Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and Syrian rebels join the battle against ISIS in Kobani, the search continues for missing students in Mexico, and the last U.S. Marines pull out of a key base in Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for a conversation about the week's top international stories.
Guest Host: Katty Kay
Iran’s supreme leader rejects direct talks with the U.S. Turmoil in Tunisia following the assassination of an opposition leader. And the remains of England’s Richard III are found and identified. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Mark Landler current White House correspondent and former diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times.
- Elise Labott CNN foreign affairs reporter.
- James Kitfield senior correspondent for National Journal.
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I’m Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is away on a station visit to WLRN in Florida. Tunisia is in turmoil following the assassination of a secularist opposition leader. Iran's supreme leader rejects any plans for bilateral talks with the U.S. And President Obama announces he will visit Israel this spring for the first time since taking office.
MS. KATTY KAYJoining me in the studio for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, Mark Landler, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Elise Labott, CNN foreign affairs reporter and James Kitfield, he's senior correspondent for National Journal. We'll be taking your calls, questions and comments on 1-800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet, of course, @drshow. And you can send us an email with questions, as well, to email@example.com. Happy Friday everybody. Thanks so much for joining me.
MR. MARK LANDLERHappy Friday.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThank you.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDNice to see you.
KAYRight. It's been a busy week around the world, just as it's been a busy week here. And really interestingly, nearly all of the stories that we are looking at this week are coming to use from the Middle East. There's been so much going on in that area of the world. Let me start with you, Elise, on Tunisia because we are seeing today, as we speak, it is Friday, of course, in the Middle East, a big day for demonstrations, the Holy day. And we're seeing people in Tunis after the killing of this opposition leader out demonstrating against the government.
LABOTTThat's right. Chokri Belaid was a fierce critic of the ruling Islamist party, really wanted the most prominent critics of this new Islamic administration. And he was gunned down right in front of his house. There have been no arrests, but suspicion is it's a group tied to some of the hard line Salafists. And this is really the birthplace of the Arab Spring. There was a lot of hope that this country, very educated, would grow towards democracy.
LABOTTBut you see that this kind of second phase of the Arab Spring is proving much more difficult than people had intended after the euphoria of the revolution in Tunisia. People are out on the streets, not just because they feel that this Islamic ruling party and government has not been able to get a hold of the hard line Islamists in the country, but also because they haven't delivered on some of the economic promises that was really the root of the cause of not only the revolution in Tunisia, but also in Libya and Egypt.
LABOTTAnd now you see, this is kind of reverberating across the region. And parties in Egypt and in Libya are also very fearful.
KAYJames, we've seen now, what, three days of violent demonstrations in cities in Tunisia, the police using tear gas, clashes between security forces and protestors. Do you think that Tunisia's fledgling democratically elected government can survive this crisis?
KITFIELDI suspect it can survive, but I agree with Elise. It's one more bad sign that this second phase of the Arab Spring is going to be very volatile. I mean, the prime minister did a very smart thing, I thought, which was basically he promised to dissolve the government to start with a sort to technocratic government, kind of to start over, because he realized that it's like many of the moderate Islamists, as in Egypt, as in Libya, governments that have come in and have had a hard time walking that balance between, you know, playing to their base, which are the Salafis and the more extreme Islamists.
KITFIELDAnd the secularists, who were behind the Arab Spring in the beginning, they initiated it, it wasn't a sort of an Islamist revolution. It was a revolution really started by, you know, secularist people wanted more freedom in their lives. So they've had a very hard time walking that balance. And I think, you know, as Tunisia started the Arab Spring, it's now starting the second phase of the Arab Spring, which is going to be a very rocky road.
KAYMark, I mean, in a sense, this is the fault line that we are looking at in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, isn't it? The tussle for power between secularists and Islamists. We see it in Egypt with a senior Egyptian cleric issuing, effectively, a fatwa against opposition leaders in the country, against secularists in the country. And at some point, secularists and Islamists are going to have to learn to live together in these countries.
LANDLERYeah, that's right. That's right, Katty. And also it poses a particular challenge for moderate Islamist rulers, which is what we have in Tunisia and in Egypt. And so I think this is going to be, as you say, the theme that plays itself out in a number of different ways, many of which can take a volatile turn. I mean I'm skipping ahead to a different topic, but it seems to be to my mind somewhat linked, which was the Egyptian government's decision to host the Iranian president.
LANDLERWhich has a number of strategic implications, but it also puts, again, a moderate Islamist government in a very awkward position vis-a-vis the more extreme Sunni elements in Egypt, which reacted extremely negatively when President Ahmadinejad came to visit this past week. And in sense, even embarrassed him, abrading him in a meeting with a senior religious leader for interfering in other Sunni states in the region. So these moderate Islamic governments find themselves just in an extremely difficult position, vis-à-vis both secularists and the more extreme element of their own religious base.
LABOTTJust to go back to the Tunisia example for a minute, and we also see this in Egypt and in Libya and elsewhere, people thought that when the Islamists were brought to power, that this was because the people voted them in because of some Islamic agenda. No. These parties were the ones that had the organization, that had the infrastructure and had the ability to get out and campaign for their promises to do better for these countries. And if you see in Tunisia, if you see in Libya and if you see in Egypt, these countries' economies are very fragile, on the borderline of collapse.
LABOTTAnd the more that these ruling parties move towards their Islamic agenda, this is going to cause problems with countries like the United States, that are giving them a lot of money, and Egypt, to the tune of $30 billion. And so if these Islamic parties are not able to deliver on the promises that they made to improve the quality of life, not only democracy, but economics for their people, there could be another revolution in this country.
KAYRight. I mean, it is interesting, isn't it, James, that although we know that the Salafists have been growing in Tunisia and the Islamists have this strong role in the government, having won the most seats in the Tunisian parliament, there are a lot of secularists, who have come out for three days in a row now, to say we are really not happy with this opposition leader being killed.
KITFIELDYeah, I mean it's a reminder that this is not how the Arab revolution started. These were not Islamist-led revolutions. The Islamists tended to come late to the game, if you will. You know, I was at the Islamic World Forum last year in the Middle East and talked to some of these Tunisian leaders. And they, of all the countries, went probably the farthest in trying to incorporate the opposition into the government structures, gave them a voice in the writing of a constitution that was fairly moderate.
KITFIELDSo it's very troubling to see this in Tunisia because Tunisia is probably the most moderate and has tried the hardest to sort of include all the voices of the revolution inside government structures. And to see their inability to really get there, I mean, at essence, this is their inability to get their hands around the Salafi extremists' intimidation of people. And this assassination, you know, no one's claimed credit for it yet, but it shows signs of that since this guy was such a critic of the Salafis. The inability to get that under control is really a defining characteristic of the post-Arab Spring.
KAYOkay. Elise, Mark mentioned that President Ahmadinejad of Iran went to Egypt this week. The first visit, I think I’m right in saying, for 30 years or something, since the revolution, of an Iranian leader to Egypt.
LABOTTThat's right. This is the first visit since 1980. And Ahmadinejad is pulling out all the stops. And no bones about it, he wants a new kind of strategic alliance, strategic access with Egypt, calling Egypt this great cradle of civilization and an important player in the Middle East. And in a way, you know, Iran has definitely been weakened by the sanctions, weakened by the situation in Syria and needs a new partner in the region. They think that Egypt can kind of give it it's street credential, get it some influence back.
LABOTTIn return, you know, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, he's facing a lot of political problems at home. This could give him an entree into the crisis in Syria, where he was looking to, you know, definitely show more support for the Syrian people there. So Ahmadinejad, I think, in some ways they're both using each other in a way. As Mark said, you know, within Egypt, within the public there's a lot of opposition to Ahmadinejad. Someone threw their shoes at him, which in the Muslim world is a huge insult. But, you know, Iran…
KAYRemember the last time…
LABOTTPresident Bush in Iraq. But, you know, Ahmadinejad, even though his country is facing huge economic problems, he's offering loans to Egypt, he's offering technology, he's offering Egypt a way to exercise its muscle in the region. And it will be very interesting to see how these two countries, whether they just continue to coexist or whether they really do build an alliance, which would be a formidable force in the region.
KAYMark, you touched on this earlier. And we mentioned that there is this kind of fault line in the Middle East between secularists and Islamists and they are going to have to learn to live together at some point, but there is another fault line as well. And that is between Sunni and Shia Muslims that has been bubbling up recently. And that played out during Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt this week, as well.
LANDLERYeah, indeed it did. As I mentioned earlier, there was this interesting meeting that happened in the context of Ahmadinejad's tour, where he met with a very senior Egyptian religious leader who, in effect, told him off for interfering in other countries in the region, notably Bahrain. So the visit wasn't without embarrassment for Ahmadinejad, even if it was also a strategic gambit of his. And it does illustrate that this Sunni/Shia split is the one that is probably as much as the secular religious split, the one that's going to define relations in the Middle East.
LANDLERAnd it is interesting if you think about Egypt and Iran…
KAYAnd it's been kind of kept under wraps, in a way, for decades, that split. But it is certainly coming, bubbling up now.
LANDLERIndeed. And it will be very interesting to see how the leaders in the Gulf region react to Morsi's sort of extending a hand to Ahmadinejad. I assume they'll react very negatively. And the Saudis, for that matter, as well.
KAYJames, we're going to take a break in a second. I just want to ask you, Egypt has tried to persuade Iran to give up its support for the Syrian regime. Was there any progress on that this week?
KITFIELDNo. And they'll get no progress on that. I mean that is Iran's last ally in the region. It's sort of a Shia offshoot, the Alawites. Iran is not going to back off of that. And that is why this is mostly window dressing. There is no strategic alliance possible between two countries that are on so different sides of this key issue in the Middle East which is a civil war in Syria.
KAYOkay. James Kitfield, senior correspondent for National Journal. Elise Labott who's the CNN foreign affairs reporter. Mark Landler, current White House correspondent, formerly the diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times. They're all with me here in the studio for the international hour of the News Roundup, our Friday special. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. You can tweet us @drshow. We will be taking your questions just after this short break. Stay listening.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm for the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup. This question has just come in to us from Twitter. "Any speculation as to how long the protests in Tunisia for Belaid might last?" Elise, what do you reckon?
LABOTTIt really remains to be seen. You know, as we've been discussing, the prime minister has said he's going to create a new government. He's going to put in some technocrats until elections can be held. But again, I think it remains, what is he going to do to address this? Is he going to get cracked down on the hard line Islamists? Is he going to institute some economic reforms where people can really see the fruits of the benefit of the revolution?
LABOTTI mean, I think the people have made clear in the Middle East, not just in Tunisia but as we see in Egypt, you know, people are still out in the streets in Tahrir Square looking for the government to deliver. And the people of the Middle East have made clear that if they don't they're going to keep fighting for what they believe in.
KAYLet's look at what was happening in the Senate yesterday. We had the confirmation hearings for John Brennan. That's President Obama's pick to be the head of the CIA. There was a lot of focus during those hearings on the legality or otherwise of using drone strikes to kill American citizens. What was talked about less, Mark Landler, was the (word?) effects around the world of America's drone policy.
LANDLERYeah, that didn't come up very much in the hearing. There was one moment where Senator Wyden challenged John Brennan to actually give them a list of all the countries in the world where the CIA has carried out lethal covert operations. And he didn't get a very satisfactory answer to that. But I think his point there was to try to address that issue of the types of sort of collateral damage, backlash, civilian casualties that could be a consequence of a program about which we still don't understand a great deal.
LANDLERI mean, what as interesting about yesterday in some ways, it was the first really serious public question and answer session on this program with a very senior Obama Administration official. John Brennan and Eric Holder an others have given some very carefully written speeches where they've laid out general principles, but here was the first time we had a little bit of a back and forth, although it must be said, given Brennan's expertise in answering these questions without disclosing a whole lot, I don't think we can say we learned a great deal more.
KAYAnd, you know, one of the things that I thought was very interesting was when Senator Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee said at the end of the hearing, well the number of civilian casualties in all of these drone strikes I believe to be in the single digits. So the CIA has actually done a good job of tamping down on that. And then when she was challenged by a reporter, well how do you actually know that, since you said for years that the CIA has lied about this program, she didn't have a very good answer for that either.
KAYSo of the 3,000 people that we know who have been killed by drone strikes during the Obama Administration, Senator Feinstein says only single digits have been...
LANDLER...single digits, yeah.
KAY...what were referred to as collateral deaths by John Brennan yesterday.
LANDLERYeah, unintentional civilians, yep.
KAYWhat did we learn more about these targeted killings from the white paper that was leaked this week then, James?
KITFIELDWhat, you know, I was struck by this is really, you know, that's exactly right. This is the first open debate with a senior administration official we've had on this, yet we didn't learn anything particularly new. Which makes you wonder why they've been so secretive about a program that is the worst kept secret in the world. What we learned is to justify killing an American terrorist, he has to be a senior operational leader of Al-Qaida and impose an imminent threat.
KITFIELDThe operational leader means it's not enough just to be sort of an inspiration to terrorists. You have to have an operational hand. Awlaki clearly had that. He was behind the Christmas Day bombing plot, also associated with the Hasan shootings at Fort Hood. And imminent threat is something they describe very loosely, which means you have been involved in plotting in the past. It doesn't mean that you have to be involved in a known imminent plot that is about to be put into operation.
KITFIELDSo again, not particularly earth-shattering news. Why this has to be kept so secret, to me, was really the lesson of these hearings. And the most important thing was Senator Feinstein said, you know, I think we're going to examine maybe putting a FISA-like court in the decision-making loop so you can actually have some judicial review, much like you do when you, you know, wiretap the communications of Americans.
KITFIELDAnd that has always to me been the signature weakness of their argument, which is that we should have, you know, all of this lethal authority resident only in the executive branch. That goes against our system of checks and balances. Brennan didn't actually push back too hard against that. He said it's worth looking into.
KAYAnd what about the impact that these drone strikes are having around the world, at least in terms of perhaps in sighting people in Pakistan who might have heard of collateral damage, known somebody that was killed to join Jihad and take up arms against America. I mean, has that -- I know that some foreign policy experts have suggested that there is a downside to the drone policy.
LABOTTWell, there's a huge downside in terms of the U.S. image around the world. I mean, President Obama came into office and said he's going to repair image -- the relations with the Muslim World. And I think it's questionable whether he has done that. But, you know, John Brennan said that, oh people in Al-Qaida -- in areas where Al-Qaida is operating welcome the strikes. But you can see in countries like -- even though there may be tacit agreement by the governments for them to take place -- and we saw some evidence in the WikiLeaks cables that Yemen did support that and worked with the United States.
LABOTTBut if you look in countries like Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Afghanistan where these are taking place, these are very, very unpopular moves. I just want to talk a little bit about what I thought was new from the memo in terms of what James was saying in terms of imminence. The U.S. is not required, as according to this memo, to have clear evidence that an attack is taking place. I mean, it leaves extreme raw latitude for the president to take out anyone -- or the executive branch to take out anyone they want.
LABOTTSo even if there's no intelligence indicating that an attack is taking place, it really gives broad latitude. And to go back to the idea of foreign policy, these countries now know that, you know, if the United States feels that it's threatened what is the definition of threatened? And is my country going to be subject to more drone attacks for no real good evident reason?
KAYOkay. And the question is going to be whether there are chances to pose more questions to the administration about this policy after this hearing. It does seem to have been pretty much one opportunity to do so. Let's move on to Syria. We learned yesterday -- also up on Capitol Hill, busy day in these hearings -- we learned yesterday that President Obama had blocked a plant that came from the Pentagon to arm Syrian rebels. Leon Panetta said he had supported this plan. What more do we know about this dispute, Mark?
LANDLERWell, just to clarify one very small point, the idea originated with David Petraeus at the CIA and it won the support of Hillary Clinton, General Martin Dempsey the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Leon Panetta, as you said. And I think what it does, which is interesting to me, is that it really brings to light something that's very rare in the Obama Administration, which is open descent over a key national security issue.
LANDLERThat's not to say there hasn't been fierce internal descent. There was over the decision of how many troops to deploy in Afghanistan. There was some pretty spirited debate over how to proceed in Libya. But this administration had heretofore been very good at projecting a really disciplined message. And now with sort of a turnover in the national security staff with Hillary Clinton leaving, with Leon Panetta leaving, we're beginning to get a bit of a fuller and more open accounting of these battles.
LANDLERAnd this was a very big one where you had virtually the entire war council, if you will, backing one strategy and the president -- and it must be said -- in the middle of an election year, vetoing it. This also shows to my mind the deep-seated caution that President Obama has exhibited really throughout his presidency, about getting entangled in another military conflict in the Middle East, the light footprint strategy.
LANDLERAnd the fact that it was pushed back when it was suggests to me that it's likely to be a dead letter now. I mean, you're looking at John Kerry and Chuck Hagel coming into the jobs that Panetta and Clinton vacated. These are not gentlemen that seem likely to push hard on this again. But with 60,000 casualties at least in Syria, you know, it begs the question of when are we going to reach the point where we have to do something?
KAYAnd it was the first time we've had a member of the administration say publicly -- he was asked -- Leon Panetta, if he supported the plan to arm the Syrian rebels and he answered yes. Do we know how hard he pushed that support for the plan, James Kitfield? Was this something that Clinton, Petraeus and Panetta really argued forcefully for?
KITFIELDWell, I mean, the fact that you had all of them lined up on the same side of this issue suggests to me that it was pushed relatively hard. I mean, this points to how really powerful a voice, you know, National Security Advisor Donilon is on this. He obviously is a person who is putting the brakes on this. During an election certainly understood he would not want to get sort of more involved.
KITFIELDI actually disagree. I think this will come back up early in this administration. I think that Syria is an open festering wound in the heart of the Middle East. And the longer it goes on the more radical the opposition becomes, which raises the prospect that when Assad finally does go you're going to have the same kind of problem you saw after -- in Benghazi. You're going to have a lot of radical groups, anti-American groups who are going to be armed and the most powerful actors in there. If you don't have someone on the ground with your equities in mind, those guys are going to come to the fore.
KAYOkay. Let's go to Mazan (sp?) who is calling us from Little Rock, Ark. Mazan, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MAZANHi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a very short comment. The tragedy in Syria has been going on for two years. And as your panel has said the radicals and the Jihadists are gaining more ground from the moderate people who started the revolution. The plan that was restricted in August by President Obama is now way behind where the situation on the ground is.
MAZANBut now as Syria has become a hotspot to recruit jihadists, which is not obviously in the interest of the United States, what's the reason, what's the logic that prevents President Obama from, you know, arming this revolution or letting other countries arm the rebels? Thank you.
KAYOkay, Mazan. Well, that's a very interesting question and it is quite clear that the situation on the ground in Syria is moving a lot faster than the diplomatic situation.
LABOTTThat's right. And, I mean, the question is everything that the Obama Administration feared that would happen if it got more involved, for instance radicalizing the population, the weapons getting into the wrong hands, that's already happening. So the argument that we don't want to make the situation worse, although even though we see how we wonder sometimes how worse can it get. It can get a lot worse in terms of sectarian conflict.
LABOTTBut I think it is striking that the four top national security advisors to President Obama were arguing for arming the rebels. And it's not just those people. Within the State Department there is a very large camp of officials, including Ambassador Robert Ford, who strongly advocated arming the rebels, that they all argued against this. And the president said, no. And I do agree with James that maybe down the line this might come back again.
LABOTTBur right now President Obama has made clear, if you look at his Inauguration Address, if you look at an interview he gave to the New Republic magazine where he basically said, anybody that's thinking I'm going to get more involved in Syria, I don't see that in U.S. interests right now. And I think that we're going to -- if the U.S. were to arm the rebels, that's not necessarily going to have an immediate balance of the military equation on the ground.
LABOTTWhat it could do is it could give the United States skin in the game to have some more influence on the rebels on the day after, which they're increasingly not, because the people after this, the one that have the power are going to be the ones that have the guns. If the United States doesn't give them the guns they're not going to have influence.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. You are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, do call 1-800-433-8850. You can also send us emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to Clearwater, Fla. and to Ray. You've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
KAYGood morning. You have a question for the panel.
RAYWell, more a comment having to do with drone usage. The issue I think is very remote for most Americans regardless of their political strength. But when it becomes more widely known the domestic drone use now for surveillance, which has resulted in arrest on the state level, that increases then you're going to see more popular interests in the use of drones in general.
RAYAnd this is linked to other aspects of the war on terror end quote, if you will, coming home, Homeland Security, purchasing ammunition that is banned by the Geneva Convention. A more imminent example of federal involvement in what was previously state and county issues is this thing in Alabama with the guy with the kid in the bunker.
KAYOkay. Let me just get back to the drone issue there, because we are looking at the international news hour here. Is there a sense that Americans are going to get more exercised, do you think, Mark, about the use of drones? Particularly if they start thinking that it's happening here in the United States rather than just abroad?
LANDLERI don't want to foreclose that possibility but it surprised me how little frankly it's really been an issue.
KAYYeah, me too.
LANDLERAnd, you know, I must say this is an area where some conservatives have raised an interesting point, which is that some of these things that we've heard about in this white paper in the last week, they made the argument that had the Bush Administration been the author of that white paper or defending some of these policies, there might have been a larger hue and cry. And I think that's at least an issue worth thinking about.
LANDLERBut one thing about putting John Brennan, you know, at the witness table for a few hours is, I mean, you do -- I think the administration is beginning to recognize that you simply can't have this continue to be an undebated issue. Even President Obama himself has acknowledged that. And it's been very funny watching the moments when he's felt free to talk about it. I mean, it was very striking to me that he did it once.
LANDLEROne of the first times he ever publicly addressed this program was in a Google plus hangout when he was being asked questions by, you know, people just interacting with him on the internet. And I thought it was very telling that instead of being asked about it in a White House press conference by the press corps, you know, regular Americans asked him. And he began engaging on it for the first time.
LANDLERSo I think he recognizes that at some level that it has to happen. Now whether that means they're really going to start speaking about it openly I think it's too soon to say.
LABOTTWell, I mean, just on the point of the Bush -- whether the Bush Administration would've brought those memos, if you remember when President Obama came into office in 2009, he talked about, you know, I'm going to release all of the legal opinions of George Bush. And he criticized in some ways the Bush Administration's use of drones.
LABOTTDrones have increased...
LABOTT...seven or tenfold under this administration. And we look -- if we see what John Brennan's comments are indicating at some speeches that he made, he thinks that they're a very precise tool that could be used even more. Now there's talk about the U.S. using drones in Niger to overlook North Africa where the Islamists are there, unclear whether it's going to be armed or unarmed. But clearly this is the wave of the future. And the Obama Administration did come into office criticizing it.
KAYYeah, James, there was nothing from yesterday, briefly, that suggested to us that this is a program that's about to end or be wound down, right?
KITFIELDFar from it. I mean, I think that this is a needed discussion to have because it is going to go forward. It is very -- it's an exquisite capability. They have taken out more than half of the top 20 Al-Qaida leaders just in the last year-and-a-half with this program. They have kept Al-Qaida -- the core of Al-Qaida in the Pakistan tribal areas very much on their heels looking in the sky and wondering if I'm next, which keeps them from plotting plots against us. So it is very useful and it's popular.
KAYOkay, James Kitfield. Do stay with us. We're going to take a quick break. We will have more of your questions. We will get to more on Iran and the president announcing a trip to the Middle East after this short break.
KAYWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Katty Kay filling in for Diane today for the international hour of our "Friday News Roundup". I'm joined in the studio by James Kitfield. He's the senior correspondent for National Journal.
KAYElise Labott is here from CNN. Mark Landler is here from The New York Times. The phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is @drshow, no that's our twitter @drshow. Our email is email@example.com but you can get hold of us either way and send us your questions and comments. We'll be happy to have them.
KAYAnd this email came in during the break, which I think is very wise on the Arab Spring: "When discussing the pace of the Arab Spring, Westerners should remember that from the Magna Carta in 1215 to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 took nearly 600 years."
KAY"The relatively modern French and American revolutions consumed a number of years from the initial battles until the government re-stabilized. It will take more than one generation before the relationships between governance and religion become clear in Arab countries. We need to be patient and take a long view." Mark?
LANDLERI agree with that completely and it's also true that most of these countries were in stagnation, political and economic stagnation for decades. Mubarak was in power for more than 30 years so you can't expect any of this to resolve itself in a year or two.
LANDLEREven in a world where technology and communications make us have these high expectations that things happen instantly they simply don't. In societies where the civil society has been absolutely destroyed over decades it's going to take a long time for these countries to build the institutions where they can even have these debates in a way that won't spill over into violence. I think it's just too much to expect.
KAYTwitter and Facebook helped get rid of autocratic leaders in a lightning speed amount of time, but of course, then the fallout from that is going to take a lot longer. I want to put this question to you. It comes from Moaz, Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring: "The forgotten story and the forgotten country, this is how Tunisians like me feel after the revolution. We feel we've left alone with no help from our friends from the West. It's all economics. We need financial help. We need foreign investments." Elise, how much help are these countries getting from the outside?
LABOTTThey're getting some, but the U.S. kind of, and other countries in the West gave an initial tranche of money to kind of get them started but now in some ways it's conditioning further aid on progress. And it's kind of this Catch 22 where as we've been discussing you have these high expectations.
LABOTTIt's going to take a long time, but if you--I think Tunisia has. I think there's more hope for Tunisia than some of the other countries because Tunisia is one of the most highly educated countries in the region, a very moderate country. And I think that if the U.S., what I think they really need not only financial help but help building the kind of institutions that will help deliver services, that will help create the kind of economic reforms that the country needs.
LABOTTThose were not in place because of years of dictatorship, of kind of one-man rule. So countries like Egypt, countries like Libya, countries like Tunisia do not have those kinds of institutions and indeed in some cases the kind of civil society that they need. So while they don't need just money they need to know how to spend that money, how to program that money, how to create the kind of programs that are going to improve the situation for these people.
KAYJames, one of the kinds of conundrums for Washington after the Arab Spring has been, what is America's role in what is happening in a very turbulent Middle East? Well the kinds of things that Elise was laying out there. To what extent is America involved with money and advice in trying to shape these new countries?
KITFIELDRight, I mean, we're there with plenty of advice and very little money. I mean anyone who looks for a Middle East Marshall Plan which would certainly be well-timed is coming at it at a wrong time for America, you know, with our own problems after a decade of a very expensive war and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. The appetite for something huge, it's just not there.
KITFIELDSo you're seeing incremental help at these places but nothing like the Marshall Plan that they may be hoping for.
KAYOkay, let's go to Iran now because we have had developments on that as well. Just yesterday Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini rejected the idea that there could be bilateral talks with the United States. Now this came a day after the United States itself had toughened sanctions against Iran. What sorts of movement are we seeing there, Mark, on any kind of progress towards negotiations?
LANDLERWell, the short answer is very little. Even the international community, the multi-lateral negotiations have sort of fallen into this phase where they're having trouble getting, I mean the Iranians, to agree on a date or a venue for negotiations.
KAYTalks were scheduled for later this month.
LANDLERThey were scheduled finally in Kazakhstan in late February. So there will be another session. But the Supreme Leader's comment clearly suggests that for now this notion of a direct face-to-face U.S./Iranian negotiation is probably shelved. I mean he's seen as the decisive voice in this debate.
LANDLERIt comes after the foreign minister and others had sort of expressed an openness to doing it in response to Vice President Biden who was in Germany last week and also spoke about how the U.S. was keen to do it. The U.S. has actually been keen to do this for a long time and the assumption is, were it to happen, it might happen on the sidelines of this larger multi-lateral negotiation.
LANDLERBut it does call into some question I think the sort of combination of diplomacy and pressure that's been guiding the administration. The administration's view and that of many outside experts is that these sanctions are really pinching the Iranians.
LANDLERThe currency has been devastated. Their oil revenues are down by an enormous percentage. The question is whether the supreme leader really understands that. There's a theory that he's so walled-off from the realities in his country that he simply doesn't recognize that and that maybe the foreign minister and others are a little more in tune with just the price that this is exacting on the country.
LANDLERSo I think that, you know, you shouldn't take the supreme leader's single speech as the definitive word on this. Other people have pointed out things he's even had on his website in recent weeks as suggesting that there's an openness and in fact there's a history with the supreme leader of him saying something and then changing course.
LANDLERSo I don't think anyone views this as shutting the door entirely but it's certainly goes to show what a slogging, difficult process this is going to be.
KAYYeah, James, and if you listen to the language of Khomeini's speech yesterday, I mean, he certainly wasn't, you know, pulling his punches and pushing back against those who might want more openness. It was the good, old Iranian language of the great Satan-type stuff.
KITFIELDYeah, and he called the people who were, you know, the foreign minister and the president who had sort of entertained the idea that, you know, direct talks with the U.S. might be a good thing, simpleminded. Simpleminded people would never agree to something like that. I actually think...
KAYHe said the U.S. is pointing a gun at Iran.
KITFIELD...yeah, pointing a, and that's not going to stop so it does raise questions. I mean the Iranian portfolio is on a pretty short leash. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to push it to the front of the international agenda by this summer after which point he worries that Israel will lose its ability to strike at Iran.
KITFIELDSo he's going to be as. When Obama takes his first trip to Israel he's going to be pressing for a short window to get something done and at the same time these comments from the supreme leader suggest that Iran is nowhere close to, at this point, sort of reaching a deal because they're feeling the economic pressure. So to me it's a pretty disappointing development.
KAYOkay, let's go to Bob who is calling us from Wells River, Vt. Bob, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
BOBYes, glad to be here. Yes my question is, speaks to specifically to Iran and I mean the president is on record pretty unequivocally saying that we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. And yet here we are going into sequestration and we're sequestering our navy and so are we emboldening Iran by this political, physical mayhem that's going on over here?
BOBAnd will Republicans be shooting themselves in the foot perhaps? I mean it could go badly in a hurry if we, if there isn't a military action against them and they sink a couple of ships in the Strait of Hormuz. I mean this could get bad in a hurry.
KAYWell, Bob, I'm going to put it to the panel on Iran but I do know from my talks with people around the world that it is almost as if at the moment, it's not that there's just an American foreign policy there's an American economic policy that is definitely being watched closely. And America's position is being impacted by the kind of sort of budget debates and the political paralysis that we're seeing here in Washington.
KAYBut Elise, Bob's point there about sequestration and Iran particularly. Do you have any to add there?
LABOTTWell, I mean, the supreme leader did say that the America, America's economically weak. It really needs a new trump card and this is why it's pointing a gun at Iran trying to divert from its own problems. I think we're a ways away from military action even though the rhetoric in Israel and the rhetoric from the U.S. heats up from time to time.
LABOTTI do think that there's an understanding both in this country and in Israel that there is some time for diplomacy to work but as these talks kind of drag on no one is expecting anything from this round or a next round. Clearly the United States wants a deal but the question is, is it even though these economic sanctions are hurting Iran what does the supreme leader want at the end of the day?
LABOTTHe wants regime survival and if he thinks he can live with these sanctions, if he thinks opening up the country to a deal with the West is going to attack his future survival I don't think there's chance for a deal anytime soon. I mean this is not a simple misunderstanding that could be solved by just a sit-down chat with the United States and Iran.
LABOTTThis is a fundamental difference of opinion on Iran's right to enrich versus the United States' suspicion about Iran. So at the end of the day there's going to have to be some kind of accommodation and I think Secretary Clinton last year and even in recent years John Kerry has signified that some kind of Iranian enrichment would need to be possible in a deal. I think if there is to be a deal that's going to have to be on the table.
KAYBut actually it is not going to be perhaps as Hagel said a policy of prevention. It is going to be a policy of containment in the end, James?
KITFIELDI actually think there was a, it was a really big deal for us to cancel carrier crews to the Middle East. We basically have kept two carriers there to keep the pressure on Iran. Here's the secretary of defense saying basically because of sequestration we're going to cancel at the last minute a carrier's deployment to the Middle East which means that all those 5,000 soldiers now have to go and find some place to live for the next six months because they gave up their apartments.
KITFIELDI mean, this is a really big deal. It sends a really bad message at a really important time. And to both sides whether it's the Obama administration who is still the commander-in-chief, who will be responsible for whatever happens to the military if sequestration goes in and to the Republicans. I think it's a shot across the bow.
KITFIELDI mean, I haven't seen since the 1970s the United States cancel warship deployments because of a lack of money or a lack of readiness. It's a bad sign.
KAYOkay let's get to President Obama's announcement that he is planning his first trip to Israel since he came to the White House. Mark, what's going to be on his agenda?
LANDLERWell, he's going to obviously visit Prime Minister Netanyahu. There's talk of a speech in the Knesset. He'll go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. He'll make a stopover in Ramallah for a few hours to speak to the Palestinian Authority.
LANDLERAnd he's also going to go to Jordan and see King Abdullah so it's in a way a very classic American president's visit to the Middle East hitting all the usual spots. I think, you know, as was said earlier correctly Iran will be a key part of the agenda with the Israelis but what strikes me about it is frankly the low ambitions for this trip.
LANDLERHe is not bringing an ambitious peace plan or even a modest peace plan. He's not going to bring any peace plan to Israel with him and if anything the trip has been described I think accurately more as a box-checking exercise than anything else.
LANDLERIsraelis and some in the American Jewish community have taken note of his not having gone in his first term although it must be said that many previous presidents didn't go in their first term and Ronald Reagan didn't go in either of his two terms to Israel.
LANDLERBut I think for President Obama he goes. He makes his appearance. He speaks in support of the enduring alliance between the two countries and then he goes home and goes about his business and there's absolutely no indication that this is the beginning of a renewed push on the Middle East.
LANDLERIn fact, you could almost argue the contrary by going and meeting this minimum requirement to an ally. He can take himself off the hook for doing anything more ambitious.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show" and if you'd like to join us do call 1-800-433-8850 is the number. Yeah, Elise at this point, frankly if he goes, shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu, they smile nicely at each other and appear to be at least on talking terms that might be seen as a success, right?
LABOTTThat's right. I think and in many ways this issue, this trip is to solidify his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu which has been very rocky over the last four years. President Obama has been reelected. Prime Minister Netanyahu still has the prime minister ship, but his coalition is a little shaky.
LABOTTHe's been a little damaged and I think maybe President Obama thinks he might have a little bit more influence in this next administration. They're both stuck with each other so they might as well work together. But I think it does take a little bit of the sails out of John Kerry who in his confirmation hearing said that he wanted to do something different in the Middle East.
LABOTTThere was a lot of talk, there was talk about, you know, now he's going to be going to prep the President's visit. But he has been planning a trip to the Middle East, his first trip, and there is some indication that he wants to try and do something to revive the Middle East peace process.
LABOTTAnd like so many other issues I think that on Iran and others John Kerry is kind of chomping at the bit to dig in and try and make some diplomatic progress. He's going to be hampered by the White House's kind of limited desire to really push the envelope on foreign policy.
KAYYeah we sometimes wonder, you know, presidents in their second term do seem to turn to foreign policy. It looks like this White House is really going to try and hold that back. It doesn't want to do that. He's going to also meet Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, James. What are the chances? What do you think he will say on settlements, the president?
KITFIELDOh, very little, you know, this is. Everything's been said is exactly right. This is a very inopportune time to try to restart a major initiative on the peace process. Israel feels extremely insecure right now. It never negotiates in good faith when it's feeling insecure.
KITFIELDI actually think it'll be very damaging if he goes over there, actually empty-handed and does nothing to advance this so I'm going to be looking for maybe a surprise here. Maybe there will be an initiative of some sort because it seems to me that the damage done...
KAYYou don't think that this is just for a domestic American political audience?
KITFIELDI think it's partly for that but I also think that there's a lot of smart people in the White House and in the State Department who realize if you go over there and bring nothing to advance his agenda which Kerry, it has been said, has said is very important to him. If you go over there and come back totally with nothing gained that's really bad. That's as bad as one can get from one of these trips.
KITFIELDI also think that with Iran coming up we have leverage with the Israelis. The Israelis want something very, very difficult from us which is a confrontation with Iran. If you're thinking strategically you're asking, okay, so what is Israel willing to do to get off the dime on the peace process if we're going to give it something that they don't want so badly?
KAYOkay, we have to get to my favorite story of the week. We have a minute left on this program. Mark Landler, how could the discovery of a 500-year-old skeleton in a parking lot in Leicester change history?
LANDLERWell, changing history I don't know but it certainly could change our assessment of history. I mean what's been interesting about the Richard III story is that Richard III was one of the most reviled leaders in English history, the hunchback toad of Shakespeare.
LANDLERAnd in the time since the discovery of these bones there's been this sort of rather new-age revisionism about who this king was. He's gone from being this sort of rather toad-like figure to someone who has suffered a painful case of scoliosis and kind of...
KAYHe killed the princes in the Tower for Christ's sake.
LABOTTBut now he's very gentlemanly and there's a lot of...
LANDLERLived with a lot of pain and kind of did his duty in a horribly, difficult, physical circumstances so it's been kind of this odd revisionist where they reconsidered this guy in an amusing way that says a lot about our times as well as his times.
KAYOkay, Richard III, the last English king to die in battle found buried in a car park. How much of a comedown can you have? Mark Landler, Elise Labott, James Kitfield, thank you so much for joining me here on the international hour of "The Diane Rehm Show." All of you have a great weekend. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC. Thanks so much for listening.
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