On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Suspicions of a large-scale chemical attack in Syria. A court orders former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak transferred to house arrest. And the trial of a former communist party heavyweight in China. A panel of journalists review the week’s top international news stories.
- Mark Landler current White House correspondent and former diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times.
- Warren Strobel diplomatic editor at Reuters.
- Barbara Slavin Washington correspondent at Al-Monitor, senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. The United States and Western Allies weigh options following a possible big chemical weapons attack in Syria. Egypt releases former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from prison. And the corruption trial of a former senior politician in China. It's the International Hour of the Friday News Roundup.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me today are Warren Strobel, the diplomatic editor at Reuters, Barbara Slavin from Al-Monitor and Mark Landler with The New York Times. You can also join our conversation. Our phone number is 800-433-8850. Our email is email@example.com or you can get in touch with us via Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everyone.
MR. WARREN STROBELGood morning, Tom.
MS. BARBARA SLAVINGood morning.
MR. MARK LANDLERGood morning.
GJELTENWe have to start, Mark, with the developments in Syria. As many as 1000 people possibly dead from chemical weapons. It certainly appears that chemical weapons have been used, right?
LANDLERWell, there's certainly a growing belief on the part of the U.S., and, in fact, expressions of certainty from Israel and others that it does appear that this attack used rockets that were equipped with chemical weapons. And it's prompted now, as you'd expect, a frenzy of diplomacy and some very difficult meetings in a number of countries, including in the United States, where yesterday top officials met at the White House for several hours to consider, first, whether the United States needs to respond, and if so, how.
LANDLERAnd it's a very complicated calculus for a president who has been very reluctant all along to get drawn into this conflict. We don't know yet. There's been no decision in the White House, that we're aware of, to take action, but some forms of military response, including a cruise missile strike are on the table. So these are very tense days and we may expect to see things in the coming hours.
GJELTENAnd there appears to be a debate within the administration over what to do.
LANDLERIndeed. There are some voices that are saying that the prospect of 1000 people dead in a widespread chemicals weapon attack is simply something that President Obama can't ignore. But an equal number of voices, I think, are arguing that this would be a terrible time to intervene. We don't have either a U.N. mandate or a workable coalition. So it does indeed appear to be quite a debate internally.
GJELTENWell, Barbara Slavin, President Obama speaking on CNN in a CNN interview said that this was clearly a big event of grave concern. Of course, words don't mean all that much anymore, but as Mark says, no clear movement in terms of a change in U.S. action. All attention right now is on the United Nations and the U.N. investigators. But what's the prospect of something happening via the United Nations here?
SLAVINYeah, it's not particularly good. Although, the Russians do seem to be a little bit more proactive, in terms of urging the Syrians to allow this team -- which was on the ground in Damascus to investigate prior incidents of chemical weapons use -- to allow them to go the Damascus suburb, East Ghouta, where, I believe the figure now, according to the State Department, is 1000 to 1800 dead. So this is beginning to crawl up to Halabja levels. We haven't seen this…
GJELTENOr Saddam Hussein used poison gas.
SLAVINOr Saddam Hussein used poison gas against Kurds. And this is, you know, this is really getting to be a massacre, mass atrocity level. Just a reminder -- you mentioned that words don't seem to matter much -- it was just a year ago that President Obama warned of enormous consequences if Assad moved chemical weapons or used them. And then, of course, in April the administration confirmed that there had been some use of chemical weapons. And at the time Obama promised that there would be weapons sent to -- not chemical weapons, but other weapons -- sent to the Syrian opposition.
SLAVINAnd as far as we know, that hasn't happened yet. So I think there are real questions about the credibility of the Obama administration if it doesn't react in some more forceful way.
GJELTENWell, you know, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Saki said yesterday that the red line was actually crossed a couple of months ago. And she said, "It did change our calculus and we did take action." Remind us, Warren, what action the administration took when that red line was crossed.
STROBELWell, this was back -- if I have the date right -- June 13th. And they said, without saying it publicly, but they told us on background they were going to send lethal arms to the rebels. We've been checking on a daily basis and no lethal arms have arrived and the rebels say no lethal arms have arrived. So you have the situation, as Barbara was saying, where a red line has been crossed and now it's been crossed again in a much worse way.
STROBELI think Obama's really on the spot here. And let's not forget, almost two years ago to the day, August 18, 2011, he called on President Assad to leave power. And over the summer, late spring, in fact Assad's position has strengthened. So there's a real question of credibility. And there's certainly good arguments for not getting involved, which the administration has made.
GJELTENWell, let's talk about what some of the options are. I mean, you mentioned sending arms to the rebels, which haven't really materialized. Beyond that, where do we go, Mark?
LANDLERWell, addressing the specifics of this attack, one way to respond would be in a purely deterrent way with a one-off cruise missile strike, probably on chemical weapons depots, to try to disable the regime's ability to do this again and to send Assad an unmistakable message that you better not do this. This is the deterrence that the red line presumably was meant to institute a year ago and which has clearly failed.
LANDLERFor those who think that we need to do more than that, to actually change the calculus on the ground, you could start thinking about stand-off air strikes, which would be delivered by fixed-wing aircraft, from ships, presumably in the Mediterranean or planes that are based in the region. That's all capability that the United States has, but then that raises issues of what's your mandate for that, what's the international coalition. And remember, General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, actually sent a letter to the Senate a couple of months ago, laying out his view of the costs of each of these options.
LANDLERAnd he presented a fairly dark picture of operations that would be enormously complicated and cost hundreds of billions of dollars, which in the current budget environment that's a…
LANDLER…difficult thing to sell.
GJELTENWell, Barbara, you mentioned the United Nations. It really would make a difference if these U.N. investigators were able to get in there and see firsthand and sort of attribute this attack to one side or the other, wouldn't it?
SLAVINYeah, but it's not necessary. I mean there are other ways in terms of interviewing survivors and other ways in which U.S. intelligence was able to verify the previous claims of chemical weapons use. So it would be good, but I don't think it's essential. Also, you know, the administration has used many excuses for inaction in Syria over the last two years. And it just strikes me that so many of their arguments -- I mean if you look at what the Israelis have done, they've repeatedly now -- two or three times -- gone into Syria and hit discreet targets that they thought were of concern.
SLAVINWhen it appeared that certain weapons were being transferred to Hezbollah, for example, the Israelis went in and struck. They even killed a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps during one of their strikes. And why the United States could not do one or two strikes -- also, it appears that U.S. -- if not U.S. domestic opinion is changing, certainly opinion in Congress is changing about this. Some of the folks who were more dovish are turning more hawkish after this.
SLAVINAnd even a few weeks ago you had Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, talking about the need for strikes on Syrian airplanes, air fields, missile batteries. So there are steps that could be taken without embroiling the United States deeply in this war.
GJELTENPerhaps. But, Warren Strobel, I was struck by the front page of The New York Times today. Two very disturbing stories. One, the account of what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack. But then a second story about an American photo journalist who had been kidnapped, held by the rebel forces. Boy, that article did not present those rebel forces in a very positive light. And I think that the combination of those two articles shows what a quandary the United States and its allies face. Do we really want to get involved in this war on the side of the al-Nusra Front?
STROBELYeah, that's a great question. It was a great story. It was fascinating. This guy and his colleague were tortured and abused. The al-Nusra Front is not the largest, in terms of size, of the Syrian rebels, but it's the best organized and in terms of delivering services to the villages it takes over -- so it's very potent, I would say. But it gets right to the point. This is a terrible quandary.
STROBELYou have the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the conflict. You have a diplomatic standoff with Russia. You have a rebel movement that is fractured and it has many militant elements. These are all good arguments for, you know, not getting involved. And I think we were talking earlier about the divisions. Mark probably has a better sense than I do of the divisions within the White House, but what I can tell you is the State Department and John Kerry have consistently been pushing for more action, including standoff air strikes.
STROBELThe Pentagon, from day one, in Dempsey's letter reflects it, they want no part of this. They want to focus on getting out of Afghanistan in a clean way.
GJELTENWell, you know, I mentioned this interview that President Obama gave to CNN. And in that interview he said the American people expect me to think before taking action. And that's probably true. And I mean, Barbara, I didn't mean -- do we -- is there really popular appetite for something beyond cruise missiles and, you know, one-off bombing raids?
SLAVINPossibly not, but there's also, you know, the question of whether we're over thinking this. I mean, sometimes you just have to respond to an atrocity. And, you know, there's a question of whether the United States is now suffering from Iraq syndrome or Afghanistan syndrome, whatever you want to call it, that we're so afraid of getting involved in another war that we're paralyzed in a case like this. And I think if it's proven that the Assad regime killed more than 1000 people with chemical weapons, it's not enough just to call an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council.
GJELTENWell, Mark, you mentioned the meetings at the White House yesterday. Where do things stand today and what's going to happen over the weekend?
LANDLERWell, I mean, as I said, that meeting yesterday concluded without a decision and President Obama is on the road these two days in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. So I'm not sure we should expect a decision. Although, a few people have said that were the U.S. to decide on some kind of unilateral action, they're simply going to do it. So I wouldn't exclude something like that. You know, I wanted to pick up on one thing Warren said in talking about the debate, which I think he framed correctly between the Pentagon and the State Department.
LANDLERAnd it's worth remembering at the end of the day it's really the president's voice that counts. And his CNN interview, to me, suggested still a very deep reluctance to get involved.
GJELTENRight. It certainly did seem that way. Mark Landler is currently the White House correspondent, formally the diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times. My other guests on this International Hour of the Friday News Roundup are Barbara Slavin, correspondent for al-Monitor. She's also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."
GJELTENAnd finally, Warren Strobel, diplomatic editor at Reuters. And when we come back -- we're going to take a short break. When we come back be sure and call us, 1-800-433-8850. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And this is the weekly News Roundup, this is the international hour. Barbara, before we move on I want to read you an email from Charles in Utah. Charles says, "What does it matter if Assad is using gas? Thousands are dying by other means" -- many, many tens of thousands of course -- "dead is dead. Why does gas represent such a raising of the bar? It really feels as if these false redlines are being laid down to draw us into a war we cannot afford to be in."
SLAVINWell, it's a reasonable question, Charles but, you know, there's something about weapons of mass destruction. Apart from all the international conventions against chemical weapons use, there is something particularly horrific. And it goes back to World War I and kind of silent death that this is somehow not a clean and a proper way to die in war. In this case also, so many children appear to have been killed. And many of them apparently gathered in basements, which is the worst thing you can do if there's a gas attack because the gas settles and kills you if you're at a lower elevation.
SLAVINIt's just a -- you know, it's a horror we have. It goes to the holocaust, that's what Israeli's are very sensitive about it. And, you know, all of it is horrible. It kills a lot of people also at one time.
GJELTENAnd of course if it turns out that it's completely verified that this was done by the Syrian regime, we know they have a very big stockpile of these weapons. And the fact that they would be apparently willing to start using them now would be very frightening. Let's move on though to Egypt. Warren, this is Friday. Fridays have often in recent weeks been days of great turmoil and protests and demonstration in Egypt. Have you seen any news of what the situation in Egypt, which is the scene of so much violence lately, what's happening there today?
STROBELYou know, we were talking about this, Tom, before we went on the air. It seems to be, unless I've missed something, a reasonably quiet day. It seems, as Barbara was saying earlier, that perhaps the crackdown has been so tough, so brutal, so violent, so deadly that people are not -- you know, less inclined to protest.
GJELTENBut Barbara, does that mean that people are afraid to come out or does it mean that they have really been sort of vanquished? I mean, is the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force -- has it effectively been squashed or is it just sort of pushed underground a little bit?
SLAVINYes and no. People are intimidated but the Muslim Brotherhood has not been eliminated. This is the granddaddy of all political Islamic organizations. It's been around since 1928. They are down, they are not out. They are obviously recalculating and figuring out how they're going to recover from what has been certainly the most serious blow against the organization in at least half a century.
SLAVINBut the crackdown -- and, you know, it's almost as though the Egyptians and the Syrians have been playing tag team in terms of who can kill more people in one day. Over a thousand killed by the Egyptian military. That's a pretty big disincentive to coming out again and protesting. And also what's happened to the leadership. They -- Mohammad Badie, the supreme guide, has been arrested. His son was killed. The daughter of another Muslim Brotherhood leader was killed. The grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been killed. So this has been a very, very rough couple of weeks.
GJELTENAnd yet, Mark, aside from what are clearly very impassioned supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, there seems to be a very broad feeling in Egypt in support of the military right now. We had this extraordinary thing here in Washington yesterday where Egyptians were protesting outside the Washington Post because they felt the Post had been sort of too pro-Brotherhood in its reporting. I mean, trying to understand the popular reaction here is really challenging.
LANDLERYeah, it's extremely challenging. And it's important to remember that for all the atrocities of the past few days, how deeply unpopular Mohammad Morsi was and how much his government had alienated the population. What strikes me about the past couple of days is this vivid evidence of how polarized Egypt is now. When an Egyptian court ordered the release of Hosni Mubarak, which has happened in the last day or so -- and he's now been moved to sort of another form of house arrest to a hospital -- the original movement, the left-leaning movement that led the protests that toppled him, with the help of the army two years ago, was planning to hold a protest, a demonstration against this.
LANDLERThey've now cancelled it because they're worried that the Islamists will hijack the protests and use it for their own ends. So what you have is a country where the polarity is now so extreme between the various sides -- I would say two sides but I think that's too simple -- that it's just very difficult to see how this proceeds without further bloodshed.
GJELTENSo, Warren, Hosni Mubarak can be released from prison and there doesn’t even seem to be much of a protest from these people who were demanding that he be put in prison in the first place.
STROBELIt's amazing how the wheel has turned, isn't it? I mean, remember January, February, 2011 when the Tahrir Square was just filled with people. I think one other interesting aspect to this, Tom, is the international and regional implications. The United States is playing this game where they're trying to put pressure on the Egyptian military to moderate but to still keep the lines open. Some of our allies, including Saudi Arabian Gulf allies, are 103 percent behind the Egyptian military. They see this as a method or a chance to crack down and maybe even get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, this they hate.
STROBELI think it was the Saudi foreign minister who made a speech saying that if others, i.e. the United States, withdraw their aid, we will make up for that. I mean, the Saudis are in 100 percent. And you see some dissonance between us and our Gulf partners.
GJELTENWell, Barbara, you write a lot about the sort of big picture issues in the Middle East. What is going on here with, as Warren says, the United States criticizing the military, Saudi and other Arab states supporting it? And meanwhile we've got, you know, everything that's going on between Syria and Iraq and Iran and Lebanon. Who are the winners and who are the losers at this particular moment in this Middle East situation?
SLAVINYou know, clearly the old alliances are under strain. Let's put it that way. And it's ironic, but the one spot in the Middle East where I think the Obama Administration might actually be able to make some progress now is Iran. I'm just back from a trip there for the inauguration of their new president Hasan Rouhani. And, you know, the Iranians are very upset about the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt. They are, of course, on the opposite side with the Saudis on many issues.
SLAVINAnd with the kind of resurgence of al-Qaida that we're seeing in Syria, it's almost as though it's sort of the period after 9/11 again where one can see that the U.S. actually has some common interests with the Iranians, of all people. It's very hard -- you know, if you look at the situation, the U.S. criticized Iran bitterly in 2009 when it cracked down on demonstrators after fraudulent elections.
SLAVINThe Iranians killed about 100 people and they arrested about 1,000. If you put that up now on a relative scale, and I'm not justifying it by any means, but if you compare that with what the Egyptian military has just done and what the Syrians have done killing over 100,000 people in two years, you know, and you say, well why are we not talking to the Iranians? Wait a minute. Wait a minute. So I think everything is in a way in flux and that while most of it looks bleak, there are some opportunities there.
GJELTENWell, Mark, Barbara is saying that perhaps Iran is the best place for the Obama Administration to actually make some kind of foreign policy achievement. That's sort of in a sense faint praise it seems to me, given the obstacles to an agreement in Iran.
GJELTENBut if you add that to the quandary we were discussing with respect to Syria policy and now Egypt where the United States has taken a position that is opposed by other Saudi states, what does this say about the current sort of credibility, I guess, as the word of the Obama Administration's foreign policy in the Middle East?
LANDLERWell, I'm inclined to try to one-up Barbara and say that the other potential bright spot is John Kerry's Middle East peace process.
GJELTENEven fainter praise.
LANDLERYeah. Look, there's no question that President Obama faces just one situation that's worse than the other. And I think one thing that I wanted to mention in the context of Egypt just before you leave it, Barbara raised this question of old alliances being under strain. She's absolutely right but boy, is it difficult to break these old alliances. If you look at the anguished discussion we've had about aiding the Egyptian military over the past week, where the administration seems to be loathed to acknowledge that they're withholding any money from the generals, it shows you how stuck we are in some of these relationships.
LANDLERWith the Egyptian military in particular, this web of security arrangements that the United States has had profitably with the military for decades now, it really attests to how difficult this is going to be for the United States to break away from some of these old ideas about the region. And I think Barbara's probably right that a direct negotiation, which some people have long speculated, will be how Iran plays out. That could be sort of a very important next chapter for the U.S.
GJELTENMeanwhile, the United States, the Obama Administration is pivoting from the Middle East to Asia and to a country that is now in the midst of its own challenges, both economic and political. Warren, fascinating trial that has just gotten underway in China of Bo Xilai, formerly the son of a revolutionary. A very distinguished figure in the Chinese political leadership. His wife was very powerful. He is in trial now. Bring us the latest on where that stands.
STROBELFirst of all, I have to say, I have banned the word pivot around our newsroom because it's a rhetorical device that the administration uses. But when you look at how much actually troops they moved and money they sent, it's a...
GJELTENYeah, I know, but I was trying to make a pivot here in terms of our discussion. Okay.
STROBELSo to Bo Xilai, I mean, this trial -- first of all, he's true to form and as what we expected, he put on a very feisty defense of himself as the trials got underway yesterday. This trial is immensely important, I think, for the Chinese government because throughout China, the one thing the Chinese government worries about is their corruption. Corruption is really deeply felt among the people. They're angry that members of the Chinese Communist Party have all sorts of -- you know, get rich basically off of their positions.
LANDLERAnd I think China wants to show that people like this are taken into account. So they're trying to stage manage this trial in a way that seems responsive to the people. But they're going to have problems doing that I think.
GJELTENBut, you know Barbara, I heard an interview last night with a correspondent from Beijing who was saying that the attitude towards the corruption charges against Bo Xilai are not impressing people because he was only accused of taking $3 million in bribes, whereas in China that's petty change.
SLAVINIt is indeed. If I could just return to Egypt for one second, I thought there was one point we should add. And that is this 1.3 billion we give to the Egyptian military, it's really aid to our military industrial complex. So people should be aware that the money goes to Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics and some 40 U.S. companies. And that's one of the reasons also if we cut if off...
GJELTENAnd we expect that. We'll fear for him.
SLAVIN...the Pentagon, the U.S. government has to reimburse the American companies if we cut the aid. So we -- it would be shooting ourselves in the foot in a way, not just -- you know, not really impacting the Egyptian military that much. Anyway...
GJELTENThank you for that.
SLAVIN...in terms of China, yeah, it is small change. It's absolutely small change. Only $3 million. Also Bo Xilai is a very charismatic individual and he showed that during his trial. He was, you know, giving as good as he got. He was defending himself and calling testimony from his wife, crazy and from someone else, absurd. And he obviously is not going to go down without a fight.
GJELTENBarbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And you can join our conversation. In a few minutes we're going to be bringing you into this discussion. Our phone number remember is 1-800-433-8850. Mark, what's at stake here for the Chinese government in terms of this trial? I mean, Warren made the point that they sort of want to put some controls on corruption. But we have here a very powerful figure who still has a lot of support.
GJELTENI mean, he had this sort of reputation of being something of a populist. What does the Chinese government need to accomplish with this trial, in your judgment?
LANDLERWell, I think what they believe they need to accomplish is evident in the way that they're conducting it. The testimony is expected to wrap up tomorrow. There's probably going to be a verdict in a couple of weeks. This man is going to spend a lot of years behind bars.
GJELTENSo you already know what the verdict is.
LANDLERI don't think you're going out on a limb here to suggest that this guy doesn't have a bright future. And I think that that attests to what was a very big power struggle that had to do with the transfer of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, who's the current Chinese president. Bo Xilai was -- is, as he's demonstrated during the trial, a charismatic figure. He spoke to a populist view of China, a nationalist view of China. And I think that Xi Jinping and the people around Xi were threatened by him and worried that he could be a destabilizing force.
LANDLERWe sort of forget, because there's been a couple of peaceful transitions in the Chinese Communist Party, that that didn't use to be the case. Typically these were very -- periods marked by upheaval, by purges, but people who emerged and then were sent out. And so there was, I think for a time, a fear that this transition could be a bit more like those transitions we used to see in the '60s and '70s. And I think moving against him accomplished, in addition to the issues of corruption that Warren addressed, trying to make this transfer of power at a sensitive moment as seamless as possible.
GJELTENBut on the other hand, Mark, isn't it also important that the Chinese show that he's getting a fair trial. Because, you know, sort of the whole process -- the judicial system is, in sense, on trial here as well, I would think.
LANDLERWell, yes. But, you know, you notice that in the press reports that have come out just in the last couple of days, there's been a lot of discussion about the transcripts that are published after each day's testimony and the extent to which they've been cleaned up. So everything is relative here. Yes, I do think they want to show due process, as they did with Bo's wife as well. But I think the stakes are high enough that they're frankly willing to take the hit if, you know, the ACLU looks upon this somewhat askance.
GJELTENWarren, Mark just mentioned his wife. She's the other big part of this story, isn't she? She was convicted of murder.
STROBELShe was convicted of a murder...
GJELTENAnd her statements and testimony have been relevant here.
STROBELYeah, absolutely. She was convicted in the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood whose name has also come up in the trial. And that, in fact, is how this whole thing got going was the death of Heywood., and British government's demands for finding out how he was killed. And one of Bo Xilai's deputies fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and talked to U.S. officials for a while. And that's how this whole tale got underway.
GJELTENAnd meanwhile, Barbara, the Chinese economy is feeling some stress. This is clearly a sort of a challenging moment for the Chinese government, for the regime. I mean, they are facing challenges on a number of fronts.
SLAVINYeah, absolutely. And we should mention also, I mean, this trial is being blogged on a micro blog and there are 600 million internet users in China now, 600 million. So everything is being watched. I've been most struck really by the comments of people supporting Bo, you know, risking arrest of themselves outside the trial, to say that they support him and think that the has the interests of people at heart. This isn't the China I remember. I was based there in the 1980s and, you know, people were a great deal more buttoned up in those days. And it was much easier to control information than it is now.
SLAVINBut I wanted to mention this fascinating piece in the New York Times by Chris Buckley. It was on Tuesday. It shows the insecurity of the Chinese regime. There's a memo that's been circulated called Document Number Nine, among Chinese Communist Party cadres that warns people against promoting all sorts of things, Western constitution democracy, universal values of human rights, neo liberalism, etcetera, etcetera. So obviously they're concerned.
GJELTENAll right. Well, Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor. I also have Warren Strobel and Mark Landler. We're going to take a short break now and when we come back we'll go straight to the phones. Stay tuned.
GJELTENAnd welcome back, I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And this is the Friday News Roundup, the international news hour and not surprisingly we have a lot of comments about what the United States might or might not do in Syria.
GJELTENDebray writes, "It has yet to be determined that the Syrian regime was the party responsible for using chemical weapons. If the evidence eventually proves that the rebels were the ones responsible is the U.S. prepared to take the side of Assad?" We don't know that just yet. We'll have to wait, I guess, for the U.N. team to make any kind of finding.
GJELTENStan writes, "Your discussion about various military strike options against Syria presumes the U.S. is entitled to be an international policeman and that the U.S. intervention would somehow be a positive thing. One does not have to be an apologist for the Assad regime to argue against the projection of U.S. military power abroad."
GJELTENAnd I want to go now to Curtis who is on the line from New York and Curtis I think you have a point to make as well about what the options the U.S. is facing in Syria. Is that right?
CURTISI do, thanks for taking my call.
GJELTENYou bet, welcome to the show.
CURTISThank you, this call is concerning Syria and President Obama's reflective nature on the issue. Barbara Slavin made a point or a statement, which is somewhat unsettling. The quote was sometimes you just have to act. I understand there was some context to this quote, but it was quite hawkish and almost brutal and reckless.
CURTISMy problem with this statement is that my little brother is a newly-commissioned officer in the U.S. military and it would be wise to remember that one percent of our country has just been at war for ten years. In conclusion, Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma State made a prescient point last night on television.
CURTISHe said that the U.S. in our Civil War had 750,000 casualties with a population of 30 million. The Syrians are at 100,000 with a population of 24 million. The Syrians are nowhere close to our level. Landis went on to question whether the French and the British should have possibly intervened. He said possibly but the real question is would we have been better off if they had? He said, probably not. I approve of Obama's very measured approach and I'll take my comment off the air.
GJELTENThank you very much, Curtis. You know, Barbara, Curtis makes this very important point that we can't emphasize enough that all the war fighting that we have done over the last ten years, the burden has been borne by a very small fraction of the American population.
SLAVINYeah, that's absolutely true and I'm certainly not advocating that the United States should become embroiled in a land war in Syria. I think what I'm talking about is a limited action that directly addresses whoever fired those particular missiles.
SLAVINIf it's shown that the Syrian regime did and it looks likely that they did, that there should be some retaliation from that. It's odd to hear myself being called hawkish. It's not an adjective that usually is leveled at me. I certainly was an opponent of going into Iraq. But I think there are cases where there are moral considerations and that acting is a deterrent to further uses of WMD by Assad or by anyone and is important.
GJELTENOkay. Let's go now to Vida who is on the line from Raleigh, N.C. Did I pronounce your name correctly?
VIDAYes, you did, thank you for taking my call.
GJELTENThank you for calling.
VIDAI have a comment about Syria and how your guests and you know you just throw the names of the rebels, Hezbollah. Okay, Hezbollah is very well known but they are a friend of the government. They support the government. When you have a chaotic situation like what's going on in Syria the rebels who are more successful and organized, they get their money from Saudi Arabia, not Iran and Hezbollah.
VIDAIran supports Hezbollah to, you know, to support Assad's regime, not fight against it. And I feel like you kind of mix everything together and use Iran as a scapegoat whereas you never mention Saudi Arabia because maybe they are. I don't know. They're not apparently. They're not so apparent in what they do.
GJELTENWell, Vida, this is a helpful phone call because it gives us an excuse to sort of remind listeners of who the lineup of players are here and you're absolutely right that Iran is on the side of the Assad regime and Saudi Arabia is on the side of the rebel forces. And Barbara, this goes to what we were saying before, how really this is a proxy conflict isn't it with great powers of the region involved in one side or the other and it is important to keep straight who is on which side.
SLAVINYeah, absolutely. I think there are estimates of 1,000 different militias on the opposition side, not just the al-Nusra Front and some of the groups, the Free Syria Army and so on that are supported by different players. And the complexity of it is one of the reasons obviously why the Obama administration is so hesitant about getting involved.
GJELTENI want to move on now to the situation in Pakistan. Mark Landler, Pervez Musharraf went back to Pakistan. I don't think he knew what he was getting into. He has since been indicted for some responsibility in the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. What's likely to happen there? What's that about?
LANDLERWell, as is so often the case with Pakistan, it's a bit of a murky tale. The general went back against the advice of a lot of his fellow generals thinking he might be able to revive a political career and found himself promptly, first heckled and mocked when he landed there and now the subject of legal charges.
LANDLERThe issue of whether he was involved somehow in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a longstanding one. And it's based on somewhat circumstantial, in fact rather circumstantial evidence some of which comes from an American lobbyist named Mark Siegel who was the recipient of emails from Benazir Bhutto shortly before she was assassinated in which she apparently said that were something bad to happen to her Musharraf would bear some of the blame.
LANDLERMusharraf, in the days and weeks leading up to her assassination, was also in the media saying some pretty hostile things about her. So there's, there's...
GJELTENThat wouldn't seem to me to be sufficient proof if it was at all.
LANDLERIn Pakistani politics, it would seem to be just another day so you know, that's the case. And so of course the natural questions are to what extent is this largely political? Many of the judges and the legal officials in Pakistan were long-time nemeses of Pervez Musharraf.
LANDLERAnd so it's sort of akin to what we've seen many times with former leaders in Pakistan where a lot of it is shrouded in mystery and we may never know the true story. And frankly among the list of people that might have been involved in Benazir Bhutto's assassination you have the intelligence agency, the ISI, the military, others so it's just a deeply-tangled tale.
SLAVINYeah, well, there's another factor as well. The prime minister of Pakistan now is Nawaz Sharif and he was the one who was removed by Musharraf back in 1999 so I think you have multiple layers of revenge possibly behind some of these charges.
GJELTENAnd Warren, what does this indicate about sort of the political landscape in Pakistan and the prospect of, I mean the big fear that we've always had about Pakistan is sort of instability there given all that's going on and the presence of al-Qaida in the border region of Pakistan.
STROBELA couple of things here. I mean, on one level, it seems to be business as usual in...
STROBEL...Pakistani politics. It's messed up. There's revenge here. But there are a couple of other things going on. A couple of months ago Pakistan had an election and you know it didn't probably get as much attention as it should have but it was one of the very few, if not the first time, it was the first time that a civilian government in Pakistan passed power to another civilian government.
STROBELThat shows you a little bit of stability and Pakistan has enormous problems. I'm not saying it doesn't, but that was a very hopeful sign. So that's one thing. The other thing is again, given that we all know that there's revenge, appears to be a revenge factor here. The fact that you do have a former senior military person facing legal justice is not a common thing in Pakistan. It's not necessarily a bad sign either.
GJELTENMeanwhile, speaking of al-Qaida and the future of al-Qaida, the American-born spokesman for al-Qaida, Adam Gadahn, is calling for attacks on U.S. ambassadors around the world. He posted this video actually praising the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Mark, is there anything that the United States can do about this individual, this American, who is now calling for the assassination of American ambassadors?
LANDLERWell, I almost hesitate to raise it, but it's not as though the United States hasn't acted against American citizens who it believes are involved in violence, jihadi-motivated violence. I mean, the extra-judicial killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen is an example. It's troubled a lot of people in the United States who say that he wasn't given any due process.
LANDLERSo I can't say the U.S. couldn't do anything about it, but at the moment, this guy appears to be more of just a terrible thorn in the side of the United States.
GJELTENWell, it's funny you should mention that, Mark. Senator Lindsey Graham said this week that the United States should strike Gadahn without hesitation. He sent out a tweet. This is what the tweet said. "The U.S., the use of lethal force against American citizen, al-Qaida leader Adam Gadahn is appropriate and should be utilized without hesitation." So we'll see if anything happens there.
GJELTENLet's go back to the phones now. Jessie is on the line. Jessie, you're calling where from? San Antonio?
JESSIEYes, sir, how are you this morning?
GJELTENGood, how are you?
JESSIEFantastic. I'm a 100 percent disabled veteran and I served time in the Marine Corps and the United States Navy and I was there during the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos right there at the Malacanang Palace. You know, we, you know we have a pretty good insight, you know on the time it takes to actually infiltrate and you know take so much ground with all the homework that needs to be done.
JESSIEYou know you have a lot of Republicans out there, you know, like Senator McCain and some of the rest of the GOP out there that are hounding, you know, our president, that he's not doing his job, that he's negligent in his duties. You know, we need to back up and really think this out before we start throwing rocks when we live in a glass house because we just -- I think there's more sour taste in their mouths from the past than to really take some of these issues seriously.
JESSIEYou know we get -- it's very necessary for the president of our country, whether -- no matter which president it is, that not only do we stand behind him, whether we're Republicans or Democrats, we need to start, you know, having a level of respect for our president...
JESSIE...and, you know, giving him the benefit of the doubt because, you know, he's already done numerous accomplishments on the security of our country. And I find it very insulting for people to constantly be coming on the air and talking about how negligent our president is.
GJELTENOkay, Jessie. You know, actually you made this point about Congress and one of the things that we've seen with both Republican and Democratic presidents is that they hate like anything when Congress starts trying to get into the picture and call shots on foreign policy, right, Warren?
STROBELYeah, yeah. I mean, a couple of points, if I could, Jessie. For of all, no one is talking about a ground invasion of Syria. Nobody in this town, nobody in Paris, nobody in London, certainly nobody, so the debate is more over the limited strikes that we were talking about earlier.
STROBELI think the real deeper question now that we all need to ponder is the Iraq syndrome and the question is, has President Barack Obama, who opposed the Iraq War and saw all its flaws, over-read the lessons to the point that he's being too cautious, too afraid to show American leadership? I'm not saying that he is, but I think that's a question we need to...
STROBELAnd just finally, the fact is President Obama is where most of the American people are on Syria. We have to say that like 12 percent or something of the American people favor U.S. military intervention.
GJELTENAnd that's Warren Strobel, he's diplomatic editor at Reuters. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Barbara, do you want to make a comment?
SLAVINNo. I think it's very important to listen to these voices, especially from our military and understand why there is so much pushback on this question. But I just wanted to reinforce what Warren said. I mean, for me, yes, there are moral questions. There are credibility questions. President Obama said it was a red line if Syria used chemical weapons and I do think it's important for American leadership, not just now, but going forward, that when the president of the United States says something, he means it.
SLAVINBut no one is talking about getting the United States involved in massive wars a la George W. Bush. If anything, we're talking about a return to the Bill Clinton model of using the military.
GJELTENOkay. There's one other story I want to touch on before we wrap up today. Mark, the British authorities detained Glenn Greenwald's partner when he was returning to Brazil apparently from Germany. Of course, Glenn Greenwald is a journalist and civil libertarian activist who has been very heavily involved in promoting Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA surveillance.
GJELTENWhy did the British authorities detain his partner when he came through London?
LANDLERWell, it's extremely controversial because the law they used was one they used to question people about terrorism-related issues. And he spent nine hours in detention and says that nothing he was involved in remotely touched on that, nor frankly was he even questioned about those types of issues.
LANDLERBut the authorities did take from him all sorts of electronics that contained material that he was transporting from Germany back to Brazil and haven't yet returned it. And he has a lawyer who has filed a case against the Home Office in Britain demanding that material back and demanding that the government not share it around with anyone else before it do so.
LANDLERAnd this comes at the same time that the Guardian which is the British newspaper that's broken a lot of this, a lot of Greenwald's reporting, was also visited by British officials who actually demanded that they destroy hard drives containing a lot of material.
GJELTENThat seems really foolish. I mean, everybody backs up their files.
LANDLERWell, that's the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, pointed out that we have multiple copies of this and so I didn't see the point in having a rather silly argument with them. So they went ahead and did this and he said they simply moved their reporting to the U.S., to their bureaus in New York and Washington presumably and continued going along.
LANDLERBut it's raised some very difficult questions for Britain and interestingly the White House which was asked about it predictably this week and declined to say anything about what Britain had done. So this whole NSA story and all its spin-offs continues to bubble away.
GJELTENWell, one of the things it shows, Warren, is that this is not strictly a U.S. controversy. I mean we already saw a lot of controversy in South America when it turned out that, when Edward Snowden revealed that there had been snooping of governments, of government activities in South America.
GJELTENAnd clearly, the U.K. apparently feels almost as strongly about this issue as the Obama administration does.
STROBELIn some ways, more strongly. There's a special alliance that's sometimes called the Five Eyes. It's an Anglo-Saxon alliance frankly of countries that cooperate on electronic surveillance, the U.S., Australia. I believe it is New Zealand, the U.K. So there's a special alliance. What's fascinating to me, though, Tom, is how the two different countries, the United States and the United Kingdom have responded to this differently.
STROBELThe U.K. busting up computers at the Guardian offices, detaining David Miranda and the Obama administration is on a little bit of a charm offensive where they've released some declassified, some once-secret federal court, secret court documents related to surveillance. The NSA is actually holding conference calls with reporters, the most secret intelligence agency.
STROBELSo the United States, the U.S. government is dealing with it in a slightly different way.
GJELTENWell, our time is coming to an end for this hour where we've been discussing international news. We've had a lot to say about Syria. There have been a lot of calls about Syria and what the United States should do in Syria. I do want to point out that on Monday, "The Diane Rehm Show" will devote the first hour to exploring the growing pressure on the United States to respond to events in Syria.
GJELTENMy guests this morning have been Warren Strobel, diplomatic editor at Reuters, Barbara Slavin, Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor. She's also a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and Mark Landler, the current White House correspondent and former diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Jill Colgan. The engineer is Aaron Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sale. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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