Syrian rebels seek evacuation from the besieged city of Aleppo. President-elect Trump chooses an Iowa governor with good relations with Beijing as ambassador to China. And Italy’s prime minister resigns after a referendum defeat. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
World leaders meet in Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Afghan’s President Karzai condemns the Taliban prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl. And tens of thousands in Hong Kong gather to mark the Tiananmen Square massacre. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Scott Wilson White House bureau chief and former foreign editor, The Washington Post.
- Susan Glasser editor, Politico magazine.
- Yochi Dreazen managing editor for News at Foreign Policy; author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. World leaders meet in Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Fighting with pro-Russian separatists continues along the eastern Ukraine border. And Afghan's President Karzai condemns the Taliban prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl. Joining me for the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup," Yochi Dreazen with Foreign Policy, Susan Glasser at Politico Magazine and Scott Wilson with the Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMYou're always welcome to be a part of the program. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, happy Friday to all of you.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENHappy Friday.
MR. SCOTT WILSONThank you.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERHi Diane.
REHMGood to see you. And Yochi Dreazen, on this extraordinary day of commemoration of D-Day at Normandy, I gather President Obama and President Putin have finally met and talked for 15 minutes.
DREAZENYeah. I mean, it was interesting news. First, there was the pre-news that they would not talk, which was undercut by the fact that other G7 leaders said they would. David Cameron, the British leader, one of our closest allies, said he would. Angela Merkel, the President of France who had dinner with Obama, and then right after, had dinner with Putin. I guess like a light supper. It seemed unlikely that they would go out of their way for Obama not to talk to him. The White House is saying this was not a formal meeting. It was an informal meeting. It was 15 minutes, not an hour.
DREAZENBut obviously, the key point is that they spoke. The other key point is that Vladimir Putin met with Petro Poroshenko, "The Chocolate King," the new leader of Ukraine. Which, even though that was much briefer, is arguably the much more important meeting.
REHMSo, how significant are we going to learn that meeting between the two presidents of the United States and Ukraine for President Putin? How significant do you think that is?
DREAZENI think that if the meeting, in any way, continues to signify that Moscow begrudgingly, slowly, without any enthusiasm, is recognizing Kiev, it's particularly, potentially a very big meeting. Moscow sent its ambassador back to Kiev for the first time since the fighting that brought down President Yanukovych, the former president. So, if you see this kind of gradual, tick-tock of slight here, slight there, that ultimately ends with a somewhat warmer relationship between Kiev and Moscow, it's a very big deal.
REHMHow do you see it, Susan Glasser?
GLASSERWell, look, it was always quite striking a few weeks ago, when it was announced that the Russians were going to attend the D-Day celebrations. Of course, they're invited as a member of the allies. And that was the first very interesting signal, earlier this month. Or, I should say in May, when they decided to send Putin, unexpectedly, I would say, into the midst of the lion's den and to sit him down next to the western leaders, who'd spent the last several months condemning him and posing sanctions. So, clearly the Russians are concerned to show that they are not isolated on the world stage.
GLASSERAnd I think that that's how you need to look at this event, first of all. But second of all, in terms of the regional crisis in eastern Europe, which is enormous and ongoing, tomorrow will be the inauguration of President Poroshenko in Ukraine. As Yochi said, it's significant that the Russians have decided to send their ambassador back. Clearly, there's a cautious sense in Moscow, we're gonna see what kind of a deal we can cut with this guy. This is a guy, this is an oligarch, a billionaire, who we believe, potentially, we can do business with.
GLASSERAnd of course, their goal is to maintain maximum Russian influence in Ukraine. And so, if they can do that through political means, and that's how they dominated Yanukovych, after all, remember, then they'd probably be pretty happy to do that.
WILSONYeah, I agree with all of that. And, you know, it is -- it seems like a pretty smart step from Putin to send an ambassador back to Kiev, especially in light of Obama's comments in Warsaw, and in Brussels, warning that Russia needed to, that Putin, in particular, needed to stop the unrest in the east, which he still holds Putin responsible for. So, this is a way of saying, hey look, we're recognizing the new leader, the new president, we've come off our position a little bit, that this government is illegitimate. And at the same time, perhaps not doing much to stop the unrest in the east.
REHMAnd, of course, Putin turned around and said it was the west who was creating all this problem.
WILSONThis has been sort of an immovable argument for a few months. Who's responsible? Is it far right elements within Ukraine that have, in Putin's view, backing from the west? Or is it the western view that this is pro-Russian, Moscow backed groups with Putin's overt and -- or, at least tacit blessing to do the things they're doing.
GLASSERWell, I think -- to a certain extent, that might be Putin's narrative, but this is actually a situation where there are facts. And the facts are actually very clear that Putin invaded Ukraine and he took over, by military force, the territory of the Crimean peninsula. And that's not an on the one hand, on the other hand. There were, you know, right wing groups and pro-Russian groups. Now, what's happening in the east of Ukraine, I think, there's the same set of facts on the ground.
GLASSERIt's not as dramatic, because it's unclear yet what's going to happen, but I think it has been fairly well documented, at this point, that Russia has allowed both members of its actual military forces as well as, sort of, irregular groups and guerillas that is supporting with various means, to have seriously destabilized what now amounts to, basically, a low grade civil war that is occurring, and has continued to occur, by the way, even despite these encouraging political signs. That is continuing to occur in eastern Ukraine. And so, you know, there is a sort of finger pointing blame game about the macro politics involved in the Ukraine uprising revolution that triggered all of these events.
GLASSERBut I think the actual events in eastern Ukraine, there's not really much case for Putin to rely on that the military crisis was triggered by anyone other than him.
REHMAnd at the same time, President Obama talked about this European Reassurance Initiative. What's that all about?
DREAZENThis is part of the attempt to shift more money towards European defense, to say that we are reevaluating, perhaps slowing what had been a very significant and ongoing withdrawal of American military force from Europe. Prior to this, the question was why do we still have 40 or 50 thousand troops still in Europe? A lot of generals, things like military marching bands when there hadn't been any threat from Europe in decades. So, the question now, the Pentagon's been wrestling with, is do you slow that? Do you reverse it? Do you keep the troop levels constant?
DREAZENThis has been part of an administration attempt to say, particularly to Poland, particularly to other frontline NATO members in the east, we will not forget you. We are still committed to you. There's the Asian pivot. There's the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, which is still not over. But we have not yet forgotten you.
REHMBut what would an increased military presence look like, Yochi?
DREAZENIt could be more air power, which is one of the things, specific things, Poland has asked for. It could be more troops deployed to Poland, which right now, it's a tiny, tiny number. The truth is, the US, when you talk to anybody at the Pentagon, nobody want to, in any way, escalate this. No one wants to send enough troops that would be seen as provocative, enough airplanes. A lot of this is rhetoric. And, you know, it's worth remembering, from the G7, before this started, you had President Obama say all of us are united.
DREAZENIf this doesn't change in a month, we'll start hammering entire parts of the Russian economy. He set some variant of sanctions like they've never seen before. Well, they're not united. The Germans are not onboard with that. The French are going through with a massive military sale to Russia. They're not united either. Neither are the Italians. So, President Obama can wave the stick and say, we're all united, we're willing to hammer Russia. They are not united and they're not willing to hammer Russia.
WILSONI think that's right, and I think part of this was shown in the fact that Obama and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, when, during her visit here, earlier this spring, said that if the vote doesn't go off correctly on May 25th, the presidential vote in Ukraine, there would be more sanctions. Well, they've decided that the vote went off fine, even though most of eastern Ukraine did not vote. So, it is because of a disunity within the allies in Europe, and it's hard to bridge.
WILSONYou know, I'd also say, on the military front, they have -- some of the things that they have done since Biden and Obama have been making these pledges to NATO members and respecting Article 5, the collective self-defense part of the treaty. You know, increased air patrols in the Baltic States, increased training exercises with some of these eastern members. And it feels, at the moment, like that's kind of the way they want to assert their increased military presence in the east, without, you know, sort of a more formal, long term commitment.
REHMSo, what have we got here? Have we got the beginnings of the end of a period of frozen relationship? What do you see, Susan?
GLASSERWell, I would say it's early yet to say that there's gonna be an uptick. It really does depend, first of all, on, you know, is there gonna be some kind of a de facto truce between Poroshenko and the Russians? I think that's gonna be a very big question. And again, we should look at the actual events on the ground in eastern Ukraine, over the last couple of weeks. They really suggest this low grade civil war is continuing. There's no sign of it ebbing. If that's the case, there's no way that we're exiting the crisis.
GLASSERBut I do think that Yochi made a very important point regarding, you know, the squabbling nature of the allies, the fact that the Europeans, while willing to have certain amount of tough rhetoric, are much, much less willing to do anything that would bite their own economies, in terms of tougher sanctions on the Russians. And I think that feeds into a lot of frustration, you know, back here in Washington, at the White House. Both frustration with the Europeans. From the beginning, you could argue, this was a crisis that they bobbled and mishandled.
GLASSERAnd, you know, to the extent that there is a western, sort of, to blame for angering Putin and pulling him into this, that was almost certainly on the part of the Europeans, number one. Number two, from the beginning, I do believe that it is fairly clear that the Americans have been trying to wrangle the Europeans into taking tougher measures. So, when Obama's criticized by Republicans back here on Capitol Hill about not being tough enough, you know, he's got allies who just won't really come along with him.
REHMSusan Glasser of Politico Magazine. Short break here. And when we come back, we'll talk about Afghanistan, the prisoner exchange. Take your calls, questions. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back to the international portion of our Friday News Roundup this week with Scott Wilson, White House bureau chief and former foreign editor at the Washington Post. Susan Glasser is editor of Politico magazine. Yochi Dreazen is managing editor for news at Foreign Policy. The Taliban exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, has it hurt our counterterrorism efforts, Yochi?
DREAZENYou know, the counter terror efforts -- it's a good question, but so far those have been, and for so long been on such a different track. It's difficult to see how it would. You know, the Navy SEALs, Army Delta, the most elite Air Force Night Stalkers, the Air Force -- its most elite ability to fly troops in and out of hard, hard fighting in Afghanistan. That's always been separate, always. For a while it was its own separate command that did not answer to the main American military command in Kabul. So I don't think so.
DREAZENThe only way in which it would would be if these five guys came back with some form of new tactical skill. That's hard to imagine having been off the battlefield for so long. So I don’t think so.
REHMYou were there when Bowe Bergdahl was there.
DREAZENI was. I was in eastern Afghanistan not very far away. I was back again at various times during the search. And two points that are worth mentioning, one when there's any description of this as a base, it's easy to imagine this kind of fortified complex. These bases, I spent a lot of time in them. Base is such an overstatement it's almost comical. You're talking about a couple of vehicles, a couple of sandbag tents.
DREAZENOne base I was at not far away, the Taliban had the mountains, the base was in the valley. They shelled it every day like it was World War I. So even outpost overstates how small this thing was. And if you want to walk out of it, it's very easy. I mean, it's not like you're passing multiple checkpoints. It's -- you're just walking away from the base.
DREAZENThere are reports he'd done this once before in Afghanistan, once in California. But if you are someone who in any way loves nature, if that really is part of how you see Afghanistan, this particular part of the country is staggeringly beautiful. So if that's in your mind, and from letters home it was apparently, that's a reason to go.
DREAZENAnd, you know, a part of this that I wonder about very deeply -- we have a piece op about this today -- at some point in the not-distant future he'll be released from the hospital from whatever unspecified injuries -- and they're still being very cagey as to what those are -- he'll be in front of a camera. What does he say and how does he look? If he looks perfectly healthy then one argument falls away. If he says anything along the lines of what he said in emails, that the war is unjust, that American soldiers are robots, that all Guantanamo Bay prisoners should be released, something that's big now will just completely, completely explode. And that's going to come in a not-distance future.
REHMAnd Scott Wilson, the five freed Taliban prisoners released in Qatar, how are they being held, or are they being held, or are they moving freely?
WILSONThey're moving freely but not outside the country. There's a one-year travel ban. During the negotiations there was talk that the Taliban wanted the ban to be lifted for the Hodge, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. And any medical treatment they might have needed in Europe at one point. Those have now not been agreed to. But it's -- you know, this is a question the Americans are wrestling with, the guarantees that people who initially were against this trade came around to toward the end, was they felt that the Qataris were serious about this and were going to keep an eye on them.
WILSONBut it's an open question and if they begin to travel, if there's evidence that that -- that the ban is not being upheld, it's going to raise a number of questions for the administration.
REHMBut aren't they living freely with their own families? Aren't they able to travel within Qatar freely?
WILSONYes. Yes, they area. That's -- yes. But they're not allowed to leave the country.
REHMSo Susan, how restrictive a situation is this for them?
GLASSERWell, one year, relatively speaking, is a short timeframe. And I think it's what happens after the one year, you know, where there's really cause to wonder about whether they'll return to the fight. The record of Guantanamo detainees who have been freed and who have gone back to their home countries suggest that a fairly high percentage have returned to the fight. They've showed up in places all over the map in Syria and other places. And I think it's not unreasonable to expect that some of these five may reappear in roles in the future, whether it's in role in a Taliban shadow government or in a more explicit military role.
GLASSERBecause remember, one of these guys is the former interior minister of the Taliban. So, you know, clearly they have the ability already starting now to play roles in the leadership structure. And I think that's one thing we learned this week that's kind of gotten obscured in the huge finger-pointing debate over whether Bergdahl should or shouldn't have been swapped for these guys, which is we clearly learned something about the Taliban about the high level of commanding control that they have, about a very organized and well-coordinated swap.
GLASSERThe whole handover was really put on the hands of the Taliban. Remember we just basically had a Special Forces team sitting there waiting for the phone to ring and the Taliban to call. They had to clear their own airspace and make sure that nobody was taking shots at those American helicopters. They released this propaganda video that showed the handover in great detail. And arguably it was a very successful week for them regardless of the details of this swap.
WILSONJust to add to what Susan said, you know, we also learned that what had been seen as a fairly big gap between different elements of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, which was apparently holding him, and the (word?) government in exile essentially in Pakistan may have more in common than was originally thought as well. I mean, these are old line (word?) Taliban who were released. And so there had to have been also great coordination between those two elements.
WILSONAnd I don't know what that says about the nature of the insurgency at the moment but I think what Susan's saying is pretty interesting. There's a lot, I think, to be learned about the Taliban right now based on this prisoner exchange and what -- and the kinds of pressures they're feeling, particularly a Haqqani network from American drone strikes, one of which killed the son's founder last fall and apparently was a moment for them to say, we need to get rid of this guy who's losing value quickly and may be unhealthy.
REHMNow there are three other Americans still being held. Does the release of Bowe Bergdahl put pressure on the White House to do something about them?
DREAZENUnquestionably, because these are not people for whom there's anything hanging over about desertion, about him being a sympathizer for the Taliban. If I could just come back to one second.
DREAZENI think Susan's point and Scott's point are just absolutely spot on for two other reasons . One, the Obama Administration's talking points on al-Qaida and its allies for quite so time has been that al-Qaida name has been shattered. And you have these other groups metastasized in Yemen and Mali, etcetera which don't have ties as much to the al-Qaida name. Taliban al-Qaida very different. I'm not trying to conflate them.
DREAZENBut what we're seeing here in terms of the one-year travel ban, it may be irrelevant. Remember, the leadership of the Taliban has been in Pakistan for years, communicating by courier, communicating by secure phone, communicating in ways online the NSA's not yet cracked. So regardless of where they are physically, they are able to communicate just the same way Mullah Omar has been able to communicate. So in terms of what they can do and how they can do it, this may -- this travel ban is largely irrelevant.
DREAZENTo your question on the other three who are missing, one of whom was an American contractor, his family put out a statement the moment this deal was announced saying, bring him back. The family of the other now two-and-a-half who are missing, one of them is a Canadian citizen, one of them is his wife who's an American citizen. She gave birth in captivity which, when you think about it, is just a staggeringly horrific image. There's now a baby in Taliban custody largely. They have been sort of quiet. They didn't say anything the first day this was announced. They've now begun to talk a little bit more.
DREAZENThere's very real anger on The Hill. Duncan Hunter from California kind of leading the push saying, why have you not done more to bring them back? Why was this not part of the deal? Why were you bringing back a deserter potentially but not a woman who gave birth and her baby?
REHMDo you think that will now go forward, Susan?
GLASSERWell, I guess we'll see, first of all, you know, whether they're being held by the same group of people or, you know, that we have the ability to make such a negotiation. I just am not familiar enough with the details of whether the same line of negotiating would produce that kind of result. But...
WILSONYeah, absolutely. I agree with Susan. I don't know enough about -- and, you know, it's important to keep in mind that these talks were years in the making, ebbs and flows at different positions here, different positions there. And finally for a number of reasons, you know, culminated recently. So it's hard to know what -- you know, the status of those talks around those individuals. There's a dozen Afghans left in Guantanamo. They're not -- eight of whom I believe are not cleared for transfer, four of whom are. And so there's -- you know, I don't know if those people are being talked about in terms of trades but, you know, there's still 149 people in Guantanamo Bay. And there's prisoners to be exchanged.
REHMHow is the president ever going to close Guantanamo?
DREAZENYou know, he's been talking about this for more than six years. He talked it about it as a candidate. He's talked about it as president in his first term. It was one of the first things he said he would do. Six years later he still talks about it. There's been no progress. The issue, you know, as both Susan and Scott know well from their covering the politics, is the politics. The Hill -- nobody wants to say they're in favor of this when there had been an attempt. And you've had a couple of senators especially from Michigan, which wanted the jobs frankly that said, we have a super max prison. Put them there. It's safe. It's didn't go anywhere.
DREAZENThe funding was specifically stripped out of it. Daniel Free, who's a diplomat whose sole job was to travel the world trying to find countries that would take these guys back, they cut his job specifically. In a 1,000-page bill they zeroed out his job. So it isn't just that congress has been broadly against it. They've been so specifically against it, they've blocked any attempt whatsoever to move it. He talks about it. It's obviously no reason to doubt his sincerity. He wanted to do it. There is an enormous reason to doubt his capability of pulling it off.
GLASSERWell, I think it's striking. Remember too, it wasn't just Barack Obama as a candidate and as a president. It was President Bush himself who opened Guantanamo Bay who spent a good chunk of his second term in office trying and failing to close the thing that he himself had created. So this is a solution that has defied not one but two presidents. It's hard to even see what the endgame is really. So maybe in a way, prisoner exchanges would be the way to go or some kind of negotiated ending to this that doesn't involve congress as a party.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. He celebrated his victory, a deeply disputed election, Scott.
WILSONYeah, he did well, according to himself. Almost 80 percent of the vote. He didn't do as well as General el-Sisi did in Egypt but, yeah, he celebrated it. No one's taking it particularly seriously as any kind of mandate to govern the country anymore except for Bashar al-Assad and his supporters. It was deeply flawed. He doesn't have control of parts of the country.
WILSONBut, you know, I think it does lead -- it does feed what seems to be a larger shift in momentum on the ground that has been taking place over months, that the government has taken the upper hand in a number of places. He's now trying to rally political support around himself again. You know, and it's dispiriting, even if it's not recognized, to supporters of the rebels and those opposed to Assad.
REHMAnd certainly dispiriting to former ambassador -- U.S. ambassador to Syria, Ambassador Ford -- Robert Ford who said he left his post because he could not defend American policy there, Susan.
GLASSERWell, you know, that's -- it was a striking moment, I think, when Ambassador Ford spoke out. That is an unusual thing for a career diplomat to do. And it reflects, I think, what we know but still haven't really fully focused on, which is that this has been an agonizing internal debate in the Obama Administration for the last couple years. Very much unresolved.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Yochi, how did the state department respond to Ambassador Ford's statements?
DREAZENYou know, publically they've said that they respect his opinion, that they've always known this was complicated. It is a remarkable thing that at any other week or any other moment or any other month we've gotten a lot more attention than it did. It's overshadowed by the VA scandal. It's overshadowed by Bowe Bergdahl. But when you have a clearly failing Syria policy -- I mean, there's no question about it that the idea of a diplomatic solution is a joke, that the idea that if you provide the rebels with blankets and MREs and radios and jeeps, that's also a joke.
DREAZENBashar al-Assad, the part about the outcome that's amazing to me is that it was 80 percent. And who are the brave 20 percent who decided to vote for someone else? But Assad is winning. I mean, the obvious secret that we don't really want to say publically is that Assad not only has halted their momentum, but is now regaining major amounts of territory.
DREAZENMeantime, the rebels are getting more and more radicalized to the point that there are people in this administration, there are people in Israel in particular who, if you ask them and they are speaking off the record, they'll tell you, yeah, we hope Assad wins because we don't want to have either a fractured country where a part of the country's under the rule of al-Nusra, other al-Qaida-affiliated groups or where those groups lose and start to turn their attention and say, where else can we hit?
REHMSo what choices does the United States have at this point?
DREAZENAt this point it's a desperate situation . And I agree with the way Susan framed it before. This -- the only thing that they can still do is either hope -- continue to hope that maybe by some miracle if you push here and push there, if you keep the Russians onboard, if everything falls -- every card falls correctly maybe, you hope that if Assad wins enough that maybe he and the rebels come to some sort of detente where you have some part of the country he doesn't control, some part of the country he now controls again. Or you take what would be a very difficult step now and you do arm the rebels to a significant degree.
DREAZENHillary Clinton's book comes out shortly. You've had the initial wave of leaks from that book. One of them, she talks again about how she was in favor of arming the Syrian rebels, as was David Petraeus, as was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as was the secretary of defense, and they all lost. So that book, when it comes out fully, and everyone is reading it and she's doing her way of media appearances, which she'll do, this question will come again to the fore of why did the administration have a policy that was opposed by its national security staff at the time and which has failed since.
GLASSERI think the problem is that the policy ultimately reflects the president's very strong personal views. And I think he's unlikely to face them -- to change them in the face of a fact that's only mitigating and arguing even more against any action on the part of the United States. Barack Obama believes that the United States should not be involved militarily in Syria, even to the extent of providing arms. He's been consistent in the face of very impassioned pleas by his most senior advisors making the opposite a case.
GLASSERBasically everyone surrounding Obama who's had responsibility for foreign policy and even senior national security officials have urged him to do more. He said no at every turn. And it's very hard to see as the situation has changed in favor of Assad, that he's unlikely now when there's even less likelihood of success to change his view. So I think this is one that's going to go on Obama's history legacy balance sheet. And we're going to be debating ten, twenty years from now whether this was a terrible mistake that he made.
REHMBut on the other hand the American public was certainly with him as he decided not to put troops on the ground in Syria, Scott.
WILSONYeah, but I do think that the polling is misleading, right. Troops on the ground was never really considered. Even the most conservative people involved in the political debate here were not advocating sending U.S. combat troops. They were advocating arming rebels, sending trainers, do things like that. As Yochi said, you know, the policy has really been to treat the symptoms, not really treat the problem. And as a result the delays in treating the problem, it becomes a self-fulfilling conclusion, right. Now it's too late. Now who (sic) do you do?
WILSONWhen you have the radical wings of the rebels in ascendance, why do you send arms there now? And so it becomes an argument easier for Obama to make. But as Susan said, you know, it's been three years since he said Assad has to go. More than 100,000 people have died and his only success has been at the point of a missile, the threat that led to the chemical weapons agreement.
REHMScott Wilson of the Washington Post. Short break here and when we come back, we'll open the phones. Stay with us.
REHMAnd we should mention that a report came out earlier this morning that one of the leading presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt this morning. Two bombs struck his convoy after a campaign event in the capital. A reminder, obviously, of Afghanistan's fragility as it prepares for its first democratic transfer of power, with foreign combat troops set to leave by the end of the year. Susan.
GLASSERWell, you know, Abdullah Abdullah is one key contender. He's the slight favorite. The other presidential candidate in the runoff is Ashraf Ghani, who lived many years in the United States. Both of them are seen as being, at this point, much easier for the United States to deal with than President Karzai, on whom, as you know, we're barely on speaking terms at this point. Both have said, you know, they're willing and eager to make a deal for an ongoing presence, which President Obama announced. So it seriously could destabilize the country, obviously, to lose one of two very credible candidates.
REHMI should say.
GLASSERThat's right. It's a big deal.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go first to Elizabeth in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.
ELIZABETHGood morning, Diane. It's so thrilling to speak with you...
REHMGood to have you with us.
ELIZABETH...and be on your amazing show.
REHMThank you. Go right ahead, please.
ELIZABETHWhat I was wondering, if we could go back to the Taliban for a moment.
ELIZABETHWhat are some examples of the things these officials who've been released -- what are some examples of the things they could do to us and, you know, our troops, obviously. But is there anything that could affect the United States?
DREAZENElizabeth, in many ways, asks the kind of fundamental question of what can they do, what will they do? The people that these -- these particular five -- one was a governor of a province under the Taliban. Another was one of the ministers in the Taliban government. Another most brutally was linked to the absolute slaughter of a huge number of Shiite civilians in Afghanistan. We often think of Shiite Sunni as an Iraq issue, as a Pakistan issue. It was a huge and very bloody issue in Afghanistan.
DREAZENBut as horrible and as complicated and controversial as this is, it's worth remembering, the Taliban were not the ones who attacked the United States on 9/11. They sheltered Osama bin Laden, they sheltered al-Qaida. That's always been the reason we've seen them as an enemy. It's the reason we've been fighting them for 13 years. But they are not al-Qaida. So the question in some ways we have to wrestle with as a country is -- if we're fighting an armed group whose activities have been limited to their borders, not -- they're not good people, what they might do for women is horrific, but they're not al-Qaida -- do you accept that risk?
DREAZENIf you're trading five al-Qaida detainees, that'd be a whole other question that almost nobody, I think including the president, would be in favor of. But when you have a group limited to its own borders, is that a tradeoff and a risk you're willing to take?
REHMAll right. To April in Rockford, Mich. You're on the air.
APRILThanks for taking my call.
APRILNow I don't presume to understand the inner workings of the United States government intelligence agency, but I have to believe that this was a cunning or a calculated release of these Taliban prisoners, so we can perhaps watch and monitor their calls and location. And, you know, who even knows if we've got some deal with them and have some other situation worked out as informants or something of that nature.
GLASSERThat's an interesting idea. I mean I do think that we have clearly learned something and will learn something more from this prisoner swap from Bergdahl himself. Remember he's being -- in a hospital in Germany. Certainly they're debriefing him very extensively about what he saw, what he learned in his years in captivity. He probably knows a lot about the workings, at least of the group that he was with for so many years. He managed to run away a couple times. We saw probably more information from the handover itself in that propaganda video.
GLASSERAnd, again, it may be instructive to see who these fellows talk to. They'll certainly be heavily monitored by the United States, they've got their...
GLASSER...even if they're not cooperating with us.
REHMIs it your understanding, Scott, that apparently Bergdahl is having a hard time re-learning to speak English.
WILSONWell, people who've seen the proof-of-life video from last year said that he had a hard time speaking period, that he was in very bad shape. Some people on Capitol Hill said it appeared that he was potentially heavily sedated, drugged, and that he is having a hard time. I don't know if he's having a hard time speaking English. It would be hard to forget your language, I think, over that amount of time. But he's certainly having, what we've heard, a very hard time readjusting and convalescing.
REHMWhy, in your view, should that video be classified or remain classified? Wouldn't releasing it to the public make sense, Yochi?
DREAZENThat's what your hearing on Capitol Hill among defenders of the president. I mean, you have Democrats who are now trying to say -- Harry Reid said it yesterday -- that this was a deal that Republicans in the past had said they would do, that Republicans in the past had said, anything to bring back a missing prisoner of war. The New York Times had an editorial that was slightly unfair, kind of misquoting Senator McCain. He had said, the devil's in the details, basically, and he didn't know the details at the time.
DREAZENAnd you hear Democrats making that exact point. It's also worth remembering, and this is a point, I agree with Scott -- Bowe Bergdahl at some point in the not-too-distant future will leave his hospital. At some point in the not-too-distant future he'll be in front of a camera. And he'll be asked these questions. And depending on how he answers them and how he looks, that's going to be a signature moment in this. We don't know his actual condition. The administration hasn't said it. You know, as Scott points out, we don't know his English. We don't know if he had been sedated and now that he's off those drugs, what would he look like? We will know that very soon.
REHMAll right. To Allison here in Washington D.C. You're on the air.
ALLISONThank you, Diane. I just wanted to ask your guests, kind of put this in a historical context, and if the, if you would, the shoe was on the other foot, and there were 80 people being held in -- 80 Americans being held in Afghanistan. Wouldn't at some point we want them returned regardless? I mean, you just, isn't this what always happens at the end of an armed conflict?
WILSONI think it's well put. And this -- largely this is about ending the wars. And ending the wars in ways that people understand. And there are differences within the government on the way people understand ending wars, particularly between an administration that has -- that won election in 2008 primarily on an anti-war platform, particularly anti-Iraq, but eventually an anti -- leaving Afghanistan platform. The military looks for more clarity and, in some of these endgame types of issues. And there will be trades made. A lot of them are distasteful.
WILSONAnd I've worked in Israel. I know Yochi knows this real -- quite well too. This is something the Israelis and the Palestinians and Hezbollah are constantly involved in -- big, controversial prisoner exchanges. It is part of these -- the nature of these kinds of conflicts. And it -- and I think you heard President Obama talk about it. This is how wars end.
REHMSusan, talk about the election in Egypt of General El-Sisi.
GLASSERWell, as Scott pointed out, he managed to run up even a bigger total than that of Assad next door. And I think that speaks to the fact that Egypt has taken, not a step forward, but a pretty big step back. You know, the situation was that so few people were willing to turn out for basically the military dictator of Egypt, that they had to keep the polls open an extra day. They were begging people to come and, in effect, ratify their sham election.
GLASSERAnd I think, you know, if you look at the extraordinary sort of victors' justice that's being meted out against the Muslim Brotherhood right now, against the previous President Mohammed Morsi, against literally hundreds and hundreds of people who have been rounded up, you have a feeling that Egypt is going to be going through a major period of reaction, of inward convulsions. It's not even clear how violent and how sweeping the retribution will be. But I think the signal has been very disturbing from the beginning.
GLASSEREl-Sisi has talked about himself in almost Messianic terms as, you know, as if he was called to the leadership of Egypt and to be a strong man. Clearly, he's trying to fashion himself in the mold of previously long-term strong men of Egypt -- of Mubarak himself or before that Nasser. And so I think, you know, this doesn't bode well for Egypt.
DREAZENYeah. There's a phrase that Vladimir Putin had used about the Arab Spring turning into the Arab Winter some weeks back. For all the issues of Vladimir Putin, there's some truth to that. President Obama, when he took office said, no longer would the U.S. accept this tradeoff between backing dictators because they say -- in the name of stability -- we would no longer do that. That's again what we're doing. I mean the major, major kind of mega-theme we're seeing across the Middle East is that, when you have Islamist groups and you have groups for the most part that are seen as more moderate, more stable, that's who we're backing again.
DREAZENYou know, the U.S. sees El-Sisi perhaps as having some autocratic tendencies, as Susan put it some messianic tendencies. But we see him as not being the Muslim Brotherhood. So we're willing to back it. We're willing to overlook the coup that brought him to power. And Syria, you know, as we all mentioned before, the Western feeling that Assad, as terrible as he is, might be better than the alternative. So you're again seeing this theme that we've seen in the decades past, that we are willing, despite rhetoric to the contrary, to make the trade between stability and between pure democracy and pure freedom.
REHMWhat a confusing world we live in. Really, from one day to another. Scott.
WILSONYeah, and I think one other thing to add to that, and building on something that Yochi said earlier about what we're -- what have the Taliban learned about the Arab Spring and about politics and about politics -- post-war politics and where they see themselves in it. I mean, you'll remember in 2009, that one of the major strategy changes that Obama made in Afghanistan, coming in the midst of those months-long debate about how we would approach the war, was when General McChrystal, at the time, said our goal is to defeat the Taliban. And everyone froze up in this meeting and said, defeat the Taliban?
WILSONAnd they eventually settled on this language of degrading the Taliban, weakening the Taliban. This is a political movement, like it or not, in Afghanistan. And it exists. And the guys who were just released are part of that --the political movement, as distasteful as their human rights records are in many cases. And I think that it's going to be interesting to see how they -- what cues they take from the way the United States handles El-Sisi and the Syrian conflict, and how they move forward.
REHMAll right. To Tim in Lambertville, Mich. You're on the air.
TIMOne panel member assigns the choice to stop fighting in Eastern Ukraine to President Putin. That's not the nature of the situation. Slavic people of East Ukraine will not accept domination by the Slavophobic Westerners, because they remember the Westerners' collusion with the Nazi's during World War II and their participation in the Babi Yar massacre of Jewish citizens near Kiev in 1943. The Eastern Slavic people will not submit to the Kiev regime, no matter what President Putin says.
REHMWhat do you think, Yochi?
DREAZENYeah, this one, I hate to punt. But Susan has spent time in Moscow, speaks Russian. I will punt this one.
GLASSERWell, there's a very simple answer to the specific question, which is that for the last 20 years, the people of Eastern Ukraine have submitted to the Kiev regime and have been a part of a united and free and independent Ukraine.
REHMAll right. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, one further point on Egypt is that the man known as Jon Stewart there in Egypt -- his show was abruptly cancelled. Did he cancel it, or was it taken down, Yochi?
DREAZENI think that's the question. I mean this is someone who'd had a satirical show willing to mock everyone, despite, as he has mentioned, the past risks -- risks to his life, risks of being arrested. It's not clear. I mean, I think for someone as brave as he has been in the past to voluntarily take off his show seems highly, highly unlikely. Which makes me think, a person who's willing to do this show despite death threats, despite threats to his family for so long -- what's the threat now that has made this brave a person decide to step aside?
REHMYou would agree with that, Scott.
WILSONYeah, I would. And I would just add that the channel that he appears on is owned by the Saudis. And the Saudis are huge backers of El-Sisi. And now that El-Sisi is in office, it does seem a bit coincidental.
REHMBassam Youssef is his name. Let's -- you know, as people are at Normandy talking about D-Day and those very heroic men, in their 90's who are there, perhaps for the last time, it's been really glorious to watch it all. And you saw some photographs that had previously been in black and white, Yochi.
DREAZENSomething which has been released that I would encourage listeners who have not yet seen, there are archives beginning to release color photos of World War II. And I think some of us who grew up thinking of World War II as this black-and-white war, not realizing the savagery of it, because movies of the war -- I don't mean "Saving Private Ryan," but previous movies -- they didn't show blood. A person got shot, they sort of fell over. You didn't realize just how unbelievably gory this fighting was.
DREAZENAnd speaking personally, I've been to Normandy. But seeing these photos, seeing them in color, of what these men looked like as they were running towards the shore, seeing the color of smoke, seeing the color -- not to be gory -- but of blood in the water, of blood on the sand, it takes what is something that none of us -- no listener would doubt was purely one of the bravest moments in the history of the United States and makes it more striking.
REHMAnd they must have known they were going to be mown down as they went.
GLASSERWell, you know, Diane, I was trying to explain this to my 9-year-old son this morning, and that's exactly what I was saying to him is that, whatever you think of war, think about those men in the boats and that they knew, getting out of those boats, that the odds were heavily, heavily against them. And that's where it comes down to being probably one of the bravest things in the history of man.
REHMAnd think, too, about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Scott. That event, this week, people flooded the streets of Hong Kong.
WILSONOf Hong Kong, which I think is...
WILSON...an important point to make. It was more difficult to commemorate the moment in Beijing. There was a huge amount of security in China's capital. But there was a real -- a very moving, solemn memorial, drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets of Hong Kong, to think about what happened and the hundreds of students who were killed that day.
REHMAnd who braved the tanks and the military weaponry.
GLASSERWell, and what's striking, again, is look at how long it's been. It's extraordinary that it's been that long with China not having opened up more. And that really was the end of a democratic awakening for that moment, for that generation. And as we talk about the Arab Spring, I think it's appropriate to talk about Tiananmen and how long will it be before the people of Egypt dare to buck this military dictatorship again? How long will it be before some of the other people in the Middle East are able to express themselves and go back out to the public squares? I think, you know, it can be a long, long process.
REHMAnd on this anniversary of D-Day, let us thank all the men and women who have served in combat to defend this country and indeed the world. Thank you all so much for being here. Yochi Dreazen, Susan Glasser, Scott Wilson. Have a great weekend, everybody.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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