A conversation with Australian author Richard Flanagan about his latest book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The Man Booker Prize-winning novel is based on his father’s experience as a slave laborer in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Guest Host: Susan Page
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council reach an agreement on Syrian chemical weapons. An al-Qaida affiliate in Syria gains the support of key rebel groups. Iran’s president makes his international debut at the U.N. President Barack Obama defends American engagement in the Middle East and says the U.S. is rethinking its surveillance activities. And Kenya mourns victims of the attack at a Nairobi shopping mall while investigators collect evidence at the site of the deadly siege. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent, National Journal; author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Paul Danahar Washington bureau chief, BBC; author of a new book, "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane has been out this week for a cause dear to her heart. She's in California starring in a play to benefit Alzheimer's research. She looks forward to being back here with you on Monday. Iran and the US hold the highest level talks they've had in nearly 40 years. Top UN members reach a deal on Syria's chemical weapons, and US forensic teams join Kenya's investigation of the Nairobi shopping mall massacre.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me for this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Michael Hirsh of National Journal, and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel. And joining us for the first time on the News Roundup, Paul Danahar of the BBC. Welcome to the Diane Rehm Show, Paul.
MR. PAUL DANAHARThank you very much.
PAGEWe welcome our listeners to join our conversations. Later in this hour, you can call our toll free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Michael, yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart at the U.N. How big a deal is that?
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHA very big deal. As you said, the first high level sit down, formal sit down since the Iranian Revolution, and it comes amid genuine desire, I think, on the part of moderate President Hassan Rouhani and the Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was, for many years, Iran's Ambassador at the U.N., to try to forge some sort of a diplomatic solution to this long standoff. Clearly, because the sanctions that have been put in place gradually over the past decade, and really have built up to a severe bite recently, have had some impact.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHAnd on the part of the US, I think John Kerry and President Obama, there's a genuine desire to resolve, diplomatically, what might otherwise have to be resolved militarily. And which, clearly, Obama does not want to do, which is to, you know, threaten or use military force or have the Israelis use military force against Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
PAGEBut Hisham, how many times, on the News Roundup, have we talked about a sign of hope from Iran, a new negotiation phase with the Iranians over their nuclear program, only to have those hopes dashed. Is it different this time?
MR. HISHAM MELHEMI think it is different this time, mainly because of the sanctions, and mainly because the Iranian people are fed up with their economic lot. You're right. We've seen these indications in the past, especially during the Clinton administration when Mohammad Hatta, also a moderate reformer, a man who knew the West and he lived in the West. But then, at that time, the highest authority in Iran, Ali Hatami did not go along with that. I think the economic sanctions are threatening the economic stability of Iran.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMWhat the Treasury Department did here, in collaboration with the European governments, was tremendous. Iran has been shut out of the international financial system. Their currency lost 50 percent. The inflation is 39 percent. They lost about 100 billion dollars in the last few years. So, they are really feeling the pinch for the first time, and I think the regime, while maybe aggressive, has a great deal of enmity towards the United States and the West, but it is not suicidal, and it is not irrational. And I think, at best, they would like to have a breather, to lift some sanctions as they have been calling yesterday. Or Mr. Javad Zarif yesterday called, and I doubt very much that they will give up totally and seriously and honestly that nuclear program, because they invested a tremendous amount of money and energy and pride in that program.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMBut, if they could reach some sort of a settlement, whereby they would reduce the amount of enriched uranium and live with it for a while, and see if they can revisit that program, because after all, the human know how, the scientific know how will remain, and all of these nuclear infrastructures, and, by the way, many of them were hidden by Iran. And they were discovered either by Western intelligence agencies and/or by the Iranian opposition.
PAGEWell, Paul, we heard the President, President Obama, in his speech to the U.N., say that the United States respects the right of Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program. Is that a kind of concession? I think I've read some commentators who are concerned that that opens the door to not really effective control of the nuclear program.
DANAHARWell, what really worries everybody is that the tone has changed, but nothing has really changed on the ground. I mean, we've had a new man elected, but all the other people are still there. So, the concern is, are they just playing people along? That's a concern of Israel. That's a concern of Israel's politicians, particularly Benjamin Netanyahu. Actually, the Israeli military thinks sanctions would work, and are working, and always felt that.
DANAHARAnd there's been a lot of tension in Israel, for example, between the military and the intelligence and their politicians. So, I think sanctions can do the job. That's the impression that many people get that have looked into it. The question is, can the politicians go along with it, and can people put some trust in this new man, or is he really just playing us along?
HIRSHYeah, I would just add -- I think that Javad Zarif, the new Foreign Minister, is an important factor here. A number of us journalists who -- covering this issue for a long time got to know him quite well over the past decade or so.
PAGESo, do you know him?
HIRSHI do. Yeah, I do know him. And I reported a lot on his various efforts, going back 10 years, to negotiate with the US. In fact, more than any other Iranian official, he has met with more Americans, on more issues from Iraq to the nuclear file, than any Iranian official. And, indeed, he was one of the hands behind a little known, but important, effort that was made in 2003 to do a sort of holistic negotiation, covering everything from Iran's relations with Hezbollah to the nuclear issue to try to, you know, sort of do a full on marketing effort between the US and Iran. That didn't work. It was early in the Iraq invasion period of the Bush administration.
HIRSHBut it's an interesting potential basis for future talks, so I think more than just the objective situation on the ground, the players, in some way, are interesting. And I would just add while, not, I don't wanna be Pollyannaish about this, but it is interesting to see the formally hard line Supreme Leader, whose word is final, talk in terms of flexibility on some of these negotiations.
DANAHARI mean, the interesting thing is if you look at it from the Iranian point of view, they thought they were making friends with America after the Taliban were kicked out. And there was a lot of talk about working together, behind the scenes, ahead of the Gulf War, and then they found themselves in the Axis of Evil.
DANAHARAnd that put things back.
DANAHARSeriously. And so the Iranians, while people are saying, well, they're not shaking hands and they're not doing this, they've got as much reason to be suspicious of American and the U.N. as we have of them. Because we have, we've had coups that we've instigated against them, we've gone back on all the deals that we've done. So, they are suspicious, and there's a reason for that.
HIRSHAnd I would just add that it was Zarif, himself, who was involved in those talks in the post Taliban, post Taliban Afghanistan, when they were in Bonn, Germany creating the new government. And by the account of senior American officials, who were there, including Jim Dobbins, Zarif was enormously helpful at that period. So, you know, there is the potential. This is a guy who has demonstrated, in the past, that he wants to negotiate.
MELHEMLook, I mean, Rouhani himself was involved with the nuclear file. I mean, he was in charge of it, and he knows, obviously, the details involved here. But, I mean, I don't want to be too optimistic here, and just remind everybody that Iran is still the same Iran before Rouhani was elected, and after Rouhani, you know, came to New York embarking on his charm offensive. Iran is still fighting on the ground with the Syrian regime, against the Syrian people, and Rouhani goes on Charlie Rose's program and denies that Iran is fighting alongside the Syrian regime.
MELHEMAnd doesn't believe what the international community believes, that the Syrian regime was the party that used chemical weapons against its own people. So, again, the same -- we're still hearing the same thing. And obviously, we all have to recognize that we're talking about 35 years of accumulation of distrust and enmity, but I really think that the Iranians are interested in saving the regime and saving the economy. And even if they do some -- present some concessions, they are, I think, as far as I'm concerned, temporarily.
PAGESo, more talks are going to be held in Geneva next month. Michael, what should we watch for with those?
HIRSHWell, this is a resumption of an effort that Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General started in the summer of 2012, before he quit in frustration. Things are vastly more difficult now, in terms of the parties coming to any kind of agreement. You have a divided opposition with radical Islamist groups saying, just the other day, that they would not take part, that they're not gonna be involved in any kind of negotiation with the Assad regime. You have, on the other side, Assad, interested in sort of re-legitimizing himself, as it were.
HIRSHHe's part of this -- he's a signatory now. His regime is to this chemical weapons dismantlement deal. And, at the same time, he sees his military as having gaining ground against the rebels. And so, I think you, you know, you're gonna have a process, but very likely not to be any agreement coming out of it.
DANAHARI think the thing is, also, I mean, if the FSA, that we've talked about, has never really existed.
PAGEThe FSA being...
DANAHARThe Free Syrian Army has never really existed, because it's never been an army. It's been a group of men generally pointing their guns in the same direction. The guys outside, the exiles, were never running anything other than the people in the room with them. So, we've created this idea that there was a united Syrian opposition. I think what happened this week, with the Islamist rebels saying, we don't recognize these people, is we basically took away that fig leaf, and said, the opposition is all over the place. And even if we have a Geneva 2, who are we talking to? Because whoever turns up is not representing the people that are holding the machine guns on the ground.
PAGESomeone mentioned earlier in this discussion the failure of President Obama and President Rouhani to shake hands at the U.N. The White House had actually, I thought, put out the expectation that that was gonna happen. In kind of an arranged accident, it didn't happen. Why didn't it happen, Hisham?
MELHEMBecause things are quote unquote complicated in Iran. Look, there are powerful people in Iran, particularly the revolutionary guards, who have a tremendous political influence, who run their own economic ventures. And they are very powerful, and...
PAGESo, risky for Rouhani.
MELHEMThey are not very keen on opening a new page with the United States. They are not very keen on transparency and all of these things, so that's why he didn't do it.
PAGESo, all politics is local, even if you're the President of Iran.
PAGEWe're gonna take a short break. Our phone lines are open. 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll go to the phone, we'll read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio for the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup, Paul Danahar, Washington bureau chief of the BBC. He's the author of a new book. It's called "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." And Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for National Journal. He's the author of "At War With Ourselves: Why America is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World." And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Al-Arabiya News Channel.
PAGEWell, Hisham, let's talk about the situation with Syria. We actually have an agreement among the five members -- five permanent members of the UN Security Council about dealing with Syrian chemical weapons. I have to say, a couple weeks ago who would've thought we would be at this place?
MELHEMThat's true but let's remember what happened with Iraq too. I still have my doubts whether Bashar al-Assad will be transparent in this regard. And if you remember recently in one of his interviews he said, yes these sites are under the control of the Syrian government but we cannot assure the inspection teams, whether they will be able to have, you know, access to these sites because the rebels may stop them. And that was, you know, an implicit reference that he may also play the games that Saddam Hussein used to play before.
MELHEMObviously the Russians are involved. And obviously some of these weapons can be collected and will probably be collected. But I don't think Bashar al-Assad is going to collaborate and change his spots.
PAGEBut it just seems extraordinary to me, I have to say, that a couple weeks ago there was universal expectation that there were going to be U.S. military strikes, cruise missile strikes on Syria. And then suddenly this diplomatic initiative comes out of the blue. And now the UN, which the president -- President Obama had dismissed as a possible avenue to deal with chemical weapons, now at least there is an initial agreement.
DANAHARYeah, but then that was because Obama drew his red line accidentally and then was looking for months afterwards to get out of it. And Secretary Kerry's little -- now they say it wasn't really a goof but clearly it was a goof -- helped him out. And the Russians jumped on that. And chemical weapons is just about the only thing that America and Russia can agree upon in Syria because neither one of them really want the Syrians to have them while they don't have control over their country.
DANAHARSo if ever there was going to be a deal, it was going to be on that. But it's not going to deal with the Syrian crisis.
PAGEWell, you're saying that President Obama doesn't deserve a lot of credit for the place he's in now but I wonder if in terms of results if the result turns out to be positive -- and there are some steps still to go -- if it matters that the process of getting there was a little sloppy.
HIRSHYeah, I mean, I think that will be long forgotten, how it happened if in fact this works, the chemical weapons are collected and dismantled and there is a time table for that. You know, mid 2014, so it's not endlessly open-ended. But you do have some serious questions. There's no question, for example, that the U.S. made a greater compromise on this security council resolution than did the other side in terms of there being...
PAGEWhat is the compromise here?
HIRSHWell, basically that there's no Chapter 7 threat of consequences that's included in -- there is a provision that says we can resort to Chapter 7, which can include the use of force, but there will have to be another resolution for that to happen. So that was the concession.
MELHEMIf we show conclusively that the Syrians violated the agreement.
HIRSHYeah, right. And then, there's -- right, the Russians who have obviously vetoed most of these resolutions that involve any threat of the use of force have this sort of -- they have a lot of latitude to define what is noncompliance. So there's no question that the language does show a lot of compromise on the part of the U.S. But, as you were suggesting, this is a long way from where the U.S. was a couple weeks ago when Obama seemed to be in a terrible spot having threatened the use of force, with congress all but certain to vote against him. And, you know, it was a bad place to be.
MELHEMClearly Assad wanted to avoid the military strike obviously. And that's why he came into the negotiations. And the Russians understood this. The problem is the United States has been saying for the last three years -- exactly two years that this man has lost his legitimacy. Now we are creating a new quote unquote "political process" that would involve negotiations with the man that we delegitimized. His people delegitimized him first. So now he's going to stay. And so that's one.
MELHEMThe other thing is, 99 percent of the Syrian who were killed in the last two-and-a-half years were killed by quote unquote "conventional weapons," not chemical weapons. And for the United States to reduce -- and the wars actually, or the Russians to reduce the whole conflict in Syria to the use or potential use of chemical weapons really sidelines the real issue, which is the killing machine that Bashar al-Assad still operates.
PAGEAnd that was the point you were making, Paul, that it doesn't deal with the civil war that has been going on.
DANAHARNo. I mean, I think if you look at the riots of Jihadists in Syria, it's a fundamental failure of America from policy on. They border the most important ally in the Middle East, Israel. You now have seriously fundamentalist Jihadi groups of all different shades from al-Qaida even to the more extreme versions of al-Qaida running around in Syria now and creating basically a little state of their own in the north.
DANAHARNow, you know, okay. We may be able to get the chemical weapons away from them, but that's a serious problem in the heart of the most difficult country in the Middle East. And that could spill over into Lebanon, into Turkey, into...
MELHEMIt's already spilling out into Lebanon.
DANAHAR...into Jordan. But I mean, at the moment, it's -- they're trying to contain it. The Obama Administration has been trying to contain Syria rather than trying to fix it. And that's not going to last forever with or without chemical weapons.
MELHEMBut I think there is an American -- there's a moral responsibility for the west in particular. And I say in particular because they were -- because of their bickering, that's what happens. When you allow a festering wound like that for two-and-a-half years obviously so called volunteers are going to come in. And given what we've seen in Afghanistan, what we've seen in Iraq and to a six and seven and eight, this has become a war by proxy, a Shiite, Sunni regional war with so-called volunteers from Iraq and from Lebanon going to fight for the regime.
MELHEMAnd people from far away caucuses in Pakistan and Chechnya are fighting with the Sunnis. It's -- but we are -- we were partly responsible for it.
DANAHARBut that's the reason why -- I mean, the Chapter 7, you know, if you don't do this we will act. That doesn't really hold water either because if they do go in and do something and they start bombing various bits of government buildings and various bits of the regime, they don't want to topple them because they don't know what's coming next. So even the threat of, we will attack you if you don't do this, they're worried about that. Because in fact if it destabilizes the regime, who takes over?
PAGEYou talked about America's responsibility to do something about Syria but there's this political reality that the president encountered in the debate over Syria with congress that there is a real allergy, I think, to more foreign entanglements that might involved U.S. troops. We heard the president talk in defense engagement in his speech at the UN, Michael.
HIRSHYes, but only at the end, you know, saying that the world would regret a vacuum left by American disengagement. But that came after he laid out what he called America's core interests, which interestingly enough did not include the promotion of democracy, democratic governance in that region where obviously the rise of democracy has been somewhat problematic. Was a very sort of rail politic, very basic view of core interests being, you know, the free flow of energy, stability. So in keeping with what Obama has said in the past, a very sort of defined down view of an American role in the Middle East.
PAGEAnd he laid out two priorities, one of which was not Syria. One priority was Iran dealing with this nuclear program. And the second was trying to reach peace between Israelis and the Palestinians. Now, that was a little bit of a surprise to me because that has not been a priority for him previously in his term. Why does he now want to embark on this very difficult path?
MELHEMBecause we have to thank John Kerry. Really, seriously. Look, the president began -- I think on his second day in office he appointed George Mitchell, remember, as his envoy to the Middle East. And then he declared that the Israelis should free settlements. When he was stiffed by Netanyahu and when he was lectured by Netanyahu for seven-and-a-half minutes (unintelligible) which was humiliating for anybody to watch -- I mean, it was really humiliating.
MELHEMAnd then when he found out that the Arab Spring was going south and it's going to be dark and not shiny, he turned his back on the region. Just to go back and read that speech in Cairo in 2009, the president abandoned everything in that speech. The president intellectually and emotionally had disengaged from the Middle East really. And now he's returning with very little credibility, with the exception of the efforts of John Kerry. He really gave that file to John Kerry. And John Kerry was different than Hillary Clinton.
MELHEMHillary Clinton came -- I mean, became the Secretary of State. She didn't want to touch South Asia. She didn't want to touch the Af-Pak theater, as we call it. She gave it to Richard Holbrook. She gave -- I mean, she agreed with the president, give the Middle East to George Mitchell. And everybody gave Iraq to Joe Biden. If there is a massacre in Iraq, what happens? Joe Biden picks up the phone and he talks to the various players. The President of the United States is not involved in Iraq. He doesn't want to even think of Iraq. He's turning his back on Iraq completely.
MELHEMAnd now he wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. He is really not engaged in that part of the world. But he's supporting his secretary of state. And if John Kerry succeeds, he will get part of the credit. If John Kerry doesn't succeed, he will be toast.
PAGEDo you agree, Michael, with that assessment of President Obama's leadership on the foreign stage?
HIRSHTo some degree. I mean, it is true, the Obama Administration wanted to pivot to Asia. They wanted to focus away from these troubled regions. And now obviously they're getting pulled back in. And, yes, it partly was Kerry's keen interest in direct mediation. He is, you know, in some ways the un-Hillary Clinton. She did not want to get involved with direct mediation. We're not exactly sure why.
PAGEWell, her husband's administration had experience with that, which didn't end up working out despite a huge investment on the part of President Clinton.
DANAHARHow about 2016?
HIRSH2016? I mean, there are people inside the State Department who have speculated that's one reason she didn't want to get her hands dirty or, you know, potentially embarrassed by failure. But, be that as it may, John Kerry is someone who -- you know, his father was a diplomat. He's passionate about diplomatic engagement. So he really did want to jump into these issues. And it's not just for personal glory. I mean, these are all pieces of a larger puzzle, you know.
HIRSHIsraeli-Palestinian peace plays into the relationship with Iran. And Iran, for example -- Iran's relationship with Hezbollah -- Iran needs to support Hezbollah and therefore support the Assad regime which supports Hezbollah because of the Israeli threat. And so, you know, in many ways the initiative with Iran, the initiative with -- over Syria, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they're all part of the same picture.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Paul.
DANAHARI think the problem is that Kerry may want to -- but there aren't many people left in Israel, even in many of the Palestinians area that really want it because the Palestinians feel that they're going to get a bad deal. And if you look at the makeup of the present Israeli government, which is dominated politically if not by numbers with the settler parties and even the centrists to saying, you know, we're not giving up the West Bank. There is no appetite in Israel proper amongst ordinary Israelis to basically see the Palestinians as peaceful neighbors.
DANAHARYou know, they are still completely scarred by the second (unintelligible) and there's no appetite for it. And I think -- now, we can keep talking about it, but at the end of the day, you have to remember the people that Kerry is talking to are only talking from the position of the West Bank. It doesn't settle Gaza so it doesn't settle the Palestinian issue.
HIRSHRight. But you do have a weakened Hamas. You do have, you know, the remnants of a movement in Israel which was represented by the Kadima Party and which Obama himself gave voice to in his UN speech, talking about the necessity of Palestinian state because of the demographic threat to the future of Israel. If you don't ever have two states, you know, you have an outgrowth of the population -- Arab population over the Jewish population and you have this existential crisis.
HIRSHSo those issues are also out there.
DANAHARBut then Kadima got a handful of seats.
DANAHARI remember I was at the polling stations during that day and I was watching her supporters trying to hand out pamphlets and failing miserably. So there isn't really much enthusiasm. If you could basically say we're going to create a Palestinian estate a long way away from you, they'll buy into it. But it's on their doorstep.
HIRSHRight. But the Netanyahu government is very thinly, you know, supported. I mean, it barely squeaked in. And it's interesting to note that the person who has designated the Israeli negotiator is Tzipi Livni who has, you know, made her entire -- built her entire career out of negotiating the Palestinian states.
PAGENetanyahu will be here next week and meet with President Obama. What are they going to talk about, Hisham?
MELHEMIran because that's Netanyahu's obsession. It's been like that for many years. And the Israelis are very unhappy with these Iranian charm offensive and they're not happy with this new opening obviously. They may say something different publicly but they are not happy with this.
PAGEThey think it's not real.
MELHEMThey think it's not real and they don't believe in containment. I mean, there is now an intellectual big difference. This president did commit himself to a policy of non-containment. His policy -- our president here -- that we should not allow -- and I will not allow Israel -- excuse me, Iran to become a nuclear weapon or to develop a nuclear arsenal. And that I would use whatever, you know, means available to me, including military power. So that's the debate.
MELHEMNow there's a new -- you know, people are trying to push back now. Ken Pollack just, you know, published the very interesting book called "Unthinkable: How to Contain Iran." And he develops a very good theory about that. But definitely the congress doesn't want that. Ninety senators signed a deal last year rejecting containment and pushing for more robust approach to Iran. So this is the obsession of Netanyahu. And whether the president wants to talk about peace process, Netanyahu will do it in passing. But essentially Iran, Iran, Iran.
PAGELet's go to the phones and talk to Tom. Tom's calling us from Louisville, Ky. Tom, hi, you're on the air.
TOMHi, there. How y'all doing today?
TOMI want to -- I'll be real brief with this as best I can but I was watching Charlie Rose on television, informed me that every single person that -- not Charlie Rose but Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel, make the claim that all 100,000 who have died in the civil war were ordered killed by Assad. My point I'm making is, I think we're getting a lot of anti-Assad propaganda. And let me ask my question. Have we been underestimating the real support that President Assad has?
TOMYou know, for whatever his flaws, he has been a very pro-Christian leader. And why should Orthodox Christians in Russia or Evangelical Christians in America want him to fall when we know his fall will lead -- just as it's led in Iraq and Egypt and Libya -- to a far worst thing for Christians. And let me also add, a recent NATO study showed that up to 70 percent of the public now support Assad and that a growing number of secular moderate Sunnis are supporting him. Add to the elite Sunnis who already supported him, add to the Christians, add to the whole Alawite, or at least many of the Alawites.
TOMI guess my point I'm trying to make here is it's not just about Assad but it's asking him to -- or making him step down. For two years we were calling for a lot of people to be removed from power. And I'll take my comment off the air.
PAGEAll right. Tom, thank you so much for your call. Paul.
DANAHARWell, Christians don't like being tortured either and a lot of them were tortured under Assad in the old regime and are now. I think the only people that really survive in Syria, whether they be Christians or Sunnis or Kurds or anyone else, is if you buy into the regime. So, yes, there was a great deal of concern amongst Christians because they saw what happened in Iraq. They saw how the disintegration of the country into civil war led to them being stuck in the middle.
DANAHARBut I don't think that Christians in Syria want to be living under a dictatorship anymore than Christians anywhere else. So it has become a partially religious conflict now. But at the beginning of the war before the revolution took place, Christians, if they stepped out of line, were in just as much trouble.
HIRSHYeah, I don't think it's so much that Assad has a lot of support, even among his own Alawite community. It is more that as one official put it to me, he's holding the Alawite community hostage because they know they're going to be murdered, you know, if he's no longer in charge.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll go back to the phones, we'll read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back, I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. It's the second hour of our "Friday News Roundup". We're talking about international issues. With me in the studio Hisham Melhem from Al-Arabiya News Channel, Paul Danahar from the BBC, Michael Hirsh from National Journal.
PAGEWell, Kenyan and American officials have begun investigating that shopping mall massacre in Nairobi. Paul, what do we know at this point?
DANAHARWell, we know that it's going to be very difficult to find out exactly who did it because it's believed that many of the people that are involved in this attack may have had their bodies destroyed by the few surviving fighters that did survive to the end.
DANAHARWe know it was al-Shabaab but how they managed to get in, we believe that they used people that spoke very good English to kind of, I guess pretend to be customers. It was a very up-market shopping mall. But it's going to take an awful lot of time to really find out what was behind it and more importantly, the organization behind it and whether that is a risk to other parts of the world, other parts of Africa.
PAGEWell, there has been a lot, a feeling I think that al-Shabaab was losing influence in Somalia, was less to worry about. Michael, does this show they can still be a pretty serious threat?
HIRSHWell, again I seem to be taking an optimistic role and that's really sad with these discussions, but in some ways this is evidence of how far out of power they've been driven in terms of basically, they're in the countryside of Somalia, out of the major cities, along the borders and apparently felt a need to show that, you know, they're still a force to be reckoned with.
HIRSHI think the most alarming element of this attack was the possible involvement of Western, American Somalis, possibly Somali-Americans from around the Minneapolis area. That's one reason you have so much FBI investigator activity going on there right now.
HIRSHI think there's a concern, you know, could a copycat type event occur somewhere outside of Africa, in the United States.
PAGEKenyan officials have said some of the attackers may have been Somali-American and British. We don't know that for sure. Do we think that's probably the case?
HIRSHWe, I mean based on what we know so far, the public that is we don't really know who exactly the attackers were. Another intriguing element is the search for the so-called white widow, a British woman who was married to one of the perpetrators of the transit bombings in Britain in 2007 who is suspected, possibly to be one of, a woman who was involved in this attack.
MELHEMYou know, I had a caller yesterday who said that there's no evidence that American citizens of Somali descent participated in the attack. But we know that the Americans were involved in al-Shabaab. One of the leaders was Omar Hammami so they have been involved in recruitment here and in operations inside Somalia and in the region.
MELHEMYes it is true that al-Shabaab has been in a state of retreat in the last two years. They lost control of the Kismayo which was an important base for them but they're still capable of waging these regional attacks involving Kenya and Uganda and others. And they embarked recently on a campaign of terror against the Turkish embassy there.
MELHEMSo yes they may be losing and they may be down but they're not out and they are still capable, logistically of operating in East Africa, not only in South Somalia but in Kenya and Uganda and others.
DANAHARThe thing about al-Shabaab is whenever militant groups like this try and hold ground, try and run states whether it be the Tamil Tigers or whether it be al-Shabaab or even Hamas, that's not what they're good at. So when you, when they don't fight as a regular army, when they give up fighting as a regular army that's when they become more effective.
DANAHARSo they can carry out these kinds of attacks. When they try and hold ground and run health services and water services or whatever that's when they get distracted and they don't become as useful from their point of view. The group is attacking the targets that they despise.
PAGEWe had more attacks in Kenya on Wednesday and Thursday, though, with lower death tolls. Do we think they're linked to what happened at the shopping mall? Do we know?
DANAHARIt's possible but it's very, very shady and you can imagine that perhaps these groups are responding perhaps in a disconnected way to what's happened in the shopping mall. But it's very, very murky and that's why there's so much interest in it from outside players to try and work out who is behind all this.
PAGELet's talk to Al. He's calling us from Rochester, Mich., hi Al.
ALHi, I have a question about our policy regarding Syria. Several years ago I remember Congress allocating somewhat, a number sticks in my mind, $65 million to destabilize Syria. Can you tell me about that because I can't find information about that?
PAGEOkay, Al, thanks for your call. Let me ask our panel, is anyone familiar with that? I think Al, I'm so sorry we're not getting knowledge about that. I'm sorry we're not able to help you on that particular question. Let's go to Alabama and talk to Randy. Randy, hi you're on the air.
RANDYGood morning, thanks for taking my call. I would like, I've mentioned perhaps your panel discussing the relationships between the United States and Iran as opposed to Russia's relationship with Syria and Iraq and without a historical perspective, say after World War II any discussion of what's going on in the Middle East is sorely lacking in content.
RANDYBut what I would like to discuss would be something, as I was listening one of your guests mentioned about leadership qualities in our foreign affairs. Would that be okay?
PAGEAbsolutely Randy, that's what you'd like us to talk about?
PAGEOkay, good, we'll do that. You know we have a related email from Dan in Sacramento. Let me just read that. He says, "Is it that those in the media are happy that Obama finally has had a less than stellar foreign policy win? Make no mistake, the president's threat of military strikes clearly has brought about this change in behavior for Syria and Russia." Is that a fair, do you think, Michael?
HIRSHYeah, I do think that's a fair point. I mean that’s the point the administration has been trying to make. Let's just, you know, look at the circumstances. Before Obama threatened the use of military force, I mean he actually said he was going to strike there were no negotiations over Syria's chemical weapons and even though apparently Putin and Obama had been talking about it for something like a year going back to the last G20 and in Los Cabos, Mexico.
HIRSHSo clearly this does seem to have been a catalyst in forcing this agreement.
MELHEMI mean I agree that Assad. I said that, Assad came to negotiations in order to avoid a military strike. At the same time there is a sense, at least in the Middle East that this president is disengaged, that this president is really, has a serious problem with the use of military force. And for understanding the reason, after all we are still in Afghanistan which is the longest war in American history and we just left Iraq which is the second-longest war in American history.
MELHEMThat you know, that being said it is also true that this president keeps telling the American people and the rest of the world that we are a nation that is war-weary. I mean you keep beating this drum all the time and your enemies and we have enemies, al-Qaida and al-Shabaab and all of these and states like Iran I guess, see a sign of weakness, see a sign of indecisiveness, see the president as being wobbly on the international scene.
MELHEMAnd seeing the way Putin has been dealing with him on Syria or on Iran and other issues and they say that there is a problem with American leadership.
PAGEYou know Paul you have just arrived a few weeks ago to become the Washington bureau chief for the BBC. You were previously based in the Middle East. What is the perception of President Obama's leadership from there?
DANAHARThere's great disappointment I think. When he gave his Cairo speech there were two audiences. In Israel they were absolutely aghast because they thought he just thrown them under a bus. And then the Arab world they were really excited, they thought things were going to change and then nothing really happened.
DANAHARHe didn't follow through on the peace process. He didn't really follow through on any of the good stuff about promoting democracy and then when you remember when Mubarak was in the process of falling they couldn't really make up their minds whether they wanted him to go or not. So there is a lot of disappointment, a lot of confusion also about American foreign policy.
DANAHARAnd there's this, kind of pulling, this contradiction that many people given the chance would love to come to America and they recognize American values and the soft power has done all the hard work while the hard power has been going around breaking things in the Middle East. But there is confusion and there is a sense of contradiction and that's shared by Arabs and Israelis.
HIRSHI mean I think Obama might want to stop using the term, war-weary because it does project something, you know, of an image of weakness. It plays right into the al-Qaida narrative of fighting a long and exhausting war until we finally get tired and just go home. And Obama, you know, is trying to address that sentiment but at the same time, you know, I would point out that he did surge in Afghanistan to try to make that come out right.
HIRSHWe still don't know how it's going to come out exactly and he has trebled at the very least the number of drone strikes that the Bush administration was conducting and so in the core al-Qaida areas, particularly Pakistan, the tribal regions, you know the U.S. has had devastating effect on al-Qaida.
HIRSHSo it is true that he's somewhat adverse to the use of military force when it comes to boots on the ground but he has been, in many ways, the covert power president.
DANAHARWhat I think is quite interesting about al-Qaida, if you look at. I mean it's an organization that says, let's attack America and then we'll deal with everybody else afterwards because they are the big evil. Actually since Bin Laden was killed you get the sense that the new leadership is more local. It's more about well, let's deal with some of the local issues first.
DANAHARI mean, in one sense Obama's policies work. The focus of al-Qaida now is much less about America and much more about the environment that is actually in at that particular time.
HIRSHWhich is returning it to where it was pre-Bin Laden, people tend to forget that. In the pre-911 days there was actually a big argument going on inside al-Qaida. With Bin Laden the leader of the group leading the argument for taking on what it called the foreign enemy, the United States.
HIRSHMany of the jihadists were more locally, regionally focused and so you have kind of returned to that now in Bin Laden's absence and I think that has to be seen as something of a victory for Obama.
PAGEJosh, who is calling us from High Point, N.C., hi Joshua.
JOSHUAHi, good morning, thank you for taking my call.
JOSHUAMy question and even comment really is that, you know, just on the avenue of President Obama's leadership. I think it's worth noting that he is the person who whether or not it's Kerry who is getting the credit for making some of the decisions that are being made or whatever, he is still the person that put Kerry in place and I think that's worth noting, number one.
JOSHUAIt's just like the CEO of any Fortune 500 company or whatever. They typically are the ones that get the bonuses and everything else for the workers that are getting the work done. He is doing that same, that same thing. He is the one who is actually putting those people in place.
JOSHUAAnd as far as war-weary and jumping to war real fast, first of all I think he's proving that when it is time to strike, just like with Bin Laden he went and got Bin Laden without Pakistan's approval. So I think when it's time to go to war, he goes to war. But I think he hesitates in going so fast that it just leaves a lot of people hurting in the process. That's my comment.
PAGEJoshua, thanks so much for your call.
MELHEMLook, I give him credit for Bin Laden obviously but as we've seen in Libya and other places this is not a president who really builds international coalitions. There is a hunger for American leadership in the world, specifically in the Middle East and people don't see it.
MELHEMWhen the president addressed the American people from Congress he spoke as a hesitant man and even when he talks about American exceptionalism he does it as if he's, you know, apologizing for it. And there is, I mean I'm a believer. I was not born here but I believe in American exceptionalism in terms of values, in terms of providing leadership in a world that is hungry.
MELHEMI mean if this world is going to be dominated by one political culture would you rather have that be Russia's Putin or China or America, warts and all?
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well Hisham just mentioned President Obama's comments in a speech about American exceptionalism. I thought that was directed, Michael, at an audience of one, at Vladimir Putin.
HIRSHRight, so there's been this tit-for-tat. Putin now famously wrote an op-ed that he published in The New York Times in which he kind of, you know, took on this notion that America was an unusual or exceptional nation which is the, you know, where this idea of American exceptionalism comes from, this idea, that this is the only nation that's sort of not founded on a racial or ethnic basis but on the basis of ideas, ideas that are universal.
HIRSHAnd so Americans have always sort of taken that to heart and I think, you know, Obama was sort of throwing that back at him but not in a very aggressive way I think. I mean this was not a president who wanted to pick a fight with a guy that for the first time really he's just come to agreement with on this chemical weapons issue.
PAGEHere's something that struck me about President Obama's speech at the U.N. was when he addressed the concerns of the leader of Brazil and others about disclosures about our surveillance, not only of Americans and of foreigners but of foreign leaders including the Brazilian president who was the opening speaker at the General Assembly. What did she say Paul and what did you think about Obama's kind of acknowledgement of those criticisms he's getting from fellow foreign leaders?
DANAHARIt wasn't a really good way to start the week because it was the first thing she talked about. She was pretty furious. Look, I think everybody knows that everybody else is spying on everybody else. I mean it's kind of silly not to assume that that's happening.
MELHEMIt's shocking. There's gambling around here.
DANAHARIt's literally like that. So I think that, you know, there's a lot of talking in the public arena. We shouldn't really be doing this but there isn't any country that doesn't one way or another, quietly, spy on everybody else and it may only be about business. But I think, you know, there's been a lot of talk about this. I think at the end of the day, as individuals we worry about our private messages being taped by people and you know, in a random way.
DANAHARBut to expect governments not to spy on each other is slightly unrealistic.
PAGEWell, why did she make such a big deal about it then? She cancelled a state visit to the (all talking at once) .
DANAHARShe's also quite weak in Brazil, so I mean she has to.
MELHEMDomestic consumption, domestic consumption, domestic reasons and look, she has a right to be furious but look, immediately after the revelations the French were furious in a typical French way, you know and, lo and behold, we found out that the French had been spying on the United States since the early 1960s doing industrial espionage and military espionage because they are poor and they don't want to invest too much money in R&D.
MELHEMBig deal, I mean everybody does it. Why the president talks about it as if he's apologizing for it? I want him to apologize for me if he spies on me without court order, but I want him to spy on everybody in the world. The world is still not, you know, a lovely, you know, a platonic republic.
PAGEMichael, just very briefly, there was a controversy over President Rouhani's interview on CNN and what he said about the Holocaust. What's the issue?
HIRSHWell, he's trying to walk a very fine line in terms of making sure the hardliners back home in Tehran are not too upset with him as he makes this outreach to the West. And this issue of Holocaust denial is tied into the regime's unwillingness to recognize the existence of Israel to the extent that the Holocaust is a, you know, unusual, historical fact in which the Jews suffered to an unusual degree which of course is the whole nature of it.
HIRSHThat helps to justify the existence of Israel as the Iranian regime see it. And that's why they had this tendency to sort of downplay, if not, deny the existence of the Holocaust which in the hands of the previous President Ahmadinejad, it was done in a very clumsy, really an offensive way. Rouhani's trying to sort of walk that line, say okay, it happened but you know, a lot of other people suffered as well. It's obviously, you know, a difficult, political issue for him back home.
PAGEMichael Hirsh from National Journal, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel, Paul Danahar of the BBC, thank so much for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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