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Guest Host: Steve Roberts
A deadly bombing in Syria targets the ruling party. Civilian deaths fall sharply in Afghanistan. And Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his first major foreign policy speech. Guest host Steve Roberts and a panel of journalists discuss the week’s top international news stories.
- Indira Lakshmanan senior correspondent covering foreign policy for Bloomberg News.
- Yochi Dreazen contributing editor, The Atlantic and writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security
- David Ignatius columnist for The Washington Post and contributor to the “Post Partisan” blog on washingtonpost.com. His latest book is titled "Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts from George Washington University sitting in today for Diane while she's out sick. A massive car bomb kills dozens of people in Syria's capital of Damascus. John Kerry makes his first foreign policy speech as secretary of state. And the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan drops for the first time in six years. Joining me for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News and Yochi Dreazen of Atlantic Media, welcome. You're all very welcome to be here this morning. Happy to have you.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSGive us a call. You, as the audience, we're happy to have you, too. 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or on Twitter. David, John Kerry, first speech as secretary of state. What did we learn about his priorities?
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSWell, the speech gave a predictable and sensible priority. He went to the University of Virginia and talked about the importance of foreign aid and the importance of a strong U.S. economy. What we know about his priorities on his first trip, in which he's leaving shortly, is that he wants to move U.S. policy on Syria forward. It's been really in neutral -- and that's being generous -- since the summer. There has been discussion within the administration of having a more active program of training and arming of elements of the Syrian opposition.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSI think it's likely that part of that is going to go forward, if it hasn't already. There also has been much more active diplomacy, trying to draw Russia, which has been really the blocking force here, into a diplomatic solution. I was in Munich, Germany at the beginning of February, where the leader of the Syrian opposition met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Had a positive meeting. There are continuing meetings between the Russians and the Syrian opposition. There's talk of some kind of effort to get people together in Moscow from the regime and the opposition.
MR. DAVID IGNATIUSSo Kerry's going to want to do everything he can to assist that process, lend U.S. support, even as he thinks about getting more involved with the opposition.
ROBERTSNow, Indira, Kerry made a real point of stressing the value of foreign aid. Now, this is at a time when there's a lot of talk about cutting back the federal budget. It's always everybody's favorite target when the public is asked what should we cut from the federal -- foreign aid always number one. Why did he go to such pains to try to say in his first speech how important this was?
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANRight. I mean, I think that David's right, that Syria is an important priority for John Kerry. But what actually came out in his speech was a very impassioned appeal for defending foreign aid, the importance of foreign aid, not only development aid, but, you know, other kinds of assistance to governments who are partners and friends or who we want to be our friends, not to mention the whole idea of commercial diplomacy which was really promoted under his predecessor Hillary Clinton.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANHe talked a lot about trade and boosting U.S. exports. So it's funny because in fact a lot of our partners in the Middle East, including Turkey and UAE, some of the Gulf states -- I was reading the press from those countries -- were criticizing Kerry for not laying out his plans on Syria enough. And said why did he spend so much time talking about foreign aid? Why was that the point of his speech? I mean this is, of course, in a contest of sequestration looming over us. While sequestration would affect the State Department budget, it's not, you know, the main target that would be hit in the way that the Defense Department would.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANBut I think you saw here an impassioned plea that John Kerry, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was constantly a defender of foreign aid, along with his then Republican counterpart Richard Lugar, and this gave him a real forum, Thomas Jefferson's, you know, home university, the first secretary of state, a chance to sort of lay that out. I also thought it was interesting he talked about climate change, which has been a long, long time interest of John Kerry's.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANI interviewed him in Kyoto during the Global Warming Conference many, many years ago and he underscored that in his first speech as well.
ROBERTSWell, and a larger theme, as Indira was saying, Yochi, is he was trying to say also the line between foreign and domestic policy is really blurring. You talk about climate change, is that a domestic issue? Is it a foreign issue? It's obviously both. Trade, immigration, infectious diseases, flows of capital, he's taking over at a time when this line really is blurring. And I thought it was interesting that he tried to make that point in his speech.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENI think you nailed it on the head. I mean, you also have this weirdness of Leon Panetta, who thought by this point he'd be back in California on his walnut farm, having to now give speeches about Syria, about Israel, about issues he thought would be Chuck Hagel's issues to deal with. So you have not just the economic flow that you're talking about between domestic and foreign, but you also have just the weird politics. The politics of sequestration, where the Pentagon is kind of preoccupied with it, as opposed to military issues.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThe politics of who gets confirmed and when, John Brennan at the CIA being held up. So allies of ours in the intel world look in thinking, hum, this is the most important job, arguably, in Washington and it's open. One point I wanted to make quickly on the foreign aid issue, I think it's not simply that this is always the pinata that's hit whenever there's an attempt to cut the budget. There is a real question on the Hill you hear from Republicans primarily, but also from Democrats about the money that's being funneled to the Pakistani's, the money that's being funneled to the Egyptians, billions upon billions of dollars, what are we as a government getting back in return?
MR. YOCHI DREAZENSo this pressure is not simply to cut the budget for budget cutting sake. It's a question and I think it's a legitimate one of for the money we're giving Pakistan, what do we get back? For the money we're giving Egypt, given its current tensions with Israel, what are we getting back? And I think that will be one of the major questions going forward.
ROBERTSRight. And, David, you brought up the issue of Syria and with Kerry going on his first trip to Europe and then to the Middle East. And in Syria just yesterday, a car bomb, at least 53 dead, some estimates higher, but not clear who was behind it. What's your best reading of the importance of this event and how it relates to the civil war raking through Syria right now?
IGNATIUSThis was a big, horrifying bombing. The estimates do range 53 up to 72 dead, several hundred wounded. I think as important as the numbers, the fact that this was towards central Damascus, it was near the Baath Party headquarters, it was near the Russian embassy. The war in the Damascus area has mostly been in the suburbs. The rebels increasingly control the East and South, the regime holds the North and West, but what's been happening in the last few weeks is that rebel fighters have been coming towards Damascus for what they see as a final battle.
IGNATIUSThis bombing just by its nature, you'd have to assume was done by people aligned with the rebels and it illustrates that on the rebel's side there are people who are in the business of what we would call terrorism, who…
ROBERTSA word the State Department used to describe this bombing.
IGNATIUSWell, and appropriately so. When you kill 50 plus people and wound 200 in the center of a city, that's an act of terrorism. And that raises the hardest dilemma of this war, I think, which is that the opposition that is bravely fighting Bashar al-Assad with the support of the United States and almost the whole world, has, as one of its strongest elements, militarily, groups that are essentially terrorist groups that are allied with, in some cases, literally, progeny of al Qaeda. And somehow the U.S. has got to get involved enough that it can strengthen the more moderate forces so they have a chance of helping to run a new Syria that's not a terrorist safe haven.
ROBERTSAnd one of the other dimensions of this story this week, Indira, threats from the Syrian rebels to attack a target of Hezbollah across the line in Northern Lebanon. And this is not just factions. This relates to much larger geopolitical and tribal and religious forces in the area. So give us a sense of why this was a significant advance here.
LAKSHMANANRight. This is very significant because if indeed the Syrian rebels, who at the time gave a 48-hour ultimatum to Hezbollah, saying stop shelling us from the Lebanese side of the border or we will attack you. What's striking about this is it not only raises the spectra that people have been talking about for two years now, since this conflict began, which is regional, you know, the spreading of this fire throughout the Levant, throughout the Mid East. A very scary thought. It also brings up sectarian issues because of the split between Shi'as and Sunnis and the fact that Hezbollah is largely Shiite and a lot of the Syrian rebels are largely Sunni, as are the countries in the Middle East and the Gulf who back them.
LAKSHMANANAgain, remember that Iran, a big funder of Hezbollah and Syria, who's gotten aid and assistance from Hezbollah in the fight, also the leadership Shi'a. So it brings up the regional spread fear, the sectarian dynamic, which is very scary. And, you know, just going back to something David said, I think that this incredible car bomb and all that, you know, that days after days of this violence that we see, it doesn't change on the television screen. It just underscores the incredible gulf between the violence that continues and the hopes for supposed peace talks, which are going nowhere.
LAKSHMANANAnd again, the fact that we don’t know who's in this opposition and that makes it very hard to support, you know, that's part of the reason that the U.S. has held back from arming the opposition, because we don't know who's in there. Who are these terrorists groups? So the whole thing is a mess that doesn't look like it's getting any better.
ROBERTSAnd one dimension of this mess, in Indira's words, is the refugee problem. Some estimates from the U.N. this week, as many as 70,000 casualties, many more refugees flooding across the borders, spread of typhoid in Northern Syria. Update us on that Yochi.
DREAZENI mean it's a major humanitarian disaster. If you think back to the start of the Iraq War there was a fear then that there would be a major flow of refugees when the U.S. went into Iraq in 2003. That didn't happen. Over the course of the civil war you saw some numbers go. It was significant. Here you have refugees going to Jordan. You have some refugees trying to get into Turkey. You have this broadening of the refugee crisis, a lack of food, a lack of tents, a lack of water. It's not clear who will fund it. It's not clear if these countries will, at some point, close their borders.
DREAZENIf, as, you know, David and Indira both point out, there is a terrorist element, you can imagine Jordan saying we don't want refugees because we don't know who's coming across our border. We don't want people who might target us because we're a monarchy that they see as apostates. So you have the fear not just of a refugee crisis on the humanitarian grounds, but of a country sealing its border. And then it just obviously ricochets and makes the humanitarian crisis worse.
DREAZENA very quick point to one of the things David mentioned. Earlier we've had suicide bombings targeting military targets in Syria that we haven't been as concerned about. A bombing like this, killing civilians is obviously terrorism and it causes much greater concern.
ROBERTSThat's Yochi Dreazen of the Atlantic Media. Indira Lakshmanan is with me from Bloomberg News and David Ignatius, The Washington Post. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And this is our International Hour, our second hour of -- always on Friday morning. David Ignatius of the Washington Post is with me, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, Yochi Dreazen of the Atlantic. And you can -- I should mention Yochi has a new book out -- about to come out called "The Invisible Front." It's on military suicides and congratulations on that, Yochi.
ROBERTSAnd you can join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850, and give us a call. Send us an email email@example.com. I should also mention your book, David, "Blood Money," your latest novel. This is your fourth or fifth novel?
IGNATIUSIt's my eighth, believe it or not.
ROBERTSEighth, my goodness. You're far more productive than the rest of us. I want to turn to the subject of Iran since we mentioned it. And, Indira, you're about to go tomorrow to Kazakhstan where there's a renewal of these talks -- six-party talks. Give us an update on what we can expect.
LAKSHMANANYeah, it's been an eight-month lapse since we had three rounds of talks that didn't go anywhere really, other than the agreement to continue meeting last year. So what is referred to as the P5-plus-1, the permanent five members of the United Nation's Security Council plus Germany meeting as the international representatives, trying to negotiate with Iran over their nuclear program. And trying to get Iran to give up what the International Community considers illicit aspects of their atomic program and a possible cover for a covert nuclear weapons capability program.
LAKSHMANANSo I have talked to diplomats from nearly every country that's involved, including Iran. And I have to say that the expectations are not very high for what's going to happen at next week's meetings in Almaty on February 26. I think at the same time the diplomats feel that the talks have to go on. There's no alternatives, that what needs to be done is little by little build confidence so that there can be some kind of step-by-step agreements.
LAKSHMANANThe problem is that the trust deficit on the two sides between Iran and the International Community is just a yawning chasm. It's huge. From, you know, the International Community's perspective they don't believe that Iran truly has a peaceful program, and that Iran is going to give anything up. And Iran, from its side, doesn't believe that the international community and the U.S. in particular is not actually imposing sanctions as a way to try to bring about economic collapse and regime change.
LAKSHMANANSo you've got a very difficult starting position but on the one positive side I will say that the fears of an imminent military strike appear to have largely abated. That concern we had last year when Israel's leaders were giving out the message that they would use force if necessary. That doesn't seem to be an imminent risk at this moment. And the best hope seems to be that talks would just continue to a next step.
ROBERTSOn that point, you reported this week that one of the reasons why Israel said at the time of that concern that Iran was approaching a redline. But you reported this week that Iran is being careful not to cross that redline.
LAKSHMANANIt's interesting because on the one hand Iran is expanding its nuclear program and we see that from the UN Atomic Energy Agency's report that just came out this week. They're installing advanced centrifuges and really upping their capability for enriching uranium. At the same time they are increasing the amount of the 20 percent uranium that they're putting into powder form and then into plates for the medical reactor. And that makes it harder to convert it into bomb-grade fuel. So they're trying to be careful, it seems, to not cross the line.
ROBERTSNow, David, you too this week had a conversation, I think it was with the Iran's United -- UN ambassador.
ROBERTSAnd you filed a blog post for the Washington Post coming to a very similar conclusion as Indira did.
IGNATIUSI did. On Wednesday night the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee made an unusual appearance before the Asia Society in New York and took questions from me and in exchange with Thomas Pickering, who's a former U.S. ambassador who's been very involved in behind-the-scenes track to diplomacy with Iran. And to sum up, I would say that on details of what an agreement would look like, the Iranian ambassador was surprisingly forthcoming. He said, we're prepared to negotiate. We're prepared to negotiate directly with the United States.
IGNATIUSThe details of how much enriched uranium we hold, what level we enrich, those are things that we're prepared to talk about so long as our right to enrich is respected. But, he said, the problem is the overall atmosphere of deep mistrust and suspicion on both sides, as Indira said. So, as he said in one point, my answer is yes and no. So I think most of us looking at these talks next week in Kazakhstan don't expect any breakthroughs. This is going to be a long process. It's going to take a long time to ripen.
IGNATIUSThe central point that he made that Americans are really going to have to struggle with, is we are not prepared to negotiate with a gun to our heads. You know, in Iranian culture that's obviously a loss of face. It's humiliating and so...
ROBERTSBut this is an age-old problem. Do you impose sanctions or do they have almost a negative effect?
IGNATIUSThis is why there's a need for a behind-the-scenes meeting between the United States and Iran, to explore what a deal would like. I mean, the U.S. isn't going to -- and its allies, they're not going to remove sanctions until they know they have the essence of a deal. And you won't get that unless you have these quiet talks.
ROBERTSNow, Indira, you reported in your story that there's an offer on the table for a sidebar for a one-on-one conversation in Kazakhstan.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. I mean, Vice-President Joe Biden made that offer publicly at the Munich Security Conference. And the diplomats who I've talked to said it's still on the table. And the Iranians have given mixed signals about whether they'd be open to that. I mean, I think on the record they've said, you know, of course we're open to it. The question is, where would it go?
LAKSHMANANAnd some of the diplomats I spoke to said, look if you're really serious about diplomacy, everyone knows what this deal looks like at the end of the day. I mean, that was something that a former U.S. State Department advisor, Vali Nasr who's now at Johns Hopkins as the Dean at SAIS said to me. Everyone knows what this deal looks like. The question is, it's going to take a long time and patience and how do you get there? And I think the key question at this point is, are more sanctions helping the process or hurting the process?
LAKSHMANANAnd as David points out, the Iranians say it's like putting a gun to our heads. So that becomes the big question about U.S. policy going forward.
ROBERTSYochi, I want you to turn to another part of the world and that's Afghanistan where there were -- was news this week that in fact there had been a decrease in civilian deaths. Although in certain categories, particularly women and children, there were increases. Give us an update on what it looks like on the ground there and what's the importance of this report.
DREAZENI think we're seeing for the moment sort of a slackening of the war, a sort of pause on all sides. The U.S. is obviously on the way out. The Taliban is, I think, trying to figure out how to recalibrate itself as the U.S. leaves and what it should be doing after the U.S. goes. Should it become something on the model of Hezbollah, a political force legitimized with the militia that's either set aside, not disarmed. It's not a militia that's going to go away. But does it try to formally enter a political process? Does it try to simply conquer parts of the country as in the past, very likely the south and the east?
DREAZENBut I think what you're seeing beginning to emerge is the end of this war as we thought of it. There will be a political process in Afghanistan. There will be fighting within Afghanistan, but it will not be something led by the U.S. Will not be something led by NATO. One thing that was lost a bit this week was some of the planning emerging on the numbers you're beginning to hear. You're hearing 6,000, 8,000, 10,000 roughly for American NATO troops, Americans being the bulk of it.
DREAZENWas most interesting though isn't the number. It was word coming out yesterday and today that there'll be troops not simply in the east and south, which is where the fighting is, but in the north and west. And if you have troops in the north and west where there's almost no violence whatsoever, you're talking about whatever this number is being somewhat artificial because a good chunk of them would be in areas where there is no fighting whatsoever. So the U.S. presence would be tiny.
ROBERTSHasn't this long been almost a requirement of European presence in Afghanistan that they send troops but they don't want them in the combat area?
DREAZENExactly right. I mean, I've been embedded with troops from NATO countries where they could literally not leave their base without permission from their capital. They couldn't go out at night without permission from their capital. And many of those European nations insisted, the Italians in particular and being in the north and the west, precisely because there was no fighting. But if you have the U.S. presence also begin to shift from the south and the east where it's been for the last few years to the north and the west, it's a very different war. And it makes this troop debate become somewhat distorted and artificial.
ROBERTSAnd another new story this week, David, related to Afghanistan, General Allen, who had been commander of American forces in Afghanistan that seemed to be up for the job of NATO commander. And he stepped aside this week and said that his wife was very ill and he wanted to spend more time with her. But there was a shadow. He has been cleared of any wrongdoing but there was that flurry over the summer of the vast number of emails he exchanged with a socialite in Florida. Give us an update on General Allen.
IGNATIUSWell, this was a sad end to what, by every account I've heard, was a really remarkable military career. General John Allen, Marine, four-star in a lot of people's estimation was the best U.S. commander in Kabul through the long course of this war. He got caught up in the fallout from Dave Petraeus email scandal that forced Petraeus' resignation as CIA Director. And the FBI collected, it was said, thousands of emails between General Allen and this woman, Jill Kelley who had been in Tampa when he was CENTCOM commander, and kind of dumped them in the Pentagon's lap.
IGNATIUSAnd so it fell to Leon Panetta to make a judgment about what to do. Should these be investigated formally by the Inspector General or should he kind of take it on his own shoulders? And the initial review was that there was no criminal activities certainly by General Allen. Well, in the Washington fashion, Secretary Panetta decided to order an investigation thinking it would look bad if he seemed to be covering it up. And Allen's nomination was going forth, so that was suspended.
IGNATIUSAnd, you know, frankly the minute that investigation was begun you knew how the story was going to end. And it ended with Allen pulling is nomination back, fearing that when he went up to be confirmed emails would be leaked in a way that would be damaging to him. And his wife was very ill. So it was -- as I say, it was a sad end to a distinguished career.
ROBERTSAnd, Indira, another story out of Asia this week involving China and the ongoing story of hacking into American computer systems. And one report said this week that they traced the origins of this hacking scheme to a shadowy Chinese military unit, unit 61398 in a nondescript office building in Shanghai. Give us an update on that story.
LAKSHMANANYeah, I mean, that's a really fascinating story with huge legs. I just wanted to make one last point about Afghanistan, which is while the civilian casualties are down for the first time in six years, there were still 7,500 Afghan civilians killed. So that's a huge number and we have to remember part of the reason more Afghan soldiers are dying and fewer American soldiers is because we're pulling back and they're taking the lead. They are now seeing five times the deaths.
LAKSHMANANThe Chinese cyber story is a fascinating one in this big report that was prepared by Mandiant, which is this Virginia-based security company. Basically they went through hundreds and hundreds of their investigations for firms that had been hacked, and came out with this report saying that they had definitive proof that this group, as you referred to, unit 61398 was part of the Chinese PLA, People's Liberation Army, is behind these cyber attacks. Now this is incredible because it brings together two things. One is corporate espionage and that whole concern.
LAKSHMANANAnd the other one is a whole concern about information that was taken that has to do with critical grids, power grids and networks. And that brings on then a national security aspect that goes far beyond just corporate espionage. So it's something Obama was trying to take on in his State of the Union Address with the executive order that he issued.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Yochi, what are the implications here of these proliferation of stories about cyber attacks from China and other places? And how serious a threat is it to American security. And what are the options that the Obama Administration has to fight back?
DREAZENCertainly when you talk to the Pentagon they see is as very severe. I mean, the corporate espionage piece is huge. If you have American companies having plan strategic, having design plans hacked is one issue. But they estimate there's more than a million attempts per day by Chinese government agencies to hack the Pentagon systems -- just the Pentagon. That's in addition to hacking the State Department, in addition to trying to hack the White House. The U.S. feels right now fairly confident that it's able to rebuff those attacks.
DREAZENBut there's also a sense that we are not quite keeping up, that the U.S. set up a command solely to do cyber defense, offensive cyber warfare. It's been slow to be established and we don't have the lead the Chinese have. A quick thing on China that I think was somewhat obscure this week because of the hacking. There was a fascinating story about China talking about using a drone to kill a drug lord in Myanmar.
DREAZENInteresting not because there was a drug lord in Myanmar, although kind of interesting there too, but this is one of the first times you've begun to hear states openly talk about using methods we've been using for years. Sending drones into other sovereign countries without the permission of those countries, to kill people not caring particularly about sovereignty and not caring about borders.
DREAZENAnd it's fascinating because we see one, this Predator drone technology. We thought that was a U.S.-controlled issue. It's not. Israel developing armed drones, Russia, China, Hezbollah -- but also because what happens when these attacks start to happen? The U.S. has said, we have the ability to do it. How can we condemn China when China says the same thing? So the drone issue I think got a little bit obscured because the hacking is obviously hugely important. But over the next five, ten, fifteen years the drone issues become more important by the day and by the week as that technology spreads.
ROBERTSThanks for bringing up that point, a very interesting point. Also, David, this week, we've had a third test from the nuclear test from North Korea and some pretty volatile language from a North Korean official toward the South. And give us a sense of what the important of this story.
IGNATIUSThe North Koreans, in one of these bombastic statements that they issue from time to time, threaten the final destruction of South Korea, warned that if the South Koreans and Americans didn't pull back that they would unleash death and destruction. North Korea is a wildcard in the international situation that I don't see anybody really having a good feel for. I think U.S. intelligence about North Korea, about its new leader Kim Jong Un is very shaky. You can see that the Chinese are very concerned and uncertain about what to do.
IGNATIUSFor China this is a problem in one sense they wish would go away, but they're not really prepared to do a lot about it, fearing the repercussions of a change of regime in North Korea. And North Korea keeps marching forward. It just had its third nuclear test. It's been warned, it's been sanctioned, it's been threatened, and it just keeps on going. There's a new young leader who is trying to consolidate power and get the military behind him who clearly is a risk taker.
IGNATIUSSo I find this is an issue where people in Washington and overseas scratch their heads. They don't know what do to about it. They see how dangerous it is but they don't have good solutions.
ROBERTSAnd this language, Indira, was clearly an escalation. I mean, we used to say we're out of link from North Korea, but this was pretty harsh language.
LAKSHMANANWell, they use this kind of language all the time, if you read the official KCNA government news agency reports. What was stunning about this was the context that you had here, the North Korean Ambassador to the United Nation's conference on disarmament in a UN setting in Geneva, you know, declaring that he was -- that his country was going to destroy its southern neighbor. I mean, that was so stunning that you saw diplomats from the United States, Spain and all over scratching their heads and saying, isn't this illegal for him to make this threat?
LAKSHMANANSo it takes it another step beyond what we've seen before. And they've given private messages that they might do more tests to try to force the U.S. back to the negotiating table.
ROBERTSIndira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, David Ignatius, Washington Post, Yochi Dreazen of the Atlantic. I'll be right back with your calls and you comments. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane while she's out sick and this is the second hour of our Friday News Roundup International Hour. Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News is with me, David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Yochi Dreazen of The Atlantic.
ROBERTSAnd Yochi, here's an email from Stewart in Cincinnati. "If, as your guests say, nearly everyone in the world is against Assad, why can't the entire world defeat him?"
DREAZENI think if the entire world wanted to defeat him, they could. The issue is very few people want to get involved in what could be a long, protracted, horrifically bloody civil war, a sectarian war where different cities fall, different factions emerge.
DREAZENYou can tell from everything the U.S. has said it wants no part of this, nothing whatsoever. You had the White House basically overruling the Pentagon, the CIA, when there was a plan to arm the rebels. The White House basically said, no. You saw in the State of the Union, a single sentence about Syria which said nothing.
DREAZENSo it's not a question of capability, it's a question of will. The will is not there and until you begin to see the will emerge, you won't see much more than you're seeing now. You might see more intelligence sharing, a bit of arms being passed to the rebels, but you will not see a U.S.-led coalition bombing Assad's government directly.
ROBERTSBut earlier in the program, David Ignatius said that this is high on the new Secretary of State John Kerry's list and then in his trip, he's going to be focusing on Syria, but you're saying he has very few options.
DREAZENHe may focus on it diplomatically and, as Indira said earlier, there may be some movement, but in terms of the U.S. putting a coalition together to bomb Assad, not like the French doing it unilaterally like they did for a while in Libya, now in Mali, you're not going to see that. You see most of the world wanting no part of anything on the ground, no part of anything that could descend into war that yanks the men in and goes on for years.
ROBERTSWe have another email from Joe who says in reference, Indira, to Iran, "Negotiations seem moot because there is no trust on either side," something you and David both said, "so why not implement the policy whereby if Iran develops the nuke, the first strike option is initiated, otherwise isn't this all a silly dance?"
LAKSHMANANWell, I think effectively that's what President Obama has already said. He has said that the U.S. redline is that Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon and that all options are on the table. So I think pretty much he's made it clear, and so has Israel, that if they were to do that, there would be consequences.
LAKSHMANANThe whole problem is Iran can walk right up to that line and stop there. It can be so-called a screwdriver turn away from having a nuclear weapon and not actually cross the line and then that brings us into the whole question of containment. Are we then, you know, if they haven't developed a weapon so then we don't really have a reason to strike. Are we then just effectively containing them, even if they have that breakout capability? So it's a complicated question.
IGNATIUSI think, in fact, we are heading towards what Indira just suggested, which is Iran having a pre-nuclear power status. Where Iran has the technology, it has the enriched material ready to go to the last step. Just look at the latest evidence.
IGNATIUSThey're adding a lot more modern centrifuges which would allow them to take 20 percent enriched material and fairly quickly get it to bomb-grade so it would be ready for a weapon. At the same time, they're converting a substantial part of their existing 20 percent enriched stockpile from the non-gaseous state in which you would enrich it further into fuel plates or rods which take a little while to convert.
IGNATIUSSo they're, in effect, I think, saying, we're just going to do it with an agreement or not. We're going to have our enriched material, but we're going to stop short of the line. And I think the U.S. is going to have a very difficult decision if that happens because it meets President Obama's test. They don't possess a nuclear weapon, but they possess the ability to breakout quickly and that's what the U.S. is going to decide, whether it's willing to live with.
ROBERTSAnd Yochi, what does that also mean for the Israelis, the ones who have been more aggressive in talking about the necessity for military action?
DREAZENThat will be one of the toughest choices any Israeli prime minister will have had to make in the history of Israel. Is that something that they will see as -- They're willing to accept Obama's position. They're willing to trust the U.S. There is a trust gap right now between Israel and the U.S. and there has been since President Obama took office.
DREAZENFor that matter, there's a trust gap between the Gulf States and the Obama administration about how serious it is about stopping Iran from taking that final step. It will be the question of Netanyahu's term, the question of the history of his term in office and, frankly, an historic question for the State of Israel.
ROBERTSLet me turn to our callers, Patricia in Mayfield Village, Ohio. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Patricia.
PATRICIAGood morning. I would like you all to discuss further what you did in the beginning of the program regarding foreign aid and possibly which country could have less foreign aid since the public does cry out to cut without compromising any of the United States' relationships.
PATRICIAAnd further, I would love to see The Globe and The Times, either one or either blog publish a list of what countries and how much they receive. In this area of cost-cutting, it would help me to make a better informed decision so I may contact my legislator and give him my viewpoint on choices.
ROBERTSOkay, thanks very much for your call, Patricia, appreciate it. David, what's your reaction?
IGNATIUSWell, when you look at foreign aid totals, I believe the largest recipients have been Israel and Egypt, both of which were promised foreign aid as part of the...
ROBERTSAnd that was primarily military aid.
IGNATIUSA lot of it is military aid. There's pressure now to think about cutting assistance to Egypt because of concern about President Morsi's behavior. I think there may be pressure to cut aid to Israel, in part because Israel is a prosperous country.
IGNATIUSWhen President Obama goes to Israel on this long-delayed trip, but he finally goes there next month, it's interesting that he's going to receive a medal, which is, for one, fruit of U.S. assistance to Israel and cooperation which is quite successful it appears and the anti-missile defense system known as Iron Dome that the U.S. during the Obama administration has supported with money, research, unusual cooperation.
IGNATIUSSo I think when the caller asks about this issue, that's a kind of hidden benefit, at least certainly to Israel, but I think to everyone of this assistance.
ROBERTSLet me turn to Nicole in New York who also wants to talk about the aid issue I believe. Nicole, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," go ahead.
NICOLEYes, thank you for this panel and I hope Ms. Rehm feels better soon. I am asking two specific questions related to foreign aid. One, whether or not Secretary Kerry will look into the aid effectiveness, particularly in countries, say, like Haiti and other places at a time when the USAID was -- there were some reports about some contract rigging that is being investigated by Congressman Darrell Issa.
NICOLEAnd the second point is how is foreign aid seen in other parts of the world that suspect that it may be used for spy and other activities. And I'm thinking about the doctor in Pakistan who used the cover of vaccinations to get some information to track Osama Bin Laden and I'll take my answer off the air.
ROBERTSNicole, thank you. Indira?
LAKSHMANANTo the larger point, I want to say that the entire U.S. foreign policy budget is only 1 percent of the national budget and so when we talk about -- when the previous caller talked about she wanted to write to her Congressperson and, you know, what needs to be cut, you are not going to find much money to cut here.
LAKSHMANANYou know, Kerry made the point in his speech that the State Department's conflict stabilization budget is $60 million a year, which is the same amount that it costs to make the movie, or it's the same amount that the movie "The Avengers" took in on one Sunday. And so, you know, the question is not a lot of our money goes to foreign aid and 11 of the top 15 U.S. trade partners are former recipients of U.S. foreign aid so, you know, you have to put that all in perspective.
LAKSHMANANTo the question of...
ROBERTSThat's partly why Secretary Kerry used the word investment…
ROBERTS...in describing foreign aid.
LAKSHMANANAnd you know, to go to the point of corruption and misuse of funds, I think that's a very legitimate point and there are, you know, inspector generals who are inspecting AID and, you know, not just Congress, to make sure that the money is spent appropriately. And I'm sure there are cases everywhere in the world where it might not be, but I don't know if that's a reason to cut off foreign aid, particularly when it's a drop in the bucket of the U.S. budget.
ROBERTSLet me turn to Moslan in Little Rock. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Moslan.
MOSLANHi, thanks for taking my call. I'm from Syria. I lived there until I was 28. I'd like to raise a couple of points and see what your guests think of. Regarding the car bomb in Damascus yesterday, neither the Syrian government nor any independent agency have conducted any formal investigation, but the anecdotal evidence, I think, suggests that the regime is responsible for that attack.
MOSLANEvery car bomb or attack that the rebels claim responsibility for was never on the Syrian TV and was never even acknowledged by the Syrian government. But the attack yesterday, the Syrian TV was on the scene only a few minutes afterward and one of their guests who appeared as a bystander had appeared time after time -- time after time in similar situations after bombs to basically blame the rebels and the jihadists.
MOSLANAnd even The New York Times' website commented on that yesterday and all the YouTube videos are available for this particular person.
ROBERTSOkay, let me get in the answer to that question. Yochi?
DREAZENYou know, the first part of his question I would take issue with because the Syrian government has tried actually to call attention to what it says are bombings against civilian targets for months. They always claim that these bombings are the work of terrorists, which is their term for the rebels. So it isn't that these attacks haven't been claimed by the rebels and it isn't that they haven't been acknowledged by the government. Both have taken place. The question is who is actually responsible?
DREAZENTo the first part, it's interesting because we all know the Middle East loves conspiracy theories. If you flashback about a decade, there was a series of bombings in Moscow targeting apartment buildings, allegedly claimed by Chechen rebels. That was one of the pretexts for a massive Russian invasion of Chechnya. There's been a conspiracy there ever since that Russia staged those bombings to set the stage for what it wanted to do in Chechnya.
DREAZENSo this conspiracy theory isn't something that's being pulled out of the air and it's not something that hasn't been used in other parts of the world as well.
ROBERTSIndira, there was one other story I wanted to mention quickly and that was the visit of Prime Minister David Cameron in India and he went to the site of the massacre, the Amritsar massacre, where almost 400 Indians were killed by British troops. And he wrote in the guest book that this was a deeply, shameful incident, but others said, well, but that's not a full apology. Your read?
LAKSHMANANYeah, they're right. I mean, this is not the first world leader to, you know, reference past sins by his government, like people taking responsibility for slavery or things like that. But as you say, he didn't go as far as taking responsibility. He expressed regret, but not a full apology.
LAKSHMANANWhat's interesting is it's almost 100 years since that 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre of the British troops against peaceful protestors at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. And what I found fascinating is I was reading the Indian press to see what they said about it and the Indian press found one old survivor of the massacre who had been a four-year-old boy at the time with his uncle and his dad who said that he really appreciated the regret that was expressed by David Cameron.
LAKSHMANANBut, you know, it was interesting that some of the others said, okay, well then, while he's expressing regret, can he also give back the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the 105-carat diamond that's in the Queen's crown? And David Cameron said, no, we're not going to give that back to India.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have time for a couple more callers and let's go to Ahmed in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
AHMEDYes, thanks for taking my call. A short time before the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Obama appeared on NBC "Meet the Press" with Tom Brokaw who filled in Tom (word?) and he said he wants to separate Syria from Iran. And I'm just-- yes there's something about the -- resolving the crisis in Syria, how can this process -- how can he be able to do that?
ROBERTSOkay, you have a reaction?
IGNATIUSI think the U.S. would love to see a new Syrian regime for many reasons, but one of them is that a new regime would be almost certain to have less friendly ties with Iran. Syria has been Iran's most important ally in the Arab world, the gateway for supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon.
IGNATIUSAnd I think one issue that will be at a head is if the U.S. decides to go down the track of some kind of negotiated settlement brokered by Russia. The price of that might be continued Iranian influence in a successor regime or at least nothing like the sharp break that would follow the overthrow of Assad if the war continues.
IGNATIUSBut that's certainly an issue, but no question for the U.S. a big strategic gain of Assad's fall would be the end of Iranian influence.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Rod in Plymouth, Mich. I believe. Rod, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RODHi there, I teach civics and AP U.S. history and we talk a lot about American power and how it's used in the world. And, you know, I wouldn't say that the Obama diplomatic efforts have been a failure so far, but it's kind of missed that big score. Do you think it's because of, you know, a flaw in their approach? Do you think it's because of -- reflects the decline of American power or something else?
DREAZENFirst, I wish that when I'd been in high school I had a teacher who talked about the use of American power abroad. That was definitely not the level of teaching that I got so Rod, kudos. I think that it is, in some ways, a reflection of a slight diminishment that other countries see in our economic power certainly, but I think it's also that this administration looked back to the Bush White House, saw it embroiled in Iraq, saw it embroiled in Afghanistan and did not think that's what the U.S. should do.
DREAZENThey thought the military was exhausted, which is true, and thought that we were bankrupt enough that we couldn't afford it, which is arguably also true. It just did not want to be involved so it pulled out of Iraq and left no troops. It will pull out of Afghanistan and leave far fewer troops, I think, than people thought even a few months ago, did not want to be involved in Libya, did not want to be involved in Syria.
DREAZENAnd you could argue that that's actually been a very smart approach that these are not -- certainly in the case of Libya, these are not core strategic interests of the United States. And keeping ourselves out of these issues is itself a triumph because we could have so easily have been yanked into them.
ROBERTSBut David, a lot of commentary with the start of the president's second term that often in a second term -- and this has been a historic pattern, presidents turn to foreign policy for legacy reasons. It gets them out of the United States and away from domestic partisanship. With a new secretary of state, as you were talking about earlier, do you see any change from the pattern that Yochi was talking about?
IGNATIUSI think everything Yochi said is right about President Obama's desire to end foreign wars, but that doesn't explain why he was not successful in getting diplomatic solutions or diplomatic progress. This is a president who came to office wanting to make foreign policy a priority. Remember his Cairo speech where he said that the Palestinian situation is intolerable and he really made no progress on it.
IGNATIUSAnd you could make similar arguments about other key trouble spots. So I think in the second term, if President Obama means what he said in the speeches, I want nation-building at home, not abroad. He's got a foreign-policy team that is conflict-resistant. He has a secretary of state who would love to make deals. I mean, John Kerry is going to be out looking for diplomatic engagement everywhere. Will he have the backing of the president to do those deals? That's the question I'm looking at.
LAKSHMANANThree words, domestic political pressure, that's why President Obama has not done the extending of the hand because of Republican pressure and pressure within his own White House about what is politically acceptable so we'll see. But I’m not optimistic that that's going to change. We'll see.
ROBERTSThat's Indira Lakshmanan from Bloomberg News, Yochi Dreazen from The Atlantic and David Ignatius from the Washington Post. Yochi's new book is "The Invisible Front" and David's book is "Blood Money: A Novel of Espionage." I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane while she's out sick and thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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