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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to the United Nations on Iran the day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad railed against Israel and what he called the “bullying” foreign policy of the United States. The U.N.’s refugee relief agency says between 2,000 and 3,000 people are fleeing Syria every day and appealed for $490 million to deal with the crisis. And protesters take to the streets in Greece and Spain over austerity measures. Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV, Matt Frei of UK Channel 4 and Anne Gearan of The Washington Post join guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Matt Frei Washington correspondent of the U.K.'s Channel 4 News.
- Anne Gearan diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post.
- Nadia Bilbassy senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV -- Middle East Broadcast Center.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls on the United Nations to draw a clear red line on Iran's nuclear program before it has the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Spain and Greece outline plans to further reduce spending and raise taxes. And Secretary of State Hilary Clinton suggests that an affiliate of al Qaeda in North Africa was behind the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV, Matt Frei of the UK's Channel 4 News and Anne Gearan of the Washington Post. Well, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. MATT FREIThank you.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning.
MS. ANNE GEARANThank you, Susan.
PAGEWe're going to invite our listeners to give us a call later in this hour. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email, email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, the opening of the United Nations annual session this week often used by American Presidents to talk about foreign policy priorities for the nation. Anne Gearan, what did President Obama choose to highlight when he spoke there on Tuesday?
GEARANPresident Obama made a sustain almost legalistic argument in favor of free speech and pluralism in direct answer to the whole prophet Mohammed video wave of violence, which has included attacks on American embassies and other installations. It was probably the single most contained argument that any American leader has put forth in response to that entire set of issues. But I'd have to say, judging by the speech of Mohammed Morsi, the Yemeni president and several other of the leaders of moderate Muslim nations allied with the U.S. or which receive U.S. aid, who spoke after him during the week, it didn't have much effect.
PAGEWell, Nadia, tell us about the responses or the speeches given afterwards by the Presidents' of Egypt and Yemen.
BILBASSYWell, this is the first time ever that we'll see a civilian leadership coming to the UN after almost four decades of dictatorship. So Mohammed Morsi coming, speaking with authority, talking about a new relationship with the world, talking about woman rights, he talks about important foreign policy issues, one, about Syria. He said that this is the crisis of our century, we have to do something about it.
BILBASSYBut he didn't want any military intervention and that's in the contrast with the Tunisian president, for example, who called for the Arab, some kind of Arab force to be there and for the mayor of Cutter who also called for the Arab armies to be, somehow, some kind of military presence to be in Syria. So, for the Yemeni president as well, as it was very important to hear these new leaders who are coming from this very fragile democracy that the United States still need to support despite what we have seen in the Arab world in the aftermath of this movie.
PAGEBut Matt, to go back to the issue of religious tolerance and free speech, did the president, did the foreign leaders who followed President Obama seem to recognize the value of that, that the kind of American attitude toward it?
FREIUp to a point.
PAGEWhat did they say?
FREII think up to a point. What was really fascinating about the UN this week, and I just came back from there last night, was it was almost like a sort of workshop or a seminar on the nature of civic society, democracy and freedom of speech. In the one corner, as Anne pointed out, you had President Obama making the case for the American vision of that society and in the other corner you had Mohammed Morsi saying, you know, we understand what you're saying but there have to be certain limits and the limits for them are the extent to which you can defame, insult the prophet Mohammed.
FREIThey are calling, he was one of two leaders calling for the criminalization of that extent of the freedom of speech, something with which of course America has rejected. And it's interesting, they pointed to the fact that in countries like Germany, for instance, you can be prosecuted for denying the Holocaust ever took place.
FREISo this is a really interesting debate and it's a debate that we haven't had yet in the year and a half since the beginning of the Arab Spring partly because the lava of that event is still very hot and there's so many detours to this incredibly sort of historic story. But really is essential because that's what it comes down to, what is our vision for their society, what is their vision for own society and how we can marry the two?
GEARANAnd that collision came so early in this very new process of the United States and larger Western values and how that, and how the Western ideal of what government, governance and democracy is will fit with what these new nations are trying to become. We mentioned earlier that many of these nations receive U.S. aid and will continue to do so but they're, that aid used to be premised on the fact that the dictatorial leaders of those countries would kind of go along and get along and put the, push the religious, basically push religion into the background in their countries in order to sort of in some cases do what the United States wanted to but also get the money.
BILBASSYBut, I think the Muslim world has to understand something different. The United States stands alone in comparison to Western Europe. I mean, as Matt said, also in France you cannot deny the Armenian genocide. The United States Constitution is really, I mean, the freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution. President Obama said, people say abhorrent things about me as a president, as a commander-in-chief, but I have to allow them to say that.
BILBASSYAnd in the Arab world, you don't understand that, they don't separate the government from the people. They said how come the president didn't know about this, how come the American intelligence didn't know about it. It's not a matter of knowing or not knowing about it or condoning or not. The president denounced, he said it was disgusting, it was horrible, but this falls under the freedom of expression. And the Arab world coming from dictatorship doesn't understand that and they need to understand that the United States is different even from Western Europe.
FREIAnd they also need to understand, and I think they sort of do, especially having used social media and the Internet very effectively during their own revolutions, that there is only so much controlling you can do in a globalized Internet age. I mean, how can you stop videos like that from being produced somewhere in a garage in California or wherever it was produced and going viral on the Web. You can't do it and if you do then clamp down the way that China does for instance with social media, occasionally, you're then accused, rightly so, of becoming a police state.
PAGEAnd we did see that the man who is believed to have made that controversial video was charged in California. What are the charges against him, why was he put in jail?
GEARANHe was arrested for violating terms of his probation or parole, I'm not sure which, but of probation I believe. He'd been convicted on a fraud charge years before. He's a mysterious figure and, I mean, this entire episode is so bizarre to begin with and then to have this guy with, you know, living in California under a fake name be behind it makes it all the weirder.
PAGEDoes it help at all in terms of the outrage in the Muslim world that he's now in jail? Although he's not in jail for making the video, to be clear, he's in jail for violating the terms of the probation from a fraud conviction in 2010?
BILBASSYProbably does, I mean, I don't know how many people follow the story, saying that, not many people actually saw the actual video and not many people read Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" book. So it just, as Matt said, is in the world of global communication of these messages, all what you need is basically one person to say, in America, they insulted the prophet and people go in mad rampage from Afghanistan to Libya as we have seen.
BILBASSYBut I think one point about this person, (unintelligible) which is, (unintelligible) has different names, is he's Coptic. And the problem that it's a very tricky situation in Egypt. You have 10 million Copts who have been suffering for so many decades basically under Mubarak and people are worried now under this current president because his link of the Muslim Brotherhood, that the minorities are not treated well in the Arab world and that's the record that we have to admit. So the fact that he's Coptic, it might ignite some kind of sectarian strife in Egypt.
PAGEWe have the front page of the Wall Street Journal the Washington Post, and the New York Times all have the same main photo this morning and it's of Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN Thursday holding this cartoon drawing of a bomb. Yes, you were up there, Matt, what was the reaction when he held up this big poster?
FREIWell, I can only speak for the press room, which is a sort of giant airport hanger stuffed with journalists, and I have to say the universal reaction was one of mirth. I mean, here was a -- and we've had show and tell at the UN before, remember the famous vial that Colin Powell proffered in order to make his case for WMD.
FREIThis was not a small vial, this was a large white board effectively and on it was drawn the kind of bomb that my 10-year-old would draw. It's a large round thing with a fuse coming out of it and an explosion. And then he took out a red pen and he drew the red line beyond which around must not go when it comes to nuclear development and after which some sort of presumably military action would kick in.
FREII mean, I think all this took away, to be honest, this rather comedic and cartoonish moment from the essential point of Netanyahu's speech, which is that after all the kind of fear and loathing and strife with the Obama Administration here is a man who appears to have moved that red line somewhere into the distance, at least well beyond the American election deadline and who may be listening to arguments that have been all the more vocal from the administration and indeed from Europe saying, look here mate, you know, these sanctions are actually beginning to bite, give them some time.
FREIBut I think the other important point is that within Israel itself especially when you've had any number of senior intelligence and military officials current and retired, saying to Netanyahu, hang on a minute, military action may not work, don't beat this drum too loudly because you'll be, you know, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He might've been rather chastened by the reaction to his plans both at home and abroad.
PAGEIt was interesting, Anne, it seemed a different tone than he took even just a week earlier?
GEARANYes, far less, I mean, I don't know that he was really angry a week ago, but he was definitely making a lot more forceful case. This was a pretty measured address by Netanyahu. But he's a master showman. I don't mean that necessarily in a pejorative sense at all. He understands the value of his performance in the public space and this was a performance. He was, he held that thing because he knew that it, that everyone would be talking about it for days and weeks to come and indeed we are.
GEARANThat sort of obfuscates the fact that the line he drew and he actually did draw, with a big flourish, brings a pen from his pocket and a red marker pen. I was in the press room too and we were all, like, really, really, seriously he's drawing a red line?
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come we'll talk about the situation in Syria and also the assessments of what really happened in Benghazi and we'll take your calls and questions. Our phone lines are open, we're going to read your emails, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with us in the studio Ann Gearan, diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, Matt Frei. He's Washington correspondent of the UK's Channel 4 News and Nadia Bilbassy. She is a senior U.S. correspondent for MBC-TV. That's the Middle East Broadcast Center. Well, Nadia, it's been a really bloody week in Syria. We’ve had rebel attacks on the Syrian military in Damascus. What happened?
BILBASSYThat's right. This is almost the third attack and I think we're going to see more of these attacks targeting the military leadership in Damascus itself. If you remember it was in June or in July they managed to kill four top military senior officials in the Syrian regime. One of them was a defense minister and the brother-in-law of Bashar al-Assad, Assef Shawkat.
BILBASSYAnd now what they're trying to do is trying to hit the regime in their home basically to shake their confidence. Because apparently some sources were telling me that that regime feels confident now. They believe that they actually can win the battle in the long run because they know very well that the western countries are not going to interfere militarily, that time is on their side.
BILBASSYSo the only difference is two parties -- in this attack in particular, two parties claimed it. One was a Free Syrian Army, which again some of the Syrian opposition that I spoke to -- the political opposition dismiss it. They're saying they don't have the capabilities to go to Damascus and do it. The others were the Jihadists.
BILBASSYAnd people believe that mainly the Jihadists will be able to mount these attacks more and more. And we're going to see more of -- like modus operandi of this explosive trucks that mounted into Damascus. Or maybe even seeing suicide attackers just the same that we have seen in Iraq and very similar to the Jihadists and Al-Qaida thinking.
PAGEYou know, some of the Syrian activists say that Wednesday -- this last Wednesday was the bloodiest day of this 18-month-old conflict. They say it's taken at least 30,000 people. What a toll, Matt.
FREIIt's dreadful. I mean, I think on that day alone 300 people were killed. It is really awful and it keeps getting worse. And in line with the terrible statistics in terms of the number of people killed and maimed and, you know, where they came from, women and children, entire villages wiped out, you have a sort of military ratcheting up. And, you know, if you look at the way the regime has behaved, you know, at every stage when things get worse they resort to more drastic measures.
FREISo, you know, air power is now -- seems to be, you know, run of the mill. You basically bomb villages or certain neighborhoods and towns from the skies with Mig planes. And what's amazing, I mean, Nadia was saying that the regime is confident. But at the same time the rebels have managed to keep pace with that. I mean, even though they are massively under-armed and really at a disadvantage, by being able to shoot down a couple of planes here and there, that is a huge victory for them.
FREIThe crucial thing -- and this reminds me so much of Afghanistan in the 1980s -- the crucial thing is if they ever get hold of the kind of weapon that they're not getting at the moment, RPGs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, something that can shoot down a Mig plane out of the sky, this could be a fundamental difference to the military equation of this war.
FREIAnd then you get the big question, what is the next stage the regime will resort to? Will it be, you know, biochemical weapons as they've used against their own people in the past, because that would be the red line -- talking of red lines -- for the International Community. I don't think that the kind of indecision and really sort of paralysis in policy that we've seen so far would be allowed to continue if they went to that next stage.
PAGEWell, this issue of Syria and what the U.S. response should be, Anne, has become a question between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Do they differ on what they would do towards Syria?
GEARANWe don't know enough about what Romney would do specifically prescriptively to say exactly how big the difference is. But he has used the Syria issue to criticize Obama on the more general squishy issue of leadership and decisiveness. And he has allied himself with Republican senators who want to arm the rebels or at least help nations in the region -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, others who might do it -- arm the rebels.
GEARANObama has rejected all of that on several grounds, but the basic one is that adding more weapons to a volatile situation -- stingers being the primary example of what they don't want to see there -- would only make things worse. And you see the entire dynamic playing out today in Aleppo. As Nadia said, the regime thinks that it can hang on and you have one of the -- the largest offensives yet of the war is going on today in Aleppo. And essentially the rebels are surrounded in neighborhoods. They've made inroads. They've done things that they haven't been able to do before.
GEARANThey're -- as Nadia said, they're hanging on, but they are not able to take the City of Aleppo. They simply can't do it and the regime knows that.
FREII think it's really interesting, the debate going on I think in all these western capitals as they fill the policy vacuum with, you know, more strident language at every turn -- and our prime minister David Camden did so at the UN the other day -- is -- the bottom line is we don't want Syria to disintegrate. We don't want this to become a failed state. We want it to be coherent because if it does disintegrate, it explodes rather than implodes and that has repercussions for the entire region.
FREINow, whose better place to stop it from disintegration? Is it the rebels winning the civil war? Is it the government holding on to its power keeping the coherence of the nation intact and therefore possibly in the future becoming, you know, slightly gentler, more reformists? And what do we do if this process is so prolonged and toxic that the third party that Nadia referred to -- in other words either the Jihadists or Al-Qaida affiliates, whoever. I mean, this is party time. Everyone's in there now. What happens then?
FREIDo you then have a disintegrated nation which is even more messy and potentially more dangerous in that very crucial nerve center of the Middle East than they do now? And they simply don't know the answer.
PAGEAnd of course repercussions for the countries around Syria too that UN has revised sharply upwards the number of Syrians they expect to flee to neighboring countries, to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Consequences for them as well, Nadia?
BILBASSYHuge. I mean, this is a massive humanitarian crisis. The UN is estimating up to 700,000 people by the end of this year will be displaced in neighboring countries, let alone the ones who internally displace. And where do they go? They go to Jordan, which is unable to deal with them because they have their own financial problems. And we hear the foreign minister Nasser Judeh often saying, we need you to help us. And then in Turkey and Turkey also is another peculiar situation because at one stage you see Turkey leading and other you see them retreating.
BILBASSYAnd now there is even talk about these camps that sit up on the border between Syria and Turkey in the province called (word?) in the Northwestern Province. And we see in the Free Syrian Army, which is -- basically was mainly installed and based in Turkey, wanted to go back now to these liberated areas. And partly because of their defectors and the Western government saying, look you guys cannot lead this battle from outside. You have to be inside Syria.
BILBASSYSo they wanted to go back although it might be symbolic. Apparently there's 300 different armed groups inside Syria itself and ultimately the question for the west it, as Matt said, all the points that he mentioned were extremely valid. But in addition to that what are you going to do? Because the longer this conflict prolong the least influence that the Western countries have. And who's the one who's decided the game on the ground? The military groups, mainly -- well, some of them are extremists but mainly Islamists supported by Saudi Arabia and by Qatar. Is this the values that the West wants?
BILBASSYOne last point I will mention is the bid now is on the regime to be depleted financially. Apparently this war is costing $1 billion a month and the Syrian foreign exchange reserve is as low as 5 billion. So the thing by next year -- middle of next year, 2013, that the Syrian government is unable to basically sustain this military operation. And maybe something will be a game changer in that regard.
PAGEAnne Gearan, your newspaper the Washington Post has a story on the front page this morning, Consulate attackers had ties to Al-Qaeda, a story about the attack on that U.S. mission in Benghazi. This has been an issue on which the administration has changed its assessment of who was behind that attack. What is happening?
GEARANWell, what's happening can have two somewhat overlapping interpretations. One is that a terribly confusing situation, an attack that unfolded over several hours in at least two locations, and it's taken a long time to figure out what actually happened. And the other is that the White House resisted the initial -- or talking about the initial signs that some form of organized terrorism, possibly loosely affiliated with Al-Qaida might've been involved because of the -- not knowing what that really was and that Al-Qaida hadn't taken claim for it. And also because it would be unwelcome to have that discussion at this point in the political calendar.
GEARANWe don't know the answer to that but what we do know is that weeks -- you know, more than two weeks after the attack that the story's gradually changing. And Hillary Clinton, this week, became the highest level U.S. official to suggest a (word?) link to Al-Qaida. And then Leon Panetta yesterday kinda nailed it, saying it was definitely terrorists and it was definitely an organized attack.
FREIWhich is really interesting because the Libyan leadership is echoing these -- this unwritten analysis that Al-Qaida in the Maghreb was somehow involved. Because of course, they don't want to seem as if the Libyan people having been supported by the late Ambassador Stevens, but also by America and indeed other NATO allies, and now turning against the people who helped them, you know, towards liberation.
FREIBut the interesting point is that if indeed Al-Qaida was involved, you know, were they going to plan this attack anyway because it was September the 11th? Were they using an opportunity of a mass demonstration in order to mount this attack, which could be quite worrying because what else is out there? What else are they planning and which other countries might be affected?
FREISo although the Libyan leadership I think feels that this line of analysis is welcoming at the moment 'cause it takes the heat off them and their people, at the same time it's really a warning sign -- a warning signal telling them, look just, you know, try and keep everything under control. You know, use more intelligence. Make sure you know what's happening in your backyard.
PAGEWell, of course this puts some heat on the Obama Administration. Did they have intelligence that indicated this attack was coming? Did they fail to respond by beefing up very limited security that was available at that consulate, Anne?
GEARANWell, the administration has consistently said that there was no actionable intelligence, which is a bit of a term of art. But what it basically means is that they had no tips. They had no information that there was an attack planned. There was nothing on which they could've acted. That's another way of saying that they didn't have anything that they could've prevented. They didn't know enough to be able to prevent it.
PAGEWell, you know that Libyan officials have ordered that these unauthorized militias be disbanded. Nadia, do they have the power to enforce that order?
BILBASSYI don't think so. I mean, this is one of the issues that we talked about almost a year ago on this show. The major challenge for this new government is how to disband the militias, how to bring all these people together and unify them under one army. And I think the problem with these countries is very often that the West comes to their aid, as in the case of Libya, and they help them to get rid of dictatorship but then they forget them. And the most important thing this government needs is a strong army to protect its borders.
BILBASSYSo coming back to Matt's point, Libya might be a soft target. And it was very easy for Al-Qaida or Al-Qaida affiliates to operate in. Consider also its borders with other countries like Mali, which has implied its existence in. So it's very easy to bring weapons in. So the militias is a problem.
BILBASSYIn addition to that, the government divided the militias into two camps. One they called the good militias, the guys who fought against Gadhafi and mainly, if you'll remember all those images that came from Tripoli, we see all those religious people carrying AK47 or clashing (word?) running around Tripoli. And they're the ones who really managed somehow to play a major role in overthrowing him. Of course, NATO had the bigger role but they were on the ground.
BILBASSYSo the problem now for the government is how you bring these people together. What's interesting in Libya was after Chris Stevens and the other three American were killed actually, the Libyans themselves went to the streets demanding that we want to get rid of these militias. They went to their headquarter and forced the government to take action. But the big question now is, is the government capable of doing that. I don't think they are.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Matt.
FREIYou know, it's really interesting, there's an article by the President of Tunisia today and Tunisia has its own issues with freedom of speech. I mean, not with Al-Qaida affiliates of them, but freedom of speech and what is the nature of the civic society that they're trying to create. And he's essentially saying, look we don't -- we should not look at this -- all the events that we've been talking about as a clash of civilizations. That is far too easy a narrative to fall into. Hold your horses, guys. You know, this is a work in progress, what we're trying to create here in different ways, in different parts of the Maghreb.
FREIAnd I think he's got a point. It is very easy for governments and for us as journalists to kind of look back and say, oh well, there you go. It's not quite as easy as we thought and, you know, here we have the Jihadists and the Islamists taking over. And after all, these countries are not right for democracy. That may very well be the case but I think it's too early to write them off and it's too early to panic. Because they really need all the support they can get at the moment to build the kind of institutions that might make it work in the future.
BILBASSYYeah, but let me just add to this point. Actually, it's not the Salafis and the Jihadists who's taken over in the Arab Spring. In Egypt, it was the Muslim Brotherhood, which is moderate and the Salafis were marginalized. This is why they have to insert themselves into the narration and we seem them demonstrate (unintelligible) .
FREIIt's their call for desperation, isn't it? Yeah.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. And it's the same in Libya. The Libyan election has resulted in secular parties and a very moderate Islamist party. The problem for Al-Qaida is it's been completely marginalized by the Arab Spring because it shows people can go to Tahrir Square, a million people with no arms and can topple a regime. And they were left in the cold. They wanted to come back and this is the best way to do it.
PAGELet's invite some of our listeners to join this conversation. We'll go first to Frank who's calling us from Charlotte, N.C. Frank, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
FRANKOh, hi. Okay. You know, I consider myself to be a Christian. I read the Bible all the time and I'm a liberal, okay. But I do not see -- okay, I also read the Koran, okay. So I do not see why we always have to talk about violence. You know, why can't our president, why can't -- go over to Iran and sit down and talk with the supreme leader, 'cause he seems to me to be a pretty intelligent person?
PAGEFrank, it's so good to hear your call. You know, we did see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the President of Iran give a speech at the UN this week, the last time we assume he'll address the assembly because his term's about up. What did he say, Anne?
GEARANHe went out with a whimper instead of a bang after eight years of pretty fiery -- or seven years out of his eight of fiery addresses. This one was about peace, love and (word?) . And it was pretty tame. He basically said something akin to what the caller just said, why can't we all get along?
FREIIt had all the substance of a mis-world speech without any of the insight. But it was strange, and I think again, it's easy to make fun of it because it was a very strange speech, and there was a whole section of it, as the red light was already flashing telling him that he'd gone over time, where he talked about his hopes for the second coming of Jesus Christ, which would than herald the coming of the Mahdi, the 12th Shiite Imam, which is a big deal for Shiites. But it was interesting because if you read between the lines there are a couple of pointers, a couple of sort of back squeaks here and there that signaled perhaps a change of policy.
FREIHe talked about 9/11 as a tragic incident, which he'd never done before. He talked about the culprit Osama bin Laden as (unintelligible) or the CIA. So maybe this was Ahmadinejad in his own slightly dysfunctional way saying, you know, I've been -- I've had my wings clipped by these sanctions. I've got a bit of a past struggle going on at home with the Ayatollahs -- some Ayatollahs. I'm going to try and be Mr. nice guy here. You know, let's try and work this out.
FREIBut he didn't take it too -- far enough. He didn't take it to the next level and that's perhaps where -- I mean, I talked to one western diplomat. He said, normally we walk out when Ahmadinejad is being offensive about the Holocaust or about homosexuals. This time we just walked out because he was dull.
PAGENow there was some offense taken at the timing of the speech. It took place on Yom Kippur, a holy day for Jews. Who sets the timing of these speeches? Was it up to him or was it up to the UN?
BILBASSYI think it's up to the UN. It's -- the UN scheduled it way in advance and they -- you know, they divide it by which leader being there. And hence was this big things about President Obama and Netanyahu not being there on the same time, the same day.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break and when we come back we'll talk about the continued turmoil in Spain and Greece. And we'll take your calls. Our phone lines 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm and with me in the studio, Matt Frei, the Washington correspondent of the U.K.'s Channel 4 News, Anne Gearan, she diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and Nadia Bilbassy, senior U.S. correspondent for the Middle East Broadcast Center.
PAGEHere's an email we got from Donald who asks, he's writing us from Corpus Christi, Tx. He asks, "Could you address why the Palestinian Authority's presentation at the U.N. was not covered by the U.S. media." Anne, you're with a big, U.S. media behemoth of The Washington Post. Did it not get the coverage you think it deserved?
GEARANIt definitely -- he suffered by comparison to last year. Last year, the Palestinian issue was front and center at the U.N. General Assembly. He held the cards in a way that he simply didn't this year. It certainly was an interesting address and any time the leader of the Palestinian Authority addresses the world you should pay attention.
GEARANI don't believe we wrote a separate story about it because it just wasn't the top news of the day.
PAGEHere's an email from Lauren, Matt. She writes: "You and your guests mentioned that Western Europe has limitations on speech and cite the Armenian massacre and the Holocaust however none of you mentioned the controversial cartoons the French magazine published. It was my understanding that French officials stood behind its right to do so." Is that right?
FREII can't remember the exact. I think they must have done because they announced soon afterwards that they would close down all their embassies and consulates and schools in the region in order to prevent them from being attacked.
FREIAnd of course, actually the response to the French publishing these cartoons and closing down the embassies was very minimal in the region. I mean there were no, as far as I know, there were very few demonstrations against French interests in the Arab world.
FREIDid Hollande explicitly stand up and say I support, you know, the freedom of speech as expressed by these cartoons? I don't know, to be honest. But I think, again, when it comes to, I mean every country publishes or issues laws against particular things that they find, that have been offensive in their past, that have, you know, touched raw nerves in their history.
FREIFor the Germans, obviously it's the Holocaust. We talked about denial of the Armenian genocide, that might be something that was brought up, you know, through a legislative process as it has been in this country actually. So, you know, everyone picks their own areas as it were.
FREIThe difference I think is this, that you -- when someone stands out and insults a particular group, be it ethnic or religious, there should be certain limits. However, what's different is trying to control the entire spectrum of free speech and that I think is something that can't be done.
PAGEEspecially with the technology that we have now where one of us could send a tweet from the studio. It could be read around the world.
BILBASSYBut I think the other difference is when it comes to the genocide, I mean, the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust there was a law that passed by the French parliament which there is no law to forbid anybody from saying anything about Prophet Muhammad.
BILBASSYMaybe the Muslim community in France will galvanize in the aftermath of this and they will say, let's do something legally about it. As long as nothing legal, the president can denounce it but they cannot stop it. And that's the difference.
PAGENathan is calling us from Indianapolis, Ind. Nathan, you're on the air.
NATHANThank you very much for your time and I apologize because I came to the story late and I did not catch the gentleman's name but there was a point made earlier about the fact that the western or outside governments were looking at the Syrian conflict in concern about whether or not the region would be stable afterward, whether or not the particular country could be maintained.
NATHANAnd unfortunately because of the nature of the variables they were unable to make a determination. Right now looking at their decision-making process they cannot use that political function to decide what they're going to do.
NATHANNow my response to that would be wouldn't it be a beautiful opportunity to actually do the moral thing, or the human rights thing and actually step forward as an outside nation and say, we can make this choice now because the political implications are no longer in play because they're not in our power.
PAGEAll right, Nathan, thanks very much. Matt Frei?
FREIWell, this is precisely what people like John McCain are saying, you know, you should intervene now on the side of right and then he would add that actually if you don't intervene now on the side of right, if you're not seen to be supporting what you would normally describe as a good cause you will suffer the consequences later.
FREIIt'll be held against the United States or the European Union if they don't do enough to help the rebels now. So, you know, there's a pragmatic point and a moral point that some people would say fuse perfectly.
PAGEHere's an email from Dorothy. She writes, "Much of the discussion has been about the western role in the Syrian conflict. What is the Arab League doing? Isn't it their role that should be front and center and critical to a resolution?"
BILBASSYAbsolutely but let me just say critically that the Arab League was one of the most useless organizations that the Arab world has produced. So now the order has changed and you have new leaders there but it's really dominated by a few powerful members, GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar basically dictating more or less some policies.
BILBASSY(unintelligible) got troubles from Damascus to other places and they're unable to do anything. And I actually wanted to see the Arab world outraged as much as they were outraged about the cartoon, about the 30,000 or close to 30,000, 20,000 Syrians who are dying every single day, that they force their government to do something about it. And we don't see this outrage unfortunately.
PAGEAnd here's an email from Chris who writes us from Reston, Va. "Can your guests comment on whether they believe President Obama's no-show at the gathering of world leaders for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly was a political gaffe instead of attending which was a big departure from past administrations. He went on The View and had Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State attend in his place." Was that a gaffe?
GEARANWell, no, he did attend, he just -- he gave his speech on Tuesday and cleared out of there pretty quick.
PAGEHe didn't hold bilateral meetings as he customarily would do?
GEARANRight, the big difference this year from other years is that he didn't have the one-stop shopping with or speed-dating round with other leaders that they usually do where it's just a perfect opportunity. I mean there's no other gathering like it where there are that many world leaders in the same place at the same time.
GEARANAnd American leaders have often used it to see people that they wouldn't ordinarily see and also to kind of touch several important bases. They always see the Brits. They always see the Israelis. They do some things that sort of are markers of American alliance and influence and he didn't do that this year.
PAGEWell, so what, why didn't he do that this year?
GEARANWell, again there are two explanations. One is that he didn't want to have any meetings this year at all because his time was so short and he needed to attend to a couple of things in Washington and get back on the campaign trail.
GEARANAnd the other is that he decided he did not want to see Netanyahu, no how, no way and the way to do that in a sort of defensible, as a defensible whole argument is to see no one.
BILBASSYI think that's exactly my point which is in an election year the president took a decision that he's not going to meet with Netanyahu. He cannot afford to be seen with President Morsi of Egypt or anybody else because imagine the Republicans. They would be at his throat saying you threw in, you're not meeting with our best and closest ally and you're meeting with the Islamists.
BILBASSYThat's going to be like radioactive for him. So he took the decision timing and scheduling is not going to fit into everything and that's it. I'm going to attend. I'm going to make the speech but no bilats.
PAGEWell, do foreign leaders, foreign governments understand this and say well of course he's involved in an election. We understand that or do they say, wait, he needs to meet with us. We take offense.
FREIWell, I have to say Britain doesn't really have any ground to stand on here because our Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in New York and had a brief breakfast with Hamid Karzai and then devoted the rest of his time to meet David Letterman who I don't think is a world leader. So there was a lot of kind of multi-lateral and bilateral chit-chat on the sofa as opposed to in the halls of power.
PAGELet's go to talk to Nelson who is calling us from Annapolis, Md., Nelson, hi.
NELSONHi, I just wanted to ask about Russia's role in the Syrian conflict. I believe that they have resisted any kind of international intervention, haven't they?
PAGENelson, thanks for your call. We'll turn it over to the panel.
GEARANYes. I mean, Russia, from the get-go, has in its role as a permanent member of the Security Council, has rejected any kind of really tough outside international action under the U.N. mandate. But more than that, Russia's longstanding military, cultural and trade ties to Syria are dictating here.
GEARANI mean, the Russian government does not want to be pulled into something that might look like it, what they see as a mistake in Libya.
FREIAbsolutely, I mean, Russia has its most important naval military base outside Russia in the Middle East, in Syria. This is something which they hold on to dearly. There's a historical connection there between the Assad regime, of both Assads and indeed formerly the Soviet Union, now Russia.
FREIBut I think there's another theme here and it's really embodied by President Putin and there's always a suspicion from him and to some extent it's justified. Stuff happens in the world, sort of under Russia's nose but without Russia's approval.
FREIYou know, whether it's the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe, whether it's the missile defense shield. You know, whether it's Poland cozying up to Germany obviously because they're members of the European Union. There are things that really tweak Russia's nerves and this would just be another one in that line.
FREIAnd I don't think that we in the West have been particularly good at managing Russia's phobias when it comes to something like Syria. Maybe they can't be managed. Maybe for them this is a red line, we will not give up on the Syrian regime.
FREIBut on the other hand, maybe we haven't tried enough diplomatically to massage them to a slightly more acquiescent position.
PAGEYou know, we've gotten several emails on this topic. I'll just read this one which happens to come from Barbara. She writes, "On the internet, picked up by right-wing radio are reports that Ambassador Stevens was tortured and sodomized before his death. I read in The New York Times that he died of smoke inhalation. The story has been changing. What do we know now and how do incorrect stories spread so fast?" First of all, what do we know now about the death of the ambassador?
BILBASSYWell, we know that it was a terrorist attack, that's for sure as acknowledged by Secretary Clinton and Leon Panetta. We don't know if it was targeted per se because he was based, as you know, in Tripoli and it happened to be in the embassy in Benghazi.
BILBASSYWe know that there's no FBI agents so far have arrived in Benghazi and hence the controversial issue with CNN about finding some, his diary on the ground and the crime scene has not been secured. And they found out some information saying basically that he was worried about the security, that there wasn't enough security there.
BILBASSYThe pictures I have seen that were published, basically he was covered in smoke so most likely it was smoke inhalation. We know that Libyans had tried to help him and took him to the hospital. He was not accounted for, for several hours and basically the Libyans who took him to hospital found out later he was actually Ambassador Chris Stevens.
BILBASSYSo I don't know about the other version of this story. But we know now that the situation also in Tripoli has been precarious to the degree that they pulled out officials, American officials for security reasons from Tripoli itself.
PAGEAnd CNN's handling of this journal that the ambassador had been keeping which they found, I guess, in the rubble, in the aftermath, has been somewhat controversial as well. Can you tell us a little about that?
GEARANBut it started a war with the State Department basically, but what CNN did by their own description is they were given by a stringer, reporter, or source, somebody, this journal that was, as you say, found in the rubble. And the big problem there is so obvious is that why in the world was this thing lying on the ground days afterward?
GEARANAnd it's because the site hadn't been secured. As Nadia said, the FBI isn't there, but neither, apparently, are the police. I mean, the crime scene was not secured and so there's this document which contained, by CNN's reckoning, newsworthy information which they reported on.
GEARANThey've taken hits for the way they described the sourcing and kind of in their dealings with the family. And then the State Department jumped in and in Hillary Clinton's chief body man, Philippe Reines, had a now-famous email exchange first with CNN and then with other reporters who reported on the controversy which went viral on its own and he has sort of stood down.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk about what's happening in Spain. They unveiled new spending cuts this week Matt. Boy, Spain is a country that's got some economic troubles, 25 percent unemployment.
FREIYou know, these figures, I was in Spain just this summer actually and it really strikes you, the figures which are depression-era figures, 25 percent unemployment all over, youth unemployment of 50 percent. This is big stuff and the numbers jell with the general image you have in the country. I mean everything is on sale.
FREIPeople are having a pretty miserable time even at the height of summer. And this is a country that is in deep trouble. But what's happening this week, not just in Spain but also in Greece is that the fiscal project to save the euro has collided with that other ingredient that's been largely ignored so far, the people of Europe.
FREIAnd you get a country like Spain where you have these appalling unemployment figures but where the government, in the run-up to this crisis was actually doing the right things. They had a property bubble but hey, didn't everyone else? And in terms of their, the state coffers, they were, you know they had already cut back. They were living. They had tightened their belts.
FREINow they're being asked to do something which is just politically impossible to sustain. And this is the real danger that you get to an impasse whereby governments are administering a degree of medicine and pain to their own people that the people themselves don't really understand.
FREIThey don't get why, in Spain especially, why they should suddenly be cutting pensions further, losing government jobs when actually they've already been tightening their belts in the past. And you get a political reaction that is very explosive, that is dangerous for a government that's not been in power for too long and that eventually if this is not stopped could see the parties at the fringes, at the extremes becoming more vocal.
PAGEWell, do you think Spain is going to try to get financial help from other euro-zone members?
FREIWell, I think they are inevitably going to ask for a bailout package. You know, the markets have been saying this is evitable, which is why they're betting against Spain at the moment.
FREIThe Spanish government is holding out against it because it knows that to get that bailout package even more pain will have to be administered. But I think they're almost inevitably heading in that direction.
PAGENadia, what are the implications for the U.S. economy?
BILBASSYWell, I mean, anything that happens in Europe is going to affect the U.S. economy especially in an election year. So I mean, I'm sure both President Obama and Governor Romney are keeping a close eye on what's happening in Europe, particularly in Greece and in Spain.
BILBASSYAnd we have linked this in previous discussions but particularly now in the week of, four weeks, I mean a month before the election, four weeks before the election it might have some grave implication because of the recession.
BILBASSYI mean, Spain for example, unlike Greece, is the fourth largest economy in Europe. And this is important to focus on because if Spain goes down, this is really a serious issue. And although this time table that this government has produced, trying to avoid the international bailout which is basically from Germany, that they have to bail all these countries and weak economies the people are, as you said, they were rejecting it.
BILBASSYBecause we've seen this violent reaction in the streets of Athens and in Madrid, we've seen like 34,000 people are demonstrating using Molotov cocktails even to attack the police because they're saying we're paying the price. As Matt said, 50 percent of the salaries have been slashed in Greece for example, government salaries. Pension is the same.
BILBASSYThey have to go on retirement age two years longer and they're doing all the sacrifices. The government has changed, a new coalition in Greece has gone but nothing has changed for the people and this is serious. So I'll say definitely there is a link between what's happening in Europe and what we'll have in the U.S. in terms of election and economy.
PAGENadia Bilbassy, Matt Frei and Anne Gearan, thank you so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. 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 is a production of WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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