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As violence intensified in the Middle East last week, it also sparked a fiery debate on the presidential campaign trail over foreign policy. The issue has taken a back seat to jobs and the economy in 2012, but the turmoil across the Arab world forced the issue front and center for the first time in the race. For President Barack Obama, the violence is a test of his handling of the Arab Spring uprisings and his promises of democracy there. And for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, questions remain over what principles would guide his decisions on the world stage. Guest host Susan Page of USA Today discusses presidential politics and foreign policy with her guests.
- David Sanger chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."
- Michael O'Hanlon senior fellow and director of research of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."
- Michael Rubin resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at Naval Postgraduate School and author of the forthcoming book, "Dancing with the Devil" (Encounter, 2013).
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on vacation. There was unrest to the Arab world last week. And in the presidential election here at home, the issue is also volatile. As the candidates defend their reactions to the violence, questions remain about their approaches to the Middle East and what distinguishes their foreign policy agendas.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio: Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and David Sanger of The New York Times. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DAVID SANGERGreat to be with you, Susan.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850, send us an email at email@example.com, or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, David Sanger, let's start with the latest news on the uprisings. What does the situation seem to be this morning?
SANGERWell, there was some relief over the weekend that the big protest that people had expected after Friday prayers, that this would build after people went to mosques on Friday, didn't materialize, but there now have been some protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan on Sunday, two places that had been sort of immune from the first wave. And we were sort of looking around, wondering why that was the case.
SANGERYou've seen the United States now evacuate nonessential embassy personnel from several embassies, including in Tunisia, which, of course, is where the Arab Spring began.
SANGERAnd I think in the White House, there was a sense that we're sort of in this for the long haul, that this very sloppy done video, which, if you've seen any part of it, looks more like, you know, shaky scenes from "The Blair Witch Project" than anything else, was a spark, but that what's going on actually has really very little to do with the video and more to do with the concerns that people have around the region that the United States is somehow in control of their future destinies, you know, something you've seen many times before.
SANGERAnd we're also caught up to some degree just in the war between the Salafist more extreme groups, the Islamic groups and the Muslim Brotherhood or groups that are a little bit more in the middle with the Salafist trying to demonstrate that they can take control.
PAGESo, Michael O'Hanlon, from now to Election Day or from now to the end of the year, should we just be prepared for a period of -- a sustained period of instability in the region?
MR. MICHAEL O'HANLONYou know, it's so hard to predict, and I would not even pin it to our Election Day. I think there's a halfway decent chance that this will not erupt again between now and Election Day, at least not in any major new ways. David says it's still ongoing at some level but that we could have a big incident in March regardless of who wins in November. I certainly don't think our elections have much to do with the way people in the Middle East are thinking about this problem.
MR. MICHAEL O'HANLONAnd I think what we're seeing is, whether it's George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, there's a certain amount of anti-Americanism that's latent. There's a certain amount of tension in these cultures that's latent. And, yes, events sometimes trigger things, but I don't see that we can link those too much to the specifics of what we do here, especially not in our election season per se.
PAGEYou know, we had this very provocative statement, though, by Rich Williamson, top adviser to Mitt Romney, that was in a story by Phil Rucker that ran last week in The Washington Post. And he said, "There's a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you'd be in a different situation. For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we've had an American ambassador assassinated." Michael Rubin, do you think that's true? Would this be a different situation if Mitt Romney were president instead of Barack Obama?
MR. MICHAEL RUBINI don't think it's actually true. I think, fundamentally, we need to recognize, and I agree with David on this, that it's all about us. We do have a political competition for which we are a foil in the region. And in effect, what we are doing is seeing the Bolsheviks take on the Mensheviks, trying to come out on top. If at first the Arab Spring was about economic accountability, the Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum and now we're seeing the more -- most radical factions make their push.
PAGEAnd we've -- of course, the thing that really grabbed our attention was the death of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi last week. David Sanger, do we have a clear understanding now of whether that was a spontaneous uprising or something more calculated?
SANGERWell, what we've heard -- now, the latest we've heard from the U.S. government is they think it was a little bit of both. And I think it's going to take a while to really sort out what happened.
SANGERThe version that Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, gave on some of the Sunday morning talk shows yesterday was pretty consistent with what we've been hearing over the weekend from intelligence and White House sources, and that is that the Libyan protestors in Benghazi arrived in a sort of spontaneous protest but that the group that actually attacked the consulate then took advantage of this chaos and showed up with their heavy weaponry.
SANGERNow, the reason to be skeptical about this is, as Sen. McCain said yesterday, people don't usually bring RPGs to ordinary protests, rocket-propelled grenades. But in Libya, sometimes people bring their rocket-propelled grenades to protests. I mean, it's just a fact of life. People will showoff their grenade launchers. They just usually don't bring them loaded. So it's very possible that this began as a protest that then was exploited and obviously turned into an incredible tragedy.
SANGERBut it's going to take a while for that investigation to happen. And I thought it was interesting that the president of the general assembly in Libya basically told the FBI on TV yesterday, don't show up yet, it's not safe for you, while they're out there to go do forensic investigation and they'll be filling up at best a week late.
PAGEDoes it matter, Michael O'Hanlon?
O'HANLONWell, it matters for one thing in terms of how we protect embassies and consulates and what we assume to be at play in some of these societies. And I think we have to assume two things which do reinforce the need to tighten security, and one of them is these societies are still in chaos, and their institutions are often weak because they've been disrupted in a big way by the Arab awakenings.
O'HANLONAnd then secondly, there are these extremist elements, that David and Michael have been talking about, who will seek to profit and who may scheme a bit to wait for the next opportunity and be ready for it. We better assume that there will be additional attacks. Libya was a place where several hundred al-Qaida extremists were believed to have originated from to move into Iraq during the Iraq War.
O'HANLONThere had been extremist elements in Libya for a long time. I see no reason to assume that whichever number are picked up in these next couple of days by the Libyan government over the Benghazi attack last week is the extent of it. There probably are more. We better be ready for more.
PAGEMichael Rubin, Mitt Romney came out very quickly, as unrest was just beginning to unfold in Cairo and in Libya, with the statement that then got him a fair amount of criticism. Do you think he did the right thing in the criticism that he made and also, I guess, the timing and tone in which he took?
RUBINWell, I do think that there's no better time than during a presidential campaign to highlight differences between yourself and the incumbent. So in that regard, I do think that some of the criticism surrounding Mitt Romney's statement was a tempest in a teapot, but then many people in Mitt Romney's team started backtracking. There was a surprising lack of consistency there. So if they do believe they're doing the right thing, they need to stand up and stick by their guns.
RUBINBut what Mitt Romney's campaign exuded was to some degree a great deal of confusion. Now, there's many other issues out there which I think Mitt Romney could talk about with regard to this. There's the role of foreign aid, for example. While President Obama did the right thing by sending in the Marines to reinforce embassy security, I do -- I spend a lot of time on aircraft carriers.
RUBINAnd in talking to people involved in evacuations after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, U.S. Navy was charged with evacuating more than 30,000 people. If we're talking about uprisings in 20 countries, the interplay between sequestration in these catastrophic defense cuts and our ability to do evacuations on a much more massive scale is something we could discuss. And, of course, I do think the moral equivalency was fair game.
SANGERYou know, the -- I think Michael has a really interesting point which is that the foreign aid elements of this not only in military aid but, just as importantly, civilian aid is a really interesting question that probably should be debated in the campaign and which, I bet, will rarely, if ever, come up because let's face it. If there was a critique of the way the Obama administration has handled the Arab Spring, it's that they went in supporting these uprisings and saying the United States would begin to help.
SANGERThe president gave a very big speech on this at the State Department in -- what was it, Michael -- May or June of 2011 about America's support for democracy. There has been very, very little money flowing. So critique number one that the Republicans can offer -- and you've heard a little bit of this from the Romney campaign -- is that the president didn't do enough to support these revolutions.
SANGERCritique number two was that we should make much of the aid, including the billion dollars in debt forgiveness to Egypt conditional on defending our embassies, acting in a civil way, moving toward democracy. Well, those are somewhat two different messages out there, and foreign aid is not a particularly popular thing in either Republican or in some Democratic circles as well.
PAGEWell, Michael O'Hanlon, do you think that there's a risk for the White House and the Obama campaign if we have a kind of focus on the debate of how the policy has worked in this region for the administration?
O'HANLONWell, there's some risk because clearly what President Obama would like to do is keep his 15-point lead in foreign policy and consider the case to be sort of made and closed on where the United States stands as of 2012. And, of course, he had the bin Laden raid in 2011 to point to. We had the rebalancing towards Asia, which I think was handled reasonably well.
O'HANLONAnd he was just hoping to be able to freeze the Iran problem that David's written about so eloquently -- and we tried to cover in our book, too -- and then hoping that Syria wouldn't get too far out of control, but basically freeze things with bin Laden, with China, with rebalancing towards Asia and say, see, I've been a good foreign policy president. And, by the way, even though the economy is bad, it's not my fault, and I've got a better plan to fix it.
O'HANLONThat was where he wanted to be. Now, he's in a debate that's much more driven by news, by events. It's unpredictable. And it makes our position in the Middle East and therefore his as incumbent look a little less strong.
PAGEMichael O'Hanlon, he's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." We're also joined this hour by David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for New York Times. He's the author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." And Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, he was a Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq for President George W. Bush. We're taking a short break. When we come back, we'll discuss the Romney doctrine. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. In this hour, we're discussing foreign policy on the presidential campaign trail with Michael Rubin, David Sanger and Michael O'Hanlon. We're going to go to the phones and take your calls and questions in just a few minutes. You can reach us, 1-800-433-8850. Well, David Sanger, I have here a story you wrote in May in The New York Times, the headline, "Is There a Romney Doctrine?" How would you answer that question today?
SANGERNot yet. There isn't one at this moment. I think that what I noted in the story in May and I think it's probably still true today is that when Gov. Romney was assembling his campaign team, knowingly or unknowingly, he sort of put together a big tent approach to foreign policy, where he invited in neoconservatives. He invited in moderates from the establishment. He had, you know, this broad group of advisers to show that every branch with the Republican Party was gathering behind him. That was the good news.
SANGERThe bad news of that is that all of these people left the Bush administration in January of 2009 with all kinds of unresolved disputes between them about how assertive American foreign policy should be, the degree to which you make use of various new weapons of war, the degree to which you negotiate with adversaries or not. And for three or four years, they went off. They led their lives. They made a little money. They went to think tanks, and they left these disputes completely unresolved.
SANGERSo they now have all re-gathered around their new candidate, and all the old battles of the Bush administration are playing themselves out in the Romney campaign. And in the primary season, what you saw -- the way you saw Gov. Romney handled this was that he basically took the sort of more extreme neoconservative positions. He said, you know, we don't negotiate with the Taliban. We go out to kill all the Taliban. He was talking about red lines for Iran that you might argue Iran's already passed, so forth.
SANGERAs he gets into the general election, he's been more tentative. He was asked about red lines on Iran by George Stephanopoulos on ABC last week. And he perfectly described President Obama's position on this issue and didn't lay out the distinction between his position, which would be a much earlier red line, that his own advisers have described quite eloquently.
O'HANLONI think that's very well said by David. But I would argue that Romney has tried to, nonetheless, come up with three overall themes. And one certainly is more defense spending and the second is better friends with allies, little tougher on adversaries. And the third theme is resoluteness in the operations we're conducting. Unfortunately, for Gov. Romney, there is, at least in terms of these political times, a challenge -- a big challenge with each one of these three. On the defense budget, we've got a huge deficit.
O'HANLONAnd for Gov. Romney and much of the Republican right, but much of the country in general, cutting taxes is a higher priority for day-to-day Americans than increasing defense spending. So it's not quite like Ronald Reagan 30-some years ago who came into office and we had a bad economy then, but the deficit wasn't the key issue so much. It was more inflation. As you recall, stagflation and lack of growth. And so Reagan could more plausibly promise increased defense spending. For Romney, it's a challenge.
O'HANLONOn the allies and adversaries thing, you know, this is a certain kind of classic realist, real politique approach to the world. But it's a world that's changing a little more rapidly. And do we really want to pick an unnecessary fight with Russia or China? There may be an argument on some of the specifics for what Romney's advocating. But the tone and the atmospherics of calling Russia our greatest geostrategic threat doesn't quite compute to most people. So I think he's got a bit of a challenge there.
O'HANLONAnd then, third, on military operations, we're tired. We, the American people, are tired of military operations. So I tend to think Romney's leaning in a reasonable direction, for example, on Syria, wanting to help the rebels a little more, a little more perhaps than President Obama. But people don't want to hear it. And all the talk about unrest in the broader Middle East, you know, as David Sanger was saying earlier, we want to help the Libyans more to get their nation more on its feet or the Egyptians, that may make sense.
O'HANLONThere may be an intellectual logic to that, but it's not quite what a lot of the American people want to hear right now. So I think Romney's beginning to try to develop a theme or a doctrine around these three concepts. But I think it's tough, especially in these political times.
PAGEWell, Michael Rubin, would argue that there is a more coherent kind of Romney approach to the world? Of course, this is not the area on which he has staked his campaign. He's really talked about his experience as a businessman and as a governor, not as someone with a background in foreign policy. Do you think he has articulated a clear approach to the world?
RUBINNo, I don't. I mean, generally speaking, I agree with both of my colleagues. You can look at Gov. Romney's foreign policy team and see in it what you will because he has different people from different camps almost using foreign policy personnel as props because foreign policy is just something, I think, really he'd like to go away. But more broadly, I do agree that he has enunciated a firm position on the defense budget.
RUBINAt the same time, he has tried to differentiate himself with President Obama in terms of philosophy, in terms of better supporting allies, not adversaries. I do think this is going to come into play again later this month on the heels of the United Nations General Assembly when we can juxtapose whom President Obama seeks to meet with and who he doesn't.
RUBINBut, to be perfectly blunt, both under President Romney, under President Bush before him and going back for several administrations, I think the United States has been lacking a coherent foreign policy strategy. Too often, we tend to be more reactive to events than proactive. It's waiting for the 3 a.m. phone call rather than being the guy who dials the number.
SANGERTwo quick points just on the defense budget. The first is that, I think, in addition to the problems that two Michaels have laid out, the additional one here is with the sequestration that's coming up, the automatic cuts, if they had been on the defense budget. There was additional challenge here that Gov. Romney's vice presidential candidate, Congressman Ryan, voted for that approach.
SANGERAnd it wasn't because he wanted to cut the defense budget. It's because they were trying to create a crisis that would force everybody to deal with the budget in general, and these automatic cuts seemed to be so draconian that nobody would really let that happen. Well, here we are about, you know, getting close to the moment where it could happen. The second problem, I think, with the bigger defense budget is that while most Americans obviously don't follow the ins and outs of, you know, every increase or decrease in Defense Department programs, they understand in broad terms two things.
SANGEROne is the defense budget has roughly doubled since 9/11. And number two is we are still paying for giant, expensive Cold War systems that clearly don't match the kind of challenges we're meeting today.
SANGERSo the idea that you would cut everything across the board by 7 percent instead of wiping out the systems that you wouldn't want to use anymore and putting more money into cyber or drones or special forces or whatever it is you would use today, I think everybody sort of gets that. And so the logic of doing, you know, just broad increases in the budget, I think, is going to be a tough sell.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let our listeners join our conversation. We'll go first to Brandy. She's calling us from Dallas. Hi, Brandy.
BRANDYHi. How are you?
BRANDYGood. Well, I just had a comment and didn't know if you had any thoughts about the issue. I read this weekend in an article that on June 4, the White House confirmed that the U.S. had killed Abu Yahya al-Libi or al-Libi, Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, who moved into al-Qaida's number two spot after the Zawahiri -- after the Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.
BRANDYAnd I heard that on Tuesday, 9/11, a tape was released of Zawahiri announcing that Libi had been killed earlier this year in a U.S. drone attack and that the Zawahiri tape was made during Ramadan, which ended in the middle of last month. Zawahiri called for the terrorist underlining to avenge Libi's death and especially exhorted Libyans to take revenge. So I was wondering if perhaps the attack in Libya was planned and executed and wasn't about a spontaneous protest against some ridiculous Internet movie of Muhammad. So what are your thoughts on that?
PAGEBrandy, thanks so much for your call. Any response, Michael O'Hanlon?
O'HANLONOh, I think it's a very well-framed question, and you, I think, very usefully and accurately recited a lot of recent history that's important for people to know. And it is one of the reasons why we have to suspect that one of the groups involved in Benghazi may have been motivated to try to look for a near-term opportunity. But I also think that clearly the outrage we're hearing throughout much of the broader Middle East is largely about the video and the video from the United States, not from Zawahiri.
O'HANLONAnd I think that on top of that, we have to recognize we are in a violent, chaotic struggle that's ongoing. Al-Qaida never declared a truce before, and I think we have to assume that any place we've got vulnerabilities where al-Qaida is present or groups that are sympathetic to it and where state institutions are weak that we're still vulnerable, whether there's a new video or not regardless of who made it.
RUBINWell, I think the facts are going to come out over subsequent weeks about what -- how this was preplanned or not. But there's two possibilities out there which should be disturbing: either we didn't have intelligence that we were going to have the sort of protest, however matriculated, or we did have intelligence at some level, but it really didn't percolate up to where it needed to be in order for us to have a reaction to it.
RUBINNow if you go back 11 years and when you look at the pre-9/11 error, one of the major findings of the 9/11 committee was not that we didn't have intelligence, although sometimes we didn't, but that it also wasn't making its way through the bureaucracy in the way it should. So the broader lesson, I would say, from the events in Libya is that 11 years after the 9/11 tragedy, we're still having similar problems with both gathering intelligence and the flow of intelligence within the interagency process.
PAGEDoes that seem fair to you, David?
SANGERI think we are having troubles with the gathering and the flow, but I think that those are less because of the institutional blockades that we had prior to 9/11, some of which made their way through, and more because there are just so many more players out there to go deal with. I mean, think about this. Think of Egypt or Libya, OK? In the past, when you were dealing with either one of these countries, you had a dictatorial leader who, in the case of Egypt, we sort of got along with, and in the case of Libya, we sort of didn't, but was in on a reform.
SANGERBut they managed to keep down all of these other forces, just as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq. So you take off the top and you open up the box, everything else jumps out, and you have all these different groups. And you're not as well sourced in each of these groups because some of them really didn't exist in any live way while they were under dictatorial rule. So the intelligence challenge today is far more complicated than it was even two years ago.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Tom. He's calling us from New Bedford, Mass. Tom, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
TOMGood morning. The Romney campaign is claiming the American Embassy in Cairo apologized for the YouTube video, which is hardly the case. The embassy condemned religious intolerance. In so doing, they stood up for the core American values of religious tolerance and pluralism. I have to wonder, if things would be worse now under a Romney administration, if they chose to belittle or dismiss the concerns of some admittedly overly-sensitive Muslims, wouldn't they have increased tensions and further inflamed the situation?
PAGETom, thanks very much for that question. Michael Rubin.
RUBINWell, I think what the Romney campaign was getting to was a juxtaposition, we actually saw, between President Obama's statement -- not just the embassy tweets, but President Obama's statement, where it seemed to be a little bit too much more equivalency there -- and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who initially said, look, there's absolutely no excuse for this, no matter what.
RUBINNow one of the interesting things, this problem is going to continue to percolate. Just today, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has said that he is going to push forward a motion at the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to outlaw Islamophobia, criticism of different aspects of Islam and so forth. And if that comes into play, we really are going to have a conflict between American diplomatic prerogatives and free speech on one hand and the nature of the perception in much of the Muslim world.
PAGEWell, what about this idea that Tom's presenting, that you don't want to apologize for free speech? On the other hand, you want to express American values. Is that a tough balance to strike, Michael O'Hanlon?
O'HANLONWell, I think we had a tough time as a nation last week. I don't think it was our proudest moment. I thought that Hillary Clinton got it right about day two when she expressed outrage about the video, but also made it clear that she expected governments in the region to protect American embassies and not to be aiding and abetting violence as a reaction to the California video. But I didn't hear that kind of clarity in the presidential campaign, and I would have liked to hear some faith leaders and some former secretaries of state and others joining in in condemnation of the video a little bit more.
O'HANLONI think, frankly, there was a little too much worry about free speech because free speech, as enshrined in the Constitution, is not going to be threatened by condemning this kind of atrocious, despicable video. The free speech amendments or amendment of the Constitution or provision is designed to protect political speech, and no one's talking about changing that anyway. So we can keep our Constitution and still be very clear that we have no tolerance for this particular video.
O'HANLONAnd I think that came through, but it took a while. And I think things took off a little bit in the 24 to 48 hours where we could have been more emphatic. But let me just say about Gov. Romney. I think, as president, he would not be guilty of what Tom's worried about. I mean, I'm a little concerned about his campaign. I don't love the tone. But from what I know of Gov. Romney and what I've seen of him in action, he's a thoughtful, religious man himself, and I think he's a tolerant man.
O'HANLONSo I'm a little bit hoping to get out of this election season, you know, and get on with real life because I think that's part of the problem right now, is the dynamic of the political race.
PAGEDavid, you've covered a series of campaigns and administrations. To what degree does what a candidate say -- says during a campaign reverberate to his detriment once he's in office, create complications? Do the candidates say things during campaigns that they live to regret once they win the office?
SANGERAlmost without fail they do. Now I think you could argue that President Obama actually did less of that in his 2008 campaign than we've seen before. I mean, you'll remember that Bill Clinton got elected talking about linking human rights to trade in -- when he first ran in 1992. And within a year, he not only completely de-linked human rights and trade, but ushered China into the World Trade Organization with no particular link to human rights.
SANGERFor President Obama, it's been a little bit more complex because he talked about the need for engagement with America's adversaries, and he was ridiculed for being naive in that not only from Republicans, but from adversaries in the campaign like Hillary Clinton, who then went on to have to execute the engagement strategy. But behind that, the surprise of the Obama presidency -- and this is really what "Confront and Conceal" is all about -- was that while he was doing the engagement, he was also ramping up sanctions, for example, on Iran while he was trying to engage the leaders.
SANGERAnd, of course, he was putting together and building on the Bush administration's construction of the biggest use of cyber weapons the United States has ever had in a secret program called Olympic Games. So the contrast that he's had to face is talking about engagement while acting, in some ways, more toughly than he suggested during the campaign.
PAGEDavid Sanger of The New York Times and, also with me in the studio, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to explore what differences there are between Gov. Romney and President Obama when it comes to Syria, to China and to Russia. And we'll take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. We're talking about turmoil in the Middle East, and the role of foreign policy in the presidential campaign. We've got an email from Peggy, and she writes, "Doesn't this prove some danger in providing rebels with weapons when we're not even sure who they are? Maybe the Benghazi attack proves why we're not doing much to help the rebels in Syria. We help them, they turn their backs on us, wash, rinse, repeat." What do you think, David?
SANGERWell, certainly, one of the arguments that the Obama administration has made, whether we believe it or not about not directly providing lethal weapons to the rebels in Syria, is the -- these are -- this is not one single group of rebels. Some showed up on a YouTube video last month with an al-Qaida flag behind them. That's not the kind of people you want to be giving any aircraft equipment to.
SANGERSo that's been a big concern. And, of course, we're all haunted by the mistake made during the Afghan war where we provided the Mujahideen with all kinds of weaponry that when they turned into the Taliban ended up getting shot back at us.
SANGERWhat I find interesting about the Romney campaign is that, while they are critical that the president has not been more involved in Syria -- and I think you could make a case that there are many things he could have done to be more involved -- they stopped short of saying that the U.S. should directly provide lethal aid. They are in support of others in the region, including Saudi Arabia, providing that lethal aid.
PAGESo, Michael Rubin, it does seemed that Syria's one of those areas where you can see a difference between what Mitt Romney says we should do and what Barack Obama is doing.
RUBINWell, again, I'll actually put this into the context of the campaign. It seems that when it comes to Syria, while there has been some discussion of arming the rebels or safe haven and so forth, and ultimately we still are in a reactive mode there. Now, one of the issues, as we look ahead, that I think Gov. Romney could criticize President Obama on is just the tremendous gap between the rhetoric of his policy, especially early on talking about how Bashar al-Assad must go and so forth, and the reality of that policy.
RUBINAnd whenever we have that gap developed -- and it certainly developed during the Bush administration to another issues -- then we hemorrhage credibility in the region. But just to add one little bit to what David said. It's not just an issue of the arms in the region. We have a real issue, by the way, of securing arms that we didn't provide. But putting that aside, when we choose to "lead from behind" to work through other allies in the region, too often, we forget that those other allies also have agendas of their own.
RUBINIn Libya and Egypt, the Obama administration very much work through states like Qatar, Turkey, perhaps even Saudi Arabia. And exclusively, those states supported much more hard-line Islamist factions than perhaps we would be comfortable with.
PAGENow, Michael O'Hanlon, another area of the world where there has seem to be a difference between Romney and Obama is attitudes toward China where Romney has said he would take a much tougher stance on the economics of our relationship with China. Today, we see President Obama announcing new trade action against China on the sale of auto parts in this country. Do you think the White House is responding to the points that Romney has been making on the campaign trail when it comes to dealing with China?
O'HANLONI do think that's part of it, but I also think that if you read my colleague, Jeff Bader's book -- and Jeff work for Obama, and he admired him greatly on China policy for a couple of years -- Jeff pointed out that the president at some point concluded, you know, it's time we start throwing a few elbows towards China in the economic realm because they certainly throw some elbows towards us.
O'HANLONAnd even those who admire China and its rise, and what it's done for its people, and its general willingness to play by the rules in the international system on most things, have to be very troubled by currency issues, by intellectual property theft, by all the cyber attacks we get from China that are uncontrolled -- the government makes very little effort there to control. And Obama has decided he's going to push back a bit on the economic front. Romney also wants to push back a little bit more in the military front.
O'HANLONNow, Obama did a pretty good job of that in 2010, 2011 and 2012 with the so-called rebalancing, but Gov. Romney's defense plan focuses largely on building a larger Navy. And a big part of the motivation there, I believe, at least from some camps of his advisers, is that China is a growing concern, and we're going to have to be ready for it. So I think in the military sphere, you're actually starting to see a difference open up between the two candidates as to how much to confront China.
RUBINYou know, I think China is one of those areas where, as Michael suggests here, Obama has probably gone through one of his biggest transitions. Afghanistan would probably be the other. But in the China case, he came in in 2009 pretty well-convinced that the Chinese would then about to become the world's second largest economy, would be a great partner with the United States at least in the economic realm.
RUBINAnd you'll remember that during those first meetings between President Obama and President Hu Jintao of China in London during the midst of the financial crisis, there was discussion of the G2, the two governments who were going to work to pull this out together, the Europeans were sort of standing off to the side. Well, how did the Chinese react to this? Did they say, gee, isn't it great that we are now considered equal to the United States at least in the economic sphere?
RUBINNo. In -- within the debate in China, there was a group led by the military who said, this proves the Americans are weak. This is the moment to sort of take them on in the region. And I think as you learn from Jeff Bader's book, you learn from interviews with others in the administration, by about 2010 when the Chinese were beginning to make some claims in the South China Sea, which problem that continues to this day, the administration's view changed.
RUBINAnd they decided, as Michael said, that they needed to put a few points on the board. And the president at one point in one Sit Room meeting said, I need some leverage. Well, the actions like the one he's taking today are designed to give him some leverage.
PAGEIn which, of course, he's announcing in Ohio, one of the most critical swing states in the election.
RUBINAnd a big auto producing -- I'm sure it's coincidental, but, you know.
PAGEOne more area in which there seems to be a difference between a Romney administration and an Obama administration would be in attitudes toward Russia. Gov. Romney has called Russia our number one geo-political foe. This has prompted, Michael Rubin, some ridicule from the White House, which says this is a kind of Cold War mindset. What's you view?
RUBINWell, certainly, among travelers to Russia, it seems that if -- even if we don't want to have a Cold War mindset, Vladimir Putin and many Russians do. We've seen this with regard to Syria. Most recently, we've seen this rift with regard to Georgia, which was a crisis that was flaring up during the last election season and so forth. Ultimately, it's one thing to express a great deal of desire to have better relations.
RUBINWe had this reset under Obama. But I do think it's fair for Mitt Romney and his advisers to hold up after almost four years this idea of a reset and to see whether it's been successful. And on the measure of things, I think Romney would have a pretty strong case to say, no, it hasn't.
PAGEMichael O'Hanlon, do you agree?
O'HANLONNot fully. I think that there is a tough question of where do we go here -- from here with Russia. And certainly, a reelected Vladimir Putin would not have been our first choice. Certainly, the Russia reset policy has plateaued a bit, but I would say it's had two important accomplishments. One is, if you recall, for six months, the Pakistanis wouldn't let us use supply routes into Afghanistan, and we could sustain the war effort.
O'HANLONIn fact, we had higher stocks at the end of that six months than the beginning because Russia has cooperated with us and allowed the use of the northern distribution network. So we have a whole, new way of resupplying forces. Now, for a war that most Americans are tired of, this may not be accomplishment, number one, that you go out and brag about, but the war would not have been possible.
O'HANLONThe continuation of the effort, the resupply of forces already in contact with the enemy would not have been possible had we not developed that kind of distribution network and then, secondly, on Iran sanctions. Again, it's a provisional accomplishment because, obviously, Iran is still trying to develop nuclear capability, but Obama has done a great job, I think, of tightening sanctions.
O'HANLONIn all due respect, the Bush administration had started this. And people like Stuart Levey at treasury had done a lot even during the Bush years, with all due respect as well. And to acknowledge that Obama had some issues and some problems, his first six months, he was trying too hard to be conciliatory towards this Iranian regime. But on balance, he has tightened sanctions, and Russia was essential in doing that. So these are two signature accomplishments of the so-called reset.
RUBINUnfortunately, we're now in a bit of a plateau because we're having such fundamental disagreements on Syria among other things. So I don't want to oversell it, and I do agree with Michael, there's a legitimate debate about where to go from here. Well, I think to some degree that there's been some good cop, bad cop play with the Russians. Oftentimes, they will pretend to cooperate, and the other hand, Belarus will do their dirty work with regard to supply of weaponry to Iran.
RUBINBut one issue, which I think should be coming up in the campaign and does illustrate the difference between the two candidates, is President Obama's hot mic incident with then president, I guess, Medvedev of Russia with regard of, if you can just give me a little more time until after the election, then we can have even more cuts in our nuclear stockpile because, presumably, then Obama won't have to face any other elections.
RUBINThat should raise questions of the philosophy of our own nuclear strategy and our own defense policy which, it is a shame, hasn't become more of an issue in the election.
PAGEWell, David is that how you heard that comment?
SANGERYeah. I guess, when I heard that comment, I thought to myself, this is what presidents say to their fellow leaders when they're going through an election season. You know, it sort of translates as put earplugs in your ears. Don't listen to anything you hear on the campaign trail. And after the election, I'll be able to go deal with you the way I would have dealt with you two years ago. And President Obama made the mistake of, you know, being caught saying that reality. It's been a reality for every American president since George Washington.
PAGELet's go to Andrew. He's calling us from Rockford, Ill. Andrew, thanks for holding on.
ANDREWAll right. Thank you. My question is that Romney continuously mentions the U.S. needs to show more leadership in multiple trouble areas around the world. My question is, what sort of leadership decides, the first thing that comes to mind, military leadership could or would Romney offer?
PAGEAll right. Thanks very much for your call. Who'd like to respond? Michael O'Hanlon.
O'HANLONWell, it's a good question. I tend to think of Gov. Romney as a solid centrist. I think I'm fairly unusual on this. I'm not sure Romney wants to sell himself that way. I tend to think he'd be pragmatic. He would stand by American ideals. He would push more trade agreements as far as he could. He would ultimately not be intransigent towards neutral countries even though he's trying to sell of a bit more of a realist message now.
O'HANLONSo I actually don't think the themes would be that radically different from what President Obama's trying to do. That's -- and nothing about to what we're suppose to be hearing from both sides in this particular season. But I don't see any big new ideas from Romney on how to demonstrate American leadership or sell American values or otherwise give some, you know, new moral force to our foreign policy. But I also don't see any big problems or any big discontinuities from what President Obama's been trying.
SANGERMichael could well be right. But fact of the matter is we simply don't know. And, you know, I'm reminded of George W. Bush's campaign in 2000. At the time, he kept talking about a more humble American foreign policy, in other words, not intervening in the rest of the world. Well, you can say what you want about George Bush' foreign policy. You may like it. You may not like it. You may think it wasn't executed that well. Humble is probably not the first word that would come to one's mind to describe it.
SANGERAnd that is because I think he came in without much thought in foreign view. And then when a crisis hit, the question came, which of his advisers around him sort of captured the argument that he thought best fit the moment? And the group that caught it in the first term, which was a group around Vice President Cheney and so forth, was very different from the group that caught it in the second term after they had been into Iraq and discovered that the world was a little more complicated than it first appeared.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". Well, Michael Rubin, you advised the Bush administration during that first term. Do you agree with David's analysis of what happened there?
RUBINWell, I do largely agree. Look, President Bush had a whole wide range of Republican advisers, ranging the philosophical gambit, and he mainly did that in order so that he could demonstrate that he was listening to all sides. The problem with doing that -- and perhaps we see this again as we talked about in the beginning with Gov. Romney's team -- is if you don't have a consensus of views and where you want to go to, you risk an (word?) civil war. And certainly, that was the defining characteristic of the second term of the Bush administration straight through.
PAGELet's go to John calling us from Williamsburg, Va. Hi, John.
JOHNHi. How are you, Susan?
JOHNYeah. So, hi, Michael, Michael and David. I just wanted to make -- it's more observational than anything, but every time Arabs, you know, see these videos and cartoons and things like that, they talk about insulting Muhammad. Well, we never see it the other way around. When people burn our flag, I feel it's insulting to us, but yet we don't storm their embassies and a bunch of people die and stuff like that. So it's strictly observational.
JOHNI realize that, you know, we live in a free country. And you can burn our flag anytime you want, and we tolerate that. But the tolerance issues, I guess, is the thing that I'm a bit concerned about. Thank you.
PAGEAll right. John, thanks so much for your call. Michael Rubin?
RUBINWell, I'm a historian, so I get paid to predict the past, and usually I get that right about 50 percent at a time. But when we look at how the past shapes the present, Michael Young, who is the opinion page editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, had a very interesting column today in which he looked at the enlightenment in the West and basically said, look, the enlightenment which enabled modern political progress was about freeing the West from the yoke of the religious establishment.
RUBINBut in the Middle East when we look at the evolution of modernity, we had writers like Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and so forth who used religion as the tool to bring modernity. And right now what we actually have is this linkage between politics and religion which arguably is what the fight is about within the Middle East. It's a different political evolution, and we need to face that.
PAGEWe've had a week in which Americans have talked about the news media's cover the issue of foreign policy in this presidential campaign. Are we going to see more of that, David, do you think in the 50 days? To follow, are we going to revert to a campaign that's very much focused on the economy and domestic affairs?
SANGERI think that depends in large part on what happens in the rest of the world. The issues we've been discussing here today, the uprisings in the Arab world, the Iranian nuclear crisis, they're not going away in the next 50 days. They're also not going away in the next five years is my guess. And so you're going to have a lot more of it in the next few years. The question is, how intense is it in a campaign? And in the end, do voters actually vote on this issue.
SANGERI don't think that they vote on foreign affairs issues that we've been discussing. But certainly, they want to sort of check the box to make sure that they're comfortable that an American president or a challenger to the American presidency can deal fluently with all of these issues. That's the problem that John McCain ran into not with his own candidacy but, of course, with Sarah Palin's.
SANGERAnd it's a challenge for Gov. Romney right now because both he and his running mate have virtually no foreign policy experience. President Obama didn't either, but you now have a 3 1/2, nearly four-year record to judge him on.
PAGEDavid Sanger, he's chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of "Confront and Conceal." And we've also been joined this hour by Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution. His new book is called "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." And Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you all for joining us this hour in "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Megan Merritt, Lisa Dunn and Rebecca Kaufman. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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