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.
This week, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point President, President Barack Obama sought to lay out his vision of the America’s role in the world. He argued that American isolationism is not an option and that terrorism continues to be the most direct threat we face. He pledged that when and where necessary, the U.S. will use military force. But he also said diplomacy, limited counter-terrorism missions and closer collaboration with countries on the front lines are likely to be far more effective tools today and in the years ahead. War weary Americans may agree, but questions about responsibility and security remain. Please join us for a debate over the country’s role in the world and how it’s changed since Obama took office.
- Michael Hirsh national editor, Politico author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
- Katrina vanden Heuvel editor and publisher, The Nation; author of "The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama."
- Robert Kagan senior fellow, Brookings Institution, contributing editor, The New Republic.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In a speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama said the greatest threat to our security here and abroad continues to be terrorism.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAFor the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism. But as strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.
REHMJoining me to talk about President Obama's foreign policy priorities and U.S. power, Michael Hirsh of Politico, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and the New Republic, and joining us by phone from New York, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation. I do invite your comments, questions. Join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHThank you.
MR. ROBERT KAGANGood morning.
MS. KATRINA VANDEN HEUVELThank you.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Michael Hirsh, I'll start with you. What do you see as the main points that the president was making in his speech?
HIRSHPresident Obama has, for some years now, and in this speech he kind of summed up an approach that was long in the making, been trying to reorient American foreign policy at the same time as he's been trying to wind down the two wars he inherited and he sees this all of a piece. It's been called a kind of neo isolationism. I don't think it's quite that.
HIRSHIn fact, if there's any sort of title that you might give to the Obama doctrine, it was one that was already used by Sheryl Sandberg in her book, "Lean In." It's about leaning in, focusing on doing nation-building at home, as he says, and not tackling every problem through a military lens, which, of course, is a reference to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
HIRSHYou know, perhaps the most quotable line from his speech yesterday was, you know, just because you have the best hammer doesn't mean every problem is a nail. Just because our military is unparalleled in the world, doesn't mean that we need to look at all these problems through that lens. And so what he did, to answer your question, was to narrow down to a set of core interests, as he called them, the kinds of problems to which any kind of a unilateral U.S. military response might be considered and to consider other problem in terms of a multilateral framework. So it was a defining speech in that respect.
REHMAnd turning to you, Robert Kagan, you wrote the cover story for this month's New Republic. It's titled "Superpowers Don't Get To Retire." This morning, in the New York Times, Peter Baker has written that in a sense, the president was responding directly to you. Lay out your thesis for us and how you see the president's response.
KAGANWell, I'm flattered, if that's true. I'm not sure it is. But in any case, you know, the essay is kind of an historical tract which begins in the 1920s and '30s and talks about how an American grand strategy evolved. And the post-World War II grand strategy that I think guided American foreign policy, both before the Cold War in that brief period, during the Cold War and then I would say for about 20 years after, under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton was a strategy that aimed at sort of transcending narrow national interests.
KAGANIt wasn't just about protecting America from attack. It actually was aimed at supporting a broader type of world order, a liberal world order, which meant making commitments to other nations, which meant defining our interests very broadly. I think that President Obama's speech is important because I think it's signaling a shift away from that long tradition.
KAGANIn the speech, he's implicitly critical not only of the Bush administration, but American sort of overreach and perhaps overuse of the military going back, as he says, to the period after World War II. I think what he's saying is we should not be in the business anymore of this kind of global order enforcement insofar as it requires American power to do so. And I think that's a significant statement and I think he's evolved in this direction.
KAGANHe didn't start there. If you look at some of his early speeches, he talks a lot about the reliance, the dependence on American military power that is necessary to undergird the world order.
REHMKatrina vanden Heuvel, how did you hear the speech? What did you take from it?
HEUVELAt its best, I took restraint and realism and understand that in the context of the times we live in that perhaps it is difficult to have some grand strategy. I thought there was some very good frames in this, the idea that one sets the bar high for military force. The president said many of the right things. We don't want to create more enemies with our counterterrorism policy. We can't flout international law, that we have caused more damage to your national security by rushing into military misadventures as opposed to being restrained.
HEUVELBut I step back, Diane, and I think of if one had to characterize this speech, it's all of the above. It's almost like the president's energy policy because he wants to have it in many different ways. The speech had different audiences. He was speaking to a Robert Kagan. He was trying to thread the needle between hyper interventionists and isolationists and speaking to a war-weary public. A war-weary public he didn't make, but two military debacles have made.
HEUVELSo I think he had different audiences. But the thing that struck me is that the president said, very squarely, that the central challenge of our time remains terrorism. And I'm not sure, and this is something to discuss, that that is actually the case. One could argue that there are other central challenges in the 21st century that demand international law, that demand international institutions, new ones, old ones, however flawed, being rebuilt, allies, as the president spoke of.
HEUVELBut there is still a kind of packaging of a post-war policy when we are still at war. This announcement of the $5 billion counterterrorism partnership funds was perhaps the biggest new policy takeaway. And that is very dangerous, it seems to me, in the context of the history we know of outsourcing, perhaps to despotic regimes, to thugs, and it suggests that it's not so much signaling the end of the era of military adventurism as directing it towards a new area in fresh packaging.
HEUVELNowhere was the point that, you know, he said military power is not America's only tool, but then why isn't Washington devoting the same money and energy to a program, for example, to expand access to clean water, electricity development, education in Africa, as it will be devoting to this new counterterrorism effort. So all of the above and it is the beginning, it seems to me, of the last two years of President Obama's term to begin to see what happens in action.
HEUVELBut I didn't see a grand strategy here. I don’t even see a doctrine.
REHMKatrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation and author of "The Change I Believe In: Fighting For Progress in the Age of Obama." Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, contributing editor to the New Republic and Michael Hirsh, national editor of Politico and author of "At War With Ourselves." I do invite your questions, comments. Join us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
REHMRobert Kagan, you say that Americans are settling for more limited goals, that they, in fact, as Katrina has said, many of said, are simply war-weary and therefore might be more satisfied with the way the president has laid out his goals.
KAGANOh, I think absolutely. I think the president has been in the kind of dialogue with the American people. I think that when he first came into office, he thought that maybe he still had to look tough and be willing to use force, increase the forces in Afghanistan, use force against Libya. He gave a very tough speech when he gave his Nobel Prize acceptance. And I think that what he has been discovering in the course of subsequent years and particularly when he was going to ask American people to support action in Syria is that the American people really are not in favor of that at all and therefore this speech, I think, reflects that.
KAGANBut my argument is actually not that only Americans are war-weary. Yes, they're war-weary. My argument is that they're world-weary and that the enormous responsibilities the United States took on after World War II and continued to take on during the Cold War and even after it, I think Americans are asking, you know, why. You know, why is this necessary? And it's been a long time since anyone said this is why it's necessary.
KAGANAnd honestly, I wish President Obama had done more of that in this speech, setting military power aside. I think Americans right now are pretty sort of inward looking. They don't understand why we have to be so the leader of the world. I'm not sure they even want to be now and I think that's the mood that is reflected.
REHMWhat about this $6 billion that the president has asked for. Michael Hirsh, how would that be used and will he get it?
HIRSHProbably not to your last question. But it's intended to be a sort of multilateral counter terrorism fund that would bring in other countries. It's very interesting that he cast it in this way because we've already had -- there's, I think, four separate funds already existing that contribute not nearly that sum, but a lot of money to counter terrorism capabilities. One of the interesting things that I thought was missing from the speech was that Obama did not pick up on what he started about a year ago in a big speech he gave at National Defense University where he talked about shifting from war to law enforcement in terms of counter terrorism.
HIRSHAnd I think that's where he wants to go. He wants, you know, to make this a policing type of an approach, rather than military.
REHMMichael Hirsh of Politico. When we come back, we'll talk further, take your calls. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd in this hour we're talking about the president's speech on foreign policy yesterday at West Point. With me here in the studio, Michael Hirsh of Politico, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and the New Republic, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. She's editor and publisher of The Nation. Katrina vanden Heuvel, from what you heard President Obama say yesterday, do you believe that he is leading us into retreat? And is this a good thing at this time?
HEUVELYou know, with all due respect, Diane, I think we're framing this in too binary schematic way. I think there is no retreat here. There are different levels of engagement with, as Robert Kagan said, a world weary -- war-weary public at his back. But he spoke very -- in a muscular tone. Many described his speech as not militaristic but muscular. He spoke as he again tried to thread the needle, Diane, domestically, politically. He spoke of his firm belief in American exceptionalism, his firm belief in America as an indispensable nation.
HEUVELSo there's no retreat there. There are different ideas of approaches to the crises of our time. I suspect Roger Kagan and I would disagree about the president and how he handled the Syrian conflict and how he's continuing to handle the Syrian crisis. I think the president was wise to go to Congress. I think whatever we can do to avert military action in a sectarian civil war and whatever international mechanisms we can use to dismantle and destroy nuclear -- I'm sorry, chemical weapons should be tried.
HEUVELI think Robert Kagan and I would disagree about the president believing that he used -- maybe this is where we would disagree in interesting different ways than you might suspect on how the president claimed he organized an international coalition to isolate Russia. Last I checked, I don't think Russia's that isolated. I think the pivot to Asia is something that Russia has succeeded and exceeded on a certain level with this recent gas deal with China.
HEUVELI would like to say one thing that I thought was missing from the speech. Michael Hirsh mentioned this. There was talk at the end of the speech of human dignity. The president, at a certain point, did try to lead his allies, the allies in a global recovery program. He has stepped back in certain ways and moved to a more conventional trade neoliberal investment policy. The president spoke of human dignity. There is also economic dignity at this critical moment in world history.
HEUVELHow do we put a global middle class at the center, at the heart of a U.S. foreign policy and instead we have austerity. And we've seen the fruits -- the bitter fruits of austerity in the European elections in this last week where so many right wing parties have come to power.
REHMAll right. And Robert Kagan, you've actually written that the global world order is breaking down. So in terms of an international coalition on Russia, in terms of a world approach to Syria, I would imagine you would disagree with Katrina.
KAGANWell, I think people could disagree about what to do in any given situation. I mean, the thing that I think is unmistakable is Obama actually had decided to go ahead and use force in Syria and then decided not to. So I don't know, you know, where you want to come down on that. But the world paid very close attention to that. And I found, as have many and as have people in the administration found, as you travel around the world, whether you're in Asia or in Europe, everyone noticed that Obama walked to the edge of using force and decided not to.
KAGANAnd whether they're right or not, it's all made them very nervous because a lot of them who have security agreements with the United States that depend -- like Japan for instance, that depend on the United States coming to their defense, have been watching events in Syria. They watched what -- Russia's invasion of Crimea and they are concerned. As I say, maybe they shouldn't be concerned, but the fact is they are concerned about whether America's really still in the game or not.
KAGANThis speech, in my opinion, is not going to reassure them. And by the way, the issue is not so much retreat. I think what you can certainly say about Obama is that he's leading a period of retrenchment where, you know, he's pulling back to some degree what he regards as an overreaching American foreign policy.
HIRSHYeah, retreat, retrenchment, clearly it's about military withdrawal. I mean, this is a president who said very flatly that he wanted to be known as the president who ended these two long wars that he inherited.
REHMAnd he said we should learn from them.
HIRSHRight. And what we should learn is about the perils of military overreach, which of course were, I think, you know, encapsulated in one of the biggest strategic misdirections in American history, the decision to go into Iraq. Which, of course, you know, Robert Kagan and other people aligned with the neoconservative movement supported at the time.
KAGANLike Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, yeah, all those neocons.
HIRSHA lot of people...
HEUVELNo. It was fundamentally, in many ways, a bipartisan war and it was -- yes. It was (unintelligible)
HIRSHThank you, Katrina. Fundamental error that this president has quite flatly said that he wants to correct for.
HIRSHAnd so what I'm saying is there's a rational response on one level. On the other level there is a sense of perhaps an excessive retreat which is, I think, something we should discuss.
REHMBut the question...
HEUVELCould I jump in, Diane?
HEUVELExcessive retreat. I mean, come on, there is also a discussion inside the Congress of why we are going to leave close to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. We can have vigorous disagreement about that, but I -- it's reputed that even Joe Biden, Vice-President, was reportedly pushing for a much smaller force. Obama's going to face resistance from Congress, as he should. We have had an executive power -- referring to Robert Kagan's cycles of history and going back to Wilson, but think of the metastasizing power of the executive and the diminishing power of Congress. That is not what checks and balances are all about.
HEUVELAnd also on retrenchment, you know, the difficult part here is we have spawned since the Iraq war, since 9/11 a covert war complex built around this global war on terror. The fight against terrorists should never have been a war. As I think Michael was referring to, there should've been policing, intelligence. But we now have this complex.
HEUVELAnd I think we see in this partnership fund, which will feed other funds and monies already going into these proxy wars, American priorities are still heavily tilted to these military capabilities and campaigns that I would argue do little to make us more secure and generally ignore social and economic development efforts that would demonstrate a greater leadership on the part of America.
KAGANWell, I hope Katrina doesn't mind but I actually agree with her that making counterterrorism the main focus of American foreign policy, which I think Obama did do in this speech is a mistake, you know. It's obviously very important that a president takes his responsibility very serious to protect Americans from attack, and he should do that. But American foreign policy has to be about a lot more than defeating terrorists.
KAGANAnd I also worry about what I consider to be a new kind of mix and doctrine. And here again I agree with Katrina, where we are going to be partnering up within some cases very brutal dictatorships, including that in Egypt, giving them lots of money which they're going to use to kill and torture people in addition to whatever they do in counterterrorism. I'm sort of surprised that a progressive president like Barack Obama would head in a direction in which I think Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon would've been very comfortable.
REHMSo in your view, what do you see the president referring to in regards to, for example Ukraine, for example Nigeria, and indeed Syria?
KAGANWell, I mean, he has a different formula for each, as he rightly should, you know. And I think, look, the funny thing is is that he suggests that anyone who suggests doing anymore than what he's doing in say Ukraine, must be calling for ground troops in Ukraine, which is of course ridiculous.
KAGANBut again, I just want to go back to the public opinion issue. And to support my argument that this is not just war weariness but world weariness, public opinion polls show Americans opposed even to being tough on economic sanctions in Ukraine and taking a tough line, even a nonmilitary tough line against Russia. And this is something that President Obama also has to deal with.
HEUVELBut I think there's a wisdom in what we're hearing from the public. Too often, I think, the elites inside the Beltway dominated discussion. America's voices aren't heard. And there may be real concern that, first of all, you know, Ukraine -- United States has no direct national security interests at stake in Ukraine. Economic sanctions may well boomerang on the global economy, the U.S. economy. People in their gut may feel that. And so I think we should respect that.
HEUVELI wanted to make a generational point because there is an interesting generational divide. Peter Beinart reported this in an interesting piece he did on Americana Exceptionalism a few months ago. You know, a younger generation is far less likely to endorse this idea of an exceptional global role for America. And they want the U.S. to do less overseas. It's not isolationism but they want it to be done more with allies and with other groupings. And they believe the allies' interests should be taken into account.
HEUVELI just think there's something to look at there that the president may well be -- you know, he's always looking out toward a younger generation both domestically -- and in this case it may be factoring into what we're hearing.
HIRSHYeah, again, this is an entirely rational response by the public and the president who is, I think, channeling the public's views to a decade of disaster really, the longest war in American history. A war that did not need to be fought and that diverted from the necessary war against al-Qaida and Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is now, you know, being extended to 2016. This is an entirely sensible response to mistakes that were made.
HIRSHAnd I think it's -- in addition to which you have had this terrible economic disaster dating from 2008. So I don't see that as world weariness. I see that as, you know, as reasonableness.
REHMWhat do you see him doing or even not publically suggesting but doing in regard to Syria?
HIRSHWell, you know, foreign policy in American history is a series of pendulum swings I think. And the pendulum always swings a little bit too far. And just as it did perhaps too much into military overreach during the Bush years, I think that in Obama's case there has been an excessive desire to avoid any kind of military entanglement. And I think that was partly reason for his confusion over how to respond to the Syrian chemical weapons allegations.
HIRSHI do think that his legitimate concern -- the world legitimate concerns about whether we retreated too much from Europe in sort of opening the door to Putin's aggression in Ukraine, that we kind of subcontracted our foreign policy in the last half of the Obama first term to the Europeans in terms of, you know, dealing with Ukraine in eastern Europe, which was probably a mistake.
HIRSHSo I do think there's been perhaps a little bit too much retrenchment including allowing the Syrian situation to get entirely out of control because of Obama's total commitment to avoiding any kind of military aid to the rebels for most of his first term.
REHMBut do you see the president acting behind the scenes to help rebels in Syria, Robert Kagan?
KAGANNot especially. I mean, there have been some efforts made but it's been -- you know, for the most part the administration and the president have resisted. You know, Hillary Clinton recommended a much stronger action but -- when she was in office. And the president vetoed -- you know, he disagreed and didn't want to go in that direction. They haven't wanted to do more and he's made the suggestion before, so we'll see whether this time he's going to fulfill it.
REHMAnd you're listening...
HEUVELI think the president was right to -- sorry.
REHM...you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead, Katrina.
HEUVELI mean, the president has proposed stepping up the systems to quote "moderate rebel groups," as his critics have demanded. But, you know, part of what held the president back, and I think wisely, was this is a bloody sectarian civil war. Weapons provided to moderate groups often end up in the hands of extremists, we've learned this -- in the hands of al-Qaida perhaps.
HEUVELAnd, you know, if the president really wanted to see Islamic extremists brought under control in Syria and Iraq, he'd work with Russia, he'd work with Iran to arrange a kind of rapprochement between the moderate rebels and the Assad government, a reconciliation that is happening to eliminate the degree on the ground. Of course I think the president was right to focus on the horrific humanitarian catastrophe, the need for support for refugees. But there's still kind of all of the above. He's speaking in this way yet there's no question the CIA is still working with distributing arms. And there's stuff going on on the ground that we don't know what's going on in our name.
HEUVELSo I sometimes think the policy toward Syria is designed more for domestic consumption than it is for Syria's reduction of the fighting or weakening Islamic extremist elements.
REHMRobert Kagan, the president also mentioned the need for more transparency. What have been some of the implications of the lack of transparency that we've seen, especially in regard to use of drones?
KAGANWell look, the use of drones to -- as a sort of substitute for any other kind of power has given the president ability to engage in a very rough and dirty business, you know. I hate to think of what Eisenhower would've done if he had access to drones because, you know, we took -- you know, we declared that assassination was off the table, right. We weren't going to engage in assassination.
KAGANBut here we are, you know, firing missiles and hitting not only, you know -- now, the president believes, and I think I would think a majority of Americans agree, that when you're talking about people who want to attack the United States that this is legitimate activity. But, you know, we are moving toward a foreign policy which is a drone-only foreign policy.
KAGANWe are not addressing root causes. We're not providing any kind of real nation-building, God help us, you know, activities that might deal with these things. We're just, you know, plunking people wherever we can see them. And I'm not sure that is a substitute...
HEUVELIt's a kind of...
KAGAN...I'm not sure that's a substitute for foreign policy.
HEUVELI think we're witnessing a redefining of what warfare means in the 21st century. I don't think we can talk about post war foreign policy, Diane. This is a new kind of warfare. And I thought it was -- you know, it was -- I thought it was pretty ludicrous the president's talk of the need for more transparency about drone strikes and intelligence gathering, including abusive surveillance practices in light of the administration's record, even in the last days trying to redact legal memos even more.
HEUVELAnd then the president said he was going to put the issue of transparency, as I read the speech, in the hands of the military. I mean, the military, in my mind last I checked, is not known for its fetish for transparency. So I think Americans -- and this is the danger of a war weary America, I think Americans -- they're prepared to see war outsourced and on the cheap. It won't be that cheap but not with lives lost. And I think that is incumbent upon those who see a different truly less militaristic way forward to make sure that we don't end up a drone nation.
HIRSHYeah, and, I mean, maybe the most Orwellian oddity about the president's foreign policy and drone policy is that our enemies are now technically classified affiliates of al-Qaida that are defined as the enemy. And subject to drone warfare, are not named. The American public doesn't know who they are. We suspect who they are. You know, al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb and so forth. But we actually don't get any confirmation from the Pentagon. So I think that's a very strange dimension of this.
HIRSHAnd the other thing about Obama's speech that he shed no light on was this question of who is an al-Qaida-linked terrorist and who is not? Who do we want to arrest and who do we want to kill with drones? We really don't know the difference between those two targets in this war.
REHMMichael Hirsh. He's national editor of Politico. Time for a short break, and when we come back we'll open the phones. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We've got many emails, many tweets. From Joshua, "Why are politicians so critical of Obama's restrained and diplomatic stance when the American people clearly want peace?" Katrina?
HEUVELBecause I think you have a media and political class which, you know, has pursued a kind of -- its own policy, if one might, of egging on the administration in, I would argue, ration destructive foreign policy in the debate. When we have a debate, by the way. Too often, for example, around Ukraine -- which, again, I argue is not in the U.S.'s national interest and many Americans, according to polls, believe that.
HEUVELBut we don't often have a debate because things clamp down inside the beltway. But I think, you know, there's room for criticism of the president, just as there's room for the elite debate of the media and the political class.
KAGANLet me just start with an interesting fact into this, though. What's ironic is that I do believe that the president is doing what the American people want. However, his approval ratings on foreign policy are terrible. They are lower than healthcare. They are lower than his overall approval rating. They are in the 30s. And I find…
REHMSo where is this disconnect coming from?
KAGANWell, that's what's interesting. I mean, unless, you know, the American people must be duped by this evil media, I can only assume. But I think it's very interesting that they -- he's doing what they want. I don't think there's any doubt about that. And yet they're very unhappy with him. Now, I don't know whether that's buyer's remorse, whether they -- even though they say they want this, they don't like what it looks like when he does it. It's a very interesting paradox, though.
REHMAnd here's a tweet from Sahar, who says, "Katrina raised the most important question about Obama's foreign policy speech, whether it's really true that terrorism is the biggest threat." How do you see it, Michael?
HIRSHI agree that that was a puzzling part of the speech. Particularly in the wake of the Ukraine aggression, you know, by Vladimir Putin, which some foreign policy experts, including, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisor, say is the most critical security threat, you know, to the Western -- to the international system since the end of the Cold War. And, in fact, you know, Brzezinski and others have urged Obama to deliver a speech to the nation.
HIRSHInstead, Obama has gone in the opposite direction and sort of played down the whole thing, you know, barely mentioning it. I think part of his effort here is to sort of put Putin in his place and say, look, you know, you're not the Soviet Union. You're not the general secretary of the Communist Party. You're really, you know, just a sort of second-rate nation that's making a little noise. I think that is part of the approach. And it may be, you know, somewhat successful. We don't know. So far, Putin has resisted actually invading eastern Ukraine. So…
REHMThat's for sure, yeah.
HIRSH…that remains to be seen. But it is a little bizarre that Obama did not make more of that in his speech and a little bit less of terrorism.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Mike, in San Antonio, Texas. You're on the air.
MIKEThank you, Diane. Yeah, I'm glad to see the direction you're going in discussing the disaster of these proxy wars and the total Orwellian smokescreen that's being put up in these foreign policy discussions by the president and members of the State Department. I remember during the invasion of Libya, you know, al Qaida, as was mentioned in major newspapers, was working for NATO to get rid of Kaddafi.
MIKEAnd I think this leads, again, to Syria, which it seems like the same pattern was emerging, but Obama got -- you know, first by the British parliament, refusing to go along with his false flag sarin attack. And then the U.S. Congress, you know, took their cue because the nation is war weary. And I'm just wondering what you had to say about the idea that -- I know Katrina mentioned, you know, we don't know what's going on in our name, you know, with the CIA and these other clandestine organizations, as far as…
REHMAll right. Let's have your question, Mike.
MIKEYes. What do you think about the idea that a lot of these new al Qaida franchises are being funded by the CIA and our allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, et cetera?
HEUVELI have not, you know, I -- let me just say one thing, though. The danger -- and, you know, Robert Kagan's written an essay drawing on history. The danger of this counterterrorism fund and the kind of funding we're doing in places like Mali, Somalia, Yemen, is what is often called blowback. I mean, it is possible -- as we fund despotic regimes, as we fund forces who may switch alliances in the course of a year -- that we are witnessing a replay -- and someone mentioned Zbigniew Brzezinski, perhaps Michael -- of what we saw in Afghanistan, which we're now withdrawing from.
HEUVELI mean the arming of the Mujahideen in the late '70s led to an eruption of Islamic extremism which we have had to contend with for decades. So it just seems to me that America needs to decide if it's going to be the big brother to the world, if it has the judgment and the wisdom to make these kinds of decisions as to who to fund, and even when we do we can't control it unless we are going to send military forces.
HEUVELSo it's a slippery slope. And that is very frightening at a moment when it seems to me one of the best parts of President Obama's speech -- though again, I said it's all of the above because he kind of contradicted himself -- is the use of military force as a tool of foreign policy is really not suited for the 21st century.
REHMAnd here's a tweet from Charlie. "I think that, thankfully, Barack Obama appears to have foreign policy that's slowly breaking down the history of American imperialism." Robert Kagan?
KAGANWell, whether you call it American imperialism or just a history, certainly since the Second World War of the United States being the dominant power in the world and supporting a certain kind of order, which is certainly a capitalist order, which is certainly a, for the most part, a democratic order. You know, I personally believe that that -- and I don't -- it's not just -- I don't think I'm the only one who believes that this has been, for all its problems, a pretty extraordinary period in history.
KAGANIf you go back to where things were at the time of World War II, there's been enormous prosperity around the world. There's been an enormous spread of democracy. And for the most part there has been general security. No wars among great powers, which was the great tragedy of the early 20th century and throughout most of history. I think that's quite an accomplishment. So I don't really welcome the end of that.
KAGANI think what we will find when America ceases to play that role -- if it ceases to play that role -- is the world will look a lot like what it looked like before World War II. It'll be a world that's much more dangerous, much less friendly to democratic principles and much less prosperous.
REHMHere's an email from Kristen, who says, "I know it was a foreign policy speech, but the biggest threat to the U.S. may be the false perception that we are the best. I work as a doctor in Pittsburgh, rural Pennsylvania. The country is broken. Education, infrastructure, pre-natal care, higher education, poverty, gun laws. Let's fix stuff at home…
HEUVELThat is such an important -- Diane…
REHM…"and then be a super power. And I am a liberal, not an isolationist," she says. Katrina?
HEUVELThat is such an important -- that email is so important. And you can hear in the voice a cry to say, listen, when we want to build a decent democratic society at home to be able to speak with moral authority globally, that is not isolationism. I mean, "Come home, America" is a different frame than isolationism. And I think there are many Americans who want to engage with the world, but not have to take on the burdens of the world. They want to work with other countries.
HEUVELThey understand other countries are, you know, powerful in their own ways. I think the president did speak to kind of rebuilding international law and international institutions. It's important. I think there are all kinds of regional forces and groupings in this world today, which can take on and better handle the conflicts and the burdens in their own region. I come back to that generational divide I mentioned. I don't know how old the woman is who wrote you, but I think there is certainly a feeling of a generation that has grown up with two military misadventures…
HEUVEL…that it is time to step back, and not disengage, but to be wise and smart about America's engagement.
REHMRobert Kagan, what about the balance between democracies out there and autocratic regimes? That balance is shifting as well, is it not?
KAGANWell, the world is still predominately democratic, but there's no question that there has been a trend of more autocracies and some failing democracies. And, you know, two of the other great powers of the world happen to be autocracies, Putin's Russia and the Chinese government. And they are wielding a great deal of influence. Now, I don't believe, by the way, that the United States and its democratic allies are incapable of defending themselves or incapable of preserving a democratic future.
KAGANBut I think that there is such a thing as the United States stepping back too far, as Mike suggested before. We have stepped back in history. We stepped back after World War I, which Americans were also disillusioned by. And for 20 years we pulled away from the world. That wasn't isolationism either, but it was a decision that the world was not America's problem.
KAGANAnd I worry that, to some extent, a lot of Americans feel that way again. And what I want to suggest is there is -- it's understandable, but it's also potentially dangerous because this world order that Americans benefit from is supported by American power in all its forms.
HIRSHI think like it or not Barack Obama's two terms as president, he and history are going to go down as the presidency that ended crises. Rather than created anything that new, except for perhaps Obamacare. I mean he inherited two wars. He inherited a historic economic crisis, nothing like it since the Great Depression. Almost all of his energy has been focused on, you know, withdrawing from those wars and ending them, despite, you know, the surge in Afghanistan that temporarily extended that.
HIRSHAnd getting the nation's economy back, you know, on its feet. And I think that that, again, is really what reflects a lot of the weariness that Americans have toward engagement in the world. I think that there will be a return to a more normalcy of American engagement after this period, which we're still in the middle of, you know, has ended.
HEUVELYou know, I wanted to bring up Latin America. I think Latin America is one of the most fascinating regions in the world. And you know, one of the silver linings of the disaster of Iraq was the Bush administration was so consumed with the Middle East it couldn't mettle in its neighborhood. And you have seen the rise of different forms of economic power, of countries which are doing their business and have formed their own alliances.
HEUVELAnd so I think there's something there to understand that regions can make their own way and create their own power relationships. Taking on what Michael said, I do think the president still has an opportunity. If he can understand that terrorism is not the central challenge of the 21st century, to, for example, lay out how to avert catastrophic climate change. He's going to be contending with that this week, as well.
HEUVELHow do you end world poverty, staggering economic inequality? How do you put at the center of U.S. foreign policy jobs, which afflict the Middle East? Millions of young people don't have jobs, a global middle class. If that becomes the center of an American foreign policy then I think it requires us to adjust our military and diplomacy accordingly.
REHMKatrina vanden Heuvel. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Brad, in Bowie, Md. Hi, you're on the air.
REHMYes. Go right ahead, sir.
BRADOh, yes. I just wanted to say that one thing it seems like the panel is not thinking about and that is that the president gets information that we're not privy to. And so some of the decisions that he is making is based on what's in front of him. And by what it seems that he -- what it looks like what he's been doing for the last -- these last few years is -- one thing I've learned is that he's a very methodical person. He thinks through a lot of things. He also engages the public based on getting their insights also.
BRADSo he's not a person who's just frivolous and let's just go to war and let's just -- at the first drop of a hat because something happened. He thinks about what he's going to do because to put -- to go to war means that somebody's life is going to be compromised. And it may not be what's best at this point.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Michael?
HIRSHYeah, well, I think we in the public are, you know, understandably skeptical of the idea that the president gets to act on, you know, knowledge, classified or otherwise, that the rest of us don't get to hear. I mean that's what we heard in the run up to the Iraq War, with what we later, you know, learned was trumped up intelligence. And so I think we have a right to expect the transparency that Obama promises. And I think that's one of the reasons why he's pledging it.
REHMBut you've written that it's hard for the country to understand we'd be up against a foe we cannot name.
HIRSHRight. I mean it's -- that's, again, what his speech really just sort of glances over. It does not get into this whole question, who are these are enemies? Are we going to reauthorize the authorization for use of military force? Which has been a little -- a debate on Capitol Hill for a while. The administration has not really engaged that. These are issues that president did not tackle forthrightly in his speech.
HIRSHAnd so in just simply saying, oh, well, our enemy is terrorism, without saying, well, you know, who exactly do we still define as strategic enemies of the United States? You have -- one of the things he did acknowledge was that all these new splinter groups have sprung up in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which is another area where the administration, I think, has underestimated the threats out there.
REHMAnd what about Africa, Robert Kagan?
KAGANWhat about Africa?
REHMWhat about Africa as the source of new forms of terrorism?
KAGANOh, yeah. Well, I mean look, again, some of it has to do with what the United States has done. Some of it has to do with the fact that, look, this is a growing movement. I think ultimately it'll fail, but it may be decades before it does fail. But look, just getting back to this focus on counterterrorism. To me it is consistent with the president narrowing the focus of what constitutes an American national interest.
KAGANMoving away from the idea of supporting global order and moving away from the idea that our interests are tied up with the interests of others, and focusing narrowly on things that can hit us at home, that is what the thrust of this speech is about. And it isn't surprising because that is a turn-away from the tradition that has held since World War II.
REHMKatrina, last brief word.
HEUVELTwo quick points. There's a sadness that the president continues to make terrorism -- the global war on terrorism the central preoccupation of American foreign policy, for some of the reasons Robert Kagan mentions. But I have to just -- I want to end with Ukraine because there was talk of Russia. It made no sense to treat Russia's actions as an existential threat to the post-war international order, given that we now see that the West needs Russia's cooperation on many fronts, Iran and Syria, but also to stabilize a Ukraine, if it's to emerge as a politically territorial viable country.
REHMKatrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and The New Republic, Michael Hirsh of Politico. Thank you all. History will be the ultimate judge. We'll see where we go. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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