A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top national news stories.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
A bipartisan group of nearly 200 lawmakers are asking President Barack Obama for congressional approval for military action in Syria. The White House says the president has authority to make his own decision. A secret budget obtained by NSA leaker Edward Snowden and released to The Washington Post reveals new details about operations within the U.S. intelligence community. The president marks the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington. And the budget wars resume after a summer ceasefire. A panel of experts joins guest host Steve Roberts for the domestic hour of the Friday news roundup.
- Jeff Mason White House correspondent at Reuters.
- Sheryl Gay Stolberg Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
- Ron Elving senior Washington editor for NPR.
This week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. President Barack Obama and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter delivered speeches at the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the historic march. A caller to The Diane Rehm Show said she attended the 2013 rally and was disappointed that no Republican presidents attended the event. Ron Elving of NPR said, “I don’t believe it was a Democratic pep rally but it could be portrayed as that.” New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg said the lack of Republican elected officials appeared to be the result of miscommunication and happenstance, rather than an organized attempt to distance themselves from the march.
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MR. STEVE ROBERTSThank you so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting today for Diane. She's on vacation and will be back in mid-September. The Obama administration briefs lawmakers about possible military strikes on Syria. House Speaker John Boehner says he expects a whale of a fight over raising the debt limit, and new details emerged about the U.S. secret spy budget.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me for the National Hour of the Friday News Roundup, Ron Elving of NPR, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, Jeff Mason of Reuters. Welcome to you all.
MS. SHERYL GAY STOLBERGGood morning.
MR. RON ELVINGGood to be with you
MR. JEFF MASONGood morning.
ROBERTSJoin our conversation, 1-800-433-8850, as always, and email@example.com, our email address. Now, Ron, as best we can tell, the president seems to be preparing to move on Syria. He said he hasn't made a decision, but he's also foreshadowing a likely outcome here. But there's considerable uneasiness on Capitol Hill. What are you hearing?
ELVINGThe attack has been foreshadowed all week. In a sense, it may have been inevitable because of the president's own language about a red line that he issued several months but had not acted upon until this recent provocation. It should really be called an outrage, and something that called the president's bluff. Now, he has indicated that he's ready to go ahead even the coalition is essentially the United States alone, with perhaps a little bit of a wink and a nod from a couple of other countries.
ELVINGThe Brits have explicitly refused to give authority to their prime minister to go forward as part of the attack. So it really comes back on Pres. Obama rather in a solo role. And the Congress has made clear even after a briefing last night by top officials of the White House but not by the president himself that they are not on board. They are still full of questions. They want to have some sort of a role, perhaps not a full formal debate like we had before the 1991 Iraq War but some kind of a role, some kind of authorization.
ELVINGAnd 80 percent of the public seems to agree with him. Now, whether that's just their disapproval for this particular errand, or their not clear idea of what exactly that errand would be, whether we would be invading in the Iraq style or whether it would simply be some kind of a cruise missile attack, they just aren't happy.
ROBERTSThat 80 percent from an NBC poll out this morning that you were just quoting, Ron. Sheryl, but the president has been getting pressure from both sides, you know, because there are the John McCains of the world who have been pushing him for a long time to be more vigorous and visible. And yet at the same time, there are members of both parties who have been signing letters not just saying more consultation but raising very serious questions about what happens next after this first attack and raising fears about being drawn into a wider war?
STOLBERGYeah. I think that's exactly right, and I think what we're going to see now and what we're already beginning to see is the White House making its case. So last night, just 90 minutes after the British parliament delivered this extraordinary rebuke to the prime minister, they're saying no they would not join in a military action against Syria. We saw top Obama officials, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who's traveling in Southeast Asia, Susan Rice, the national security advisers and others give a 90-minute briefing to Congress about the evidence that they believe confirms that the Syrian president did in fact use chemical weapons against his own people.
STOLBERGThe administration expects to release that unclassified report later today probably for the public to see. And I think, you know, House members are saying the president has a sales job to do, and I think he does have a sales job to do. And we're gonna see him do it. As you mentioned, there is deep uneasiness on Capitol Hill, but we also do see sort of glimmers of support, for instance, Bob Corker, the Republican...
ROBERTSRanking Republican on the foreign...
STOLBERG...on the foreign relations committee, said that he saw -- he would support, quote, "a surgical, proportional military strike given the strong evidence that Assad used chemical weapons. Democrats a little more supportive. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the committee, sees, quote, "a compelling case to act." Probably see a little bit more support in the Senate. The House tends to be a little bit more resistant to the president.
STOLBERGAnd we're also hearing talk of invoking the War Powers Act and asking for a formal vote, which frankly is not gonna happen. So before anything happens overseas, we're gonna see a lot more discussion.
ROBERTSWell, and, Jeff, this point about a formal vote which we did have. We saw in Britain and the perils of a formal vote...
ROBERTS...just yesterday. And the prime minister and a number of other commentators in explaining what happened in Britain said this was about Iraq. This was about the lingering shadow and fear of another Iraq. And Britain only lost less than 200 soldiers in Iraq, and yet even there, far less than the United States. There is that cloud. And as Sheryl says, it seems that the administration is reluctant to give Congress the kind of vote that the British prime minister did.
MASONFor sure. And I think the point about Iraq is very good. You definitely saw that in Britain, and you see this administration trying to fight back against that. Very specifically, the president and his interview this week with PBS deliberately made a reference to this as not Iraq. He made the point of saying this is the same thing. It's not apples for apples. This week, Jay Carney and Josh Ernest at the White House have also made a point saying this is not the same as Iraq.
MASONThey're looking at -- without saying a decision has been made. They're talking about targeted, limited strikes in Syria. So for sure, that shadow is over the whole issue, both in this country and abroad. And the president does not want that to become the same kind of legacy and the same kind of deterrent for what he wants to do both in Congress and elsewhere.
ROBERTSAnd that shadow of Iraq, Ron Elving, is not just affecting public opinion, not just affecting Congress. It's also affecting the military. There's a very interesting story in The Washington Post this morning, quoting a number of military officers reflecting these doubts about where does this lead, is there a larger game plan beyond a surgical strike. And talk about the -- and one general was quoted in the story saying we only have bad choices. Talk about the role of the military here.
ELVINGThe military is ready to go as they have told us again and again, and they will launch whatever attack the president orders. But I believe there are deep reservations here about what we're getting into. It's one thing to launch a number of cruise missiles, and we have assets in the Eastern Mediterranean. We have a number of ships there. We can send aircraft. We can send cruise missiles.
ELVINGWe have assets in that region, as everyone knows, and we have, to some degree, the cooperation of the Israelis, of course. So we can do things that would be effective in a very short term and in a very narrow definition. That is to say we can blow things up. But what things? And with what effect? And what happens the day after the ordinance stops flying? Then what do we do?
ELVINGDo we send more? Do we ask Assad to step aside? Do we say we're going to send in some sense or another some other kind of mission in? There is zero support anywhere in the United States system that I can see for boots on the ground. So if we're not going to do that and the Assad regime knows that we're not going to press all the way to regime change, the way we did in Iraq the second time, then what exact pressure do we have to exert after we have expended a lot of the taxpayers' money sending a lot of things flying into Syria?
ROBERTSAnd as you said, Sheryl, a lot of this comes down to the explanation in the case that is made. And, of course, the other -- we talked about the shadow of Iraq. And when you talk about making a case for an attack in the Middle East, everybody remembers Colin Powell...
ROBERTS...going to the United Nations, making a case which turned out...
ROBERTS...to be false.
STOLBERGAnd I think so the two things that really absolutely have to happen are the administration has to make a solid case that in fact chemical weapons were used by Assad that, you know, precisely for what you mentioned. You know, in Iraq, we went in, making an argument that we were going after chemical weapons and biological weapons that turned out not to be there. So that's number one.
STOLBERGAnd number two, and the administration has already been trying to do this, they're saying, look, the goal of this military strike is not regime change as was the goal in Iraq in 2003. So they are trying to divorce that in the public mind and to make the case that this is not Iraq. We're not going in for regime change. That's -- this is not to further our diplomatic aim, although the administration would like regime change in Syria. So I think...
ROBERTSAssad happened to walk under a cruise missile, it wouldn't be all...
STOLBERGRight. So it's a little bit hard to say, well, we want to Assad to go, but we're not bombing them to push him out.
MASONThat is part of the sales pitch, for sure, and it's part of the way of getting Americans behind this.
ROBERTSNow, Jeff, the other event this week which was overshadowed in some ways in the interviews the president gave and in the news of the week. But still the president's speech at the march on -- the 50th anniversary on March on Washington, one of the more significant ones in his presidency. And as always, the subject of race one that the president deals with carefully. He's never shrunk from the fact that he's the first black president, but he always talks about race in certain ways. What do we learn about the president from his speeches?
MASONWell, I think it was interesting in his speech this week that he did not make a whole lot of personal references, and he sometimes will. He did when he talked about the Trayvon Martin ruling but on...
ROBERTSIn Newtown, he talked a lot about his daughters. You're right. He does talk a lot about his...
MASONHe does indeed, and he makes that personal connection. And this time, the only reference to his personal story was the fact that because they marched, it led to some change at city councils and local governments and, yes, even the White House. And that was the only reference he made to himself, but it was a broad speech about race. He did talk about the fact that there's been a lot of progress, and he said that for people who don't think there's progress that makes -- that's unfair to the accomplishments that were achieved by those marchers.
MASONBut he and along with all the other speakers that day made a point of saying there's a lot more to do. And it was interesting to see him up there with the others on that stage, especially from the King family with that history.
ROBERTSBut he also went out of his way to talk about all races and every child. This was -- and his own people, Ron, went out of their way to say he is not a black president. He's not a civil rights leader. He's the president of all the people. That was the way they wanted people to view this speech.
ELVINGAnd that's always been the way...
ELVING...they wanted people to view this president back to 2007 when he first started running for president. You know, Martin Luther King Sr., the father of the famous Martin Luther King, said that the great contribution of his son, Martin, had been that not that he had liberated black people but that he had liberated all people. That he was trying to move the country towards a post-racial consciousness.
ELVINGAnd this to was the, if you will, animating dream of the Obama presidency as its outset. Obviously, that has not proven to be within grasp, within reach. But this was, again, I think the theme of what a lot of the president was saying on Wednesday. He's trying to broaden the idea of liberation, trying to broaden the idea, for example, to gay marriage and other issues of that nature. It's not just race.
ROBERTSRon Elving of National Public Radio, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, Jeff Mason of Reuters. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm. We would be back with more of the Friday News Roundup so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane, Friday News Roundup, the domestic hour. I have Sheryl Stolberg of The New York Times with me, Jeff Mason of Reuters, Ron Elving of NPR. And, Sheryl, before the break, we were talking about Obama's speech, and in addition -- and how he dealt with the issue of race. But you point out that the speech was very much about economics as well and that he tried to link his speech to the fact that 50 years before, Martin Luther King -- this march that was being commemorated was about jobs as well as justice.
STOLBERGRight. I think it's important to know his mindset going into the speech. In an interview with my newspaper, the Times, a little while ago, he said that -- he made exactly that point, and he said, you know, racial divisions will continue in this country until we have economic equality. And in his speech, he really drew a direct line between racial justice. He talked about an economic equality. He talked about our great unfinished business, saying the test of MLK's legacy is not whether doors have opened for millionaires but whether they've opened for everyone.
ROBERTSAnd, Jeff, one noticeable absence, no Republicans accepted the invitation. Now, they were invited, both President Bush, Speaker Boehner. But the rally had a pretty partisan cast in some ways.
MASONIt had a very partisan cast. And Jimmy Carter even discussed the fact that without -- that the King family support for him helped win him Yankee votes when he was running for president. It seemed very much like an opportunity during Obama's speech for him to draw a line, as Sheryl referenced, between Martin Luther King's legacy and his programs today. But he talked a lot about his programs today.
MASONAnd I think, possibly, if there had been more Republicans on the stage -- and I've heard other commentators say this as well -- it might have been a little less about Obama's agenda and a little bit more about bipartisanship.
ROBERTSNow, speaking about Republicans and bipartisanship or the absence of it in Washington, Ron, we hadn't heard much all summer about the budget wars and the twin deadlines that are approaching to raise the debt limit, allowing the government to borrow money, as well as the appropriations bill to fund the government, both of which are coming up.
ROBERTSSecretary of Treasury Jack Lew said the government ran out of borrowing authority in mid-October this week. And Speaker Boehner, speaking at a fundraiser in Idaho, said we're in for a whale of a fight over the debt limit. Jay Carney, the president's spokesman, reiterated, again, we will not negotiate over the debt limit. Obama -- Boehner says this is gonna be a whale of a fight. How do you read this situation?
ELVINGWe are getting ready for an October in which the two sides see the stakes as being extraordinarily high, and both sides believe that they have the better cards. Jack Lew thinks and the White House believes that they simply do not negotiate the debt limit, that the public will essentially adopt the attitude, that Congress does not have a right to refuse to pay the bills for the spending they have already approved. That's the White House line.
ELVINGOn the other hand the Republicans have made a judgment that shutting down the government on Oct. 1 because there has not been any appropriations process to speak of and what we have instead is the continuing resolution that we're getting so used to. If we don't pass another one on Oct. 1 and the government starts to shut down, the Republicans calculate, probably correctly, that they'll take the blame for that - they have in the past - and that they would suffer perhaps even into the elections in 2014.
ELVINGSo they don't think that's their best moment of leverage. They think they're better off with the debt limit argument because they can say, let's not raise the debt ceiling. Let's lower the spending river. And that's an argument that they can sell certainly to their own constituencies, which they care about in paramount fashion, because every Republican now is more worried about a primary, especially in the House, than they're worried about a democratic opponent.
ROBERTSBut, Sheryl, a lot of Republicans, particularly somewhat more pragmatic or moderate Republicans, including a number of senators, this is the wrong fight to pick. And it might work in these congressional districts. It might work in congressional elections. It could be devastating down the road to Republican chances of winning back the White House. Talk about the split in Republican rights.
STOLBERGRight. Well, I think that you're identifying very correctly the split, and I think it's important to understand the context in which Speaker Boehner made his remarks this week. He was speaking in Idaho, a very conservative, very red state at a Republican fundraiser for a conservative lawmaker, Mike Simpson. So in this context, it's very appealing for him to say we're gonna have a whale of a fight, right? He wants to rally his base. He can't afford to lose his base.
STOLBERGIt's important for him to keep his troops in line. And the troops, particularly the Tea Party conservatives, want that spending fight. But as you say, more broadly speaking, when Republicans look down the road, they know that a government shutdown is not good for their party. It's very important for them to look like a responsible governing party if they want to win back the White House in 2016.
STOLBERGAnd so there is this balancing act. And we will see more moderate forces in the party likely in the Senate trying to say, look, we've got to resolve this problem now. There were some negotiations at the White House yesterday -- or rather talks. I wouldn't call them negotiations because, frankly, not a lot...
ROBERTSA group of Republican senators.
STOLBERGNot a lot got done. And Bob Corker who is -- who has been, you know, demonstrated, frankly, kind of moderate tendencies in trying to forge a bipartisan coalitions left these discussions with Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff and others saying, look, I don't see there's any point to continuing these discussions because, frankly, they're not going anywhere.
ROBERTSNow, speaking of budget, Jeff, another big story this week, a leak to The Washington Post, big story on the front page, about the black budget, the national security budget which has traditionally been hidden from public view on the grounds that if you give too many details, it reveals too much to the nation's enemies. And this is, of course, information came from Edward Snowden...
ROBERTS…the latest in a long line of leaks we've seen over the summer. What have we learned that we didn't know before?
MASONWell, there were some interesting bits in that, for sure, the reports that spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. So there are some details about that. What I thought was more interesting, though, is the fact that Snowden is back. He's -- the revelations from Snowden have been kind of at an ebb for a while.
MASONAnd now all of a sudden, here they come again right in the middle of this Syria discussion, right in the middle of the budget discussions and the debt ceiling. So there were some revelations. There weren't a lot of revelations. But the fact that Snowden's information is still out there and starting to drib out -- to come out again in bits and pieces is interesting.
ROBERTSBut it was interesting that I thought that one of the bits of pieces that came out was a little glimpse into the cyberattack warfare that this is something that we kind of knew was out there. But it was interesting to see it confirmed a little bit.
MASONRight. And it talked about the fact that the U.S. is investing in that. And clearly, they're partially doing that because other countries are doing the same thing. I mean, there's been a lot of discussion this year about China and cyber warfare with China. President Obama discussed that with his counterpart in California this spring. So it's not surprising but quite interesting to see that there is money being directly invested into that kind of operation.
STOLBERGThe other thing is that, you know, Washington Post said that these documents were so sensitive that it withheld the full extent of them online. It's posting only the summary, and Snowden has demonstrated a propensity for disenchantment with news organizations that withhold certain things. And we know that he has these documents, and I wonder how long will it be before the full documents do come out online, which must be very, very concerning to the Obama administration.
ROBERTSAnd this is a rare moment, Ron Elving, where public has a glimpse into how journalists really work in a situation like this. Often, the view is, well, we publish anything. But that's not true, and there are these often lengthy, careful negotiations that go one before any kind of story like this between bureau chiefs, producers and national security officials.
ROBERTSAnd often, news organizations, if they get a legitimate request, will withhold information like this. And this is a moment when we see The Post trying to reconcile to conflicting impulses to inform their readers but also responsible on national security.
ELVINGYour point is well taken with respect to, say, The Post, say, The New York Times, say, other traditional news organizations, if you will, conventional legacy news organizations that have handled material of this kind in this manner for a long time, but it is a new day. And I suspect that Sheryl is right that frustrated by The Post's emending some of these material. Edward Snowden knows other ways to get it out there. We've seen that already.
ELVINGHe'll go to Glenn Greenwald, a blogger, who is also a journalist for The Guardian newspaper from Great Britain. There are lots of other people out there eager to publish whatever The Washington Post will not if they can get it from the same leaker. So the game has changed. In the traditional leaking game, you're absolutely right. But in the new world, not so much.
ROBERTSAnd, Sheryl, another story that emerged late this week. After the Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, one of the important issues was how the IRS would treat same-sex couples. And there was a confusion out there because some couple were married in states where it was legal, but then they lived in states where it was not legal. And the IRS this week tried to issue a ruling that would set the rule straight for same-sex couples wherever they lived.
STOLBERGYes. The IRS clarified this for federal purposes saying that same-sex couples who are married no matter where they married, even overseas, will now be filing their tax returns either jointly as a married couple or married filing separately. But this, frankly, doesn't really end the confusion. You know, right after the Supreme Court's decisions, I wrote about a couple who married in Washington, D.C., where it's legal, had adopted a child in California where they could and had been residents but were currently living Utah where they're marriage is not legal.
STOLBERGSo this couple will now be filing its federal tax returns as a married couple. But what about state tax returns? Utah does not recognize their marriage. So now this throws open the question to that states of what will they do. Typically, you file your state returns based off of what you do for federal. So will gay married couples who are in states that don't recognize their marriage now be forced to file two sets of returns? We don't know the answer to that yet. And -- but this is part of this patchwork that gay rights activists will hope will end eventually. They would like to see same-sex marriage legal everywhere.
MASONAnd those activists, a lot of them said that this will no doubt lead to more people from states that don't have gay marriage going to New York, going to Washington, D.C., to get married, and it will lead some bureaucratic headaches no doubt for the states that don't have it. But you'll probably see an uptick in marriage as a result.
ROBERTSAnd, Jeff, another story that surfaced this week. We haven't heard much about gun control in the course of the summer ever since the Senate turned down legislation that would've strengthen background checks. But there was a small effort by the Obama administration this week to use its executive authority to try to tighten laws in two small ways.
ROBERTSTighten the laws in terms of re-importation of military weapons that have been exported and also ownership of guns by corporations as some criminals and others who have been barred from owning weapons have tried to find legal dodges to legitimately own them. Significance of what the administration did this week.
MASONWell, the significance is that the administration is trying to say there to give the signal that we're not done. The Congress may not have been able to get through this and pass these measures that we wanted to, but Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama are still committed to this. And it was interesting to me.
MASONYesterday, Vice President Biden, when he talked about the new measure, said, look, if Congress won't act, then we'll work to get a new Congress, which was his way of saying not only will we be trying to pass some of these things on our own with executive authority like the two measures you just referenced, but also making the gun issue a good part of the midterm elections.
ROBERTSNow, Biden also indicated that he had heard privately that several senators who had voted against the background check legislation now had changed their minds and willing to vote for it. Do you hear anything about the possibility of that issue coming back as a legislative issue?
MASONI don't, and I don't see it happening certainly this year or even next year. They've got so many other things on their plate, and it was really quite an epic failure after all of the political capital that both the president and the vice president put into that. They probably would talk about the things that they did achieve, and certainly, they did achieve some things. But they didn't get anywhere near what they were looking for, and there are just so many other things on their plate. We'll have a Fed chair discussion, budget discussions, and immigration looms as well.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A couple of other stories that we wanna touch on before we get to callers, Ron. Maj. Hasan in Texas sentenced to death. And if that sentence is carried out for the shootings at Fort Hood, he would be the first in half a century, active-duty military executed. There are several other people on death row in Leavenworth. But this appeal is gonna take months, if not years. But the significance of that verdict and the larger question of the major.
ELVINGThe major, in this case, essentially volunteered for the maximum penalty by the means of the defense. He defended himself, and the defense that he brought was not a conventional defense in any sense. He was essentially saying that he was shooting these people to prevent them going to Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever they might have been assigned. He was essentially identifying himself as a warrior.
ELVINGAnd in this particular case, it's very difficult to see how the court could have gone in many other directions or any other direction. And the appeal, while it will, as you say, take some time, does not have a clear path to success. So his execution would seem likely. Certainly he will be incarcerated for all that period of time or indefinitely if the execution is stayed at some point.
ROBERTSAnd, Sheryl, finally a story that -- we don't hear much about strikes in this country these days. It's really interesting that it's not a subject. It used to be a subject that we read about all the time. But here you have the workers in fast food outlets striking in a number of states. They've been encouraged and supported by the Service Employees Union, a very active, very liberal union that supports a lot of Democratic candidates. The significance of this emergence of fast food workers who are demanding an increase of $15 an hour.
STOLBERGWell, it's hard to see that they will get an increase to $15 an hour. They are paid, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of $9 an hour. These are non-union workers, but they are trying to raise awareness of their plight at a time when the president would like to see Congress raise the minimum wage. And if you look at what the minimum wage in this country is, $7.25 an hour.
STOLBERGIf you work full time and you get paid the minimum wage, you are making about $15,000 a year. That is right at the poverty line for a family of two. So I think, you know, it's a consciousness-raising exercise, frankly, more than one that will succeed in getting these workers' pay. And we even saw yesterday, frankly, some patrons of fast food restaurants going in and saying, well, they thought $15 an hour was too much.
ROBERTSAnd also -- and consciousness-raising is -- it relates also to something the president has been talking a lot about in terms of economics, and that's stagnant wages in this country. Focus has been so much, Jeff, on the unemployment rate. But recent studies over the summer show that, in fact, real wages for many Americans have gone down and have not recovered from the recession. And so this is a larger issue that a lot of workers in America are facing.
MASONIt absolutely is, and you're right to mention the president, during his State of the Union address, which seems like ages ago now, he talked about raising the minimum wage. He talks a lot about income equality, both at the speech this week at the Lincoln Memorial and on his bus trip just a week ago. It's an issue that the White House is absolutely interested in, talking also about and looking at the potential Fed chair replacements. The idea of income inequality, unemployment are all at the very top of their minds, and it is absolutely affecting American workers.
ROBERTSAnd it's affecting the public mood because unemployment has a wide impact, but stagnant wages affects everybody in some way or another, except at the very top end of the scale. So this is also a political problem for the White House.
MASONAbsolutely it is.
ROBERTSThat's Jeff Mason of Reuters, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, Ron Elving of NPR. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. We're gonna be back with your calls, your comments, your questions. So stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Friday News Roundup, the domestic hour. Jeff Mason of Reuters, Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, Ron Elving of NPR. We have an email from Michael, who said that, "I found your comment 'that Britain lost only 200 soldiers' offensive." Let me be very clear. I was referring to the fact that it was -- I'm not minimizing, in any way, the pain of that loss. But compared to more than 4,000, I was simply trying to draw the distinction between the situation of the United States and Great Britain.
ROBERTSLet me try to read now some tweets and some emails and get my friends here on the panel to respond. From Rafael, "Obama is a constitutional law scholar. He should go to Congress and ask for a declaration of war in Syria, even for limited operations." We got a lot of emails, Jeff, and a lot of tweets to this effect.
MASONYeah. And I think it's been interesting how Congress has become such a big part of the story this week. Sheryl talked earlier about the president and the White House needing to make their case. They made their case last night in a 90-minute phone call. We had some congressmen and women coming out and talking a little bit about that. The readout from the White House was very minimal.
MASONAnd I think the other thing that was very interesting, Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said yesterday if action is taken in Syria and we need to make some kind of legal justification, then the United States will come up with its own legal justification. That's -- it raises a lot of questions about how they would do that and what that justification would be.
ROBERTSAnd, of course, from a legal point of view, Ron Elving -- we didn't talk about this but I wanna get to it -- a lot of scholars say that the most obvious legal process would be to go through the United Nations, but -- and getting United Nation's resolution. But that has been blocked by Russia and China. So the legality that Jeff talks about gets harder for the president to accomplish without the option of a United Nations resolution.
ELVINGMuch more difficult. You have different kinds of levels of approval here from Congress. You have a declaration of war. We haven't seen that since 1941. We did all over the wars of the Cold War period without a declaration of war. Then you have the kind of invasion permission that George H. W. Bush asked the Congress for back in 1991, after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. It was an interesting debate. It was Congress at its best. In the end, the vote was relatively close.
ELVINGBut both the Senate and the Congress, the House approved that invasion of Kuwait and Iraq eventually, although we didn't go all the way to Baghdad that time. Then, of course, we came back in 2002 with an authorization for George W. Bush that became the basis on which we went into Iraq in March of 2003. Many people, as we were saying earlier in the hour, have come to regard that as the central lesson of our time, as a great warning. And so the president obviously has all of those precedents to consider.
ELVINGBut I think he's been thinking that this is something more along the lines of the cruise missiles we sent into Afghanistan in 1998 under President Clinton, after a couple of American embassies were bombed in Africa. That's the kind of strike he's thinking of, not the kind of thing that we did in Iraq twice and not the kind of thing that we had done in the past in any of the major wars of the Cold War.
ROBERTSAnd Sheryl, let me read you this email from Mike in D.C. "I believe Obama has painted himself into a corner. By saying he would do something if chemical weapons were used, he set himself up for failures." This is, of course, the famous red line quote.
ROBERTS"If he acts, sidestepping Congress, they will condemn him. If he goes through Congress, they will vote against action that portrays -- and that will portray Obama as weak, hypocritical and untrustworthy." Your reaction to Mike's comment?
STOLBERGYou know, I think he makes an excellent point. The president really kind of boxed himself into a corner. A year ago, on Aug. 20, 2012, he was speaking in an impromptu news conference. He said that we can't have a situation which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. He call -- he said that would be a red line for us. That would change by calculus. That would change my equation. Those words, red line, have haunted this president ever since, and many would say they are what's driving him right now.
STOLBERGAnd the caller is right. President Obama is kind of caught. Congress is, you know, could defy him the way the British Parliament defied Prime Minister Cameron. And if he goes alone...
ROBERTSIs there likely to be a vote at all? Or they are gonna try to sidestep them, aren't they?
STOLBERGNo. I don't think so. I don't think so. And here's why. I think, as commander in chief, the president is very mindful that he has the right to direct the military and he doesn't want to -- he's not engaging in war. He's not declaring war against Syria. He views this as a limited, targeted strike. And I think he doesn't wanna set a precedent for himself whereby every time he wants to do such a thing, he has to get permission from Congress. No president wants to do that.
STOLBERGAnd you see this tug and pull over military action between the White House and the Congress all the time. And, in fact, the president himself, when he was a senator and when he was running for president, invoked the War Powers Act. He said it would be preferable to get Congressional approval...
ROBERTSWell, this is true, whoever is president. This is a totally non...
STOLBERGRight. That's -- it's a perennial. Exactly.
ROBERTSIt's a conflict between two institutions, not between two parties.
STOLBERGThat's exactly right.
ROBERTSJeff, Joe writes to us, "If Obama goes ahead with the Syrian military strike, what repercussions could result because of his actions? Specifically, would Democrats be less likely to support his domestic policies?"
MASONThat's an interesting question. I don't think he's gonna lose support of Democrats for his domestic policies. I think that's -- the support between the White House and Democratic lawmakers in Congress is pretty high despite the fact that there are disputes and despite the fact that there are things they don't like. I don't suspect that this would lead to a big controversy there.
MASONI do think it would be interesting to watch and see how a potential military strike in Syria would affect the budget debates this year and whether or not, you know, whenever the United States is involved in a war, whether this is a war or a limited action as the White House talks about, it affects the mood, and it affects the mood in Washington. Would this lead to, perhaps, a slightly more tone -- better tone between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill and with the White House when they start talking about the debt ceiling that we referred to earlier?
ROBERTSLet's turn to some of our callers. And Elizabeth in Washington -- here in Washington, you're first. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ELIZABETHYes. Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. A couple of things you've already discussed I wanna make comments on and I'll listen to your responses. I attended the march on Wednesday. I did not see that as a political event but as a commemoration of the 50-year anniversary and supporting human and civil rights which I consider to be a moral imperative not a political point of view.
ELIZABETHAnd so I was very disappointed that no Republicans chose to participate in it as -- from the podium. And more than that, it just really, really saddens me because I think it talks about the content of our character that they took and how it's deteriorated with the split we have. And then I also found it ironic that the civil rights hero was connected through nonviolent protests even in spite of being nearly killed and beaten and everything.
ELIZABETHAnd here we are commemorating this march, and on the same day, President Obama is thinking of taking military action against Syria which has no direct relationship to stopping what they're doing. It seems to me if we wanna make a statement about it in a moral way, we can take long time to make that statement, and we should be deliberative about it. We never bombed South Africa to stop apartheids.
ROBERTSElizabeth, thanks very much for your call. We appreciate it. Ron, talk about the absence of Republicans. As we said, they were invited. Both Presidents Bush were invited. Speaker Boehner was invited. Jeff made the point it made -- it lent a cast of a more partisan event. But did that also reflect -- the absence of Republicans reflect something about the current tone and mood of Washington?
ELVINGAbsolutely. I think it would have been extremely difficult for John Boehner or any of the other Republican leaders to appear at that event and not have that be ammunition for people within their own party to suggest that they were too close to Obama, that they were participating in a Democratic pep rally, which I don't believe it was a Democratic pep rally, but it could be portrayed as that, why some of the people within the Republican Party who think John Boehner is some kind of closet Democrat. So he had a problem with that.
ELVINGI think there was one glimmer of hope which was John H. -- excuse me, George H.W. Bush was invited, as you say, and he wanted to come, but he has health issues. He is obviously advanced in age and has been ill. So he was not able to come and that would have been nice to have had at least one Republican president and, I should add, someone who back in the 1960s was president for the housing bill vote in 1968 in Congress and voted for it. So he would have that connection to the civil rights era, and that would have been at least one bipartisan note that could have been (word?)
ROBERTSAnd, of course, Sheryl, people forget that in the '60s, Republican support in Congress was absolutely critical to passing these civil rights bills. It's not as if this has been historically a partisan issue...
ROBERTS...when you had Southern Democrats not voting for these bills. It was Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate, who was critical in forging a coalition.
ROBERTSSo there's a long history there of Republican support for civil rights.
STOLBERGAnd I'd like to actually offer a slightly different view of the absence of Republicans, which I think is frankly more the result of a lot of miscommunication and sort of happenstance than any grand plan on either the part of the organizers or the Republican Party. The organizers did invite the elder President Bush and President George W. Bush, both cited health difficulties. The elder President Bush is very frail, and his son recently had a heart procedure. They seem to have worked hard to try to get Republicans to attend.
STOLBERGHouse Republican leader Eric Cantor has been very interested in these issues. He marched with John Lewis, the civil rights icon in Selma earlier this year in a re-enactment of that Bloody Sunday march. But for a variety of reasons, in part because scheduling in the summer is very difficult and these leaders do fundraise, that's a fact of life in Washington, they weren't there. And I would say that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and other democratic leaders also were not there. They were also back in their districts doing fundraising.
STOLBERGSo while it looks very bad, I think, and it's very unfortunate for the Republican Party which is trying to recruit minorities and reach out to minorities and also unfortunate for the organizers because it comes off looking like a partisan event, I truly don't think that that was the intent on either side.
ROBERTSLet me turn to Tom in Harrisburg, Pa. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Tom.
TOMHi, welcome. Thank you. I have two quick comments. Number one, where's the story on Booz Allen? You guys keep reporting on Snowden. I keep opening my Sunday Times waiting to see some Big 12 story spread on Booz Allen. There's a story. I haven't seen nothing on them. Who's the CEO? Are they the Halliburton of the Obama administration? You know, who do they contribute to? I know nothing about this one.
TOMAnd number two, our former President Clinton said that it is easier to obtain an assault weapon than it is to vote in some states. Is that true? And if that is true, that's a very, very sorry direction that our very young democracy is heading.
ROBERTSThank you, Tom. Of course, the reference, Jeff, to Booz Allen. This is the company that Edward Snowden worked for as a contractor, if I'm not mistaken. But talk about the Clinton quote and raising the issue of voting rights, which also was an issue that arose this summer. You have -- Justice Department has now confronted Texas. It's likely to bring suit in North Carolina as well.
MASONRight. Clinton, who President Obama has referred to as the explainer-in-chief, did a nice job there of pulling two issues together, one of the civil rights issues that dominated Wednesday, which was this issue of voting restrictions as well as gun control. And he talked about exactly what the caller just said that "being that it can be easier to buy a gun in some states than it is to go to vote." That's maybe a rallying cry for how to go forward on both of these issues, both from the administration and from other activists.
MASONI'd also like to just make a point about -- the previous caller talked about Syria. It was interesting that day that Bernice King, the -- Martin Luther King's daughter, said specifically, if freedom is going to ring in Libya, in Syria, in Egypt, in Florida, then we must reach across the table, feed each other and let freedom ring.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have time for one or two more callers here. And let's go to Nicole in Ashland, Ore. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Nicole.
NICOLEThank you so much for taking my call. I have wanted to say for a long time that President Assad should be removed from power and tried in The Hague for crimes against humanity, his own people. After all, Gadhafi was removed and he -- quite how many people were slaughtered in Libya, maybe 1,500. Again -- and also, I want to thank Mr. Hollande for standing up for human rights. He has heart. And President Obama has taken much long. It would have been so much easier to step in immediately.
NICOLEAnd now the deployment could become so difficult, but at last he made up his mind to stand up for the people of Syria, the people who have been abandoned by the world. And I...
ROBERTSThank you, Nicole, very much.
NICOLE(unintelligible) very emotional subject for me. Thank you for taking my call.
ROBERTSAppreciate it. As we were talking earlier, Ron, the president has very explicitly not done what Nicole wants. Even now he's not talking about regime change. He's talking about a much more limited intervention. And there are voices, like Nicole said, that have been pushing him, but he has resisted that.
ELVINGAbsolutely. This is a regime led by a man who has seen perhaps 100,000 or more people in his country killed in this rebellion that he has brutally suppressed. There are millions of people displaced. I've seen the figure of seven million people in the nation of 24 million who have been displaced. A couple of million of them are out of the country at this point. The future of Syria is extremely bleak because of this struggle, and Assad insists on continuing. This is the pattern, of course, among dictators.
ELVINGThis is the pattern that we've dealt with in other countries. In this particular case, all other factors have been unavailing. Things that could be brought to bear in Libya, in Egypt are not as possible here. That has a great deal to do with the proximity of Syria to Russia, to Iran, to all the geopolitics of this particular situation and just to the practical problems of removing Assad.
ROBERTSAnd a final word here as we head into this period, Jeff. Do you think there will be a debate on Capitol Hill on this issue? Sheryl said she did not think there'd be a vote. What's your take on that?
MASONI don't think there will be a vote either. I think absolutely there will be a debate. I think the question is whether it will be a big debate after action is taken or before the president leaves for Russia next week. And obviously his relations with...
ROBERTSThe G-20 meeting.
MASONFor the G-20 meeting, exactly. So the question is, will he want to try and take something -- have something done before that or not? If he waits and it happens after he goes abroad, then there might be more time for a debate in Congress once the lawmakers are back. It's hard to say what the timetable will be.
ROBERTSAnd, Sheryl, one gets a sense here of this president that he's a very reluctant warrior at this point in time. After all, he's a man who ran for office opposing the war in Iraq, is the architect of dismantling our mission in Afghanistan. This has never been part of Barack Obama's priority.
STOLBERGThat's right. This is a very uncomfortable place for President Obama. You know, President Bush before him really defined himself as kind of the war-on-terror president. The core of his presidency was being commander-in-chief. President Obama has never embraced that commander-in-chief's role that way. He doesn't envision -- that's not the core of his being. Really the things he talked about on -- in the March of Washington are the core of his being. So he is a reluctant warrior.
STOLBERGHe has sought to pull us out of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was reluctant to go into Libya though eventually was persuaded to do so, and as we've said, very reluctant to act here. But I suspect that he will, and I think the timing is sooner rather than later. I don't think he wants to wait for Congress to come back, and I don't think he wants this debate to linger.
ROBERTSThat's gonna have to be the last word. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times. Also with me, Jeff Mason of Reuters, Ron Elving of NPR. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane, while she's away on vacation. She'll be back in this chair in mid-September. And thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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