Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Syria is in a state of uneasy calm as both sides of the conflict appear to be mostly honoring a U.N.-negotiated truce. The international community widely condemns North Korea for attempting to launch a long-range rocket to advance its nuclear weapons program. Egypt’s parliament takes steps to keep senior officials from the Mubarak regime out of the presidential race. The U.S. and Afghanistan reach a deal over conducting controversial night raids. And China removes a key Communist official with alleged connections to the mysterious death of a British businessman. James Kitfield of National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC-TV and Mark Landler of The New York Times join guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Mark Landler White House correspondent, The New York Times.
- Nadia Bilbassy senior U.S. correspondent, MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Centre.
- James Kitfield senior correspondent, National Journal.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment and she'll be back on Monday. North Korea admits to a failed rocket launch. The United States transfers control of night raids to Afghanistan and a political scandal hits China over the alleged murder of a British businessman. Joining us for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of NBC TV the Middle East Broadcast Center and Mark Landler of the New York Times. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood morning, Susan.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Susan.
MR. MARK LANDLERGood morning, Susan.
PAGEOur listeners can call us shortly. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at email@example.com or find us on facebook or Twitter. Well, just extraordinary, Mark Landler, what's coming out of North Korea. They had the rocket launch that we've been watching for, but it not go well. What happened?
LANDLERWell, as you say really an extraordinary turn of events. after weeks of buildup, an international media flotilla that had been gathered by the North Koreans to witness this triumph event, the rocket which was carrying a satellite broke up well before it reached orbit, only a minute or so after it had been launched and fell harmlessly into the sea. You know, amounting to a huge embarrassment for the new leader, the new young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.
LANDLERWhat makes this particularly painful for him and perhaps for his stature in the country is that the launch was part of a week of festivities leading up to the 100th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who's revered as the father of the North Korean nation. And this was meant to showcase indeed North Korea's technological prowess and be a tribute to him. So the fact that the rocket broke up in this ignominious way is just an enormous embarrassment for North Korea and it raises some interesting questions. One of which is whether the North Koreans will now feel even more compelled than they did before to proceed with even more provocative acts.
LANDLERThere's already an expectation that they're building toward a nuclear test and they may want to accelerate those plans, if only to try to save face on behalf of the young Kim.
BILBASSYBut also there's a sigh of relief from the international community, the United States, Japan and South Korea, that actually it failed and it failed miserably because the options for them if succeeded, what are they going to do? And the options for the United States are very limited, if they're going to go to the Security Council, the maximum they can do is a weak statement because they'd want to use their political capital with China and with Russia with more, well, not more important, but other important issues as well with Iran and Syria. So in a way that what we have seen yesterday that everybody expected that they're going to launch it anyway because there was a matter of time, a window of opportunity, 24 hours that they're going to do it.
BILBASSYIt shows as well that from so many (unintelligible) we're talking about North Korea that maybe they are really further away from technology tan the West believed. That maybe they're a decade away from developing anything. Now, the North Koreans always said and insisted that they're using this rocket to launch a satellite into orbit.
BILBASSYThe West is saying basically this is an excuse and disguise basically because they are testing long-term missiles that ultimately will reach the United States, Alaska or Ohio maybe -- Alaska or Hawaii and basically that a matter of time before they can put a nuclear head on it. So the failure maybe is good for everybody, it saves the day and let the international community focus on other crisis.
KITFIELDI'm going to draw a slightly more pessimistic view of this and that this that as my colleagues said, they'll almost certainly feel the need to do something else to save face here because the whole thing was wrapped around trying to make the young kid look like, you know, the great leader. In recent years, provocative actions have included sinking a South Korean ship with a great loss of life, shelling a South Korean island also with loss of life and as you mentioned a nuclear weapon. So I think we're in for a relatively unstable period with North Korea.
KITFIELDNow, there's another interesting aspect of this which is the Obama Administration had a policy of basically not getting caught up with all these little side deals with North Korea, which is like Lucy pulling the football away constantly goes back on them. They've done a pretty good job of sort of making North Korea feel ignored and that's probably a good thing to have it feel ignored. In this case they reached a deal in February to trade a lot of food aid for cessation of uranium enrichment and no sooner was that deal reached then North Korea just, you know, blithely sort of ignores it. So it shows that the original idea the Obama Administration had of not getting caught up in this tit-for-tat with North Korea was probably wise.
PAGEYou know, Mark, it was interesting there was -- Mitt Romney now the presumptive Republican nominee for president against President Obama, almost instantly sent out a press release criticizing the Obama Administration for what North Korea had done with this launch and calling its policy incompetent. What did you make of that?
LANDLERWell, Mitt Romney hasn't lost a chance yet to take aim at the Obama Administration on foreign policy and he used the word appeasement which was not surprising in a way because it did follow on the heels of this attempt to reopen a diplomatic channel to Peng Yang. But, you know, the administration's counter-argument, they'd offered two. One, they'd say that Mitt Romney has no stature to make that kind of charge and indeed the administration has become increasingly indignant at his second guessing of their foreign policy, whether it's the Russian and missile defense.
LANDLERWhether it's withdrawing from Iraq which he called a spectacularly inept move and which has actually come off reasonably smoothly. But in this case, they'll simply make the argument that unlike the Bush Administration or for that matter the Clinton Administration, we didn't actually give the food to the North Koreans before they reneged on the deal. So their argument is we haven't fallen into the trap of our predecessors, which was marked by giving them either fuel or technology only to have them renege on whatever deal they had made.
LANDLERSo that'll be their counter-argument. Both sides have something they claim and for Mitt Romney it does point that President Obama, despite his record of successes in counterterrorism, in winding down the Iraq War, foreign policy continues to be an area that could present a vulnerability for him.
PAGEJames, I wonder, there's a domestic political side to this, but in dealing with rogue regime like that in North Korea, does it matter when they hear this kind of debate in this country?
KITFIELDI don't think they pay much attention. They have their own, I mean, especially North Korea, which is the hermit for -- it's called the hermit kingdom for a reason. They're not really plugged into our domestic politics too well and I don't think they got, you know, he's surrounded by a bunch of American political experts. I will say that I think that, you know, this tit-for-tat we're hearing on our side in our politics is something that, you know, that's exactly right. We're going to be hearing that on virtually every issue, every issue we talk to today there'll be criticism aimed at the Obama Administration. I don't know how seriously you can take that. It's a political season.
PAGELet's talk about Syria. We've had this UN negotiated truce, Nadia. How's it going?
BILBASSYWell, so far, it's a success for Kofi Annan, but we have to be very cautious about it. Today, the Security Council in the process of debating and they might issue a statement basically enforcing Kofi Annan's six-point plan. The cease-fire is holding, but it is very fragile so holding meaning that we're not seeing 100 people dying every day. We're seeing maybe 10 or 12 or 32, but that's still big enough for human life. But on the other hand, I think we have attribute or contribute some of the success to Russia and China. I think the fact that they pushed Kofi Annan plan is showing that the Chinese, the Russians in particular, are changing their position.
BILBASSYNow, the plan has political fall into it. It's not just the basic decision of hostilities, although it's not completely full in terms of the army not withdrawing from major towns and major cities. And the army are stopping people today, for example, from going conversion into Damascus or Allied major cities because the test for this government is once -- and let's remember that when the uprising started 13 months ago, the idea was we saw people in the streets demonstrating peacefully.
BILBASSYNow that Kofi Annan is calling for this very precise point, will the regime tolerate people going into the streets and protesting peacefully and this is what we're going to see is happening or not. Regarding the, just one point regarding the observers or the monitoring team, Kofi Annan's a spokesperson. My (unintelligible) said in Geneva that they have already 11 people ready to go in a plane now to Damascus.
BILBASSYThe UN is talking about 30 I think, but 30 is still very little. It's still early and I think considering what we have seen in other places like Kosovo, when you have, like, thousands of people talking about 50 or 200, it's very little in Syria now. But at least I think there is some sign this is the last chance for diplomacy for President Assad. I think the pressure is mounting on him from his allies and we've seen that in Kofi Annan's trip to Tehran and to Russia and to China.
KITFIELDI was just going to reiterate that I think this is probably the first good news we've heard out of Syria for quite a while. I mean, even though it is an extremely fragile cease-fire, it's the first time we've seen actually both sides kind of stand back a little bit and that's exactly right. The next steps will be the critical ones. Do they allow humanitarian aid into the stricken cities?
KITFIELDDo they allow the UN monitors? Do they allow the journalists they promised? And this deal is a six-part deal and allow peaceful protests, You know, it's hard for a lot of us who've watched Assad in the last year to believe he's going to comply with all those things and if he doesn't comply, this thing could unravel pretty quickly.
LANDLERPresident Sarkozy said yesterday that he believes that Assad is not being sincere and expressed a lot of skepticism about this and it is worth noting that the Arab League had sent representatives into Syria weeks ago and withdrew them in frustration because they weren't getting the kind of access they needed. So while I certainly don't dispute that it's a good sign that there is a fragile cease-fire I think this is more in the manner of Assad having bought himself some time as opposed to any sense of a resolution to the situation.
LANDLERAnd, you know, it's worth noting that Secretary Clinton yesterday reiterated the American position, which is that Assad must go. That's not yet the Russian position and so the Russians seeing where they go and whether they slowly inch toward that position is in some ways the really important story now.
PAGESo do you think Assad survives, James?
KITFIELDI've never thought that he could survive long-term after this. I think it's impossible to imagine him in sort of a normal head of state again.
PAGEWhat do you think, Nadia?
BILBASSYI don't think he will survive. I think he's running out of time. The problem for him now is how can he find a negotiated settlement that maybe he can leave the country somehow peacefully without being harmed.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll go to the phones. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And for the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup I'm joined by Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times. Nadia Bilbassy, she's senior U.S. correspondent for the Middle East Broadcast Center. And James Kitfield, he's senior correspondent for National Journal. We're going to go to the phones in just a moment.
PAGEWe were talking though before the break about the situation in Syria. And, Mark, you noted that Secretary of State Clinton said just yesterday that President Assad has to go. Does the U.S. -- how fast does the U.S. want him to go?
LANDLERWell, you know, the question in all of these cases is how does the person -- how does the leader go. And the U.S. is concerned that an abrupt or chaotic ouster could open the door to a civil war in Syria. And indeed you could argue there's been the outlines of that already. And given the, you know, relative weakness of -- or relative lack of organization of the opposition in Syria as compared for example to Egypt, I think the U.S. is somewhat concerned about doing this in a way that it is a process not a sudden chaotic event. And, you know, a negotiated settlement as opposed to a violent ouster.
BILBASSYBut also they're still suspicious of the opposition. They wanted to have more time to find out who they are, are they able really to take over the day after Bashar Assad falls out. And also, we know that there is no military solution. So for them, the options are really limited although they have been calling for him to leave and they said he lost (unintelligible), but they never come up with a plan. So they were happy to see (unintelligible) been outsourcing the Syria to somebody else like the U.N. basically. And they cannot operate outside the Security Council without the Russians and the Chinese.
PAGESo, James, is the opposition ready to take over?
KITFIELDNo. They -- and it's funny, we keep saying we don't know who these guys are, but we're meeting with them constantly. The problem is when we meet with them we don't like what we see. They're fractured. They have -- you know, you have the group that's outside of Syria and has been for quite a while. The group inside Syria, the rebellion itself is fractured. You have the free Syrian army, former defectors from the army. You have just, you know, regular kind of insurgents.
KITFIELDThe whole thing smells a lot like a civil war and my colleagues are right, that's the thing that scares everyone most. The thing about Assad though is the status quo is looking more and more like a civil war. So they're looking for the next step. And if it's peaceful protests that convince him to leave they'll be happy with that.
PAGEWe've had lots of news this week on those night raids in Afghanistan. First we had an agreement reached between the United States and the Afghanistan government about turning over more control of these operations, Mark, to the Afghan forces. Is that significant?
LANDLERIt is significant because the night raids were one of the -- the real flashpoints between the U.S. and the Afghans in this, you know, very difficult tormented handover of security from NATO and the U.S. to the Afghans. So it was something Karzai pushed very hard for. In practice some of it was already happening. For months these raids have been conducted by joint groups of Afghan security forces and U.S. So it is an important development. It may go some way toward clearing the air between these two sides and what's always been a tortured relationship.
LANDLERBut it also just -- it points out another sort of fact that just every day becomes more and more clear, which is that the -- a NATO and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is accelerating. It's quickening. The U.S. is turning the page on this war. It may be faster even than people expected, and this is one more example of that.
BILBASSYIt's a contiguous issue for the Afghanis because of cultural sensibilities and because of sovereignty issues. You know, this night raids has been always seen as the U.S. Special Forces operating by themselves outside the law. And some even think that the recent massacres of 17 civilians was a result of night -- of these raids. Now the Pentagon is saying that this is not giving sovereignty. We're not giving veto power to the Afghan forces. That, in fact, they're going to sit down and they're going to agree on when they're going to conduct them.
BILBASSYAnd also the U.S. military is saying that they have a bad name, these night raids because in the last year they conducted 2,200 of them. And only -- 90 percent of them were nonviolent. And actually 1.3 percent only were casualties -- civilian casualties. I mean, still big enough. One civilian dying is bad enough, but they're saying basically that this is a good state and it will help ultimately in the handover. But it doesn't mean still that the U.S. will follow what the tribal leaders in certain areas will tell them.
BILBASSYAnd I think this agreement will clear the way for this strategic partnership that we're going to see in Chicago in the NATO summits, so a step in the right direction, clearing the air, misunderstanding here and there. And it's good to consolidate the -- this kind of understanding between the Afghanis and the U.S.
KITFIELDThere's a lot of unanswered questions about this deal and there -- and believe me, there's a lot of people in congress who want those questions answered because basically the reason for us being there beyond 2014 is so we can make sure that Al-Qaida and other extremist groups don't find home in Afghanistan in the future. The way -- the primary tool we use to do that are these night raids where you kill or capture these guys. If we're not allowed to do that under this deal we need a warrant from an Afghan court. And the Afghans, from my reading of it, actually have the final say in it.
KITFIELDSo if that's the case, you know, are you still going to be effective in your counterterrorism operations? If you're not, you know, the support in the American congress for maintaining a major presence in Afghanistan post 2014 and to keep spending billions of dollars in funding the Afghan security forces is going to be in jeopardy.
PAGEDo you think it creates problems for the U.S. military now in continuing to do what they want to do in Afghanistan?
KITFIELDSure. I mean, they're extremely unpopular, much like the drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan. But they've become, you know, the primary counterterrorism tool for the U.S. military. So they want to find -- if this agreement is such that you can still be effective yet have an Afghan lead and an Afghan face on it all to the good, but it's just not clear. The American generals have said pretty strongly in the past, they've resisted this for the very reason they worry it won't be effective.
PAGEYou know, Mark, you mentioned whether the -- you raised the issue of whether the -- our withdrawal from Afghanistan is actually going to move faster than had been originally intended. And we know that the -- that Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he might call early elections. Could that contribute to accelerating this process?
LANDLERYes. I mean, I think it's all bound up in the same issue. I think Karzai probably wouldn't have publicly broached the idea of early elections unless he felt that the transition was picking up pace. I mean, as with the night raids deal though there's a lot of questions about what Karzai said about early elections. I mean, for one thing some of the opposition don't even favor having early elections. There's a big question about whether you do early elections at a time when there's still a presence of NATO and the coalition or whether you do them only after NATO and the coalition are gone. And there are sort of mixed feeling about that in the country.
LANDLERI mean, I have to say having written about things that Hamid Karzai has said over the past three or four years, I'm not convinced we won't be hearing, you know, a rather different story from him a month from now.
BILBASSYYeah, actually in fact he said he did not discuss this idea seriously. And his aid said that it might take a long time before (unintelligible) this decision. And also I think according to the constitution the president has to step down or to die before they can actually call for a new election.
BILBASSYBut I think also the former British ambassador to Kabul said recently that there is talk about it, but he has not seen it being discussed seriously. But if they do discuss it, this is a good idea because imagine that the NATO forces are leaving Afghanistan, that this objective has been left to the security forces to be in charge of the country. And on top of that you have an election.
BILBASSYSo in principle I think it's a good idea if he steps down and also after ten years he's been the face of Afghanistan for -- ever since the invasion in 2002. And he's not very popular. There's corruption charges against him. He has not contributed to improving the life of daily Afghanistan. Maybe a new generation will be good to come and new leaders. But, as Mark said, I don't -- also we have to wait and see. Maybe he will change his mind. I think he wanted to still have that final year before he actually officially cannot run, because the constitution bars him from running for a third term.
KITFIELDNo one looks more forward to the post Karzai era than I do in Afghanistan. I mean, he is -- he has been everything Mark said and more in terms of his unreliability of what he says. But this is a very serious issue. Right now the timing is really bad. We're going to have an election in 2014, the next leader, and there aren't any really shining examples of people who, you know, would step into that with all the ethnic divisions they have in that country.
KITFIELDAnd at the same time we're going to be pulling the vast majority of NATO troops out. It's a bad combination. It'd be much better if you had an election in 2013 while you still had a sizeable presence of NATO forces to really secure the polling places, etcetera. So it's a serious issue.
PAGEWe had learned just this morning that Pakistan has given the United States a list of demands including the end of drone strikes. And one reason this is causing -- you know, people are paying a lot of attention to this is because both the government and opposition joined in presenting these demands. Mark, what do you make of that?
LANDLERWell, you know, the U.S. has said several times, and again in the past few days, that they really support the effort of the parliament to kind of do a major review of the U.S. Pakistani relationship, which has been by, you know, all accounts a dreadful relationship full of suspicion and mutual mistrust. And the drone strikes are a key part of that. It raises of course the same issues that the night raids deal raises in Afghanistan, which is that drone strikes are the way most American counterterrorism is carried out in Pakistan.
LANDLERSo putting strict limits on how drone strikes can be authorized and carried out raises questions for the United States. I mean, it's also worth noting that -- I mean, it was in fact the government and the opposition that are bringing this proposal to the United States. I'd be interested in where the military is in all this because the military is really the important player at a time when the civilian government is as weak as it is. So again, a lot of unanswered questions.
KITFIELDI think that's right as well and, you know, some questions I have is, you know, if you stop the drone strikes, would the Pakistani government and military be willing to then contest some of these sanctuaries? If not, then you've just seeded -- you're pulling your troops out at a time when you've seeded to the Taliban insurgency absolute sanctuary with no, you know, no reason to look over their shoulder. That could be a very dicey thing for the future of Afghanistan and whether it goes into a civil war.
KITFIELDSo I have some questions here. I think it's kind of an open and gamut, if you will. That's their sort of the sense of the government, opposition and the ruling party that these things must stop. They've had that position for quite a long time. They haven't been willing to give us what we need to stop those.
BILBASSYI think both the political and military leadership in Pakistan wanted to have good relationship in the U.S. for their -- both interests of the countries. It's like a really bad marriage, but both sides know they have to stay because the way out is even worse. So I think the fact that the Pakistanis has suspended this route that NATO use the supply routes to come in after the U.S. hits and killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as a result they block these supply routes. Now they want to reopen it.
BILBASSYSo they cannot reopen it without giving anything in return so they're asking for concession from the United States to show to their people, because these drones attack has been very, very unpopular in Pakistan. So basically they're saying, okay we getting from the Americans this concession of stopping the drone attacks, although they have demanded this before in I think 2008. And it didn't -- never stopped. So in principle, they will open this and they (unintelligible) they add the caveat which is basically you don't transport military equipment, which has been the case anyway, but only use it for supply of food and for fuel.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to go to the phones now and take your calls. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Give us a call. Let's start with Jack. He's calling us from Chantilly, Va. Jack, hi, you're on the air.
JACKThank you for taking my call. My comment and question is about the North Korean missile launch. I'm surprised that the idea that that failure of that launch was not caused by some other agency, perhaps one of ours, has not come up. I mean, isn't it certainly possible that we had something to do with that?
PAGEJack, that's such a great question. We've gotten a number of emails along those lines. Here's one from Don who says, "Do any of the panelists think the missile launch by North Korea could've been destroyed by a secret U.S. space defense?" What do you think, Mark?
LANDLERWell, you can't discount something like that and the Japanese threatened to, you know, shoot a patriot antimissile missile at this missile if it looked like it was coming toward Japanese territory. So there were -- there was some talk and events of disabling this missile. I mean, the honest answer is we don't know. And given how intelligence works we may not know for a while, if ever.
LANDLERYou know, there is an American argument, by the way, that they did contribute to the failure of this launch. And the argument is that the sanctions that are in place now which prohibit North Korea from buying all sorts of dual use technology, communications equipment that were used -- are used in guidance systems for satellites, that North Korea can't buy that material. And that as a result its whole ballistic missile program is handicapped and so that in a way you could argue that the International Community and the U.S. did play a role in hampering the ambitions of the North Koreans.
KITFIELDI actually think that's the most plausible argument here. We -- this is like the third I think failed three-stage missile test they've done. They've never pulled this off. It's a complicated thing to do, a lot more complicated than people think. You know, it almost certainly wasn't shot down because that kinda thing you can detect it on radar, detect it by all kinds of sensors that people pick up. And that leaks really fast. Was it -- did -- was there some sort of a Stuxnet computer bug that we have inserted?
KITFIELDThere's no way to know that, but when you talk to U.S. officials, they -- you know, North Korea is a very hard nut to crack. It really is a prison country. Even Iran is a much more open place than North Korea. I don't suspect that we have a lot of inside track on being able to sabotage their -- you know, on the ground inside North Korea.
PAGEMark, if what you say is true that would be an example of a real success of a pretty nuanced policy.
LANDLERIt would indeed. And actually there's a sort of -- there's another argument that goes along with that which is that, you know, every missile launch like this is also a chance for the North Koreans to showcase their wares in the international marketplace for this kind of stuff. North Korea has a record as a proliferator.
LANDLERSo the fact that North Korea bungled this so spectacularly will also hurt its ability to sell technology or material. You know, in the past Syria -- there's been a channel to Syria. There was also talk in recent months before the political opening in Myanmar that the Burmese were a potential customer for North Korean technology. So the U.S. argument is maybe this really hurt them in that regard as well.
PAGEYou know, Nadia, we also saw that, as James said, North Korea's failed in these attempts before these tests. This time they told their own people that it had failed. How unusual is that?
BILBASSYYeah, that’s a really interesting point because when it was breaking news in all -- almost every single international channel, apparently North Korean television was just showing regular programs of, you know, praising the Kim Jong Il and Kim el-Sung and it's as if nothing happened. But -- and because also, as Mark said earlier, they gathered all this international reporters to commemorate the celebration. So the fact that all of a sudden they declared that they have failed, that's really strange.
BILBASSYI mean, I don't know what to make of it. Why they came out and they acknowledged it. But I guess they have no option but to acknowledge it maybe because as Mark alluded before that they have something else. Some people already talk about nuclear testing somewhere, and maybe they're saying, okay guys this is a gimmick. You will see the real things we're going to do. I don't know actually. I'm only speculating.
KITFIELDI'm only speculating, too, but what's interesting, that was the most surprising thing about the whole event. And I think that, you know, the huge question laying out there is, is this kid going to be any different from his father and his grandfather. This is the first sign that maybe there's cracks in that sort of hermit kingdom under him that'll be slightly more transparent, but remains to be seen.
PAGEJames Kitfield from National Journal. We're also talking this hour with Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV and Mark Landler of The New York Times. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll go back to the phones and take your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEThe Egyptian parliament passed a bill to forbid senior officials of the Mubarak regime from running for President. Nadia, who was that directed at?
BILBASSYOmar Suleiman who was a former head of the chief intelligence and he was briefly vice president for President Mubarak. He's been associated with the regime that people today actually, just before we came on air, there were thousands of Islamists in Tahrir Square, these images that we have seen during the revolution, basically demanding that this law should be respected. Although it was passed by the parliament by the majority of the Islamists, but it has to be authorized by the military basically.
BILBASSYSo they're saying that we did not die so we have somebody like Omar Suleiman taking over. So it is aimed at him. It's also aimed at Ahmed Shafik, who was also the former prime minister and it might also disqualify Omar Moussa. The funniest thing is we have seen Yemen election with one candidate. We might see Egyptian elections with no candidates because everybody seems to be disqualified including this guy Hazem Abu Ismail who is a Salafist. Apparently his mother had an American passport so they were saying too that we don't want him because.
BILBASSYAnd the other two candidates, Ayman Nour is very well known in the West, the Liberal Party of (word?) also was disqualified. And Hirat Ashad (sp?) is disqualified, was from the Muslim Brotherhood because he was jailed during the Mubarak regime.
PAGEOmar Suleiman said this week he was going to run. Why James?
KITFIELDWell, the speculation is that the military council and he was basically the right-hand man of General Mubarak so the military council may want its own candidate in the race to watch out for its equities which are manifest in that country's economy. So that's the speculation that he was like a stalking horse for the generals in the military council.
KITFIELDWhat's also interesting to me is there's this huge power struggle going on between the generals in the military council and most of those are former Mubarak people. The new parliament which is dominated by the Islamists and the courts which seem to be siding pretty much with the military council. The court is throughout the constituent assembly for the time being because it was stacked with so many Islamists that the Liberals and the Secularists basically walked out.
KITFIELDSo they said, no start again, that can't be. So you see at all these power centers in Cairo right now struggling with each other and quite honestly, I mean, you post a name, a president by June. It's hard for you to see how all this plays out in any kind of an orderly way.
PAGEWell, is this good news because it's the tumult of democracy or is it bad news because it's a sign of impending chaos?
BILBASSYIt's, well, it's both actually. I mean, if we went to compare it to the dictatorship that we have seen and dominated the Arab worlds for decades, it's good news that we have seen parliament elections that the majority Islamists want. I mean, basically, they won fairly and squarely, I suppose, too, in the old days when they, you know, stuffed the ballot boxes and basically the ruling party wins by 99.9.
BILBASSYBut I think coming back to your earlier question Omar Suleiman said that he wants to run because he wants to save Egypt from becoming a religious state because we've seen in a consolidation of power over the Islamists whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists between them they have 70 percent of the votes and they will control everything in Egypt, the presidency, the parliament, Egypt's future and he thinks Egypt is going to be isolated.
BILBASSYSo in a way, we've seen lots of chaos because the court is not really, it seems to be political, but because every time a candidate will be disqualified, the other candidates from the other party the courts comes and says, well, his mother is American, he cannot run. They find something for him (unintelligible) so the process is very messy and democracy is a messy process. But there are some good signs there, but I think, in the long run, we might see very unstable, you know, a few years before things will settle down.
KITFIELDYou know, there was an earlier Arab Spring in 2005 the Bush administration tried to engineer and it collapsed because they pushed elections before institution, democratic institutions and when elections get out in front of democratic institutions you get, you can get some pretty extremist parties elected to rule as happened with Hamas in the Occupied Territories.
KITFIELDSo, you know, it seems to me like this is going very fast. They've done very little work on institution-building and that's why the Secularists and the Liberals walked out because they weren't organized. The Muslim Brotherhood has been organized in that country forever as an opposition that was largely suppressed, but organized. And if you press this thing, push elections too quick, you can get very messy outcomes and everyone looks at Iran in 1979 and goes let's hope that's not what we're seeing unfold here.
PAGEMark, is that what we might be seeing? Is there concern on the U.S. side?
LANDLERWell, I would simply say, I think that's a very valid point and it also accounts for why you see in several of these countries very visible remnants of the old regime continuing to project their influence into the new era, whether it's Suleiman in Egypt or the vice president in Yemen. And in both cases, it is worth pointing out also that, I mean, Suleiman was a very trusted interlocutor for the United States during the upheaval when Mubarak's status and survival was coming under serious question.
LANDLERAnd there was even I recall during those critical days the U.S. was sort of fastening some hope on Suleiman that he could help the country get through this period so it would interesting to talk to the Egyptian hands in the State Department and ask them their feelings about seeing this guy who they had such trust in who then apparently disappeared entirely when Mubarak stepped down only to find out that he's really been quietly biding his time, keeping his office in the intelligence headquarters and suddenly reemerges.
LANDLERI'm sure it inspires some mixed feelings on the part of the Americans.
BILBASSYI actually asked the State Department in a briefing about this and they said they have no comment on candidates and, you know, on Suleiman in particular, but I think also if you look, this is going to be the decade of the Islamists. I mean, the Liberal parties and the Secularists have failed miserably in appealing to the masses.
BILBASSYYes, the Muslim Brotherhood have been waiting for 84 years to take power and they have been very well organized. And it's true they have been the most organized, but also they're really able to reach the common person in the street. The Liberal parties, sometimes they live in their ivory towers and they cannot, they cannot make that connection with people in the streets. So yes they win the majority votes because people vote for them.
BILBASSYAnd also most of the people who vote for them come from the very poor suburbs and neighborhoods and also there is money and there is organization. This guy by the way, I just wanted to talk about him, who is the Salafist, which is an ultra-conservative party in Egypt called the Nour. This guy, Hazem Abu Ismail's mother apparently is Egyptian citizen, ah, is American citizen...
PAGEBecame an American citizen...
BILBASSY…became an American, of course, she has dual now. They are saying if he can prove she has dual nationality then it is okay et cetera. But apparently, he's like a pop star in Egypt. He has this star charisma everywhere he goes. He trimmed his beard like a crescent, you know. He's very charismatic. People love him and today, actually, I saw a statistic just before I came that almost -- he's second after Omar Moussa in his chances of winning if he's not disqualified.
BILBASSYBut the Muslim Brotherhood I think it is worth noting they came to Washington last week and they come in on this offensive charm to show that, no we, it's not just and I ask them this question actually at the Carnegie Conference. And I said to them that the Islamists seem only to understand election from the process of democracy. How can you assure us that you're going to respect women's rights and minority rights and you talk about building of constitution and it's going to be inclusive?
BILBASSYAnd they said, and they're very well spoken. They speak English and French, they're clean-shaven. They really appeal to the West and they met with officials at the State Department and in the White House and also did the tour in the universities and everywhere in the United States to show that you can do business with them.
BILBASSYHe said to me that we did not fight against dictatorship to be replaced with a dictatorship. But I still have my own doubts. We will see because power is seductive and once they're in power, they act differently than when they're out of power.
KITFIELDThe Muslim Brotherhood is in a state of transition so we don't know what it's going to turn out to be, but here are some concerns. They didn't -- it wasn't the Muslim Brotherhood who took to the streets that really caused Mubarak to go, it was the Liberals and the Secularists and the people who were crying for democracy. They were late to that game.
KITFIELDNow they're taking advantage of their organizational skills like they should in any democracy. The problem with Islamists is that they don't believe a separation of church and state. They believe that in theocracy, it's written in Sharia Law and they don't believe that there is an elected official that can rule over a theocratic so the concern is you have a democratic election that elects, you know, Islamists and that's the last election you get.
PAGELet's go to Danny, he's calling us from Jacksonville, Fla. Danny you've been holding on, thanks for being patient.
DANNYThank you for taking my call. I actually have more of comment than questions. I just heard that this program is about international roundup and I just feel that there are some areas of the world that you guys are ignoring, for example Sub-Saharan Africa. They have a lot of problems right now especially in South Sudan and Sudan and Mali and now Guinea-Bissau, but I wonder by the Western media, including the NPR, they do all this while there's actually trouble in Sub-Saharan Africa and I don't want to see, you know, another Rwanda on the 2000s. Thanks and I'll take my answer over the air.
PAGEAll right, Danny, thanks so much for your call. You know, I'll just say two things, one is that we do have issues of Africa on the International News Roundup some weeks, not every week. This week, we actually talked with the producers, talked about whether we should have the issue in Mali and also the issue of Sudan and South Sudan on this week's Roundup. It was the last topic we took off because we feel like we can't do the entire world every week.
PAGEBut it is true that we pay more attention to places where U.S. strategic interests seem to be more deeply involved.
KITFIELDI think it's a very fair criticism of the American media and media in general, Sub-Saharan Africa does get ignored and it is because, well, there's no oil there and there really is no overriding strategic interest. Having said that, the administration and the previous administration worked very hard to find a solution to the Sudan civil war and that led to a referendum and the South Sudan seceded within the last year. I think it is -- and now they're fighting Sudan and South Sudan are fighting over oilfields and so that problem has not been totally solved and it's a good point. We should keep our eye on it.
PAGEDanny, we appreciate your call.
BILBASSYYou know, I mean, I agree. I spent actually ten years as a reporter in Africa and it's hard even for our audience to give them stories that come in from Africa because, you know, generally people are just interested, politics is local or if it has an impact on their life, et cetera, but I agree this is a very valid point that we should talk more about it.
PAGEHere's an emailer who wants to talk more about North Korea. He asks, "Will hard-lined factions make a move to take over key high positions in that regime as a result of the failure of the rocket launch?"
LANDLERI'd guess I'd answer by saying I'm not sure how you'd distinguish between hard line and soft line when you're talking about North Korea. I mean, there really only seems to be one line. It is absolutely valid to say that there is some competing factions and those might involve people close to the Kim family on the one hand and military commanders on the other hand.
LANDLERIt's hard to know this right now. The U.S. and other foreign intelligence have struggled to make sense of the North Korean succession. Some people have said that Kim Jong Un has consolidated his power in visible ways with the titles he keeps getting anointed with and in a real way in terms of his ability to project his power much more quickly than people expected.
LANDLERBut again, do we really know that? No, we surmise that and an event like this may actually show a level of insecurity on his part. Maybe he felt obliged to hold this week of events and festivities and the satellite launch because he felt a need to present himself as a leader in a more dramatic way.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Rick he's calling us from St. Louis. Rick, hi you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RICKHi, thank you, speaking of things that we're not talking about. China which is probably the most important international relationship, the story about Bo Xilai which has been going on for quite a while and kind of under-reported here, there are people in the intelligence community who believe this is a bigger deal than Tiananmen Square as far as the effect on the internal Chinese government which of course that affects the rest of the world.
RICKBo Xilai was one of the leaders of the newer Maoist movement and which is a real problem inside the Chinese party. I thought if the government party, if any of you could comment on that I'd like to hear what you have to say.
PAGEYou know, Rick, I agree. I love this story, it is so interesting. I can't read enough about it. Mark, do you think, as Rick suggested, it is actually something that tells us that things are changing in China?
LANDLERAh, well, first of all, I want to point out that we did have this one on our list. In fact, we were saving it for the grand finale so I think we all agree that this is one of those stories that in addition to being sensational on its face says something profound about China.
LANDLERAnd I think the point you make about his identification with the new Maoist movement is critical and it probably explains why the Communist leadership have been so aggressive and, in some ways, public about the way that they have gone after Bo Xilai and his wife and laid out a list of, or are in the process of laying out a list of charges against them I think sending a message to other people in positions of power, people who might be sympathetic to him that they're not going to get any further with this.
LANDLERAnd also because I think they're worried that it exposes a web of corruption and nepotism and abuse of power that's true not only of Bo Xilai and his family, but of other senior leaders and members of the Politburo. So and all of this happens against the backdrop of a leadership transition and, Rick, since you obviously know a lot about China, the level of paranoia that accompanies any leadership transition in China is extreme.
LANDLERAnd this one had appeared to be going relatively smoothly with Xi Jinping, the vice president easing into the roles of Hu Jintao, but to have an event like this blow up in the middle of that raises all kinds of questions about stability so I think we're heading into this very fascinating period and it will be interesting to see how the leadership navigates through all the landmines that this is likely to set off.
PAGEWhat would have been the traditional way James for China to handle a situation like this one?
KITFIELDI haven't seen a situation like this one before in China. It would have been handled in secret. I mean, that's the sort of catch, the mantra of the Chinese is don't show, don't show how, you know, what goes on behind the magic screen because they want you to think this is all inevitable and what we're finding out in this really fascinating window is, it's not evitable, there's power struggles going on here.
KITFIELDI think, you know, the point made is exactly right that this guy, you know, did have some sort of Maoist tendencies. He had this pageantry where people sang the old revolutionary songs and it seems to suggest that he wanted to reverse the course a little bit and go back to the old cultural revolution days and I think, you know, ideologically that's just not a big sell any more in China which is, you know, had this fantastic growth rate because of its marrying capitalism to this sort of quasi-communism.
KITFIELDSo, you know, it's a fascinating look. What's really fundamentally different here is we're getting a kind of seat behind the curtain.
PAGEPolitics, money even a murder, the alleged murder anyway of a British businessman.
BILBASSYThat's right and just before that I wanted to add that the former U.S. Ambassador to China and former Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman said actually this is cutthroat politics in China more than ideological struggle. And yes it has all the elements of a good soap opera so here is the wife, the glamorous wife who has a British businessman and he was involved in a murder and poison and (unintelligible) it's a bit bizarre.
PAGEAnd who says international news can't be fascinating? I want to thank our panel for being with us. Nadia Bilbassy, James Kitfield, Mark Landler, thanks for joining us on ''The Diane Rehm Show''.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back on Monday, thanks for listening.
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