans is going so well. And remember part of the point has been to hand over to Afghan control the most difficult parts of the country. And actually Pentagon planners say that that part is going well, some of the more difficult parts like Helmond and Kandahar, that the transfer to Afghan lead is going well.

  • 11:29:33

    LAKSHMANANSo what he can do is package it as saying, look it's going so well we can do it even faster.

  • 11:29:37

    YOUSSEFThe problem is events on the ground sort of get in his way, right. And he'll say things are going well and then it's clear that it's not. And General Scaparrotti, who's the number two commander in Afghanistan, a few weeks ago told us at the Pentagon that only one percent of the forces that the United States has trained -- one percent of the Afghan forces are completely self sufficient. And so looking at this you say, after ten years, it's one percent. And so, you're right, I think the president's going to try to send that message. But he's up against the facts on the ground that are undeniable.

  • 11:30:07

    REHMAnd look at how this is all going to tie into domestic politics and the manner in which that's going to be greeted by his Republican opponent -- or opponents. Let's talk about the Pope in Cuba this week, Nancy. He stood at an alter in the Plaza of the Revolution at an open-air mass. Several hundred thousand people were there. He sort of challenged the Cuban hierarchy.

  • 11:30:48

    YOUSSEFDelicately, yes, he did. And challenged the system and called for more freedoms. And the last Pope to visit was Pope John Paul in 1998. And this appeared to be a trip to really ultimately gain more freedoms for the Catholic Church in Cuba, which is the most restricted of all of the churches in Latin America. And so he danced around the politics in a sense that he delicately raised the issue. But it seemed that his primary purpose was to protect Catholic interests under Raul Castro. And I think there's an argument to be made that that, in fact, happened.

  • 11:31:23

    REHMAnd sadly, the White Ladies, those who had lost family, were kept out of view, Indira?

  • 11:31:33

    LAKSHMANANThat's right. I mean, I want to make the point that this Pope, while he did use the words liberty and prisoners, though pointedly he did not call them political prisoners, and he talked about authentic freedom in his speech, he declined to meet with dissidents, which was something that Pope John Paul did 14 years ago. Instead, he met with Castro and those photos were taken.

  • 11:31:53

    REHMTwo Castros.

  • 11:31:53

    LAKSHMANANExactly. And for anyone who had doubts about the health of Fidel, they got to see the photographs of the Pope and Fidel together. I think that in some ways critics of the Pope will say that this was a missed opportunity because, as Nancy says, he focused the visit very much on religious freedom in Cuba, without focusing it on political freedom. And so a lot of Cuban activists are saying, look he took a soft line against this suppressive dictatorship. He should have sent a stronger signal calling for an end to the regime.

  • 11:32:26

    LAKSHMANANOf course, it's a religious organization. He has to walk a fine line. He's concerned above all about religious rights it seems, but, you know, he didn't come out strongly in terms of political freedoms.

  • 11:32:38

    MARDELLIt was an extraordinary meeting, wasn't it, seeing these two elderly men meeting up. They even made a joke about that the Pope's 85 next year, which Fidel Castro is and he said, well, I can still do my job. Maybe it was a joke in rather bad taste, as Fidel Castro obviously can't do his job. But it was extraordinary to see them together like that. But he didn't meet any dissidents. And I can only agree with my colleagues that he was focused on spiritual freedoms and freedoms for the Catholic Church rather than political freedoms.

  • 11:33:07

    MARDELLAnd the Archbishop of Miami said, the Pope cannot do in one day what Cubans have not been able to achieve in 50 years. And maybe people were putting too much on their expectations.

  • 11:33:16

    REHMMark Mardell. He's BBC's North America editor and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Mark, tell us why North Korea decided to proceed with a rocket launch. They're still claiming it was a weather satellite, but others say it was a rocket launch.

  • 11:33:43

    MARDELLIf I could tell you with full authority their exact thinking, the Pentagon would be paying me millions of dollars. They really want to know what's going on.

  • 11:33:52

    REHMInstead, here you are not getting paid a dime.

  • 11:33:56

    MARDELLJust out of love. I mean, what they're doing is in celebration of the current leader's grandfather's 100th birthday, if he were still alive, Kim il-Sung's centenary. And they say that this is a launch for a satellite, a space rocket. Well, the truth is there isn't much difference between a space rocket and an inter ballistic missile. The experts say it's like a truck, you know, is what you put on the back of it but the truck remains the same.

  • 11:34:24

    MARDELLSo I think they're doing it for a number of reasons, for this prestige. Experts also tell me if they can get it going, if they can actually launch satellites that brings in hard currency. And it also seems that -- but they've gone ahead with this and mucked up the deal with America about getting much needed food aid. The Pentagon has announced that this will be the plans to proceed or the plans will be put on hold because of that.

  • 11:34:49

    MARDELLNow some people tell me that what they think is happening, and is perhaps a bit disturbing, is that Kim il-Jong went ahead with both the food aid and the rocket launching he, you know, before he died suggested both things should happen. And there's nobody there in the regime who can resolve this contradiction and say, well we should do one not the other. They're just rather sort of blindly carrying on the old trek.

  • 11:35:19

    LAKSHMANANI want to point out though that what the South Korean media has said based on government reports is that North Korea launched two short-range missiles this week. And, of course, the plans are still for this rocket launch to commemorate Kim il-Sung's centenary, as Mark said. But don't forget that aside from scuppering this food deal, which had been the first sign of any progress under the Obama Administration, the idea of 20,000 tons of food aid per month in exchange for some pretty serious concessions from the point of view of the North Koreans, they were going to open their sites to the IAEA again.

  • 11:35:54

    LAKSHMANANThey were going to stop uranium enrichment and they were going to end tests of long-range and nuclear missiles. Now this obviously, as we've said, is going to cause a breakdown in this deal. Another way of looking at it from some of the North Korea experts I've talked to, is that in some ways, the son has shown some transparency here, which was not usual in North Korea in the past, in that he announced actual dates of when this rocket launch is going to take place, and where the two rockets are going to be launched, and what hours in the morning.

  • 11:36:28

    LAKSHMANANAnd so this is something that...

  • 11:36:30

    REHMIt's a change.

  • 11:36:31

    LAKSHMANAN...it's a change. You know, it's subtle. You know, it's like Kremlinology. You have to know how to read the tealeaves of North Korea. But there is a question about there being some kind of a message of increased transparency, at least here. And think about it. It could have been worse. There could be another nuclear test, which would be much worse in April. And some people say that, you know, maybe what needs to happen now is some kind of bold engagement sending an envoy to North Korea, someone like a John Cary or a Colin Powell or a Bill Richardson to try to talk to them directly.

  • 11:37:06

    YOUSSEFSo far we haven't gotten that message from the White House. On the contrary, President Obama said that this -- he made reference that he wasn't clear on who was in charge, suggesting that this was an effort by Kim Jong-il to consolidate power. And we started to hear language like that they were provocateurs again and that they were being defined again. And remember this talk about the deal that Indira referred to was February 29. So we had about a few weeks total of optimism that there was a real change in pace. And now we have to reconsider that again.

  • 11:37:36

    REHMNancy Youssef of McClatchy News and a short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones and also talk about Molly.

  • 11:40:01

    REHMAnd before we open the phones, I do want to ask you about President Obama's comments to Russian President Medvedev thinking that the microphones were turned off or did he?

  • 11:40:21

    MS INDIRA LAKSHMANANWell, I love these open-mic moments and they're some of my favorites. The other one was remember when President Obama and the French leader Sarkozy were caught on an open mic talking about Netanyahu and not having very kind words to say. So this one was a little less embarrassing. He spoke to the current Russian leader Medvedev and said, I need more flexibility. This is an election year, it's my last election. I'm going to have more flexibility on missile defense issues after the election.

  • 11:40:47

    MS INDIRA LAKSHMANANAll right. Now, of course, the Republicans jumped all over this making it a huge domestic story and the Speaker of the House John Boehner immediately used it as an opportunity to bring up a laundry list of angry criticisms of Russia and how the U.S. is supposedly selling out and bringing up old Cold War fears and basically saying that Obama is soft on Russia and gave up missile defense in Poland, et cetera.

  • 11:41:17

    MS INDIRA LAKSHMANANWhat is so interesting about this, trying to create this narrative of Russia as the old Cold War enemy and Obama as soft, is that it gives the GOP ammunition going into this campaign about so many other things. Romney has just written an Op-ed about this saying that if he's willing to be flexible on missile defense in Russia and reset that relationship, what else will he be flexible on?

  • 11:41:40

    MS INDIRA LAKSHMANANIran, negotiating without preconditions, Israel forcing them to make concessions to the Palestinians, a softer line on Cuba, I mean just go down the list, defense cuts. So this was a bad misstep for Obama even if he didn't mean it in the way it's being spun.

  • 11:41:56

    MARDELLThe president's defense of what he said was that he was merely saying that in an election year, it would be leapt upon by his opponents and they would make hay with it. Now...

  • 11:42:04

    REHMBut they leapt upon it anyhow.

  • 11:42:07

    MARDELL...well, I was going to say I wasn't totally convinced this would work until I heard one senator in a committee saying to an official, tell us about this secret deal that the president has admitted to. And because that's exactly what Obama is talking about, this rather over-the-top approach to it. But it doesn't look good in front of voters saying, well, look, when they've re-elected me, I can get on with it. But I think that, you know, probably Russian sensitivities over this, if you can have the missile defense scheme, do have to be soothed away.

  • 11:42:39

    MARDELLI mean, I've been to the site in Poland, one of the places where they might put the missiles, an old airfield where it's still all covered with grass and everything. And I've spoken to the people around there and certainly, as far as the Polish are concerned, it is about Russia. It is about defending against Russia so, you know, there is a feeling in Europe that Russia is still seen by some as the enemy so you can understand why the Russians need to be stroked a bit.

  • 11:43:02

    REHMAll right. And now, let's go to the phones to Fenton, Mich. Good morning, Michael, thanks for waiting.

  • 11:43:11

    MICHAELHi, Diane.

  • 11:43:13

    REHMHi, there.

  • 11:43:15

    MICHAELI love your show, Diane.

  • 11:43:17

    REHMThank you so much. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:43:20

    MICHAELOkay, you're my favorite broadcaster. Let's see. I've got a couple of things. Syria, you know, there's a lot going on there. We went into Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, I'm wondering why we don't go there. And then Iran is talking about they won't be happy until Israel is eliminated and I don't understand why are we waiting to go there. Iran is nothing but trouble and they're going to team up with North Korea.

  • 11:43:55

    MICHAELThey're going to get that missile and I think we got to stop messing around. I want to know what your guests think about that.

  • 11:44:02

    LAKSHMANANWell let's take Syria first. I mean in answer to your overall point I think that this is an administration that has two engagements in the Middle East and South Asia between Iraq and Afghanistan just as the Bush administration did and they don't want a third one. Now what happened in Libya was very different, that was the U.S. getting the international community to agree to the no-fly zone. It was a different case, leading from behind as the Obama administration was said to have called it.

  • 11:44:30

    LAKSHMANANNow what's happening with Syria is that I think it's also trying to lead from behind, get an international consensus going, but Russia and China feel as if they were duped into agreeing to the U.N. resolution, the no-fly zone and what happened as a result to Gaddafi and they're not willing to go along with it again on Syria.

  • 11:44:47

    LAKSHMANANOn Iran, that's an entirely other conversation...

  • 11:44:50

    REHMWhoa, yes, one which we had.

  • 11:44:52

    MARDELLI mean, I think on Syria the British Prime Minister David Cameron is very keen that this is sorted out. He sees it as a mission. He tells his officials to kick the tires and find out what can be done and yet with the president they did not discuss military action. It is completely off the table. People think it would be a disaster for the region.

  • 11:45:09

    REHMTo Jacksonville, Fl. Good morning, Lowell.

  • 11:45:13

    LOWELLGood morning, Diane, a quick rhetorical question. We seem to be stymied by Russia and China about willingness to help in Syria, but it occurs to me that the tools that Syria is using is the last tools of the Chinese and the Russian governments for keeping their own people down. So how can we possibly expect them to agree to help us against Syria?

  • 11:45:40

    YOUSSEFWell, one of the problems for Russia is that, you know, Russia has a port in Syria. You know, Syria is to Russia what Bahrain is to the United States, it's a strategic port that it keeps there, so there are those interests. I don't think there's an expectation or has ever been an expectation that Russia and China would rise up in opposition the way that we would like. But I think with the effort right now that's happening, it is coming up with some international mandate that allows a stop to this ongoing onslaught of violence before it rages into a low-level guerilla civil war, which is what it appears to be headed towards now.

  • 11:46:19

    REHMThanks for calling Lowell. Now I want to get to this question about Mali, the President, Toure was deposed last weekend, a coup by soldiers apparently angry at his handling of the ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the north, Mark?

  • 11:46:39

    MARDELLYes. And just in the last few hours, the Tuareg rebels have seized Kidal, the regional capital which is seen by analysts as very significant because when -- in fact, they were writing a couple of weeks ago, once that's happens, it's almost over. So the coup leaders were very angry with this. They wanted the army to have more engagement, have more weapons.

  • 11:47:03

    MARDELLThe reason for the rebellion, by the way, the rebellion in the north is a lot of soldiers coming back from Libya, mercenaries with money and arms and so that they felt they could fight this long fight they've had for independence.

  • 11:47:19

    REHMPut Mali on the map for us.

  • 11:47:22

    MARDELLWell, it's a Western African country. I'm trying to think exactly, help me out here.

  • 11:47:29

    YOUSSEFIt was one of the celebrated democracies in Western Africa for twenty years. It had an election coming up on April 29th and suddenly these mutinous soldiers go in and force the president out of office.

  • 11:47:43

    YOUSSEFI think it was seen that way up until this week when leaders from the five bordering African nations tried to come in to sort of mediate a negotiation and they were turned away because there were protestors all over the tarmac. And suddenly, there was a realization that the distain for the president was greater than just a few angry soldiers and commanders.

  • 11:48:01

    YOUSSEFNow the response was by those nations to block this country and say, we're now going to close off gasoline, supplies, which all of their gasoline comes from outside. We're going to close of access to our ports. We're going to try to punish you through, economically. And Captain Sanogo who led this opposition announced that there'll be elections, although didn't give a date.

  • 11:48:25

    YOUSSEFSo it's just been a surprising turn of events and still as Mark pointed out unfolding and I think it's sort of shattered people's idea, this idea of a democracy in the middle of Western Africa that was far more unstable than anyone had thought.

  • 11:48:39

    LAKSHMANANI find very interesting the regional context of this because coups are nearly an annual occurrence in Africa and even so the reaction to this coup has been stronger by the West African countries than to many others in the past. The fact that as Nancy pointed out, the West African countries made demands that the coup leader should return power to the civilian government within 72 hours. So his offer to hold elections in the future is definitely falling short of that.

  • 11:49:06

    LAKSHMANANThe fact that they've gone so far as to say we're closing your borders and we're going to freeze your account at the regional central bank means they're actually at least trying to take a stand against the whole idea of a coup whether or not the civilian government was loved or hated.

  • 11:49:23

    MARDELLAnd they share a common currency so the economic union of West African states is really important. It can hurt Mali if they take this action. It can push them in a certain direction so I think the regional context is very important.

  • 11:49:35

    REHMAll right to David, he's in San Francisco, Ca. Good morning to you.

  • 11:49:42

    DAVIDGood morning. I was concerned reading about the use of food as a weapon regarding bargaining with Korea. As I understand it the Geneva Convention says very specifically that tactics which use food and you know, arbitrary bombing on civilian populations, use of arbitrary decimation of the civilian population is a specific violation of the Geneva Convention.

  • 11:50:16

    REHMMark?

  • 11:50:17

    MARDELLWell I don't think the Geneva Convention says you have to give food aid to a country. I think that probably what it's talking about is depriving areas in a war, of food. What we're talking about here is America agreeing to very basic nutritional aid. They're not even talking about stuff like rice, it's sort of milk formula and things like that to help out with the famine that's been going on...

  • 11:50:40

    YOUSSEFProtein biscuits.

  • 11:50:40

    MARDELL...protein, yeah.

  • 11:50:41

    YOUSSEFRight. And so it's, the whole idea is as you say nobody is required to give food aid to anybody else. So I wouldn't say that food is being used as a weapon. Food was -- nutritional assistance was being used as a carrot to try to get Korea to make concessions...

  • 11:50:54

    MARDELLA diplomatic...

  • 11:50:55

    YOUSSEF...and to agree to the commitments that it has already made to the international community and the United Nations Security Council...

  • 11:51:00

    REHMHere is a tweet from Ajax who says, "How does the U.S. election cycle affect the issue of legitimacy among Afghan, Iranian and Syrian military and political leadership?" Nancy?

  • 11:51:19

    YOUSSEFWell it affects Afghanistan most directly because it hinders the ability of the United States to have frankly serious discussions about whether the strategy needs to change because they don't, the Obama administration doesn't want it seen as failed in Afghanistan or lost in Afghanistan at a time when gas prices are approaching $5 and international (word?) that's essentially more than they want to bear.

  • 11:51:44

    YOUSSEFIt's interesting it's not just U.S. elections, you know Mark was talking earlier about the multi-polar world that we're living in, it's elections across the world, in France and throughout Europe and we're seeing all these...

  • 11:51:53

    MARDELL...change of regime, a change of leaders, a change...

  • 11:51:56

    YOUSSEF...and Iran, I mean, and Israel, all these elections that are sort of converging in the next year that is, it's interesting as we've gone through all these topics. There's domestic politics at play because of elections seeping into all of them.

  • 11:52:09

    REHMEverywhere. All right, to Peoria, Ill. Good morning, Casey.

  • 11:52:16

    CASEYHi, good morning, Diane. I wanted to ask your guests about the internal pressures that Kim Jong On (sic) would face if he wanted to drastically change relations with the west and if he's even in a position of strength to be able to make those kinds of changes.

  • 11:52:33

    REHMIndira?

  • 11:52:33

    LAKSHMANANThat's an excellent question, Casey, and it goes to the real heart of this. We have so few real eyes and ears looking into and understanding the North Korean political system which is so hermetic and you're exactly right that he is a very young guy. We don't even know his exact age, thought to be in his late 20s. He's basically, in some ways, ruling under a regentship with his uncle.

  • 11:52:56

    LAKSHMANANThere are hard-liners in the North Korean military who are thought to be calling the shots so you are absolutely right that even with his dynastic connection to his father and grandfather, he's an untried, untested leader. And how much power does he really wield? I think he could be very easily sidelined by hardliners.

  • 11:53:16

    REHMIndira Lakshmanan, she's senior reporter for Bloomberg News and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nancy, you wanted to add to that?

  • 11:53:25

    YOUSSEFNo, I think Indira summed it up beautifully.

  • 11:53:28

    REHMAll right and finally to Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Doug.

  • 11:53:34

    DOUGGood morning, thank you. I am fascinated by this conversation and I have a comment and then I have a question. The comment is that it appears the world, including the United States, a world that is using food and aid and medical attention is, in fact, a weapon. And I'm following up on David in San Francisco. I thought he hit it right in the heart. He might have been a little wrong about the Geneva Convention, but when we threaten people by saying, we're not going to feed you.

  • 11:54:09

    DOUGMy question is why do you think that the United States, among many other major countries, not all, feel that we have to be the police world and that we have to use a foreign policy of war as opposed to a policy of peace.

  • 11:54:31

    REHMAll right, thanks for calling.

  • 11:54:33

    MARDELLI think that's a fascinating and a central question. I was going to say to the previous gentleman who phoned in, but yes, you're right to view China and Russia cynically in saying that they like to keep their own population down and they don't want anybody interfering. But also you look at the Brit nations. They do not share the enthusiasm of the United States and Britain for intervening for reshaping the world for good or for ill.

  • 11:55:00

    MARDELLI think it's a very big question why certain powers, Europe and America really feel that they have a duty, a mission to change and improve the world which other countries like Brazil and India don't seem to have.

  • 11:55:15

    REHMAnd yet here is a tweet from Morgan who says: "Assad has demonstrated again and again and again he will not budge. How can anything change, without someone intervening militarily?" Nancy?

  • 11:55:33

    YOUSSEFWell, frankly, what the international community has demonstrated is its inability to force change in Syria and, in fact, arguably has emboldened Assad by starting these measures in spits and not being able to come to some consensus about how to address him. So I think it exposes much about the limitations of living in a multi-polar world and coming up with international consensus as it has about the strength of Assad.

  • 11:56:00

    YOUSSEFRemember these regimes in the Arab world are followed for one of two reasons. There has been, you know, Western intervention militarily or uprisings within the military and neither have happened in Syria. The Alawites are generals in the military and they have an incentive to keep Assad in power and for a host of reasons, the Western community can't get involved without this potentially becoming a proxy war.

  • 11:56:25

    REHMNancy Youssef of McClatchy newspapers, Mark Mardell, he is BBC North America editor and Indira Lakshmanan, senior reporter for Bloomberg News, thank you all.

  • 11:56:43

    LAKSHMANANThank you.

  • 11:56:43

    YOUSSEFThank you.

  • 11:56:43

    MARDELLThank you.

  • 11:56:44

    REHMAnd just to let you know, I'll be off next week, going for a voice treatment. My dear friend and colleague, Tom Gjelten of NPR, will be sitting in for me. I hope to be back with you a week from Monday. Thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.

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