The United Nations has recently come under attack for its handling of both the Ebola outbreak and the war in Syria. It has prompted some to question what the role of the U.N. should be on the international stage. We look at the relevance of the U.N., 70 years after its creation.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
The U.S. finds itself at the forefront of unexpected diplomatic opportunities in the Middle East. Iranian President Rouhani is now saying his government would never develop nuclear weapons. He praised President Obama following an exchange of letters between the two leaders. Syria faces looming deadlines to surrender its chemical weapons or risk using the support of Russia. Brazil’s president cancels a trip to the U.S. over allegations that the National Security Agency has spied on her government. And Pope Francis sends shock waves through the Roman Catholic Church. James Kitfield of National Journal, Susan Glasser of Politico and Bruce Auster of NPR join guest host Steve Roberts for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Susan Glasser editor, Politico magazine.
- James Kitfield senior correspondent, National Journal.
- Bruce Auster national security editor, NPR.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane. She has a cold and will be back in this chair as soon as possible. Iran's new president has a conciliatory op-ed published in today's Washington Post. Secretary of State Kerry appeals to the U.N. to take action on Syria's use of chemical weapons. And Pope Francis faults the Roman Catholic Church for growing obsession with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me for the international hour of our Friday news roundup, James Kitfield of The National Journal, Susan Glasser of Politico Magazine, Bruce Auster of NPR. Welcome to you all. Good morning to you all.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERGood morning.
MR. BRUCE AUSTERGood morning.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood morning.
ROBERTS1-800-433-8850 is our phone number. As always, email@example.com and video this hour of the Friday News Roundup is streaming live on the web on drshow.org. Bruce, we have a --a wire service story just came in about Syria now submitting details of its chemical weapons to the U.N. monitoring group. What do we know? What's the significance?
AUSTERThat's right. If you've been following this, the deal between the Russians and the United States requires a pretty aggressive effort to account for Syria's chemical weapons and then, by next year, to really have destroyed them. This week was supposed to be the first step in that process. Syria is supposed to account for, provide essentially, a statement laying out what its inventory is. That's supposed to be due this week.
AUSTERWell, we've learned this morning is that they have submitted something to the organization that oversees the chemical weapons treaty. What we don't know is the extent of what they did. So, technical experts there are now looking at that document, but a spokesman for the organization said we expect more.
ROBERTSNow, James Kitfield, the background here is there's an ongoing debate this week. You had the U.N. report of the chemical weapons inspectors. Secretary Kerry says while this report specifically did not assign blame, he says connect the dots and it's clear the Damascus government is responsible. But President Assad, in a TV interview with Fox denied responsibility. Get us up to date on that dimension of the story.
KITFIELDWell, there's a lot of diplomatic jockeying going on, obviously. The U.N. report was pretty damning. Very clear that there was use of chemical weapons, probably the worst in 25 years, and it looks very much like it's the regime -- it points to the regime. Huge rocket shells that carry 56 liters of Sarin. The trajectory of those shells point back to Syrian military facilities, so pretty damning evidence.
KITFIELDNow, Mr. Assad has gone from saying, I don't have chemical weapons to I do have chemical weapons and I'm now willing to give up my chemical weapons.
ROBERTSHe even said this week the secret is out. It's very interesting.
KITFIELDRight. So I'm not sure how much credence we want to give his proclamations about this. Now, the Russians are saying there's evidence that it was actually the rebels who used these weapons. Well, he can present that evidence, but what Russia's really jockeying for -- there's gonna be U.N. resolution if this thing is to be successful. Russia will not sign on to that resolution if it includes an enforcement mechanism that involves military force.
KITFIELDSo, they're trying to say -- they're trying to jockey and say there's enough credible doubt here that we will not sign onto any resolution that has a, sort of an enforcement mechanism to it.
ROBERTSAnd Susan Glasser, from Politico Magazine, flesh out this role of Russia, because they seem to be playing two roles at the same time. They've been in the forefront of saying there should be a peaceful resolution here. They even volunteered one of their spokesmen, talking about providing Russian transport this week for the possibility of, if these chemical weapons came under international control, to remove them from the country.
ROBERTSAnd yet, as Jim says, they're also being somewhat -- dragging their feet at the U.N. What's your best of what the role they're playing here is?
GLASSERWell, I think that's a really important point to highlight, Steve. In many ways, right, this underscores the fact that although Russia and the United States, just a week ago, came together in Geneva and made this deal to subject the chemical weapons to international removal from Syria, that was a temporary convergence of interests on the part of the Russians and the United States in that they were coming to that position in Geneva from very different places.
GLASSERAnd it doesn't mean that Vladimir Putin suddenly became an international humanitarian concerned about chemical weapons. What it means is that Russia, as you know, over the last couple years, has been perhaps the most vocal and ardent defender of Bashar al-Assad's regime. And if it weren't for Russia and its arm sales to Assad and its international diplomatic support for him, it's very clear that Assad would still not be in power. And so it may well be that the Russians saw, in that deal with the United States, a smart way to perhaps buy more time for Assad.
GLASSERRemember that Barack Obama, for the last two years, has been saying Assad must go. He's no longer publicly saying that. So, it may well be that in exchange for this chemical weapons deal, Assad has put more time on the clock, courtesy of the Russians. But that doesn't mean that they've stopped their advocacy on his behalf, and I think it's so fascinating to watch how immediately, literally days after that agreement -- that agreement was forged last weekend in Geneva, this U.N. report came out on Monday.
GLASSERImmediately you had the Russians, you had Putin, you had Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying despite the fact that there's no evidence whatsoever in the report to suggest that the rebels had, in fact, had something to do with launching this chemical weapons attack, immediately sort of saying well, the report says that, which it doesn't. So, you get the sense that they're still advocates for Assad.
ROBERTSBruce Auster, do you -- Secretary Kerry, strong words, saying time is short. U.N., of course, General Assembly is meeting this week. President Obama will be up there on Tuesday. What's your read on the possibility? Is there a common ground here on a U.N. resolution? As James said, the issue of should it include force as a penalty for non cooperation still is a sticking point.
AUSTERI think what Susan said is an important notion here. This deal will work so long as it is in the interests of the two powers that are behind it, you know? So long as it's in the interest of Russia, so long as it's in the interest of the United States, if there is will to make it happen, it can happen. To the extent that what the Russians want is to buy time for Assad, which I think is a pretty reasonable proposition, then their objective, their game is to continue to buy time.
AUSTERAnd so the process can continue, but it can be stalled. And so you see that they reach a deal, but then you start objecting over the question of whether or not the Assad government was actually responsible. That slows things down because you have to hash that out. Then you get to the question you just raised about the U.N. resolution and the enforcement provisions. That becomes another area where you debate. It stalls things. So, the process may continue.
AUSTERThe two countries may have an interest in making it work, but so long as it takes time to do it, Assad remains in power. Now, it may be that from the United States point of view, that's a deal they're willing to accept to avoid having to use military force to get the chemical weapons out of there. But I think that's a process that's gonna take a while.
ROBERTSAnd James Kitfield, another player that was introduced into this mix was China this week, also with a veto in the security council. The King of Jordan hosting Chinese officials, sort of urged China to get involved. What do you make of that?
KITFIELDWell, he was on a visit to China, and clearly he feels, of all the regimes on the periphery of Syria, one of the most threatened. He has, I think, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees sort of destabilizing his own country. He doesn't have money to -- he doesn't want them to become permanent refugee camps a la the Palestinians. He finds that very destabilizing. He's very concerned. And so, he...
ROBERTSWith good reason.
KITFIELDWith good reason. And he'll look for help wherever he can find it. China is a veto wielding member of the U.N. Security Council. They have, you know, the conventional wisdom is they'll go where Russia goes, because they don't have as much a dog in this fight as Russia. So, I think that everyone's sense is there might be a diplomatic moment here where the interests align for a lot of these players. Russia wants to get back in the game in the Middle East in a big way.
KITFIELDThis gives them an entry into doing that. Russia has an interest in not having us launch military strikes against the Assad regime. They don't like the precedent and they worry about their, as Susan said, their proxy there. And so, we saw Obama facing this sort of near death experience with Congress, about to, sort of, you know, knock down his request for a resolution authorizing force. So Obama's very encouraged to reach some sort of temporary deal.
KITFIELDAnd oh, by the way, that deal, if you look at its parameters, is gonna take a lot of U.N. weapons inspectors on the ground, in Syria, to get control of those weapons. It's gonna take negotiations from all sides including, probably, a cease fire amongst rebel factions so those weapons inspectors can do their work. All those things are much to be desired.
ROBERTSWell, to that point about a cease fire, Susan, one of the many reasons why President Obama had trouble selling air strikes to the Congress was there was disagreement in rebel ranks. It wasn't as if there was a clear good guy to be backing there and, in fact, a lot of concern of the infiltration of Islamic fighters from around the world. And we saw this week fighting break out between rebel factions in the north of the country along the Turkish border.
GLASSERWell, that's right. It's clear that this is, perhaps the only that's clear, is that the proliferation of militias represents the entire broad spectrum of, sort of, Middle Eastern jihadist opinion that's fighting it out now inside Syria. And you have the stronger groups, the al-Nusra front, being an outright Al Qaida affiliate. You have many other very hard line fighters feuding amongst themselves.
GLASSERYou have patrons, different patrons from around the region. The Saudis and that Qataris, each funding different factions. So, you know, think of the civil war in Lebanon, which raged for so long, in part because there was no one -- there was no way to sit down and make peace amongst the factions, never mind to pick a clear winner. And I think the Russians, by the way, have leveraged that problem to great effect.
GLASSERThey have consistently been saying, and it's to increasingly receptive ears here in the United States and among Western allies, the Russians have been saying, look, you know, you're opening up sort of a new failed state for Al Qaida and Islamic terrorists to operate in. And unfortunately, you could argue, well, that's the consequence of US inaction over the last couple years, that it created the conditions. But objectively speaking, clearly there is the presence of armed Islamic and even Al Qaida affiliated terrorists there that were not there at the very beginning of this civil war.
ROBERTSAnd we were talking earlier about Jordan potentially being destabilized by refugees. A similar problem along the Turkish border. A very critical ally of the United States and, in fact, Turkey closed the border briefly as a result of these clashes.
GLASSERWell, that's right. And this is increasingly, I think, become a sore point in relationship between Turkey and the United States. Turkey had been quite aggressively pressing the United States, behind the scenes, for stepped up action, aid to the rebels and the like over gradation over the last couple years. And I think there's a sense, overall, we're now looking at more than two million refugees who have had to leave their homes in Syria. So, it's a big problem.
ROBERTSSusan Glasser from Politico. James Kitfield, National Journal. Bruce Auster of NPR. I'm Steve Roberts. We'll be back with your calls and your comments. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. The International Hour of our News Roundup, Susan Glasser of Political magazine, James Kitfield of the National Journal and Bruce Auster of NPR with me. And James Kitfield, let's turn our attention to Iran. A lot happening this week. Among other things, an exchange of letters between the new prime minister Hasan Rouhani and President Obama. And Rouhani then also wrote an op-ed page piece in the Washington Post in which he talked about the virtues of prudent engagement.
ROBERTSThere seems to be a significant change of tone on the part of the leadership in Tehran. What's your read?
KITFIELDAbsolutely. It's probably the most significant we've seen at least since the '90s when there was another reformer who was elected president. And he was quickly sort of marginalized by the supreme leader. This is a very different case because Iran economy really is in deep trouble because of international sanctions. This guy ran on a very bold campaign to get -- you know, talk Turkey with the International Community on the nuclear program in a way that gets those sanctions eased.
KITFIELDHe has been on a charm offensive Tweeting Rosh Hashanah greetings to the Jewish people. He is -- you know, during the campaigns has called for the release of political prisoners. Well, this week he actually did release 11 political prisoners. He has, as I said, gone on a charm offensive. There seems to be -- and the Obama Administration clearly thinks so because they exchanged these letters. Could even be a face-to-face meeting at the UN General Assembly, which would be the first face-to-face between a U.S. and Iranian president since the '79 revolution.
KITFIELDSo, yes, this is a very significant development. And again, it plays into Syria as well because Iran obviously is Assad's closest regional backer. So if you want to reach some deal on Syria, Iran could be very helpful if it feels like playing ball.
ROBERTSNow, Bruce, one of the key variables here is that James Kitfield mentioned is the impact on Iran of these sanctions. And they’ve been around a long time. And yet, reports indicate that they're particularly concerned about being frozen out of the world banking system. They can't move assets. They were also hampered in terms of their ability to sell oil. What's your best read? Are the sanctions really finally having an impact on -- or is this just all cosmetic?
AUSTERNo. I think, in fact, comments out of Iran have suggested that very much so, the motivation for these overtures is driven in part by sanctions. This sanctions regime has been very sophisticated. It has escalated gradually over time. It isn't something where simply their oil revenues are cut off. As you suggested, there has been a very targeted effort at Iran's central bank. What has happened is that they are unable to essentially move money on international markets. It has an enormous impact on the economy.
AUSTERAnd so Iran has a real reason to try to normalize relations. So the question then is how real are these overtures? I think James suggested that there's something real going on here. One measure of that is the fact that the Ayatollah is seeming to endorse some of the moves that the new president is making. And that is a really critical measure of how serious this is.
ROBERTSNow one of the most critical dimensions here of course is what are Iran's true intentions in terms of its nuclear capabilities? And in an interview with NBC, as part of this charm offensive, as James described it, he said we -- now we've heard this before from Iran -- but he said, we have no intention of building nuclear weapons. This is just for peaceful energy production purposes. Your sources in the government, do they think he's serious? What do they tell you?
GLASSERYou know, I think that's certainly the question that they're pondering over. If you look today on the other hand what's the statement coming out of Israel and you see Israelis sending out one of their top national security officials to say on the record, we believe the Iranians are six months away from a bomb. We believe that the time for negotiations is past. And basically, you know, the message is, we're going to maintain that credible military threat of a strike because, you know, we've heard a lot of words over the last decade.
GLASSERAnd so, you know, you have this pressure immediately being ratcheted up by the Israelis. I'm sure it will begin to be echoed by their strong supporters here in Washington. And so, you know, the noise builds without necessarily revealing fully what either side is after. But it's interesting that Rouhani, you know, in those statements has made a point of saying, haven't we all had enough of talking? It's been ten years of a failed process.
ROBERTSNow, are you describing a potential split between Washington and Tel Aviv? After all, you've got Obama sending this letter that is fairly conciliatory talk of a possible meeting. At the same time the Israelis are saying, wait, we've got to keep up a hard line. Or is it good cop, bad cop?
GLASSERWell, exactly. You know, we're always on the brink of a potential split with the Israelis on this question. At the same time the Israelis of course also offer a very useful negotiating partner in the sense that they're right there by our side broadcasting very clearly to the Iranians saying, okay buddy, you know, we know Obama said he's going to sit down and talk with you because he said that since he was a candidate. But don't forget, you know, there are other forces at work here too.
GLASSERAnd so it's a useful thing to have as you enter a negotiation for the Iranians to have an appreciation of the fact that there's only so far we can go in these talks.
ROBERTSAnd it's always been true that for all of the ways in which Israel and the United States have similar interests, they live in very different parts of the world. And that geography, in the end, can also alter their self interests.
GLASSERWell, that's right. Look at the radically different ways in which even the threat of a U.S. military strike into Syria was greeted. First the Israelis -- by the way, they've already gone into Syria and carried out air attacks several times in the last two years, without anyone really saying much of anything. And so, you know, again where you sit is where you stand on these questions . And I do think, as you pointed out, there's an interesting linkage between the Iran question and the Syria question. It's going to make for a very interesting week next week at the UN General Assembly.
ROBERTSNow let me bring up another story that just broke toward the end of the week but has really attracted a lot of attention, Bruce Auster, and that's the extraordinary 12,000-word interview that Pope Francis gave with a variety of Jesuit publications. And he made a number of interesting points. But the one that got the most attention was that the church should not be obsessed with issues like abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage. Some expressions of dismay from more conservative clerics in America as a result of this, but the significance of Francis' interview in your view?
AUSTERThis seems very significant and the word obsessed is the word he used that, you know, the church has become obsessed with abortion, gay marriage, contraception. This builds on something he said back in July when he was coming back from Brazil and he talked -- you know, he was asked about homosexuals and he said, who am I to judge?
ROBERTSAnd that was kind of an off-the-cuff comment on a plane.
AUSTERThat was on an airplane and a sort of impromptu press conference on an airplane. But it got a lot of attention at the time. This -- and this was -- if that was off the cuff, this was very much not. This was something -- this was gone over the course of three interviews back in August with essentially the editor of an Italian Jesuit journal and then published simultaneously in 16 different journals all over the world. So clearly an effort to get this word out. But it is a dramatically different message than from Pope Benedict, from Pope John Paul II.
ROBERTSAnd a different message, James Kitfield, in the sense that Benedict and John Paul II often talked about a smaller, purer church, a precious remnant of true believers. And this pops was talking about something very different. He was talking about this is -- the church should be a home for all. A very different tone from his two predecessors.
KITFIELDNot only his two predecessors. I've never heard a pope talk like this. I mean, I was a skeptic, you know, thinking that this guy might just be a more smiling face on some of the doctrinaire policies of Benedict. But what -- this interview was really quite astounding. And, you know, one quote that came out to me was, unless a new balance is found in the church quote "the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards." He takes this very seriously. He thinks they need to liberalize. Obviously women have more power in terms of making decisions with the church, of being less seen as this kind of, you know, condemnation of gays and women who've had abortions and are divorcees.
KITFIELDThis is a very different kind of atmosphere he's creating within the church. And I think certainly from the American and the European part of the church, probably a very welcome one.
ROBERTSAnd Susan, pick up on the question of the role of women. Now, he did not come out for ordination of women, which a lot of liberal Catholics would like to see, in part because the decline of vocations has been so severe for the church in many places. But he did say that women should have a much bigger role in -- as advisors to him and to the church hierarchy. Talk about that.
GLASSERWell, that's right. He also -- he suggested in his -- specifically in reference to women that the church doctrine in the past had had a problem and that it needed to evaluate not only the specific role of women in positions but the role in theology, which is very interesting I think. You know, I'm reminded of some of our fights over the supreme court in the United States. And, you know, you have essentially a guy who is coming in and saying, I'm not fully onboard with the original intent theory of the constitution, if you will. And he's clearly bringing to bear some of the experiences of modern life.
GLASSERI was also struck again by his own personal history in the way that John Paul, for many people, very much epitomized, you know, that experience of Poland and its post-war -- its sufferings in World War II and its post-war subjugation by the communists. In many ways he was a single figure of the late cold war. I feel that this pope is bringing to bear some extraordinary experiences that speak to modern Latin America and the experience of coming through a dictatorship.
GLASSERAnd he was criticized, you know, and questioned for whether he had been too accommodating, you know, of the military dictatorship in a way that clearly has informed his own views now about a more inclusive leadership style. And I wonder if it's also informed his theology.
ROBERTSWell, one of the things he said, Bruce Auster, was I'm not a right winger. And I'm told that the American Jesuit magazine America and others had translated this interview from the Italian to the English. Someone told me they consulted seven different experts on Italian to make sure they got that translation -- because it's such a striking -- and everybody agreed, that is what he said. And that -- and in fact he even said some of his earlier was crazy, another word he used. And he said I've gotten this reputation as an ultraconservative because of that youthful period in my life, but that's not who I really am.
AUSTERRight. And he was also talking about the way he -- apparently at a very young age the way he ran things and that he was authoritarian in the way he dealt with other people. And you got this -- you get the sense of a person -- a pope who learns from history but also from his own past. And that's, I think, an admirable trait in most anybody. The other thing that was really interesting about the interview is you learned some of his interests, including, you know, Mozart as a favorite composer, Dostoevsky a favorite writer and Fellini as a filmmaker.
AUSTERSo this is somebody who has a broad perspective and you can see how, you know, in some of these cases -- the Dostoevsky for example, you can see how it might inform his theology. But he comes across as a person who thinks, who learns, who adapts.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Another thing we're learning about this pope, James Kitfield, is some of his personal habits. He has declined to live in the posh of apostolic apartments in the Vatican. He's living in this rather Spartan, as it's been described to me, guest house. Even the day he was elected pope, he insisted on paying his own bill and carrying his own bags. These are symbolic things which maybe are not important, but they do seem to indicate a larger mindset that's important to understand about him.
KITFIELDWell, I think that's right. And I think, you know, in leaders as important as the pope or the President of the United States, symbolism is extremely important.
KITFIELDAnd I think when you see him carrying his book -- his own briefcase or when you see that he won't occupy these plush quarters but lives out of basically hotel room that he's kind of walking the walk and talking the talk. And I think, you know, he wants to connect the church with the masses again. And that's something I think that gets to his sort of vision for the church and needs to expand, not to be a pure, you know, small entity. To be something that attracts, you know, the masses again.
KITFIELDAnd so I think that he's kind of living what he talks.
ROBERTSBut Susan, he's also getting criticized here in this country. You know, the conservative elements in the Catholic Church have in fact made abortion a touchstone issue for a long time. And he acknowledged that he's been criticized for not pushing that issue. So there are, at least in a secondary way, echoes here in this country. And not everybody is enthusiastic about his approach.
GLASSERWell, that's right. I think it's important to point that out. I was struck by how quickly the quotes appeared yesterday, you know, within hours of the extraordinary interview landing. You did have American church leaders on the record, pushing back directly against the pope in quite critical ways. They've made that the pillar of their public activism for many of them over the last few years. And basically they have their new leader -- you know, their CEO has come in and said, we're going to go in a different direction here, guys. And, you know, there is -- the fact that their public resistance is quite interesting.
GLASSERI am also struck just on the symbolic side. You know, if you extend that metaphor or the new CEO, clearly this is very calculated. This is not just a generalized statement about I'm a humble guy, you know, biography Jesuit coming to power. This is about a rebuke of Benedict, I think, you know, who was renowned for his sort of regalistic foibles and, you know, the fancy shoes he insisted upon wearing almost a sort of fop-like approach to the papacy. And I think it's very clear that this is a very specific messaging that was a short and unsuccessful tenure.
ROBERTSAnd also someone who in maybe even more important ways, Pope Benedict, even before he was Pope as Cardinal Ratzinger, was known as the guardian of doctrinal purity. This is who he was and this is who the cardinals chose as their pope. So it's not as if he was an outlier or an outlander in terms of that approach to theology.
GLASSERWell, that's right. Although remember too, those divisions, we're seeing them publicly surface in response to this. But in the college of cardinals, when Benedict was elected it was this pope who was the runner up. And so I think, you know, you see that split perhaps when it was clear how unsuccessful Benedict's tenure was, the liberals or reformers gathered strength.
ROBERTSBruce, before we take a break, tell us quickly about the decision by the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff to cancel a trip here related to some reports that NSA had been spying on the Brazilian government.
AUSTERThat's right. She was supposed to come to this country in October. It was going to be -- there was going to be a state dinner. I think the only one this year that President Obama was going to host. But once again, fallout from the NSA surveillance scandal. Some of the documents that have been leaked revealed surveillance by the United States of Brazil. And not just people in Brazil but the president herself and her aides. And in fact, revealed information about patterns of conversations among her group, her aides. Also surveillance of one of the major energy companies there.
AUSTERPolitically it was impossible for her to then come here basically arguing that this was a violation of her nation's sovereignty, that this would have to be worked out before a visit could take place.
ROBERTSThat's Bruce Auster of NPR. Also with me, Susan Glasser of Politico magazine, long time foreign editor of The Washington Post. And James Kitfield of the National Journal. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. We'll be back with your calls, your emails, your Tweets, whatever's on your mind. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup: James Kitfield of the National Journal, Susan Glasser of Politico, Bruce Auster of NPR. And let's turn to some of our callers, and let's start with Charles in High Point, N.C. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Charles.
CHARLESThank you very much. Yeah, my question and comment was what the panel feels about President Obama's approach to the situation in the Middle East, especially with Syria. In other words, he's getting a decent result even though he didn't, you know, do the hard charge in Bush Act. You know, when we elected President Obama, we wanted someone who was thoughtful, who would take situations and problems and just not put a gun in his hand to go charging somewhere to, you know, to start a war or to just get involved.
CHARLESAnd I think his threat to Syria and also his consistency with the sanctions in Iran, he's getting the type of results that I think we all want. And I'll take the -- I'll just listen to you guys answer.
ROBERTSThanks for your call, Charles. James Kitfield.
KITFIELDWell, you know, I think I would give him a grade of probably B. I mean, clearly, Iran sanctions has been a success, and you have to give them credit, the way they sort of slowly, you know, reached out to the rest of the world, reached out to Iran and got their hand slapped, you know, tightened the sanction squeeze.
KITFIELDThat has clearly gotten the attention of Iran. Syria, clearly, he kept us out of the Syrian conflict, but that conflict has started destabilize the whole region. If I've heard any criticism, it's been that, you know, it was always people who looked at Syria said, you know, at some point, the risk of doing something are going to be less than the risk of doing nothing.
KITFIELDI think we're at that point. I thought that the sort of, you know, going to Congress to ask for a, you know, resolution to authorize force when Congress was overwhelmingly opposed was kind of questionable. But, having said that, it got Russia's attention, and it got Iran's attention. And it got Syria's attention.
KITFIELDNow we're talking about Syria admitting it has chemical weapons and giving them up. So he could, you know, hit a Hail Mary here and actually do, you know, come, you know, quite a legacy-burnishing move on Syria. But it depends on what happens in the next weeks and months.
ROBERTSAnd, Susan, as you were saying earlier, there is a connection between Syria and Iran. The meetings, if they happened in the U.N., even if the meeting between the two leaders, there will be lower level meetings among aides and other officials, so these two now suddenly have come together in a rather interesting and in not expected way.
GLASSERWell, that's right. Sometimes you might end up winning a round without actually, you know, having put everything in place to do so and just get lucky. And Obama has always been a famously lucky politician. The president himself spoke to this issue a few days ago, and he basically said, well, those foreign policy fancy pants in Washington, you know, they like to grade on style points and, you know, implicitly acknowledging that perhaps this wasn't the most gracefully executed series of diplomatic maneuvers.
GLASSERThere was a lot of zigzagging back and forth, a lot of real confusion here in Washington as to what the president was after when he went to Congress. So on style points, a B would be an extremely generous grade, I think it's fair to say. However, there has been a consistency to Obama's policy, which the caller alluded to. And it's possible that this will be a diplomatic moment for him.
ROBERTSNow, Bruce, we also have a tweet I want you to deal with. "What does the panel think the international implications of a U.S. government shutdown would be on Syria international markets?"
AUSTERWell, certainly a government shutdown separate from the problem of the debt ceiling, if there's a debt ceiling problem, if this comes to that point, the international implications could be enormous. In terms of any of the...
ROBERTSBecause of reactions of worldwide markets, credibility of America, yeah, right.
AUSTERRight. Global markets, exactly. Exactly. You know, back to the earlier question about, as Susan put it, style points, you know, I think a strong case could be made that style does matter and that the administration may get an outcome that is acceptable, in this case, avoid using force. But every part of this policy was done backwards.
AUSTEREssentially, the idea that you were going to threaten a strike happened before you went to Congress, before you lined up your international support, and all the things that arguably should have happened and did happen at the end, should have happened at the beginning. And I think there will be consequences, even if this works out for the best.
ROBERTSLet's talk to Huxiang, (sp?) if I have your name correct -- I hope I do -- from Norman, Okla.
HUXIANGYes, you do. Thank you for taking my call. And my apologies to your panelist. I just wanted to take this time to directly tell the -- I'm a Shia. I'm from Iran. I've lived in the United States for a number of years, just want to directly tell the Syrian brothers and sisters of mine that I mourn your death. I am in pain that so many of you have been displaced from your homes, torn apart from your loved ones.
HUXIANGAnd for what it's worth, I read a lot of Iranian websites, read a lot of articles, listen to a lot of people. That majority of Iranian people share your pain, and I'm ashamed of the Iranian government, or at least certain sections of it, along with certain sections of Saudis, Qataris and a small segment of Israelis that are fanning the flames of hatred, sectarianism.
HUXIANGAnd I ask everybody anywhere in the world that's hearing me to tell their governments to help these displaced people who have lost a lot, but I know they haven't lost their dignity to make their life a little better till something better happens for them. Thank you very much.
ROBERTSThank you for your call. We very much appreciate it. James Kitfield, we were talking earlier about the impact of refugees on Jordan and on Turkey. And this is a dimension of the story that has faded a bit. But as the caller points out, there is enormous human cost to the Syria ongoing civil war in terms of displacement, refugees, even people who have not left the country but are displaced within the country.
KITFIELDAbsolutely. This is one of the great tragedies of our time. I mean, this is -- what's happened to Syria is really one of the worst tragedies we've ever witnessed, and it's, you know, 2 million refugees to all of its neighbors, 4 million displaced within Syria, 100,000 dead, plus. This is really a catastrophe of epic proportions, and which is why, you know, something needs to get done because it shows, you know, everything bad that you predicted at the beginning, if nothing was done, has happened.
KITFIELDYou know, it has -- it started out as a, you know, an Arab Spring protest against authoritarian rule by a youth bulge who wanted more freedoms and liberalization. You know, Assad very successfully turned it into, over time, a sectarian war between, you know, Alawites, which is a Shia off-shoot, and Sunnis. It has, you know, spilled over into Lebanon, which is seeing bombings.
KITFIELDIt has spilled over into Iraq, which is seeing the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq, which is, you know, tied to al-Nusra. As Susan said, it has totally destabilized the monarchy in Jordan. It is scaring Turkey to death. So this is really a massive, you know, fire in the middle of the energy bread basket of the world, and eventually it will need to be put out so we can address the humanitarian problems. But as long as the fighting goes on, you can't address those 4 million internally displaced 'cause you can't get to them.
ROBERTSFor many Americans, Syria is a remote place. But all you do is look on the map for 10 seconds and realize how critical it is, the...
KITFIELDThe solar plexus of the Middle East.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Doug in Naperville, Ill. Doug, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DOUGThank you for taking my call. I called to, particularly Mr. Kitfield, I remember, sir, your saying to Diane Rehm in a discussion January, February of this year on the international news hour that the greater risk was not helping, early on, the rebels that we felt -- the Free Syrian army we could trust.
DOUGIf we don't help them, we wait, we'll be put in a situation where we turned out to be with al-Nusra and al-Qaida in the rebel forces -- and be grateful if you would reflect a little more on that. I think you were right, as David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton brought to President Obama's Security Council for consideration. Do you continue to feel that we should have acted early on after Arab Spring -- to the rebel forces that we knew well and we felt we could trust? So thank you.
ROBERTSThank you, Doug.
KITFIELDYou know, thanks for pointing out when I had something right 'cause I, you know, I also get things wrong. And people feel free to point that out as well. But I have said for a long time, as you point out, that, you know, again, the risk of doing nothing were going to be outweighed by the risk of -- I mean, the risk of doing something were going to be outweighed by the risk of doing nothing.
KITFIELDWe're at that point. You know, Obama has -- the one thing that we haven't mentioned is, you know, even with this chemical weapons deal in the works, no one's talking about taking off the table arming the sort of Free Syrian Army, the moderates that we have vetted. When you see al-Qaida taking towns on the Turkish border, you know you're going to get involved in that somehow.
KITFIELDTurkey's a NATO ally. It cannot have al-Qaida owning territory on its border, so eventually we're going to have to help those rebels, unless we can renegotiate a deal. So very much would hope to reach a negotiated deal, but I remain convinced that this will get so bad with, you know, much like Afghanistan in the 1990s with Islamic extremist groups taking territory where they can have training bases and launch strikes -- and we know what their philosophy on that -- I think we're going to have to eventually get behind the side that we can stomach.
ROBERTSBut, Susan Glasser, one of the reasons why the president failed or clearly would have failed or apparently would have failed if it had come to a vote on his proposal was not just Republican opposition. It was a lot of Democratic opposition, opposition from the more liberal anti-war faction. And the president himself said a number of times, I can't make the case that America's direct national interest is involved here.
ROBERTSThat's why he focused so much on the humanitarian issue and the visual images of children gassed to try to generate a moral outrage. Because he said, you know, Syria's a long way away in our -- so even though James makes this point, there's still a lot of resistance, even among Democrats, to this argument that America's real national interests are engaged here.
GLASSERWell, that's right. So two points: one, you're absolutely right to focus on the fact that it's across the political spectrum. If there's one thing that Washington can agree upon -- and with a government shutdown looming, it said nobody really wanted the prospect of being drawn into the war in Syria, and that was really a pretty unanimous voice that Obama heard from Congress.
GLASSERAnd Obama himself has had those reservations. I'm deeply sympathetic to the fact that he was placed in a nearly impossible situation with, you know, the quintessential kind of no good options presented to him, and that's been the case for the last 2 1/2 years. And so, you know, it's easy for a journalist. Our job is merely to critique, to point out inconsistencies and failures of style, which are easy for us to discern.
GLASSERBut it's certainly the case that there's no obvious and easy clear-cut way for the United States to have gone in and gone out in some surgical fashion. The last decade has made it clear to us that there is no such thing as an easy in-and-out war for the United States in the Middle East. However, it's also true that it's very hard to both summon the moral outrage and the spectacle of 1,400 dead civilian bodies from a horrific gas attack.
GLASSERLet's remember that this was the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century as Ban Ki-moon pointed out the other day. Should President Obama, with all his eloquence, remain silent in the face of that?
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's listen to a couple more callers before we have to wrap this up. And let's turn to Julie in Houston, Texas. Julie, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JULIEYes. Thank you for taking my call. I guess I'm really confused about the relationship in all of this turmoil and in Syria concerning the Saudis and Israel. It just seemed like Israel was ready to go in and is ready to go in and is very disappointed that we're not going in. And I think they actually then threatened the U.S. to -- if they -- if we didn't go in, then they were going to go in.
JULIEAnd I remember similar threats by Israel when it came to us deliberating about going into Afghanistan and also Iraq. Somebody mentioned something about it being the 800-pound gorilla in the room. And so, I mean, in my opinion, I think all chemical weapons should be banned, not just Syria's. And all nuclear weapons should be banned, and Israel's the one that has the nuclear weapons. So...
ROBERTSThank you very much, Julie, for your comment there. Bruce Auster.
AUSTERI think, again, you get a sense of the complexity of the region and the different nations that have different interests and the way in which the trick here is to balance it. I would just add one thing, which is that, as we focus on this deal to sort of get the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons, what has sort of been pushed off is the broader problem of solving the fighting. That hasn't been addressed in a serious way, and so this will continue.
ROBERTSLet me ask each of you. We have the prospect of a very -- as several of you have mentioned, a very interesting week at the United Nations, where there is possibility of high level meetings of Iran. A lot of the players here are all going to be in one place. Quickly, each of you, what do you expect to happen, James Kitfield?
KITFIELDI actually, if I had to predict, I suspect that there'll be some deal on the chemical weapons. I think Assad wants it now 'cause he can't lose Russia. I think Russia wants it for the reasons we've already articulated. I think Obama wants it, so I think there'll be some sort of deal that gets its weapons, or at least the majority of them under some sort of U.N. supervision with eventual thought that you would destroy them or move them out of the country. I know that's optimistic given the history of this, but I think that's what's going to happen.
ROBERTSBruce Auster, quickly.
AUSTERYeah, I mean, the two big issues, Syria -- I agree with James -- I think there's enough interest on part of the big powers to make something happen. I think they will figure out a way to finesse the question of enforcement of a U.N. resolution on the chemical weapons deal, but I think they have to come up with something. The other big issue, of course, is Iran, and the thing everybody will be watching is whether there was some sort of direct contact between the United States and the Iranian government.
ROBERTSAnd Susan Glasser.
GLASSERYes. You know, look for a very carefully choreographed debut of President Rouhani at the United Nations. They have gone out of their way to set this up to be a very dramatic part of the narrative next week. He will be speaking publicly not only at the United Nations but before a carefully targeted U.S. groups.
GLASSERHe will be speaking, giving interviews to U.S. media. If it's capped off by a meeting with President Obama, I think, in many ways that will likely overshadow, even potentially, a deal on Syria because you really will have then the long slog of whether this actually means anything. And it's already clear from the Russian maneuvering that the devil will be in the details there.
ROBERTSThat's Susan Glasser from Politico magazine. James Kitfield of the National Journal has been with me as well, and Bruce Auster of NPR. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. She has a cold, and she's going to be back in this chair soon as possible. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Danielle Knight. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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