Russia denies the U.S. claim that cruise missiles aimed at Syria hit Iran. Doctors Without Borders demands an independent inquiry on the Afghanistan hospital bombing. And a group of four Tunisian organizations wins the Nobel Peace Prize. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. World powers probe unconfirmed reports of a chemical weapons attack in Syria. And banks in Cyprus remain closed. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Susan Glasser editor, Politico magazine.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Michael Hirsh national editor, Politico author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's at East Tennessee State University. President Obama wraps up a visit to Israel, his first trip there since taking office. Reports of a chemical weapons attack in Syria are widely doubted. And the European Union hands Cypress an ultimatum on a bail-out plan. Joining me for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Michael Hirsh of National Journal Magazine, Susan Glasser of Foreign Policy Magazine and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya.
MR. TOM GJELTENLots of ground to cover. You can help us. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Email us at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Our Twitter handle is @drshow. Good morning, folks.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERGood morning.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMGood morning.
GJELTENSo we just got word that President Obama has landed in Jordan, which is the final stop on his four-day visit to the Middle East. We have to begin with this trip to Israel. He did not go to Israel at all during his first term, Susan. So how significant was this trip?
GLASSERWell, I think you could see this as a piece of unfinished business, really, from the 2012 campaign where much was made by Republican nominee Mitt Romney of Obama and was he sufficiently committed to Israel. Mitt Romney, you'll remember, promised that that would be his first trip if he were elected. And in some ways I think this is sort of following through to reinforcement the political point, I'm with you, don't have any doubts or questions about my commitment to Israel. I think seeing it as a symbolic trip, as much as one that's going to change the dynamics in the Middle East is probably the way to go.
GJELTENWell, Michael, the highlight of this trip, I think, at least from the news coverage for, you know, those of us who are following events all these thousands of miles away, was probably his speech to those young Israelis. You wrote a piece very quickly yesterday about that speech. What were your impressions of it?
HIRSHWell, I think it was the highlight of the trip. And on a trip that, you know, some of us who covered the region were doubtful should have occurred at all because there weren't any traditional deliverables, as they call it in diplo-speak, which is basically any prospect of a deal between Obama, Netanyahu or the other leaders on any of the outstanding issues, including especially the Iran nuclear threat. The speech really stood out. And it stood out because it was clear that Obama went into it intending to speak over the heads of the Israeli leaders and the Palestinian leaders to some degree.
GJELTENAnd what were some of the key points, Michael?
HIRSHWell, it was really a remarkable speech. I think it was actually one of the best speeches he's ever given. It was written by Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security advisor, an increasingly influential figure inside the White House. He spent the first half of the speech sort of eloquently evoking the Jews right to live in that land historically and all of the wonders of modern-day Israel. And then about midway through he really gave it to them. And he spoke in more blunt terms, perhaps, than any U.S. president ever has about the imperative of pushing forward on Palestinian peace.
HIRSHWhy? Because Israel's own future was in jeopardy. He didn't use the term apartheid, but that was his message, that without a separate Palestinian state the demographics, as he said, could produce in the years ahead an Arab-Palestinian majority population in the occupied lands, in Israel itself. And the Israelis would be forced to choose between democracy and Jewish state. And, of course, this is really the heart of the problem. And he spoke about that in very, very frank terms.
HIRSHHe also talked in franker terms than I think any president has about the need for the Israelis to try to put themselves in the place of Palestinians, what it was like to be living in these occupied lands. So it was quite a powerful speech.
GJELTENWell, Susan, here's the question I have. Michael said he spoke over the head of Benjamin Netanyahu. And, of course, the background here is that these two leaders have not had the best of relations. But I'm wondering if in a sense, by speaking over the head of Netanyahu, Obama might sort of paradoxically have been working to sort of improve his relationship with Netanyahu because Netanyahu's weak, politically and Obama is not popular in Israel. And to the extent that Obama's stature is raised in Israel, might that actually make it easier for Netanyahu and Obama to have a closer relation than they now have?
GLASSERWell, you know, I think that's a really interesting point, Tom. I mean, in many ways it reminded me of what Obama has been doing back here at home, in going over the heads of Congress in the midst of this budget fight. And that's a lot of what he's been doing to the really infuriating John Boehner and the Republicans on the Hill, right, because that's what he's done. He's gone out to the American people and tried to make the case, in order, by the way, to improve his political standing and presumably increase his leverage back here.
GLASSERAnd I think, that in effect, that's the theory you're proposing for why he made the speech in Israel. And I think it's a good theory. I think that probably is their theory of the case, but it does also suggest that he has limited hand play with Netanyahu. And the truth of the matter is these are kind words, it does reinforce the message that Obama really is with Israel, but at the same time, very, very few people who know this process better than I do think that Netanyahu has any real seriousness about sitting down with Abbas and his government and really talking peace in a serious way.
GLASSERSo that's a major obstacle in terms of any concrete action coming from Obama's speech. And, of course, he has a long record of making great speeches, but not necessarily being able to follow through on policy terms. And remember his Cairo speech and look at where we are today in Egypt and I think you see the dilemma.
GJELTENWell, Hisham Melhem, Obama asked these young Israelis to put themselves in the position of young Palestinians and consider what their life is like, their experience. He made a very earnest plea to them to sort of revive expectations in hope for peace talks. On the other hands, He was pretty hard on the Palestinians, told them that they need to drop conditions for talks with Israel. He did, of course, go to the West Bank. How was his visit to that region seen by the Palestinians?
MELHEMWell, let me say, at the outset, President Obama is turning into the Lincoln of his era. This is a president who thinks that he can frame or reframe issues by giving lofty, eloquent, soaring speeches. And sometimes he succeeds and most of the times he doesn't succeed. This is his ode to Israel speech. This is the "I love you, Israel," given four years later, as far as the Israelis and their friends are concerned. We remember his Cairo speech, as Susan said, and now his speech and his speeches inside this country and in the end, in most cases, these speeches are not translated into policy.
MELHEMThe speech was a compelling case for peace, very, very compassionate, very thorough, very rational. He's appealing to these youth who do not remember '73 war, '67 war or even the trauma of Lebanon. So in a sense he's borrowing a page from Netanyahu's book. Netanyahu comes to a friendly Congress and speaks directly to the American people and over the head of Obama. Obama did the same thing.
MELHEMMy problem with this speech is that while he did say to the Israelis, in a very compelling, powerful language, put yourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians. Look to the world of occupation and the humiliation of occupation through their eyes. A Palestinian child should have the same right as an Israeli child. And he said something very powerful, occupation and expulsion are not the answer. But he did not say -- and of course when he made the theoretical, beautiful case for peace, but he was not specific at all.
MELHEMThere were no references to '67 borders, there weren't references to settlements, refugees and all of these thorny issues. Most importantly to me, he did not say I will go there with you. I'm kind of rephrasing...
MELHEM...Martin Luther King. He did not say I will be with you or I will give this, you know, effort my utmost. There was no commitment from the president of the United States. And that's why I think, after all is said and done, unless when he comes here he embarks on really robust efforts led by him, not by John Kerry, led by him, otherwise this speech will be seen as a wonderful outburst of eloquence.
GLASSERWell, you know, I think Hisham makes a really point. Go back in time four years to the beginning of Obama's presidency and actually he did make a personal commitment that this was his top issue, that this was going to be the president who, in effect, reset this stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And he started off doing that, of course, by not saying to Israel, I'm with you, but saying, Israel, I'm going to give you some tough love and you really need to stop the settlements in order for us to move forward.
GLASSERThat really caused a very fierce reaction on the part of Netanyahu and the Israelis and, as a result, Obama really backed away from any personal commitment. And that's why you didn't hear that language in this speech...
MELHEMAnd for the last two years he ignored. He put that issue in the freezer.
HIRSHI think this is exactly right. It's precisely the right way to frame it. There has to be personal follow up by Obama. I mean, Kerry will lead the way. There's no question that John Kerry...
GJELTENKerry's going to be there this weekend, isn't he, Mike?
HIRSHRight. And there's no question that Kerry wants to be an activist secretary of state in the way that Hillary Clinton was not, in terms of getting involved in direct mediation. But I agree, this has to be done at the presidential level, with a big presidential push. Otherwise, almost nothing will get done because it's the leadership in the end that needs to be moved. And indeed, you know, if you look at the larger context, this administration has been sending a major signal out, basically since that Cairo speech, we don't want to have much to do with this region.
HIRSHWe're withdrawing from Iraq. We're not really grappling with the rise of political Islam in many of these countries. We're not even making a study of it. I mean, this is an administration that would prefer to put the Mid East behind it, at a time when the Mid East is crying out for U.S. involvement on many levels.
GJELTENWell, you said at the beginning, I think, that you didn't think this was the time to make this trip. Have you reconsidered?
HIRSHWell, I think in light of this speech, because that was something of a deliverable, you know. That's something that will be remembered and, as Hisham said, it set expectations somewhat high. And now he has to follow up. So in that respect, it probably was worthwhile. I think the things that Obama said yesterday did need to be said.
GJELTENOne other development today from that region is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey for the deaths from that raid on the Gaza flotilla. Of course, that's been a big issue between Israel and Turkey. And it appears that Prime Minister Netanyahu is now trying to improve relations again with Turkey. We're talking here with Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at the National Journal Magazine, Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Magazine and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel. It's the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm. This is the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup. My guests here in the studio are Michael Hirsch, chief correspondent at National Journal magazine. He's the author of "At War With Ourselves: Why America is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World." And also Susan Glasser who's the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel.
GJELTENA little bit later we're going to be going to the phone lines. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we do need to spend a few more minutes on President Obama's very important trip to Israel and to the West Bank, the first such trip since he became president. And we were talking just before the break about sort of the difficult relations between Obama and Netanyahu and all that lies behind it.
GJELTENAnd of course one of the aggravating issues there is their different views of the threat from Iran, Susan Glasser. And of course Benjamin Netanyahu has emphasized that Iran may soon be entering into what he calls an immunity zone where their work on possible nuclear weapons would essentially be immune from outside action.
GJELTENWe had last week the head of the -- the director of National Intelligence here in the United States say that he didn't think -- his agencies didn't think that Iran would get to that immunity zone without an opportunity from the United States and allies to interfere. What new -- in these sort of contrasting views of the threat from Iran, what new can come out of President Obama's visit to Israel?
GLASSERWell, new I'm not sure. You know, if it's spring we must be discussing, you know, whether Israel is going to make an attack on Iran this year, right? This has been a cyclical conversation unfortunately. It's one where, because there are no easy answers, we've circled around every possible variation of intelligence assessments and political debate. This year, you should look for a little bit of a delayed timeline in that debate because of the Iranian elections that are scheduled to take place this spring.
GLASSERAnd as we saw in 2009 with the green revolution that didn't ultimately end up going anywhere, the elections have the possibility inside Iran to trigger political instability and upheaval in ways that would change the calculus and the conversation around this nuclear issue. There's also of course the real subject that was on the agenda between Netanyahu and Obama, and certainly today in his meetings in Jordan, which is of course the catastrophe next door in Syria that is unfolding which involves Iran. It involves Jordan. It involves Israel potentially.
GLASSERAnd I think is really -- we talk about the public theatrics of this visit, which were certainly around the question of how do you restart the Israeli Palestinian peace process. But in many ways I would imagine that much of the private conversation that he's having there revolves around Syria.
GJELTENAround Syria or -- and...
HIRSHWell, they're linked frankly. I think one of the, you know, tacit messages that Obama brought to Netanyahu probably didn't spell it out, was that we are here for you, we the U.S., you know, in the middle of this maelstrom now with a lot of new threats out there including in Syria from all these Islamist groups that could oust Assad as well as Iran. But, you know, in return we need you to take a little more time on Iran.
HIRSHLast September Netanyahu gave a very dramatic speech at the U.N., held up a chart of a cartoon time bomb and said that -- or indicated that his redline was this spring or summer, which is what we're approaching right now in terms of when uranium enrichment would reach the point that Israel could no longer tolerate it. So we're up against, you know, what should have been an Israeli deadline. Meanwhile now we have Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, just coming out in a speech yesterday and saying, well maybe he'll be interested in talking. So I think that's -- Obama's pushing that on Netanyahu.
GJELTENBut Michael, another -- he again said as clearly as he has ever said that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Of course the background of that in this country is we have a debate about whether a nuclear Iran actually could be contained. It almost sounds that they -- this administration has closed the door on the idea of containing a nuclear Iran.
HIRSHOh now, they've been very, very blunt about that. In fact, Chuck Hagel got into some hot water during his confirmation hearings, which were, you know, one of the -- probably the most disastrous days that any nominee has ever had, when he seemed a little confused on the containment issue. And actually, Carl Levin, the chairman of the -- Armed Serviced Committee, pardon me, had to correct him and say, no our policy is not containment. So Obama, Vice-President Biden, they have all made clear no bomb, no way.
GJELTENWell, Hisham, as Susan and Michael have both said, the specter of the war in Syria is hanging heavily over everything in the Middle East right now. And, of course, today President Obama is meeting with Jordan's king Abdullah. Is that agenda Syria, Syria, Syria?
MELHEMFor the Jordanians it definitely is because you have almost 400,000 Syrian refugees as -- it's been said now that the biggest refugee camp in Jordan today represents the fourth largest city in Jordan. We have a similar number of refugees in tiny Lebanon. And then you have almost 200,000 in Turkey and a smaller number in Iraq. This is what we've been warning against from the beginning, that if you don't care for Syria you should care at least for the five countries around Syria. All of them are important for the United States in varying degrees.
MELHEMOne of them is a NATO power, the other one is Israel obviously and the third is Iraq where we spent a great deal of treasure and blood. And then you have tiny Lebanon and Jordan also. And all of them are being affected in one way or the other. There's a spillover. There's fighting in Lebanon among Sunni extremists and Hezbollah and Alawites, who are supporters of the regime in Damascus.
MELHEMSyria is a catastrophe that is going to sweep the whole region. And I think this president someday will regret not intervening before, the way Bill Clinton regretted Rwanda. And this is a shameful thing because only the United States could have stopped something like that. Now we are contributing to the creation of these nasty radical Islamist groups in Syria. I mean, we are reliving Afghanistan when we just packed up and left after we defeated the Soviet Union. And this time, it's even worse because this is in the heart of the (word?) This is the heart of the Middle East and it's going to affect the United States.
MELHEMWhen people say we cannot do this and we cannot be the policemen of the world, nobody's asking the United States to be the policemen of the world. But the United States -- you lead or you suffer from lack of leadership.
GJELTENSusan Glasser, speaking of the Sunni Shiite violence, a suicide bombing at a mosque in Damascus yesterday claimed the life of Sheik Mohammad Buti. What was that about and what does that killing, that assassination have to do with these same issues that Hisham is just talking about?
GLASSERWell, absolutely. That was, you know, a key ally of the embattled Assad regime. And you saw Assad himself come out and speak about the dead cleric...
GJELTENAnd he was actually the head of the Sunni division.
GLASSERRight. And the reason that that's significant, of course, is because you're seeing this pressure of the civil war now more than two years into it, you know, putting extreme pressure on the fault line where -- of sectarianism inside Syria. Syria is a multi ethnic multi confessional country. And what's happening is that, you know, Assad's coalition is gradually fraying. He's a minority government in effect. His small Alawite sect could not rule the country on its own. He needs key allies among the Sunni and -- because the Alawites are a Shiite sect.
GLASSERAnd so I think what's happening is the prospects for that sort of fade with every moment. And I wanted to go back to this point though about the violence and, you know, whether it -- to reach such a scale and nature that the lack of intervention is something that goes on the record permanently of everyone who's failed to do something.
GLASSERHere's a little data point for you. We spent all week talking about ten years since the invasion of Iraq. One of our writers actually went back and looked at the numbers and 2006 was the sort of annus horribilis, right, in Iraq. It's was the bloodiest most violent year. It was the year of the death squads and the militias and the killing. And guess what? Syria is more deadly this year than Iraq was in 2006 with a much smaller population. And I think that just hasn't registered on people.
GLASSERNow of course there are no easy solutions and that's what people said during Bosnia. And that's what people said during Rwanda. But I do believe, with Hisham, that we are going to be looking back at this and reconstructing 20 years from now why the world wasn't even...
GJELTENWell, Michael there is a line, a so called redline in Syria that supposedly would prompt U.S. vigorous intervention, and that is the use of chemical weapons. It looked for a moment this week like we may have gotten to that redline.
HIRSHYeah, the evidence is not there yet. UN has announced it's going to launch an investigation into this. You've had allegations and counter allegations from the Syrian rebels about Assad's use of it. And then the Assad regime saying, no, the rebels were using it -- are using chemical weapons. What we do know is that after the U.S. and Russia, Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. It's quite dangerous particularly with the prospect of radical Islamist groups which appear to be the most powerful on the ground now in Syria overrunning and taking control of some of that material. That is really the gravest fear out there.
HIRSHBut I just wanted to say something else, picking up on Susan's very good point. You know, you talk about Iraq. I mean, the shadow of the Iraq war does hang over this entire administration and all of Washington in terms of the reluctance to intervene. There's no question that the terrible costs of that war and the mistakes or strategic errors that were made at the beginning of that war and during the course of it, particularly the launching of the war itself plus dealing with the sectarian violence, is informing the way Obama's handling this. And in fact the way he really does not want to get involved.
MELHEMCan I -- I think President Obama and his team over learned Iraq. They over learned Iraq. And if George Bush was one extreme, I mean, Obama went to the other end of the pendulum and he's not doing anything in the Middle East. And I think, you know, they may not like it on the right, when they hear something like this, but they are turning their back to the region, in many ways.
GJELTENWell, the situation in Syria today is not comparable to the situation in Iraq in March, 2003 when the administration -- when the Bush Administration decided to go in. I mean, you could probably make a much more compelling case for intervention now than you could ten years ago.
MELHEMExactly. I mean, you didn't have 200 people dying in Iraq in 2003. And we know, you know, the reasons that led to that war and this is really, I mean, hopeless in the extreme going to, you know, invade the country in time to reshape it in our own image and creating, you know, instant democracy in a place that did not know anything about democracy.
MELHEMSyria's crying out for leadership because what's happening in Syria is going to affect every country in the Eastern Mediterranean. And it will affect negatively America's interest there.
GLASSERWell, I think, you know, this is of course an important part of the conversation but here's another thing to think about. Not only has Obama avoided doing anything but arguably some of the positioning that he has right now looks like it's setting him up for even more trouble. For example, the redline on chemical weapons, it seems to me that he's in sort of trouble either way this goes. You know, on the ground in Syria, from what I understand, people were furious with his statement. Why? Because it seems to say I don't care about you and all I care about...
GJELTENWhite statement, Susan.
GLASSERThat a redline would only be crossed if chemical weapons were used. What does that mean? In effect, you could say that means, well I won't do anything, no matter what kind of murder and mayhem. This is a guy who's using scuds against his own people. Scuds level an entire city block in one thing. So he's using weapons of large scale destruction against his own people. Barack Obama, in effect by calling only the use of chemical weapons a redline...
MELHEM...and invoking Israel as if only the...
GLASSER...and invoking Israel. So on the one hand it...
MELHEMAnd the security of Israel is a litmus test, not the dying of hundreds of people on daily basis.
GLASSERRight. So that's what people are hearing on the TV.
GLASSERAnd I think it really reinforces this idea that Americans don't care about what happens to Arab civilians on the one hand. On the other hand, what if they did use chemical weapons this week in a small scale way to test the redline theory? And what if he does nothing? Then his credibility is shot in a different direction.
GJELTENSusan Glasser is editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now I heard actually one interesting point about this alleged use of chemical weapons this week, which is that of course the Syrian army was sort of trained in this old Soviet military doctrine. And in Soviet military doctrine teargas -- riot-control agents are actually classified as a type of chemical weapon.
GJELTENSo this may be a definitional issue here where, you know, what was actually used this week was some type of riot-control weapon, which in the old sort of Soviet Syrian lexicon constitutes a chemical weapon, but something that the United States would never consider a chemical weapon.
MELHEMI heard that, too, and I think -- well, nobody's talking about (word?) and nobody's talking about the classical, you know, definitions of chemical weapons the way we know it in the military lexicon. But I think this is a man who has been escalating using his air force to bomb his own -- the outskirts of his own capitol destroying Aleppo, one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the Middle East. And I think he will escalate to that point and I think he's using this to create terror in Syria, and telling everybody, I'm willing to do the unspeakable to remain in power.
MELHEMBut I think when the president threatens if you cross this redline I will intervene, where are the American forces? I don't see an aircraft carrier in the region. I don't -- I mean, we don't see anything that will back up this threat that there will be an intervention of some sort to stop you. I mean, is he going to rely on the Israelis? They cannot do it. The Turks are not going to do it. The Jordanians cannot do it.
GJELTENWell, Michael Hirsh, as you said, it's probably the specter of Iraq that is making folks in the United States reluctant to get involved in Syria. And, as you mentioned, this is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. And it was marked in Baghdad by Al-Qaida in Iraq, that group, claiming responsibility for a wave of bombings and suicide attacks that killed around 60 people. And this is the -- this group, Al-Qaida in Iraq is a group that sort of links these two conflicts, Syria and Iraq.
HIRSHPrecisely. Look, as we look back on it, you know, there is still some debate over the reasons for launching the war. But the vast height of opinion, at least expert opinion, is that it was a disastrous strategic decision. Probably, you know, one of the worst, if not the worst, in American history. The costs of that war are enormous monetarily, more than $2 trillion and counting in blood and trauma. More than a 130,000 Iraqis dead. It could be as high as four times that, according to one of the latest estimates I've seen, as well as, of course, 36,000 Americans killed or wounded.
HIRSHAnd that trauma, it's sort of, you know, like the new Vietnam syndrome. I would call it the Iraq syndrome and it's going to be with U.S. policy makers for a long time to come. But, as I said -- or indicated before, I agree with Hisham. I think that the U.S. perhaps has over learned or overreacted to this trauma because the danger of reigning completely out of this bloodbath in Syria is very great.
GJELTENWell, Susan, one of the ironies here is that these days our concern is more Syria and Iran. And Iraq, the country for which we expended so much blood and treasure is actually kind of a problem when it comes to Syria and Iran for the United States right now.
GLASSERWell, that's exactly right. Look, just a few months ago, we were, you know, in effect, begging the Iraqis not to allow Iranian flights to resupply their allies in Syria. And the Iraqis basically said, yeah well, sorry guys. And so that's one thing is that the extent of Iranian influence next door in Iraq is obviously at something of a high-water mark, and one of the classic unintended consequences, although perhaps foreseeable consequences of the invasion.
GJELTENSusan Glasser is editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. My other two panelists are Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal and Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel. And this is the International Hour. When we come back we're going to be talking about Cyprus, we're going to be talking about South Korea and we're going to be taking your calls, your comments. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm with my guests here in the studio, Michael Hirsh from National Journal magazine, Susan Glasser from Foreign Policy magazine and Hisham Melhem from Al-Arabiya New Channel.
GJELTENBefore we go to the phones and before we bring up the issue of Cyprus, we should mention one more thing about Syria and that is the Syrian opposition has now named a prime minister and the opposition chose an American citizen by the name of Ghassan Hitto. What can you tell us about him, Susan?
GLASSERIn all honesty, almost nothing, and I think that is revealing, by the way. We were discussing that before the show. He is a 50-year-old technology executive from Texas who has, in effect, been, you know, sort of flown in.
GLASSERI think that what it underscores is that there is this lack of a preexisting credible political -- as opposed to fighting, as opposed to military leadership that the rebels can plug into. I think that it's a safe bet to say this is not going to be the new leader of free Syria, and that, in many ways, it underscores the real weakness. The idea that we can just sort of pluck an obscure exile out of nowhere is really, unfortunately it's a sad story.
MELHEMHe ain't Lenin. He ain't Lenin, okay?
HIRSHYou want to talk about shades of the Iraq War.
MELHEMThat's just what I was going to say. It sounds like...
HIRSHThe United States policy should be to run away from this guy as fast as it can because it's, you know, a reminder of Ahmed Chalabi and some of these other Iraqi exiles who sold the U.S. policymakers on the Iraq War and then it turned out -- the U.S. officials discovered far too late that they had no credibility whatsoever.
MELHEMI mean, I don't want to compare him with Ahmed Chalabi. I think Ahmed Chalabi is brilliant con man and he conned an empire. When the whole history of the Iraq War is written, there should be a paragraph that says this man, Ahmed Chalabi, I know him very well for years, conned an empire.
MELHEMGhassan Hitto is, by the way, of Kurdish origin, which is interesting. He was pushed into that position by Qatar. You have to keep in mind...
MELHEMQatar. Qatar, as they say in English Qatar, but it's Qatar. The Qataris are spending millions and millions of dollars in Syria competing with the Saudis to influence the politics of the Syrian opposition. And this man is seen by people who know a lot about the Syrian opposition as Qatar's man.
GLASSERYeah, no, I think that's an important point and one of the questions here goes to, you know, some of the work that Michael's been doing as well on, you know, is this actually -- is he a sort of, basically a political Islamist, you know, trying to establish a toehold there? And what is the nature of the politics of this Syrian exile group?
GLASSERBut my understanding is that the U.S. is really focusing right now, has understood that there's a sort of hopelessness in this fragmented and un-united, political thing and that at least Secretary Kerry in his new job is working very hard right now to try to see what can the United States do to bring unity on the military front.
GLASSERAnd working with the Free Syrian Army, there's a General Idris who has become an important interlocutor. Can he start to centralize things? Can the U.S. do anything to stop the growing warlordism, which is increasingly a problem? And that's where I think Syria really does start to look like an Afghanistan. Right in the heart of the Middle East is this warlord problem.
GLASSERIf the militias are fragmenting and you don't even know who is in charge from sector to sector, you have an even bigger problem. I think that's where they're at right now and not even at the politics state.
GJELTENAnd to the extent that suicide bombings are now a hallmark of opposition military activity, you have to wonder who is behind that. That is...
MELHEMThis is the al-Qaida link.
GJELTENThat is the al-Qaida link, isn't it?
MELHEMThe approach, yes, it is. But let me -- can I? One source at the State Department told me that his nightmare is the following. That Aleppo will fall into the hands of the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the Islamist group, and other groups and the northeastern part, the desert area, will fall into the Kurdish hands.
MELHEMDamascus could fall after a bloody battle in the hands of another group and then Bashar al-Assad will go to his ancestral land in the Alawite Mountains in Western Syria and then you have, you know, fragmentation on the ground.
GJELTENOkay, we have to turn our attention now to Cyprus, which is the latest example of the, you know, ongoing financial crisis which we thought was resolved in Europe. The latest news from Nicosia is that the Cypriot parliament is expected to vote soon on something. We're not too sure just yet.
GJELTENNo, but the latest proposal appears to combine several elements that we've heard a lot about this week. People with deposits in Cypriot banks below 100,000 euros, which is insured, supposed to be insured, apparently would not be affected by this tax on deposits that's been talked about.
GJELTENAnd a lot of people that think the issue of insuring depositors' accounts below 100,000 euros is an important principle and needs to be protected. They'll be reassured by that. But people with deposits above 100,000 euros, and we're guessing a lot of those are non-Cypriot citizens, a lot them...
HIRSHA lot of them are Russians.
GJELTEN...a lot of Russians will have to pay a pretty hefty levy. This will go towards shoring up this fund on the Cypriot side, which will then be combined with support from the European Central Bank to help Cyprus stave off solvency. Susan Glasser, does it sound to you like we're going to dodge yet another bullet in Europe?
GLASSERWell, you know, I think, first of all, if anyone thought that the European financial crisis was over, they should probably think again and I think that's the mistake. I mean, at each turn, really for the last several years, we've been looking for reassurance that sort of a more permanent solution than actually is the case has been reached.
GLASSERAnd when you look at the numbers, when you look at the unemployment in the sort of vulnerable, southern rim, you look at the ongoing crisis in Italy, you look at the crisis in Spain with youth unemployment Cyprus is just really the latest example. So I think you're going to continue to see Europe lurching from crisis to crisis, number one.
GLASSERNumber two, Cyprus is a really interesting, sort of overlooked story. It was actually on our list of ten most overlooked stories of last year for this very reason. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has actually already been on record several years ago as saying that it was a terrible mistake of the European Union to have admitted Cyprus there. And she had in mind...
MELHEMShe believes the same thing about Greece, by the way.
GLASSERWell, yeah, exactly. But Greece was a more natural candidate for inclusion in Europe.
GJELTENAnd, in fact, Cyprus is the country that's been affected most by the disaster in Greece because it had so much money invested in Greek banks. Let's go now to Scott who is on the line from Takoma Park, Md. Scott, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SCOTTYes, thanks very much for taking my call and hello, Kojo, and guests.
GJELTENNo, no, Kojo comes on in another hour.
SCOTTI'm sorry, I'm sorry. Anyway, my comment relates to the Cyprus situation, but it really goes back to the basis of and to some extent the complaints of the Germans and other northern economies in Europe of the cost of the bailouts. Without a doubt, the German economy benefited the most by the introduction of the euro.
SCOTTPrior to the euro, whenever there was growth in the German economy, the value of the deutschemark would go up. It would dampen German exports and their economy. When the euro happened, that didn't happen and when the Germans gripe about why didn't these countries do a better job of their economics, the Germans were part of the system. Why weren't they watching the other economies? I believe, to some extent, they didn't want to because the poorer those economies were doing, the more it would dampen the rise of the euro, which would dampen the German economy.
GJELTENSo Michael, we're hearing a lot of griping, aren't we? Griping about the Germans, griping about the profligate spenders in Greece and now griping about the Russians.
HIRSHRight, right. A lot of interesting geo-politics here. The caller is largely right actually about the German economy. Germany became an export powerhouse under the euro because it is true that if it still had the deutschemark., the currency would be much more powerful than it is.
HIRSHThe weaker countries in the Eurozone do weigh down the value of the euro and that benefits Germany. At the same time, though, the Germans are, I think, somewhat legitimately opposed to the idea that they and the Deutsche Bank become a permanent bailout fund for the economically weaker members of the Eurozone and that's the real issue here.
HIRSHAnd going back to Cyprus, I mean, one of the reasons that these sort of spring rites keep occurring in terms of the Euro crisis countries, you know, we see every year about this time, is that the 17 countries of the Eurozone have not come together for, you know, any kind of a permanent fiscal package where you come up with the idea of a euro bond or uniting, in some way, the financial systems and the treasuries of these countries.
HIRSHPolitically, they haven't been able to get there yet and there's not a prospect of that happening anytime soon with German elections coming up.
GJELTENAnd probably as, Hisham, as you suggested, the fact that the designers of the Eurozone brought in countries like Greece and Cyprus, which have very different political cultures than the Northern European countries, makes the prospect of a fiscal union all the more difficult to achieve.
MELHEMEnlarging the Eurozone the way they enlarged NATO, you know, deep into Eastern Europe was a mistake and now the healthy economies of the Eurozone, Germany and others, are essentially saying that there is something rotten in the Hellenic world and they had their problems with Greece and Cyprus.
MELHEMAnd I think somebody was making the argument the other day that one of the reasons why Iceland came out of its economic problems was that it did not have -- it had its own currency and you can play with your own currency to do that. I think, in the end, probably Greece and Cyprus will opt-out or they should opt-out after a great deal of wrenching experience, but that may be one way for them in the future to reach solvency.
GJELTENIceland did come out of its crisis, but it really had to bite the bullet big time.
HIRSHI think the, you know, grave danger, even though European policymakers are sort of openly discussing the exit of Cyprus from the Euro-zone in a way that they did not dare do with Greece, a much larger country, there's still the fear that Cyprus could be the mouse that roared and that if you let Cyprus leave, it could send a signal that the Eurozone is not sacrosanct.
HIRSHOne country after another, banking systems could come under, you know, threat of a run so that's why they're still working very hard to keep Cyprus in the zone.
GJELTENRobert from Woodleaf, N.C., are you following the situation in Cyprus?
ROBERTYes and thank you. I wonder what caused the bank problem because was it like a housing bubble like we had or what was the fundamental problem there?
GJELTENWell, a big part of the problem was that those Cyprus banks were so heavily invested, as we said earlier, in Greek government debt, which was then heavily discounted so they lost a lot of money. Susan, do you want to add anything by way of explanation here?
GLASSERWell, I think that it's really, on the politics side, that Cyprus, I think, in addition to the finance side, you have to wonder about why they're in the EU and what problems it causes. Not only is their conflict with Turkey unresolved over, you know, it's only part of Cyprus...
GLASSER...that is in the European Union and Turkey really is a crucial interlocutor for Europe as the region on its borders in the Middle East and North Africa goes through a wrenching period of change. Europe needs to have a very strong relationship with Turkey. Cyprus potentially is a long-term as opposed to a short-term obstacle to that.
GLASSERAnd then, of course, there's Russia, which is one of the thorniest relationships that the European Union has and will be for a long time, especially given the energy dynamic. Russia, in effect, has a veto over Cyprus because of the enormous...
MELHEMThey want to be involved in the unification.
GLASSERWell, not only -- exactly. And they-- not only did all the Russians who want to steal their money and have a nice place to put it use Cyprus as an offshore banking haven, but, you know, the Russian influence is palpable over the government of Cyprus. And that actually was why Chancellor Merkel was voicing her discomfort at the decision to have admitted Cyprus, is because, in effect, it gives the Russians a toehold in European governance in a way that the Europeans are certainly not comfortable with.
GJELTENOn the other hand, it doesn’t seem the Russians are being very appreciative of that toehold, if, in fact, they got one because the Cypriot finance minister went to Moscow this week to get some Russian help and he got a total cold shoulder.
HIRSHYeah, it is interesting. The geo-politics of that are really interesting because Russia has a greater opportunity, but wanted to cut a big deal. You know, Russia has always seen itself as an energy power. It sees itself as a way of getting back into the game, as it were, after the, you know, end of the Cold War through its energy, its gas and oil resources.
HIRSHAnd here is an opportunity to actually buy up what may be substantial gas resources off the shore of Cyprus as part of a rescue deal.
GJELTENLet's go now to Bob, who is on the line from New York. Good morning, Bob.
BOBHi, good morning, thanks for taking my call.
BOBIn relation to Obama's speech there in Israel and his approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, in my field there's this notion that a peaceful world is not possible without individual people who see peace as a possibility, meaning that the options we perceive as individuals collectively shape the alternatives which exist for all of us.
BOBAnd I think that Obama is keenly aware of a notion that in my field we refer to as co-creation, which means that those with the most to gain or lose need to have the most to say if you expect them to be committed to the outcome. And I think, you know, I think his approach there was charging the people and the leaders in Israel, as well as the Palestinians, this is not something that I have the power to do for you.
BOBI can, you know, as a mediator, would do -- he would try to empower his parties to take the steps that they feel necessary, but, you know, as much as Obama would like to wave a wand and make all of this better, he doesn't have the power.
MELHEMProbably President Obama feels the same way.
GJELTENYeah, I was going to say, that probably is the way President Obama would describe his mission.
MELHEMExactly, that's why he was resorting to exhortation to both sides. The problem is that because you have the asymmetry of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, you're not going to have any sense of a just peace. You might have, you know, a temporary arrangement, but not peace because the Israelis now are doing very well economically.
MELHEMThey live in relative security. When was the last time we've seen a suicide operation or killing of civilians in Israel? The wall worked a little bit. The Palestinians in the West Bank are going out of their way, in collaboration with the Americans, to protect the borders while they are under occupation, which is something unique in history. And so what is the incentive for the Israelis to make peace?
MELHEMOn the other hand, the young Palestinians today are 20, 21, 22. They don't remember the disastrous last Intifada uprising and they may resort to another one so we may be in a, you know, deluding ourselves that we live in a period of peace.
MELHEMThe other thing is there is this refrain in Washington that we cannot want peace more than the Israelis and the Arabs. Well, that's hogwash for the simple reason the United States should push for peace and should want it more, probably because it serves America's interest in the Middle East. You cannot be a leader in the Middle East when, and you know, your interests are at stake and not play an active role here.
GJELTENOkay, let's just take a look ahead at a story we'll probably be talking about next week on the international news roundup and that is the ongoing confrontation between South Korea and North Korea, some very interesting and new and perhaps serious developments there, a big cyber-attack in South Korea this week. We didn't get a chance to explore that. Still not clear where that attack came from.
GJELTENIt could have come from North Korea, but there's really no evidence. And finally, one other story that we've been following here on the “The Diane Rehm Show,” and that is the story of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani campaigner for girls' education who was shot by the Taliban. She attended her first day of school in England this week. That's been a very good-news story, hasn't it, Susan?
GLASSERWell, that's right. I think she said it was the best day of her life to go back to school.
GJELTENSusan Glasser is editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. My other two guests on the international news panel this week are Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal magazine and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel. Diane Rehm will be back in this chair on Monday and Diane will be looking next week at the Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage and a number of other very important issues. I'm Tom Gjelten. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm, Thanks for listening.
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