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: Tom Gjelten
The U.S. and NATO agree to a plan to wind down the war in Afghanistan, as the Taliban launches a series of audacious attacks around the country and the U.S. military faces a new scandal over the behavior of soldiers on tour; U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warns that the situation in Syria is “highly precarious” despite a brokered ceasefire; new concern over Egypt’s transition to democracy after several opposition figures are banned from running for president; and questions arise over international maritime rules after a cruise ship fails to rescue three fishermen lost at sea. Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera, Courtney Kube of N.B.C. and Michael Hirsh of National Journal join guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Abderrahim Foukara Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic.
- Courtney Kube national security producer for NBC News.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent, National Journal magazine; author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street."
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is away on station visits today. The US and its NATO allies agree on how to wind down the war in Afghanistan. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says Syria is not adhering to the peace plan and North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, makes his first public speech.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining us for the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup," Michael Hirsh of National Journal, Courtney Kube of NBC and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera Arabic. And later in the hour, we'll take your questions and comments. Call us at 1-800-433-8850, send us email, email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning folks.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEGood morning.
MR. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARAGood morning.
GJELTENWell, let's start, Michael Hirsh, let's start with Afghanistan. Another week of bad news from Afghanistan, a Taliban attack, prison break in Pakistan, photos coming to light of soldiers misbehaving and meanwhile the United States and its NATO allies are scrambling to figure out how the heck they can out of Afghanistan.
HIRSHPrecisely, Tom, I mean, the pylon effect, if you'll call it that, it just continues because this is just more incidences along the lines of what we've seen. Mistrust over Pakistan, horrific photos of US soldiers desecrating the bodies or at least embarrassing themselves and their code of conduct in these photos in the way that they handled the dead there.
HIRSHAnd, you know, doubts about what the handover is going to consist of which, you know, creeps right into what the US government is discussing itself and who's going to pay for it and how it's going to happen. We did see a preliminary agreement between NATO and Afghanistan over the handover to Afghan troops of control, you know, of night raids.
HIRSHThere is discussion over the payment that's going to go to the Afghanistan government and security forces after 2014, after the departure of US and NATO troops as scheduled. It's not clear yet who, you know, who actually going to pay for that, you're talking about over $4 billion that US might provide a little over a half of, but we still have to get from our NATO allies pledges of filling in much of the rest. The Afghan government may take care of about $500 million.
GJELTENCourtney, there was, of course, this meeting between the United States and its NATO allies. How did the meeting go and is there a plan or as Michael suggests, is there sort of just a lot of unanswered questions about who's going to be there after 2014 and who's going to be paying for the bills?
KUBEYes, this week in Brussels, there was sort of Chicago light NATO meeting. I'm referring, of course, to next month in Chicago is the big NATO meeting. They were -- one of the biggest issues that was not resolved out of this meeting was who's going to pay, as Michael was saying, who's going to pay for the Afghan security forces after 2014. It's going to cost about $4 billion to sustain them, but even at smaller force level than they have right now.
KUBEThey'll probably be about 100,000 less than they are right now. The Afghan GDP is about $2 billion a year so obviously the Afghans can't sustain it. The US is going to end having to put into about $2 billion, but the international community has not ponied up the other $1 plus billion, with the exception of the British who've promised a small fracture frankly.
KUBEThen President Karzai, this week, said he wanted a written statement from the United States pledging that they would provide that and Secretary Panetta had sort of a funny response to that saying, look, Congress controls the purse strings and we can't even get them to promise that they're going to fund the US military let alone the Afghan military. So they left the summit with some decisions about the security in Afghanistan, but there were still unresolved issues that need to be tied down so that President Obama's not embarrassed in Chicago next month.
GJELTENAbderrahim Foukara, it seems to me sometimes, like, Hamid Karzai needs a kind of a public relations advisor because he sort of -- one week he'll be extremely critical of the United States, then he comes out and asks for a written guarantee that the United States provides $2 billion in funding. I mean, how effective a way is that to get support from Congress?
FOUKARAI mean, he knows that public opinion in Afghanistan is very fluid and as Michael said at the outset the pylon, the pylon you have to recall all the things that have happened in Afghanistan over the last few months. The photos with the Taliban...
GJELTENDead Taliban soldiers.
FOUKARA...dead Taliban soldiers, the desecration of the Koran, the killing by the US soldier of 16 Afghan civilians and at that time taken separately didn't look, it looked serious, but it didn't look serious enough. But now that seems to have provided the impetus for the Taliban. I mean, just remember them punching into Kabul the seat of Hamid Karzai.
FOUKARASo he knows that public opinion is constantly shifting in Afghanistan. He knows that there's a buildup, a continuous buildup of support for the Taliban and he speaks and acts in ways that put him on the right side of public opinion in Afghanistan even if that sometimes makes him sound contradictory or makes him sound that he's actually on the side of the Taliban themselves.
HIRSHThere's a long running debate, I think, in security circles over whether Karzai is more crazy or more crazy like a fox in that, you know, he is clearly playing both sides. He sometimes does so awkwardly and to the point where people wonder whether he's stable indeed. This was a huge part of the debate going back to 2009, Vice President Joe Biden who sort of carried the weight of the debate that said let's get out of there more quickly, let's just make this about counterterrorism because we can't trust Karzai. I mean, that was a lot of what they were basing their opinion. So, but Karzai, at the same time, knows that the US is going to need him in the years ahead.
GJELTENHe needs to play two sides.
GJELTENWell, let's talk about this latest, Courtney, pictures emerged apparently taken again, once again, on cell phones or something like that of American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with body parts of Taliban soldiers who had been killed. Now, these are not new pictures are they?
KUBENo, they're not. They're about two years old. It's the 82nd Airborne, they were in Zabul Province back in 2010. A soldier from the 82nd gave about 18 photos to the L.A. Times. They only published two of them saying that, the L.A. Times editor said that was enough to give an idea for the story without being exploitive of the gruesomeness of them.
GJELTENThe Pentagon really opposed them publishing it at all.
KUBEThat was the most astonishing part about the story. I mean, it's certainly not the first time that the Pentagon or the administration of the US military has pushed back on a story, absolutely not. But it was remarkable to see every response after that story came out this week was, well, we abhor what's being done in the photos and we're going to hold them to the highest standards, but we also, you know, we deplore the fact that the L.A. Times published them.
KUBEAnd there's two sides of this argument. The soldier from the 82nd who released those photos said he did it because there was a breakdown in discipline in Afghanistan and he was concerned that these 82nd guys -- one of them is already back there. There was just an announcement more 82nd guys are going back, you know, he was concerned that this put them at danger, this lack of discipline. Of course the Pentagon, the US military said, "The fact that the photos are out there would incite violence."
KUBEYou know, it's only been a couple of days but so far there have been no protests, the ambassador did a round table with Afghan media yesterday and didn't get a single question on it. So who knows? It is possible that an Afghan soldier could turn around one day and be angry about this and take a shot at American or at a NATO solider because of the specifically, absolutely, but it's hard to make that argument frankly.
GJELTENWell, Abderrahim, Courtney's right. The reaction to this latest incidence has been somewhat muted although as you pointed out defacing the Koran was -- it triggered days and days of protests. So what do you think is the bottom line here? I mean, has the US troop presence in Afghanistan really gotten to the point that, you know, it's just it's really rubbing Afghans the wrong way in a big, big way or why is it that this latest incident, for example, didn't produce more of a reaction?
FOUKARAWell, I mean, the US no matter which way you see it but the US presence in Afghanistan has not gone down well with every single Afghan right from the start. There was always a section of Afghan society that didn't subscribe to the notion that the US is there to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban. The Taliban continue and continue to hold sway in Afghan public opinion and the -- I think that the decision to publish these pictures although they are two years old, it's not very difficult to find people who will actually sympathize with that decision.
FOUKARAPeople who will say for example that during the Vietnam War, for example, the US military had began to develop a sort of malaise towards the war and the same argument could apply to Afghanistan and the argument is that if it is a malaise and these people felt the way they did two years ago what about now? The toll on them in Afghanistan, US soldiers must be even higher.
GJELTENWell, Michael, you know one difference between the United States engagement in Afghanistan and in Vietnam is that we are now in the 11th year and it's counterinsurgency strategy that puts small groups of small soldiers under noncommissioned officers in isolated places. I mean, what are the, what do you think are the lessons here about the way that the United States is pursuing this war?
HIRSHWell, this is a hotly debated topic inside the military between counterinsurgency specialists who have kind of predominated particularly since Obama came in and transformed the strategy there under First General Stanley McChrystal and then General Petraeus and, you know, the question is does it work and can it work now with an accelerated withdraw because counterinsurgency does require many years, many more than we're frankly going to commit.
HIRSHAnd there is also as you suggested this incredibly risky strategy particularly coming in the wake of the incidences where Afghan soldiers have shot American soldiers or NATO troops, where you're putting these guys in a very exposed place. this was part of the plan for the phase out, they're going to be in smaller more exposed places and there are going to be fewer Americans with the Afghans and I think that's one reason why they're starting to rethink the whole strategy now.
GJELTENAnd you've got noncommissioned officers in charge of these soldiers who in many cases are exhausted. They're on their fourth deployment and that's got to have some implications. Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for The National Journal. He's also the author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Man Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street." This is the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup." We're going to be talking, when we come back after a short break, about the latest developments in Syria, in Egypt and also in North Korea. You can join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back to the international hour of "The Friday News Roundup." I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm today with my guests Michael Hirsh from the National Journal. Also Courtney Kube, national security producer for NBC News and Abderrahim Foukara, the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic.
GJELTENLet's turn our attention now, folks, to Syria. This conflict that has been going on now for well over a year, thousands of people killed. The United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan tried to negotiate a ceasefire, got the Syrian government's agreement, but Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and others are saying that this ceasefire is not being honored. One of the big issues, right Courtney, is how to work out the sort of rules of -- not just the rules of engagement, but how these U.N. observers, who are supposed to be there to monitor this ceasefire, how they're going to get around what they're going to be allowed to do.
GJELTENThere was apparently an agreement yesterday between the Syrian government and the United Nations regarding these monitors. What can you tell us about it?
KUBEYeah, the ceasefire has really been troubled since its inception several days ago. Six or seven of the monitors went in earlier this week. On Wednesday they were traveling around, they were mobbed by demonstrators and Syrian forces opened fire on those demonstrators around their vehicles and they had to flee the scene. There was an agreement already. The Syrians had already said it would be okay for these U.N. monitors to come in. Now they're saying, oh, once again, this time they really will be able to come in. We really will be able to show them around.
KUBEThey had asked to see several sites. The Syrian regime had said no. They'd also asked for -- one issue that's not resolved is they needed helicopters. They wanted to have their own helicopters to take them around the country. The Syrians said, well, you have to use our Syrian military helicopters only. So there's only about seven of them on the ground. About 30 total are supposed to be there next week.
KUBENow whether they'll have greater freedom of movement, access to speaking to people, it really remains to be seen. But I don't know why we don't -- there's not a lot of reason to believe the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, that they're going to come through on these agreements when they haven't yet.
GJELTENWell, how can the U.N. observers expect to get to hear what the Syrian people really think if they're being escorted around by the Syrian military in Syrian military helicopters?
KUBEAnd President Assad has say over where they go and how long they stay. So obviously he can have his military move the tanks and the vehicles out and have the military get out of there. And then they keep the observers in for just a short amount of time. He also has veto power over which nations those observers come in from. So he's asking for China and Brazil and nations that are friendlier towards his regime.
FOUKARAThis is to all intense and purposes a deja vu situation in so many different ways. We've gone through this with the Arab observers a few months ago and that mission fizzled out. It sounds very similar to what international inspectors in Iraq had gone through with Saddam Hussein, the cat and mouse. And Saddam was able to play that game with the inspectors for over a decade. And my sense is that Bashar Assad in Syria agreed to the Kofi Annan mission along similar lines. This is a diplomatic margin that he can work indefinitely if he so wishes.
FOUKARAI also have to say that I have a sense that everybody seems to have an interest in the ceasefire fizzling out. Because Bashar Assad on the one hand, if the ceasefire holds then there'll be more protestors out on the street, the opposition, particularly the armed opposition. If there is a ceasefire than obviously there's less international pressure on Bashar Assad. So both those sides have an interest in the ceasefire fizzle out. I have to say, based on what happened with the Arab observers, there isn't a great deal of optimism that Kofi Annan's mission inspires at this time.
GJELTENMeanwhile, Michael Hirsh, this has taken on kind of a new international aspect in terms of what's going on between Syria and its neighbor Turkey, some cross barter firing. And after all Turkey is a member of the NATO and Article V of the NATO charter says any attack on a NATO country is an attack on us all. What does that mean?
HIRSHWell, you know, again, it highlights what has become increasingly this sort of proxy war aspects of this internal conflict in Syria. It hasn't blown up into something bigger, but clearly the larger dynamic here is that the West feels somewhat paralyzed because Russia and China would block a Chapter 7 Security Council resolution which would authorize force of any kind, which is really probably the only thing like as the case with Saddam that would really move Assad.
HIRSHAnd you have Turkey which has been playing a much larger role generally regionally, not just the fact that this is along, you know, its border. And as a NATO member in good standing could clearly be a way, you know, if the Americans and the Western Europeans are looking for a way to legitimize or authorize force. That certainly is a mistake that Assad would be wise not to make, not to revoke Turkey into that role.
GJELTENBut Turkey probably is not going to take that step without some serious thought being put into it because you don't call in NATO on your side without thinking about what the consequences would be, right Courtney?
KUBEAbsolutely. I think there have been several times now where we've gotten to a point with the situation in Syria where I've said, well, this has got to be a turning point. And it feels like it's yet another turning point. We've turned around several times now. Secretary Clinton said that President Assad is squandering his last chance if he doesn't accept the terms of the U.N. monitors and Kofi Annan's plan. But the problem is the next step seems to be she's asking for the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo. It's not going to pass. China and Russia will likely not pass that.
KUBEFrance said this morning the EU is going to impose new sanctions on Syria next week on some luxury goods or whatnot. The problem is they continue -- the International Community continues to take the same steps over and over and over. And it's really having no tangible impact on the ground. Civilians continue to be killed. You know, the Syrian regime opened fire on protestors today amidst this ceasefire that we're all speaking about. And then ten Syrian forces were killed allegedly in an IED bombing today as well. So there's certainly violence that's continuing.
HIRSHI mean, as was the case with Saddam and during that ten-year period when he played cat and mouse with the U.N., I think that it's unrealistic to think that there's going to be much of a change at all in the Assad regime's behavior without serious threat of force of some kind, whether it's NATO or Turkey or someone else. You know, let's remember that it was only when there was a 15 to nothing Security Council resolution against Saddam in the fall of 2002 -- this was before the U.S. invasion -- that he really opened up, you know, all of his sites and palaces to inspectors. And I think that you're not going to see Assad move similarly.
KUBEAnd he has no incentive right now either, especially this week. Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General and General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs both said there's no boots going in on the ground there.
GJELTENRight. So again, the U.S. government between Hillary Clinton and General Dempsey and Leon Panetta, I think, Secretary of Defense, they're not necessarily always speaking on the same page. Abderrahim, you and Michael have both mentioned the parallels with Iraq. Now, French President Nicolas Sarkozy compared Bashar Assad yesterday to Gadhafi and called for humanitarian intervention, the creation of humanitarian corridors. Of course that's exactly what...
FOUKARAJohn McCain called for.
GJELTENAnd John McCain's called for it as well. I mean, is there anything new here? I mean, we've heard this -- the Arab League was talking about humanitarian corridors, what, months ago now, right?
FOUKARAYes. I think on the front of humanitarian corridors obviously, in my estimation, the only country that can make that happen is Turkey given its geographical proximity to Syria, given its ties to NATO. It's a member of the NATO. I do not see a lot of appetite on the side of Turkey to undertake action like that because they are already worried that they are literally bogged down in the conflict along the border with Syria.
FOUKARANow one fundamental difference with Libya -- and Courtney mentioned lack of incentive. I do agree, Bashar, at this time, doesn't have a lot of incentive because he'd look at Libya and he'd say one fundamental difference between Syria and Libya is that if there is military conflict in Syria that would draw in first of all Iran. And Bashar Assad is as close an ally that Iran can get in the region, and obviously Russia. I think it would be truly ironic should there be military conflagration involving Iran and Russia.
FOUKARAIt would be truly ironic to see that the U.S. is bogged down now in Afghanistan where the Soviet Union got bogged down. And Iran wields influence in Afghanistan so it would be Iranian involvement not just in Syria, but it would be Iranian involvement in Iran, particularly now that the U.S. is talking about disengaging from Afghanistan. It's just a measure of how interconnected that part of the world has always been, but particularly has become now.
GJELTENRight. And a part of the uncertainty in that part of the world right now is what lies ahead for Egypt. Big demonstrations after Friday prayers this morning, Michael, people really upset that several of very popular candidates have been banned from running in the presidential race. Two of the highest profile Islamist candidates were pushed off the ballot. Omar Suleiman, the former spy chief barred from running. Nevertheless, still some very high profile candidates, Amr Moussa the former foreign minister under Mubarak and former head of the Arab League as well.
HIRSHThere's the current prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. What are we looking at here in the coming weeks as far as this upcoming presidential election in Egypt?
HIRSHI wish we knew because I think it's all been thrown into even more confusion than was already there. You have the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly the most powerful political organization in the country which had won something like 47 percent, I think, of the seats in the parliamentary elections in January. But now el-Shater the -- and they had said they weren't going to take part, even though they had created this new political party in the wake of the Arab Spring, but then they decided that they would.
HIRSHSo he's now been disqualified on the basis of having served jail time during the Mubarak era. But has said that the Muslim Brotherhood will run a deputy who almost certainly would answer to Shater who is a very conservative, you know, Islamist. And yet someone who I have learned recently the U.S. has been talking to quite boldly. I mean, there's a whole new approach to dealing with these Islamists than what we've seen over the past ten years. And some people are calling it the post Al-Qaida era, a time when we're actually trying to, you know, divide between the Islamists we can work with and those that we can't.
GJELTENAnd, Abderrahim, the two remaining Islamist candidates are both, in each case, sort of from the U.S. point of view more moderate than the two that they replaced, correct.
FOUKARAYes. But, I mean, the problem the Egyptians face now is in addition to what Michael talked about, is that even in the case of Shater, for example, Shater is a business man. And one of the criticisms that had been leveled at the ruling party under Mubarak for many decades is that it combined business and politics. Now this is a very influential businessman who's on his way to becoming the president of Egypt combining both business and politics. And that's rubbing a lot of Egyptians the wrong way.
FOUKARAThere's the other guy who has been disqualified because the story goes his mother had American nationality, which you couldn't do according to the Egyptian constitution. If you're running for president, your parents, both of them have to be American (sic). And then there's the issue of Omar Suleiman, the former spy chief in Egypt. And that's where it really gets very complicated because the candidacy of Omar Suleiman, the spy chief, it just showed you how anxious the military in Egypt is about the future, that it wants to play in Egyptian politics.
FOUKARAAnd they saw in him a guaranteed support buttressing their political future in Egypt. Now that he's out of the picture, there's obviously a lot of pushing and shoving between the military and the Islamist parties. But I do not subscribe to the view that that pushing and shoving will come to a confrontation.
GJELTENAbderrahim Foukara is Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, Courtney, the United States obviously has a tremendous stake in how developments turn out in Egypt. I mean, we had a very close relationship for many years with Omar Suleiman. He's out now. You know, from the standpoint of people in the U.S. military, you know, do they see, you know, really a lot up in the air here in terms of Egyptian support for counterterrorism and all the other missions that the U.S. military is engaged in right now in that part of the world?
KUBEYes, but keep in mind though that Amr Moussa who's one of the frontrunners now that the other candidates have been disbanded, have been disqualified, Amr Moussa was the foreign minister. He was the head of the Arab League so he has the diplomatic chops to engage with the International Community, engage with the United States. I think what's really striking to me about this entire story, what really hit me this week when these candidates were disqualified was how the distrust among -- of the Egyptian military among the people, how it's continuing to grow.
KUBEYou know, a year ago when the protests were going on in Tahrir Square, the military was praised for not going after the people and clearing them out. The military was praised for their standing back and allowing them to demonstrate. And now it seems that they're just wielding all their power behind the scenes. They're intentionally disqualifying these candidates that they won't be able to use almost as puppets down the road. And Amr Moussa obviously being a former Mubarak cabinet member, he has a relationship with the military. They know that they can work with him and work through him into the Egyptian people and then to the International Community.
GJELTENOkay. Let's turn our attention now to all the way around the other side of the world, North Korea. We have a new leader in North Korea. We don't know exactly how old he is. He's in his late twenties. He looks a great deal like his grandfather, Michael Hirsh, Kim Il-sung.
HIRSHTrying very hard to also...
GJELTENAnd talk like him.
HIRSH...wearing a 1950s era Mao suit with a 1950s era haircut. I mean, he could almost -- he could be right out of a museum. And indeed giving a speech that sought to emulate his grandfather who is still very revered there, the founder of the party, Kim Il-sung, far more than his father, Kim Jong Il.
GJELTENHis father didn't like to give speeches, did he?
HIRSHHe did not give any speeches. In fact, the only recorded statement he made was, you know, was just a single sentence that he made during his entire rule, which, you know, was in the 1990s until he died last year. So clearly what you have, whether he's doing it on his own or whether his advisors have said, you know, not only do you look like Kim Il-sung, you should behave like him in order to re-legitimize the party, which is what they've had to do. He's out there putting on, you know, a good show.
GJELTENAnd, Courtney, one of his first acts, of course, was to authorize this rocket launch that fizzled out. And now, I guess everyone is waiting to see whether he's going to follow up with a nuclear test.
KUBEThere is a lot of concern. Sort of a pattern of behavior of his father certainly was to bring in the United States, bring in the International Community, to promise humanitarian aid and food aid and then squash that by launching off a missile that has failed -- the past several have failed and then conducting a nuclear test soon after that. So it seems the military, the Pentagon and the intelligence officials, they're concerned that he's going to carry this out.
KUBEThere's also a small amount of concern that he may -- to show his military chops that he may conduct some sort of a show of force against South Korea, whether it would be, you know, launching a few rockets in there, there's mortars that is across the border. Who knows? But the nuclear test is very concerning to the United States.
GJELTENAnd not only to the United States, apparently to China as well, which came out this week calling for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to take a short break.
GJELTENWelcome back, it's the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm with my journalist guests Michael Hirsh from the National Journal, Courtney Kube from NBC News and Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic. And I think we're going to go to the phones now. Let's start out with Bassim, who is calling us from Cincinnati, Ohio, good morning Bassim, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
BASSIMGood morning, my question is this. The, you know, the current ceasefire right now, you know, the whole world is basically, you know, putting the blame on Syria for violating the ceasefire, when in reality, it was the rebels or the mercenaries that have violated this. Now, why isn't the mercenaries or these rebels being blamed for, you know, starting this violence?
GJELTENNow, Bassim, why are you calling them mercenaries? I mean, the definition of mercenaries is people who are paid to fight, who don't really believe in what they're fighting for and they're just there for the money. Do you have any evidence?
BASSIMBecause they are and it has been reported especially on Russian news, RT news, that there are mercenaries involved in this conflict as well. There have been reports from the Jordanian border that non-Arab-speaking people have been involved in this conflict.
GJELTENAbderrahim, do you look to Russian news as a credible source, developments in Syria?
FOUKARAI think that this situation in Syria has been obviously caught up as far as the media is concerned. It's been caught up in a conflictual situation because if you watch Russian news, if you watch Iranian news, if you watch Hezbollah news, obviously they reflect the view that Bassim has just said. But if you look at other types of media, then obviously the situation is very different.
FOUKARAYou have to remember that this whole situation in Syria started off peacefully. It started off within the context of what is known as the Arab Spring, people wanting to change. It happened in Tunisia. It happened in Egypt. And then gradually as the Syrian security forces clamped down, it began to turn or some parts of it began to turn military.
FOUKARAAnd yes, there is support to the rebels from outside of Syria. I don't think anybody is contesting that. Even Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary General has called on both sides, the Syrian security forces and the rebels, to observe the ceasefire. But ultimately, what's happening in Syria, at least in the Arab world, it is enjoying a lot of support because it is seen as civilian Syrians facing tanks and air power by Bashar Assad and his security forces.
GJELTENWell, that's certainly true, but isn't, Michael Hirsh, one of the reasons that the United States and its allies are a little uncertain what to do in Syria is because the opposition is kind of unknown, isn't it? I mean, they're not a lot we know about who is behind these fighters. I'm not suggesting that Bassim is right that they're mercenaries, but they still have questions.
HIRSHWell, yeah, there are questions, but mainly questions about how the internal politics of Syria would play out in a post-Assad era, one where you have, you know, a minority Alawite sect basically running the country. What role would Islamists play? It's not as much a question of foreign mercenaries. Let's bear in mind that this is a propaganda meme that we've heard, you know, from dictators going back to Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam and others.
HIRSHIt's always foreign, you know, foreign mercenaries coming in from the outside and clearly, yes you know, you have to be very wary of your news sources. I think that Russian, you know Russian news sources are going to reflect that.
GJELTENAll right. I'm going to go now to an email from Chris who's writing again about Syria. "What keeps me absolutely befuddled on this topic," he says, "is the US lack of indignation over the situation in Syria. I find it troubling that we were so quick to insert ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan where the logic for doing so was flawed at best and yet," he notes, "that the United States is very uncertain about what to do in Syria."
GJELTENWell, let's go now to Ralph who is on the line from Venice, Fla. Good morning, Ralph, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," thanks for calling.
RALPHGood morning, thank you very much for taking my call. My question to your panel is I would very much appreciate they're putting the crisis in Syria in the context of U.S. national strategic and regional interests. Yes, it's a humanitarian crisis but what are the implications for the region, for Iran, et cetera? Thank you.
KUBEWell, Ralph, the biggest immediate strategic implication if Bashar al-Assad was to fall is Iran. Iran would lose its strongest partner and ally in the region, which obviously considering the fact that the United States and Iran are continually at odds would be a benefit to the United States strategically.
KUBEThe problem is the unknown factor. You know we just spoke about the problems that they're having with governance in Egypt. Who knows what would emerge in Syria if the Assad regime were to fall? And it's, I know it's easy to try and compare this conflict. It is certainly a humanitarian crisis right now and the international community has a responsibility, a moral and ethical obligation to help out other human beings in trouble. Obviously the U.N., there's a U.N. humanitarian group that's meeting today actually to try and figure out a way to get more aid into the civilians there.
KUBEBut you have to remember that as far as, even creating a humanitarian corridor or sending any kind of peacekeeping troops anything on the ground in Syria it's really difficult to do that without a U.N. mandate. And there really has not been the appetite. There has been outcry from Susan Rice, from U.S. leaders but without Russia and China on board there is not the appetite in the Security Council for a mandate.
FOUKARAThere's obviously also an Israeli dimension to this to the extent that Israel is a huge national security interest for the United States. The Bashar family, whether the son or the father before him, although Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights they were able to actually keep the peace with the Israelis. Remember that a few years ago even the Israeli air force actually flew over the presidential palace in Damascus and the Syrians didn't fire a bullet.
FOUKARASo to that extent, we haven't heard a clear view from the Israelis what exactly their position on it, whether they are worried that if he goes they don't know who is going to take his place. The United States must also be worried about the survival of Bashar, what the survival of Bashar will mean, not just for Iran as Courtney said, but for other allies of the United States, such as Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a cold war of sorts with Iran and if he survives, there's a theory which says that that would have serious repercussions for the internal stability of Saudi Arabia and from there oil prices obviously.
GJELTENYou know, all these issues are so important, but I don't want to let this hour go by without bringing up another subject. We talked earlier about the missile test from North Korea, but India also test-launched a long-range missile this week. It was just announced yesterday. The missile that India tested is capable of carrying a nuclear weapon anywhere in China. It is interesting, Michael, that we had such a reaction, a strong reaction to the North Korean test and almost nothing about the India missile test.
HIRSHYeah, a very mild reaction from the U.S. basically saying, you know, that India has done fairly well with non-proliferation. This is part of this growing effort to build a strategic partnership with India vis-à-vis China. I mean, there's this whole larger sort of strategic construct out there in which all of these, you know, events like Syria are occurring and most people aren't paying attention, but the U.S., the Obama administration, over the last couple of years, has been engaged in sort of a policy of encirclement where we're even making friends with Myanmar now as part of the policy of putting pressure on Beijing and the Chinese.
HIRSHAnd so there tends to be a supportive effort toward India which we see, you know, as a future ally in, if not actually containing China like we did the Soviet Union, at least putting geo-political pressure on them. So that's why there's, you know, something of a mild reaction to that.
GJELTENAnd meanwhile, of course, as you say, the United States is really anxious to develop strong relations with India. On the other hand, India has not been very supportive of the United States in its effort to isolate Iran. I mean, India is continuing among all the big buyers of Iranian oil. India has not been willing to go along with the sanctions that the United States is proposing. Courtney.
KUBEThat's absolutely right. I did think it was fascinating, the immediate condemnation of the North Korean launch last week that was in the air for 80 seconds or something crazy and then crashed into the Yellow Sea and did nothing, but probably frighten a lot of fish. But then when India launches a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a one and a half ton nuclear warhead...
GJELTENAnd it didn't fizzle out.
KUBEIt did not fizzle out. It landed 20 minutes later. It was successful. I mean, I'm sorry, it launched and 20 minutes later, it was declared successful. And the United States, the reaction was, you know, sort of, oh, well, India is defensive. And they have a no-strike first policy so we're okay with this, which is pretty remarkable, a week later, the difference.
GJELTENWell, the head of India's defense research and development organization said this test-firing shows that India has emerged from this launch as a major missile power. That's all we need, Abderrahim, isn't it, is yet another major missile power in the world.
FOUKARAWell, absolutely, but, you know, India plays on so many different ropes. In some cases, it supports the United States. In some other cases, it doesn't. On the issue of Iran, India obviously sees itself as part of the brick bloc, which includes countries such as Russia, South Africa, Turkey and Brazil and these countries do not look too favorably on being hostile to Iran by the United States and Israel.
FOUKARABut if I may circle this back to Afghanistan...
FOUKARA...because it always circles back to Afghanistan in one way or another. Remember that Afghanistan is an influence battleground between Pakistan and India and Pakistan sees in China an ally, a potential ally against India and therefore China is very relevant to what happens in Afghanistan and to any future settlements between Pakistan and India and therefore any future settlements between the United States and the Taliban. Have I made it any less complicated?
GJELTENMichael, did you...
HIRSHWell, I will say, I mean, certainly that's how Pakistan sees it, but you've got to remember, you know, China's point of view is Afghanistan is not that terribly important. It's a little bit mystifying here, where you don't have any sort of really keen ideological difference between India and Pakistan. I mean, they so regard each other as partners. China came out in its response to the missile launch and said, we see it more of a partner. You know, this is not the cold war, we're not the U.S. and the Soviet Union and it's a little unclear why this arms race is going on.
HIRSHYou know, is it just happening out of habit or not? You know, we really don't know why.
GJELTENMichael Hirsh is chief correspondent for the National Journal magazine. I'm Tom Gjelten, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Samuel who is calling us this morning right here locally from Prince George's County. Good morning, Samuel, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show" thanks for calling us.
SAMUELGood morning, thanks for answering my call. I'm from Sierra Leone and as a little boy in Sierra Leone, I went through a war just like people in Syria are going through in the Middle East. My question is what in being an American citizen now and paying taxes I want to know why should my taxpaying money go to Syria and all these other Arab Spring militarily from the United States?
SAMUELWhen I was in Sierra Leone, people in Liberia, Congo, I could go on and on the darker-skinned part of the continent, nobody seen an American soldier go there in there to help. But if it happen in Egypt or Libya, they willing to go and these are people that I feel like it don't matter who you help there, they don't like the United States in the first place. So I want to know why should we spend resources on down there to help them? That's my question.
GJELTENWell, Courtney Kube, Samuel is from Sierra Leone just one of many really tough conflict areas in Africa and he's absolutely right, none of these wars have gotten a whole lot of U.S. attention.
KUBEYeah, absolutely. I mean, there are problems all over Africa. Sudan, there's the conflict in Sudan, is escalating recently between South Sudan and North Sudan. And you know, unfortunately, there are humanitarian crises all over the world right now and I wish that I could say how that the U.S. had the ability to go in and to help everyone of them. But it's not just the case, you know. Syria, right now, is on the world stage because of the strategic implications, the regional implications to the United States and to U.S. partners.
KUBENot to mention, you know, Syria has a tremendous military stockpile that's of concern. They're (word?) biological weapons. It's of a concern from a security perspective for the United States and the regional partners so, of course, it's getting extra attention, but I really take Samuel's point.
GJELTENAbderrahim, this weekend, we have government representatives from all over the world here in Washington for the spring meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And we now have a new World Bank president nominated, as usual, by the United States and, as usual, the United States got the candidate it wanted. But we saw this year a real effort by some of these, you mentioned the brick countries, some of these emerging market countries like India and others and African countries who wanted to see a non-U.S. candidate put forward and there was a very serious candidate from Nigeria, for example.
FOUKARAAbsolutely. But obviously, the post has been occupied by the United States for several decades so it has become the power of habit, of an American candidate and an American president. What's interesting about him, obviously, is that he is Asian president and I think that President Obama was...
FOUKARA...Korean-American and he's also a doctor. He's not a usual finance person or bureaucrat. And I think that for those countries who were contesting the post from India and elsewhere and from these ascending powers, I think it's a significant message that the president has said. He is American, but he is also Korean from that part of the world. And from what I've heard, it went down well with most of these countries that had an interest in somebody else occupying the post.
GJELTENBut Michael, we've got this tradition now that's been established for 60 years where the Europeans get to pick the IMF guy and the United States picks the World Bank guy. But the world has changed in 60 years.
HIRSHWell, it obviously has. I mean, this is a relic of the post-World War II settlement, the Bretton Woods institutions, which were created in 1944 along with the United Nations as a way of dealing with post-World War II world. And yeah, it's the old boys' network, but just picking up on what Abderrahim said, I mean, I think this is a classic Obama move, kind of splitting the difference, you know. We're going to keep, you know, my right to make a choice, but we're going to make him sort of exotic. And indeed, it's not just the fact he's Korean-American. He's a development specialist, which is actually a first for World Bank president choice.
HIRSHMost of the time as was said it was, you know, financiers, bankers so it is a very interesting choice.
GJELTENWell, to be more precise, he's actually a health specialist and in fact there's been some controversy about whether he has the economic background to really take charge of development. Nevertheless you're right the pick seemed to go down pretty well. Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal magazine and author of a new book "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned American's Future Over to Wall Street." also been joined by Courtney Kube from NBC News and Abderrahim Foukara Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm, thanks for listening.
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