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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
On August 21st, a chemical weapons attack in Syria killed more than a thousand people. President Obama blamed the Syrian government and called for a punishing military strike. But he agreed to ask Congress to authorize it. Polls showed most Americans opposed and Congress appeared set to say no. U.S. allies weren’t much help. Facing political defeat, the president took his case to the American people last night. But in the meantime the Russian government had seized on an off-hand remark by Secretary Kerry and proposed that Syria turn over its chemical weapons and submit to inspections. Guest host Tom Gjelten and a panel of experts discuss emerging diplomatic proposals at the UN, the president’s speech last night and the way forward in Syria.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent, National Journal and author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
- Susan Glasser editor, Politico magazine.
- Ambassador Nicholas Burns politics professor, Harvard University and senior foreign affairs columnist, Global Post; former under secretary of state.
- David Albright president, Institute for Science and International Security and former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector; author of "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies."
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. In a speech last night, President Obama made his case for a military strike on Syria, saying that if last month's chemical weapons attack there goes unpunished, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. But the president also said he's open to a Russian initiative to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons arsenal.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAIt's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. And any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies. I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.
GJELTENJoining me in the studio to discuss the president's speech and these new diplomatic developments are Susan Glasser of Politico, Michael Hirsh or National Journal. And from a studio in Boston, we're joined by Amb. Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state now at Harvard's Kennedy School and a columnist for Global Post. Good morning, all.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERGood morning.
PROF. NICHOLAS BURNSGood morning.
GJELTENAnd we want to hear your thoughts as well on what should be done in Syria. Did the president's speech sway you? Call us at 800-433-8850. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or reach us on Facebook or Twitter. Amb. Burns, I want to begin with you. So what's your sense at -- as of this morning of where we stand?
BURNSWell, Tom, the president put us firmly on a diplomatic path last night in his speech. He asked for Congress to suspend the votes. He said that he would suspend consideration of the air strikes. And Secretary Kerry is going off to Geneva tomorrow for two days of discussions with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. And while -- I think the president is certainly right to walk down this diplomatic path with Putin. He had to do that to test whether or not we could resolve this peacefully rather than through use of force.
BURNSU.S. and Russia are far apart as far as I can tell on what a diplomatic deal would be. For instance, there is no agreement right now on whether or not this would be an enforceable U.N. Security Council resolution, meaning that if Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons but then reneged on the deal, the U.S. and France would have the right to use force to force Syria to make the deal. There's no agreement on the length of time that Assad should have to get rid of his chemical weapons, allow the inspectors in.
BURNSAnd interestingly enough, in terms of a parliamentary point of view, the Russians tried to have a presidential statement at the United Nations yesterday which would not be binding, and of course, the Americans and the French want a binding chapter seven resolution of the Security Council. That would mean that all countries of the world including Syria would have to enforce it. So as Secretary Kerry begins his talks tomorrow, this is not a done deal. And the two sides, I think, have a significant gap between them.
GJELTENThose are certainly good points, Amb. Burns. But as you say, the president told Congress that they wouldn't need to vote on this right away. He actually asked for a delay in the vote. Now the whole reason for the president speaking last night was to make the case for that vote. Did that sort of take the punch out of his speech? I mean, what was the point of his speech if it wasn't to convince Congress to support him?
BURNSWell, as a lot of people have said, Tom, there were really two speeches last night. The president began by making a case, a prosecutorial case against President Assad and to the degree to which Syria is -- has been involved with chemical weapons. He then, as you remember, took on a number of very tough questions that members of Congress and American citizens have been asking about this operation. And I think, frankly, I thought he made a credible case, that Assad is culpable and that the United States has to do something about it.
BURNSBut that second part of the speech was to say, well, now we're going to turn towards diplomacy. And I think he's right to do that. But it's -- there's no guarantee. And the problem that the administration has is if diplomacy fails, if we can't make a deal with the Russians in New York at the Security Council, we'll be back to asking Congress for the use of force, and it's not clear that Congress will give it.
GJELTENRight. Let's take those two parts of that speech separately. First, Michael Hirsh. Nick Burns says that he thought that the president made a compelling case for why military action may be necessary. Do you think he swayed many members of Congress, not to mention the American people with that speech?
HIRSHOh, probably not. I mean, it was a 17-minute speech. The first part of the speech was the speech he had intended to give before this sort of Russian deus ex machina came in, this proposal, that really kind of saved Obama's bacon. I mean, let's not kid ourselves. Obama and, I think, everyone else knew that he not only was going to lose the vote in the House on authorization for use of force, probably the Senate as well, which mean he would -- which meant he would have been in a terrible bind.
HIRSHAnd so the second part of the speech, which was the one in which he embraced the Russian proposal, was really his way of saying, you know, thank you, Moscow because had this proposal not appeared, this would have been an awful week for President Obama.
GJELTENSusan Glasser, Amb. Burns laid out what he thinks the U.S. sort of requirements and allied requirements should be if this diplomatic initiative is to succeed. Now, yesterday the French actually have already introduced a resolution at the United Nations that would have sort of given the threat -- this initiative the backing of the threat of use of force and Russia rejected it. Where do you see things standing right now at the United Nations with respect to the requirements that the United States and its allies have, as Amb. Burns spelled out, and what the Russians are willing to support?
GLASSERWell, I think that's exactly right, that that's where this deal really hit the metal. And I think, as Amb. Burns pointed out, in many ways, President Obama's speech last night was notable for what he didn't say. I mean, he didn't lay down conditions, and he didn't make the case for, do we need to retain probably...
GJELTENOK. We're having a little problem with your microphone, Susan. Let me put that -- we're going to get your microphone working in a second here. Amb. Burns, can you pick up with that? I mean, right -- how do you read the forces? I mean, you've got a long history in diplomacy. Were you discouraged -- or are you discouraged by the Russian resistance to the French proposal as it was introduced yesterday?
BURNSI'm not surprised by it, but I am discouraged by it. And I think President Obama was careful last night. And I thought the most interesting part of the speech was that the president did not define what we need in order to get an agreement. He didn't lay down conditions. He didn't say, we can accept this type of agreement. I cannot accept another. I think the reason for that, Tom, is that he knows he's got a basic fundamental disagreement with President Putin on this issue.
BURNSIf Syria reneges, can we enforce the agreement? And he also wants to give Secretary Kerry the flexibility, in his talks in Geneva with Lavrov, to try to work out a deal. So I understand what the president was trying to do, but that does reveal that, you know, the great relief in Washington, especially in Congress, was that the Russians have given us a proposal we can all work with. Well, it may not be a very good proposal at all unless the Americans can negotiate a better one.
GJELTENSusan, I rudely cut you off because your microphone wasn't working. Do you want to add anything to your analysis of the situation, the U.N., on the diplomatic front?
GLASSERWell, I think all of this underscores just how difficult a task it's going to be. But also, you know, right, beware Russians bearing gifts of an unexpected nature. I think it's an old diplomatic saying. And in this case, the idea that Putin or Sergey Lavrov is acting out of some sort altruistic intent to save President Obama's bacon, as Michael put it, it's extremely unlikely. The Russians have a very calculated, very pragmatic realpolitik approach to foreign policy.
GLASSERThey do things when they perceive them to be in their interest. They've made it very clear that they have a close partnership that continues with the Syrians. They are their main military supplier and ally and supporter in the world. And it hasn't given them pause, the incredible toll of more than 100,000 dead already in the Syrian civil war. There's no altruistic purpose in coming forward with this proposal at this moment.
GLASSERAnd I think because of those difficulties, one can envision in the negotiations coming up the one thing we can say for sure so far that's occurred as a result of this is putting time on the clock, buying for time which, of course, is exactly the thing Secretary Kerry has repeatedly said, absolutely not. We'll listen to this proposal if it's all about just buying time. Well, the truth of the matter is that's what already occurred, is to change the timetable and to give more time to the Syrians and the Russians, their allies.
GJELTENMichael, there are a couple of points about these new developments that I think are worth underlining, one is that Syria, the Syrian government has acknowledged that it has a chemical weapons arsenal. Two, it has agreed to sign the chemical weapons convention. Those are objective improvements over the previous situation, correct?
HIRSHYeah. Even more than that, they were victories for Obama. Again, coming, you know, sort of snatching a couple of victories from the jaws of what looked like certain defeat this week in the congressional vote. Amazing, actually, only days after President Assad in his interview with Charlie Rose on CBS effectively denied the existence of chemical weapons, which has been Syria's position all along, you have this Russian proposal.
HIRSHAnd then quite abruptly, the Syrian foreign minister not only acknowledges the existence of them but says, we're going to agree to give them up. So that was very striking. And, of course, the response from the Obama administration and its allies, which, you know, include France and Britain, has been only the credible threat of force from the U.S. was what produced this outcome. So that, you know, already is something, a sort of takeaway, if you will, that Obama can point to.
GJELTENVery quickly, Amb. Burns. There seems from the outside to have been a sort of a curious history to this diplomatic initiative. You know, Secretary Kerry's comment, which was seized on by the Russians, has been characterized as an off-hand comment. As an experienced diplomat, what do you see as the back story behind this sort of sudden development?
BURNSWell, Tom, there seems to be a back story. There's very good New York Times piece on this this morning, and it indicates that for the better part of the last six to seven months, the Americans and Russians have been talking about a variation of this proposal, going way back to last spring even in 2012 between President Obama and President Putin. And I take that as a good sign.
BURNSI mean, one of the things I admire about President Obama is that, you know, he really does believe that we're better off acting diplomatically, and I think he wants to exhaust any possibility that we can resolve this diplomatically rather than just resort to force. And so this idea has been discussed, and the Russians picked it up on Monday. They told the Americans they'd be raising it publicly, and I think, you know, they had a right to do that. Now we have an obligation to improve the Russian idea and make sure it's a deal that we can live with.
GJELTENAmb. Nicholas Burns, he is a politics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, also a foreign columnist for Global Post and of course a former ambassador to Greece and to NATO and an undersecretary of state. And we're going to be returning to this issue of Syria after a short break. Stay tuned.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're analyzing the president's speech last night on Syria and a way forward in assessing the prospects for a diplomatic solution on the hand versus the prospects for military action on the other. And, Amb. Burns, I sort of cut you off a little bit just before the break.
GJELTENBut, you know, one of the things that has struck me in the last few days as we talk about "a diplomatic solution," a month ago, the idea, the definition of a diplomatic solution in Syria was an agreement that would get Assad to give up power and would lead to some sort of political settlement. Somehow, the notion of a diplomatic solution has been redefined to deal much more narrowly with the issue of chemical weapons. How do you see that?
BURNSWell, Tom, I think you're right. President Obama has been concerned with nonproliferation going all the way back to his Senate days. And he has really focused on the chemical weapons used by the Syrian government on Aug. 21 as the reason why he was advocating the United States should use force. But President Obama is not advocating the overthrow of the Assad regime.
BURNSHe's made it very clear, he's not going to propose a 2003 George W. Bush-style invasion of Syria where we occupy the country. And if that's the case and if we do want to get the chemical weapons out of Syria, it's going to be a very complex affair, we're going to have to deal directly with the Assad government. And on two other issues, you know, there's a humanitarian crisis is underway in Syria, 110,000 people killed...
GJELTENNot just Syria, in Jordan and Turkey as well.
BURNSExactly, 2 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and four million displaced people who've lost their home within Syria. We have to talk to the Assad government about that and try to get relief aid in. And at some point, Tom, I think the United States and Europe and the Arab world are going to have to try to put together a ceasefire for -- on humanitarian grounds. So we're out of the regime change business, and we're into the business of trying to manage a horrible conflict.
GJELTENWell, that's a really interesting comment, Nick. We're out of the regime change business, and we're into another phase. That is -- seems to me to be a real downscaling of the objective in Syria given that the president has been on the record numerous times saying that Assad must go. But I want to bring in here -- we're talking here about this new challenge of containing the chemical weapons threat in Syria, and I want to bring in to our conversation now David Albright.
GJELTENHe's president of the Institute for Science and International Security. He's a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, and he's the author of a new book, "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." And David is joining us by phone. Good morning, David. Thanks for joining our conversation. And I thought David was -- David, are you there?
MR. DAVID ALBRIGHTYes. Yes, I'm here now.
GJELTENOK, great. OK. So, you know, the background here, David, is we're talking about the prospect of controlling Syria's chemical weapons capability. What's your professional view of the likelihood of that being done successfully?
ALBRIGHTWell, I think there's a fighting chance. I mean, it's difficult as has been pointed out. But I think the key thing is instead of -- if Assad is willing to put this under international control, he's also willing not to use them. And so I think this is a, in a sense, a first line of defense against the use of chemical weapons. And also, I think we have to remember that verification and destruction, dismantlement of chemical weapons programs can be very difficult.
ALBRIGHTBut the first part that's -- that would come into play here is really one of the simpler parts and one that the international community has a lot of experience and -- namely monitoring a shutdown, ensuring that objects don't -- like chemical weapons don't leave facilities. And so you would want to consolidate the chemical weapons stocks, that would be up to, you know, the responsibility of the Assad regime in order to ease the physical protection of the inspectors, ensure their safety.
ALBRIGHTBut once these sites are established, the monitoring that things don't leave is -- that process is pretty well understood with seals, locks, cameras, remote cameras, in fact. And so you can do a lot of things to gain confidence that these objects that have been brought under this umbrella are remaining under that umbrella.
ALBRIGHTYes. Sorry. Go ahead.
GJELTENNo. Well, I was going to ask you, I mean, we can't just sort of blow by this idea of guaranteeing the physical security of the inspectors given that Syria is in a middle of a civil war. And we don't see any countries most notably of the United States lining up to offer boots on the ground to guarantee the security of those inspectors. How would you guarantee the security of those inspectors prowling around Syria in the midst of a very vicious civil war?
ALBRIGHTWell, it's going to be very difficult, and one would hope that Russia would do more. But you also have to plan that where the inspectors go to monitor the stocks are in safer areas, that you can't expect them or Assad can't just say, OK. Here, we have, you know, we use to have 30 sites. Now, because of consolidation, we have 19. They're dispersed all over the country. Come on out. They can't -- that can't be how it works.
ALBRIGHTThere has to be a consolidation of these stocks in the central repositories so that the inspectors are going to areas that are relatively safer. Again, any inspector who does this is going to be a very courageous person doing a tremendous duty for the international community. Nonetheless, if you start to consolidate the stocks and then you have some guarantees by Russia -- I mean, they absolutely have to be involved in this -- I think that you can improve the security of the inspectors.
ALBRIGHTYou also add places that are in more dangerous areas, there may be a need for an inspection team to go once. But, for example, it's a manufacturing site, it may be sufficient just to have remote cameras left there. And so long as the site remained under the authority of the regime, the cameras can work. And, again, these cameras, you can tell if they're tampered with. I mean, you can have remote signals sent from the cameras. So every day, you can see what's going on there and see if anything untoward has happened.
ALBRIGHTAnd then if there's some extraordinarily untoward event and the inspectors can go and go to the site to inspect it. So again, it is important to protect the inspectors. This isn't going to happen unless they feel safe. And I'd like to remind people that there's also nuclear things going on Syria. It's -- it has a small reactor. The International Atomic Energy Agency is charged with what they call safeguarding that reactor and nuclear materials -- other nuclear materials in Syria. They said they can't go.
ALBRIGHTThey canceled an inspection, important inspection in June out of concern of physical safety, and that was a facility that's in Damascus. So again, the safety, I agree, is important. But it can be settled and made -- and the conditions can be created that it's safe enough for inspectors to go. And I will say there's been other cases where inspectors have gone into very dangerous regions. There were some inspections by the IAEA in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo conflict. Iraq after '03 was very dangerous.
GJELTENWell, David, given your experience in Iraq, I think we have to take your cautious optimism here very seriously. Nevertheless -- and this is maybe a little bit out of your lane -- but how important do you think a threat of military force behind this diplomatic initiative is in terms of guaranteeing or supporting its success?
ALBRIGHTWell, you know, certainly my institute is very much opposed to military threats or strikes. In this case, I mean, you have another issue, which is one of the more difficult issues, is let's say Assad tries to hide chemical weapons, and that it's down the road where you would try -- inspectors would try to say, look, we know where everything is, in a sense that declarations and statements by Assad are complete.
ALBRIGHTBut one place where military threats can play a role is that it can be a policy that if Assad uses chemical weapons that there could be -- there very well would be or could be military strikes. And so in that case, you would be trying to use the threat of military force to say, look, we can't necessary tell right at this early stage whether you've hidden chemical weapons. But, boy, if you use them, you're going to pay a severe penalty.
GJELTENSome really useful thoughts and commentary from David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector. He's also the author of "Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America's Enemies." And thank you very much for joining us, David.
GJELTENMichael Hirsh, if the -- if -- we've got a lot of reasons to be suspicious here that this initiative has got some huge barriers to overcome. If it's not possible to get this to happen and if the president has to go back to Congress again and ask for this vote, what does that going to mean in terms of the president's position, his strength, his leadership, you know? Where we'll be at in that moment?
HIRSHWell, it's difficult to say. He may gain a few more votes because -- he may gain a few more votes as a result of the initiative having been tried. He could sway some more in the House and the Senate. You have new resolutions right now being drafted in the Senate and House that are contingent on the diplomatic initiative having been tried. But I would say that the polling is not going to change a great deal, and, of course, the Congress, particularly the House members, are responding directly to the polling.
HIRSHArguably, I spoke to a couple of House members yesterday, both the Democrat and the Republican, as it happens, Mike Rogers, the chairman of the intelligence committee, and Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking member. And they both criticized the Obama administration for mistiming this whole thing, sort of going from zero to full speed in terms of Obama, you know, a few weeks ago was not interested intervening in Syria at all.
HIRSHAll of a sudden, he was about to launch an attack while Congress was on vacation. And kind of, you know, all of these congressional members were faced with an earful from their constituents, in some cases in town halls at home. And so he has to overcome that. He has to overcome the fact that this -- the most kindly way to put the way the administration has handled this is muddled.
HIRSHAnd, of course, now, you know, they're out there saying, well, this proposal was something Obama had been considering with Vladimir Putin for a year. I think that's a lot of positive spin. Frankly, this is something that kind of fell into his lap. And, you know, there's an old saying in the U.S. foreign policy, God looks after children, drunks in the United States of America. And I think that Obama -- whether or not this pans out -- and, of course, there are a lot of doubts about whether it's going to work -- it did buy him some very much needed time.
GJELTENWhile, Nick Burns, in Boston -- I mean, Michael's -- we're going back and forth here, Nick, between sort of optimistic assessments and pessimistic assessments. But let's return for a moment to sort of the optimistic scenario. Syria presumably has these chemical weapons because of Israel, correct? And it had, you know, was building -- it appeared to be building a nuclear weapons capability.
GJELTENIs it -- what would be the strategic significance of Syria giving up a chemical weapons capability? Would it amount to a non-aggression offer with respect to Israel, or is there other considerations going on here?
BURNSWell, I think, first, Tom, the balance of power between Syria and Israel is completely in Israel's favor. And I think what you won't see here is President Assad trying to do anything to unnerve the Israelis because the Israelis would clobber them if that happened. I will say this: I think the enforcement mechanism -- so building into a Security Council resolution, the right of France or the U.S. to take action, military action, should Syria not adhere to the deal -- is critical because of the question you asked.
BURNSPresident Assad has these chemical weapons as a hedge. It's to empower him in the cruel, bitter world of Middle East politics and to at least have some power vis-a-vis Israel. If he's going to give them up, it'll be kicking and screaming. And so we're going to have to force him to do it, and I think that emerges for me as the key issue in these U.S.-Russian negotiations in Geneva.
BURNSAnd then as the action shifts, Tom, to New York in drafting a Security Council resolution, that's the teeth we're going to need. I don't think this is impossible, and I think President Obama is right to walk down this road and to try to achieve a diplomatic solution. And if it takes a couple of weeks, we're far better off achieving this on that basis that engaging in air strikes which on their own would not constitute much of a policy.
GJELTENAmb. Nicholas Burns, he's a politics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Susan Glasser, you had a thought about this. What do you see here as the strategic decision that the Assad regime needs -- must be thinking about right now?
GLASSERWell, you know, in a way, it's pretty straightforward, right? It comes down to regime survival which, in the end, has been the main goal of the Assad government and, before that, that of President Assad's father. And he was the one who amassed this chemical arms arsenal. And remember that, while Israel is the big sort of strategic question in the region, the two major uses that we have seen over the last few decades of chemical weapons have come in Syria and neighboring Iraq by embattled dictators seeking to save their regimes.
GLASSERAnd that was Saddam Hussein, who gassed the Kurds in Northern Iraq in the late 1980s. And now we have seen it done by the Assad regime. So if the calculus changes for him and regime survival may be more ensured by averting a U.S. strike and more massive international intervention in this civil conflict, then that's the calculation, I think, that he needs to make as much as one about Israel in part of because of the reason that Amb. Burns suggested, which is that Israel already holds a fairly dominant military position vis-a-vis the Syrians.
GLASSERAnd, by the way, the Israelis have already intervened and struck inside the boundaries of Syria in the course of this civil war in a very limited and targeted way that did not occasion nearly the massive international dilemma that President Obama's threat of intervention enforce has occasion. And then just quickly on the politics of this, I was struck by Michael's comments.
GLASSERIt's an unusual thing where we seem to have found a way to get Washington to come together again because pretty much, there is a consensus across a broad swathe of both the Republican and Democratic Parties on one thing here, which is that President Obama has not handled this in a particularly adept way. So at least we have a bipartisan consensus around something. I'm not sure how useful that is.
GJELTENAmb. Burns, I'm not going to ask you to critique the Obama administration's diplomatic performance here. That would put you in an awkward situation. But I do want to pick up on something that you said earlier, which is that you do not see the administration signaling here that regime change is any longer a U.S. goal, if it ever was.
GJELTENAnd I'm wondering with your vast diplomatic negotiating experience, what if the tacit message from the Assad regime is that we'll go along with this initiative if you do not question -- as Susan just said, regime survival is so important to Bashar al-Assad. What can the United States afford to signal to Bashar al-Assad right now about its intentions of whether to work for his removal or not to work for his removal?
BURNSYou know, Tom, I think we've pretty much signaled that already. President Obama has taken regime change off the table. He's taken extensive, prolonged airstrikes off the table, and he said that we're not going to invade. So the implicit message to President Assad is, we don't like you, and we think that you've transgressed, and you've violated international law by using chemical weapons. But we're not going to relieve you.
BURNSAnd I think that does get us back to three things: negotiating as chemical weapons withdraw, trying to deal with the humanitarian situation and we need to do more with the rest of the world to help the people of Syria. And ultimately, Tom, I think if that's the case, if we're not going to invade, it really is incumbent upon us to try and negotiate -- help negotiate a ceasefire agreement just to relieve human suffering in Syria.
GJELTENNicholas Burns is a politics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School. He's also a senior foreign affairs columnist for Global Post and former undersecretary of state. We're going to be taking a short break here now. The -- I have not given out the phone number because our lines are full. Clearly, a lot of you want to comment on what we should do going forward in Syria. And when we return from this break, we're going to go straight to the phones.
GJELTENMy other guests here are Susan Glasser, editor at Politico, and Michael Hirsh. He's, of course, chief correspondent at National Journal magazine and the author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World." We're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in today for Diane Rehm, and we're talking about Syria. My guests are Susan Glasser from Politico, Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal, and Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, former undersecretary of state and ambassador to Greece and to NATO. And now it's our listeners' turn to get involved in the conversation.
GJELTENFirst, an email from Paul. He says, "As a veteran, I am appalled at President Obama's mismanagement of this conflict. He's not been diplomatic. He has been indecisive. In fact, he only agreed with a diplomatic solution after Russia proposed one, and he realized Congress would vote down his request for the use of force." Michael, what's the broader view of President Obama's management of this crisis situation among both Democrats and Republicans that you've been speaking to?
HIRSHI think it's fair to say that, you know, the opinions come down on this side of it being mismanaged. I mean, after all, it was in June that the administration said that they had documented the use of chemical weapons but on a smaller scale. At the time, Ben Rhodes and other senior officials of the administration were saying, we were going to begin supplying the rebels. That didn't happen.
HIRSHArguably, that may have encouraged Bashar al-Assad to, you know, ratchet up his use of chemical weapons, culminating in the devastating attack of Aug. 21 that Obama condemned. And then we had a sort of stop-start approach to this. We heard Obama and administration officials say that he was all of a sudden going to attack. Then about 10 days ago, the president decided, well, he was going to attack. He had the authority to do so, but he's going to ask Congress' permission anyway.
HIRSHAnd that led to this long slog that we've just come through where it appeared the votes were going heavily against him. So there's not a sense that this has been a very clear-sided policy. This is a president who very plainly wanted to stay out of Syria, particularly the civil war, but felt obligated to stand up and say that the red line he laid down, I would say, rather casually about a year ago, saying that if chemical weapons were used, it would breach his red line, that that had to be defended, that his credibility was at stake.
HIRSHAnd, you know, now we're in a situation where the administration is sort of making the case that this was the approach they wanted all along, but there's really very little evidence that that's true. I think more that the Russians seized upon this idea that John Kerry sort of casually dropped a few days ago that if the chemical weapons were secured and destroyed, that might satisfy the U.S. So this has been a sort of a series of, you know, mishaps, if you will, misreadings, in which the administration may, in the end, you know, very luckily end up OK.
GJELTENRight. Nick Burns, you know, one thing that I think everybody has agreed on with respect to Syria for a long, long time is that there are no good options. So I think from that point of view, I guess, one has to have some sympathy for President Obama's handling of this situation. I mean, it's not as though he had a better option, you know, vis-a-vis, you know, his other options at different points along this evolution, right?
BURNSTom, I think that's right. I think one has to have a great deal of sympathy for the president and his advisors on how difficult this is because one of the big questions in the last -- since 9/11, which we commemorate today in great sympathy for the victims. One of the big questions that's emerged in the American foreign policy, when does the United States use its power to intervene in the world, and when do we not?
BURNSAnd we all know, to use that proverbial phrase, that we cannot intervene everywhere. We can't be the world's policeman. But we also know that we've got to use our power sometimes to right a wrong. And the president, at the end of his speech last night, very interesting, had a message for conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.
BURNSWe need to remain engaged in the world. What's come out of this debate in the Congress, for me, has been neo-isolationism in the Tea Party and among liberal Democrats. And the president's trying to say there are times we have to stand up, and I think he's been right to say we have to stand up against chemical weapons use. We have to hold the line there.
GJELTENLet's go know to Jack who's on the line from St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Jack.
JACKYeah. Thank you for breaking the consensus in what a terrible job Obama seems to be doing. I thought his speech last night was actually a great speech. I'd like to know -- everybody says, quoting the administration, administration says this was done -- Obama got lucky. I want to know other -- quote the administration says it was because of use of force.
JACKWhat else could it have been other than Obama's threat of force that got this done? I supported Bush back before the invasion of Iraq, and his bluff was working. Saddam was destroying his missiles when Bush invaded. I trust Obama not to make Bush's mistake. The use a weapon, it was working for Bush, and I'm sure the weapon that (unintelligible) disaster with Bush.
GJELTENOK. Thanks very much, Jack. And, Michael, you wanted to jump in.
HIRSHWell, I just wanted to say that the caller makes a very valid point that I was thinking of the same thing. People tend to forget now because of the long disastrous slog of the Iraq war, but in fact, the Bush administration had won a huge diplomatic victory before the invasion of Iraq with a threat of force. They won a 15 to nothing Security Council resolution, and Saddam was, in fact, cooperating. So, you know, it's an interesting point that the caller makes. If you do use a threat of a force and you don't invade in the end, perhaps it could end up being a very big victory.
GJELTENBefore we go on, I should point out that Kelly has written in an email saying that she is troubled that -- I'm not sure we've actually said this, but she is troubled that we keep speaking as if it is certain that Assad used the chemical weapons on his own people. "I thought this had not yet been firmly established. Have I missed something?"
GJELTENWell, it depends, I think, Kelly, on what you mean by firmly established. The U.N. has not ruled on this. Obviously, Russia and the Syrian government have not bought on to this idea. The United States has laid out what I think could be considered accurately circumstantial evidence but pretty strong circumstantial evidence that, in fact, it was -- these weapons were used by the Syrian government. Do you have anything to add on that, Susan?
GLASSERYeah. No, I think that's right. At the same time, there isn't really a credible argument that anyone has advanced that it was anyone other than the Syrian government which used the weapons. And there doesn't seem to be much dispute at all about whether there was gas indeed involved, which, earlier in the previous smaller scale incidents, there had been more back and forth and more vigorous argument on the part of the Syrian government.
GJELTENLet's go now to Malik (sp?) who's on the line from Tampa, Fla. Good morning, Malik.
MALIKGood morning to the panel. My question with the panel is, isn't the unmitigated slaughter of Syrian civilians abhorrent regardless of what is being used, whether it's conventional or chemical weapons? Are we saying to the world that if Assad had armed his men with machetes and he hacks his entire population to death that we will just idly stand by? Shouldn't we be standing for the idea that slaughtering civilians is wrong no matter what weapons are used?
GJELTENAnd I should point that several of our listeners have raised this same point. Dennis in Texas, for example, writes, "The fact that Syrians have died via chemical weapons pales vis-a-vis the tens of thousands who have died via traditional means. Dead is dead. It is war that is hell not the weapons used." I'm going to put this to you, Amb. Burns, because you made the point earlier that it's important as a government for the United States to work to end the use of chemical weapons as an objective in and of itself. Can you explain why that is so important?
BURNSWell, I think that both Jeff and Malik raised a good point. There's the cruel choice we've had to make. A hundred and ten thousand people have died largely because Assad's been firing conventional artillery in the neighborhoods -- civilian neighborhoods, and the civilian deaths have been enormous. We have chosen -- President Obama has chosen to draw the line not there because he's decided he cannot, for a lot of different reasons, intervene in Syria the way we did in Iraq.
BURNSHe's chosen to draw the line on chemical weapons. I think he's right to say that chemical weapons use cannot be condoned, and we have to resist it. But the larger issue here is the incredible suffering of the Syrian people, and we've chosen not to fight that war. So it's a very difficult choice for the president to have made, but he's made that choice.
GLASSERWell, and I think it's particularly risky as well in how it plays not only with the citizens in the Middle East, in Syria. There can be a sense, I think, that can really backfire if it appears that the United States is only concerned about this more sort of international legal question of chemical weapons use, or if he is perceived as acting to protect Israel's interest, as Tom raised earlier in the program.
GLASSERI think that has been a big strand of the commentary and the concern that you've seen across abroad or Middle East in a way that I think potentially undercuts the humanitarian impulse. That is part of what drives Americans to be concerned about chemical weapons use in the first place is -- if we're seen as indifferent to, you know, dead is dead. And this has occurred on a massive and horrific scale without U.S. action.
GJELTENMichael Hirsh, you know, one point here is, as we focus on chemical weapons, if a diplomatic way out of this impasse is found and if President Assad stays in power, what would that mean for his possible prosecution for having used chemical weapons? I mean, this has something that bothers the Syrian opposition. They put out a statement saying crimes against humanity cannot be absolved through political concessions or surrendering the weapons used to commit them. This is a predicament we've seen before. What do you -- do you make peace with war criminals in the interest of peace?
HIRSHI mean, all evidence is that the Syrian opposition forces are not going to do that. They are not going to negotiate with Assad. Any kind of a mediation -- and, of course, Obama in his speech last night talked about redoubling our efforts at mediation -- is going to have to arrive at the very least a transitional period with Assad out -- on his way out, which is, you know, oddly enough a year ago when they were negotiating, that's basically the same place. But meanwhile, Assad and his Russian allies are very unlikely to accept that.
HIRSHAnd you're seeing this as one of the potential major pitfalls in negotiations going on over a resolution right now. The original French resolution did call for possible criminal prosecution under the International Criminal Court of Assad. And, of course, that was something the Russians rejected and are almost certain to continue to reject throughout this whole process. So you have the possibility that this -- that could be a deal breaker.
HIRSHThe confrontation now between the Russians and the Americans over whether force should be a part of this, Chapter 7, in other words accepting the use of force under the U.N. Security Council, or as Vladimir Putin said, whether the U.S. is going to have to renounce the use of force, that's also a potential major pitfall. So you have any number of ways in which this could really just blow up tomorrow really.
GJELTENWell, thanks a lot, Michael. Let's go now to Janice, who's on the line from Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, Janice.
JANICEHi. Thanks for taking the call. I've been very concerned about this whole crisis. And I'm very puzzled as to why there were stories in a few papers, in Los Angeles Times, about how President Rouhani, the new president of Iran obviously, has indicated his opposition to these chemical weapons and a certain overture to changing the stance for their nuclear conditions for at least talking to us.
JANICEPresident Obama, in one of his first runaround, said that he would be open to talking to anybody. And I can certainly understand that it wasn't possible to talk with the previous president, which I don't understand why this is not getting more attention. I'm hoping that it's going on behind the scenes.
GJELTENOK. Well, you know, Janice, I think it was actually former President Rafsanjani in Iran who criticized the use of chemical weapons in Syria if, in fact, you know, those statements attributed to him were accurate. And I think you're right. I think that is a significant point. Nicholas Burns had the Iran portfolio in the Department of State. So what do you think, Nick? Is it important here to bring Iran into this negotiation?
BURNSWell, I think that Janice is right. One of the fascinating aspects of the Syria crisis has been the fact that the Iranian government under its new leader, President Rouhani, has taken a backseat here. They're not leading the charge against the United States. They're not the leading defender of the Syrian regime. Remember Iran suffered because Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War 30 years ago.
BURNSAnd I think the Iranians know that they have a much bigger task ahead, and that's these upcoming nuclear negotiations over the future of Iran's nuclear program with United States and others. And I think the Obama administration, Tom, is -- are always look -- also looking at the Syria crisis through the prism of Iran.
BURNSWe want to be as tough as possible on Syria to motivate the Iranians to negotiate with us and not think that we're a paper tiger. So Iran is very much in the background here. But I've been fascinated with the Twitter diplomacy of the president of Iran and the new foreign minister, Javad Zarif. They're certainly at least talking a different game than President Ahmadinejad.
GJELTENThat's interesting, isn't it? Nicholas Burns is a politics professor at Harvard Kennedy School and a former undersecretary of state. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Susan Glasser, one thing we haven't talked about much is Secretary of State John Kerry going to Geneva tomorrow to meet with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. You have -- you've lived in Russia. You know Lavrov. What do you see happening in Geneva tomorrow?
GLASSERWell, one thing is that Sergey Lavrov isn't just going to roll over and agree to what John Kerry says. And, you know, he is Russia's master negotiator. And, in fact, this whole gambit has very much his fingerprints all over it. Sergey Lavrov is Russia's longest-serving foreign minister since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And his single-minded goal really is to find ways to reinsert Russia as a global power of major prestige.
GLASSERAnd, you know, I think Syria has been his personal cause. And he's really elevated Russia's role, culminating arguably in this latest gambit, which jumps right into the American political scene, as well as involving the U.N. Security Council in international diplomacy. Lavrov is a master if the goal is to buy time.
GLASSERAnd I think part of the goal here is, in fact, to buy time for Syria and its allies for the Assad regime to continue to consolidate some of the military gains it's made in the civil war. So I think you're going to see him insisting in being a stickler for principle, which is certainly going to include hard negotiations over any threat of use of force in the U.N. That's what's killed diplomacy for the last couple years.
GLASSERAnd I think that's the final point I'd want to underscore. The Obama administration has been trying diplomacy for the last couple of years with the Russians. They understood that peace in Damascus involved the Russians from the very beginning, and they have stumbled again and again over this very issue of getting any kind of resolution through the U.N. Security Council because of Russia's veto.
GJELTENOn this matter of Russia's position, I want to read this email from Richard in California, who says, "Whatever Americans may feel about Russians -- and my ancestors fled the Russian empire -- he Russians are necessarily our best allies against the major existential threat to the current world order, religious extremism, most immediately potential warfare within Islam and between armed radical Islamists and the rest of us." Michael Hirsh, are we about to see sort of a new dawn of U.S.-Russia cooperation here?
HIRSHWell, I think Susan largely answered that previously. No. I mean, the Russians act purely out of their own national interest. Indeed, one of the surprises of this proposal is that they have been perhaps the chief obstructionist on the world stage to American interest despite what would seem to be an alignment of interest, the threat of radical Islam on Russia's southern border, the possibility that WMD, like chemical weapons, could fall into their hands.
HIRSHThese are all reasons why, you know, it's reasonable to think that the Russians are somewhat sincere in this. And yet as Susan, you know, indicated, I think these are going to be really, really hard negotiations tomorrow that could easily blow up over this question of the use of force, which it appears to be black-and-white positions.
HIRSHI mean, the Russian seem to be saying, we're not going to allow you to threaten that. And Obama and Kerry seem to be saying, you know, we need that as well as this question of a timetable, which Kerry has been pointing out. So it's going to be very difficult.
GJELTENIt's going to be very difficult. Good closing words from Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal. We've also been joined here in the studio by Susan Glasser, an editor at Politico, and from a studio at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Nicholas Burns. Thank you very much for listening. I'm Tom Gjelten.
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